Week 6: Political Consciousness Awakens

Contextualizing the SLSI: The Tibetan situation

I feel that the time has come for me to bring up the elephant in the room that I have been struggling with for the nine months that I have been working on the Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative. I have hesitated to delve into the political atmosphere and implications of my project. I learned very quickly that bringing up politics would get me nowhere: some people I asked to participate in the SLSI refused to get involved because doing so would compromise their company’s Chinese market. So rather than exhaust mentors, lose sponsors and tire friends by preaching about the political implications of the project, I made an effort to emphasize how my project proposed a new, creative and nonviolent solution to better the current situation in the refugee Tibetan community, and through this, the world. The goal was to circumvent compassion fatigue by proposing a means to ensure the betterment of the world today, and not dwell on past injustices.

Although I have been convinced of the effectiveness of the SLSI from when I first thought of the project, only this week have I realized the breadth of its influence and the role it has to play in the greater scheme of things. This week has been a ground-breaking week on a personal level. For the first time since I have been aware of the Tibetan situation, I have hope that Tibet will one day be free from occupation.

For those of you who know about what is going on in Tibet, this newfound hope may seem naive, especially considering this week’s events: three more young Tibetans lit themselves on fire in protest of Chinese oppression. Two days ago, the Huffington Post reported:

A 24-year-old Tibetan nomad set fire to himself Friday to protest China’s rule in the third reported self-immolation within a week, said the London-based Tibetan rights group Free Tibet. 

The latest incident adds to more than 40 self-immolations in about a year and a half.

Free Tibet said that the nomad it identified as Jopa was taken away by police after he set himself on fire in Maierma town in Aba county in southwest China’s Sichuan province.

Free Tibet said Jopa was believed to be severely injured and might not survive. It said authorities had deployed military and security forces in the town.

Free Tibet previously reported that Dolkar Kyi, 26, set fire to herself on Tuesday at a monastery in Tso city in northwest China’s Gansu province and that Lobsang Tsultrim, a 21-year-old monk, self-immolated in Aba county on Monday.

Supporters say the self-immolators were protesting Beijing’s heavy-handed rule in Tibetan regions. China has blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting the immolations. The exiled spiritual leader denies this.

Amidst these tragedies, how could the belief in freedom materialize?

Looking forward: Tibetans today

Earlier this week, I was exposed to a change of paradigm while speaking with the Special Coordinator on Development and Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration, Kaydor Kelsang Aukatsang. Kaydor proposed a new way of seeing the problem. Beyond the usual reasoning that Tibetans might as well have hope because without it, they would have nothing to live for, Kaydor explained that Tibet is undergoing a true societal and political revolution. The Central Tibetan Administration is setting itself up as a democratic government in exile. Basically, the question is not about how to conserve Tibet as the archaic society it has been. The current situation is about transforming Tibet while preserving its unique culture.

The younger generations of Tibetans that have made it to India are a truly revolutionary bunch. They are the first to point to customs in Tibetan culture that have no place in the modern world. Pema, an articulate and outstandingly hard-working monk, told me:

“In my village, each families has many children. They are nomads and when the children come to the age of marriage, the family takes in a single wife. I knew one family that had eight boys. Two became monks, and the six brothers that were left shared one wife. This is not a necessary tradition in Tibet. Women must have equal rights, yes. We Tibetans are learning. But the tradition of compassion and love for all sentient beings that is shared in Tibet is worth preserving. The world can learn from Tibet this way. Compassion is a necessary tradition. And if we lose our tradition, we lose our national identity. And so we lose human rights because we lose compassion.”

After centuries closed off from the world, Tibetans have been thrown into the modern world and taken to it at an extraordinary pace. Colossal changes have taken place in the refugee community in the two years that have passed since I was last in Dharamsala. Last year, his Holiness the Dalai Lama gave up political power. “My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility,” he explained. “It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run.”

For decades, the Dalai Lama has advocated for the need for a political leader, as opposed to a spiritual leader. In 2011, he deemed that the Tibetan people were ready for the change, and as far as I can tell, they are outdoing themselves in their progress. Just yesterday, I spent a few hours at an internet cafe next to the headquarters of the National Democratic Party of Tibet. It was fascinating to watch Tibetans working on printing and distributing membership cards. The whole community is working together to set up a new government for a new democratic, modern, uniquely Tibetan nation. “However small, everyone is working together,” Kaydor told me. “Here at the Cabinet, we are all working fourteen hour days. Then we go home and continue to work. You, too, are helping through your project. Everything counts. Everyone is doing their part for freedom.”

But as the plague of self-immolations reveals, the situation within Tibet could not be more different than the budding democracy I am witnessing here in the refugee community of India. As the Huffington Post wrote, the Dalai Lama does not support this suicidal trend. He has always stood by nonviolence, and inspires Tibetans to extend compassion to their oppressors. The Chinese media uses these suicides as a way to portray the Dalai Lama as the backwards leader the Chinese government wants its people to believe him to be. The logic is that if the Dalai Lama is encouraging his people to commit suicide, the Chinese government must be doing good in freeing the people of an unjust leader. This does not hold water, however, because the Dalai Lama has stated again and again that he does not champion the self-immolations.

Many Tibetans feel abandoned, not only by the world, but also by their spiritual leader. They see public suicide as the only means to draw attention to the genocide (over 1.2 million Tibetans killed since 1950) and end the suffering of their people. Others choose to see beyond the tragedy, and consider these self-immolations as a testament to the undying resilience of the Tibetan spirit.

I do not have any answers. All I know is that the Tibetan situation and the Dalai Lama’s role in it are incredibly complex.

The role of the Dalai Lama in the struggle

In the Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2008), Pico Iyer explains that the Dalai Lama embodies the tension between tradition and progress. As my friend Pema said, Tibetans live this tension daily. For instance, trading the traditional maroon robes for more practical Western attire is an ethical struggle Pema deals with every day. Iyer explains that the Dalai Lama has taken on the incredibly difficult role of moving Tibet forward toward a more democratic, educated society while advocating for the preservation of a culture that is notoriously less focused on modern fields such as healthcare and education. “In Tibet, the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism,” Iyer writes. “Now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, as if having travelled eight centuries in just five decades, he is increasingly, with characteristic directness, leaning in, toward tomorrow.”

Iyer explains that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is not the first to recognize the setbacks that a closed society is doomed to suffer from. He writes:

In 1932, one year before his death, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama issued what is known as his “Last Testament,” in which he predicted what would come to pass if Tibetans failed to open up to the world, refused to adapt to modern developments, and continued squabbling among themselves. “It will not be long,” he wrote, as one translation has it, “before we face the red onslaught at our own front door. It is only a matter of time…and when it happens, we must be ready to defend ourselves. Otherwise, our spiritual and cultural teachings will be completely eradicated […] Monasteries will be looted and destroyed, and the monks and nuns killed or chased away […] We will become like slaves to our conquerors, and will be made to wander helplessly like beggars. Everyone will be forced to live in misery, and the days and night will pass slowly and with great sufferings and terror.”

Many of the problems Tibet had suffered, [his Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama] always stressed, were at some level the result of mistakes the culture itself had made, in not becoming informed enough of the truths of the outside world.

Changing paradigms: The motivation for the SLSI

I am often asked why China is not welcomed as an innovating force that will pull Tibet out of the “dark ages.” Why preserve a culture of polygamy, terrible healthcare, and little to no education opportunities?

Like any problem, the key to understanding the Tibetan situation requires acknowledging its complexity. Again, thinking of the Tibetan people as a static entity does not make sense in this day and age. Tibet covers a huge expanse of land — 2.5 million sq. km — and was the home of vastly different kinds of people and tribes. As Pema explained, there are essential and nonessential aspects to Tibetan culture. To list what some of us would consider antiquated customs is moot. The point is that Tibetans, especially the young, educated folks that I have met, want to join the modern world without giving up their dignity or identity. The point isn’t to berate the Chinese, either. The Chinese government is actively destroying Tibetan culture. However, pointing to this fact does not answer the question of why preserving Tibetan culture is so important. For instance, we all know that the countries I hail from, the United States and France, have done their share in annihilating ancient cultures.

My personal motivation for this project to preserve Tibetan language, one of the two pillars of the culture (the other being Tibetan Buddhism) is not reactionary.The anthropologist Daniel Quinn explains the argument for preserving ancient cultures well in his novel Ishmael (1992): cultures are worth preserving insofar as they compile thousands of years of human knowledge and self-reflection. Quinn relates this to sustainability, adding that this knowledge of how to live did not involve destroying nature until relatively recently. Quinn argues that cultures older than our own — i.e. ancient or indigenous cultures — are a wealth of knowledge that are especially useful in dealing with the challenges we face with the effects of our culture’s reckless treatment of the planet.

I am sure many people find Quinn’s view overly simplistic. To Quinn’s argument I would add an amendment for collaboration. As Pema explained, and the Dalai Lama has said, Tibetans have so much to learn from Westerners, just like the West has much to learn from Tibetans.

The argument for cultural diversity is more of a two-way street than strictly reverence for tradition. Engaging with cultures different from our own exercises our creative thinking, just like publishing translated books with foreign illustrations will stretch and broaden Tibetan children’s minds. To have this cultural exchange, alien cultures — which is to say systems of wisdom, i.e. other ways of thinking about what it is to be human in this world — have to exist.

Cultivating wonder requires an Other. From this exchange arises human ingenuity, our greatest tool for solving the problems we face on this shared planet.

The anthropologist Angeles Arrien, whom I had the pleasure of meeting through Dalai Lama Fellows, put it well:

I was really excited at the World Indigenous Council as they began to look at the prophecies from around the world from many different traditions for this time to see if there was anything that was shared in all of those processes.

They found one line that was shared in all of the prophecies which was when the wisdoms of the sky merge with the wisdoms of the earth and are braided through the human heart, then we will have a rainbow people. I thought this is so incredible as an image when the wisdoms of the sky, which would be fiber optics and computers and the Internet and satellite merge with the wisdoms of the earth, all of the echo spirituality movement and the bioneers and the indigenous wisdoms that are so land based.

When the wisdoms of the sky and the wisdoms of the earth merge and are braided through the human heart, then we will have a rainbow people which means then we will honor the rich diversity of all the races of the world. I think it is just such a beautiful image to hold in our time that we don’t sacrifice the modern for the old or the old for the modern, but we integrate it through the human heart and foster greater tolerance and understanding.

Hanging out with a sentient being that is very easy to love, on my way to meeting Kaydor

View from my new home in the woods, 20 minutes from town

Headquarters of the National Democratic Party of Tibet

Putting a face on the struggle: an interview with two of our translators 

SLSI: Lobsang, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with the Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative?

First, I’d like to say “Tashi Delek” to you, I’m so happy to meet you, Nelly. My name is Lobsang Tgupten. When I lived in Tibet, I didn’t get opportunity to study because my family wasn’t wealthy enough. Also in my area there are many Chinese schools with high fees. This is why I didn’t have the chance to learn Tibetan language or Buddhist philosophy. Inside Tibet, most schools are Chinese schools. My parents sent me to India in 1997 to join the SOS TCV School, Gopalpur, where I studied for seven years. After class 9, I joined upper TCV here […] I was then more willing to learn Tibetan language, so I studied almost four years at Sarah College, where they teach Tibetan history, Tibetan language, Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and also a little bit of English language studies.

SLSI: Was this before your translation degree?

[laughs] Oh, yes. I forgot to talk about this. After Sarah College, I joined the translation workshop my friend Damdul and me, and maybe 30 students…This degree is recognized by the Himachal government. Then, I am living in Dharamsala to improve my English with foreigner volunteers at Lha Charitable Trust.

SLSI: This translation job with SLSI is your first job?

Yes, I was very interested because I did not get a chance before. I always wanted to this kind of job. Yesterday, my friend Damdul called me, “Hi, Lobsang. They have a great opportunity. Join me?” I was, how would you say, so happy because my dream is to be a translator.

SLSI: Do you think as a kid you would like to read the books we are translating?

Of course, I like the small kids’ books so much because the kids are very important for the nation. We have to, how do you say, contribute to the children’s lives. It’s the next generation. This is why this project is so important.

SLSI: How did you get to India?

A very interesting question. In 1997, I came from Tibet to India. At the time, we did not get passports. So maybe 20 days we crossed the Himalayas, we walked, 10 of us, day and night. Then we reached Nepal. At that time, the Nepalese police caught us and brought us to the Nepalese jails. They have big Tibetan reception center there after bribing the police.

SLSI: How old were you?

I was twelve. After two weeks at the Nepali reception center, decided whether to be a monk or a layman. So we had to work on a lot of paperwork and have to be very careful because of the Chinese spies there. After this, we came to New Delhi, capital city of India. And after two to three days, we made it to the reception center in Dharamsala. Soon after, I went to school.

SLSI: What about your family?

All of my family live on the other side of the Himalayas in Tibet. Sometimes I call them, but since 2008, you know, we cannot contact my family anymore because all the internet, telephones endanger them. When I contact them, the Chinese know this and my family gets, how would you say, punished. This is why I am afraid of contacting my family.

SLSI: Can you tell us about the education system in Tibet?

This is a very important question for me and all Tibetans. In Tibet, the kids don’t have the opp to learn Tibetan. It’s very difficult to get jobs. Primary schools are all in Chinese, social politics, history, mathematics…After they graduate, they can’t get jobs because everything depends on Chinese language now. Tibetans are farmers and nomadic, so we can’t afford the school fees. This is why most Tibetans come to India, where they can learn their own language. The Tibetan language is damaged. It is vanishing. Translating books into Tibetan gives kids more knowledge about the world, and can learn their own language. Thanks.

SLSI: Damdul, how did you get to India?

I came on foot all the way from Tibet to India. It took almost 15 days through snow mountains down to Nepal. I was born in a village that is very far from the capital of Tibet, Lhasa. I left there in 1996, I was with four others to escape. At the time, one of my uncles came along with me. Some of them came here for pilgrimage. For me and one of my friends, we came for education purposes. All my family…father, mother, younger sister and brothers, older sisters…they are all in Tibet working as farmers except for one of my little brothers. Once in a year I write a letter and send it to a person going to my village. There is no other way because email and calls are tracked. The only way to reach them is by letter delivered by foot.

SLSI: Can you talk about the Tibetan language?

Tibetan language has become a very important aspect of the Tibetan cause, along with Tibetan Buddhism. So the very reason that we are struggling for our freedom is because of our unique Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and our unique Tibetan language. After the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, our Tibetan language has started declining. Our Tibetan language is declining year by year because some two years ago, the Chinese government tried to impose Chinese language in our Tibetan schools to abolish Tibetan language from schools. Now our young generation is worried about learning the Tibetan language. Through this project, I think I can contribute something to our Tibetan younger generation. They can learn Tibetan through translated fiction into our own language. So thank you.




  1. Joanna Marple

    As: an anthropology major, believer in the right of education for all ()including books in one’s mother tongue, translator, writer and fellow human who cares about the preservation of other cultures, I appreciate the work of this very much. I also appreciate the thoughtful perspective of a complex situation you have written about here. I became interested in Tibet in my teens when I pulled the book, SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, from my parent’s bookshelves (this was well before Hollywood made the movie!). I still have that forty year-old book! I haven’t mad it over the border into Tibet, but I have spent time in Chengdu, shortly after it opened up in 96. Here I met many wonderful Tibetans, who with no common language, helped me and my fellow travelers out during a power outage, giving us food and accommodation. I wish you success as you continue your project.

    • snowlionstorytelling

      Thank you for sharing, Joanna. I have also had the privilege of experiencing Tibetan hospitality. I have not read SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, but your comment reminded me of a scene from the movie when Heinrich is about to finally leave Tibet and asks his friend Peter not to pour him another cup of butter tea. Peter keeps pouring and explains: “We must follow the custom. A fresh cup of tea is poured for the loved one departing…It sits untouched, waiting for his return.” Like Heinrich Herrer, I will never forget the Tibetan tradition of warmth and generosity. And I wish with all my heart that Tibetans in exile will be able to return to their awaiting cups of tea back home in Tibet.

  2. Carmen Oliver

    The seeds of change are swirling. Isn’t it amazing how one voice, one step, one project can ignite and catch fire in the hearts of many and make a world of difference! Bravo, SLSI. Wonder abounds!

  3. Sharry

    Nelly, thank you for such an informative and insightful blog post–I think here in the Western World, especially the US, it is easy to be over focused on our own political dramas and the ugly issues involving corporate America, and to lose sight of the quieter ongoing struggles in other parts of the world. Your post is sure to open eyes and hearts.

    • snowlionstorytelling

      Thanks so much for your comment, Sharry. A big part of this project is to raise awareness while showing that there are creative ways to participate in the Satyagraha — nonviolent — Tibetan struggle. However, nonviolent does not necessarily mean quiet. Last night, I witnessed a candlelight vigil to protest the world’s lack of attention to the self-immolations. A silent congregation, yes. But is there anything louder than setting oneself on fire?

      These self-immolations force us to question what nonviolence means. Is public suicide not a display of the ultimate form of violence — self-inflicted, embodied violence? His Holiness the Dalai Lama deals with the paradoxes of the Tibetan fight for freedom everyday. We must remember, and this goes with any struggle that the media does not pick up, that a fundamental part of the problem is the perceived quiet nature of the struggle. The whole situation reminds me of the actress Helene Weigel’s silent scream in the Berliner Ensemble 1949 production of Bertolt Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE, when Mother learns of the death of her son. Weigel looks straight at the audience, opens her mouth as if to scream, but no sound is heard.

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