FAQs on Tibet, China, and the Dalai Lama

American Buddhist Robert Thurman discusses the basics of theTibet crisis and the Dalai Lama's Middle Way.

BY: Interview by Valerie Reiss

In 2008, Beliefnet editor Valerie Reiss asked Professor Robert Thurman, an American authority on Tibetan Buddhism (he was ordained as a monk in 1965 by the Dalai Lama), to discuss the basic issues underlying the current conflict in Tibet. He sent back these answers as he traveled by plane from Delhi to Bhutan.
1. What's the source of the most recent flare-up of violence in Tibet?
Sixty years of Chinese Communist invasion, occupation and anti-Buddhist thought reform (over a million dead) underlie the recent protests and the violence that resulted from China’s heavy-handed response to peaceful expressions of dissent by monks and lay Tibetans. Add to that ongoing colonization and cultural genocide—brought to a head by floods of Chinese in-migrants—plus a hard-line local rule by revived cultural revolutionary cadres who vilify the Dalai Lama daily, and accelerating marginalization of the Tibetans in their own Tibet, and it’s understandable why things have reached this point.
2. Who are the main players?
The whole six million Tibetan people in all of Tibet (the whole plateau), not just in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as this astounding, spontaneous, self-sacrificing wave of protest signals that "the Dalai Lama clique" the Chinese keep mentioning is actually six million strong.
3. What is the goal of the Tibetan Buddhist protestors--Tibet sovereignty?
Yes, of course, freedom in their own homeland, all of it, is the dream of all Tibetans. But the demand is not necessarily pinned to this or that exact strategy; it is not organized to a specific end, other than freedom in general. Meaningful autonomy within a “one-country-two-systems” approach associated with China, as long as it bestowed freedom at home, would suit everyone just as well as sovereignty and recognized nationhood, in the present circumstances.
4. When the Dalai Lama talks of the Middle Way in terms of Tibet, how does it relate to his faith, and how can that work, if we're talking about cultural genocide?
His Middle Way can only be understood in the context of the two extremes it moves between. One extreme is unilateral surrender to China's propaganda claims that it has always owned Tibet, which is simply not true historically, but never mind, Tibetans [should] just give up and accept an overwhelming Chinese colonial presence. The other extreme is to use any means possible to reclaim full sovereign independence and fight for it, including violence if necessary.
The Dalai Lama is principled in his adherence to nonviolence due to his Buddhist faith, and so he cannot go for the violent option. And he is determined to preserve the freedom of Tibetan Buddhism in its homeland, so he cannot acquiesce to the surrender of the Tibetan national identity that the Chinese cultural genocide policy demands, remaking the Tibetans into Chinese (an impossibility, of course).
Therefore, he sincerely proposes a genuine autonomy within a Chinese Union, offering a legitimate, voluntary union with China to avoid violence from either side, since a century of nationalist as well as communist propaganda has convinced most Chinese people that Tibet somehow belongs to them. He backs such an arrangement on the condition of receiving from Beijing a real autonomy within the whole plateau (including all ethnic Tibetan areas over 12,000 feet in altitude, so as to protect the four million Tibetans who live outside the present Tibet Autonomous Region, which is less than half of traditional Tibet). This "one-country, two-systems" arrangement for the regional Tibetan government requires a withdrawal of Han colonists and military occupation, and economic and environmental self-determination.
Under this arrangement, China would get real ownership of Tibet resulting from Tibetan self-determination as part of China, and Tibetans would get real internal freedom in their homeland, to practice their Buddhism and maintain their way of life and restore their delicate environment. This is the Middle Way proposal, in brief outline.

Continued on page 2: Is the Dalai Lama's life in danger? »

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