Author Topic: MUST READ ARTICLE PART 1  (Read 7965 times)


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Exiled from Exile
© by Ursula Bernis, 1996 - 1999

part 1


While gathering material for a book on seminal Buddhist masters of this century I became aware in 1996 that because most belonged to the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and relied on the religious protector Dorje Shugden, they were suddenly at the center of a raging controversy. Told by the Dalai Lama to renounce ties with that venerable tradition they were put into a position of either breaking their vows or facing ostracism from the community. These greatest of masters who included one of the two tutors of the Dalai Lama had been central to the transmission of Buddhism as it traveled from Tibet to India and the rest of the world after 1959. They ensured the integrity of a living wisdom tradition that had been passed on from one adept to another for millennia. I was shocked to hear the ugly allegations against such venerated and highly respected Lamas. I personally knew many of them, had studied with them, and had had a chance to observe them in close proximity over many years. Like most everyone else, I found their gentle kindness, open-mindedness, and inclusive teachings exemplary.

Since every accusation against them contradicted facts, reason, and my own experience, I felt compelled to get to the bottom of the controversy that had generated such extreme views. It was impossible to continue my project without finding an explanation of how such a dramatic shift from the most revered masters to "devil worshipers" could have occurred and, moreover, how it could so completely possess the Tibetan cultural psyche in such a short time.

In the process of my work on this book I found that open debate about the subject was impossible in the exile community and that the conflict was driven by an emotional zeal for the Dalai Lama beyond all rational considerations, suggesting an identity crisis of unexpected proportions. The conditions of exile, the loss of country, home, family and the threat to the established religious world view certainly contributed to the Tibetans' exaggerated hold onto the one institution left to them, that of Dalai Lamas. However, there seemed something else at work that extended far beyond the Tibetan community to affect Western Tibet supporters as well. They exhibited similarly irrational responses to the conflict. No matter what approach one brought to the subject, all attempts at rational debate became immediately polarized and turned into a series of outlandish accusations none of which held up under scrutiny.

At the heart of the difficulties complicating this investigation were the unique problems deriving from the fact that Tibetan society remains largely an oral culture. I traveled throughout India and Nepal, the longest visit lasting four months, and talked to hundreds of Tibetans and affected Buddhists, gathering their stories and oral testimony. At the same time I collected relevant documentation of government records, published papers, wall posters -- a common form of communication about controversial subjects -- and circulars of the various social organizations that make up the Tibetan administration. This material forms the background for the book.

Since the Tibetan exile government denies the reality of the conflict it has been instrumental in creating, the issue is presented here from three different perspectives: Part I, from the point of view of Tibetans living in India and Nepal most affected by the conflict; Part II, a historical background and chronological ordering of events surrounding the conflict followed by biographical sketches of the most influential masters of a tradition now being suppressed as a "cult"; and Part III, which examines the issue from an outsider's point of view. My analysis traces some of the standard accusations to a basic confusion of religious and political issues. It brings to bear the historical and cultural background to show the dynamics of power relations in the exile community and how they get played out in the international arena through the media. Crucial to understanding the emotional involvement in this issue of Western Tibet supporters is their need to uphold at all cost today's icon of universal goodness, made accessible by the media to a world bereft of deep spiritual meaning. Even though the Dalai Lama's politics come into critical focus, the book is not intended as an attack on him.

Although I am indebted to many scholars and experts on the subject, it would be a disservice at the time of this writing to acknowledge their individual help publicly. The nature of the issue is so sensitive that they must remain unnamed. Even so, I would like to express here my gratitude for their contribution.


"By defending those people who are persecuted for their race, religion, ethnicity or ideology, you are actually contributing to guiding our human family to peace, justice and dignity." Tibetan Bulletin, The Official Journal of the Tibetan Administration: "I Believe...", January-February 1999, p. 29.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, Dec. 7, 1998


Never before in its history has Tibet been lost so thoroughly and seemingly irreversibly to invaders. Even during historical periods of strong outside influence such as the Mongolian and Manchu forces in the 17th and 18th centuries, For historical background, see chapters 5 and 6 of Tibetan Nation, by Warren W. Smith, Jr., Westview Press, Boulder, 1996; Tibet Survival in Question, by Pierre-Antoine Donnet, transl. by Tica Broch, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1994, chapter two. Tibet was not as totally occupied as it is now. Until Communist China subjugated Tibet in the middle of this century, it was never under complete control of another nation. This came at a time when the age of colonization had ended for the rest of the world, which makes this immense loss even more tragic. It would be difficult for any people to accept the sad reality of so much destruction and to deal with it rationally. Tibetans who grew up in a country as large as Europe, populated by not more than six million people, found the loss of their country and way of life especially hard to accept. Moving from the Himalayan snow mountain ranges -- and beyond them, the open spaces of the high plateau, which gave an intense sense of personal freedom -- to the stifling heat and congested spaces of overpopulated India with its religious, cultural, and linguistic diversity meant changing to a world as foreign as one can possibly imagine. Today, when the loss of Tibet is becoming ever more apparent to the rest of the world, the hope for Tibetan self-determination is quickly dwindling. Nevertheless, much of the generation growing up in exile courageously holds on to the idea of freedom, even if they see it as deferred to an indefinite future. To think through the many intrinsic contradictions that make up their political and social fabric in exile would only cause deeper suffering and more intense emotional turmoil. By their own accounts, most Tibetans simply rely on the Dalai Lama and go on with their everyday business of life. This attitude is not religious -- as is claimed in the West -- but a desperate solution to an identity crisis of a people in denial. It also explains their often unrealistic political views which are propagated in a larger international context.

The one Tibetan institution believed to be still intact is that of the Dalai Lama. In him religious and political power are fused in a uniquely Tibetan way. For an account of the uniqueness of the institution of the Dalai Lama and rule by incarnation, see for example, Rule by Incarnation, Tibetan Buddhism and its Role in Society and State, by Franz Michael, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1982; Tibetan Nation, p. 107. Continuing the heritage through incarnation, the institution of Dalai Lama, first established in Tibet in 1642, For easily readable Tibetan historical background, see chapter 39, High Peaks, Pure Earth, Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture, by Hugh Richardson, Seriandia Publications, London, 1998; also Tibetan Nation, chapter 5; the Introduction in Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, The Gold Manuscript in the Fournier Collection, Samten Gyaltsen Karmay, Serindia Publications, London, 1988; also "The Sovereign Power of the Fifth Dalai Lama: sPrul sku gZims-khang-gong-ma and the Removal of Governor Nor-bu" in Memoirs of the Research Department of The Toyo Bunko (The Oriental Library) No. 53, Tokyo, 1995; also a brief discussion about the institution of reincarnate Lamas that became prominent in the political turmoil of the 17th century by E. Gene Smith in the introduction to The Autobiography of the First Panchen Lama blo-bzang-chos-kyi-rgyal-mtshan, edited and reproduced by Ngawang Gelek Demo, Gedan Sungrab Minyam Gyunphel Series, Volume 12, Jayyed Press, Delhi, 1969. has become larger than life today in exile For a discussion of the view of the Dalai Lamas as absolute, which seems to be a modern phenomenon, see also A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951, The Demise of the Lamaist State, by Melvyn C. Goldstein, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1989. For example, "The current view of the Dalai Lamas is that each was "the absolute ruler of unchallenged authority" whom all Tibetans devoutly obeyed [as quoted from Michael 1982:51, derived from interviews in exile where Tibetans believe it applies to the Dalai Lama]. While this approaches accuracy for the last two decades of the 13th Dalai Lama's life (1913-1933), it is not generally true." p. 41. with the overwhelming responsibility of bringing an ancient culture into the twenty-first century. The institution of the Dalai Lama in exile has become the very soul of Tibet, the nation, the culture, and the religion. In the face of the severe disruption in Tibetan life not only by political forces but also global cultural change, it has become the source of Tibetan identity per se. No other Dalai Lama ever had to carry as heavy a burden of his institution as the current, the Fourteenth. In Tibet, the Dalai Lama was formally the "The Great Owner" Portrait of a Dalai Lama, The Life and Times of the Great Thirteenth, Sir Charles Bell, Wisdom Publications, London, 1987, p. 432. of the country, still one of his names today. In religious and political ways he was the head of the government and leader of his people. In exile, without a country and only a handful of people, without a legal mandate or a power base other than a globalized version of Buddhism, his tasks as head of state and government have become almost impossible. Yet he is everything to his people, the one true vestige of a cherished way of life that amounts to what is Tibetan for Tibetans.

Communist China took over Tibet beginning in 1949 with a so-called "peaceful liberation" culminating in complete control in 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped to India See My Land and my People, Memoirs of the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Potala Corporation, New York, Reprint 1977; see also the documentation of the CIA officer who trained the Tibetan Resistance (Chushi Gangdug) who ensured the Dalai Lama' safe escape, Tears of the Lotus, Accounts of Tibetan Resistance to the Chinese Invasion, 1950-1962, Roger E. McCarthy, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1997. followed by approximately eighty thousand of his people, a number that subsequently increased to an estimated one hundred twenty thousand dispersed around the world. Then only in his early twenties, the Dalai Lama established an administration in exile with the help of his tutors, religious dignitaries, loyal old regime aristocrats, and family. Among the many books with details about the early exile days, see for example, Kundun, A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama, by Mary Craig, HarperCollins Publishers, London 1997; The Making of Modern Tibet, by A. Tom Grunfeld, M.E. Sharpe, Inc.,New York, London, 1996, chapter ten. They established an infrastructure in Dharamsala, a small hill station in the foot hills of the Himalayas located in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, assigned to them by the Indian government, to deal with the influx of refugees and to save the largely religious culture of Tibet. Tibetans were granted refugee status in India at the time under an executive order, since India has not ratified the International Convention of Refugees. An instrument developed under the auspices of the United Nations to give legal status to refugees and guarantee their protection and rights. In spite of the political and legal reality that the Dalai Lama and his people are not permitted any political activities in India, their administration in Dharamsala is called a government. For more detail on the perception of the precarious legal position of Tibetans in India, see my interview with Samdhong Rinpoche, head of the assembly. It was formally established during the first few days of the Dalai Lama's escape in March 1959 in Tibet en route to India. Exile Tibetans consider it the Tibetan government per se even though neither India nor any other country recognizes it as such.

In the 1960's most of the older loyalists were pushed out of the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala while the most important political functions were assumed by the Dalai Lama's family, According to Professor Dawa Norbu, Delhi, interview Oct. 24, 1997. particularly his older brother Gyalo Thondup. Chinese educated, he seemed to be the only diplomatically trained person then who could present the Tibet problem internationally. Gyalo Thondup had dealt with the Indian government already in 1948 when, unfortunate for its immediate political future, Tibet had failed to recognize Indian independence (1947). He also helped the Tibetan resistance with aid from the CIA. During the cold war, the CIA supported what they believed to be anti-Communist activities among Tibetan exiles. See, for example, John Kenneth Knaus: Orphans of the Cold War, BBS Public Affairs, New York, 1999. In Tibet, a family member of a Dalai Lama was legally barred from holding office, something that changed in exile, where Gyalo Thondup and others later became ministers. This occurred only in the 1990's, when ministers were elected rather than appointed. Much controversy surrounds Gyalo Thondup whom Tibetans believe to be the main architect of the Dalai Lama's plan to integrate Tibet into China under increased cultural autonomy. For some of the many, even violent confrontations surrounding him over the years, see for example, Jamyang Norbu: "The Heart of the Matter," Tibetan Review, March 1994. Recently, another brother of the Dalai Lama has claimed that today only three families, including his, run the exile government. "...the Tibetan exile government is run by three families, one of which is mine [i.e. the Dalai Lama's or the Yabshi family]..." in an unpublished letter of resignation by Professor Thubten Jigme Norbu, the Dalai Lama's brother, from post as Representative of the Tibetan exile government to Asia (Tokyo) to the Cabinet (Kashag), dated Feb. 6, 1992, with copy to Private Office, the Assembly, the foreign minister and the Tibetan Youth Congress, p. 9-10.

Early on in exile, in 1961, the Dalai Lama began to draft a constitution for a future free Tibet which was adopted in 1963. However, a charter to administer the very different situation in exile was not implemented until 1991. For an outline of the structure see, for example, Tibetan Parliament in Exile, published by Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Centre (TPPRC) in co-operation with Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation, New Delhi, 1996; The Making of Modern Tibet, chapter 12; also see the interview with Samdhong Rinpoche, head of the Assembly and co-drafter of the charter, below, in "Exiled from Exile." It is a simpler document than the draft constitution and it passed the Assembly of People's Deputies by a simple majority. Hailed as a "leap forward" in democratizing Tibetan politics, Tibetan Parliament in Exile, p. 16. it instituted several novel practices for the exile government such as election of ministers (Tib.: kalon) by the people's deputies in their Assembly or parliament. Nevertheless, the preamble states the nature of the government to be the union of religious and political affairs in continuity with the Ganden Potang government of Tibet established by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1642. The Dalai Lama continues to be its unelected head and the political system remains without institutionalized opposition.

It is commonly known that the Dalai Lama is still the religious and political head of Tibetans, at least in exile, since in the Western press he is usually referred to as "God-King." The effort to democratize has not extended to separate the domains of religion and politics. The confusing and much discussed referendum of 1995-7 was never put to a vote. People realized they had no real choice and decided to follow the Dalai Lama's choice, which had already been confirmed by the State Oracle. MoreSince the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala is not legitimately a government by legal and international standards, it is difficult to analyze this problematic in an easy or straightforward way. Democratic it is not. The Tibetan people have never been asked to vote on any of the major political decisions concerning the future of their country either inside or outside Tibet.   detail, see Part II. Often not even the Assembly and Cabinet (Kashag) are asked. Even more basic, freedom of speech, the very foundation of democratic striving, is woefully absent among exile Tibetans. Criticism of official exile government business is usually dismissed as being of Chinese origin. This practice has a long history. It was even said of Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama's brother, when in 1948 he tried to make clear to the Tibetan government in Lhasa what was in store for them after having escaped to India from the Communist onslaught in Shanghai where he was studying. At the time, India offered help to Tibet but the government in Lhasa did not answer Gyalo Thondup's pleas because they believed he was working for the Chinese. See Kundun, page 250 China is doing whatever it can to destabilize the exile community, discredit the Dalai Lama worldwide, and silence any criticism of its policies in Tibet. See for example, The Anguish of Tibet, edited by Petra K. Kelly, Gert Bastian, and Pat Aiello, Parallax Press, Berkeley, 1991; Cutting off the Serpent's Head, Tightening Control in Tibet, 1994-1995, Tibet Information Network and Human Rights Watch, New York, 1996; Tsering Shakya: The Dragon in the Land of Snows, Pimlico, London, 1999. It moves to fan the flames of any internal Tibetan conflict. But Tibetan society today seems to be just as intolerant of internal opposition as the Chinese. Allegations of Chinese interference are widely used by Tibetans as an excuse to silence any opposition. Jamyang Norbu: "Opening of the Political Eye, Tibet's long search for democracy," Tibetan Review, November 1990