Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Finding My Own Opinion in Tibet

I had some pretty strong political views about China and Tibet before I arrived. Of course they were all based on popular culture, having done no independent research myself. In fact, the first I knew about any kind of discord in Tibet was when I went into a “Free Tibet” store in Evanston about ten years ago. Sad, I know. But in my defense I was busy fishing golf balls out of the toilet and finding car keys in those days.

Here is what I learned from a Tibetan young man. Of course, he is not free to say anything bad about the government in China, and I suppose it is my responsibility to do more research and make an educated decision on my own…just as soon as I find those damn car keys…

As I said before, Buddhism was brought to Tibet by the Indian wife of a Tang Dynasty King. Tibetan Buddhists believe that every Dali Lama is the reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion. After the current Dali Lama dies, the next one is identified (as a child) by things like physical markings, ancient memories, and his ability to recognize the possessions of past Dali Lamas.

The Dali Lama was originally a religious figure only, and didn’t gain political power until D.L. #5, when the Emperor of the Qin Dynasty gave him political power to rule Tibet. Well, #5 was an old man with no political training and wasn’t keen to accept political power, so #6 was quickly chosen (before #5’s death) to take over the political rule.

#6 turned out to be a bit of a playboy, going into town to drink, find women, etc, and was not considered the true Dali Lama. He quickly disappeared, and #7 was later identified to take up the role as both religious and political leader of Tibet.

This was all well and good until the Chinese government decided to “deliver Tibet from a Theocracy” by separating matters of religion and state into two different offices. They sought to “relieve the current Dali Lama” of his political responsibilities.

This discussion between the Chinese Government and the 14th Dali Lama occurred in the Potala Palace in 1956. In 1959, the 14th Dali Lama left for India. That is how it is put in China, as if he decided to go on walk-about.

We got to tour the Potala Palace – which served at the home, office, and burial place for D.L. 4-13. (#6 is not buried there as he was the playboy who disappeared, and #14 is still living but his tomb awaits him there). It is an incredible mixture of temples, offices, tombs and prayer rooms, which will be closed to the public by the Chinese Government at the end of this year. They say that the structure is crumbling and is not safe for visitors.

In my experience, this place felt, well, occupied. It was the only place where I saw Chinese soldiers in uniform stationed in the temples observing the worshippers and tourists. You are allowed to be there for only one hour – timed as you enter and then again as you leave, and fined $1000 RMB for every minute you stay beyond the allotted hour. I have to say it made me wonder why the government would close this precious sight filled with all of the scripture, historical and religious artifacts and the tombs of nearly all of the Dali Lamas. Why not restore the building?

I am suspicious of the Chinese Government’s motives. However, I also believe in the separation of Church and State. I don’t believe that a religious leader should also have political power and the ability to make laws.

So there you have it. That’s what I learned – that thing’s aren’t as simple as I’d hoped, and that pop culture shouldn't be the source of my political opinions.

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