• Oct 24, 2015

From the Playbill: Trouble In Tibet

by Julie McCormick

Often referred to as “the roof of the world,” Tibet is one of the highest regions on earth. Nestled within the peaks and passes of the Himalayan Mountain range, this isolated region in Central Asia shares borders and cultural traditions with China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and the Indian subcontinent. When Buddhist missionaries arrived on the Tibetan Plateau in the 8th Century C.E., the religion blended with local shamanistic practices, rituals, and legends to form its own distinct branch of Buddhism. The vast majority of Tibetans are Buddhist, though there are smaller communities of Christians, Muslims, and Bön practitioners (Bön is a religion unique to Tibet that has some overlap with Buddhist practices). There are an estimated 20 million practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide; at one point in history, one fifth of the Tibetan population lived a monastic lifestyle.

In spite of having such rich and distinct traditions, Tibet has spent very little of its long history as a unified country. At one time there was an empire that covered the Tibetan Plateau, as well as neighboring countries in South and Central Asia. Parts, or sometimes all of Tibet owed allegiance to the Chinese Emperor or Uyghur Khaganate. Today, the “Tibet Autonomous Region” functions essentially as a Chinese province controlled by the Communist Party. Other parts of historical Tibet, including the eastern regions Amdo and Kham, have largely been absorbed by the Chinese provinces Sichuan and Qinghai.

The current chapter in China and Tibet’s thousand-year-long saga begins in 1950, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet. Their stated goal was to liberate the country from its religious leaders and to install a communist government. At the time, the current Dalai Lama, the highest spiritual leader of this majority Buddhist country, was only 15 years old, but assumed full political power following the Chinese invasion. Though he attempted to remain in Lhasa, the capital city, the political situation soon degenerated and he was forced to flee in 1959 amidst a national uprising. The Dalai Lama took refuge in Dharamsala, India, and established a government in exile alongside thousands of other Tibetans who fled the country.

Since that initial exodus, thousands more have left; it is estimated that 100,000-150,000 Tibetans currently live in exile. Reports of horrific human rights abuses still taking place in Tibet trickle out in a steady stream alongside the refugees, including torture, seizure of land and property, censorship, re-education, forced sterilization, and religious suppression. During the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) it is estimated that between 200,000 and 1 million Tibetans died, and since the Cultural Revolution (1966), 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed.

Many Tibetans relocated in neighboring India, Nepal, and Bhutan; there are also large communities in Oceania, Europe, and the Americas. In 1990, Congress passed legislation allowing 1,000 Tibetans and their families to resettle in the U.S. At the time of the last census, there were about 9,000 Tibetans living in the United States with large communities in New York City, Minneapolis, Portland, Washington DC, and the Bay Area.

The 14th Dalai Lama has traveled tirelessly around the world during most of his 65-year reign, sharing the teachings of Buddhism and advocating for Tibetan rights. In 2011, the Dalai Lama announced his retirement as the head of the government. Calling for a more progressive, democratic future, he has established that the Tibetan administration in exile will no longer be led politically by future Dalai Lamas; they will, however, still provide spiritual guidance to their people and the world.