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Tibet: China's Treasure Basket

In 1950 China forcibly occupied Tibet. In 2006 China inaugurated a rail link between Tibet and China. Chinese TV broadcasters praise this link, stating that it has increased trade by 75% to the extent of 322 million US dollars and that the railway has reduced transportation costs and speeded up the carriage of freight to Tibet. This railway is an engineering marvel. It is the highest railway line in the world. It traverses over 600 bridges and goes through many tunnels. It links Lhasa, the ancient capital of Tibet, with the equally ancient but rapidly modernizing city of Beijing of the People's Republic of communist China. Lhasa has turned from a small traditional settlement to a city of 300,000 (200,000 of whom are Han Chinese), with over 200 dance halls and over 600 brothels on the main street alone.

China's name for Tibet is Western Treasure Basket. China has already extracted 44 billion dollars worth of timber from Tibet. Besides timber, they have taken gold, coal and uranium from this land. Chinese state Oil Exploration Corporation that built up this railway says the railway has made it a lot easier to transport exploration equipment and materials into Tibet, without mentioning what is being removed.

Tibet is being changed from a land of natural beauty to a landscape of concrete created by bulldozers. Businesses are controlled by the Chinese, although an impression is created as if the locals are benefiting. China denies Tibetans freedom to practice their religion. It denies its people basic human rights and exploits their land. In China, Tibetans can be arrested just for carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama.

Recently, riots have broken out in Tibet among Tibetans demanding full freedom from China rather than the relative autonomy advocated by the Dalai Lama in exile. They hope to draw world attention at the time when China is preparing to hold the Olympics during the summer of 2008. The Dalai Lama threatened to resign as leader of Tibet's government-in-exile if the rioters continued their violent protests. He met with leaders of several Tibetan activist groups who, in defiance of their pacifist spiritual leader, have demanded Tibetan independence and are hoping to derail the Beijing Olympics. The younger activists seem determined to go ahead with their protests.

Chinese officials hold firm in their stance that the Dalai Lama masterminded the violence to undermine the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese prime minister called the Dalai Lama's renunciations "nothing but lies." China is too powerful and ideologically too closed a nation to respond positively to demands from some activists that it let go of the resource-rich land of Tibet.

Today, in China, religion is officially banned. Families are forced to adopt one-child rule. Labor is exploited. Pollution and environmental degradation are horrific.

What are the traditions and cultural values that Tibetans are likely to lose in this cultural expurgation by China? Let us look at some of them.


Human experience and what that experience means to an individual in that culture are defined by that culture's language. The speakers communicate their thoughts, beliefs values and desires through the medium of the language they speak. The underlying structure of a language carries significant meaning to the people who speak that particular language. In order to maintain their cultural values, Tibetans in exile are taught the Tibetan language till about the age of ten. And then they begin to learn English, which is considered necessary to interact with the rest of the world. But in Tibet, the Chinese have banned learning the Tibetan language. Children learn only Chinese. Without learning their own language, how will the Tibetans remain embedded in their own culture? Soon there will be in Tibet a fragmented, unharmonious generation of confused and disconnected youths who will have lost their moorings.


Religious sustenance is one of the basic human needs. Notwithstanding the modern agnostic trend and the secularization of society, millions and millions of people around the world have faith in a higher power and devote time to prayers and worship in homes, monasteries, temples, churches, synagogues, mosques and even on roadsides. Religion has been central to the Tibetan way of life. The Dalai Lama, a monk who also heads the government of Tibet, is considered to be an incarnation of God. Tibetans around the world remain immovably devoted to him. China has, on the other hand, banned the practice of religion.

Tradition of Dalai Lama

What will happen after the present Dalai Lama dies? Most Tibetans cannot bear the thought of a future without their traditional leader. That is a central question concerning Tibet. Any child selected by the Chinese authorities (instead of Tibetan monks) to be the next Dalai Lama will be perceived as a puppet of the Chinese. Will he be accepted in the hearts of Tibetan people? The present Dalai Lama thinks that the institution of the Dalai Lama will disappear at some stage, but he does not think that Tibetan Buddhist culture will also disappear.

In a Time magazine article (March 31, 2008) titled "A Monk's Struggle," Pico Iyer, a long-time follower of the Dalai Lama, writes:

"The central principle of Buddhism is the idea of interdependence--the notion that all sentient beings are linked together in a network that was classically known as Indra's Net--and The other essential idea of Buddhism (more accurately called a science of mind than a religion) is that we can change our world by changing how we choose to look at the world." (50) He also says, "For Buddhists liberation traditionally means freedom from ignorance and so from the suffering it brings. For the Chinese, pledged to material development, freedom simply means liberation from the past, from religion and from backwardness. (53)

The Dalai Lama says that names and forms are not important as long as something fundamental is retained. He believes it does not matter if the terms Dalai Lama, Buddhism and even Tibet cease to exist. What matters is the sustenance of core cultural values and the identity of the people of Tibet. In affirmation of this very hope, and thanks to the exodus of Tibetan people in the last 50 years, Tibetan culture and Buddhism have spread, attracting a lot of followers around the world. The number of Tibetan Buddhist centers has multiplied. New York City alone has 40 such centers. Taiwan has more than 200, and in France, there are more Buddhists than Protestants and Jews. There is a center in Atlanta, where the Dalai Lama enjoys a position as an honorary professor at Emory University.

Pico Iyer further says:

"Perhaps most significant, some of the people most eagerly drawn to Tibetan tradition and Buddhism are, in fact, citizens of China, who have been denied any religious sustenance more than 50 years. The last time I visited Lhasa, in 2002, I saw more and more Chinese individuals going to the Jokhang Temple at the center of town as pilgrims, seeking out Tibetan Lamas for instruction, even trying to learn Tibetan, the same language that is all but banned for Tibetans." (53)

According to him, five years ago the Dalai Lama said to him, "If 30 years from now, Tibet is 6 million Tibetans and 10 million Chinese Buddhists, then may be something will be OK.(53)

The debate continues: will humanity continue to be revolutionized by remarkable economic and technological achievements? What about an inward revolution that begins in contemplation and meditation? Which will lead to a better world? Perhaps the human urge to bow to a higher power will prevail, and Tibet may be flooded with Chinese who will call themselves Tibetan Buddhists. Only time will tell.

Copyright 2008 Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.
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