Today, a debate changed locations.
Tenzin Gyatso was born in Taktser, Qinghai in 1935, the region known to the outside world as Tibet. It was a place where people barely scrapped by, at least when they weren’t getting conscripted to fight for the Han, Tang, and Ming Chinese dynasties that traded control of the land. The Buddhist monks were the exception, living in relative comfort in the many temples that dotted the mountaintops. The nominal leader of their local strain of religion was called the Dalai Lama and, when Tenzin was a child and correctly identified some of the personal possessions of the recently deceased 13th lama, he was proclaimed the 14th reincarnation of the human manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
Geopolitics would intrude early and often in his life. Many of his countrymen wanted independence from China, and the U.S. was all too happy to support their provocations against its communist enemy. For its part, a newly-emboldened China saw the spiritual reign of Tibetan Buddhism as a challenge to its theological promises of a workers paradise (and Tibet’s feudal structure as a lingering reminder of the thousands-years-old culture it had recently obliterated in its own country). Things came to a head in March of 1959, when the Chinese invited the Dali Lama to attend a party meeting in Beijing, from which it was presumed he’d never be allowed to return. Armed rebellion broke out in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and quickly spread across the country. The Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayan mountains and, on this day in 1959, arrived in Dharamasala, India. 80,000-plus Tibetans would die in the failed revolt, and the Chinese would proceed with a program of destroying every temple they could find, relocating ethnic Han settlers to Tibet, regularly banning Tibetan rituals and language, and otherwise erasing the region’s culture and replacing it with its own.
Its efforts continue to this day, as does the Dali Lama’s advocacy for peace, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He has never returned to Tibet. Same debate, changed locations.