Jonathan Salem Baskin

Changed Locations

Today, a debate changed locations.

When Tenzin Gyatso was born in Taktser, Qinghai in 1935, the region known to the outside world as Tibet had been dominated by the Han, Tang, and Ming Chinese dynasties (when it wasn’t run by Mongols or otherwise been in the hands of warring feudal lords). When they weren’t getting conscripted into fighting for one or the other of the powers vying for ownership of the region, most Tibetans scrapped together a living in a rural, subsistence economy, in which nobody had much of any authority except the monks who lived in the Buddhist temples that dotted the mountaintops. The nominal leader of this 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.