Despite Beijing’s harsh policies in Tibet, there is a “growing understanding” of Tibet and sympathy toward Tibetans among the Chinese people themselves, says Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Speaking to a large gathering of Buddhist devotees, including an estimated 1,000 Chinese from mainland China, in Bodh Gaya in India’s Bihar state on Tuesday, the Dalai Lama said that he has met with “Chinese scholars, students, and various representatives of organizations in the last many years.”
“And there is a growing understanding of the Tibetan issue and a growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism among the mainland Chinese,” he said.
Tensions have gripped Tibet since Beijing occupied the Himalayan region six decades ago. And these have been underscored in recent years by widespread protests—brutally suppressed by Chinese security forces—and by growing assertions of Tibetan national and cultural identity.
Pointing to Tibet’s and China’s shared Buddhist heritage, the Dalai Lama noted that “Tibetans and Chinese are both disciples of the Buddha.”
“The Chinese with [their] huge population and ancient wisdom would help the world a lot if they focus on the teachings of the Buddha,” the Dalai Lama said.
Focus on education
Speaking in an interview, Bhuchung Tsering—vice president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet—said that the Dalai Lama has for many years “felt it very important that the Chinese people be educated about the reality of the Tibetan issue.”
“And one of his consistent points has been the need for access to information for the Chinese people.”
“So when our organization, the International Campaign for Tibet, was set up in 1988, Chinese outreach from that perspective was a major focus,” Tsering said.
“I would say that His Holiness’s concern, his call for education of the Chinese community, has resulted in a certain change of mindset among at least a certain section of the Chinese intellectual community.”
“So today there is a growing public discourse inside China on Tibet,” Tsering said.
Openness 'not political'
Some of that dialogue between Tibetans and Chinese now takes place on the campuses of U.S. universities, said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University in New York.
“We see a striking degree of intellectual openness and general interest of a very impressive kind among some of our Chinese students and intellectuals,” Barnett said.
He added, though, that this group represents mostly students with an interest in “social and cultural issues.”
Others, while aware of the Tibet issue but more nationalist in their sentiments, tend instead to “avoid confrontation,” Barnett said.
“It isn’t necessarily a political openness,” Barnett said.
“We have to distinguish intellectual and cultural receptivity from the political. That’s a different matter.”
Appeal of religion
Elliot Sperling, a professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University, called the notion of a growing Chinese understanding of Tibet's situation a "cliche for the last decade among certain Tibetan exiles, rooted, in part, in the reality of the appeal that Tibetan Buddhism has had for a noticeable segment of the Chinese population.”
The number of Chinese who are interested in Tibetan Buddhism is still “very, very small,” though, Sperling said, adding "it is difficult to view the state of affairs as optimistically as people in Dharamsala [the seat of Tibet's government in exile] do."
People in China who do think about Tibet tend to view it in two general ways, Sperling said.
"They exoticize it, much in the way Westerners have done, making Tibet a land of (depoliticized) esoteric mystery and peace; or else they view Tibet as a backward land that was liberated from a barbaric feudal regime."
But the majority of China's population thinks and cares very little, if anything, about Tibet, Sperling said
“In normal circumstances, the issue does not engage most Chinese."
Reported by Richard Finney.