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From the vantage point of history, it is truly gratifying to see the Tibetan people, at the start of the twenty-first century, standing up for freedom and equality, rights, democracy and religious freedom on the broadest terms, with sincerity and determination. Whether this peaceful revolution in pursuit of rights is seen overall as a struggle for civil rights, or in narrower terms as a struggle for the sake of one nationality, it is a definite milestone in the history of the Tibetan people. Only servants of the dictatorship would not welcome it; everyone else understands its importance.
In retrospect, it seems that during the past thousand years or so since the demise of the imperial state,1 Tibetans have devoted all their intelligence and wisdom, their energy and ability to the inner life of the mind, to discovering its nature, and following Dharma and the religious life exclusively. Over that long period, they have surrendered any principles of territoriality and heritage, of domestic governance and bravery from the imperial era, and have dedicated themselves to spiritual perfection on behalf of all sentient beings on the broadest terms, with sincerity and devotion, teaching adherence to the four views of the Four Noble Truths2 and the mind training of ‘parting from the four attachments’, and acting accordingly. For each of the poles of secular culture and religious culture, worldly knowledge and transcendent knowledge, existence and quiescence, the manifest world and the hidden, the former were rejected in favour of the latter, or at least the latter were prioritised and the former relegated. People followed religion, concentrating on the names of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, while the secular objectives of freedom, equality, rights and democracy were not pursued. Although the traditional mindset of safeguarding the domestic polity remained from the imperial age, under the system of ‘religious and secular authority combined’ in which it later ended up, most people did not even know whether secular values like ‘freedom’, ‘equality’, ‘rights’ and ‘democracy’ were things to be eaten or drunk. Freedom and equality, rights and democracy and other such principles are fundamentally political concepts, often incomprehensible in a country with little sense of political, territorial or national awareness. The absence of these concepts can be traced by making a chronological comparison with other countries.
In 1215, the English wrote their Magna Carta or Great Freedom Charter, but at the time when those principles were being enshrined, the Tibetans were living in a fragmented polity; with each principality having submitted to Yuan imperial hegemony, they were solely occupied with building new monasteries.3 Many years later, at the end of the Dark Ages, in the year 1689, when the English again drew up a Bill of Rights, Tibetans were in a state of further fragmentation, arising from disputes between different religious schools. At a time when others, greedy as predators, were waiting to take advantage and engaging both openly and covertly in plots to seize power, the Tibetans were engaged in indecisive conflicts over religious affiliation, as evidenced by Jamyang Shépa Dorjé composing his ‘Great treatise on
philosophy’ at that time.4
Then in 1776, less than a hundred years later, the same year that the Americans wrote their Declaration of Independence and announced to the world the rights of man to freedom and equality, Emperor Qianlong invited the famous 6th Panchen Lama Palden Yéshé to Beijing, and without delay (in 1779) he went there to give teachings. The promulgators of the ‘Edict of the Year of the Water Ox’ (in 1793), restricting the powers of the Tibetan government and affirming the powers of the Ambans,5 those who turned the order of political affairs on its head, were hailed by the Tibetans as ‘supreme’, as ‘Manjusri in earthly form’ to whom they bowed like lost children reunited with their mother. The reason for going may have been to perpetuate the ‘priest–patron’ relationship, which they claimed was the supreme form of relations between states, but the reality was that the emperors merely handed out seals, titles, ranks and gifts to their subjects. This humble acceptance of invitations, one example of ‘priest–patron relations’ out of a hundred, clearly signals a relationship of superiority and inferiority rather than one of equality or freedom.6
Not many years later, in 1789, when the French wrote their ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, the Tibetans were far from knowing about freedom and equality; they scarcely even knew about the shape of the world. For that was the year when Tsenpo Nominhan Jampel Chöki Tendzin Trinlé was born, the man who gave them the first rough account of world geography. In 1830 he composed his ‘Full Description of the World’, but this partial account of the geography and populations of some of the world’s countries was couched in legend, folklore and fantasy, and sketched from a religious perspective rather than being intelligible in secular terms. So whatever impression it gave Tibetans of what was important and valuable in other countries of the world, its depiction of human freedom and equality in political life cannot have been accurate.7
In 1948, after one thousand years of isolation, of dismissing all worldly affairs as mere chaff and prizing religious experiences like gold, Tibet woke up to the United Nations Organisation being established. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, according parity of status to all nations and peoples regardless of whether they are powerful or weak, rich or poor, guaranteeing the principles of freedom and equality for all humanity. Finally the Tibetans, who seek spiritual perfection for all living beings, became aware of the rest of the world, and arranged to send a delegation abroad. Like the proverbial patching of a beggar’s rags, this amounted merely to organising a ‘Trade Representative Mission’ with support from the UK and USA, to visit America and some other countries.8 Thus the land and people of Tibet appeared to stand for nothing and no one in particular, like a fox riding on a tiger’s back, at which anyone could aim a kick, and so it has remained until now: a country of nobodies, sitting idle after banging the drum in celebration of their own defeat. (This account of Tibet’s history was written with reference to the chronological tables in the ‘Great Tibetan–Chinese Dictionary’ and ‘Dungkar’s Encyclopaedia’).9
From studying this simplified chronology, we might deduce some of the basic features of Tibetan history: a history of repeated capitulation, sectarian conflict, priest–patron alliances and closure to the outside world. Over the period when people in other countries came to recognise the primacy of human nature and to establish the customs and laws of freedom and equality for their own welfare, the Tibetans were stuck in their pursuit of religion, and through seeking protection in the political sphere, failed to secure their own political interests. It seems that Tibet’s history can be summarised that simply.
At last, at the start of the twenty-first century, our large-scale peaceful revolution, not just in Lhasa but in all three provinces of Tibet, calls out for freedom and equality, with complete determination and sincerity. It may not appear directed towards individual rights, but it is a sure sign of a new awareness of nationality, culture and territory. This revolution, starting from the 10 March anniversary in Lhasa,10 was like a stone thrown into a pond, sending ripples out in all directions, provoking demonstrations from monasteries to towns, among men and women, from Tö Ngari in the west to Mé Doekham in the east,11 from the highland pastures to the valley footpaths, like stars lighting up across the sky or flowers bursting into bloom from the earth.
This new inspiration, like the urge of a wild tiger to take to the forest or a yak to the high mountains, despite knowing the contest to be as unequal as that between an egg and a rock, a sparrow and a hawk, or a goat and a wolf, is like a long-cherished hope falling from the sky like a comet, or a dammed spring finally bursting its banks. Yet that relentless autocracy, which heaps endless cycles of punishment upon us, condemning us to confusion, falsehood and delusion, encircling us with trickery, deceit and lies, prodding us with cruelty, violence and coercion, which starts the day with beating, crushing and suppressing and ends it with undue praise, unjust criticism and accusation, will not hesitate to dismiss us to the hottest or coldest extremes of hell.
But though the truncheon keeps hitting, do not be afraid. White bones may break, but do not flinch. Red blood may be spilled, but do not fight back. The courage to set face and heart against sharp steel, heavy chains and the hail of bullets in defence of the ‘sheep’s breast’ of one’s own land, to safeguard the ‘golden hammer’ of one’s own territory, no power can reduce this human courage by the slightest degree.12 The ferocity of tigers, leopards and bears is driven merely by the need for food, and the fearlessness of a robot is purely mechanical. Although graced by the smiles of the gods and terrorised by demons, this courage of human will comes not from divine blessing or demonic influence, nor can men exchange it at will. It comes from our fathers speaking to us and our mothers comforting us. If Avalokitesvara sees, he can smile down from the peak of Sumeru; and if Amitabha hears, he may laugh from the depths of the ocean.13 For the poetic image of the ‘Snow lion sleeping in the Kailasa mountain of my mind that trembles heaven and earth by shaking his turquoise mane’ has now become the ‘Skyward-leaping snow lion in the Kailasa mountain of my mind that trembles heaven and earth by shaking his turquoise mane’.14
So how does the most awesome of powers make the whole world shudder and yet keep them in their thrall? Some see them as monsters in power, and for these people I see the courage that refuses oppression and seeks to overthrow it as well justified. Some see their oppressors as having greedily stolen what should rightfully be shared, and in their case I see their determination to fight the crooks and bandits who seek to possess every last grain of earth as valid too. Some see their autocratic power as the outcome of the triumph of materialism over idealism, and without getting too mystical, the idea that the power of faith is superior to other kinds of power is also sympathetic. Thus, whether resistance comes from the angle of political coercion and suppression, economic pillage and extortion, or cultural domination, all have contributed to the emergence of this peaceful revolution.
Essentially, from what I have observed so far, I consider the root cause to be the reawakening of a dormant sense of domestic sovereignty resting deep in our psyche since imperial times, as our courage seeking to assert an ethnic and territorial ‘self ’ or identity.15 I find three main contributing factors: one, that Tibetans even now are not very advanced in political, economic or cultural awareness; two, the majority of the population being committed to religious faith did not actually participate in the revolution; and three, the participants were mainly young people, so one can conclude that, rather than faith, the main factor was the emergence of a fresh courage, produced by the evolution of long-dormant psychological patterns. It appears that most of the brave young people who participated were not the breadwinners of their households, but were those who networked and reacted promptly, who had courage and far-sightedness, commitment to their people and strong loyalty, and once their dormant sense of courage was awakened, the outbreak of such a revolution, the calls for freedom and equality at times and places determined by local circumstance, became inevitable.
Whether history is determined by cause and effect or is naturally fortuitous can be debated endlessly by the world’s historians and I have no particular opinion to express. At first glance, this revolution might look like a sudden incident that came about by chance, but ultimately I prefer to see it as a resurgence of the continuous current of inherited identity and martial bravery from imperial times, in our marrow and in our blood. The idea that this revolution happened simply because of the power of faith seems hard to believe, since not all those with faith participated, so I would rather put it down to the force of courage.
Those taking a world perspective see this peaceful revolution in the Year of the Earth Rat as a continuation of the ‘colour’ revolutions, and from a global angle this view is fully justified. Since the ‘featherdown revolution’ or ‘velvet revolution’ in Czechoslovakia in 1989 peacefully replaced the power of the Communist Party and cooperatives with democracy as gently as down or velvet, a series of ‘colour’ revolutions took place in east European and central Asian states at the start of the twenty-first century, such as the ‘Rose revolution’ in Georgia in 2004, which took the rose and the colour pink as its symbol; the ‘Orange revolution’ in Ukraine in 2004, which took the chestnut flower and colour as its symbol; the ‘Tulip revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, which took the tulip flower and the colour yellow as its symbol; and the ‘Saffron revolution’ in Burma in 2007, named after the colour of the monks’ robes, since opposition to the military government in Burma was led by the monks. These ‘colour revolutions’ were all aimed at replacing authoritarian or non-democratic régimes, and their participants held flowers to symbolise commitment to freedom and democracy through peaceful means.
If we consider the Tibetan peaceful revolution in the Year of the Earth Rat as part of this global movement for peaceful evolution towards freedom and democracy, the circumstances of it opposing an authoritarian régime by using peaceful methods and seeking freedom and democracy allow us to count it among the ‘colour revolutions’; and since the main force opposing the armed forces of the state were monks, and the colour of monks’ robes is saffron, it would be appropriate to call it the ‘Tibetan saffron revolution’. What I have termed the ‘Tibetan saffron revolution’, or the peaceful revolution in the Year of the Earth Rat, was one of the main topics of 2008 for the international media, and if it is recorded in world history, even if its objectives have not been immediately met, or victory not immediately assured, then, as they say, ‘If it succeeds, that is that, but even if it doesn’t, it is still a great thing.’ So I judge that the Tibetans made an unprecedented and ineffaceable contribution, in more than mere words or prayers, to the human quest for freedom, equality, rights, democracy and peace.
Tibetans had not staged any major political protest for a long time, and had never had a political uprising, struggle or revolution. To my mind, this is due to three main causes: first, lack of political awareness of their territory and sovereignty; second, lack of concern for anything but religion; and third, geographic dispersal of communities and lack of concentration of population.
When people today hear political terms like ‘protest’, ‘uprising’, ‘struggle’ and ‘revolution’ they tend to recoil in terror, which is the legacy of the Communist revolution, the time when people were branded as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and ‘bandits’ and struggled, were beaten, suppressed, eradicated and branded; the associated sense of terror has still not disappeared. Although that kind of struggle is called a ‘struggle’ and that kind of revolution is called a ‘revolution’, violent struggle and violent revolution can in fact triumph through violence, and prevailing through violence is often the natural way. The revolution in the Year of the Earth Rat was a peaceful revolution, peaceful struggle and peaceful protest, a revolution consistent with human values, not a totalitarian revolution, and thus one that people all over the world, in East and West, can approve as great and glorious.
Thus, after careful thought, my reasons for being joyful are four: one, the significance of the revolution; two, the influence of the revolution; three, the objective of the revolution; and four, seeing signs of the truth being ultimately vindicated.
1 From the Era of Fragmentation, between the ninth and eleventh centuries, when the political centralisation of the earlier Tibetan Empire collapsed.
2 The Four Noble Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cesstion of suffering and the path are believed to be the first teaching given by Buddha Sakyamuni. In traditional commentaries, they are sometimes explained in four different aspects. ‘Parting from the Four Attachments’ is a teaching in the ‘mind training’ genre by the twelfth-century Sakya Lama Sa-chen Kunga Nyingpo. The four attachments are to the present life, to cyclic existence, to one’s own benefit, and to grasping at phenomena as real.
3 The Magna Carta Libertatum or Great Charter of Liberties of England limited the absolute power of the monarchy, and came to be seen as an early foundation for constitutional law. Tibet was formally incorporated in the Mongol Yuan empire in 1260. The establishment of great monastic principalities in central Tibet took place through the thirteenth century.
4 The first Jamyang Shépa Ngawang Tsöndru (1648–1721), founder of the Labrang Tashikhyil monastery. His most celebrated treatise, the ‘Great Exposition of Philosophical Tenets’, is concerned with differentiating the variety of classical non-Buddhist and Buddhist philosophical positions on the nature of reality.
5 The Ambans were Manchu imperial representatives, first stationed in Lhasa in 1728, following a period of political upheaval.
6 The Panchen Lama was invited to Beijing as the most senior religious figure associated with the Lhasa government, the 8th Dalai Lama having barely attained his majority. The invitation actually seems to have been issued in 1778, in anticipation of the emperor’s 70th birthday, and the Panchen, an experienced diplomat, accepted it apparently as an opportunity to promote Tibet’s interests by giving teachings to the nominally Buddhist Qing court. This was in accord with the notion of ‘priest–patron’ relations favoured by the Tibetan establishment of the day, as the author notes rather scathingly. It turned out to be Palden Yéshé’s last such opportunity, however, for he died of smallpox in the imperial capital in 1780, at the age of 43. In any case, despite the diplomatic efforts of Tibet’s high Lamas, the Qing state was determined to increase its control over Tibetan affairs, and used the incident of the Gorkha invasion twelve years later to send in troops and enlarge the role of its Lhasa representatives [Amban], hence the edict mentioned here.
7 The 4th Lama Tsenpo incarnation (1789–1838) compiled his account of the world in Beijing in 1820, apparently after consulting numerous foreign language works in libraries there. His birthdate is hardly the most notable event in Tibetan history coinciding with the French revolution, but the author’s point is that a secular literature and outlook was still unknown to Tibetans in the early nineteenth century.
8 The four-member 1948 Trade Mission was a belated and forlorn attempt by the Lhasa government to raise its international profile, as well as to negotiate trade protocols with newly independent India. It also visited Britain, the USA and China.
9 Dungkar Losang Trinlé (1927–97), educated as a Lama in the old society, and then trained as an academic under Communism, emerged during the 1980s as one of Tibet’s leading historians. This encyclopaedia of mostly religious and historical terms, compiled from his collected notes, was published posthumously.
1010 March 1959, when Tibetans in Lhasa staged a decisive protest against Chinese rule, leading to the flight of the Dalai Lama and his court, has been commemorated annually by Tibetans in exile, and remains a sensitive date for the ruling Communist Party. On that day in 2008, Drepung monks staged a protest march from the monastery towards the city, sparking further monastic protests over the following days, culminating in a city-wide riot on 14 March, itself the spark for freedom protests all over Tibet during the following weeks.
11Tö Ngari is the high plateau of upper west Tibet, bordering the western Himalaya. Mé Doekham refers to the vast region of eastern Tibet, Amdo in the north-east, bordering the former Chinese provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, and Kham in the south-east, bordering Sichuan and Yunnan.
12 These are colloquial phrases in the author’s native Amdo dialect, expressing the value placed on ancestral territory. The sheep’s breast is considered the prime meat on the carcass.
13 Avalokitesvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion and the patron saint of Tibetan Buddhists. Mount Sumeru is the axis of this world system according to classical Indian cosmology, and on its peak is thought to be a divine realm. Amitabha is the red Buddha of the west, a popular devotional figure in Chinese Buddhism.
14 Unidentified quotation. Kailasa is the famous mountain in upper west Tibet sacred to all Indian religions, and known in Tibetan as Kang Tisé.
15 ‘Imperial times’ is a reference to the Purgyal empire of the seventh to ninth centuries which unified the peoples of the Tibetan plateau into a state and a military power, the strongest in central Asia at that time. In his previous books, the author has argued that this indigenous Tibetan sense of nationhood and martial pride became eroded by the universalist and selfless values of Buddhism, leaving Tibetans illequipped for the transition to modernity.