The Dalai Lama, Buddhism, and Tibet: Reflecting on a Half-Century of Change by Maria T. Otero
Throughout history, there have been several ways in which people perceive Tibet. Since it has traditionally been isolated from the world, culturally and geographically, the mystery it provokes has shaped most people’s beliefs into viewing it as a Shangri-La, or sacred land. This popular view is supported by the fact that Tibet is a place where its people see Buddhism as so important that it is not only their religion, but also the essence of their identity. The Dalai Lama is their most important figure as a religious and spiritual leader. Due to the circumstances in which he came to his position, as well as to his personal character, the current Dalai Lama has radically changed the meaning of his religious and political leadership.
This article looks at the changes that have taken place in the decades since the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and how they have influenced the role of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism itself. Even though Chinese dominance over Tibet can be viewed as representative of how the people of Tibet have suffered, when looking at the circumstances in a religious and political point of view, the changes it has brought can also be seen as beneficial for Tibet. Among these changes we can find the newfound international interest in Tibet after the Dalai Lama’s exile, later strengthened by the Nobel Peace Price he was awarded; the end of isolationism of Tibet, accompanied by the spread of Buddhism to the West with increasing popularity; the revival of Buddhism in Tibet, followed by a rise in nationalism; the democratization of the Tibetan government in exile; and, finally, the Dalai Lama’s shift from being a traditional local leader to becoming an international figure.
According to the Buddhist faith, every being is reborn over and over again in a cycle, in which most people cannot remember their past lives. However, when there are powerful events that shape someone’s life, it is possible, through meditative training, to gain access to those memories.2 The only way out of that cycle is through achieving enlightenment, which is the highest stage in Buddhism. Bodhisattvas are those who are able to achieve enlightenment, but they postpone it in order to teach other people their knowledge to help them reach nirvana. “All such incarnate beings can influence, by their own wishes in each life, the place and time when they will be reborn, and after each birth, they have a lingering memory of their previous life which enables others to identify them.”3 The Dalai Lama is one of them, and before dying they commonly make predictions about their rebirth, which are then followed by different tests to make sure that the right person was found. This process represents how the role of the Dalai Lama is much more than that of a governor or a president. He is a Bodhisattva that has ruled Tibet for centuries in the different lives in which he has reincarnated, a fact that gives him divine attributes.
Commonly, when a Dalai Lama dies, a Regent is appointed by the National Assembly to govern while the next one is found and until he reaches maturity.4 However, in 1950 an oracle indicated that the fourteenth Dalai Lama should assume power even though he had not yet reached the normal age of maturity, and therefore he assumed temporal and religious control of Tibet at the age of sixteen. A year later, the Chinese invasion took place, and this shows how since the beginning of his governance, the circumstances were unfavorable for Tibet, which was clearly in need of a strong leadership.
At this moment, one of the most important characteristics of Tibet was its isolation, which was primarily determined geographically, but increased by the fact that they allowed the fewest possible foreign people in their country, which they thought was the best way of ensuring peace.5 Therefore, with no international allies or support, and not enough military power to repel a foreign invasion, the Dalai Lama had no choice but to surrender to Mao Zedung’s power.
This invasion can be seen as the start of the decline in Tibetan Buddhism, since it was the moment when the Chinese started attempting to eliminate Tibetan religion and culture in order to enhance their control over Tibet.
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