The Dalai Lama and Tibetan Religious Freedom

On this day, February 27, in 2009, Tapey, a Tibetan monk, committed self-immolation in Tibet and since then 127 Tibetans have self-immolated in different parts of Tibet and China, with the common message of yearning for the return of their revered leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and for freedom, including religious freedom, in Tibet.

Today, the United States released its annual report on the state of human rights for 2013 all over the world; on Tibet they found that the Chinese Government “engaged in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage by, among other means, strictly curtailing the civil rights of China’s ethnic Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement.”

The above convey the gravity of the current situation of the Tibetan people in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been leaving no stone unturned in his endeavor not only to look after the present and the future spiritual and social welfare of the Tibetan people, but also to make Buddhism relevant to the 21st century.

During the visit of His Holiness to Washington, D.C. and California in February 2014 (as I write this he is on his way to Minnesota to continue his effort), while there was widespread positive response from the American public, there were also some people in California who organized protests under the banner of “International Shugden Community”.

Since the United States is a democracy, the demonstrators may have the right to protest, even if we do not agree with them. But then, have these people really taken a look at the issue that they are raising and the context they have placed it in to see how they fit with the reality of the situation?

Without providing the full picture to the American people, they are resorting to sound bites to falsify matters, all in an attempt to embarrass His Holiness the Dalai Lama and undermine his work. Otherwise, it is beyond logic to see them accusing the Dalai Lama, of all people, of lying.  It is also ironical that even as these people project their action as an appeal that “only the Dalai Lama himself has the power to solve this problem” at the same time they call him a “false Dalai Lama.”

What is the issue and why did the Dalai Lama advice against this practice? While the Dalai Lama has spoken on the issue several times, the most recent detailed one was on December 28, 2013 at Sera Monastery in South India. I just watched it again before writing this.

The Dalai Lama believes such practices are deviating from the essential teachings of the Buddha. Therefore, his effort on this is part of his broader initiative to reform Tibetan Buddhism; to make Tibetan Buddhists base their faith on reason rather than being blind followers of ritualistic aspects of the religion.

In a speech in India in November 2009, His Holiness made this call to the Buddhists: “Let us be Buddhists of the 21st century, acting as harbingers of positive change.”

He says after much observation and examining the issue (as he himself used to do the practice) he has come to conclude that continuing this practice did not contribute to harmony among the different Tibetan Buddhist traditions and also did not enable ecumenical and all-inclusive study.

On account of the Dalai Lama’s very vocal and strong position on the issue, fundamentalists among those who follow the practice have not only made threatening gestures, but have even been accused by the Indian judicial authorities of murdering a very respected Tibetan teacher and his two students just close to the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala in 1997.

Interpol has in fact issued Red Notices “To seek the location and arrest of wanted persons with a view to extradition or similar lawful action” against two individuals who are followers of the practice in connection with the murders in Dharamsala. According to the notices, which are still there on Interpol’s website,  the charges against them are “Trespass with intent to assault and cause harm; murder; criminal conspiracy.”

Therefore, given such developments, it is logical for even His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the vast majority of his followers, both Tibetans and non-Tibetans, who revere and respect him, to be concerned about his personal security.  In his speech in Sera, His Holiness refers to Indian and American governmental agencies charged with his security having done threat assessments because of these people.

Of course, the Chinese governmental agencies have lost no opportunity in exploiting the situation to collude with the fundamentalists. For example, the people wanted by Interpol are believed to be hiding in Tibet with the knowledge of the Chinese authorities. Also Chinese Embassy officials in different countries have been reaching out to this group and some of their leaders have willingly let themselves be used for Chinese propaganda purposes, including being photographed with them.

The State Department’s human rights report on Tibet said that the Chinese “government routinely vilified the Dalai Lama…” Therefore, whether they want to accept it or not, by their own willful vilification of the Dalai Lama, who is the symbol of Tibet, and trying to discredit him, the fundamentalists are serving the interest of the Chinese Government and harming the Tibetan struggle.

In essence, His Holiness feels it is his bounden duty as the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists to provide advice to those who are ignorant of the reality of the issue. At the same time, he has made it clear that if people knowingly want to continue the practice, it is their freedom.  Under such a situation, it is people who have to decide whether to abide by his advice and be a part of his congregation or go on their own way.

If religious freedom of the Tibetan people is of real concern to these people, today’s State Department Human Rights Report can let them know who really to target. The report’s Tibet section expands on China’s treatment of the Tibetan people saying, “Other serious human rights abuses included extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial detentions, and house arrests.” It is the Chinese Government and their policies that are responsible for the near extinction of the sacred Tibetan religious heritage. What sort of voice have these demonstrators raised against the Chinese policies in Tibet? How many of these people have done the simple action of protesting outside the Chinese embassies and consulates about the situation in Tibet, not to speak of making substantive contribution for the wellbeing of the Tibetan people? So, who is involving in falsehood and who is really doing something to benefit the Tibetans and humanity at large? The Tibetan people know; the world knows.

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