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By Lucky Severson
c. 2008 Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly

(UNDATED) All eyes are on China as it plays host to the 2008 Olympic games, and for the moment, earlier unrest over China’s treatment of Tibet has largely moved off center stage — much to Beijing’s relief.
Yet the decades-long tussle over Tibet continues to color the games, and some wonder what will happen after the Olympic torch is extinguished and the world goes home. Will the games have done anything to soften China’s approach to Tibet?
The run-up to the games made many nervous.
In March, Chinese officials used force and armed troops to put down demonstrations by Buddhist monks inside Tibet and China. Monks and nuns were arrested and dozens were killed.
In response, Tibetan Buddhists and their Western supporters chased the torch along its winding route to Beijing. Chinese authorities dismissed the protesters as “Tibetan hooligans” and placed the blame squarely on the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of some 6 million Tibetan Buddhists.
But Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar at Columbia University, said the Chinese have it all wrong.
“The Chinese are desperate now to try to claim that the Dalai Lama caused all this upset, which of course he totally did not,” Thurman told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. “He was totally upset.”
For many, the sight of rowdy, aggressive demonstrators ran against a conventional notion of Buddhism as nonviolent, even passive. Yet Lhadon Tethong, a leader of Supporters for a Free Tibet, said “there has to be tension.”
“There has to be crisis,” said Tethong, who joined demonstrations when the torch touched down briefly in San Francisco. “They (Chinese
officials) have to feel the occupation is a problem for them whether they agree with us or not.”
The demonstrations — including small-scale protests during the Olympics that were quickly shut down — raised an important question about Buddhism: how can a religious philosophy that is built around peace and compassion continue to hold the moral high ground when the protests increasingly result in violence?
Thurman said the Tibetan devotion to nonviolence goes to the core of their faith. The path to enlightenment takes place over many, many lifetimes, many reincarnations, and to commit violence threatens that path.
“My life is my own evolutionary moment to progress, and I’m not going to do violence,” Thurman said. “So, therefore, to cherish your own life, you don’t want to risk it for some sort of worldly aim. You want to develop your soul because that’s what your life is for.”
But he said those who think the protesters violated the principle of nonviolence don’t understand the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy of self-defense.
“Buddhist ethics is intense about nonviolence, but it’s also pragmatic,” he said. “There is one sutra where it is stated if you are invaded by an enemy and you can successfully defend yourself and repel the enemy, and the enemy while occupying you will cause violence, then you should defend yourself.”
Chinese history professor Tu Weiming of Harvard believes at least part of the problem stems from a lack of understanding by the Chinese leadership of Tibetan Buddhism and the role of the Dalai Lama.
“The Chinese government is not at all informed about the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader,” he said “They always perceive him as a political leader interesting in mobilizing anti-Chinese forces outside of China.
My sense is that it’s a misperception that needs to be corrected.”
For their part, Chinese leaders — and many Chinese — insist that Tibet has always been a part of China, and dispute the claim that Tibet didn’t become a part of China until it was forcefully occupied in 1951.
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959.
Weiming said the Chinese believe that over the last few decades the government has contributed significantly to Tibetan economic growth.
At the same time, he said, “Tibetans feel they are humiliated, they are ignored, they are marginalized because people don’t understand why they are so devoted to religion, to the Dalai Lama.”
For his part, the Dalai Lama has always preached nonviolence and never demanded independence from China, but has called Chinese policies in Tibet “cultural genocide.”
In a recent U.S. visit, the Dalai Lama repeated his insistence that he is not seeking independence. “Our approach is not separation, (but) within the People’s Republic of China for full guarantees about our unique culture and heritage, including our language.”
But some young Tibetans are losing patience with the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way,” and the Dalai Lama himself seems to be feeling the pressure, warning during the demonstrations in Tibet that “if things become out of control, then my only option is to resign.”
Others fear the Chinese are unwilling to make any compromises.
“I was deeply worried when I was in China that not just the government officials, but some intellectuals believe that if the Dalai Lama fades from the scene the problem will be resolved,” Weiming said, adding: “If the Dalai Lama fades from the scene, the situation will be uncontrollable. I think the Chinese government should be critically aware of this.”

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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