People in the Wilderness: a modern history of cultural dispersal

Picture a people, whose country was taken from them, whose people were expelled and spread out over the world as they wandered in a wilderness away from their true homeland; simply because another culture misunderstood and failed to see the value of what they were throwing away.

Picture a people, whose profound and powerful culture is accepted in some places and feared in others. A culture of many centuries with its strong family-base and inspirational guidance from religious experts; ancient, yet highly respected teachers and an incredibly extensive, historical scripture base.

Picture a people, whose original land is now being looted of its national treasures; whose natural resources are being mined by an avaricious nation and whose indigenous language has been all but eradicated from its own education system.

Picture a people, whose last remaining inhabitants are slowly and progressively being removed to concentration camps, who are tortured if they display their national flag or religious symbols. Its people are made to work for the bigger power and any attempts to practice their culture and religion are systematically suppressed. So much so that in protest, many of its religious apprentices have set fire to themselves in order to provoke world attention to their plight.

This culture, this people is not so far away from us. It has moved its government to Northern India together with its religious leadership and now struggles to gain support from those who could help it. Those international power houses with influence and money, who could address its cries for help before something massively worse occurs.

This could almost be a prelude to the history of the Jewish people when they were expelled from their own land by the Romans, but the culture I am writing about has faced these horrors much more recently. The country is the fabled land of Tibet.

Map of Tibet

Tibet is a land high up in the Himalayan mountains which seems so remote that we perhaps do not want to pay attention to it. It was an independent country the size of Western Europe until 1949 when it was invaded by Communist China and annexed. Somewhat like Poland by another imperial power back in Europe a few years before. Under considerable duress, Tibet’s leadership was forced to sign an ignoble handover agreement . At that time, while many of its religious centers and temples were being destroyed books burned and monks murdered, many inhabitants escaped into exile, including the Dalai Lama; its now world-famous religious leader.

In exile, its people spread across the world into countries that accepted them and allowed them to practice their religion in peace. They built new temples in the USA, Britain, Australia, Canada, France and many other European countries. They were allowed to live in India and some nearby countries. They have had to face pogrom-type attacks in some countries, notably in China but also in some Muslim countries, and, typically, probably because there is no oil involved, the Western countries have done nothing to challenge the aggressors.

The religion of Tibet is a form of Buddhism, known as Mahayana Buddhism, which means “The Greater Vehicle”. They follow the teachings of The Buddha, who is not a deity or an idol, but the main teacher of that tradition. In an abstract way, the concept of “Buddha” is also seen as a state of mind and spiritual development. An aspect of Buddhist philosophy is that anyone can reach the “Buddha mind”, hence the many different versions of the Buddhist statues and Tibetan symbolic deities that abound in their culture.

The Tibetan form of Buddhism follows four main schools; Geluk or the ‘Yellow hats’ and school of the Dalai Lamas; Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma. Each of these follow the teachings as presented by a particular ancient expert and master. And are characterized by particular approaches to reaching “Buddhahood”.

Buddhism is a monastic tradition, with separate schools for monks and nuns. Its teachings are presented in a university style by professorial-level masters, known as Lamas. They hold extensive and ancient libraries of religious teachings and studies on the application of these teachings to secular life. In ancient times, the Lamas oversaw most of Tibetan life, including laws, social order, health and education. The primary principle of Buddhism is peace and the emphasis on helping all sentient beings to better themselves. Herein lies one of the issues. Many were instinctively unable to defend themselves against the massive armies of China.

Now, despite the cries of this once great nation, nobody seems to want to listen. The West want to maintain financial links with China, so will not challenge them more than saying words like  “What about your human rights record”. Unlike cultures based on Jewish and Christian influences, China appears to hold no basic moral instinct; no respect for other human lives and cultures. Its own aims are primary.

According to Tibetan reports, Tibet is currently being transformed, following the launch of the Chinese Communist Party’s “Western Development Strategy” in 1999. This strategy includes major infrastructure and industrial projects, the cornerstone of which is the China-Tibet railway. This will clearly consolidate China’s control over the western frontier areas, including Tibet. The problem with this is that the vast majority of Tibetans are not benefiting from this rapid development and are becoming increasingly marginalized economically, as well as politically. China’s response is perhaps espoused in a statement by their Premier in February 2007 in an article in People’s Daily Newspaper :  “[China] must adhere to the party’s basic guidelines of the primary stage of socialism for 100 years.”(Source: International Tibet Network).  Do they really have to achieve this by destroying other cultures and torturing and killing those who disagree with their ideals?

One is reminded of fabled, psychologically aberrant, jilted lovers who attempt to buy their loved ones with glittering objects and when they do not respond, say “Do I not make you happy?”. Then when the other party does not agree, they harm them in some way. China, under its Communist regime seems to be an abuser in a forced marriage.

Another vast, imperial culture; the Romans, while having a goal of Empire-expansion worked in a different way in many of their conquered lands. Usually they did not try to change or destroy the culture at all. They simply demanded allegiance and offered protection in return for taxes and membership of their army, and yes they were often extremely brutal if their agreements were not adhered to. This could be seen as a kind of gangster protection racket, but it did allow many cultures to continue and to be preserved, at least up until the arrival of its brand of Imperial Christianity. Even then, however, there was a bed of morals somewhere underlying the ideal; ironically originating from its Judiac background.

It is fortunate that much of Tibetan culture remains alive around the world in its diaspora; in the homes of Tibetans and through newly established schools and Buddhist temples. Much also has been destroyed. China, with its own interpretation of communism, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater in its own land; as imperial powers often do. There is an old saying, and I cannot remember the source, but it says: “Small minds cannot comprehend big spirits. To be great you have to be willing to be mocked, hated and misunderstood. Stay strong”.  I say this to Tibet. Many people are with them in their struggle. Some cultures can say they have been through the same. I hope that one day in the not too distant future, like Israel, the Tibetans will regain their country.

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About the Author
A British freelance writer and radio presenter/producer, John has written for the Jerusalem Post and various on-line publications. In the past he has written mainly on health-related subjects. After spending a significant time in Israel and visiting Palestine, and with many close friends in the area, he has a real wish to clarify some of the misunderstandings about the difficulties in the region.