Monday, March 09, 2009

fifty years

tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the lhasa uprising, a day when tibetans' efforts to protect his holiness the dalai lama from perceived threats to his life by chinese communist army officials rapidly turned to bloodshed. the dalai lama had been summoned invitation to a 'theatrical performance' at the headquarters of the chinese army encamped outside lhasa, a performance to which his bodyguards and other escorts were specifically not invited. perceiving this as a thinly veiled attempt to imprison their beloved spiritual leaders. thousands of tibetans (by some accounts as many as 300,000) began camping around the grounds of his residence, offering their physical presence as a sort of human wall to encircle and protect him. chinese soldiers swiftly moved into position, with artillery placed in range of the dalai lama's residence. the bloodshed began soon thereafter. although he himself had escaped for the long and perilous trek into exile in india at night, 800 shells struck the dalai lama's residence. within a week, some 86,000 tibetans lost their life, and all tibetans had lost their country, their self-determination and their spiritual, moral and political leader.

this is why there was no new year this year. and it is why, after 50 years of occupation, some tibetans have taken drastic steps that move far beyond the main path of non-violent resistance, including an instance of self-immolation that has shocked all the tibetans i have heard speak of it (always in hushed tones). [technically, the attempt at self-immolation failed because chinese soldiers shot and killed him before the flames could end his life.]

it is also why this morning, at the temple of his holiness the dalai lama here in dharamsala, many many people gathered to pray for the long life of his holiness the dalai lama, and it is also why, at the same event, the oracle who is consulted on crucial moments on matters of import to the entire tibetan people was called out and entered trance in public. at a highly charged public event, his holiness the dalai lama held the oracle's medium by one arm while his holiness the karmapa held the other, as the oracle pronounced on the future of tibet at this critical juncture. the prognosis and advice indicated by the oracle were not made public.

but what was very much on public display was the intimate connection between these two leaders of tibetan buddhism, his holiness the dalai lama and his holiness the karmapa. to indicate the extra-ordinary trance state in which the oracle's medium has entered, a massively heavy hat is placed on his head. although while in trance he is able to bear the weight, once the trance ends, his head must be sustained lest his neck break. the sight of the two 'his holinesses' literally sharing the burden of the future of tibet serves as a vivid indication of the role that lies ahead for his holiness the karmapa.

equally clear is this video, in which his holiness the dalai lama tells his holiness the karmapa that he expects him to carry on his responsibilities once he is gone. hh karmapa's response makes it clear he has an idea just what that might mean.

a great deal could be said about the complexities involved in a spiritual leader's accepting a basically political role as leader of a people. but tibetans look to those they consider their moral authorities to set the course for them, and tibetan buddhist leaders consider it their responsibility to offer any guidance and assistance they can to those who ask.

in any case, it seems separation of church and state may be a luxury that those without a state can ill afford.

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