It’s been 52 years since China conquered what was once recognized as Tibet. Since then, thousands of Tibetans have fled to all corners of the world, no place more so than Dharamsala, north India—the residence of the Dalai Lama. However, while Dharamsala has become a veritable “New Lhasa” for all Tibetan refugees, Chinese authorities have rewritten the laws by which the next Dalai Lama will be chosen. Beijing has also ordered that the 15th Dalai Lama must be born in China and  recognized by the Chinese government.

This March, the Dalai Lama announced that he will give up his role as the political and spiritual leader of Tibetans. His Holiness (as the Dalai Lama is known by followers) has wanted to give up those responsibilities since he first sought refuge in India but was afraid that, by doing so, he might inspire violent resistance to the Chinese occupation in his home country. Since the announcement of his retirement, the Indian government has proclaimed that his Holiness may stay forever in the country—though that might be a foregone conclusion at this point.

The Dalai Lama’s primary political responsibility over the last five decades has been to provide hope to millions of Tibetans that they may one day regain the right to political self-determination. Irrespective of the formality of his leadership position, the significance of the Dalai Lama’s role in Tibet and for Tibetans and the world is clear. I had the opportunity to spend a summer in the Dalai Lama’s monastery, and I observed firsthand the power of the Dalai Lama’s conviction and example. I offer the following with gratitude to his Holiness and hope for the people of Tibet as they negotiate this leadership transition.

An Experience699e4895c51e77ccfdede211da0b5345-6

In the summer before my senior year of college, my life and worldview experienced a profound change. My girlfriend of four years decided “to pursue other interests,” I lost near 20 pounds (you’ll understand why in a minute), and I was selected as a participant in a Gurukul Programme. Though the first two experiences had considerable effect on my life, the third changed my entire outlook.

The Gurukul Programme, sponsored by the Dalai Lama’s Foundation for Universal Responsibility, is a month-long residency in the city of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, India. Dharamsala is a town of exiled Tibetan expatriates, many of whom have worked their entire lives to create the possibility of setting foot in their home country again. It is also the 50-year home of their spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the true capital city for Tibetans today—a place where Tibetan culture is allowed to develop.

Throughout the summer, my fellow participants and I had the opportunity to interact with monks and nuns, receive lectures on Buddhist philosophy from eminent Tibetan Buddhist lamas, learn how to make traditional Tibetan arts and craft, and engage in various projects with Tibetan NGOs. While living in McLeod Ganj, the mountain village above Dharamsala where his Holiness resides, I experienced the life of ethnic-Tibetans in India and grasped the enormity of the political challenges they face.

When I first arrived in Dharamsala, I encountered a sixteen-year-old monk named Tenzin Lekmun. He was meditating on a bench while listening to his iPod. Oh yes, monks have iPods. Some monks had televisions; others had laptop computers. Of course, there is no Wi-Fi (or ethernet) in the Namgyal monastery, so I’m pretty sure the monks are not playing video games.

After talking with Lekmun for a while, I was shocked to learn that he had joined the monastery at age five, and even more shocked to discover that his parents were not the impetus behind his decision. While Lekmun is undoubtedly a “boy” in some respects (he enjoys playing soccer, hates doing temple chores, and hangs out at shopping malls), he has an elderly wisdom: a strong grasp of how to be happy in life. Like all the other monks at Namgyal, he is perpetually content. He never raises his voice, and is the embodiment of calm. He lives in the moment—with no regrets about his life choices.

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Apart from morning Buddhism lessons at the Namgyal monastery (the permanent residence of His Holiness), I spent my summer doing volunteer work for the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile and the Supreme Justice Commission, which is recognized as the legal institution of highest authority for Tibetans. Though I had never previously worked on the issue of justice for Tibet, I was still able to contribute to the works of these institutions. With the technological savvy of my generation and English-language skills, I was able to restructure the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile website and edit the annual English informational pamphlet on the Supreme Justice Commission. For my efforts, I was warmly embraced as a though I had always been a part of the Tibetan struggle for sovereignty.

Indeed, each program participant was treated like an honored guest throughout the entirety of our stay in Dharamsala. This is ultimately because the cause for a free or autonomous Tibet has received little attention relative to any other social justice issue in my lifetime. Despite the work of celebrities like Richard Gere to bring Tibet into political discourse, support for and knowledge about the Tibetan cause seems to have only waned in the past few years. With that in mind, I feel proud to write about my experience in Dharamsala and bring attention to the plight of India’s eternal guests.

An Education

The summer in Dharamsala was the toughest living experience of my life. Waking up to the sound of a gong at 5 a.m. every morning is much less peaceful than your average alarm clock. I began to forget what I looked like after two weeks without so much as a mirror and, when our monastery ran out of water, I quickly had to get over the (apparently abnormal) desire to bathe daily. After eating the unsalted, un-spiced temple food for a few weeks, dal chawal started to seem like a delicacy. As one who has often complained about Indian food at home, this was quite a breakthrough. I was also unfortunate to contract mild dysentery (“Delhi Belly”) in a monastery with no western toilet. Now you understand why I lost all those pounds.

But living in Dharamsala was also a profoundly eye-opening and educational experience. I learned that, above all else, the truth surrounding the Chinese occupation and subjugation of Tibet is severely downplayed and understated in the U.S. education system and the world at large. Hearing stories of refugees who fled gunfire from Chinese border patrols as they escaped into Nepal and working with the Tibetan government-in-exile taught me just how little I knew about the life of Tibetans who still live in Tibet.

For example, although the Chinese claim there is religious freedom in Tibet, in reality there are very stringent limitations on the practice and promotion of religion. Monks and nuns are required to obtain two or three different permits to travel anywhere outside the monastery. A fixed ceiling has been placed on the number of monks and nuns allowed at each monastery, and while strict bans are enforced on the construction of new stupas, old ones are constantly being demolished. Furthermore, it is considered a crime to make offerings to monasteries, and spiritual teachers are often persecuted under the charge of being counter-revolutionaries. In this way, Tibetan Buddhism and all spiritual practices of Tibetans have been curtailed in China-occupied Tibet.

Tibet’s ancient forests and immense precious mineral deposits are being exploited to meet the needs of China. China even offers the Tibetan plateau for the disposal of radioactive and technological waste from other countries. Tibetan families are harassed and penalized for sending their children to Tibetan schools in India, and Tibetan children in China are left without any knowledge of their original language or culture. In late October of this year, the New York Times reported that thousands of Tibetan students in Western China had protested peacefully against proposals to curb or entirely eliminate the use of the Tibetan language in local schools. Their argument is that if ethnic Han who are Cantonese speakers can defend the use of Cantonese in schools, then Tibetans should have the right to defend their language as well.

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The way of life for many Tibetans has changed considerably over the past two decades. Farmers and nomads have been rounded up and forced into cramped reservation housing. The freedom to live where one desires has been curtailed. Despite the overwhelmingly small Tibetan population (relative to ethnic Chinese in the territory), birth control measures are strongly enforced on Tibetan families. Families with more than one child are penalized; they are fined and the additional child is denied a residential permit. Peaceful demonstrators demanding the rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution (religious freedom, nationality equality, educational opportunities) are often accused of fomenting separatist sentiment and jailed or beaten. What is happening in Tibet is cultural genocide.

It has come to the point where the Dalai Lama’s message of nonviolence is falling on deaf ears—those of Chinese government and exiled Tibetans. While in McLeod Ganj, I met Lhasang Tsering, a Tibetan freedom fighter and an outspoken critic of the Dalai Lama’s methods. His beliefs echo the sentiments of the rioters who caused much destruction in the 2008 Lhasa demonstrations. Tsering was recently quoted in the New Yorker: “It’s time for His Holiness to recognize the reality that China … is [stalling] for time. To invoke patience and virtue in the face of genocidal and colonial rule is akin to national suicide.” There are a growing number of Tibetans who feel as Tsering does—that any action is preferable to waiting patiently. After all, they have already waited a half century for the world to come to its senses.

Even if the cultural and natural devastation of Tibet does not command our attention, there are many more reasons why the world (and we Indians especially) ought to reconsider our inaction on the issue of Tibetan freedom. The Tibetan Plateau, now under Chinese occupation, is the largest storehouse of freshwater on Earth—excluding the North and South Poles. It serves as the head waters for almost all of Asia’s largest rivers: the Sutlej, Indus, Ganges, Yellow, Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Mekong, to name a few.

Besieged by water scarcity problems and a dangerously large population, Chinese authorities have long had their eyes on Tibet’s water resources. However, while trying to quench its thirst, China could potentially create widespread water shortages among all its neighbors in the process. Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are all hostage to China’s water demands.

Recent studies have documented a host of serious environmental challenges to the quantity and quality of Tibet’s freshwater reserves—most of them caused by China’s industrial activities in the region. Deforestation has led to large-scale erosion and siltation. Mining, manufacturing, and other human activities are producing record levels of air and water pollution in Tibet. Together these factors have contributed to the region’s warming climate and quickly-receding glaciers. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, has stated that “at least 500 million people in Asia and 250 million people in China are at risk from declining glacial flows on the Tibetan Plateau.”

Though India’s gracious hospitality in housing 150,000 exiled Tibetans for over five decades cannot be overlooked or understated, we must remember that housing Tibetans refugees was meant to be a temporary solution to the problem of Tibet’s occupation. Without the Chinese invasion, Tibet would today be serving as a buffer between China and India, which would be supremely beneficial for long-term peace and stability on the Asian continent. Today, India is obliged to spend huge sums of money on border security.

An Epiphany

At the end of my time in Dharamsala, my fellow Gurukul participants and I were given an audience with the Dalai Lama. As we sat and listened to him speak in rapid but croaky English, I felt as though I was observing history. And in the brief hour that I was able to hear His Holiness speak, I observed how genuinely awe-inspiring the man is. Despite having spent over 50 years in exile, despite the endless human rights violations in Tibet, and despite the pressures of being the spiritual and de facto leader of all Tibetans, the Dalai Lama is always smiling, laughing, and optimistic about the future.

Children are taught of Mahatma Gandhi’s steadfast dedication to the practice of ahimsa (nonviolence), but few realize that the Dalai Lama is a living example of those principles. Although he recognizes that Tibetans and Tibetans-in-exile have had to endure unbearable oppression and hardship, he still sees no point in harboring animosity against the perpetrators. His case for Tibetan autonomy is based entirely on principles of justice and equality. Unlike activists who advocate Tibetan sovereignty and complete Independence from China, the Dalai Lama has always advocated a “Middle Way” solution which, while helping to prevent the separation of Tibet from China, seeks human rights and democratic freedom for Tibetans—freedom not only to preserve and promote religion and culture, but also to work for the development of Tibetan education, health, and economy.

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Hearing the Dalai Lama’s thoughts and ideas was an affirmation of everything I learned in my 5 a.m. Buddhism lessons. All of his convictions and the actions that he takes are justified by Buddhist principles, which may be understood in part through the Golden Rule. The question of God’s existence is irrelevant to reality. No one is immortal and everyone wants, and should have the right, to achieve happiness. We are all sensitive to the pain and happiness of our fellow beings. While material wealth is clearly insufficient in the pursuit of happiness, if we cultivate contentment and kindness, we will feel empathy for all sentient beings in recognition of our mutual wish to rid the world of suffering. This ideology compels us to help others and lead a life of altruism, honesty, and kindness in preparation for the eventuality of death.

One thing the Dalai Lama said to us resonated with me very strongly: “If we, who have to share this planet from birth to death, lose mutual respect, love, friendship, and empathy for one another, the human existence will become meaningless.” Compassion and contentment are the essence of Buddhist teaching, and they teach us that it is always in everyone’s interest to promote values of justice and equality. In order to maintain mutual respect and empathy we must be open to learning about others and hearing each other’s stories. Now, more than ever, I am committed to sharing this story and continuing to listen to the untold stories of others.

Ananth Tharoor Srinivasan is a recent graduate of Duke University.

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