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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Tibet: A threatened culture

August 8, 2008

BY Gary Higgins
Gatehouse News Service
August 5, 2008

Peering past the endless expanse of ice-capped Himalayan peaks, a
glimpse of the vast and rugged Tibetan Plateau is visible in the
distance. Tibet is called the roof of the world, and the reason is obvious.

It was October of last year, before the most recent troubles, and my
fiancée and I were landing in Lhasa, Tibet's ancient capital and most
sacred city, after a week in China. Most Chinese we spoke with were
either unaware or unwilling to discuss conflicts affecting the Tibetan region.

Cranes and construction sites dwarf ancient buildings throughout
Lhasa. Modern offices and apartments, factories, greenhouses and
military compounds sprawl far beyond the ancient Tibetan Buddhist
center. Except for the towering Potala Palace, the former home of the
Dalai Lama, and a small Tibetan quarter around Barkhor Square, the
bustle of downtown Lhasa resembles many other modern Chinese cities.

As the influx of Han Chinese into Tibet continues, culture clash and
conflict, particularly in Lhasa, are on the rise. In March
demonstrations at monasteries and in Barkhor Square turned deadly and
sparked worldwide protests that continue on the verge of the 2008
Olympic games that open Friday in Beijing.

To many Tibetans, it appears their history and way of life is eroding
and being replaced by a modern Chinese state. Strict government rules
and religious restrictions have contributed to the animosity and
tension. Chinese flags must fly over Tibetan homes; Tibetan flags are outlawed.

All mass communication is controlled by the Chinese government. Of
the dozens of television and radio stations available in Lhasa, only
one is broadcast in Tibetan, and all content is dictated by the government.

Nearly all Tibetans are practicing Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhists
believe the Dalai Lama is the current incarnation of a long line of
Buddhist masters who have become so enlightened they are exempt from
the cycle of life and rebirth. Carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama
is now a crime in Tibet. The question of the successor to the current
Dalai Lama is of grave concern, with the Chinese government demanding
the selection meet their approval.

Tibet is a vast and arid plateau surrounded by rugged mountain peaks.
Ice melt feeds rapid rivers. Sacred and brilliant aquamarine lakes
are visible from dramatic switchbacks on mountain roads. The thin air
is dizzying at 12,000 feet in Lhasa. We were cautioned not to exert
ourselves until we became acclimated to the altitude.

Weathered and weary faces dot the landscape. These are pilgrims. They
walk only a few steps, then prostrate themselves. All four limbs and
forehead must touch the ground. This is repeated thousands of times
as the devout make their journey through the sacred circuit of holy
sites. It is said that one million prostrations in a lifetime will
purify the soul.

In the heart of Barkhor Square in Lahsa, sun- and wind-burned faces
contrast with vibrant colors of traditional clothing, turquoise and
bright red sea coral jewelry. Acrid smoke pours from giant incense
burners near the 7th-century Jokhang Temple, considered to be one of
the most sacred temples in Tibetan Buddhism.

Faces are a captivating mix of old and young. Their features resemble
those of many American Indians with high cheekbones, dark eyes and
hair, and golden reddish skin. Many women wear finely woven braids
with coral, turquoise and gold jewelry adorning hair and hands.

Thousands of pilgrims converge near the temple for prayer and
prostrations. They walk circles around the temple, always in sets of
three, always in a clockwise direction, many carrying prayer wheels.

As the midday crowd grows, a police vehicle blasts music over a
loudspeaker and disrupts the procession by traveling the opposite
direction through the crowd. Unfazed, the pilgrims spread, allow the
vehicle to pass and continue their rituals.

Three hours north of Lhasa is a region traditionally populated by
nomadic people. They had recently settled into a small, newly
constructed outpost town. Livestock and people mill about as curious
children ask for money in English. It was suggested that the nomads
were recently forced into settlements by the Chinese government as a
way to count them and control their movement.

A final side trip involving harrowing hairpin turns and a treacherous
mountain pass brought us within sight of the brilliant deep blue
waters of Lake Yamdrok, one of Tibet's most sacred lakes. Forty-five
miles long, it is the region's largest source of fresh water and has
great spiritual significance as the "life power" of the Tibetan people.

The Chinese government completed Tibet's largest hydropower plant on
Lake Yamdrok in 1996. Environmentalists believe a drop in water level
will lead to greater environmental concerns. Tibetans say that if the
lake was to dry up, it would lead to the death of all Tibetan people.

We stopped to visit an elderly farmer who offered us yak butter tea,
a salty, milky and slightly greasy hot beverage frequently consumed
by Tibetans. He showed us inside his home, which included a
modest-sized Buddhist shrine.

His remote village, hours from Lhasa, was seemingly insulated from
the troubles of the urban center. He recalled how as a teenager the
Dalai Lama had passed along the primitive mountain route in front of
his home as he crossed the Himalayas into exile to India.

As the farmer peered out at the same road, now paved and carrying
busloads of people through his village, he lamented the changes since
he was a boy.
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