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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Why is the Dalai Lama going to Tawang?

November 6, 2009

In a couple of days the Dalai Lama arrives in
Arunachal Pradesh for a week-long visit. Claude
Arpi looks at the different views on the Dalai Lama's trip to the state.
Claude Arpi
November 5, 2009

China's views

In a previous column, I explained why the Chinese
are so upset (or pretend to be upset) about the
Tibetan leader's visit to Arunachal and Tawang.
Beijing claims the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as theirs.

Though they offer various clumsy historical
justifications for it, Beijing's main reason
remains that it is not ready to accept that Tibet
was once an independent nation (and therefore the
McMahon Line has some validity).

Long ago, the great historian Dr R C Majumdar
rightly assessed the Chinese way of behaving:
'There is one aspect of Chinese culture that is
little known outside the circle of professional
historians. It is the aggressive imperialism that
characterised the politics of China throughout
the course of her history, at least during the
part of which is well known to us.'

'Thanks to the systematic recording of historical
facts by the Chinese themselves,' Dr Majumdar
said, 'an almost unique achievement in oriental
countries... we (historians) are in position to
follow the imperial and aggressive policy of
China from the third century BC to the present
day, a period of more than twenty-two hundred
years... It is characteristic of China that if a
region once acknowledged her nominal suzerainty
even for a short period, she should regard it as
a part of her empire for ever and would
automatically revive her claim over it even after
a thousand years whenever there was a chance of enforcing it.'

This mindset has not changed much in the Middle Kingdom.

The Dalai Lama's commitments

One of the consequences of this way of thinking
is that the present leadership in Beijing is
unable to grasp the motivations of the leader of
the Tibetans. This creates unnecessary misunderstandings.

For years now, the Dalai Lama has spoken about
his three commitments in life: To work for
humanity as a whole, to promote inter-religious
dialogue and to solve the Tibet issue.

A couple of years ago, he told me: "I carry the
name of the Dalai Lama. I have a responsibility
to act as the free spokesperson of the Tibetans
in their struggle for justice, but this is not my first commitment."

His first commitment remains towards humanity,
what he calls "the promotion of human values such
as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance,
contentment and self-discipline. All human beings
are the same. We all want happiness and do not
want suffering." He terms this 'secular ethics'.

His second commitment is as a religious
practitioner, as a Buddhist. He says: "Despite
philosophical differences, all major world
religions have the same potential to create good
human beings. It is therefore important for all
religious traditions to respect one another and
recognise the value of each other's respective
traditions. For the community at large, several
truths, several religions are necessary."

The leader of humanity

If all the religious teachers spoke thus, many of
the world problems would be solved.

When asked is there is a strict order in his
commitments, he immediately told me: "Yes, first,
as a fellow human being, the promotion of human
values is my first priority, this covers six
billion human beings. Second, I am a Buddhist,
and as a Buddhist I want to promote religious
harmony: it addresses perhaps half of these six
billion who are religious believers. The third
one is about Tibet. There are six millions Tibetans."

It sometimes irritates some of his young
countrymen, but his commitment to his native land
and his people comes only third.

Among other reasons, this makes the Dalai Lama a
special person, a leader of humanity, respected
worldwide (including by many in China).

The Dalai Lama adds: "Out of three commitments,
number one and two are mostly on volunteer basis.
Till my death I have committed myself to these
causes. Regarding the third one, in a way it is
not a voluntary commitment, it is due to past
history and to the institution of the Dalai Lama.
I am bound to this commitment and this
responsibility, because I am the Dalai Lama who
played a role in the past history of Tibet".

But that is not all.

Cultural Affinities

Though the Dalai Lama's trip to Tawang is not
directly connected to his third commitment, it
is, however, a fact that the entire Himalayan
belt has culturally been very close to Tibet.
Whether Ladakh, Sikkim, Lahoul, Spiti or Monyul
(Tawang region), the population of these areas
speak a Tibetan dialect; the religion practiced
is Tibetan Buddhism; the script used for their
religious scriptures is similar to Tibetan;
several monasteries in these areas were
religiously affiliated to some of the large
monasteries on the Roof of the World and finally
Tibetan Lamas have always taught the Buddha Dharma in these regions.

This does not mean that these areas were part of Tibet.

This cultural affinity is one of the reasons why
the Dalai Lama has accepted the invitation to visit Tawang.

Another fact often ignored is that the
impregnable Himalayas, the highest mountain range
in the world, have been a quite porous frontier.
It is only in the last 50 years, (in fact after
the 1962 war with China) that the flow of goods and people abruptly stopped.

One of the most tragic collaterals of China's
invasion of Tibet in 1950 is that not only border
trade, but even cultural and religious exchanges, came to an end.

His presence in Tawang is a reiteration that the
McMahon Line was (and is) the border

For centuries, caravans from Ladakh to Western
Tibet, from Kalimpong to Chumbi Valley on the
Tibetan side of Nathu-la in Sikkim, from Tawang
(Arunachal) to Southern Tibet or from Munsyari
(Uttarakhand) to the Kailas-Manasarovar region,
have visited, traded and had exchanges with the Land of Snows.

There was a border (the McMahon Line in the
North-East, at Demchog in Ladakh, Shipki-la in
Himachal or Lipulekh-la in Uttarakhand, for
example), but no human hindrance stopped traders,
pilgrims and even government officials to move from one side to the other.

When one looks at certain frescos in Western
Tibet (Tsaparang/Toling in Ngari district), one
is flabbergasted by the resemblance with Ajanta
and other Buddhist caves in India. Why? Simply
because for centuries, Indian artists travelled
freely from India to Tibet and vice-versa.

The history of the Himalayan belt is full of
stories recounting the arduous trips of men and
animals walking across treacherous passes and
frosty valleys. Nobody blocked their journey;
even though they belonged to different countries,
both sides shared a common culture.

Another example: when Buddhism nearly disappeared
from Tibet during the 9th/10th century AD, the
renaissance of the Dharma in the Land of Snows
originated from India's Buddhist regions of Ladakh and Spiti.

This is another reason why the Dalai Lama has
accepted the invitation to go to Tawang: like
Tibet, the eastern part of Arunachal belongs to
the Himalayan world. This has nothing to do with an official border.

Is the Dalai Lama's visit political?

Beijing is often under the impression the Tibetan
leader has a hidden agenda and wants to score
points. They probably see the Tawang visit as one such occasion.

 From the Indian side, it was specifically
mentioned by Foreign Minister S M Krishna: 'The
only restriction we have put on the Dalai Lama is
that he should not indulge in political activities.'

A couple of years back, the Dalai Lama told me
his motivation for travelling abroad. It
certainly applies to his Indian trips: "Whenever
I go abroad, whenever I visit a country, my
number one priority is to interact with the
public. This is my top most priority. Usually, I
have nothing to ask the politicians, I have no
specific request (Only when I visit Strasbourg or
Washington, I have sometimes a specific political agenda)."

The Dalai Lama's visit to Tawang clearly relates
to his two first commitments, to preach 'secular
ethics' and, as a Buddhist teacher, to educate
his local coreligionists about the importance of
adhering to traditional Buddhist values while
keeping an open mind about today's problems
(including global warming and environment).

Let us not forget that the Tawang monastery is
the largest Indian vihara. The Dalai Lama's
fourth visit to this area since his exile, is
therefore logical, there is no reason why the
Tibetan leader could not teach the Buddha Dharma in this part of India.

At the same time, it is clear that the last thing
the Dalai Lama would like to do is to embarrass
the Indian government. He knows perfectly well
how sensitive the situation between India and
China has been during the last few months; that
is why he will strictly adhere to his two first commitments.

The Dalai Lama rightly says: 'The Chinese
government politicises too much wherever I go.'
And one still wonders why Beijing did not raise a
hue and cry on the occasion of the Dalai Lama's three first visits.

His presence in Tawang is nevertheless a silent
reiteration that the McMahon Line was (and is)
the border between Tibet (in today's China) and India.
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