Last Sunday I was in New York City for the TYC Independence Torch Rally. I am not going to go into details about it as Phayul has already come out with a full report on the event. But it would be absolutely remiss of me if I did not mention the impressive efficiency and creativity with which the program was organized and also the dedication and enthusiasm of the Tibetan citizens of New York and New Jersey who had had turned out for the event in inspiringly large numbers. What made me shake my head with wonder was that these people had been maintaining a continuous protest, every single day since March 10th before the Chinese consulate or the office of the PRC’s UN representative.
I was asked to address the rally at Bryant Park where the New York leg of the independence torch run was concluded. I started my talk with an observation that had crossed my mind earlier, of how since antiquity diverse cultures had used the imagery of the burning flame to represent freedom, and sometimes sacredness. Therefore it was, in a sense, fitting that the Youth Congress should have chosen this symbol to represent and promote our common goal of Tibetan independence.
Tibetans have, in the past, made a similar figurative reference when speaking of another period of Tibetan history that was in some ways as tragic (and heroic) as our own. In the 9th century, just before the breakup of the Tibetan Empire, the Buddhist church was forcefully suppressed by the last Emperor Langdarma, and Buddhism went into a near terminal decline in the following decades. In these bleak years a handful of dedicated scholars and teachers, Rinchen Sangpo, Lekpe Sherap, Drom Tonpa, and the great Indian pandit, Atisa, labored tirelessly to bring about the second or “later transmission” (tempa chidhar) of Buddhism to Tibet.* The royal patron of these scholars, the king of Ngari, Lha Lama Yeshe Od, even gave up his own life to aid in this historic revival of Buddhist learning and culture in Tibet. Yeshe Od had been captured by a neighbouring Muslim king who wanted gold for ransom. Yeshe Od instructed his son to use the gold to bring the dharma to Tibet. He then appears to have gone on a hunger-strike to death. Perhaps the first ever recorded in human history.
Tibetan historians use the expression “nurturing the embers of the dharma” (tempae mero solwa) to describe the lonely but heroic struggle of these few dedicated people to keeping the Buddhist faith alive in Tibet.
In an interview with the Dharamshala newspaper, Tibetan Messenger (bhod kyi bhangchen) last year, I spoke about my self-appointed mission of trying to keep the Rangzen ideal alive in the exile Tibetan community, and of discussing it and defending it, wherever I could, in various forums around the world. In a moment of romantic fancy I somewhat immodestly described my work as “nurturing the embers of Rangzen” (rangzen kyi mero solwa).
The momentous events of March this year demonstrated that I could not have been more mistaken in seeing my task in such a self-absorbed way. People inside Tibet had, in unimaginably lonely and secretive ways, faithfully nurtured the embers of Rangzen for all these many years. In spite of decades of propaganda, political re-education, surveillance by informers, spies, and agents, and (once in a while) brutal interrogation by trained and experienced torturers, they had managed to hide and protect this faith in the deepest recesses of their hearts.
These embers have in a real sense now burst into flame. There can be no doubt about that. The aspirations of the Tibetan people for Rangzen, demonstrated since March 10th this year, were made known openly and courageously in the full knowledge that everyone involved would be subject to the most cruel punishment by the Chinese occupation authorities. All the slogans that were raised by protesters in Lhasa, in Amdo and Kham, everywhere, was for Rangzen, for Tibetan independence, and additionally for the long life and return of the Dalai Lama – the living symbol of Tibetan freedom.
All over Tibet protesters could be seen waving the forbidden national flag of Tibet in the face of the People’s Armed Police and agents of the the Public Security Bureau (gonganju) the State Security Department (guojia anquanbu). A crime for which you could be shot on sight, or executed if arrested. People were not just carrying and waving a flag or two but flags by the dozen, perhaps even a hundred or so in the case of one monastery in Amdo. Now we learn that these flags might have been mass-produced in a factory in Guangdong. The overwhelming presence of these flags inside Tibet and in all the demonstrations and protests world-over, have undoubtedly made the Tibetan national flag one of the best recognized national flags in the world, especially to the citizens of China. And it’s so strikingly unique and unmistakable. Too many national flags look alike. In recent anti-French demonstration in Hebei, Chinese protesters were seen burning Dutch flags by mistake.
Everywhere in the world, journalists, politicians, academics and others were obliged to acknowledge, to some degree or the other, that Tibetan protesters were demanding an independent homeland, and (even if one chose to see that as an unattainable fantasy) that the issue of Tibetan independence was real and that people were dying for it.
Why is it then that certain self-styled experts on Tibet have been spinning the Rangzen Revolution of March 2008 as being about the economy, globalization, immigration, culture, religion, everything except independence? Expect a discussion on this in my next posting.
* The first period of Buddhism coming to Tibet from the 7th century onward is refered to as the “earlier” transmission (tempa ngadar).