I would like to analyze the tremendous impact that Tibet has had on the western world for my final project. Tibet has long held the attention of the developed world, largely due to the cultural influence that the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, exerts. Many find the struggle of Tibetan independence endearing, inspiring a sense of indignation among those who cling onto an already romanticized conception of Tibet. People consider Tibet to be the last civilization uncorrupted by superficial western values, a remnant of an age long since passed, a sanctuary for mysticism and idealism; all of these perceived qualities inspire people. Tibet has evolved from being a politically unrecognized country into symbol of resistance to oppression and the progression of, by Tibetan standards, nihilistic modernism.
History of American Relations with Tibet
The United State’s association with Tibet began to garner popular as well as congressional attention in the 1980s, when reports of human rights violations supposedly carried out by the Chinese against the Tibetans began to cause concern. Eventually, the Dalai Lama as well as the rest of the exiled government of Tibet attained international attention in 1986 after establishing a series of meetings with western supporters in New York, Washington, and London; this was later referred to as Tibet’s “international campaign”. In 1987, the Dalai Lama made his first political speech in the United States, presenting a five-point proposal aimed at resolving Tibet’s problems and urging the US to encourage talks between China and Tibet. His presence as well as his speech was well-received in congress, and proved to have influenced them enough for them to officially list Tibet as a country separate from China in reports and formally designate the Dalai Lama and his exiled government to be the “true” representatives of Tibet. Acts similar to these continued, much to the frustration of China, and the Dalai Lama was eventually presented with a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his accomplishments and international status. The west has only continued to gain fascination support for Tibet since then.
Popular Culture and Tibet
Because of the world’s general interest with and sympathy for the condition of Tibet, pro-Tibetan sentiments have been introduced into western pop culture. Influencing music, science and education, Tibet has had a profound influence upon western culture, and is frequently a subject of political and artistic thought. Consider the Tibetan Freedom Concert that started in 1996; the concerts performed throughout the world were done so with the intention of spreading awareness for the unfortunate circumstance of Tibet. All bands that performed in said concerts were there to attract attention to what they thought was a problem. The funds collected from the concert were used for Tibetan and social justice priorities. Popular bands such as Radiohead and Red Hot Chili Peppers performed in these concerts, attracting a large and diverse crowd to the concerns of the concert. Rock musician Graham Nash wrote a song titled “Burning For the Buddha” that concerned the self-immolation of monks in protest of China’s occupation. The Dalai Lama has made numerous speeches at various universities concerning science, religion and philosophy. A New York Times article, titled “A Bridge Between Western Science and Eastern Faith”, addressed Tibetan Buddhist monks working with students at Emory University to develop a codependent understanding of the “external” and “internal” worlds that characterize existence. The article went on to distinguish the difference between western and eastern thought, noting how the students at Emory had to consider traditional Buddhist inquiries, such as the origin of consciousness. The west is simply infatuated with the ideas that have originated in Tibetan thought. Tibetan Buddhism, however, has had far more of an impact on western thought and culture than their oppression has.
Radiohead on their participation in the Tibetan Freedom Concert.
Tibetan Buddhism and the West
While Tibet has had considerable influence over many aspects of western politics and culture, there is one influence that is more deeply effective on the individual than anything else: religion. Tibetan culture is dominated by its rendition of Buddhism. Before the massacres committed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, Buddhist monks and lamas made up one sixth of the population. Because Tibetan culture is inherently religious, it’s practices have been adopted by a considerable number of people that support the cause of Tibetan independence. This form of Buddhism has spread through interest as well as through the efforts of displaced Tibetan monks that have come to the United States. Besides the advocacy of the Dalai Lama, one prominent adherent of Tibetan Buddhism is a woman named Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. The daughter of the exiled 11th Kyabjé Mindrolling Trichen, the head of an ancient school of Tibetan Buddhism, Khandro Rinpoche is one of the few fully trained female incarnations in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This makes her an excellent candidate for spreading Tibetan Buddhism, as she is appealing to woman who seek to join an order that is led almost entirely by men. She possesses her father’s monastery, two nunneries in India, and her own headquarters in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia. Because of the presence that she has in the Buddhist community and because of her location in the United States, there are a considerable number of people in the west that are eager to take part in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. A New York Times article, titled “Tibetan Buddhism Is Adapting to American Life”, objectively considered the growing number of incidences of Tibetan Buddhism in America. The article described the conditions of a particular monastery, noting that it has become a center of thought for Tibetan Buddhist monks, practicing Buddhists, and American intellectuals; similar to how monasteries functioned back when formal education was only possible for those inducted into a religious order. The implications of this trend suggest that Tibetan Buddhism may one day find a home outside of Tibet, if it becomes seemingly impossible for Tibet to obtain independence from China.
Tibet’s hardship has captured the sympathy and imagination of the world. With the peaceful and humble Dalai Lama representing the entirety of Tibet, the west will only continue to support the ambitious endeavors of the oppressed state. Tibetan Buddhism has been incorporated into various institutions and forms of art, further spreading its awareness. It is interesting to observe the evolution of Tibet through the perception of a westerner. The westerner still considers Tibet to be a place of wonder and mysticism, only now there is the threat of losing such an apparent paradise. It is not unlikely that Tibet will forever exist as a quasi-mythical land in the eyes of a westerner, a refuge from a culture that many would like to escape from. Perhaps that is ultimately the appeal of Tibet: escape.