From the Dalai Lama to Lhasa

Reflections on the Train to Tibet

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to see His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, speak at Macalester College. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Over 3,500 people showed up — not bad for a college that only enrolls about 2,000 students. Yet for all the hype surrounding the Dalai Lama’s speech, I couldn’t help but feel that he had been brought to Macalester to promote the college as much as the Tibetan cause. “The alignment between his work, his values, his spirit, and what we try to accomplish at this college is deep,” said Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg, drawing a tenuous link between the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet and a college whose tuition creeps towards $50,000 every year. Rosenberg even presented the Dalai Lama with a Macalester-branded baseball cap, its blue and orange colors clashing with His Holiness’ elegant maroon robe.

The Dalai Lama accepts a Macalester baseball cap from Brian Rosenberg. Photo courtesy of Macalester’s photo archive on the event.

The event left me with mixed feelings. Was I expecting too much out of the Dalai Lama, who represents a cause that has seen little progress in the last 50 years? What sort of wisdom, spiritual or otherwise, was I expecting to obtain? Now, on the train to Tibet, I find myself reexamining the Dalai Lama, his speech, and the place he can never return to.

I. The Dalai Lama as a Symbol

During his speech, I remember being somewhat unsatisfied by the Dalai Lama’s broad perspective . In the speech, entitled “The Nature of Happiness, Fulfillment, and Embodiment,” the Dalai Lama spent most of his time talking about the need for warm-heartedness and the role that young people play in today’s world. “We are a generation of the 20th century,” he remarked. “Our generation has created a lot of problems on this planet. Now let the 21st century solve these problems.” But the Dalai Lama didn’t spend much time talking about the problems Tibet faces under Chinese rule, which, according to the BBC, include human rights abuses, economic favoritism of Han Chinese, and the suppression of Tibetan culture. Instead, the problems he mentioned were mostly personal. Don’t be too materialistic, the Dalai Lama suggested. Take time to calm your thoughts. “Just to lay down on a comfortable bed is not relaxing,” he warned. At the time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was listening to the Dalai Lama speak just for the sake of saying I had seen him in person.

“Our generation has created a lot of problems on this planet. Now let the 21st century solve these problems.”

Looking back, I think I expected a fiery speech from a political figure. There is some precendent to that expectation: in 2009, the Dalai Lama claimed that the Chinese government had turned Tibet into “hell on earth.” But the Dalai Lama is not just a political figure — he is a man, an institution, a national symbol of Tibet, and a universal symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. These multiple roles create tensions and contradictions. As the French scholar Anne-Sophie Bentz writes, “he [the Dalai Lama] has to keep moving back and forth, presenting himself alternately in national or universal terms, depending mostly on the contingent needs of the moment.” When I saw him speak three years ago, the Dalai Lama presented himself in universal terms. He symbolized Tibetan Buddhism, not necessarily Tibet’s plight. I can now see why his speech focused on the overarching themes of happiness and fulfillment instead of the specific problems Tibet faces as a nation. Still, these conflicting ideas of symbolism beg the important question: what exactly does the Dalai Lama represent?

The Dalai Lama addresses Macalester. Photo courtesy of Macalester’s photo archive on the event.

Bentz sees the Dalai Lama as a symbol of Tibetan unity in the face of Chinese occupation. “The Dalai Lama can indeed be seen as some kind of consensual figure for all Tibetans — that is, a figure able to transcend basic political, religious, and social divisions,” she writes. Indeed, the idea of the Dalai Lama as a transcendent figure drew students to his speech at Macalester. As one student told The Mac Weekly, Macalester’s student newspaper: “It was really incredible to be in the presence of someone who just radiated goodness…it was an intense feeling of ‘everything’s okay.’”Just as the Dalai Lama is able to transcend political, religious, and social divisions among Tibetans, he is able to appeal to Western audiences with little familiarity of Tibet or Buddhism in general. The Dalai Lama’s basic story of “One Holy Man fighting against a whole government,” as media scholar Andrew Wei-Min Lee puts it, is particularly attractive to Western, Judeo-Christian sensibilities.

People see what they want to see in the Dalai Lama. Many see him as a unifying figure, the spiritual leader of the global Tibetan community. Westerners see him as a symbol of the oppressive Chinese state. Others see him as a religious symbol. Some still see him as the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, a role he stepped down from in 2011. As Bentz writes, “The symbolic meaning of the Dalai Lama can be said to vary according to the person who is recognizing him as a symbol.” But the one thing that remains consistent across all these symbolic representations is the Dalai Lama’s link to Tibet. There’s a certain irony that it was only until his exile that the Dalai Lama was propelled into the international spotlight. Even in exile, the Dalai Lama is forever linked to Tibet.

Which is why, as I pack my bags for Llasa, I find myself reconsidering my own views of Tibet. What does it mean to travel somewhere that is more familiar to the West as a political cause than an actual place?

II. What Exactly Does Tibet Symbolize, Anyways?

In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese language added a new phrase: “做人不能太CNN.” Coined by China’s netizens, who were upset over Western media coverage of protests in Lhasa, the phrase roughly translates to “don’t be too CNN” in English. To be “too CNN” was to describe things in a hyperbolic, biased way — exactly how many Chinese felt Western media was portraying their country. Even today, the word ‘CNN’ retains its negative connotation. The phrase even showed up in one of my professor’s slideshows as an example of Chinese internet language, alongside more mundane things like emojis and cute ways to say ‘I love you.’

“做人不能CNN” makes an appearance at anti-CNN protests. Picture taken from the blog of one of China’s many netizens.

As with the Dalai Lama, people tend to see what they want to see in Tibet. By invoking Tibet, Westerners reaffirm their preexisting beliefs of the Chinese state. Yet the same also seems true in China — Western media coverage of Tibet only seems to reaffirm Chinese suspicions of biased reporting. Lee provides seven useful differences between Chinese and Western media portrayals of Tibet:

  1. Issue framing. While Western media tends to focus on Tibetan rights human rights, Chinese media emphasizes national sovereignty.
  2. Tibetan history. To Western media, it’s invasion; to Chinese media, it’s liberation.
  3. Cultural preservation. Western media likes to throw around the term ‘cultural genocide,’ while Chinese media claims Tibetan culture is being preserved.
  4. Political power. Whether the CCP or Tibetans govern Tibet is a point of contention between Western and Chinese media.
  5. Religious freedom. Though Western media claims that monks are persecuted, Chinese media contends that monks are highly regarded throughout China.
  6. Journalistic freedom. In the Western view, journalists who write negative stories about Tibet are not reported in Chinese news. In the Chinese view, journalists who write positive stories about Tibet are not reported in Western news.
  7. The opinion of ordinary Tibetans. Western media tends to say that because the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibet in exile, he speaks for all Tibetans. On the other hand, Chinese media says that the Dalai Lama only speaks for a small, vocal minority.

It’s no wonder that the opinion of ordinary Tibetans ranks last on Lee’s list. In the West, Tibet serves to symbolize everything problematic with the Chinese state, from human rights abuses to media censorship. But the plight of the Tibetan people seems lost in the larger Western critique of authoritarian government. When I try to form a mental picture of Tibet, I don’t imagine Tibetans. Instead, I see protests and ‘Free Tibet’ posters. I’m more familiar with the political struggle of Tibet than the people who actually live there.

Both Western and Chinese representations of Tibet tend to remove the Tibetan people from the picture. As Lee describes,

In the mind of backpackers from Beijing to Boston, the Tibetan countryside is pure, vast, and full of pristine rugged beauty. Tibet is the place to let your spirit roam wild, to meditate in relaxation while doing yoga on some mountaintop, and to escape from polluted, stressful, big-city life.

Tibet is worth visiting for the scenery, not necessarily the culture or people. After all, the Tibetan countryside is “pure,” with the implication that its natural beauty has been left untouched by civilization. Tibet seems less like a place where people live and more like the backdrop for a spiritual journey. Tourists get to “escape” from their city lives to visit Tibet. But the same cannot be said for the Tibetan people. It’s not as if Tibetans usuallly have the means to escape their rural lives and let their spirits roam wild in China’s big cities.

If Tibetans are in the picture, they’re described as part of the scenery. As Lee reports,

Both Western and Chinese media report that Tibet has many fine qualities. The Tibetan people and their culture should be treasured, preserved, and encouraged to grow.

It’s telling that both Western and Chinese media describe Tibetans in naturalist terms. Besides serving as a political symbol, Tibet symbolizes unperturbed nature in the minds of Westerns and Chinese alike. But the Tibetan people seem to have been lumped into that symbolism. Tibetans are seen as some sort of indigenous fauna that must be nurtured and preserved. The Tibetan people aren’t given much agency when they’re described like inanimate objects.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the Tibetan independence movement is that Tibet, in both the Chinese and Western imagination, has lost its meaning as a place. In other words, Tibet has become a politically convenient symbol for either Chinese oppression or Western bias. Tibet has lost its symbolic independence. In the Chinese imagination, Tibet exemplifies the rising economic tide that has lifted all of China. In the Western imagination, Tibet is rarely viewed as a singular entity, instead factoring into a broader critique of the Chinese state.

What will it mean to visit Tibet, which I know better as a political symbol than an actual place? I suspect visiting Lhasa will remind me of when I saw the Dalai Lama at Macalester: politically underwhelming but interesting nonetheless.

I think a part of me expects to arrive in an imaginary, politically symbolic Tibet, with the oppressiveness of Chinese rule obvious as soon as I step off the train. But I know that isn’t the Tibet I’ll be visiting. For a Westerner, entering Tibet is only possible if you go with an approved tour group. I’ll be seeing the Tibet the Chinese government wants me to see, the Tibet that lives in Western and Chinese imaginations alike: an unperturbed countryside, filled with flora and fauna and maybe even a couple Tibetans.

Three years ago, as I listened to the Dalai Lama, I never could have imagined that I would wind up in Tibet. Before I heard him speak in person, I had a sense of what the Dalai Lama represented, but not necessarily of who he was. The same can be said for Tibet. I know its role as a political symbol in both China and the West, but not necessarily of what it’s like as a place. Now, on the train to Lhasa, I can only hope that my trip will leave me with a better understanding of the region. But I suspect that conclusions, like Lhasa itself, will not be easy to arrive to.

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