On Thursday, March 27, the Rehoboth Beach Film Society screened the documentary "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama." The movie is about filmmaker Rick Ray's voyage to India to meet the highly revered Tibetan Buddhist monk.
To go along with the screening, the film society will provide a facilitator to moderate a discussion after the movie about issues brought up. Dr. Joerg Tuske, a philosophy professor with a particular interest in the topic, will be that facilitator. I sat down with Dr. Tuske in his Salisbury University office a week before to have our own discussion.
Wendi Dennis, the film society's organizer, chose Tuske and this particular movie some time ago, and seemingly at random. Her goal was to foster conversation about this particular foreign culture. She could not have known, however, that this specific subject would be making worldwide headlines at this exact time.
Both Tuske and I were shocked at the timeliness of this movie being shown here on Delmarva. When I met with Tuske, he said that he had happily agreed to moderate the movie's discussion, but was admittedly anxious about what he was going to say.
The Tibetan culture, which for centuries took its queue from Your Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is a beautiful one that is respected around the world. Yet, it is an isolated and esoteric one that might not be totally relatable to even those elder and sophisticated film society members likely to attend.
The documentary is an inviting and informative piece, but, according to Tuske, doesn't provide anything new that most people who are likely to attend don't already know. The documentary is somewhat illuminating about Tibet and the Dalai Lama himself, his life, his hardships and the present political situation. However, I got the impression that Tuske didn't believe the film would provide enough fertile ground for any relevant discussion that would touch upon any present-day issues, and would simply end as a mere academic exercise.
All that changed, however, earlier this month. On March 10, Indian police barred several hundred Tibetan exiles from marching across the border into Tibet to protest the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Tuske told me that while the protests on that date were traditional, the arrests and regard to the Summer Olympics in Beijing weren't. Tuske said protests on March 10 have been occurring for years now. March 10 is, in fact, the anniversary of when the Dalai Lama went into exile.
In the documentary, director Rick Ray refers to the Dalai Lama in Western terms, as if Jesus were made president. He is the highest religious authority, as well as the highest political figure in Tibetan culture. Yes, that makes Tibet a theocracy, but the Dalai Lama is such a sweet, compassionate, pacifist leader that it doesn't matter for Tibet's majority population of Buddhists.
When the communists in China forced the Dalai Lama into exile in 1959, the Tibetans were dismayed. So, for nearly 50 years, the Tibetans have been without their revered leader, while the Chinese have slowly but surely eroded their culture.
Therefore, every March 10, to mark the anniversary of the Dalai Lama essentially being kicked out, the Tibetans hold protests. The protests have transpired for many years with no change, no regard from the Chinese. However, Tuske said that with the spotlight on China this year because of the Olympics, Tibetans were hoping to make more of an impact with their protests.
They did definitely have an impact, but not the kind the Tibetans may have wanted. In the week following the March 10 anniversary, more protests broke out, more intense protests, and even violent ones. Reports of looting and burnings came out of Lhasa, the largest and the capital city of Tibet, resulted in Chinese police going in with tear gas and gunfire.
By the end of it, dozens had died and the Chinese premier had blamed the Dalai Lama for all the violence.
After the news of all this echoed back to the United States, Tuske recalled a moment from the movie. Dr. Tuske reiterated the comments from a young monk interviewed two years ago who spoke of the tension and frustration that have come with this exile. The monk noted the tension and frustration that had the potential of erupting into violence, even in a land of pacifists.
Yes, the Tibetans are pacifists. Violence and certainly violent protests are antithetical to their Buddhist way of life. They can't and won't go to war with the Chinese. They won't commit acts of violence in order to affect change. Yet, some young people, both in Tibet and India, feel that acts of violence, after 50 years of oppression, is the only option left.
Touching upon this issue raised in the film, Tuske believes that this makes the perfect jumping off point in leading a discussion about this documentary and connecting it to what's happening today.
In fact, at the end of my conversation with Tuske, in honor of the filmmaker who got a rare audience with Your Holiness, the Dalai Lama, I asked the professor, if he could ask the Dalai Lama a question, let alone 10, what would that one question be.
In the film, the Dalai Lama calls what the Chinese are doing as "cultural genocide." Through the Dalai Lama's exile, the re-population of Tibet, a form of apartheid there, as well as human rights violations and suppression of traditions, it can be reasonably argued that the Chinese are killing the Tibetan culture.
With no other nation willing or able to intervene, Tuske said he would ask the Dalai Lama, if Your Holiness would continue to embrace his moral principle of nonviolence and seemingly allow his Tibetan culture to be wiped out, or would he finally resort to violence and physically fight for his people. This would assume that Your Holiness had access to such implements to do so.
Even though Chinese officials claim that they are only doing good things for Tibet, like ending serfdom, modernizing the infrastructure, and improving Tibet's education and healthcare systems, there still remains some dispute regarding the statistics involving the Great Leap Forward. How many Tibetan lives have been lost needlessly because of the Chinese?
In terms of cultural conflicts, the trouble with Tibetans probably doesn't rank as high as what's happened in Palestine, Iraq or Darfur. The death and destruction aren't as extreme or abundant in Tibet. Or, if they are, then they certainly haven't been as visible in the media.
Tuske told me- to my surprise- that people can get in trouble or be arrested in Tibet or China for displaying a picture of the Dalai Lama. There have been reports of people being taken and tortured, or worse. Nonetheless, I'm not sure if any of that rises to the level of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in the Middle East, or the Holocaust-like ethnic cleansing atrocities in various African countries. Yet, it still is horrible.
Last week, Charlie Rose on his PBS show had a roundtable discussion about Tibet and one of his commentators said that the Dalai Lama is regarded as one of the most reasonable and diplomatic negotiators on earth. Sadly, he's not regarded as such by Chinese brass, but if anyone were capable of negotiating a peaceful resolution without bloodshed, it would be him.
The Charlie Rose commentator also said that the Dalai Lama has been doing this for a long time. He's been leading his people longer than Fidel Castro and the Queen of England, and in all that time, if he's not been able to resolve things peacefully, who's to say he ever will in his lifetime?
I recently watched a documentary about another nonviolent activist and leader. His name was Bayard Rustin and he fought during the Civil Rights movement. He was not a religious figure, but he was a Quaker who fully embraced the notions of Ghandi, and spoke out against the militant ways of the Black Panther Party. Rustin said that if you're a pacifist and a nonviolent protestor, then you have to be willing to allow violence and abuse to happen to you without resistance.
What happened this past month in Tibet may prove that some Tibetans aren't willing to simply lay down in the road and let the tanks roll over them, but what else can they do? I think that Tuske and I agree that we hope the Dalai Lama can accomplish his goal, which seeks to find common ground for everyone, but it doesn't seem likely.
In our conversation, Tuske brought up other films about that Buddhist leader. Both of us enjoyed the beautiful, Oscar-nominated "Kundun" (1997) by Martin Scorsese, as well as "Seven Years in Tibet" (1997). Both revolved around the Dalai Lama's early life.
However, there's one scene in the latter film where the 14-year-old Dalai Lama is sitting in a movie theater and Heinreich Harrer, the Lama's Austrian tutor, played by Brad Pitt, stands behind him. The Dalai asks Harrrer if, one day, people will watch movies about the Tibetans and their culture, and wonder what happened to it.
The world doesn't really care about Tibet. If the Dalai Lama in exile doesn't reach some kind of resolution, the prospects of which aren't good, the Tibetan culture will for the most part be washed out with the tide, become nothing more than a footnote in Chinese history, or an old forgotten movie.
People really will watch documentaries like this and wonder what happened to the Tibetans. Here's hoping not. Please go in peace, Tibetans!