How the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet “forever changed the concept of Buddhism”


Sixty years ago, on Sunday, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet under cover of darkness, disguised as a soldier.

In the midst of an uprising against Beijing in Tibet, the Buddhist leader was invited by a senior Chinese general to attend a dance performance.

The unexpected invitation sounded the alarm for the Dalai Lama and his senior advisers, who quickly imagined a loophole: cross the Himalayas on foot to seek asylum in India.

It also sparked a chain of events that Beijing probably couldn’t have predicted, and surely had no intention of.

Why did the Dalai Lama flee?

Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950 and formally incorporated the region into its territory the following year, a source of controversy continuing to this day (Beijing calls this “peaceful liberation”).

The government of Tibet, headed by a then adolescent Dalai Lama, signed a treaty that claimed to preserve Buddhism and Tibetan autonomy.

A resistance movement quickly emerged in opposition to Chinese rule, and on March 10, 1959, thousands of people surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace to protect it from what they believed to be an imminent threat of kidnapping or kidnapping. assassination.

Chinese soldiers patrol in front of the Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.(Reuters / Kyodo)

Beijing put down the uprising by force and thousands of people were killed.

But China – which says Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, a claim Tibetans refute – has long defended its rule there, attacking the Dalai Lama and touting its economic development.

The Tibetan people are “extremely grateful for the prosperity the Communist Party has brought them,” Tibetan Party Secretary Wu Yingjie told reporters ahead of the anniversary.

What did this mean for the Tibetans?

Some 80,000 Tibetans fled during the crackdown, including Melbourne-based religious leader Zatul Rinpoche.

A profile photograph of an elderly Tibetan man in traditional dress.
Zatul Rinpoche fled Tibet in 1959 and now lives in Melbourne.(Provided: Zatul Rinpoche)

At 18, he says he walked several nights through mountainous terrain to reach Nepal.

Tibetans accuse China of stepping up the crackdown in the years since, and there have been several outbreaks of unrest and protests against Chinese rule in the years since.

For those who stayed, the absence of the Dalai Lama left an impossible void.

“It created a huge void for the people. He was without a doubt the most important person in Tibet, and still is for most Tibetans,” said John Powers, professor at Deakin University specializing in the field. Tibetan Buddhism.

“The level of reverence hasn’t diminished – it’s probably higher than when he was still there.”

China also disputes this, with Wu claiming that the Dalai Lama has not done “a single good thing” for Tibet since he left.

How did he change Buddhism?

From his base in Dharamshala, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the Dalai Lama has widely spread the message of Buddhism and garnered support from his supporters around the world for the Free Tibet movement.

He’s embraced the technology, with a full website and a larger Twitter account than the Pope (19 million vs. 17 million), though there are around 500 million more Catholics in the world than Buddhists.


Chope Paljor Tsering, a former Tibetan government minister in exile who now lives in Canberra, told the ABC that he felt that “Buddhism has not only survived, but has been revived and enjoyed … by many cultures across the world”.

“In this sense, His Holiness changed the concept of Buddhism.”

For its part, Beijing has simultaneously suppressed Tibetan Buddhism while sporadically promoting China as a center of Buddhism.

Tibetan monks demonstrate in New Delhi to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1959 uprising.
Tibetan monks joined a protest in New Delhi this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the uprising against Chinese rule.(Reuters: Adnan Abidi)

Dr Powers said China unsuccessfully used a “patriotic education” campaign in an attempt to reshape Tibetan interpretations of Buddhism and convince Tibetans of their love for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

And abroad, he said, many Buddhists saw pro-Tibet activism as intrinsically linked to their religious practice. “It was a natural constituency for the free Tibet movement,” he said.

What does the future hold?

As the Dalai Lama is now 80 years old, the battle between China and Tibetans in exile over the future of Buddhism is intensifying.

Traditionally, once the Dalai Lama dies (there have been 14 so far), the next one is found – rather than chosen – in a long search by the High Lamas, as he is believed to be able to select the body from within. which he reincarnates.

Usually, but not always, it is a young boy in Tibet.

However, with the political situation still tense, the current Dalai Lama has suggested that the next incarnation will be outside Tibet, or that maybe he (or she) will not be at all.

“So it’s much better for a centuries-old tradition to end in the days of a very popular Dalai Lama,” he added, although he also said the decision had to be made. ultimately belong to the Tibetan people.

But Chinese officials want to make sure the next Dalai Lama comes from inside the country, saying they will select a candidate instead.

This has a historical precedent: in 1989, China held the Panchen Lama – the second most important post in Tibetan Buddhism – shortly after he was identified by the Dalai Lama, and he was not. seen since.

Boy skateboarding in New Delhi Tibetan refugee settlement
Established after the 1959 uprising, the Tibetan refugee colony in New Delhi is still home to hundreds of exiles.(Reuters: Anushree Fadnavis)

The government has selected a Beijing-approved replacement whose family is loyal to the CCP.

According to Dr Powers, the government would follow the same scenario by appointing a “puppet Dalai Lama”, while a rival leader outside the country would be recognized by the Tibetans.

“The Tibetan government in exile is already making plans for this, and it will follow traditional procedures, and the Chinese government will probably create its own procedures,” said Dr Powers.

The Tibet Autonomous Region government did not respond to a request for comment.

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