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The Dalai Lama Doesn’t Want to Free Tibet

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama visited Boulder recently—and I didn’t know what to do about it.


The Dalai Lama greets 9,000 people who turned out to hear him speak at the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder/ Glenn Asakawa)

By Tracy Ross

I arrive at the Coors Event Center on the CU campus among a throng of people dressed, in varying degrees, as Buddhists. Here’s a swirl of Boulder Tibetans—part of the community since the mid 1990s—dressed lavishly in ornamented chupas. And moving somberly through the crowd, the ultra devout, lama-esque monks and nuns swathed in robes of red and yellow. The slightly less pious-looking Buddhists are discernable by their new Birkenstocks and prayer beads. And then there are the scores of happenstance pilgrims like me wearing the athleisurewear of all mountain towns—but mainly Boulder.

By the doors to the 11,000-person auditorium I meet a Tibetan-descended Buddhist family, which relocated here from Nepal in the 1980s. The mother draped in an olive green, floor-length dress; the father in slacks, a traditional Nepali shirt, and dapper fedora. They tell me, through their son the translator, that they’ve waited their entire lives to meet the Dalai Lama. “To my parents, His Holiness is everything. Even bigger than President Obama.”

The counter punch: A languid 20-something Anglo, sunning herself on a cement planter outside the Coors Center tells me that she hasn’t read any of the Lama’s books or studied his teachings. “I came because I wanted to feel his presence,” she says. I wonder if she said the same about Ziggy Marley.

It’s easy to dismiss her and so many white, privileged evangelical-spiritual people in mountain towns. The meatless Monday set who’ve scraped a few Free Tibet stickers from their rear windows over the years. But what, I wonder, does a free Tibet really mean to the residents of the mountains of North America? Are the prayer flags just posturing, or do we really care for these people? And does our concern, even our solidarity, do anything at all to help?

Before the event, I emailed the author Pico Iyer, (I’m a fan, not a pal) who spent a year with the Dalai Lama while gathering material for his biography The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. I asked Iyer if we yogi-Paleo-recreationalists truly grasp the Tibetan problem, and even if the Dalia Lama appreciates us flying the Free Tibet sticker?

Iyer’s response: “I think he’s always glad and grateful that people care about Tibet (or about any of their global neighbors), though of course since 1987, he has been calling out to people to work to ‘Save Tibet’ rather than ‘Free Tibet.’ Freeing Tibet isn’t really in his vocabulary, since his core belief is in interdependence.” The Dalai Lama, says Iyer, “always stresses that in many ways Tibet is lucky to be part of the fast-rising People’s Republic of China…” But ultimately, says Iyer, the Dalai Lama believes “at some point justice will prevail—history moves in cycles—and for a Buddhist the only important thing is motivation.”


Dalai Lama meets with a group of CU Boulder students. (Photo courtesy of University of Colorado Boulder/ Glenn Asakawa)

My neighbor in the mountains west of Boulder is a professor of Tibetan Studies at CU. Carole McGranahan spent years researching the Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation, and the ongoing, horrifying self-immolation sacrifices by Tibetans inside China. Most of those who burn themselves to death in protest are nuns and monks loyal to the Dalai Lama. Since 2011, 150 have set themselves on fire. This is a 21st century phenomena. Prior to this outbreak, self-immolation was not part of Tibetan culture. These are revolutionary acts.

“We are at levels of repression not seen in a long time,” says McGranahan. “Tibet is still in an unsettled state since the mass protests of 2008.” A report on savetibet.org states that the “Chinese Communist Party has responded to Tibetan self-immolations… with a spike in political imprisonments, including one instance of the death penalty, and numerous cases of Tibetans being ‘disappeared’…”

To McGranahan, most westerners don’t understand the gravity of the situation. That’s in part because there is not a single free journalist in Tibet, she says. “The only way stories or images of the resistance get out are through citizen journalists being at the right place at the right time and sending footage to India.”

The Dalai Lama has long hesitated to publicly criticize actions of Tibetans inside China, and was initially silent about the immolations, says McGranahan. When he finally spoke out, he directly blamed the immolations on the Chinese government.

Back at the CU talk, Colorado Congressman Jared Polis addresses the occupation on behalf of the Lama. “[The Dalai Lama] must claim…that he seeks only increased autonomy for his people, not independence—for his mere mention of … self-determination could set in motion devastation for his people and his nation…” he says. So it’s Save Tibet not Free Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s talk focuses on acceptance, religious tolerance, and cultivating “compassion, altruism, and aspiration to attain Buddhahood.” He says these concepts are necessary to combat such things gun violence and climate degradation, and help 21st century citizens develop a global sensibility. “We are same human beings, mentally, emotionally, physically,” he says.

After the talk, many of the attendees sit in the grass and I attach myself to one of them. Her name is Mel, and she’s a recent transplant from Moab. Her hair is purple and she wears an ice cube-size crystal around her neck as well as headscarf worn in the fashion of Muslim women. She says she’s been extremely moved by the Dalai Lama’s speech, adding that she feels privileged to have been given the “birth rite” to be alive, in Boulder, and able to attend such an important event. “We have a responsibility to not just hear the message but to do something with it,” she says.

To McGranahan that doesn’t just mean thinking good thoughts, it means learning as much as possible about the Tibetan resistance, finding others with whom to organize, and taking action to stop the oppression. Write letters to your local politicians, call, text, and email your foreign ministries, protest in front of Chinese embassies, and join campaigns. “Just because someone hangs prayer flags doesn’t mean that they’re a Tibet supporter,” she says.

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