Buddhism Gets Political, Sometimes Violent, Over Tibet

August 15, 2008

Author: Lucky Severson

Source: Religion News Service/Religion and Ethics Newsweekly


All eyes are on China as it plays host to the 2008 Olympic games, and for the moment, earlier unrest over China's treatment of Tibet has largely moved off center stage -- much to Beijing's relief.

Yet the decades-long tussle over Tibet continues to color the games, and some wonder what will happen after the Olympic torch is extinguished and the world goes home. Will the games have done anything to soften China's approach to Tibet?

The run-up to the games made many nervous.

In March, Chinese officials used force and armed troops to put down demonstrations by Buddhist monks inside Tibet and China. Monks and nuns were arrested and dozens were killed.

In response, Tibetan Buddhists and their Western supporters chased the torch along its winding route to Beijing. Chinese authorities dismissed the protesters as "Tibetan hooligans" and placed the blame squarely on the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of some 6 million Tibetan Buddhists.

But Robert Thurman, a Buddhist scholar at Columbia University, said the Chinese have it all wrong.

"The Chinese are desperate now to try to claim that the Dalai Lama caused all this upset, which of course he totally did not," Thurman told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. "He was totally upset."

For many, the sight of rowdy, aggressive demonstrators ran against a conventional notion of Buddhism as nonviolent, even passive. Yet Lhadon Tethong, a leader of Supporters for a Free Tibet, said "there has to be tension."

"There has to be crisis," said Tethong, who joined demonstrations when the torch touched down briefly in San Francisco. "They (Chinese officials) have to feel the occupation is a problem for them whether they agree with us or not."

The demonstrations -- including small-scale protests during the Olympics that were quickly shut down -- raised an important question about Buddhism: how can a religious philosophy that is built around peace and compassion continue to hold the moral high ground when the protests increasingly result in violence?