Tenzing Dolma: A Tibetan refugee’s perspective on the Dalai Lama

Community Op-EdsOpinion

Photo courtesy of UC San Diego Publications.

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Congratulations to UCSD’s graduating class of 2017. As the first person in my family to attend college in the United States, let alone graduate from UC Berkeley this May, I am as excited and proud as any of you graduating this year from this great institution of learning. UCSD is not only famous for its academic merit and prestige, but also as a community that values freedom, inclusion, and engagement of diverse perspectives. As a Tibetan refugee, and as a student fortunate enough to study at one of the greatest schools in the world, I was ecstatic to learn that this year UCSD’s commencement speaker will be His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a global peace icon and a Nobel laureate.

However, not everyone was thrilled. Some students protested UCSD’s invitation to the Dalai Lama. One student penned an op-ed article in the UCSD Guardian, “Why I Won’t Accept the Dalai Lama as a Commencement Speaker.” The article, along with the comments beneath it written by other students, was full of historical errors, gross falsehoods, and pure slander. Let me point out a few of them:

The article said, “The Dalai Lama spent his whole life trying to separate Tibet from mainland China.” This sweeping statement is downright wrong. Anyone capable of using Google or Wikipedia will see that the Dalai Lama renounced the goal of Tibetan independence in 1988 and since then has been the most vocal and consistent advocate of Tibetan autonomy within the framework of the People’s Republic of China. While independence has been the cherished dream – not to mention historical right – of Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has fought hard to persuade Tibetans to subscribe to his Middle Way Approach of pursuing autonomy through dialogue and compromise.

The article claimed that the “Chinese government has granted the Tibetan people “privilege and freedom.” False. The Freedom House lists Tibet as one of the two most oppressed places in the world, right next to North Korea and Syria. China’s invasion of Tibet in 1949 and its brutal suppression of the Tibetan people’s language, religion, and culture, led to over one million deaths. The colonial exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources has poisoned water sources and destroyed the plateau’s ecosystems. Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist institute in the world, has undergone large-scale demolitions that have resulted in the displacement of thousands of monks and nuns. If China has granted so many privileges and freedom, why have more than 150 Tibetans self-immolated in the last few years to protest Chinese rule?

Chinese students have called for Chancellor Khosla to refrain from introducing His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a “spiritual leader” or from using the word “exile.” First of all, it was the Chinese government that invaded Tibet and exiled the Dalai Lama and over 100,000 Tibetans in the first place. If our homeland had not been invaded, we would not have become exiles. Secondly, the Dalai Lama is not only spiritual leader to the Tibetan people but also to more than half a billion Buddhists around the world. In fact, his message of peace and inter-religious harmony, and his compassion-oriented spiritual teachings, have resonated with millions of people of all faiths and persuasions. If the Dalai Lama is not a spiritual leader, then who is?

Thousands of stateless Tibetans like myself, and hundreds of thousands of displaced people in general, live in exile not by choice, but as a tragic result of war, occupation and colonization. We cross the Himalayas on foot – other refugees cross the seas on a dinghy – so that we can taste the freedom that many of you take for granted. For us stateless refugees, it is an unthinkable privilege to study in one of the greatest universities in the free world, to be in an environment where we can speak our minds without fear of imprisonment, to listen to different opinions and learn something new everyday.

The Dalai Lama, in spite of being a stateless refugee, has devoted his entire life to the service of humanity through his message of compassion and altruism. He is a shining beacon of hope, strength, and resilience that is needed so badly in times like these when intolerance and senseless violence plague our communities from the East to the West. If you don’t believe me – because I am a Tibetan refugee too – then take it from a Chinese professor who once held a similar view of the Dalai Lama as you do now.

I cannot ask of those who plan to protest the general commencement to refrain from doing so, but I encourage you all to open your hearts and minds to the possibility of reflecting and learning from this experience.

Tenzing Dolma is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley.

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