- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

Violence, death, rioting. The words ricocheting in headlines from Tibet this week seem starkly at odds with many Westerners’ image of Buddhism as a religion the dominant one in that Himalayan land that embraces nonviolence.

Indeed, a core precept laid down by Buddhism’s founder, Siddhartha Gautama, some 2,500 years ago is a prohibition on killing. But the tradition goes even further, endorsing active nonviolence.

Some of the demonstrations against Chinese rule have been led by Buddhist monks, giving Chinese authorities a pretext to accuse the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet’s government-in-exile, of instigating the current unrest. He has denied doing so and offered to resign his political leadership role if the violence continues.

Tibetans have struggled for many decades to achieve independence from foreign domination. Although demonstrations have occurred before, resulting in no apparent change in the status quo, the difference this time can be attributed to the age of the protesters.

They are members of a younger generation, who, having grown up during an era of stepped-up Chinese suppression of Buddhism, have not been properly exposed to its tenets.

Buddhist philosophy and education, said Bhuchung Tsering, a practicing Buddhist who is vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet based in Washington, involves having children living in a monastic environment that allows for a special relationship with their teachers, often lamas (Buddhist priests), who, in normal times, undergo many years of practice and instruction.

Restraint from killing is the first of 10 precepts that a Buddhist undertakes as a vow during his ordination.

“But it is not only school but the form of upbringing itself,” Mr. Tsering said. “And all qualified Buddhist masters were educated before 1959, and that generation is passing away.”

A slight period of leniency was allowed in the late 1980s, “but we now are back to Cultural Revolution days,” he said, referring to Mao Zedong’s violent campaign in the late 1960s to enforce strict ideological conformity to his rule.

Breaking the line of direct master-to-disciple spiritual teaching means that younger Buddhists “don’t receive full instructions, and when you miss them, you can’t get them back,” said Marilyn Goldberg, chairwoman of ancient studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who has helped found the Tibetan Buddhist Center on Capitol Hill.

“There is an irony here,” Mr. Tsering said of the sporadic violence by the youthful protesters. “While some of the incidents that have taken place can be said to be non-Buddhist, they do it for the promotion of their faith. At the collective level, they are doing it out of desperation.”

Ill-treatment of monks spurred them on, he said.

Buddhism, which is more often seen as a philosophy and way of life than a religion, has at its root the belief that acts have consequences. Virtuous actions affect the environment positively, and negative or violent acts cause suffering, in what is known as the law of karma, or fate. The attainment of enlightenment, or state of grace, can only be achieved through virtuous acts that then can influence the course of a person’s life and hence benefit the world.

“You talk to some lamas, and you hear them say Tibetans are reaping karma from their past feudal system,” said Ms. Goldberg. She suggests that even suicide is considered a “nonvirtuous” act in Buddhist teaching.

“The idea that you are willing to take on bad karma in doing something nonvirtuous means you obviously are choosing the most skillful means to achieve an end despite the fact you are incurring negative karma.”

Ritual practices in Buddhist teachings are “quite distinct” among various schools, said Lucinda Peach, associate professor of philosophy and religion at American University, but “the everyday ethics are the same.”

It’s important “to recognize there often is a disparity between the ideal of religion and practice on the ground,” Ms. Peach said. “We have many examples of this: when violence by monks in Burma got out of control, and similarly in Sri Lanka. It happens when peaceful methods have been tried and failed and nothing has changed.” That is when people’s sense of dispossession and lack of alternatives wins out, she said.

“Tibetans are people, too, and people can only be pushed so far before they pick up a gun and fight back,” said writer and social activist Maura Moynihan. “Buddhism is about peace and nonviolence, but there is only so much you can stand. It’s all very complicated the Dalai Lama says, ‘I can’t tell people what to do.’”

“If the situation goes beyond control, I don’t think His Holiness will have any qualms about stepping down,” Mr. Tsering said. “He has three commitments. The first being promotion of human values, the second promotion of interreligious understanding, and the third is Tibet.”

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