One Monk, One Yak

In 1968, hours before his death in Bangkok, Thomas Merton gave his last address to an audience of Christian and Buddhist monastics. Titled "Marxism and Monastic Perspectives," Merton analyzed the relationship between monastic and communist philosophies and used the Chinese takeover of Tibet as his touchstone.

Merton told the story of Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, a Tibetan lama who was forced to flee for his life in 1959 when the Chinese massacred thousands of Tibetans. Away from his monastery at the time, Trungpa Rimpoche sent a note to a nearby abbot asking what he should do. The reply was, "From now on, it’s each monk on his own." And so Trungpa Rimpoche fled to India (where the Dalai Lama established the Tibetan government-in-exile) with nothing but his yak. Merton concluded, "You cannot rely on structures; they will ultimately be taken away. We can only be about the business of total personal transformation, which leads to purity of heart."

For 37 years, Tibetans have been living without the structures of self-governance, without the presence of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader (possessing his photo is grounds for arrest), and without access to basic human rights under the dictates of Chinese communism. Since the Chinese invasion in 1949, Beijing has enacted a policy of "population transfer," moving millions of Han Chinese into Tibet until today Tibetans are a minority in their own country. There are 70 times more Tibetan political prisoners than Chinese, and 30 percent of them are women.

Approximately 20 million people are held in slave labor camps in China and Tibet, earning China hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Infant mortality is 88 percent among Tibetans, as opposed to 31 percent among Chinese. China has devastated Tibet’s natural resources by exporting almost all its precious minerals, half of its forests (providing China with $50 billion worth of timber), and using Tibet as a dumping site for Chinese nuclear and chemical waste.

After nearly 40 years of primarily nonviolent resistance, the Tibetan people are on the verge of extinction. And yet they hold on to the simple Buddhist precept the Dalai Lama lays out for them: Follow the middle way of compassion. Compassion is not a word that gets bandied about in GATT or WTO circles or on the floor of Congress when China’s most-favored-nation status is up for review. It is not a word associated with the politically astute—but with its connotation of interdependence, perhaps it should be.

THE DALAI LAMA has proposed a five-point peace plan that prioritizes Tibetan self-government and yet engages the need for a balance of political power in the region. His initiative calls for withdrawal of Chinese troops; an end to China’s population-transfer policy; respect for Tibetans’ human and democratic rights; restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural resources; and immediate negotiations on the future status of relations between Tibet and the Chinese.

This proposal would move Tibet toward a self-governing democracy while it remains part of China, with Beijing responsible for Tibet’s foreign policy. With Tibet as a self-governing "zone of peace" between China and India, not only do the remaining six million Tibetans benefit but so do the Chinese and Indians.

Though the Dalai Lama gets criticized harshly by those who favor independence at any cost, his compassionate middle way offers a means for China to save face in exiting Tibet and begins a process of political independence that is grounded in peace, hopefully preventing a civil war such as those we see now in many African states. Any hopes of progress on this plan are absolutely dependent on the international community’s pressure on China to negotiate with Tibet.

How can the United States take up the vocabulary of compassion in our relations with China and Tibet? First, we should learn the lesson of South Africa and dismantle Clinton’s policy of "constructive engagement." It is "constructive" only for privately owned transnational corporations that reap billions in profits, and does nothing to provide for basic human needs.

Second, we should re-examine the most-favored-nation status principle by which the World Trade Organization keeps a balance of power among various market economies. Non-market based economies, like China, cannot be members of the WTO but can apply for MFN status, which the WTO then reviews annually. From 1974 to 1993 renewal of China’s MFN status was linked to human rights and arms proliferation issues. While Presidents Reagan and Bush used loopholes to renew China’s MFN status even when China egregiously violated the requirements, President Clinton has completely "delinked" human rights issues from MFN renewal. The United States must relink these issues with MFN status.

Third, we should give full support to the Dalai Lama’s five-point initiative on China and Tibet. In addition to benefiting Tibet, advancing this process could perhaps provide leaven for the growth of justice and human rights in China proper.

In many ways, since his exile the Dalai Lama has been simply a monk with his yak seeking total personal transformation—which is his most fundamental vow as a Buddhist. However, he also knows that the conversion of one heart can lead to the conversion of an entire nation.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"One Monk, One Yak"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines