Tibetan Buddhists of India

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TIBETAN BUDDHISTS OF INDIA Since 1950, Tibetans escaping Chinese-occupied Tibet have resettled in numerous enclaves in India, including the community of Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. In India, Tibetans have established new and stable communities, forged a united Tibetan identity, and created a democratic system of government under the leadership of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan people worldwide. The Tibetan population continues to establish a new, perhaps permanent home in India, the motherland of the Buddhist teachings through which Tibetan culture came to be uniquely defined.

History of Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism, finds its roots in northern India, particularly in Nagarjuna's Mādhyamika (Middle Way) system. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition arose from a syncretism of the Indian Vajrayāna (Diamond Vehicle) and the indigenous, animistic Bön religion of Tibet, a religion of deities and spirits that some scholars link to the hierarchy of bodhisattvas, demons, and other figures of Tibetan Buddhism. Beginning under King Songsten Gampo's royal patronage in the seventh century a.d., Buddhism flourished, and it developed its unique Tibetan character in the centuries that followed. From the tenth century onward, Buddhist masters in western Tibet held leadership positions alongside lay authorities, a governmental structure that soon spread throughout Tibet and became the norm. By the fifteenth century, the distinctive Tibetan Buddhist canon, consisting of the Kanjur (the teachings of the Buddha) and the Tanjur (commentaries on the teachings), and the complex monastic system, with its reincarnations of bodhisattvas, were established. The monastic system comprised four main orders, powerful in both political and religious spheres: the Nyingmapa, the Kargyupa, the Sakyapa, and the Gelugpa. It is from the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) order that the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, the spiritual and political leaders of the Tibetan people, originated in 1391. The Dalai Lama ("ocean of wisdom," or "superior one") is understood to be the continual reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion. He is a key figure in Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan government, and Tibetan identity in general.

The Community in Exile

Since the invasion of Tibet by the People's Republic of China on 7 October 1950, and the Tibetan revolt against the Chinese occupation on 10 March 1959, India has provided a haven for Tibetan refugees and their families. By 1960, over 17,000 Tibetans resided in settlements established by the Indian government. The village of Mussoorie served as the headquarters of the Central Tibetan Administration until Jawaharlal Nehru offered Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh to the Tibetan government-in-exile, headed by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, in 1960. Dharamsala and numerous other bases in India are no longer simple refugee resettlement sites but developed, stable Tibetan communities. Over 8,000 Tibetans call Dharamsala, McLeod Gunj, and the surrounding Kangra Valley their home, while approximately 88,000 more reside in other communities in India. The majority of this population lives in Tibetan agricultural, agro-industrial, or handicraft-based settlements established with the assistance of the Indian government. Tibetan refugees continue to enter India at a steady rate of between 2,000 and 2,500 per year.

The Tibetan government-in-exile was restructured according to democratic principles in 1963 with the draft of a new constitution for an anticipated free Tibet in the future, as well as for the existing exiled government. While many leadership positions remain intact from the previous system, including the position of the Dalai Lama and his cabinet of ministers, the new democracy includes three branches of government, the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, with clear separations of powers. The Kashag, the cabinet of ministers, incorporates departments of home, education, finance, and health, and consists of officials elected by the legislative branch of the government, the assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies. The assembly is diverse and represents Tibetans all over the world: two members currently represent Tibetans in Europe, and one represents Tibetans in the United States. The assembly, including the chief kalon, or chief executive officer, is elected by the Tibetan people living in India and in other countries outside Tibet. The Tibetan Supreme Justice Commission is the judicial branch of the government. Tibetans in India are subject to Indian law, but through India's arbitration law, the Justice Commission has some jurisdiction and can serve as an arbitrator in disputes. In this manner, Tibetans enjoy a modicum of self-power within the Indian judicial system.

According to the Government of Tibet in Exile, 44 percent of refugees from 1997 to 2002 were between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. There are an estimated 30,000 Tibetan children in India. Education of Tibetan youth is thus a vital service provided by the government-in-exile, with efforts made toward accommodating the special needs of children orphaned during the arduous journey from Tibet. The Department of Education administers over eighty schools, not only in India but in Nepal and Bhutan as well. The Indian-run Central Tibetan Schools Administration funds and oversees approximately thirty of these schools in India. This has resulted in some tension between the Tibetan population and the Indian host culture: support is necessary and appreciated, but there is concern that the Tibetan schools, if run by non-Tibetans, will teach fewer Tibetan cultural values. Imbuing children with a Tibetan sense of respect and compassion, maintaining the Tibetan language, and teaching Tibetan cultural arts are all vital aims for a people living in exile.

Within the Kashag, the Department of Religion and Culture seeks to provide aid to Tibetan religious institutions and other cultural institutions. Monasteries and nunneries of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions are central to Tibetan Buddhist life. Since 1980 the population in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in India has more than doubled, resulting in overcrowded facilities. Thus, support for these institutions, as well as the construction of new monastic centers, is a priority for Tibetans in exile. Almost 200 monasteries and nunneries, with a population of nearly 20,000 monks and nuns, have been established in exile. Projects of the Department of Religion and Culture also include Tibet House in New Delhi, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi, and the Norbulinkha Institute for Tibetan Culture at Sidhpur. Numerous charitable organizations worldwide and the Indian government provide additional support.

Unity and Tibetan Identity

The occasionally divisive factors of Tibetan life, including regional or tribal loyalties, political rivalries, religious competition, and varying dialects of the Tibetan language, have been set aside since 1959 in favor of promoting unity in the face of the threat to Tibetan culture in general. The new identity forged by the Tibetans in their stateless condition emphasizes the Tibetan Buddhist values of compassion, patriotism, ethnic and linguistic unity, and a focus on what anthropologist Margaret Nowak identifies as the two main Tibetan rallying symbols, the Dalai Lama and rangzen (self-power). The Dalai Lama is a symbol of continuity through generations, representing stability for Tibetans in exile. The status as bodhisattva also makes him a living symbol of Buddhist reality. Rangzen, often defined as independence from China, is a hopeful concept for the possible Tibetan future. The Dalai Lama and rangzen both serve as symbols of Tibetan identity, ontological security, and empowerment. In them, religion, culture, political activism for the Tibetan cause, and even Tibet's history and future are encapsulated and advanced.

With no geographical union, Tibetans in India and in exile worldwide innovate a cultural, ethnic, and linguistic union, and the prominent symbols of Tibetan religion and culture emerge as rallying signs for the global Tibetan community. At the heart of the Tibetan project of identity and unity in exile is the conviction that being Tibetan means upholding a compassionate, active, and hopeful Tibetan Buddhist tradition and character.

Eve Mullen

See alsoBuddhism in Ancient India


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