Friday, December 6, 2013

“The fiery invisible sword of nonviolence”

Tenzin Tsundue is a Tibetan activist and poet. In 2002, he unfurled a red Free Tibet banner, along with dropping 500 leaflets, from the top of the building in which the Chinese delegation led by Premier Zhu Rongji on a visit to India, was housed (see his “Why I’ll Climb More Scaffolding and Towers” in his book of poems Kora). He soon had a whole floor of Chinese faces staring out at him…

Tuesday morning he spoke with our group doing service learning in Dharamsala. He wisely asked everyone for a brief account of who they were and what they hoped to become.


His parents had escaped Tibet with the Dalai Lama. They survived in India as construction workers bringing their children (he was one of 6) to the sites while they worked. He reported the experience with adult eyes; we have all seen such children (even our group, in our brief time in India, have seen them).


Tsundue has lived always as a refugee. His homeland is over the mountains. He once, as an adult, walked to Tibet by himself, was arrested, tortured and eventually deported by the Chinese government.

In Kora, he writes


When I was born

My mother said

you are a refugee.

Our tent on the roadside

smoked in the snow.”


Tsundue was initially in the Manali Kulu School. The teachers taught him he was Tibetan. His parents could not raise the six children and gave Tsundue and his sister to the school which looked after them. Tsundue has always, since a child, had this sense of a purpose outside himself (including himself also): to restore Tibet.


Tibetan patriotism, Tsundue rightly says, is from within. There is a real Tibetan community here: there are no Tibetan beggars, no homeless in Dharmasala…

One has to experience Pakistan or India, even the long train ride to Dharmasala with mothers and tiny daughters reaching out, crippled people moving with their hands along the floor begging amidst the constant sale of chai – the hawker returning with his calls every 10 minutes from 4:30 AM on - and an almost bazaarlike movement of vendors through the railway cars to take in the pain of this, to feel the force of Tibetan commonality, egalitarianism….


Tsundue recognizes the danger to Tibet of the Chinese settlers. More than half the population (6.5 million) is now Han, compared to some 6 million Tibetans.

To be "modern" is to have a toilet and the Chinese build little houses to settle\cordon off the nomads and the yak herders. Tibet is very high, many Chinese have a hard time living there; the government occupied Tibet primarily to gain the minerals – they have nuclear projects there, poisoning the environment, as the Dalai Lama warns in his 5 point program (Freedom in Exile, p. 247) and copper mining and mining for lithium for batteries – as well as seizing the land.

The parallels to ethnic cleansing of indigenous people in the America particularly in the West, are striking. Tsundue also drew parallels to indigenous Canadians, Australians and Palestinians...


Every time we buy a cheap Chinese product – and Reaganism meant the destruction of US manufacturing and its flight to China – we are all part of a "globalization" including the ethnic cleansing of Tibet. As an act of solidarity, it would be good to boycott these products and protest the subservience of state leaders to money and power. David Cameron has provided recent examples of truckling to China for trade – greeting a Tibetan delegation about human rights by proclaiming “Tibet is part of China,” being criticized for dishonor and fecklessness, then visiting China and saying nothing on the issue.


The women, 18 to a room on triple bunks, working 6 days a week or the 14 men and women who threw themselves from the roof at Foxconn (an Apple subsidiary) in 2010 are also harmed by this "globalization."


Tsundue underlined how the now settled nomads join the "globalization" of television, become disoriented, lose themselves…


The Chinese build little houses for the Tibetans and get them in debt for rent. Often, the promised government contribution to the rent is not forthcoming. The Tibetans are thus forced into new ways of life, dishwashing for the men, prostitution for some of the women (women who escape across the Himalayas are now going to school and finding their own way). It is a life of despair. The Chinese advertise themselves – sometimes deceive themselves like the “English” American settlers - as providing a “gilded” reservation for the Tibetans, “modernizing them” as General Sherman and John Evans and Teddy Roosevelt liked to say, but with the wheel of debt-slavery, with this grim life, not so much….


Tsundue lives as a poor Tibetan, outside the world of consumerism. He has four simple outfits, two for hot, two for cold. He wears a distinctive red bandana until Tibet is free.

There is a story told of him by Tibet Writes (a group of writers) that he was on a train to Delhi and someone stole his worn sneakers. He walked barefoot to the Temple where he was to speak. “They must have needed them more than I,” he reported.


Tsundue is one of the fierce children of the Dalai Lama as Pankaj Mishra puts it. He is torn between honoring the fathers who fought for Tibet and pursuing nonviolence. One of the poems in Kora, “Betrayal,” captures this tearing as does the powerful prose story named “Kora”:


My father died

defending our home

our village, our country

I too wanted to fight

But we are Buddhist

People say we should be

peaceful and non-violent

So I forgave my enemy.

But sometimes I feel

I betrayed my father.”


Loyal to the Dalai Lama in the deepest way, Tsundue still writes of the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent nonaction. The Dalai Lama has an enormously wise (for the Chinese, too) strategy of pursuing a genuinely autonomous region within China which preserves Tibetan culture. He is as much a political ruler/leader of the Tibetans as a leader of a nonviolent movement. He has used this power of his political authority, against resistance, to create the democratically elected Tibetan parliament and a charter for a future Tibet in which it can overrule the Dalai Lama, a step toward preserving and developing the people beyond all Chinese attempts to demonize him as a "splittist"…(h/t Dolma Tsering Teykhang). He has also, as Tenzin Jigme, leader of the Tibetan Youth Congress, suggested, been a beacon of nonviolence, someone who created the community of Dharmasala - we have just visited the Tibetan's Children's Village for 1,700 children separated from their parents or orphaned and gaining nurturing, a modern education and an education as Tibetans - from nothing. The care for children is as striking for the future of the Tibetan community as concern for the old and the absence of beggary. The Dalai Lama is also a beacon for protest against a Chinese regime unrestrained by law or decency...

So the point that His Holiness is not a Gandhi or King or Badshah Khan in organizing resistance (facing an even harsher enemy, from exile) is a relative one...


For one can get tortured and murdered in China for wearing Tibetan clothes, any assertion that one is not “Han.” One way that the Chinese revolution was unMarxian and regressive compared to the West - it, of course, liberated Chinese farmers, particularly women, created literacy, initially fought capitalism, and liberated the Chinese nation - was in its lack of respect for the rule of law and the at least formal treatment of each person with minimal regard and fairness. Note that this standard is often violated towards the poor, particularly the nonwhite poor and immigrants, in the West (that is what capitalism is).

But the Chinese army and party are inheritors of the emperors whom thy tried to displace, see my poem "Frogs" here - and what they have done to the Tibetans, just as what the United States army did to the Native Americans, is unspeakable. I had not fully taken in the decadence of the Chinese regime in this respect until I had focused on Tibet; these practices make the Bush regime’s copying\adoption of Chinese methods of torture in Iraq - the SERE program composed by the bizarre "psychologists"/war criminals Mitchell and Jesson - and its secret sites particularly appalling….


The Dalai Lama has accepted or mostly not spoken against many forms of resistance which Tibetans undertake. He has warned sometimes of resistance from Nepal which fought the Nepalese army (Nepal, too, taking Chinese aid, has become fiercely repressive toward all Tibetan clothing, freedom of speech, flags, protest...). He has not urged specific nonviolent steps in action, and has spoken sadly of and tried to deter self-burnings, a nonviolent, final and desperate form of protest, though he rightly underlines that the cause is Chinese oppression.


But there has now been a change again in the Tibetan movement. Forces had been gathering for a resistance on behalf of an independent Tibet, perhaps undertaking violence. Tsundue strongly represents Tibetan independence rather than the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way, in the recent film “The Sun Behind the Clouds." But among the former political prisoners and their relatives in Go Chu Som (their organization), they had a democratic debate and vote, and the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way position won out. The new leadership represents this position, and is proud of coming from a genuinely democratic vote from below, something that does not happen in creating the "positions" of, for example, hierarchical mainstream American political parties and similar groups.


In addition, Tsundue gave the most striking account of Lhakar. Lha is the Tibetan word for Wednesday, kar is for karpo – white. It is the “life day” in the Tibetan astrological calendar of the Dalai Lama. In Tibet, people started to wear Tibetan clothes (a woman was locked up for this) as a special prayer for the return of the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans mourn their exile (or oppression) on New Year’s Day but celebrate each Wednesday. Everyone wears Tibetan scarves, a sign of purity, a celebration, and a “cost-effective” measure Tsundue joked, too. For the 2008 rebellion in which Tibetans had stood together against Chinese oppression had resulted in 400 deaths and 5,000 jailed. But Lhakar is a collaborative movement in which everyone speaks Tibetan, dresses Tibetan and stands out against the Chinese occupation, ethnic cleansing and pseudo-modernization.

It is also not as “costly” as the self-burnings (they had seemed to me to accomplish more for the Tibetan resistance internationally than to Tsundue…).


Wednesday Konchok Tseten set himself afire in Amdo province, Tibet (China excludes this from "the Tibetan Autonomous Region"), leaving a wife and two children. The Chinese authorities arrested the woman and perhaps will try to frame her for murder to avoid his words for a free Tibet and for the return of the Dalai Lama. Tseten was the 122nd person to burn himself.

At 6 pm in Dharmasala, there was a vigorous march, singing, a spinning of prayer wheels - khorlo - and then a candlelight vigil at which Tsundue spoke powerfully of compassion and on the nonviolence of the act - it contrasts markedly with the suicide bombings of civilian members of the oppressor regime which are often evil and help only oppressors - and the significance of the gathering. No one could have given words to this more powerfully…

For vivid photos of the gathering to which we all went, see here and for a previous post on self-burnings here.


The Chinese attempt to repress Lhakar desperately. They have augmented the number of soldiers and riot police in Tibet. They reveal hourly the fragility of their power, their uncertainty, their reliance only on violence (I use here Hannah Arendt’s distinction between collective power and the isolated violence of tyrants). They are like the Catholic and Protestant churches who stole Native American children and tried to “civilize” them by starving them and forcing them to become other, to become “American.”


Lhakar is, as Tsundue wonderfully says, “the fiery invisible sword of nonviolence.”


These words transform, to some extent, the heritage of the fathers which Tsundue evokes in "Betrayal." They work with the grim power of violence in this world which, as Adrienne Rich rightly tells us, glares out from the word: nonviolence. Gandhi's satyagraha or the English noncooperation is thus a better word, preserved from the fire of this tension about violence.

It memorably renames Gandhi's nonviolence of the strong.


I asked Tsundue about whether America, which has long become a country of “dishwashers and prostitutes” and many other kinds of wage workers and is heading further in that direction, did not also have other possibilities. I mentioned resistance, shown by the anti-Iraq War movement of which I was a very happy participant, and Occupy. In response, he told us of taking part in the international candlelight vigil in February 2003 with his friends and several international people in Dharmasala (I was in one in Denver, also part of a global human chain of resistance). I found this report thrilling.


Tibet needs but does not have state allies. It can rely only on its own strength and its attractiveness among ordinary people. Many Tibetans once fought, with CIA “support,” against the Chinese government. These are the violent heroes and fathers of some of Tsundue’s writings. Their cause, Tibetan independence against Chinese oppression is just, even if the CIA's purposes are nefarious or imperialists (the Tibetans would have had to have been the genuine socialists, as the Dalai Lama is - see Freedom in Exile, pp. 90-99 - to make the Chinese government, starting with Mao, realize, instead of betraying, its aspirations (The Chinese government could paint resistance and even the Dalai Lama as violent, to some extent, because of the CIA...).


With the rapprochement of Nixon and Mao in 1971, however, the CIA sold out the Tibetans. It is one of the reasons why Tsundue – and the Dalai Lama – emphasize the inner spirit of Tibetan resistance. Noone will carry the victory of the Tibetans but the Tibetans.


Many Tibetans look to America with hope (they have the feeling of many would be immigrants…). And in this case, for its own reasons, America has actually stood a bit for human rights (it also did so with the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas, but equally for the restoration of an American sponsored dictator like Somoza or his avatars…).

Ordinary Americans often fight from below against injustice and occasionally succeed against these powerful interests – drive governments, despite themselves, sometimes to do decent things. But Tsundue’s point that Tibetans must rely on themselves (also one of Mao’s good points about China once upon a time) is deeply true.


What is strong and radiant will gain support from people across the world as Tibet has.


Tsundue spoke fondly of Gene Sharp’s writings on nonviolence – Sharp made a transition from being part of a nonviolent antiwar and civil rights movement to becoming "transpolitical," promoted by the US government and the CIA. Tsundue's praise is a genuine honor for Sharp. Tsundue's friends translated Sharp's work - perhaps From Dictatorship to Democracy into Tibetan.

But Sharp never spoke against the war in Vietnam, in Iraq, or the potential aggression against Iran, and has paid a terrible price, psychologically I think, for his transition from A.J. Muste's secretary and Korean War resistor to advocate of nonviolence only where it serves the CIA. Still, his work goes beyond particular American-supported/limited movements, and can be used for better purposes...


The Tibetans are a spiritual people, one of great heroism. I have learned from Tsundue’s words about “the fiery invisible sword of nonviolence.”

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