Tea with the Dalai Lama, part 1 | Moment's Notice

By Maria Montalvo | Apr 12, 2018
Courtesy of: Tim Crosby MontalvoMaria Montalvo and her husband, Rep. Strom Peterson, listen to the president-in-exile of Tibet, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, in the Central Tibetan Administration building.

“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.” – Buddha

Four days of my life have given me a new set of eyes to look through – to see others, our little world here, the larger world around us and, most importantly, myself. An unexpected journey last week to Dharamsala, India, culminated in an audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, as a member of a delegation from Washington.

But having tea with the Dalai Lama must come in another column, as I could not have understood our visit with His Holiness without knowing more of Tibet, his people and his homeland.

Describing India, Dharamsala and the intense swirl of colors, sounds, flavors and smells, feelings and thoughts challenges our restrained American sensibilities, but the message of the Tibetan community there was clear and consistently reinforced – be kind, be courageous and be resolute in the commitment to return home.

Our first walk around town highlighted the number of co-ops, art centers and shops attempting to retain traditional Tibetan arts, as well as the welcoming presence of Buddhist monks and temples (you cannot walk by the prayer wheels without turning them).

Throughout the trip, our time with Tibetans in leadership positions and those on the street embodied their Buddhist beliefs in active compassion. It is not enough to feel badly for someone, but to do something about it.

Our group’s first cup of tea together in India was with the president-in-exile of Tibet, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, and soon became the first class in an accelerated history course.

Sitting in a modest building within a small administrative complex (but still with vibrant colors in the painting, weaving and architecture), the president spoke in a familiar, engaging manner, demonstrating his Harvard education and sense of obligation to his cause, a “labor of love.”

He talked of the centuries of Tibetan dominance across Asia, but then how Tibetans took their Buddhism to heart and focused less on the military, leading them to where they are today, exiled from their country, with a diaspora of approximately 130,000 Tibetans living across the globe and millions remaining in China.

The government in exile is democratically elected by Tibetans, who are free to vote, and reliably 80 percent do, with Sangay receiving 51 percent of the vote in the last election.

Understanding the differences in the public messaging from China and from the Tibetan government-in-exile is critical, he said, especially since free media are unable to visit Tibet and news coverage is sparse. Freedom House, a U.S.-based nongovernmental nonprofit organization, creates an annual “Freedom of the World” report that ranks nations along a scale based on political rights and civil liberties.

In 2017, Freedom House named Syria the least free nation in the world, with Tibet a close second (less free than North Korea, Eritrea and Turkmenistan). Tibetans’ unfailing hope, however, comes from the way they look at the world: “Today is bad. Tomorrow will be worse. The next day will be terrible. But the day after that will be better.”

Over another cup of tea, the founder of several Tibetan women’s organizations and Tibetan Buddhist nunneries told us that she wanted to make sure “we have not wasted our time in exile” by being self-sufficient and setting the right example as productive human beings.

Similarly, one of the 11 women in the Parliament told a story of hiking to reach her constituents in an area nearly impassable by any means but on foot. And again with tea in front of us, the speaker of the Parliament introduced the concept of going beyond a superficial understanding of what it actually means to support Tibet.

In the 1990s, we Americans saw “Free Tibet” on bumpers of cars, patches on backpacks, and ironed-on T-shirts. The notoriety of the Dalai Lama grew from his enthralling kindness and interpretation of active compassion.

Admiration for him brought the plight of Tibet to the forefront of media attention and the national conversation for decades. But today, the pervasive media din leaves even less time for thorough investigation and pushes it from the headlines.

It is easy to view Tibet through an idealized view of Tibetan Buddhism, or the Dalai Lama, or through a protective East-versus-West lens, but the region is as complex as any nation with thousands of years in its rear-view mirror.

It was sometimes free and sometimes not, sometimes guiding the direction of change within their country and sometimes not. In the end, Tibetans retain hope that truth and justice will prevail. That may be an idea, but as Buddha advised, Tibetans are putting action behind that idea.


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