|PENCIL NOTESThis is the first of what will be a monthly series of socio-political commentary on phayul.com, titled “Pencil Notes”. The column will be updated in the first week of every month, it will be in news section on the first day of its posting and then move to the opinion section the following dayby Tenzin Wangyal
“There’s Michael Jordan, and then there is the rest of us.” This is how Earvin “Magic” Johnson assented to the general consensus that MJ was the unparalleled superstar of the NBA in the 1990’s. Likewise when it comes to moral uprightness and righteousness among Tibetans, most of you would agree with me that – there’s the Dalai Lama, and then there is the rest of us. And you would even more readily agree with me that this is no exaggeration, but in fact an understatement.
While we (as Buddhists) talk about not harming other living beings, we Tibetans find it hard to even go a day without meat being part of one of our three meals. While we curse and demonize the Chinese for reducing us to stateless refugees, when questioned by other people we Tibetans fall into our default mode of feigned altruism, pretending that we bear no hatred or ill will towards “our Chinese brothers and sisters”. The common thread here is the double standard or hypocrisy, which lies at the heart of what I call The Myth of Tibetan Moral Superiority.
The notion of Tibetan moral superiority is a myth because it is based on certain assumptions that color the way we view ourselves vis-à-vis other people. In case you haven’t been paying attention, or it so easily escapes your observation, this attitude is manifested in a variety of ways. It is vocalized when parents reproach their children for dating, let alone marrying anyone who is not Tibetan. It is the underlying assertion when we say that truth is on our side. It is the constant refrain of elders to the youth to not smear the name of Tibetans – the rationale here being less of morality than about simply trying to protect our reputation. It is what determines the modus operandi of the Tibetan government-in-exile (TGIE) and the one reliable predictor of the manner in which the TGIE may be forced to respond in its dealings with China (we are reluctant to engage in more effective strategies that are not in line with our professed moral values). We are more concerned about making the future free Tibet a demilitarized zone of peace and presenting an example to other nations than about preventing future infringements on our sovereignty.
This attitude of Tibetan moral superiority is largely based on the implicit belief that Buddhism in general, and specifically our brand of Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, with its special emphasis on altruism and compassion, is superior to all other religions. This self-image can also be attributed to the increasing popularity and recognition of our leader, His Holiness, as one of the world’s supreme moral figures. And to those Tibetans who think they can claim to be morally superior just because they are born Tibetans, let me be the one to burst their bubble – moral superiority is never a birthright, no one can be entitled to it just by virtue of their being born to a certain race or family. Moral superiority is something that has to be earned by each individual through his or her actions.
The world views us as the Dalai Lama’s people (for example in India, we are called Dalai Lama ka aadmi). Just as much as His Holiness is our ambassador par excellence, we Tibetans feel like we are entrusted with the duty of being equally worthy representatives of our leader in our interaction with people of other nationalities and cultures. However, emulating His Holiness is not only impossible and impractical; in many situations, it requires compromise upon compromise. As for those “unique” Tibetan moral values that our leader always refers to, can you help me identify just one that is distinctly Tibetan? Is it compassion or hospitality or humility or piety? Even if we were to assume that many Tibetans do possess these virtues, these virtues are just as prevalent in other cultures. The fact of the matter is that there are good people and bad people, very equitably distributed across the globe.
Though the west has long realized that Tibet is no Shangri-la, we Tibetans have been quite successful in creating and fueling the stereotype that we are a morally superior people. This perception was easy to sustain when Tibet followed a policy of isolation and closed its borders to the outside world. After the Chinese invasion, it was again important to present our moral side because much of foreign political support and humanitarian aid stemmed from - and continued due to – our positive image. Now that Tibetans have spread to various parts of the world, and people get to know Tibetans at more than a superficial level, it is harder to maintain it – after all, we are just as human and fallible as other people.
It is dangerous if we ourselves believe in the illusion that we have conjured up. We should not become too attached to our self-image as morally superior beings, so much so that it is our most valued collective possession. And since all myths are some day done away with, the sooner we look closely at the mirror, the better, for it is better to recognize a mirage for what is – an optical illusion – than to walk all the way across the desert to be completely exhausted and rewarded by nothing but disillusionment and further dehydration - all for something that didn’t even exist in the first place.
In the end, we Tibetans are neither the barbarians the Chinese would have the world believe, nor are we the Bodhisattvas that we sometimes pretend that we are. And there really is no need for us to be the sacrificial lambs on the altar of virtue and morality. Tibetan-ness is not synonymous with moral superiority or righteousness. All you need to remember are these words from Maya Angelou - “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.”Tenzin Wangyal is a former TCV student. He currently works in Boston, USA and is on the Board of Directors for Students for a Free Tibet (SFT).He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org