By Tenzin Nyinjey
Tibetans have always valued education. When Tibet was free, education was imparted mainly in the three great monasteries of Tibet, Sera, Drepung and Ganden. Only when one joined a monastery or a nunnery, could he or she hope to become a person of letters. Scholars and intellectuals were mostly confined to the monasteries, and their writings, as expected, are invariably tinged with religious and spiritual overtones. The general populace was mostly illiterate, engaging in farming and small businesses. The majority of the populace could not even read Buddhist scriptures, although ninety nine percent of Tibet's population was considered to be Buddhist. Perhaps the only literary engagement they did was read and utter the ubiquitous six-syllable mantra, Om mani padme hum. Serious learning was the privilege of the ruling class. Only members of the clergy and aristocracy were accorded education, the primary aim of which was to train them as officials of the Tibetan government. Their education too was traditional; they learned Tibetan language, history and religion. Modern education, in the sense of learning scientific knowledge, was not available then.
Realizing that Tibet must embrace modernity or else she would fall prey to her large communist neighbor, the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama launched a massive reform program to modernize Tibet. Students were sent to England to be trained in mechanical engineering and mining. The Tibetan army was trained along the lines of British and Japanese armies. Modern weapons in the form of machine guns and artillery were purchased from British India to strengthen Tibet's military power. A snow lion national flag was designed to represent Tibet as an independent and sovereign nation. Envoys were sent to Europe to push for a Tibetan seat in the League of Nations. English schools were set up in Gyantse, where some of the brightest Tibetan boys were trained to handle Tibet's march into modernity. Unfortunately, the sheer conservatism of the powerful monastic seats put a continuous brake on these reform programs. They rightly felt that the winds of modern change blowing swiftly across the country would threaten their vested interests and position of sole power in Tibet. Due to their enormous pressure, modern reform programs were shelved; English medium schools in Gyantse were closed down "to prevent them from further polluting the serene spiritual atmosphere of Tibet". Tibet once again returned to her medieval shell. The result was catastrophic. When Mao's Red army launched its brutal invasion, the country could not stand up to the challenges. The rest, as they say, is history. Tibet lost her hard-fought independence and the whole country, since then, has been subjected to brutal Chinese oppression and slavery.
Learning the hard lessons of history that Tibet failed because it could not embrace modernity, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's first priority, after arriving in exile in India, was to impart a modern and secular education to the Tibetan refugee children. Schools were established in Tibetan settlements scattered across India. There was also the pressing need to preserve Tibet's distinct identity. As such Tibetan children were given both modern and traditional Tibetan education, consisting of Tibetan language, history, and religion. Unfortunately the marriage between the two did not turn out to be as blissful as one would have expected. There have been frequent conflicts between them, and during such cases traditional education seems to have prevailed over modern education. For instance, I have heard that the science students of Tibetan Children's Village schools (TCV) have stopped performing vivisection of rats, as it goes against the Buddhist precept of not taking away the life of living beings!
This incident has seriously put into question the viability of the system of imparting both traditional and modern education to Tibetan refugee students. Perhaps this also answers His Holiness the Dalai Lama's puzzle as to why Tibetan refugee schools have so far failed to churn out a che les pa (a professional or specialist) in the last fifty years. No one can become a surgeon without practicing vivisection of rats! Thus our failure to produce mathematicians, physicists, novelists, political scientists and so forth, seems to be due to the overpowering influence of religion (often in negative way) on the minds of Tibetan children. For, only an open mind, free from religious dogmas, can be receptive to scientific discoveries, as shown by the likes of Edison and Einstein.
In highly advanced societies, religion is something that is kept away from schools. A student learning physics in the prestigious St. Stephens College in New Delhi does not even have a rudimentary knowledge of the significance of lighting butter lamps candles in the temples. In France, even innocuous religious symbols like crosses, turbans, headscarves are banned in government schools. Nonetheless, this doesn't necessarily mean, that the French government is against religion or for that matter, French students are lacking in moral integrity. In fact, the moral character and uprightness of French students is as strong as those of the Tibetan students in refugee schools. After all, this is the nation that produced such literary stalwarts like Albert Camus and Jean Paul Satre. The French government implements such a secular education system, because it produces students who not only possess moral integrity but are also armed with an education that can help them live in dignity and honor in the modern world. Therefore, if Tibetans are to produce genuine professionals and specialists, the need of the hour for Tibet's freedom struggle, we must embrace a truly secular education, devoid of religious dogmas and superstition.
I know that calling for secularism is like throwing a bombshell in the Tibetan society, which is very conservative from the standpoint of religion. It might cause chaos and confusion among the Tibetan people. In the past, many leading Tibetan intellectuals have suggested that Tibetan society should tread the path of secularism. Unfortunately, their voices were drowned out in the cacophony of those who were in favor of continuing the present system of chos srid zhung 'drel (religion and politics combined). The advocates of secularism have been silenced, as they did not find willing allies in the corridors of power. This is understandable considering the fact that religion gives succor and a sense of relief to the Tibetan refugees who have had to cope with the wearing complexities of exile life. However, the principle reason why the call for secularism fell on deaf ears is because the majority of Tibetans have a distorted notion of it. To them, secularism sounds like a concept that is anti-religious and devoid of moral values. To them, a secular society means a society opposed to any kind of religion; a society that embraces atheism like that of the Chinese state. This, however, is a gross misunderstanding of the concept. I am also not convinced if we translated the term accurately into Tibetan. chos lugs ris med, as secularism is known in Tibetan, literally means respect for all religions or non-sectarianism. It does not connote separation of church and state, which is how secularism is actually defined in political science. A thorough discussion among Tibetans on this issue is required to help mitigate our unwanted fears, suspicions, and prejudices concerning secularism.
Secularism is also indispensable if we Tibetans are to create a truly open, free and democratic society, as advocated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It is a time-tested method that has been followed by countries to bring about progress and development. The most advanced countries in the world have adopted a secular democratic system of governance. Even our cultural cousin, Bhutan, seems to be treading on this path. Bhutan, in any way is monarchy, headed by a king, a layman. A truly secular society seems also to be the wish of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Addressing the leading lamas of Tibetan Buddhism at a conference at the Norbulingka, Dharamsala, His Holiness said that they should not expect to regain their once powerful position in a future free Tibet.
Bringing an overnight secular revolution in the Tibetan society may be difficult, if not impossible. However, this does not mean that we should not start working towards it. Of course, regarding this, first and foremost, we need the blessings and guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which seems to be there already. His Holiness often says that when there is a conflict between science and religion, the former should take precedence! A powerful and entrenched section of the Tibetan society may not welcome it, which is understandable. However, we could at least begin the process of secularization in the Tibetan schools by imparting true secular education to our students. This would also be in accordance with the wishes of the students. To be honest, Tibetan school children do not enjoy and nor do they understand the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhist learning that they get in the schools. They are more interested in watching Sharukh Khan on TV than reciting the verses of Aryadeva, Nagarjuna and Shantideva. By making this statement, I do not imply that the teachings of these famous Buddhist masters are of no value and hence not necessary for the Tibetan students. They are truly religious gems, bringing true happiness and harmony in the society. What I argue is that such teachings are too advanced to be taught to young Tibetan students. Such teachings can be taught at a later stage, when students are more receptive to them. Works of poets and dramatists like Shakespeare and Yeats, taught in English classes, are enough to impart ethical and moral values to our students. The only traditional knowledge that must be taught in Tibetan schools has to be the Tibetan language, both spoken and written. But this language should be reformed along secular lines, which is possible only when we start translating all the western literary works into Tibetan. Regarding this, Tibetan translators have an important role to play, as shown by Pema Tsewang Shastri.
Recently, a meeting of Tibetan exiles was convened in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, to deliberate on the future course of our struggle following China's refusal to come to the negotiating table. Ideas were exchanged and discussed among the participants over how best to carry forward the torch of the Tibetan freedom movement. Both in the meeting and in the press, there were heated arguments between the camps of Rangzen and Ume-lam. In their fervor, the participants seem to have forgotten the fact that both Rangzen and Rang skyong, and the means to achieve them, including the use of violence (remember the Mustang guerillas), have been pursued by the Tibetans. In the end, nothing special or concrete came out of the "special meeting". The only silver lining, perhaps, was the reaffirmation of the strength of Tibetan unity in the leadership of His Holiness and the continuation of non-violent means to bring wider freedoms to the people of Tibet. Indeed, the meeting would have become special if it had revived the long-forgotten debate of secularism, once brought forward by a few enlightened Tibetan intellectuals and endorsed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It's high time we pondered seriously on secularism. Who knows, it could be Tibet's savior!
The writer is a former Tibetan government official, and presently the editor of 'Tibet Journal', a Publication of Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
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