11. Tibetan Buddhists in Diaspora

Family histories are complicated as evidenced by my family history and Mary, my wife’s, family history. Regarding my family history, Chuck and Donna, my brother and sister-in-law, and Charles, Susan, and Melinda, my cousins, helped me recall parts of our family history. On my father’s “Lindquist” side, my Swedish great- grandfather came to this country with his wife in 1881? Although my great-grandfather was born in Sweden, he traveled to USA in 1882. Unfortunately, my great grandfather’s wife soon died leaving three young infants and children. My great-grandfather’s sister-in-law made the journey from Sweden to become the new wife and mother to this family. On my mother’s side, sometime during the colonial period, my “Jones” ancestors came to America. Like many other new settlers, they started in Maryland, moved to Virginia, then Tennessee, possibly arriving in Illinois by the 1830’s.. Mary, my wife, ancestors exhibited a similar pattern. As a Burgess- Parken, her ancestors were also colonial pioneers. Over several generations, different family members moved from Massachusetts to upstate New York, then further west to Missouri and Texas, and finally to Kansas. Some of them traveled by railroad, others walked as they claimed land as homestead. Why do I mention all these family ancestors whom I need help in keeping straight from my brother, sister-in-law, and cousins? Every family today has a family history that includes movement. The reasons for movement may vary; the nature of the movement may vary; the various types and degrees of feelings, from joys to tragedies may vary. Yet, there is one constant, we and our ancestors moved from place to place.

Tibetans have also been on the move. Like the African diaspora, the Chinese diaspora, the Jewish diaspora, the Irish and the Italian diasporas, there has been a Tibetan diaspora. One seemingly credible online writer suggests the following statistics regarding the Tibetan population. As of 2010, there were approximately 6,411,000 Tibetans of which 98% of the Tibetans remained in China. Despite the prevalence of Chinese Tibetans, participants in the Tibetan diaspora included 120,000 in India, 14,000 in Nepal, and 11,000 in USA. 

Totally unplanned, I realize that I have visited many areas which have become major population centers for these 6.4 million Tibetans. I visited Tibet with three other colleagues in 2005; I visited Dharmsala in 2014; I visited Darjeeling in 2017; and now I’ve revisited Kathmandu and visited Ladakh for the first time in 2019.  Here is some of the history of the Tibetan diaspora.

When the 14th Dalai Lama fled China in 1959, he fled south to Nepal.

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While he continued south and took refuge in India, some Tibetans went no further than Nepal. Because of the famous Boudhnath in the Kathmandu suburb, both Tibetan laity and monks created a “Little Tibet” in this area Boudha.

 In regards to Tibetans in India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave permission not only for the Dalai Lama to reside in Dharmsala, but also to form a Tibetan Government- in-Exile.

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Mao and all subsequent People’s Republic of China premiers found this act of the Indian government objectionable. Despite the PRC’s disapproval, Tibetan immigrants moved from Tibet to India in three waves. First, during the the most significant period 1959-1970’s, the Dalai Lama and approximately 80,000 Tibetans move to India. Second, another, smaller wave occurred during the period 1980’s- mid 1990’s with probably half of the immigrants being monks and nuns. Third, during the late 1990’s- present, the immigrant number dropped dramatically as those seeking to escape Tibet were either killed or found the process too difficult. 

During these three waves, the immigrants settled in three different geographic areas in India, Dharmsala, Leh, and Bylakuppe in southern India. In each of these areas, they  recreated “Little Tibets.” Often the immigrants lived in one of the 52 Refugee Settlement areas set aside by the Indian government for the Tibetans.

While visiting Dharmsala, I spent an afternoon at a campus of the Tibetan Children’s School.

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Across their various Indian campuses, the Children’s School helps over 17,000 children. Some parents allowed to have their infants be taken to this Children’s School. This school helps both escaping refugee children as well as children from the local Refugee Settlement areas.

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The kids at the Children’s School play and learn basic Buddhist values.

There is more in Dharmsala than the Children’s School. As expected there is more criticism of China’s treatment of Tibetans and Tibet here than elsewhere.

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Tibetans have also moved to the Ladakh area of northwest India. There is a Tibetan Settlement Camp just east of Leh. Different than Dharmsala, Tibetan Buddhists have inhabited this area since the 700’s! As a result, scholars assert that Tibetan Buddhism was established here before Tibetan Buddhism became ingrained in Tibetan society!

Eventually, European countries and the United States began to accept Tibetan immigrants. Switzerland accepted the first Tibetan immigrants to Europe. In the 1960’s, the Swiss Red Cross enabled approximately 1500 Tibetans to call Switzerland “home.” Regarding the United States, the 1990 “Immigration Act: Section 134” authorized 1000 visas for “displaced” Tibetans. Those Tibetans who participate in the lottery and who were selected clustered in four US cities, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Boston. 

Eventually, Tibetans established roots in other US cities. As a result of decades of friendships with various Atlanta Emory University’s faculty and staff and the Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama visited Emory in 1987. Successive visits in 1995 and 1998 led to him being named an Emory Presidential Distinguished Professor like President Jimmy Carter. As Distinguished Professor, the Dalai Lama returned to Atlanta in 2010 and 2013. There were two major consequences of those visits.

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In 1991, the Drepung Loseling Institute, later the Drepung Loseling Monastery, led by Geshe Lobsang an Emory Ph.D. was formed.

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In 2005, the Emory-Tibet Partnership was inaugurated. The website describes the partnership: 

“The Emory-Tibet Partnership (ETP) is a unique educational endeavor, bringing together the best of the Western and Tibetan Buddhist intellectual traditions for their mutual enrichment and for the discovery of new knowledge. Our programs explore the convergence of science and inner values in an effort to address humanity’s greatest problems on more than a material level. By advancing an understanding of reality that incorporates both heart and mind, we believe we can find better ways to relieve human suffering.” 

One component of this Partnership is the collaboration between Emory scholars and Tibetan teachers. Emory scholars are creating and implementing a comprehensive modern science curriculum for use in Tibetan monastic institutions. Tibetans are instructing Emory scientists “about Buddhist science of. The mind and what it can contribute to the understanding of human emotions, the nature of consciousness, and integrative approaches to health and well-being.” A mutually beneficial relationship seems to have been created.

Obviously, Tibetans have moved in larger numbers more recently than ever before. They, like other people who move, face two major issues: how do they relate to their land of origin and how do they adjust to their new context. On the one hand, regarding their relation to the land of origin, many immigrant Tibetans are obviously angry at the Chinese treatment of fellow Tibetans. They are aware of the 2008 protests and the 2012 approximately 100 or so self-immolations in Tibet. To place their deep anger in context, not all immigrants are angry at their country of origin. Many South Asian Indians in the USA do not exhibit that attitude. In fact, their connection is often quite deep as many of these Indian-American citizens upon their death desire to be cremated and their ashes scattered in a treasured Indian location. On the other hand, regarding Tibetans adjusting to their new context, this adjustment varies according to the context. In Kathmandu, Dharmsala, and Ladakh, the adjustment involves a large number of Tibetan laity and monastics who must adjust to establishing a whole new life and community. They must find work to support families, health care for sick family members, and schools for their children. While there may be assistance from  the larger surrounding Buddhist communities, the adjustment can be difficult. In the Atlanta context, since the presence of Tibetans is primarily a small, highly talented group of monastics seeking to fulfill a specific purpose related either to the Drepung Loseling Monastery or the Emory-Tibet Partnership, the dynamics of adjustment, while smooth, differs. Their adjustment is not to American society in general; their adjustment is not to become participating members in this wider society; their adjustment is simply to be able to negotiate this new context as they fulfill their more primary work.

My family ancestors and my wife’s family ancestors moved. In fact, if you are a United States citizen, unless your ancestors are 100% Native American, then your ancestors have also moved. Tibetans have also moved from place to place. Since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, he and other Tibetans have been in movement not because of an attraction from a distant land, but out of the necessity to flee for their survival to a distant land. May their adjustment to new “homes” be as successful as possible.

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