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When the iron bird flies, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red man.
Padmasambhava, otherwise known as Guru Rinpoche, was an Indian sage who brought the teachings of Buddha to Tibet in the 8th Century, at the request of King Trisong Deutsan. He is believed to have subdued the ferocious demons of Tibet, who were causing all kinds of havoc and making life as a Buddhist very nearly impossible. One after another, he made them promise to behave themselves and become Dharma protectors.
Whether he could have foreseen the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the flight into exile of so many Tibetans - which continues to this day - is a question which draws upon your fundamental system of beliefs for an answer.
The number of Tibetans scattered around the world is tiny; in total there are only 131,000. The vast majority, 100,000 of them, reside in India. But there were never a lot of Tibetans anywhere. Despite the vastness of their homeland, there were only 6 million Tibetans when the Chinese armies rolled across the border, and one fifth of those, 1.2 million people, died as a result of having to adjust to becoming Chinese.
Wherever they are, almost all Tibetans living abroad consider themselves refugees and hope one day to return to a free Tibet.
All beings will be sunk in great hardship and in overpowering fear; the days and the nights will drag on slowly in suffering.
- 13th Dalai Lama
In Tibet, the people have endured nearly half a century of systematic attacks on their distinct identity and culture1. Periods of brutal repression have alternated with periods of relatively liberal policies, depending on the swing of the political pendulum in Beijing. During the dark days of the Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976), Tibetan cultural institutions were literally torn apart stone by stone and the mere suspicion of resistance to the new ideas of the Communist cadres would invite public abuse, beatings, and even execution. In recent years, the paranoia of the central government has brought new hardships to the people of Tibet. It is now a criminal offence, for instance, to own a picture of the Dalai Lama; torture is used routinely to punish and intimidate suspected 'Splittists'.
A more recent and more insidious threat to the existence of a distinct Tibet is the influx of 'settlers' from other parts of China. Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans already form the majority in some areas. This shifting ethnic balance, combined with policies which discriminate against religious practice and other genuine expressions of Tibetan culture, make it inevitable that Tibet will cease to exist, except in memory, just as Manchuria has, unless steps are taken immediately to protect the basic human rights in Tibet that most of us take for granted.
When the iron bird flies, the red-robed people of the East who have lost their land will appear, and the two brothers from across the great ocean will be reunited.
- Hopi Indian prophesy
In the hazy dawn of human existence, our ancient ancestors held a tenuous claim to the land they occupied. They were often forced to wander vast distances, seeking a modicum of security against the perils of fire and flood and aggressive neighbours. Many indigenous people tell stories which describe, in various ways, this wandering; there are tantalizing clues which hint of a global relationship of human beings largely erased from the memories of people obsessed with nation building and colonial conquest.
In recent times, many of the people who have reaped the rewards of colonial expansion have become dissatisfied. They have come to feel that their lives, rich in material terms, are lacking in real meaning, something that is difficult to define. Many of them are turning away from their own religious traditions and looking towards a new spirituality based on their understanding of the beliefs of their ancestors. That much of what they discover may never, in some cases, have existed is really beside the point; however strange - even silly - their efforts may seem, the quest for meaning is a serious counterpoint to the materialist mainstream of everyday events, which may eventually lead us to a better understanding of who we are.
Our new explorations into indigenous cultures may be important in determining what we will become; but how we respond right now to injustice and persecution is a reflection of what we already are. The People's Republic of China is quick to point to the hypocrisy of our objection to the demolition of Tibet... and they are right. In North America, Australia, and many other parts of the world, the good life we enjoy is based on having robbed the native people of their birthright. Many of those people live amongst us, but are not a part of us. Many others are now extinct. What the Chinese are doing in Tibet we have ourselves already done, when we were brutal conquistadors and when we were missionaries.
The tragedy of Tibet is taking place right now. It is not a question of New Age mumbo jumbo or an intellectual exercise in ancient history. Tibet was, at the beginning of the 20th Century, a state poised on the verge of joining the modern Community of Nations. The Chinese invasion of Tibet came, in the aftermath of the Second World War, at a time when the Community of Nations might have benefited greatly from what the Tibetans had to offer.
The Tibetan Diaspora is, in a sense, our second - and perhaps last - chance to examine their unique perspective on life. At the very least, it is an opportunity for us to show that we have learned something from our past. How we respond to those in need of our help is the true reflection of who we really are. The small number of Tibetans living in our midst have brought us the Buddhist concepts of Loving Kindness and Compassion as symbols of national identity. The question is whether we are sophisticated enough to understand the value of this.