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Articulation and More

Monday, Jun 7, 2010

Nineteen ninety-one was a landmark for the Tibetan diaspora. That year 1000 Tibetans left for the US as a part of the Washington’s resettlement project for Tibetan refugees living in India, Nepal and Bhutan. I was then a young boy in TCV School.

One evening I and a few friends got together to compose a petition to His Holiness the Dalai Lama stating that it was a wrong policy to send Tibetans to the US citing the brain drain as one of the reasons. “Most of our experienced teachers are leaving, which affects our studies,” we wrote. We even found a way to deliver the puerile petition to His Holiness. What happened to us later is a different story altogether.

Looking at the way this project has positively impacted the lives of thousands of Tibetan refugees and our struggle in terms of its reach and support network, the logic behind our petition sounds immature, self-serving and myopic. However, at the time of penning our plea we thought that we were making history and that the system did not understand how the world operated. We were angry. We were rebellious. In hindsight I can say that we suffered from premature articulation.

“You must say that I am young, You must say that I am unlearned, But there is one thing I know, Though I am younger than you” sang Bob Dylan in his classic song Masters of War. Being young is being rebellious, trying to go find our own path, our own destiny and to challenge the establishment and the powerful. In the case of Bob Dylan and our own poet-scholar Gendun Choephel, rebellion was based on vision, talents, knowledge and the complete control of their articulation — knowing perfectly well what to say, when, how, why and where.

This brings me to a report in the 3 June issue of Stanford Daily about Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche’s visit to Stanford University. What shook me out of my chair is a remark at the end of this report. Tenzin Seldon, 21, a brilliant Tibetan student at Stanford and a fantastic activist for a free Tibet, stated in her exchange with reporter Zoe Levitt that “Many students view Tibet through the Dalai Lama. That’s one human being. How could he possibly represent the lives of all Tibetans?”

How can Dalai Lama represent the Tibetans is a question one regularly sees on the Chinese government owned media such as Xinhua news or in People’s Daily. An educated Tibetan asking this question today is a premature articulation and reflects political immaturity. It is historically wrong and does not reflect the present reality.

In the aftermath of April’s devastating earthquake in Kyegudo in eastern Tibet, an old woman clung to the dead body of her grandchild and kept on chanting, “Gyalwa Yeshi Norbu Khyenno! Gyalwa Yeshi Norbu Khyenno!” over and over and again. When her world is shattered and nothing is closer to darkness, the one and the only person she cries out for refuge is the Dalai Lama.

During peaceful demonstrations that Tibetans held all over Tibet in 2008, the key slogans included, “Long Live the Dalai Lama!” “We want return of the Dalai Lama” and “We Want Free Tibet!” Tibetans inside Tibet, who live under constant surveillance, fully realize the fact that raising these slogans leads to detention, arrest, torture and imprisonment. Yet they chanted them throughout Tibet. These clearly show that the Dalai Lama not only represents the Tibetans but He remains the most visible symbol of their struggle for freedom.

Since 1642, when the Great Fifth Dalai Lama became the temporal and religious leader of a unified Tibet, the Dalai Lamas have led the Tibetans for over 370 years. Few governments in the world today can trace their institutional and legal origins so far back in history. Hence the institution of the Dalai Lama has great historical legitimacy. Additional to the unique historical circumstances, because of His tireless work for Tibet the 14th Dalai Lama is universally recognized by the Tibetans in and outside Tibet as their undisputed leader.

Communist China often blares out that the Dalai Lama “does not represent the Tibetan people” in desperate efforts to undermine His Holiness’ leadership, under which Tibetans on both sides of the Himalayas struggle for a free Tibet. For Beijing this is a cheap political tool to wield at its convenience.

However, for a Tibetan this is a double-edged sword cutting both sides. The sharper edge faces us. I won’t be surprised if People’s Daily quotes Seldon’s remark to reinforce their rhetoric just as they used Jamyang Norbu-la’s piece criticizing the exile democratic system and its functioning.

We live in free countries and have total freedom not to agree with policies initiated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama or to criticize the exiled-Tibetan Government. But we need to understand the nuances of the issue before making any statement. Remarks must be based on knowledge, history, vision and above all with full understanding of the present reality. Just shooting from the hip to satisfy youths’ rebellious nature, frustration and hopelessness may end up as good sound bites for the media. This will serve no purpose.

Our struggle for a free Tibet is based on truth, history and the power of dialogue with the world, with ourselves and with the Chinese. Articulate young activists like Tenzin Seldon are at the forefront in our struggle to skilfully stand up to the tyrannies of occupation with fortitude and honour. Their willingness to sacrifice and take the lead must be matched by knowledge, vision, a sense of history and a clear sense of the larger picture involving many other issues and factors. Just displaying guts and a damn-everything-else attitude is frankly not enough.

The author can be reached at

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  • avatar tseldon says:

    Dear Bhuchung la,

    I am the Stanford student that you quoted in this article. It’s a bit disconcerting to see that you’ve taken a quote from an interview that lasted 8-10 minutes to make your argument. As you probably know, in your years of experience as a writer, it’s easier to misconstrue what someone says than to fully comprehend and critically acknowledge where that individual is deriving his/her experience or information from.

    I’d like to clarify few things. This comment is from “Stanford Daily” – our school newspaper and the context and primary audience are Stanford students who know fairly little about my country and my people. Their limited perspective of Tibet derives from media portrayal of our religion and our spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. For them, Tibet is His Holiness. That comment, by no means, is discrediting His Holiness or his policies. However, it illuminates the lack of curriculum of Tibet in our education.

    Yes, His Holiness represents the majority of Tibetan people’s aspiration, but does His Holiness represent every single Tibetan’s experience? There are Tibetans from Lhasa that believe in self-determination, then there are the youth in California that believe in freedom – are any less Tibetan because of this diverging view from our leader?

    That “premature articulation” you refer to is what generates and fosters youth to challenge our governance, to practice action over apathy, and it’s one way we can realize true progress/change. I am neither angry, violent, nor rebellious – traits you mention that invigorated and naïve youth depict. On the other hand, I work within our institution to create tangible results. If I am criticized over a single misrepresented statement, how can we fathom progress to unorthodox views that test our barriers? I can strongly say that I am one to learn, unlearn, and relearn our history with clear passion – enough to challenge traditional notions. I might be idealistic in our vision but I am pragmatic in our strategies.


    Tenzin Seldon

  • avatar Ngawang says:

    It strikes me at times how people can take things out of context and misconstrue the words to quickly criticize other beings. I have read the Stanford Daily article and understand the point that the speaker Tenzin Seldon was trying to make. It is understandable that her words would spark criticisms from some in the Tibetan community but what we need to understand is that she isn’t incorrect in making that statement. If you take a look at society itself, for example the American society, we know that although Obama is the President, he doesn’t represent every single American. This is the same in every other society including our own. If you were to read the article with an open mind, you would know that the reason for Samdong Rinpoche visit to Stanford was so that people attending the meeting would see Tibet and its struggles through another leader’s perspective. One man cannot represent an entire nation for everyone in the nation has their own point of view. So for you to criticize Tenzin Seldon for one statement without knowing the entire interview is ignorant on your part. It is the same as me taking the statement about how you and your friends signed a petition against the resettlement project and saying that you are against the expansion of our culture. For me to criticize you on just that sound bite would be ignorant of me. Although, you have your own opinions, it is always good to approach an article with an open mind and to know every single fact before you are quick to make judgments and criticize others.

  • avatar Mila Rangzen says:

    Guys, give me some idea about what’s ‘symbolic’ and ‘literal’ and the difference between the two so we are all on the same track!

  • avatar Topden Tsering says:

    I’m with you on this, Seldon. Don’t let this piece discourage you. I think it’s a TCV thing to believe yourself to be a world saver, a writer of any significant import, an articulator with the most relevant insight, all that without a slightest qualm and self-doubt. We lack the sophistication your generation has at your disposal, if you choose to take away from the world what is available out there. The fallacy of wishing rational mechanism on the Chinese government’s thinking and behavior is another sign of stunted intellectual aspect of our exile reality. The Chinese call the Dalai Lama, Jamyang Norbu, TYC, every one of them terrorist; but not expressing the complex reality of our situation only contributes towards our playing into their hands. So just do what you do. I’m just glad to see you having matured from that teenage girl into this formidable force at least on our bay area scene.

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