John Billington* says he remains unconvinced of the viability of the exile Tibetans’ middle way approach for resolving the issue of Tibet, despite his best efforts to make a sense of it – including with a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama – for the simple reason that for all the nobility of its intentions, the formula is entirely incompatible with the ingrained nature and character of the Chinese state as we know it.
The Tibet Museum is an impressive addition to the CTA’s headquarters at Gangchen Kyishong. Nga popa yin (ང་བོད་པ་ཡིན། I am a Tibetan) or Ngan-tso popa yin (ང་ཚོ་བོད་པ་ཡིན། we are Tibetan) greets the visitor, with the addition: Di ngan-tso-i lo-gyu re (འདི་ང་ཚོ་ཡི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་རེད། this is our story). Although familiar with the unjust sufferings inflicted on Tibet for more than sixty years I am still moved to tears by the story.
In His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first formal “10th March Statement” in 1961 he makes a clear message: “I appeal to our sponsors and to the [UN] Assembly to get the Chinese to vacate their aggression and to help restore the independence of Tibet…” And he appeals to the Tibetan people inside Tibet “to keep up their spirit and resolve to regain their independence”. As we all know, since 1987 the message has been modified to an acceptance of “genuine autonomy” within China’s defensive protection – something vaguely akin to the Patron-Priest (Cho-Yon) relationship of Tibet with the Mongol and Manchu dynasties in the distant past. This change in Tibet’s aimed-for status is hugely important and is now generally known as “MWA” (Middle Way Approach). In my recent visit to Dharamsala I struggled to understand exactly what this MWA means since I would very much like to support His Holiness whom I love and revere just as if I were Tibetan myself. Sadly, I remain unconvinced.
I was honoured on 3rd December 2022 to have a private audience with His Holiness. We are men of almost identical age and have seen some improvements, but also much suffering and many wars in our long life-times. It grieves me not to be able to agree with His Holiness’s changed policy and I hope someone will come forward and explain to me why “genuine autonomy” is to be preferred to independence, since I have not been able to understand the logic or reasoning behind the change. But meanwhile I must accept the Buddha’s advice: “Test every proposition for yourself and do not agree with it just because the Buddha spoke it.”
The school which I attended in England 70 years ago had the motto: “Mediocria firma” (Latin for the middle way is best) so I am very familiar with the concept of the middle way. It was the family motto of Lord Francis Bacon, a scientist and philosopher, contemporary with William Shakespeare, who promoted the method of scientific induction – that is the respect for any questioning of a held thesis. The held thesis in this case is the MWA. I question it.
The Middle Way approach works if the opposing parties are decent and reasonable people who are willing to compromise. His Holiness, in my view, is a Mahatma – a Great Soul – whose mind is elevated and who thinks on a timeless plane. His role-model to some extent has been Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s struggle was with the British – an essentially decent and kind people with a strong sense of fair play. When British rule was no longer valued, Britain and India parted company but remained friends. But China is not Britain. China’s rule in Tibet has been oppressively cruel, destructive and exploitatory. Over seventy years they have shown no hint of mercy or compromise. It is written into the Chinese DNA that they, as a people, are superior to all other nations. Their Emperors were the Sons of Heaven, their lands knew no boundaries. Their immediate neighbours (including Tibet) were the Inner Barbarians and the far-flung world outside were the Outer Barbarians. The leaders of the CCP inherit these characteristics of supposed superiority. The Chinese people are our brothers and sisters and like His Holiness I wish them well, but they have never throughout history treated Tibetans as equals.
During my recent visit I strove to understand how Tibetans can believe that all this will suddenly change if the CCP falls. I spoke with senior members of the CTA but emerged none the wiser. There was vague talk that if genuine autonomy does not work ” we can change our policy” but that is wishful thinking. The younger people I spoke with parroted the words of His Holiness, that “human beings are essentially gentle” creatures, because we have neither the talons of eagles nor the teeth and claws of tigers. This, in my view, is flawed logic and does not stand up to questioning. Tibetan myth has it that we are descended from a monkey ancestor and the myth is astute in that it anticipates Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection in the 19th century. So, are monkeys gentle creatures? Well, like all species, they can be, but they can also (and do) fight wars. They can hurl coconuts at one another. Mankind has evolved from monkeys and has the capacity for both gentleness and ferocity. Man – more than any other creature – has developed weapons of terrifying violence. Stones became bows and arrows, then swords and guns, and then tanks and aeroplanes to drop bombs. And then we invented nuclear weapons and un-manned drones to fight for us. Can the human species be described as “essentially gentle”? Does such a definition tally with Chinese behaviour in Tibet? If not, how can Tibetans ever trust China to honour any agreement? I put this to my young friends and they were silent. I reminded them of our proverb: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance and of Edmund Burke’s famous dictum: For evil to prosper it is only necessary that good men do nothing. In other words, if we are passive we invite attack since evil always takes the initiative and preys upon weakness. No-one could answer me on this. This worries me.
The best account I know of the religious promptings in human beings is The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. William James was an American Psychologist and well versed in Buddhism, and his series of lectures was published in Edinburgh in 1902. Five of James’s lectures deal with Saintliness and The Value of Saintliness. I will quote briefly:
“Aggressive members of society are always tending to become bullies, robbers and swindlers…
Appeals to magnanimity, sympathy or justice are folly when we are dealing with human crocodiles and boa-constrictors.”
We must not give up hope of a change of heart in the bullies (he argues):
“We have no right to speak of human crocodiles and boa-constrictors as incurable beings…”
But we need to be wary of them:
“Momentarily considered the saint may waste his tenderness and be the dupe and victim of his charitable fever, but the general function of his charity in social evolution is vital and essential. If things are ever to move upward, someone must be ready to take the first step and assume the risk of it.”
James’s words exactly describe His Holiness’s position. In any Utopian vision of the world, the saint must accept that he will be taken advantage of. But most of us do not live in Utopia, and the boa-constrictors and crocodiles lie in wait for the unsuspecting innocent. They cannot be trusted.
At some point the communist regime in China will fall. But we do not know what will succeed it. In the seventy years during which the Chinese have occupied Tibet there is no sign that Tibetan suffering has melted hearts of stone.
Throughout history Tibet has served as a buffer state between Asia’s two greatest powers – India and China. His Holiness’s vision of Tibet as a Zone of Peace would continue to keep space between these two super-powers, while serving also as a bridge to bring them together. Such a role is wholly in keeping with Tibet’s essentially peaceful Buddhist culture. As a country of huge area but small population Tibet could not defend its borders alone. Treaties and alliances with neighbouring countries will be essential. A Central Asian Treaty Organization (CATO) consisting of Tibet, India, China, Russia, Nepal, Bhutan. East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia and Myanmar, supplemented perhaps with support from Japan, U.S.A. and Australia who have valid interest in the peace of this area, would be necessary to guarantee the integrity of Tibet’s borders. My main point is that the defence of Tibet’s integrity cannot be left to China alone.
I spoke three phrases in Tibetan in my audience with His Holiness. “Nga yeh nang-pa yin” ང་ཡང་ནང་པ་ཡིན་ (I too am a Buddhist) and “Nga popa nang-shin yin” ང་བོད་པ་ནང་བཞིན་ཡིན་ (I am just like a Tibetan). My last words were spoken more in sorrow than in hope: “Lha gya-lo…lha gya-lo” ལྷ་རྒྱལ་ལོ། ལྷ་རྒྱལ་ལོ།
* John Billington is a former Chairman of the Tibet Society UK and Former Goodwill Ambassador of the Tibet Foundation