Walk the streets of Lhasa, and it may seem as if the Tibetan culture is dying, evidenced by storefronts with signs in formerly foreign Mandarin. Prayer wheels and architecturally mesmerizing monasteries may still line the streets with the surrounding Himalayas and perfectly blue skies in the backdrop, but the people who inhabit this once mystical land are very different.
There’s no doubt Tibetans face an increasingly uphill battle to preserve their culture in the face of a rapidly spreading Chinese empire, but it’s certainly not dying. Although self-immolations have been grabbing newspaper headlines in recent weeks, the struggle to preserve their dying culture has been underway since the Dalai Lama fled his Potala Palace in Lhasa 1,439 km to Northern India during the Tibetan Rebellion in 1959. And nowhere is this more prevalent than at the Sarah College of Higher Tibetan Studies (CHTS) in Dharamsala, India.
Democracy In Action
CHTS is located just down the mountain from the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala. The campus is filled with dormitories, a basketball court and a breathtaking Tibetan monastery with a golden dharma wheel shining brightly on top, attached to the college’s library. Students and monks gather in the monastery for prayer, but also to debate. It’s not uncommon to see democracy in action as students respectfully weigh the pros and cons of the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach to the Tibetan situation.
In surrounding classrooms, teachers educate young Tibetans in their native tongue, while teaching basic subjects, such as math, literature and history—although their version of the latter no doubt differs greatly from what Tibetans in Lhasa are currently learning from their Chinese peers. But many, if not all Tibetans, say the proof of their historical independence exists in the Tibetan culture, particularly their language.
From Sanskrit To Tibetan
The original Tibetan language was created in the seventh century by a Tibetan king who was preparing for the transmission of Buddhism into Tibet. Just as Buddhism began in India, so too did Tibetan’s sister language: Sanskrit. Even someone who isn’t fluent in either language can easily tell the difference between written and spoken Tibetan versus Mandarin. Although this tale means nothing to the Chinese establishment, it’s the driving force behind older Tibetans in Dharamsala and across the globe who strive to preserve their culture. Without their language, there is no Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan lyrics to sing. The Chinese know this, which is why Mandarin is the language of education in Tibet and letters written in Tibetan never reach their destination. Explains Ajria Rinpoche, an exiled Tibetan monk who started the Buddhist Center for Compassion and Wisdom in Mill Valley, California and is currently the Director of the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, Indiana. “If [the letter is] in Tibetan, it’s in the garbage can.”
“A Firm Cultural Identity”
CHTS attracts students from around the world, particularly those with family in exile living in nearby Nepal and Southern India. Many, however, come from the local Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV), a charitable organization whose roots go back to May 17, 1960 when Mrs. Tsering Dolma Takla, the elder sister of the Dalai Lama, took in 51 ill and malnourished children from road construction camps. Today, many of the children come to TCV by way of the Himalayas, leaving their loved ones behind in Tibet and emulating the Dalai Lama’s trek when he was a 24-year-old refugee.
Since becoming a recognized charitable organization, TCV’s primary objective has been “to ensure that all Tibetan children under its care received a sound education, a firm cultural identity and become self-reliant and contributing members of the Tibetan community and world at large.”
Wherever these newly educated Tibetans move on to, their mission remains steadfast and the same: to preserve their sacred cultural roots. Their ongoing struggle is immeasurable and will be for the foreseeable future. But thanks to their unbreakable spirit, their culture will continue to thrive outside the barricaded doors of Shangri-La, giving them hope they will one day finally return home.