Tibet’s Middle Way: Peaceful conflict resolution for the 21st century

Last week, the Central Tibetan Administration launched a new campaign, called the ‘Middle Way Approach Campaign’ (Umaylam in Tibetan) aimed at educating people on what the Tibetan call for freedom truly means.

Lobsang Sangay, leader of the CTA, says, “With the Middle Way Approach Campaign, we are trying to engage the international community–young people, diplomats, media, people from all walks of life across different nations—to counter the Chinese Government’s misinformation campaign about the policy,”

CTA’s press officer Tsering Wangchuk notes, “The Middle Way has been there for many years. We are forging it into an intensive campaign to address the spread misinformation by our adversaries.”

Not impressed, the Chinese government has called the Middle Way Approach a “cliché.” No surprise there. Yet, no matter how Chinese authorities try to dismiss it, they know better. They are not ignorant about Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, and they know that far from a cliché, or a simply a political strategy, the Middle Way is also a Buddhist doctrine. In this way, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile have founded their fight for freedom on spiritual principle, as did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Essentially, all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism are within the doctrinal lineage of the Middle Way school (Madhyamaka) founded by Nagarjuna.  This concept of the Middle Way has to do with the insight into emptiness and transcending arguments about being or non-being. However, Nagarjuna based his Madhyamaka on the “Middle Way” as taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta:

Chinese character for “The Middle Way”
Chinese character for “The Middle Way”

Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.”

Tibet’s Middle Way Approach has been to seek dialogue with China and not take an extremist position, to engage in right speech. It’s an approach based on understanding  rather than condemning the adversary. The Dalai Lama has stated many times that he does not expect to ever gain full independence for his country.  In the spirit of compromise, in the Middle Way Approach, the Tibetans are simply asking for a bit more autonomy. Yet, even while the Tibetans do not demand, but respectfully request, China will not loosen her iron grip.

Nagarjuna summed up his philosophy like this:

Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.”

In The Key to the Middle Way (on Emptiness), the Dalai Lama explains the Middle Way between existence and non-existence:

[If phenomena] had no deep mode of being other than their external or superficial mode of being, and if thus the way they appeared and the way they existed were in agreement, then it would be sufficient to hold that conventional modes of appearance are true just as they appear, and to place confidence in them. However, this is not so. Though phenomena appear as if true, most true, ultimately they are not true. Therefore, phenomena abide in the middle way, not truly or inherently existent and also not utterly non-existent. This view, or way of viewing—the knowledge of such a mode of being, just as it is— is called the view of the middle way.”

Although, Emptiness as the Middle Way is nuanced and seemingly abstruse, there is nothing impractical about it, for insight into emptiness is the insight that destroys all notions of nationalism, racism and hate, and it is the principle of equality that makes real dialogue possible.

Wednesday, June 4th, the Dalai Lama reiterated his belief that the ‘Middle Way Approach” is still best for Tibet:

Recently things become very, very difficult but our stand — no change . . . Independence, complete independence is unrealistic — out of (the) question . . . Sometimes I describe totalitarian regimes as no ear, only mouth . . . [The Chinese officials] lecture us, never really listen [and angry that] I am not acting like ‘yes minister’ . . . Our approach failed to bring some concrete or positive result from the government, but the Chinese public, or Chinese intellectuals, or students who study in foreign countries — they are beginning to know the reality . . . That, I think, is a positive side, a significant result . . . Sometimes people have the impression (this is) some crisis very recently happened . . . I meet some Chinese. They are frustrated. Very hostile. Then I tell them long stories . . . 60 years of stories. Then they understand, oh — the Tibetan issue is really a very, very complicated issue.”

tibet-middlewayWatch the video ‘ UMAYLAM- Middle Way Approach’ Peaceful conflict resolution for the 21st century.


Farewell to Tea

In this post-transplant life I am now living, I am forced to give a few things up. Like tea. I have always enjoyed tea, but to be honest I am just relieved I don’t have to give up coffee. I’ll take coffee over tea any day.  A world without coffee would be just too cruel.

Not only do I have to stay away from tea (including green tea) but also all herbal or organic medicines/products without consulting my transplant team because they could cause a potentially dangerous interaction with the medicine I’m taking. The problem with many herbal medicines is they just haven’t been researched enough. For instance, with green tea there is some evidence to suggest that green tea flavonoid may help in the preventing re-infection with of the virus hepatitis C following liver transplant. But nothing definitive.

That’s okay. For once in my life I am not going to fight authority (“authority always wins” anyway). I am content to follow my doctor’s orders and not do or take anything without approval. At least, I  have my coffee.

But, in the meantime, I shall miss tea, especially in the wintertime, when it’s cold out, and when a nice, warm cup of tea can be so soothing . . .

As kind of a farewell to tea, here is a selection from Drink Tea and Prolong Life, the famous essay by Eisai (1141-1215), the Tendai monk who brought Rinzai Zen (and green tea) to Japan from China:

The secret to living a long life is to drink tea; it is the most wonderful medicine for maintaining one’s heath. It springs up from the hillsides as the spirit of the earth. Those who gather and use it are guaranteed longevity. Both India and China value it greatly, and in the past our own country had a high regard for tea. It still has the same exceptional qualities and we should use it more.

It is said that in the past, humanity was in harmony with all the universe, but now it seems that humanity had declined gradually and has become fragile, so that our four bodily components and five organs have degenerated. This is why acupuncture and moxa remedies do not save, and even treatment at hot springs has no effect. Those who are treated with these methods become weaker and weaker until death comes to them, a most dreadful prospect to consider. If these traditional healing modalities fail to help people today, then there is hardly any relief in sight.

Of all things existent in the universe, the most noble is humanity. Because life is precious, it is prudent and proper to [drink tea] . . . Drink lots of tea, and one’s energy and spirits will be restored to full strength.”



Remembering Tiananmen Square

It’s been 25 years since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

The forces behind the protests had been in motion for several years. However, I think it is safe to say the April 15, 1989 death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader, who had become a symbol of reform was the tipping point. Three days later, thousands of students, mourning Hu Yaobang and calling for more democracy, marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square, and it was there in the city, in the capital of China, in the square known as Tiananmen or “gate of heavenly peace,” that Chinese students took a stand and participated in several weeks of demonstrations.

A rally at Tiananmen Square in mid-May drew 1.2 million people. The Voice of America began broadcast coverage of the demonstrations. Then the BBC and CNN. Tiananmen Square became a world event.

I remember rushing home from work each night, eager to catch the news of what happened that day in the Square. I was so excited by what the students were doing, thrilled by their spontaneous yearning for democracy. After they erected the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, who bore a striking remembrance to the Statue of Liberty (and perhaps Kuan Yin), I think if I had had the money, I might have caught a plane and gone over there. It seemed like the most potent place in the world at that moment and I wanted to feel it, touch it.

It was shorty after 1am on June 4 when the Chinese troops entered the square with AK- 47s and the tanks with machine guns. They fired upon the protesters indiscriminately, and the tanks reportedly ran over groups of students. No one knows exactly what happened that night or how many people died, but estimates of the death toll range from 500 to 2700.

The iconic photo taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press.
The iconic photo taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press.

On the morning of June 5, a lone man stood in front of a column of tanks moving out of the square. Like the shot heard round the world, this was the photo seen around the world. As the driver of the lead tank tried to go around him, “Tank Man” moved into the tank’s way, and continued to defiantly halt the progress of the tank column for some time, eventually climbing up onto the turret of the lead tank, speaking to the soldiers inside. To this day, no one know the identity of this man.

Writer Ma Jian, who took part in the protests, says “The Chinese people have been forced to forget the Tiananmen massacre. There has been no public debate about the event, no official apology. The media aren’t allowed to mention it. Still today people are being persecuted and imprisoned for disseminating information about it.”

Here is the poem I wrote the night after the massacre:

when the dragon comes

my brother
handsome one
heart soaring with courage
like an hawk in the blue sky
holding aloft our banner of aspirations
in the midday sun
you will be crushed like glass
when the dragon comes

my sister
beautiful one
standing before the guards
like a rock
like a tree
sinking deep roots into the soil of liberty
face shining
in the twilight
your cheeks will be wet with blood
when the dragon comes

everything on earth tonight
is a return of paralysis
numb limbs dead fingers
reaching for that butterfly dream
that inevitably flits away so quickly,
so deftly

you –
the soft power soldiers
the students of democracy
will the world remember
when you have faded from our view?
will the camera lens stay focused
when you are no longer news?

handsome brother
beautiful sister
as fragile as autumn leaves
blown away
by the winds of oppression
trampled and scattered from our sight
when the dragon came
in the middle of the night

© 1989 dmriley


Timeless Reality

Several weeks back I wrote about Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “timeless reality” and compared it to Buddhism’s “present moment.” The more I think about the two terms, the more timeless reality seems a better term for what we are trying to convey about meditation and awakening mind.

We often talk about the present moment as though it were something static, something that abides. As if we could capture the present moment and hold on to it. But we can’t. As soon as the present moment arises, it is gone, replaced by a new present moment.

So, how can we ‘be in the present moment’? How can we abide in something so fleeting? Even to call what we want to experience the ‘now’ still refers to a present that is constantly changing. Which is fine, because I don’t think we want to be in a present moment anyway. We’re really after something else . . .

As I’ve investigated Krishnamurti’s use of the phrase timeless reality, I have found that in some of his writings he is alluding to a sense of eternity. In other writings and talks, he refers to a kind of emptiness, a state of timelessness that has neither a beginning nor ending and is undisturbed by temporal reality – this is what I think we’re after.

shengyen2Master Sheng Yen (1930-2009) was a lineage holder of both the Linji (Rinzai) and Caodong (Soto) Ch’an (Zen) schools, and the founder of the Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan. In his book, Getting the Buddha Mind, he described this sense of timelessness in a different way:

The mind that is without even one thought is extremely bright and pure, but this doesn’t mean that it is blank. No thought means no characteristics, and blankness itself is a characteristic. In this condition the mind is unmoving, yet perceives everything very clearly. Although wisdom is empty, it is not without a function. What is this function? Without moving it reflects and illuminates everything. It is like the moon shining on water. Although each spot of water reflects a different image of the moon, the moon itself remains the same. But it doesn’t say, ‘I shine.’ It just shines.”