Paris, Climate Change, Snow and Snow Leopards

Due to concerns about terrorism following the attacks in Paris, French police have revoked permission for a Paris rally to demand strong action on climate change. The demonstration was to be held November 29. The U.N.’s 21st annual conference on climate change, COP21, is scheduled to begin on the next day, with world leaders, business executives, and official delegates from 195 countries attending.  They will have until Dec. 12 to agree about a possible new global agreement aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.  And more than 3,000 journalists and thousands of environmental activists will be watching, along with many others around the world.

This past September, the Global Buddhist Climate Change Collective was formed to “facilitate a Buddhist contribution” to the COP21. They put out a letter calling on world leaders to act on climate change. It was signed by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and 13 other well-known Buddhist teachers.

Tibet_Himalayas2One of the signatories, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, claimant to the 17th Karmapa, an important position in Tibetan Buddhism, said in a recent interview “Given that the rate of warming in the Tibetan plateau is at least two times greater than the global average, we know flooding and droughts are bound to worsen.”

Earlier this year, a group of Tibet’s exiled leaders, including the Dalai Lama, warned that two-thirds of the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau may disappear by 2050 because of climate change.

The Tibetan Plateau is the highest plateau in the world, with an average elevation of over 16,000 feet, and contains the largest tropical glaciological area in the world. It is home to 37,000 glaciers that feed Asia’s largest rivers, including the Ganges, the Mekong and the Yangtze. More than two billion people in over a dozen countries depend on the water provided by the snow and ice of the Tibetan Plateau. And, it has experienced rising temperatures of 1.3 Celsius over the past five decades, which is actually three times the global average.

And then there’s the snow leopard. I don’t know how many of these beautiful animals once roamed that area, but it is estimated there are only 4000 left. October 23 was the first International Snow Leopard day and the World Wildlife Fund released a new report that said, “Urgent action is needed to curb climate change and prevent further degradation of snow leopard habitat, otherwise the ‘ghost of the mountains’ could vanish, along with critical water supplies for hundreds of millions of people.”

I understand there are 81 Buddhist monasteries in Tibet that send out patrols of their local areas to protect the leopards from poachers and they also educate the local communities about environmental protection. These Buddhists understand that dharma means not only finding inner peace but also taking external action.

Whether or not the leaders at the UN climate conference will take action as well is the crucial question. The Buddhist approach to climate change is based on the doctrine of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada), the interconnection of all things in the universe. Coming in the wake of the recent jihadist activity, the Paris conference could be a unique opportunity to explore the links between climate change and terrorism.

Jason Box and Naomi Klein write in the New Yorker: “The connection between warming temperatures and the cycle of Syrian violence is, by now, uncontroversial.” The authors quote a recent comment by Secretary of State John Kerry: “It’s not a coincidence that, immediately prior to the civil war in Syria, the country experienced its worst drought on record. As many as 1.5 million people migrated from Syria’s farms to its cities, intensifying the political unrest that was just beginning to roil and boil in the region.”

Box and Klein express hope for the conference in Paris to succeed. They pose the question, “What if, instead of being pushed aside in the name of war, climate action took center stage as the planet’s best hope for peace?”

I find myself cynical about such things nowadays. I expect the usual dog-and-pony show. But Andrew Steer, president of the US-based World Resources Institute, believes the recent terror attacks will stiffen “the spine in terms of determination to really solve what is the greatest collective action problem in history.”

Finally, I recently read about a woman, Marie Byles (1900–1979) who was a key figure in the development of Buddhism in Australia. From the 1940s she developed an eco-Buddhist worldview and Buddhist environmental ethic. In a work titled “Adapting Buddha’s Teaching to Modern Conditions”, she wrote,

“The Buddha spoke of avoiding ‘onslaught in creatures’ and had he been alive today with the rapid destruction of earth itself, he would certainly have included the earth along with creatures as not to be slaughtered.”

Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other. We must continue to change our concept of the environment. Far too many people still see humans as rulers of the planet. Instead, we should be the harmonizers.

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Painting by Nicholas Roerich 1933


Eleanor Roosevelt and Tibet

This is the final installment of my trilogy of posts about the Roosevelts and Buddhism. Although the connections are rather slight, I feel they are intriguing. As I wrote on Sept. 30, the primary link with Buddhism for Franklin and Eleanor was Tibet.

In 1923, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote an article titled “The Women of Tibet.” I have not been able to find the piece or gather much information about it. There is, though, a rather well known quote from the article that biographers take to be a subtle jab at husbands (hers in particular) and their “betrayals.”

It has been brought to my attention that the wives of Tibet have many husbands. This to me seems a good thing, since so many husbands have so many wives.”

eleanor-roosevelt2 It is true that Tibetan tradition allowed a man or woman several spouses (most Tibetan marriages are monogamous nowadays). I suspect though that this information, and nearly everything Eleanor knew about Tibet came to her second-hand, because as far as I can determine she did not ever visit there, although she went to India in 1952. Of course, she was no doubt very aware of the dispute between Tibet and China since that had been an issue FDR had to deal with early in his administration.

In the 1950s ER became an ardent supporter of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. She wrote about the Tibetan situation a number of times in her “My Day” syndicated newspaper column (published 6 days a week from 1935 to 1962, the year she died).

Earlier that decade she exerted influence that went beyond simply trying to mold public opinion. In a book on Theos Casimir Bernard, the self-proclaimed “White Lama,” Paul G. Hackett reports that “Acting along the line of one of the suggestions made by Eleanor Roosevelt years earlier, the CIA decided to train and arm Tibetan fighters from Kham (Eastern Tibet), who had already gained notoriety for their fighting against the Chinese.” Even though something she had said was the genesis of the plan, apparently ER was unaware of this action taken by the Eisenhower Administration.

In October 1959, the Dalai Lama’s brothers came to the United States to speak before the United Nations. ER met with one brother, Gyalo. She wrote about their meeting in her Oct. 16 column in which she also expressed these thoughts:

I am glad that the situation is being brought before the U.N. and I hope that the nations of the world will give help to these refugees and bring the weight of world opinion to bear on the entire situation. Only thus can peace come to Tibet and the traditional ruler returned in peace and be allowed to try to work out the problems of modernization and contact with the outer world, which now becomes necessary in spite of the remoteness of the people in that country.

It points up to us that there is no area of the world that is remote any more and that all of us are going to feel whatever happens, no matter how far away it is.

Five days later, on October 21, 1959 the UN passed a resolution calling “for respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life.” Eleanor Roosevelt urged the Chinese to appear before the UN to “justify [their] actions before a world body.”

Eleanor_Roosevelt_and_Human_Rights_Declaration2Well, some interesting tidbits about a very interesting woman . . .

What is most interesting, and remarkable, about her is that when people think of Eleanor Roosevelt, it is not just for her role as an exceptional and transformational First Lady, but also for her outstanding achievements in promoting universal human rights and peace. She was our country’s first delegate to the United Nations and chaired the committee that drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document praised by many, also criticized by many, but which Roosevelt herself said “may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.”

“It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”

Eleanor Roosevelt


To Re-Be or Not Re-Be, That is the Question

In 2011, the Chinese government enacted a law that prohibited Tibetan lamas or monks from reincarnating without government approval. The Chinese government wants to have the right to approve reincarnations of living Buddhas or senior religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Let’s for a moment forget the ridiculousness to trying to approve who may or may not reincarnate themselves, and focus instead on the high probability that this was merely a ploy to allow the Chinese to chose the next Dalai Lama, someone they could control.

Only problem is that if you understand Tibetan Buddhism then you know a Dalai Lama cannot be chosen, only found. That’s because the next Dalai Lama is supposed to be a reincarnation of the previous one. High Lamas and Tibetan governmental officials have to search for this person. Sometimes it takes a while. Took them four years to find the current Dalai Lama.

Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.
Some Chinese officials claim this young girl is the next Dolly Lama.

So, back in 2011, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, said that when he reached the age of ninety, he would decide for himself whether to reincarnate or not.  In the meantime, last year he suggested that it might be a good idea for his successor to be a woman, remarking,

Biologically, females have more potential . . . females have more sensitivity about others’ well being. If the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come.”

Just recently, Tenzin Gyatso told a German newspaper he is actually doubtful about the need for successor:

We had a Dalai Lama for almost five centuries. The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama.”

I suspect he might have had some tongue in cheek there about his popularity, but it’s true, and there may be a specific reason for this pronouncement. Commenting on the situation, Robert Thurman, Executive Director of Tibet House US, who is close to the Dalai Lama, indicated that by rejecting the need for a successor Tenzin Gyatso hoped to pave the way for a more democratic Tibet.

Now, the Chinese government, which doesn’t respect Tibetan Buddhist tradition enough to recognize that a Dalai Lama can’t be chosen, is accusing the current Dalai Lama of not respecting the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In a statement to the press, Chinese government spokesperson Hua Chunying said:

China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, and this naturally includes having to respect and protect the ways of passing on Tibetan Buddhism. The title of Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government, which has hundreds of years of history. The (present) 14th Dalai Lama has ulterior motives, and is seeking to distort and negate history, which is damaging to the normal order of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Hmm. I wonder.  If China follows a policy of freedom of religion and belief, then why is it being accused of persecuting the country’s Christian community by demolishing churches, tearing down crosses, and kidnapping bishops, and of course, why does it continue to interfere with Tibetan Buddhism?

The bottom line here is that if the Chinese government has its way, the Dalai Lama will reincarnate whether he wants to or not.

Sad, and rather silly. Technically, you know, reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept. See this post from 2010 that explains.

Yes, the whole reincarnation business between Tibet and China is a lot of silliness. But this is something we should take seriously, for Stephen Colbert says he has the solution.




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.


China the Unbeautiful


The photo on the right is of the roof of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet, founded by King Songtsan Gampo in 642. Atisha, the famous Buddhist master, taught there in the 11th century. The temple is considered the most sacred site in Tibetan Buddhism, a key destination for Buddhist pilgrims who journey to the capitol. Jokhang’s architectural style is a beautiful mix of Indian vihara, Chinese Tang Dynasty, and Nepalese designs. In 1966, during the Cultural revolution, thousands of Chinese youth attacked and sacked Jokhang and adjoining Ramoche temple. Thousands of Buddhist scriptures were looted and burned. But Jokhang survived.

Now, Chinese authorities are demolishing it.

I was alerted to this article by a post a reader of The Endless Further made on Reddit. The article states that “Chinese authorities are planning to destroy the ancient Buddhist capital of Lhasa, and replace it with a tourist city similar to Lijiang,” which was renamed “Shangri-La” to attract tourists.

It’s sad. It’s outrageous. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

In Feburary, Phagmo Dhondup, a Tibetan man in his 20s, met a friend at a restaurant in eastern Tibet. He reportedly told this friend, “If Tibet does not get its freedom and independence, China will annihilate Tibetan culture and tradition.”

Should independence ever come, it will surely be too late for Lhasa.

Later that day Phagmo Dhondup drank a bottle and a half of kerosene, went to the ancient Jhakhyung Monastery, doused himself with the remaining kerosene and set himself on fire.

There are plenty of reasons to have a beef with China: its abysmal record on human rights; it’s unfair economic policies, including the currency manipulation, a major reason for our growing trade deficit with that nation which in turn has caused the U.S. to hemorrhage millions of jobs; the conservative stance on multilateral environmental processes; piracy of Western products and theft of intellectual property – the list goes on and on . . .

Both in governmental policy and in business, China acts as though it does not have to play by the same rules others do. One particularly egregious practice is the way Chinese web service companies bombard servers with their hyper-aggressive spiders, hitting websites with thousands of requests per second, eating precious resources such as bandwidth. This has become such a problem on this blog, that I have had to ban the entire country of China.

The U.S., too, at times has acted as though we could play by different rules, and we have plenty of human rights abuses in our past, but we have learned better. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for ethnic cleansing or the destruction of an entire culture.

How a country with such a beautiful heritage became so ugly is something I know there are answers for, but nonetheless it baffles me.

Let China sleep, for when she awakes, she will shake the world.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Six decades ago, as Mao’s Communists seized power, the question in Washington was, ‘Who lost China?’ Now, as his capitalist descendants stand astride the world stage and Washington worries about decline, it seems to be, ‘Who lost America?'”

Eric Liu

Tibet’s recent history is that of a holocaust in which ideological conquest took the lives of 1.2 million Tibetans, one-sixth of the population; destroyed 6,250 monasteries, the repositories of 1,300 of higher Tibetan civilization; and decimated the forests and wildlife of a previously protected ecology the size of Western Europe.”

John Avedon, In Exile from the Land of Snows

Photo credit: Antoine Taveneaux