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After Earthquake, Tibet Needs More Engineers, Fewer Monks

New America Media, Commentary, Yoichi Shimatsu Posted: Apr 23, 2010

Editor's Note: Commentator Yoichi Shimatsu writes that the April 14 earthquake that's left at least 2,100 people dead in the Tibetan Plateau shows Tibetan society needs fewer monks and more working men who can handle tough chores in an emergency. Shimatsu is former editor of the Japan Times Weekly in Tokyo, and an environmental development consultant on the Tibetan Plateau and arid regions of western China.

The actions of huge numbers of maroon-robed men digging out victims of last week's massive earthquake in Yushu was heroic, but the rescue task was hindered by the lack of proper equipment and vocational preparation. Decades of devotion to meditation, religious debate and recitation of mantras were no substitute for the mundane skills of driving a bulldozer, operating a crane and wielding a cutting torch. Simply put, Tibetan society needs fewer monks and more working men who can handle tough chores in an emergency.

From my experience, to get any technical task done in Tibetan areas, one has to call on a Hui or Salar Muslim, or the much-abused Han laborer. The economic life of Tibetan society is divided into an agrarian class of farmers and nomads who tend to their migrating herds and the others, permanent actors in a 24-7 costume drama. There is indeed the emerging "Tibetan of the future," urbane professionals in medicine, education and government, but what's missing are Tibetans who are ready to get their hands dirty doing the necessary chores.

The scenes of brute-force labor by monks of the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa order are exactly what's wrong with the backward-looking romanticism that binds the many peoples of the Tibetan Plateau to economic stagnation and social powerlessness. While other Buddhist societies have made considerable progress against formidable external odds and internal resistance, Tibetans are mired in the illusions of a past that never was.

The archaic values of Tibetans and the family-centered economic reforms in China have combined to reinforce the notion that every Tibetan household should reside in a clay-brick compound. These structures may have visual appeal to tourists looking for "traditional culture," but there are drawbacks such as the lack of flush toilets and showers, the latter because many Gelugpa followers have been taught that is a demerit to harm fleas and lice on one's own body. Their worst aspect, however, is structural weakness and heavy mass. The collapse of traditional houses resulted in the death of one in every 50 residents of Yushu, a staggering percentage of the local population.

Romanticism of the Shangri-la type is also self-serving, when the Internet abounds with pleas for cash donations from "friends of Tibet" whose political support for independence automatically precludes the money from ever arriving in Qinghai. Most of that ill-gotten cash will probably help some foreign devotees comfortably meditate in a temple in the Alps or the Rockies.

Aid from foreigners, if any does get through, only reinforces fatal passivity. One of my colleagues, Sonam, a teacher in a primary school in Qinghai, once told me that his fellow educators were boasting that "the Americans and the Japanese are going to use super-advanced weapons to liberate Tibet."

My retort to this absurd fantasy was: "Have you seen any American or Japanese paratroops landing around here?"

In response, Sonam laughed and shook his head. "No, the only help we ever get is from the Chinese, and maybe that's what hurts our pride."

"Have you considered helping yourselves? Can you quit relying on someone or something outside to come down and save you?"

Shaking his head, Sonam said meekly, "We should try it."

The problem, of course, flows from the type of Buddhism that promises salvation without worldly effort -- other than prostration, fervent prayers and wheel-turning. Sonam was curious as to why Japan, Korea and even Vietnam were Buddhist societies that could make their way forward in the modern world. Reformed Buddhism, led by laymen and sometimes even married priests, has swept over those parts of Asia as a democratic and modernizing movement.

In Tibet, by contrast, for more than three centuries the Gelugpa, or Yellow Hat, theocracy brutally suppressed any hint of democratic reform. As a result of theocratic persecution, the modernizers of Tibetan society based themselves in Kham, an autonomous region in western Sichuan. There, the non-sectarian thinkers created the Rime trend, banding together practitioners of the Kagyu, Sakya and Nyngma schools to resist the Dalai Lama's drive for religious unification. Notably, the intellectual guiding light of Rime, Jamgon Kontrul, made a clear distinction between religious authority and secular governance. Not surprisingly, many leaders of the Tibetan regions today are descendants of that movement, while the heirs of theocracy find themselves in exile.

Qinghai is an anomaly. The current Dalai Lama and the previous Panchen Lama were born in this vast region. The reason goes back to 1905, when the 13th Dalai Lama met an emissary from a Japanese Amidist sect, just after Japan's military expelled the Tsarist Russians out of northern China. As an ardent opponent of the British empire's thrust into the Himalayas, the 13th Dalai Lama saw Qinghai as the fortress where Buddhists would make their final stand against the expansionist Christian crusade.

These colliding concepts of passivity and militancy have resulted in horribly confused thinking. Soon after the Sichuan Earthquake two years ago, some monasteries in Qinghai set off fireworks to celebrate the Dalai Lama's "magical power" that they believed triggered the catastrophe for China. In fact, the vast majority of residents who died in Sichuan were Tibetans and Qiang, the ethnic forerunners of the Tibetans. Out of deference to ethnic diversity, the government is reticent to discuss such things.

Today, of course, there are no firecrackers for Yushu. Among the superstitious, perhaps the Qinghai quake could be interpreted, as Sharon Stone put it so cruelly, as "karma coming back." From a modern perspective, however, the lesson is that the Tibetans need to learn technical skills, build structurally sound houses and put more emphasis on civil duty rather than otherworldly escapism. Sakyamuni Buddha, after all, taught a philosophy of reason.

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