Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein
Why should man expect his prayer for mercy to be heard by what is above him when he shows no mercy to what is under him? ~Pierre Troubetzkoy
This week it was reported that a five-year old Tibetan girl had been allegedly raped by two Tibetan adult males in the settlement of Mundgod, South India. As shocking as the alleged crime was the revelation that the Mundgod camp officer and settlement officer had encouraged the father of the child not to pursue criminal charges against the men. Why? Out of fear of shaming HH the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Sadly, I and others living in the Tibetan community in exile were not surprised to learn this. As Sangay Taythi, a male Tibetan activist living in the USA responded on Facebook:
Here’s a major problem in our Tibetan society: whenever a problem/crisis occurs in our communities, we tend to, well, “sweep everything under the carpet”, thinking it’ll do less harm than it already has. That’s the sort of mentality perpetuated, for the most part, by ultra-conservatives who severely lack in the understanding of what democracy is, how people are to behave in one, and how an open-society can be of more benefit to us….We must come to a realization that we inflict more harm to our future, bring more shame to His Holiness’ image when we let these beads-flashing, confused Buddhists of ultra-conservative background propagate such backward mentality in our communities!
Fortunately, after a social media campaign and pressure from Tibetan activists and politicians, the Central Tibetan Administration in exile (CTA) quickly issued a statement calling for immediate legal action against the two alleged rapists. Although this is clearly a step in the right direction, sadly the lack of public awareness, recognition and justice in cases of sexual abuse and gender inequality in the Tibetan exile community remains. As another Tibetan stated on social media in response to the Mundgod rape:
There are many sexual assaults and harassment in Dharamsala itself…..There is not much safety here in Dharamsala too.
I faced a similar ‘cover-up’ reaction when I recently wrote about the growing number of alleged cases of physical and sexual abuse in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the alleged rape of the teenage Kalu Rinpoche by Tibetan Buddhist monks in his monastery and the lack of a public response from the Tibetan exile government or monastic authorities to these cases. Before publication, both Tibetans and non-Tibetans, some of whom were supposedly well-educated and versed in liberal and democratic ideals, advised me not to publish it because it was ‘sensationalist’ and they felt it was bad for the image of Tibetans and detracted from the more important issue of Tibetan self-immolations, political goals and the occupation of Tibet. One American woman told me that although she agreed with the article she would not share it on social media because she didn’t want her family members using it as ammunition against Tibetan Buddhism. I have also yet to receive any reply to my request for a public statement on this grave issue from the office of HH the Dalai Lama or the CTA. Silence, denial, excuse or personal attack being the predominant response.
The commonly-held view that Tibetans are brimming with love and compassion and are incapable of prejudice, abuse, discrimination and so on, stems primarily from the Tibetan Shangri-la myth. Much has been written about this myth and how its unrealistic and Orientalist notions of Tibet and Tibetans have been more harmful than good. As Tenzing Sonam says in ‘A Tibet of the Mind’:
Our sense of self-importance and moral superiority was also shaped by the growing fascination of the West with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, and its expectation of what Tibetans were supposed to represent as a people. By this measure, we were an almost otherworldly race, spiritually evolved, naturally compassionate, peace-loving and with the good of all sentient beings always at heart. We began to take this idealised view of ourselves seriously, and remade our history in its image. The wars we had fought in the past with our neighbours, the factional infighting, the court intrigues and political assassinations, the system of cruel punishments sometimes meted out by the state, the banditry that was commonplace in many parts of the country, even the fact that many thousands of Tibetans had not so long ago taken up arms against the Chinese invasion – these were all airbrushed out in favour of a reinterpretation of Tibet as a mythical Buddhist land of peace and harmony, governed by compassion and inhabited by the morally upright and ethically pure.
So we should not be too surprised that many Tibetans (and western Buddhists) respond to criticism and allegations of Tibetan abuse and misogyny with anger, incredulity, denial or counter-accusations. And before the post-colonialists start complaining, no-one is saying it is only Tibetan men who deny the extent of their role in patriarchy, sexism and misogyny. Men of all races and cultures suffer from this mental disease, including perhaps even the great Tibetan intellectuals such as Gedun Chophel and Jamyang Norbu themselves. As UK columnist, Laurie Penny recently wrote in ‘Of course all men don’t hate women. But all men must know they benefit from sexism’. Though one crucial difference is that hardly anyone in the US or Europe would seriously suggest that sexual abuse, paedophilia, homophobia, discrimination and misogyny do not exist at all or are extremely rare in their communities.
Thankfully, an increasing number of Tibetan women in exile are finding the courage to speak out on the double standards and hypocrisy, despite the personal attacks and ostracization they face for allegedly destroying the Tibetan image and unity. First, there was the case of Tenzingang as described in a well-researched report by the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA). This case, involved a Tibetan woman who, after being beaten and tortured by a group of Tibetans angered at her relationship with a man (who was also the father of her child), was subsequently punished and told to apologise by the Tibetan authorities. In Revisiting Tenzingang, issues were raised about the lack of a governmental response on gender violence initatives. Then there is the patriarchal dinosaur that is the Miss Tibet beauty pageant; the lack of representation of Tibetan women in government positions; discrimination and ostracisation of HIV/AIDS patients; a sexist, ethnocentric reproductive policy to preserve Tibetan culture; the centuries-old inequality and sexism towards Tibetan Buddhist nuns; and the worst, albeit common, Tibetan excuses given for not addressing gender equality, expertly summarised recently by Tibetan writer and feminist Kunsang Dolma.
The swift condemnation of the Mundgod rape case by Tibetan activists and the CTA is certainly a step in a positive direction. However, ethnic and cultural identity politics are a very different beast from political freedom struggles. With Tibetans in exile focusing on preserving their Shangri-la image, ethnicity and culture, while paying lip-service to important political, social and democratic ideals, it actually serves Chinese Communist political propaganda more than they might think. What is more important, an ethnically and culturally ‘pure’ independent Tibet or genuine human rights and equality for all Tibetans, regardless of where they live? Hopefully most people will say the latter. While the brutality, criminality and illegality of China’s actions towards Tibetans and Tibet cannot be denied or excused, to blame everything on the Chinese, white people, western culture, feminism, colonialism and so on is to seriously miss the point. As Buddhism teaches us, the enemy of anger, hatred, aggression, greed, divisiveness and self-clinging lies within us a lot more than we think. If we don’t defeat that enemy there is no hope of defeating the ‘external enemies’.
This article, originally published in Huffington Post, is now cached, click here to access it.