The second is that Tibet unified as an independent, Buddhist empire about 1400 years ago, and only became part of China in the 18th century when the Qing Dynasty conquered it, though the Chinese generally left Tibetans alone. Only when the British started to express interest in Tibet did China actually assert control. When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, called the Dalai Lama (more about what a "Dalai Lama" is will come below) essentially declared Tibet's independence by saying that the relationship between China and Tibet was "that of patron and priest and had not been based on the subordination of one to the other." He went on to state, "We are a small, religious, and independent nation." Unfortunately for Tibet, China never recognized Tibet as independent.
n 1950 Chinese troops actually invaded Tibet and in 1959, after a failed Tibetan revolt, the Dalai Lama (who is the man we now know as "the Dalai Lama" -- more about him below too) and about 80,000 Tibetans went into exile in Dharmasala, India. A hundred years later, Tibetans are still declaring themselves independent and the Chinese still aren't buying it. China has tightened its grip on the Tibet Autonomous Region, both through traditional heavy-handed political oppression and by encouraging the immigration of millions of Han Chinese people into the region, effectively marginalizing Tibetans.
Today, the Dalai Lama is the head of the Tibetan "government in exile," the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). The CTA espouses non-violence and officially says it doesn't want independence, just true autonomy within China. There are others in the Tibetan exile community who are increasingly focused on independence and have assert themselves more and more, most recently rising up against China just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Most foreign supporters of Tibet, including high profile celebrities who have hobnob with the Dalai Lama, have demanded that the Chinese grant Tibet its freedom.
In class we sing:
We start every "All Around This World" class with "We Are Happy," a greeting song from Uganda. This week we say hello in Tibetan: "Tashidelek!"
A LITTLE MORE
Since going into exile from Tibet in 1959 when he was just a teenager, Tenzin Gyato, the man we know as the Dalai Lama, has become an international celebrity and the highest of all high-profile supporters of Tibetan autonomy. A "Dalai Lama" is the leader of the "Gelug" school of Tibetan Buddhism. Each Dalai Lama is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Tenzin Gyato is the 14th; there may or may not be a 15th.
If there is a 15th Dalai Lama, and if the Gelug Buddhists use the traditional method of finding his reincarnation, Buddhist monks led by the Panchen Lama will recite Buddhist scripture at Khamo Latso, the Oracle Lake, waiting for a vision that will direct them to a place where they should look. Once they have the vision they'll go to that place, find babies born when the Dalai Lama passed away, and observe each to see if his particular characteristics that may indicate he is the Dalai Lama's "soul boy." For example, a monk will provide the potential young child with a variety of objects. The real "soul boy" will pick the former Dalai Lama's objects and discard the rest. Once the Panchen Lama is pretty sure he's found the right child he'll bring him to the central government where other monks will test him again to confirm. If there are several potential soul boys and all pass the preliminary tests, the monks will conduct a "gold urn lottery." Literally, they'll write each of the boys' names on a scrap of paper, put the scarps in the urn, shake it up, pick one, and...voila! We'll have the next Dalai Lama.
For a fascinating in-depth look at this procedure, watch the documentary "Unmistaken Child: The Search for a Reincarnated Lama," which follows a monk who is given the job of finding the reincarnation of his deceased teacher.