Buddhist teachings do not rule out the use of force to relieve a greater suffering, although the Buddhist tradition is rightly known for the systematic practice of nonviolence, its first ethical precept. A concise summary of the texts authorizing the use of force may be found in Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, where most examples are of killing a tyrant who is terrorizing the masses. Even here, however, the paradigm is of the Buddha, who famously stopped a serial killer in his tracks by the force of his goodness and then accepted the criminal (known as Angulimala for his signature "necklace of fingers") into the monastic order.
The Tibetans are historically a bellicose people who have defended themselves with force throughout history. Monks have taken to the streets before, even in the 20th century. What follow is a summary of the Tibetan conflict with the Chinese in modern history.
The struggle for Tibet is perhaps the best known theater of engaged Buddhism in the early 21st century, due in part to the global activism of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the strong interest of the press and the public since 1959, when Chinese troops overran the country.
Certainly the political, economic, cultural, and environmental carnage that resulted from Chinese annexation of the Tibetan region has been well documented (see recommended reading list).
Political instability is not new to Tibet, but it is arguably its defining characteristic since before the transmission of Buddhism to the region in the 7th century CE. Its provinces were not unified until the 17th century, when the first Dalai Lama consolidated the country under Manchu patronage. When the British invaded in 1904, the 13th Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and attempted unsuccessfully to enlist Russian support. The Chinese recovered control of the country in 1909, but were expelled by the Dalai Lama in 1913.
Declaring independence in 1914, the 13th Dalai Lama attempted to institute political reforms but was opposed by the monasteries. After an uprising of monks in 1921, the Dalai Lama gave up all efforts to modernize the country; the army was disbanded, English schools closed, and regents took over the country following the Dalai Lama's death in 1933. In 1947, armed monks of the Sera Je monastery took part in a rebellion that resulted in 300 deaths. Elements of the sangha (Buddhist clergy) called on China to liberate the country. The People's Liberation Army entered the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in 1951 and brokered a 12-point accord between Beijing and Lhasa. But in 1959 another uprising of monks triggered a crackdown that has placed the country firmly under Chinese control ever since. The 14th Dalai Lama, still a teenager, fled to India with the senior members of the government.
In 1966, the Chinese Cultural Revolution encompassed Tibet in the systematic destruction of all things Buddhist: clergy, monasteries, libraries, rituals, and artifacts. The Free Tibet Movement emerged in the Tibetan refugee camps in India in the 1970s, with the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan People's Freedom Movement giving voice to the growing militancy of the exiles. In 1977, a group of young Tibetans held a hunger strike outside the United Nations Information Center in New Delhi, stating to the press, "We Tibetans are treated as political lepers by the international community and our cause as an embarrassing and contagious disease. We the victims are ignored and shunned while our oppressors are courted and feted by a world gone mad. We are peaceful people and we have nowhere to turn to for justice except the United Nations."
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The irony is that Buddhist monks and nuns who believe in non-violence are having to resort to violence to gain world attention and to force China to consider her actions. Lucky Severson recently said, "The work of the protesters is raising questions among Tibetans themselves and people around the world. For instance, will the demonstrations actually force the Chinese to loosen control of Tibetan Buddhism? And how can a religious philosophy built around peace and compassion continue to hold the high ground when the protests are resulting in so much violence? Professor Thurman says the Tibetan devotion to nonviolence goes to the core of their faith --the path to total enlightenment takes place over many, many lifetimes, many reincarnations, and to commit violence threatens that path."
Robert Thurman explains, "Buddhist ethics is intense about nonviolence, but it's also pragmatic. There is one sutra where it's stated if you are invaded by an enemy and you can successfully defend yourself and repel the enemy, and the enemy while occupying you will cause tremendous violence, then you should defend yourself. "
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