Tibetan writer and activist Jamyang Norbu has a reputation as a troublemaker. He has been one of only a few voices in the Tibetan-exile community to publicly criticize the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the deeply revered spiritual and political leader of Tibet, who fled into exile in 1959. Norbu faults the Dalai Lama for his willingness to give up Tibetan sovereignty to the Chinese government, which has controlled Tibet since 1950. Norbu is also critical of Western stereotypes of Tibet as a land of otherworldly purity and wisdom, arguing that this reduces his homeland to a place that exists for the spiritual needs of Western consumers. And he condemns Westerners who tout Tibetan culture and religion as ideal while ignoring the suffering of actual Tibetan people.
Norbu’s vision for Tibet’s future is not a Buddhist fantasy-land but a modern democracy. To advance this vision, he champions secular Tibetan culture and promotes the country’s independence. He has served as director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India; a founding director of the Amnye Machen Institute; and editor of an independent Tibetan newspaper. Norbu has also been a prolific writer of plays, journalism, and short stories. His detective novel, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, which recounts the fictional nineteenth-century sleuth’s adventures in Tibet, won India’s prestigious Crossword Book Award. Norbu’s latest book, Echoes from Forgotten Mountains: A Literary Journey into Memories of Tibet, is scheduled for publication at the end of this year. Though his outspokenness has made him a controversial figure, it has also won him many faithful readers of his political blog, Shadow Tibet (jamyangnorbu.com).
Norbu spent the first year and a half of his life in Tibet before his family moved to Darjeeling, India, in October 1950. The Chinese army had recently occupied Tibet’s border regions and was threatening to march on Lhasa, the capital. The Tibetan government, which was headed at the time by the fifteen-year-old Dalai Lama, was unable to challenge the powerful Chinese forces, and under duress it signed an agreement accepting Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. In 1959, as the Chinese Communist regime became increasingly oppressive, an uprising broke out in Lhasa. Amid the violence the Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans, including most members of the government, fled into India, where they established a Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala. Today about 150,000 Tibetans live in India and elsewhere, while around 6 million remain in Tibet under Chinese rule.
At nineteen Norbu joined Tibetan guerrillas who, with the assistance of the CIA, were fighting the Chinese from bases in northern Nepal. When the CIA ended its support for the guerrillas in the early 1970s, Norbu moved to Dharamsala and became an activist and writer. In 1995, due to harassment and threats, he decided to leave Dharamsala and came to the U.S., where he continues to write about Tibet.
Although Norbu is critical of the Dalai Lama’s policy of reconciliation toward China, he has also described the spiritual leader as the “living symbol of Tibetan hope for freedom.” In 2018 Norbu had a private, hour-long audience with the Dalai Lama, who thanked him for his commitment to the Tibetan cause. Although the Dalai Lama made it clear that he believed the only way forward for Tibet was to negotiate with China, he also urged Norbu to continue his work and agreed to bless all Tibetan-independence activists.
Norbu spoke with me in late 2020 via video chat from his home in Tennessee, where he sat in a study filled with books. He would soon be packing for his family’s move to New York City.
Hertog: The title of your blog is Shadow Tibet, and you also have an essay collection by that name. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Norbu: That is the Tibet I am trying to write about: not the Tibet of the Western imagination — the sunlit highlands of the Himalayas, bathed in Hollywood splendor — but the dark Tibet, where people are suffering; where people are traumatized and confused; where people are struggling to hold on to their ideals; where people go to Chinese prisons; and where 164 Tibetans have burned themselves to death in protest. I’m trying to be a spokesperson for that Tibet.
Hertog: What is the situation like in Tibet now? Do you get news from there?
Norbu: I have a few contacts who keep me informed, but the Chinese authorities are really cracking down. Digital communications are monitored, and the surveillance has become all encompassing. For the last couple of years it’s been almost impossible to communicate. Many people I know have lost touch with family members in Tibet. I haven’t been able to speak to my aunts and my cousin who live in Lhasa.
There has been a lot in the Western media about the plight of the Uyghurs [a mostly Muslim ethnic minority — Ed.] in Xinjiang, but the situation in Tibet is just as bad. In fact, the Communist Party secretary responsible for the surveillance system that oppresses the Uyghurs was originally the party secretary of Tibet. He developed and tested his surveillance strategies there.
Tibetans have no freedom of movement. There are cameras with facial-recognition software everywhere. People’s phone communications are monitored. In Lhasa there are checkpoints every few hundred yards where Tibetans must show their papers and are subject to searches. But Chinese tourists who visit Lhasa can move around freely, so they think Tibet is a wonderful place.
In the last decade many Tibetans trekked across the icy Nangpa La pass into Nepal, but now the border is monitored by satellites and drones, and some caught trying to escape have been shot. If Tibetan refugees do manage to cross, the Nepali government has signed an agreement with China to hand them over to the Chinese authorities.
There’s a long, slow genocide going on in Tibet. The Chinese government knows that, as long as the Tibetan language and culture remain alive, Tibetans will resist becoming a part of China. So the authorities are systematically trying to erase Tibetan culture and identity. Tibetans are discouraged from practicing their religion. There are cameras and checkpoints at the temples to monitor who comes to pray, and the monasteries have been turned into reeducation camps where monks must study Communist Party ideology instead of Buddhism. The Tibetan language is being replaced by Chinese in schools, and the brightest Tibetan children are sent to boarding schools in China, where they are immersed in Chinese culture. There’s not much Tibetans can do about this, because if you don’t speak Chinese, you can’t find work or function in Tibetan society. The younger generation there now speak better Chinese than they do Tibetan. Many young Tibetans cannot read or write their native tongue. The authorities crack down on any attempts to promote Tibetan language and cultural education. Meanwhile more and more Chinese immigrants are encouraged to settle in Tibet. In the Lhasa area I think there are now more Chinese residents than Tibetans. Within a few generations Tibet may be completely absorbed into Chinese culture.
Hertog: In the fall of 2020 popular protests erupted in Inner Mongolia [an ethnic region within the People’s Republic of China — Ed.] after the Chinese government tried to eliminate Mongolian-language education in public schools. Do you think the same might happen in Tibet?
Norbu: Such protests over language erupted throughout the Amdo region of Tibet in 2010. Chinese President Xi Jinping has a hard-core-nationalist policy to force everyone in the country to assimilate into Chinese culture, but people have an emotional tie to their native language. And that is the case not only with Mongolians and Tibetans. There were protests in Guangzhou in 2010 when the government tried to force local TV stations there to broadcast in Mandarin instead of Cantonese. If Xi Jinping succeeds in forcing through these policies using sheer oppression, then democracy and freedom in Tibet are doomed. But people can be pushed only so far. At some point they may take to the streets, as they did in Inner Mongolia.
Hertog: You have been critical of Western idealization of Tibet, even calling the attraction to Tibetan Buddhism “new-age colonialism.” What do you mean by that?
Norbu: Westerners assume — it’s never stated but always implied — that the world revolves around them and that Eastern religions and cultures exist just for them to discover. Back when I lived in Dharamsala, my Western hippie friends would tell me that the destruction in Tibet was very tragic, yes, but the Chinese invasion had also served the wonderful purpose of bringing the dharma to the West. They’d recite this old prophecy: “When the iron bird flies, the dharma will come to the West.” [Some interpret this to mean Buddhism would spread to the West after the invention of the airplane. — Ed.] It was infuriating. These people didn’t know anything about Buddhism, but they knew this one prophecy. I find it extremely frustrating when Westerners act as if Tibetan religion and culture existed just for their needs.
Some of this cultural appropriation is expressed in naive ways. I remember a Western hippie couple walking around Dharamsala dressed in Tibetan peasant clothes. They had no idea how comical they looked. That kind of naive appropriation is harmless. People putting up Tibetan prayer flags or buying “Tibetan” singing bowls — which are actually not at all Tibetan — is silly, but I understand it. It’s a common impulse to idealize another culture. What really bothers me is the people who use Tibetan Buddhism for their own profit, who appropriate this aura of mystical superpowers associated with lamas in order to promote themselves.
Then there are Westerners who have studied Tibetan Buddhism but want to strip it of all context and tradition and promote a selective, sanitized version of Buddhism that appeals to Western audiences. Apparently they think traditional Tibetan Buddhism is too primitive and superstitious, so they repackage it as “secular Buddhism.” They turn meditation into a cure for anxiety and depression or a way to improve your business performance. When the Buddha taught mindfulness meditation, he intended it as a spiritual practice to achieve enlightenment, not as a tool to help you cope with daily life. You can’t use Buddhist mindfulness meditation the way you would an aspirin to resolve a headache. Depression and anxiety are symptoms of the greater disease that we all suffer, which is samsara [the cycle of suffering that, according to Buddhism, all living beings are bound to as the condition for existence — Ed.].
If you teach Buddhist ideas while ignoring Buddha’s teachings, you are misusing Buddhism. Of course, not all Western Buddhists are at fault — some are serious and knowledgeable — but those who are trying to sell Buddhism by repackaging it for Western consumption are cheapening it.
Tibetans have no freedom of movement. There are cameras with facial-recognition software everywhere. People’s phone communications are monitored. In Lhasa there are checkpoints every few hundred yards where Tibetans must show their papers and are subject to searches.
Hertog: Over its long history Buddhism has spread from place to place, and it has always changed in the process. Tibetans received Buddhism from India many centuries ago and adapted it to their own culture. How is the Western adaptation different?
Norbu: It’s true, Buddhism originally came to Tibet from India, and over the centuries Tibetans have changed it. But what these Westerners are doing is different, because the power relationship is uneven. They have this attitude of moral righteousness, but their goals are self-serving. It is wrong to appropriate another culture’s religion and use it out of context for your own purposes while disregarding the source. Of course, the old Buddhist institutions have their faults — I’m the first to point those out — but it is these institutions that have kept Buddhism alive for so many centuries. We owe them tremendous gratitude and respect.
Hertog: Westerners have also appropriated the image of Tibet to add an aura of spirituality to merchandise.
Norbu: Yes, it cheapens our culture, but I don’t want to be too fussy about the items being sold on dharma websites and in new-age stores: singing bowls, prayer flags, and so on. Even if it has nothing to do with Tibetan culture, it can help individual Tibetans make a living. So I don’t take issue with that. In fact, it’s nothing new. In Victorian times, too, there was a Western interest in Tibetan artifacts. Western tourists would come to Darjeeling, where Tibetan traders would sell them skull drums, prayer beads, and daggers. [English writer] Rudyard Kipling describes this. And there was a trade in photographs of Tibet, many of them staged.
Hertog: Why does Tibet have such a hold on some Westerners’ imaginations?
Norbu: The first factor is the location. We are on the Roof of the World and have truly spectacular landscapes. So the land itself is visually and artistically appealing. Another factor is that Tibet is one of the few Eastern nations never colonized or controlled by the West. So there is a sense that Tibet is more pure and pristine than other places. Also, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Tibet was inaccessible to Westerners, which added to the mystique. When occultism became popular in Victorian England, Tibet came to be seen as a place of wonder, where the ancient mysteries were preserved. James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon describes Shangri-La, a hidden Tibetan land that exists outside time. The book was a huge best seller and got turned into a movie in 1937.
Hilton wrote Lost Horizon during the Great Depression, when Hitler was on the rise in Germany. It makes sense that he imagined someplace in the world where this craziness didn’t exist and people could live in peace and freedom. I don’t blame him for turning Tibet into an ideal. Lost Horizon is a wonderful story. I actually think Tibetans should claim Shangri-La as part of our culture and heritage. I want to believe in it myself.
Hertog: You mean you, too, long for an idealized version of Tibet?
Norbu: Aren’t we all searching for something like that? In fact, there is a popular Tibetan belief that may have inspired Hilton’s Shangri-La. Tibetans believe in the existence of beyul, secret valleys in the Tibetan landscape that can open up in times of crisis to allow the faithful to find refuge in them. These sacred hidden valleys are said to have been created by the eighth-century Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet and foresaw a future in which Tibetans would have to hide from war and persecution.
The strange part is that there really are places like this in the Tibetan landscape. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I joined the Tibetan resistance. One day I was riding with my friends through the Mustang Valley on the border of Tibet and Nepal, and they showed me a crack in the side of a mountain that led to a narrow canyon, which opened up into a hidden valley where they had a beautiful farm with peach trees and crops. It was one of the camps where the resistance fighters hid.
When the Buddha taught mindfulness meditation, he intended it as a spiritual practice to achieve enlightenment, not as a tool to help you cope with daily life. You can’t use Buddhist mindfulness meditation the way you would an aspirin to resolve a headache.
Hertog: Westerners have long portrayed Tibet in glowing terms. When the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in 1959, a cover story in Time magazine described him as a god-king from a serene and mystical country. Has this Western portrayal of Tibet been beneficial for Tibetan exiles?
Norbu: I think it has actually affected us negatively. Tibetan exile society feels pressured to conform to Westerners’ expectations. Of course, we can’t just blame the West, but it has an inordinate amount of influence and power. There are fewer than two hundred thousand Tibetans in exile. They are very poor, and money plays a big role in how people make decisions. When it became apparent that Westerners were interested in Buddhism, there was this rush to open dharma centers for Western disciples. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some very good dharma centers — many of the geshes [monks who have completed a monastic degree in Buddhist theology — Ed.] who taught Westerners were very learned — but it meant resources were diverted away from the Tibetan community.
I don’t mean to cast blame on His Holiness [the Dalai Lama]. His first political education was in communism. In 1954 he was taken on a staged tour of China, which Mao Zedong [chairman and founder of the People’s Republic of China] used to impress the very young Dalai Lama. I think he still believes that the Chinese government basically wants what is best for the Tibetan people.
Nonviolence is an important but not a central concept in Tibetan Buddhism, yet the Dalai Lama has made it the core of his teachings because it appeals to Westerners. The Tibetan leadership is even rewriting history to appeal to Western stereotypes. Tibet was never a land of peace and serenity, but they present it that way, because it’s what Westerners want to hear. This idealization of Tibetan culture distracts from real life-and-death issues.
Instead of idealizing Tibetan Buddhism for Westerners, we should be discussing what is happening in China, which is becoming ever more authoritarian. This affects not only the Tibetans, but also the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the residents of Hong Kong, and anyone in China who stands in the way of the current regime. We Tibetans have firsthand experience of Chinese-government oppression, and that is what we should be communicating to the world — that and the genocide that is being carried out on the Tibetan Plateau and in Xinjiang.
The Western idolization of everything “traditional” has also skewed Tibetans’ view of Western culture. Tibetans have heard so much about the supposed superiority of Tibetan Buddhism that they have little interest in Western learning. The Western idealization of the old Tibet has encouraged Tibetans to embrace traditional conservative thinking while rejecting critical thought. The Tibetan community-in-exile should have been developing democratic institutions and a democratic vision, but instead our society has become more conservative and more about the worship of the Dalai Lama. We have become a society without discussion, because whatever the Dalai Lama says is the final word. I have even had some Westerners tell me that Tibetans don’t need democracy because it’s so much better to be governed by a “philosopher king,” like the Dalai Lama.
Much as I respect His Holiness, this personality cult is simplistic and harmful. I don’t even think it’s very Buddhist.
Hertog: Are there connections between the American consumption of Chinese products and Chinese oppression of Tibet?
Norbu: Of course there are. In the 1990s politicians like President Bill Clinton didn’t want to deal with the problem of Tibet, because it stood in the way of establishing strong trade relations with the Chinese government. They had come up with this theory that better U.S.-China trade relations would lead to the democratization of China. Before that, in the 1980s, there was a quite effective boycott against products made in China, and the West was more favorable to the Tibetan cause. There was a lot of pressure then on China to improve its human-rights record. At that time China still had to reapply every year for most-favored-nation status, and every year the Tibetan issue was brought up in Congress during that debate. But the Clinton administration wanted to give China permanent most-favored-nation status. Then, in 2001, the Bush administration severed any connection between that status and China’s human-rights record. Once this happened, the Chinese government could act with impunity because it knew the West cared more about business interests than human rights.
Now China has turned into the greatest surveillance state in the world, imprisoning anyone who speaks up, and the West is still happily trading with China. Westerners have let business interests cloud their perception. They deluded themselves, thinking that China would move toward democracy.
Meanwhile Western leaders have pressured the Dalai Lama to adhere to the “Middle Way Approach,” which means giving up any claim to an independent Tibet, committing to nonviolence, and negotiating with the Chinese government about the status of Tibet as an autonomous region inside China. The Dalai Lama truly believes in nonviolence, but the Chinese government knows he is in a desperate position. Why would it make any concessions? The Chinese have just been stringing the Tibetans along, and in the meantime they are consolidating their hold over Tibet.
It is convenient for Western politicians to encourage the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach, because it sounds good and allows them to keep doing business with China. It’s a way of seeming virtuous and at the same time making a profit. Of course, the negotiations have led nowhere, His Holiness has no other options, and the oppression in Tibet has only gotten worse.
Hertog: Are you saying that the Dalai Lama’s commitment to nonviolence is not traditionally Tibetan?
Norbu: The Dalai Lama’s ideas about nonviolence came to a certain extent from Mahatma Gandhi [who led a nonviolent movement for Indian independence from Great Britain — Ed.]. In fact, there is no inherent Tibetan tradition of pacifism. The Fifth Dalai Lama gained power over Tibet in 1642 by establishing an alliance with a powerful Mongol ruler and reuniting a Tibet that had fragmented since the dissolution of the Tibetan Empire. Imperial China established a protectorate over Tibet during the reign of the Seventh Dalai Lama, but when the Qing dynasty collapsed, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama declared Tibetan independence in 1913. Conservative religious leaders opposed his attempts to modernize the nation. They did not want to strengthen the Tibetan Army, because they were afraid a strong army would lessen the power of the monasteries. They also opposed secular education because it competed with monastic learning. Their opposition to reform contributed to a situation in which Tibet was completely unprepared to withstand the 1950 Chinese invasion.
Hertog: With all your criticism of the Buddhist monastic elites, are you still a Buddhist yourself?
Norbu: Yes, I’m a Tibetan Buddhist, but I’m one who questions religious authority. I am critical of the clergy but admire the creativity and inventiveness of Tibetan Buddhism as practiced by the Tibetan people.
Tibetans received Buddhist teachings from India and then adapted them to our own way of life: Some schools devised Tummo meditation to keep meditators warm. Others developed running meditation, for when practitioners had to cross long distances by themselves. And of course we have the Kora, the walking meditation around holy places, which many if not most Tibetans practice almost daily. Tibetans have made Buddhism part of the fabric of Tibetan society. I am committed to Tibetan Buddhism, but I’m not defending the monastic clerical system that usurped political power in Tibet. This is not a problem with Buddhism itself. It’s the failure of our political system. That’s why Tibet needs democracy.
Hertog: Do you have many memories of the early years of exile, after the Dalai Lama and almost a hundred thousand other Tibetans fled Tibet in 1959?
Norbu: My family was privileged in that we had moved to India in 1950, just as the Chinese Communist forces invaded Tibet. We didn’t suffer the same hardships as the Tibetans who had to flee suddenly in 1959. I was just a toddler when we left Lhasa and don’t have any memories of life there, but I do remember the Tibetan exodus, when I was ten years old. My father was involved in appealing to the Indian government to grant sanctuary to the Dalai Lama. It was not at all certain that India would accept the refugees, because [Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru was a friend of China at the time.
Hertog: [Poets] Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder arrived in Dharamsala in 1962 and were among the first of many Western spiritual seekers who traveled there. What was it like when these Western pilgrims started to show up in search of enlightenment?
Norbu: I was a teenager in the 1960s, just the right age to hang out with the hippies. We had good music: Bob Dylan, the Beatles. I used to play in a rock band. On Saturday evenings we’d jam in the teahouses. So I was grateful the hippies were there. It was an opportunity to open my mind to new things. I still have friends from that period, some of whom later became academics specializing in Tibet.
But most of the Westerners who came to Dharamsala in the 1960s and 1970s knew very little about Tibet as a nation. They idealized Mao and the new China. They thought the Tibetan guerrillas fighting for independence were just CIA pawns sent to sabotage Mao’s brave new China. They refused to believe that the Great Chinese Famine [1959–1961] had really happened. They were sure it was CIA propaganda. They thought that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a beautiful movement and would bring about a better world. Many of these young Westerners held irreconcilable ideals: on the one hand, they idealized the superstition of traditional Tibetan religion; on the other, they admired atheist Communist China.
Hertog: When you were nineteen, you ran away to join the Tibetan guerrilla forces in northern Nepal, who were fighting the Chinese army across the border in Tibet.
Norbu: I joined the resistance out of a sense of romanticism. I had a big fight with my father, who didn’t want me to become a freedom fighter. He had another career path in mind for me. But my mother didn’t discourage me because her own father had been a general in the Tibetan Army and had fought the Chinese forces in eastern Tibet in 1918. My grandfather had a reputation as a bold fighter, and I imagined following in his footsteps.
Even more than that, I was inspired by my literary idols, like Ernest Hemingway. When I read For Whom the Bell Tolls [Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War], I saw a parallel between the Spanish partisans’ struggle against fascism and the Tibetan Khampa warriors’ fight against Chinese oppression.
To be quite honest, I didn’t do much fighting. I did intelligence work, because I had more education than many of the others. When it became clear that our guerrilla resistance wasn’t going anywhere and the CIA stopped supporting us, I decided to become a writer — to counter Communist propaganda and present the truth about Tibet to the world, so that others would understand what was going on. I had to teach myself how to write. I never went to university and had only a high-school command of English. I mostly educated myself through reading.
I did go to St. Joseph’s, a prestigious English boarding school in Darjeeling, where I studied English literature. That’s how I encountered Hemingway.
Hertog: When you joined the Tibetan guerrilla forces, did you expect that Tibet could be taken back?
Norbu: Of course there was hope we would return. Until the late 1960s Tibetan paratroopers were being flown from Nepal into Tibet to fight the Chinese. And then the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, and Tibet was sealed off. From the news that managed to get out, we understood that China was in chaos: the Communists were smashing and destroying everything; millions of people were being killed; there were internal warring factions in China. Tibetans just couldn’t understand what was going on. We were still processing everything that had happened to us since the Chinese had taken control of Tibet in the 1950s. We barely knew what communism was before the invasion. We were an isolated, conservative, religious society trying to deal with being invaded by a radical-Left, antireligious, communist nation.
But during those initial years we still had hope. With China in chaos, it didn’t seem impossible that the Chinese army could be defeated and we’d be able to return. The Dalai Lama still supported the idea of Tibetan independence then. The exile community was very optimistic. We would sing patriotic songs, and I wrote patriotic plays. Nowadays the Tibetan Administration downplays the history of the guerrilla fighters and instead promotes the image of Tibet as a nation of pacifists. But in the 1960s we not only had the fighters who had been trained by the CIA but also thousands of Tibetans who were trained in India as part of the Special Frontier Force. There was hope. And it wasn’t unwarranted.
I am committed to Tibetan Buddhism, but I’m not defending the monastic clerical system that usurped political power in Tibet. . . . Tibet needs democracy.
Hertog: When did that hope end?
Norbu: In 1973 the CIA decided that the Tibetan operation was a failure and withdrew its support. And after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping came to power and opened China up for international trade. When the West started to approach China, the Communist regime gradually became more powerful than ever.
Hertog: Does the resistance continue in Tibet?
Norbu: Yes, every few years there is an uprising or protest. The last, in 2008, was brutally suppressed. It has become increasingly difficult to protest in Tibet. The Chinese government is very sophisticated in how it controls the population, using technology to keep track of everyone’s movements and planting spies everywhere. It’s not just the police. There are informers in the apartment buildings, in the schools, in the workplace. People don’t know whom to trust. It’s impossible to organize or speak freely. That’s what has pushed Tibetans into the recent wave of self-immolations. Burning yourself to death is a solitary act of protest that the authorities can’t stop.
The Chinese government does not intend to compromise on Tibet. They are just stringing the Dalai Lama along. They aren’t impressed by his nonviolence. I don’t mean to promote violence, but even when you use nonviolent methods, you must be confrontational to some extent. Nonviolence is not some magical formula that resolves everything. Even Gandhi said, “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” I agree that other methods — nonviolent protest, popular opinion, diplomacy, boycotts — should be tried first. But violence can’t always be avoided. It can be a display of weakness or cowardice to fall back on knee-jerk, feel-good pacifism.
People accuse me of being a troublemaker and of living in the past because I still agitate for Tibetan independence while the Tibetan leadership has given up on the idea. But I think Tibetans in exile owe it to Tibetans in Tibet to respect their vision and ideals. The people in Tibet who have lost their lives and freedom protesting the Chinese regime have not been asking for a compromise or an adjustment to the way China rules Tibet: they want an end to the occupation and a free, independent country. The Dalai Lama says he forgives the Chinese and has no anger toward China. That’s wonderful. Meanwhile people in Tibet are suffering.
In 2018 His Holiness asked me to come and meet with him, and we talked for almost an hour. Of course he didn’t agree with my position on Tibetan independence. He still stands by his Middle Way. But he said he respects my efforts to remind the world that Tibet was once an independent country and must become one again. He said the work I’m doing in promoting Tibetan independence is valuable for his Middle Way Approach, because the Chinese government will not negotiate with Tibetans if we can’t make the case that we were an independent country once.
I thanked His Holiness for his kind words, but I made clear that I don’t agree with him. I am not promoting the idea of Tibetan independence in order for Tibetan negotiators to be in a better position to make a deal with China. I told His Holiness that I am not ready to make concessions and will keep fighting for independence. I asked him to remember in his prayers all the Tibetans who are struggling for independence. “Of course, most certainly,” he responded, which meant a lot to me.
Hertog: It has been more than sixty years since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Is there still hope for Tibetan independence?
Norbu: The Chinese empire is fragile, because it is built upon oppression. In a democracy there are outlets through which people can express their frustrations, and injustice, to some extent, can be addressed. But in China there is no outlet. If the oppression is too great, it may all come apart. If the empire were to break up, I think democracy might be possible in the smaller entities that would remain. In fact, each Chinese province is the size of a European country, and different regions originally had their own languages and cultures. I could envision a democratic Sichuan or a democratic Guangdong. I’m not the only one saying this. There are Chinese dissidents and writers like Liao Yiwu who have called for the empire to be broken up.
The imperial legacy is the disease. An empire that large and powerful doesn’t tolerate local self-determination. It is a homogenizing force that demands everyone submit to the central government. The people of Taiwan and Hong Kong have realized it’s better not to be part of China, and I, among many others, still hope that one day the empire will break up.
This is where Tibetans must keep up the fight and prepare for the long haul. We can prevail if we are able to keep our culture intact.
Hertog: Why do you describe China as an “empire” when, nominally, it is a communist nation? Is Xi Jinping an emperor?
Norbu: The reigning ideology under Xi Jinping is not communism but an aggressive nationalism/imperialism. This is nothing new in China. For centuries the Chinese empire has been dominating and absorbing neighboring non-Chinese areas. The official view is that it is a privilege for these areas to become a part of China, because China is the cultural center of the world, and all others on the periphery are barbarians.
Hertog: Confucian philosophy has shaped Chinese culture for centuries and is a key part of the ideology of today’s Chinese government. Are Confucian values — such as respect for elders, loyalty to superiors, and the maintenance of societal hierarchy — compatible with democracy?
Norbu: Today’s regime uses Confucianism to defend authoritarianism. The authorities claim that, because of its Confucian heritage, Chinese culture prefers order and hierarchy over freedom and equality, but they don’t seem to have actually read Confucius’s Analects [an ancient Chinese text that presents the philosophy of Confucius — Ed.]. I don’t claim to be a Confucian scholar, but I have read the Analects, and Confucius was much more democratic than the Chinese authorities make him out to be. He calls for disobedience to the ruler when the ruler does not honor the moral code. The way Chinese imperial governments have used Confucianism to justify the oppression of their subjects is a travesty of what Confucius actually taught.
Contemporary China is materialism run amok. On the one hand, the government rejects spirituality; on the other, it points to “Confucian” culture to justify its disregard of individual rights and rejection of democratic principles. You can’t justify oppression by claiming it’s a “cultural difference.” No one chooses to be oppressed. Just ask the Chinese dissidents.
Hertog: How can Tibetans preserve their culture under Chinese oppression?
Norbu: It’s not an easy task. We need stamina and determination. The Tibetan exile community has a great responsibility to be an inspiration for the people in Tibet, who are prevented from expressing their Tibetan identity. The problem is that, at present, our Tibetan identity revolves around the Dalai Lama. He is the symbol that unites us. But we can’t stake our identity and culture on one person. We need foundational institutions to maintain a living culture, which includes music, dance, food, jokes, stories. That’s what I’m attempting to preserve and cherish.
The hidden valley of beyul doesn’t have to be a physical place. When the Tibetan exiles arrived in India, we created a kind of beyul — a refuge where we have tried to preserve our culture. We established a center of traditional Tibetan medicine; the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives; and the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. We re-created the monasteries of Tibet. All this was a kind of beyul. We don’t necessarily need a physical land to preserve our culture and identity. As long as we have ways to communicate, we can create these hidden lands.
Hertog: You have not been back to Tibet since you left there as a young child. How do you keep Tibetan culture and identity alive for yourself and pass it on to your own children?
Norbu: It’s been an uphill climb. I’m afraid I haven’t always been successful. We now live in rural Tennessee, a place with no Tibetan community. We ended up here because my wife, who was born in the Tibetan exile community in India, got a job here as a doctor. She and I speak Tibetan at home. My two daughters speak some Tibetan, but not fluently. There are many Tibetans like us who find it difficult to raise our children in another culture. We tried to send our daughters to school in India, but they missed home, and, in the end, I thought a family should be together. Parents can’t push their kids too hard, or it will just put them off. I want my children to find their own way. Our youngest is now eighteen and finishing high school. Our oldest is twenty-four and an activist and paralegal with an interest in immigration law. She lives in Jackson Heights, New York, the Tibetan neighborhood in Queens, and has a Tibetan roommate. I’m glad she has found a Tibetan community. It’s hard to keep a culture going long-distance.
Hertog: Would you return to Tibet if you could?
Norbu: Oh, yes! Tibetan culture is still hugely important to me. I cannot imagine the world without Tibet. There’s much that I love about Western culture, and in some ways I’m an internationalist, but I’m also completely and absolutely Tibetan. If there were a halfway-acceptable government in Tibet that would let me live in peace, I would move there at the drop of a hat.
Hertog: What should be the role of the Dalai Lama in an independent Tibet?
Norbu: When the Fifth Dalai Lama created his government almost four hundred years ago, he united a country that had been divided by warring factions. But the institution of the Dalai Lama has outlived its usefulness, and Tibetans should find other, more democratic, forms of government.
The whole idea of incarnate lamas goes against Buddhist ideas about rebirth. The concept is a political tool that Tibetans invented centuries ago. I don’t actually believe in it. Even the Fifth Dalai Lama himself seems not to have believed he was a true incarnation. In his autobiography he admits that as a young child he failed the test that should have proven he was the reincarnation of the Fourth Dalai Lama. At most, an independent Tibet should have a Dalai Lama as a figurehead, not as its supreme leader.
Hertog: The current Dalai Lama is now eighty-four years old. What will happen when he dies?
Norbu: This is never discussed in the exile Tibetan community. Tibetans are in denial and don’t seem to have a plan. The Chinese Communist Party, meanwhile, has a scheme by which it will produce its own reincarnation of the Dalai Lama after the current Dalai Lama has passed. Chinese authorities will find a cute Tibetan boy and have him educated by monks loyal to the Chinese government. If they can control him, they can control Tibet.
I have urged our current Dalai Lama to officially announce that under no circumstances will he reincarnate in China. He has a cavalier attitude about it — he has joked that he may choose to be reborn as a woman or not at all — but he has never seriously announced that he won’t reincarnate in Chinese-controlled Tibet.
Hertog: The COVID-relief bill that was passed in Congress last December contained a surprise clause stating that the U.S. will hold accountable any Chinese official who interferes with the selection of the next Dalai Lama. Will this be effective?
Norbu: It’s definitely a positive development. Jim McGovern, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, promoted the legislation. He’s a great human-rights advocate. He also had the support of some Republicans, like Marco Rubio. But now the Dalai Lama has to do his part and announce a specific place where he will be reborn — outside China, of course.
Nonviolence is not some magical formula that resolves everything. Even Gandhi said, “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
Hertog: Despite your criticism of the Dalai Lama, you have called him “the living symbol of Tibetans’ hope for freedom.” In the end, do you think he has been a good leader for the Tibetan people?
Norbu: I think he has tried his best, but one person cannot be responsible for a whole nation. He never chose to be put in this position, and throughout his life he has been surrounded by conflict and power struggles. Early on in Tibet he made a series of mistakes. The Communists were able to manipulate him as a teenager. They more or less succeeded in making him a communist. I don’t blame him — he was very young — but I blame the institutions that enthroned a fifteen-year-old child as the supreme leader of a country that was under threat. The Dalai Lama has lived his life in an ivory tower and never had a chance to learn about the lives of regular Tibetans. He has always been surrounded by people with their own interests and ambitions who have often given him bad advice. Even so, he managed to do a number of good things: He created the Tibetan government-in-exile when he arrived in India. He set up the new educational system and re-created the monastic system. He has also tried hard to be a good spiritual guru, and he has served us quite well in that sense. But he is not at all politically savvy. I wish he could have stuck to being a spiritual teacher.
Hertog: The Dalai Lama has said that he considers himself a Marxist. Do you agree with him that the Buddha could have supported communism?
Norbu: Communism makes big promises: complete equality, a just world, a perfect society. But it doesn’t compromise, and it denies complexity. I don’t think the Buddha would have favored communism, because he considered the reality in which we exist to be flawed by definition. The First Noble Truth is that suffering is an innate characteristic of existence. So the Buddha wouldn’t have accepted the idea of a perfect society. His principal goal was to be free from samsara, not to chase after perfection within samsara.
If the Buddha endorsed any form of government, I think he would endorse democracy. In his last discourse the Buddha spoke of how the Vrijji, a tribal confederation in northern India that practiced an early form of democracy, should defend itself against a powerful autocratic monarch. I find it wonderful that the Buddha thought about such matters 2,500 years ago. He emphasizes the importance of protecting democratic institutions and proper procedures, including respect for and protection of women. And he is absolutely right: the only way to protect democracy is to protect its institutions, because humans are always flawed. Democracy is flawed, too, but it’s the best system we have. We live in an imperfect world.