How the Bodhi DharmaReturned to India

(An article in India Currents, May 2001 Issue)


Protest in Dharamasala, Himachal Pradesh commemorating the uprising in Tibet on March 10, 1959
Protest in Dharamasala, Himachal Pradesh commemorating the uprising in Tibet on March 10, 1959
Photo: Lobsang Wangyal

Dalai Lama means different things to different people. To some it means that I am a living Buddha, the earthly manifestation of Avalokiteshwara, Bodhisattva of Compassion. To others it means I am a ‘god-king.’ During the late 1950s it meant that I was a Vice-President of the Steering Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China. Then when I escaped into exile, I was called a counterrevolutionary and a parasite. But none of these are my ideas. To some ‘Dalai Lama’ is a title that signifies the office I hold. I myself am just a human being, and incidentally a Tibetan, who chooses to be a Buddhist monk.”–Opening lines of Freedom in Exile; the Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. 

Whether the 14th Dalai Lama is really a living Buddha or not, he has certainly accomplished the impossible by returning Buddhism to India after an absence of almost a millennium. From the sixth century B.C. to the 10th century B.C. Buddhist-dominated empires stretched across India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan. It then went into decline for a number of factors: lack of state patronage; decline from within; the rise of popularity of Hinduism which sublimated Buddhism by making Buddha one of the incarnations of Vishnu; as well as the proselytizing efforts of Hindu masters like Adi Shankaracharya. The Turkish invasion in the 12th century put the proverbial nail in the coffin of Buddhism in India. Despite the conversion of Dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar and his followers in 1954, over differences with Gandhi about the reformation vs. abolishment of the caste system, Buddhism remained invisible in India until the recent presence of the Tibetan Buddhist refugee community that has followed the Dalai Lama into exile in India.

Despite the violence of the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, with almost 6,000 monasteries destroyed, monks and nuns continuing to be killed and tortured, and Buddhist art and monuments ruined, the Dalai Lama continues to be optimistic about resolving the problem through ahimsa or the ancient Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence. He made a dedication in his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to Mahatma Gandhi for founding satyagraha, the modern tradition of nonviolent action for change. What is completely disarming about this 65- year-old, maroon-robed, monk-leader and best-selling author, philosopher, is not only his humility, humor, and palpable sense of joy, but that he genuinely does not seem to bear any hatred or desire for revenge against the Chinese. A rarity indeed, in these times, where revenge drives the cycle of violence in most struggles between ethnic and religious independence movements and nation states.


Tibetan monks at teachings
Tibetan monks at teachings
Photo: Nidhi Singh
Politically, the Dalai Lama is the head of state of Tibet, but in Tibetan Buddhist tradition he is a bodhisattva, or a living Buddhaan enlightened being who will keep on reincarnating in human form, to help all beings, as long as suffering remains in the world. Lhamo Thondup, born in 1935, to poor peasants, was discovered to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of 2, and enthroned in 1940. In 1950, due to Chinese aggression towards Tibet, the 15-year-old boy was made the leader of Tibet. In 1951 a Tibetan delegation to China was held prisoner and forced to sign a 17-point agreement authored by the Chinese. The Dalai Lama personally went to China in 1954 to negotiate with Chairman Mao, where he also met the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Soon after, on a short visit to India for the Buddha's 2,500th death anniversary, he was welcomed as the head of state of Tibet.

Though the young Dalai Lama used his influence to stop Tibetans from violent opposition to the Chinese, on March 10, 1959 things came to a head, with 30,000 Tibetans amassing around his palace to defend him. To stem impending violence, the 24-year-old monk, disguised as a soldier, escaped into exile to India.


In the following year, 87,000 Tibetans were killed by the Chinese, while 85,000 followed their leader into exile. Today, there are over 130,000 Tibetan refugees in the world, mostly in India. Disproving China's claims of improving the lives of Tibetans, they continue to stream into India and Nepal.

The 17-year-old Karmapa, head of the Tibetan Karma Kagyu Sect, embarrassed China by joining the Dalai Lama in exile last year. The current reincarnated 11th Panchen Lama, a 10-year-old child confirmed by His Holiness, is believed to have been kidnapped by the Chinese.

In Tibet, the remaining 6 million Tibetans are discriminated against by the dominant 7.5 million new Chinese immigrants. In addition oil-drilling, mining, clear cutting, over-fishing and burial of nuclear waste is creating an environmental disaster in the Tibetan plateau. Though China signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture (CAT) in October 1988, 72 Tibetan political prisoners have died as a result of injuries sustained in prison, reports the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), five last February alone. As of December 1999, TCHRD has documented 615 known political prisoners, including 162 women, currently serving sentences. Like Ngawang Sangdrol, a nun, imprisoned at 16, serving a 21-year-sentence for distributing audio tapes of pro-independence Tibetan songs. Ngawang Choephel, a young American Fulbright scholar, imprisoned in Tibet in August 1995, serving an 18-year-sentence. Or Lama Ribur Rimpoche, 79, who was tortured extensively for 20 years, but has retained his sense of equanimity.

Venerable Lhakdor, personal translator of the Dalai Lama for the last 10 years, explains that the primary message of Buddhism is to develop the dual balance of a good compassionate heart and wisdom. This wisdom cuts through delusions and negative emotions like anger, hatred, etc., stemming the urge to commit negative actions like violence which creates an endless cycle of revenge. After all, Ven. Lhakdor continues, the Chinese and Tibetans have been good neighbours for centuriesand will continue to live side by sideso a solution reached through violence is not a permanent solution.

Ngawang Jigdal, an ex-monk, now working at the Salvation Army in California, who was jailed and tortured several times, echoes the sentiments of many young Tibetans who feel discarded by the world "no one cares for us only His Holiness really cares for us." His Holiness often weeps, hearing the stories of newly arrived refugees, all of whom receive a personal audience with him.

"His Holiness has jokingly said that perhaps you (Indians) have exported non-violence too much. While you export it don't forget to produce more in your own country." - Ven. Lakhdor

Despite these painful experiences, the Dalai Lama, in Art of Happiness (by His Holiness and Howard C. Cutler), finds some positive elements in exile, reasoning that Tibet's isolation for so many years made them narrow-minded they began to feel that it would be a good thing if all of humanity became Buddhist. One positive effect of exile, he reflects, is that "we've had a chance to come into contact with other religious traditions and learn about them now when confronted with another religion, initially a positive feeling, a comfortable feeling will arise. We'll feel if that person finds a different tradition more suitable, more effective, then that's good." He has very clearly stated that he does not want people to convert to Buddhism, instead they should feel free to borrow whatever they like from it.


Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University.
Robert Thurman, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University.
Photo: Nidhi Singh
Buddha himself was born a Hindu Shakya prince in Lumbini, in present day Nepal, in 563 B.C. Renouncing his princely life for ascetism, he attained enlightenment under a bodhi tree, in Bodhgaya, in present day Bihar.

Buddhist India witnessed many great empires, whose rulers either patronized or were tolerant of Buddhist monasteries and universities, like Nalanda in Bihar. King Ashoka's famous inscribed iron pillar and rock edicts stretched all the way to eastern Afghanistan. Still standing, they proclaim to every passerby, his personal commitment to the Dhamma (Buddha Dharma) in the third century B.C. Today, the Ashoka lion capping the iron pillar is the Indian national symbol, and the Buddhist wheel of Dharma was placed on the Indian flag by Mahatma Gandhi as a dual symbol of his charkha (spinning wheel) and the dharma (the spiritual way).

The Gupta dynasty (320650 C.E) synthesized classical Indian culture, unifying Buddhism and Vedism and gave birth to what has come to be called Hinduism, writes Robert Thurman, ex-monk, author and professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University. His book, Inner Revolution: Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, gives a vivid account of the India seen by Chinese-monk explorers I Tsing and Hsuan Tsang in the 5th through 7th century when Buddhist monasteries were numerous, spiritual teachers abundant, militarism low, and capital punishment almost nonexistent. Art flourished, like the unique Greek-influenced Gandhara style, many monuments of which have recently been destroyed by the Talibaan in Afghanistan.

The Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna (first and second century C.E.) became the mentor of King Udayi Shatavahana of the Deccan, who with his counsel established a society that valued individual enlightenment and altruism. Many Buddhist teachers like Ghanpata, Chandrakirti, Dharmakirti, Vasubandhu, Buddhapalita, etc., followed. Finally, Indian Buddhism was taken to Tibet in the 8th century C.E. by the great Indian master Padmasambhava. Atisha, a scholar at Nalanda, was invited to Tibet by the king of western Tibet in 1040 C.E. Other masters evolved in Tibetlike Milarepa (early 12th century) whose teachers were the Indian masters Tilopa and Naropa, and Tibet's greatest master and reformer Tsong Khapa (1357_1419).

By the 12th century, Indian Buddhist traditions were safe in their new sanctuary in the Himalayan plateau in Tibet. There, in relative isolation, the fierce steppe Tibetans were transformed into a unique society, with no real national army, where 10 percent of the population was laity, and the regent was a Buddha. Even today, all sects of Tibetan Buddhism trace their teachings and spiritual lineage back to oral transmissions from Indian gurus. Tibetan Buddhism recognises thousands of reincarnated adepts, many of whom are Indians. For example, Guru Nanak is considered to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava, and Tibetans on pilgrimage in India have always visited the the Golden Temple in Amritsar.


"Indians forget that their greatest export to the world was the Buddha," says Thurman. Buddhism in India developed in three levelsHinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Hinayana or the "lesser vehicle" involving a stricter adherence to moral precepts, spread to Ceylon, Burma and Southeast Asia. Mahayana or the "greater vehicle," is predominant in central Asia, Tibet, China, and Japan. Vajrayana or the thunderbolt vehicle, which provides tantric practices to achieve nirvana and reincarnation, is prevalent only in Tibet and Nepal. Since Tibet received all three levels, it is a repository of Indian Buddhism. In fact, many lost Indian Buddhist texts survive only in their Tibetan translations and are now being translated back into Sanskrit and Hindi.


Although most Indians know about Tibet, many of them do not know how close our spiritual, cultural, and political ties have been all the way back since the seventh century, says T.C. Tethong foreign minister of the Tibetan government in exile, whose career started as a student volunteer-interpreter at the first transit camp for Tibetan refugees near Tejpur in 1959. He explains that because of seventh-century Tibetan scholars who studied Buddhism in India, a lot of structures in Tibetan grammar are based on Sanskrit grammar, and the script is close to the Devanagri script.

Until the Chinese invasion, India and Tibet always had an open border, requiring no travel documents from the Tibetan pilgrims visiting India and the Indian pilgrims on their way to Mt. Kailash. Based on this closeness, he recounts, Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian parliament passed a resolution to welcome His Holiness in 1959. He believes it is important for young Tibetans who have grown up in India, to know how generous India was to the Tibetan refugees. The government set up transit camps, temporary hospitals, provided daily rations of food, gave the refugees work on roads providing a daily wage, later they were given land, housing and means for agriculture and resettled in five different states. A Central Tibetan Administration was set up to provide education for 20-30,000 Tibetan school-children.

Thurman explains that the systematic genocide in Tibet, being committed by the Chinese, stems from two reasons one, they are communists and therefore antireligious, and two, they historically claim that Tibet is a part of China. Tethong reiterates that Tibet has always been an independent nation, signing international treaties like the Shimla Treaty. The British colonials, fearing Russian designs on Central Asia, gave China suzerainty over Tibet, without Tibetan consent. This was used by China to justify expansion into Tibet. Tethong suggests that India's leadership must consider the implication of Tibet's freedom with respect to India's security. As long as the Chinese are in power there, India will continue to spend billions a month securing the border which was open when Tibet was free.


His Holiness, The Dali Lama teaching at Namgyal Monastery, McCleodganj
His Holiness, The Dali Lama teaching at Namgyal Monastery, McCleodganj

Forty-one years since the Dalai Lama has been in India, the relationship between Tibet and India has reversed with India now being the repository for Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhist learning, practice, writing and translation of texts into different languages is being done from India. The Tibetans have rebuilt within India, the three major monasteries destroyed by the ChineseSera, Drepung, and Ganden monasteries. The Dalai Lama has brought some democratic reform to the theocratic Tibetan government by creating a legislative body called the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies, with representatives from different parts of Tibet. Tibetan culture is preserved through institutions like the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts, the Norbulingka Institute, the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives, etc.

Although Tibetan society and religious institutions have historically been male- dominated, now there are organizations like the Tibetan Nuns Project (TNP) which supports nearly 500 nuns, ages 14 to 54, in five different nunneries in India. TNP started in response to the appearance of 66 Tibetan nuns on the streets of Dharamsala, says co-director and Tibetan scholar Elizabeth Napper. These nuns had been on a two-year pilgrimage to Lhasa from their village in Eastern Tibet, prostrating the whole way. Refused entry into the Jokhang temple, by the Chinese, they walked all the way to Nepal. TNP is particularly proud of Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute of Higher Studies in Dharamsala, currently housing 108 nuns and aiming for 275, which is a nonsectarian institute that combines traditional religious training with a modern curriculum.


Tibetan refugees have made some special contributions to Indian society. Tibetan medical clinics provide cheap and effective medical help. Indian Buddhist sites, like Bodhgaya, Nalanda, Sarnath, Ajanta and Ellora, have undergone a revival. The Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies, created by the Indian government in Sarnath, is providing access to Buddhist philosophy to scholars from all over the world. Dharma centers like Tushita, in New Delhi, are providing lay persons with the opportunity to learn Buddhist techniques to deal with negative emotions like anger, guilt, etc. India Today, Feb. 26, quotes Tsering, the team leader of Tibetan volunteers who have been rebuilding houses in earthquake-stricken Gujarat with money donated from Tibetans from abroad, "For the past 40 years India has looked after us as a mother looks after her child, this is the time to repay that debt."


The Land of Medicine Buddha, Soquel, is hosting His Holiness for a series of teachings, and public talks in San Jose, CA from May 17_21. When asked for a special message for Indian Americans, Ven. Lhakdor recollects that His Holiness has often said that even though material and technological development is essential, Indians should not neglect their own rich cultural traditions. He always cites the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who was very committed to preserving India's heritage despite his modern education. Ven. Lhakdor recounts, "There was a time when this country was looked upon as the source and inspiration for nonviolence, however, now that the rest of the world has started taking initiative and interest in the practice of nonviolence, India is at a lower key." His eyes twinkle, "His Holiness has jokingly said that perhaps you have exported nonviolence too much. While you export it don't forget to produce more in your own country."

In Dharamsala, nestled in the snow- capped Dhauladar mountains, I am attending His Holiness's annual teachings with monks and hundreds of lay persons. Watching him stop continually to bless Tibetans, especially children, on his way to the podium, I wonder if he is a bodhisattva, a re-incarnation in an infinite chain link of Buddhas, then perhaps I should prostrate myself before him like the Tibetans do. After all, how often in one lifetime does one meet a Buddha? But, if as he says, he is just a man, a monk and a Tibetan how much more heroic and inspiring is his message of hope and nonviolence. The Buddha, after all, was a man too a monk with a begging bowl walking the dusty streets of Bihar. 

Tibetan Organizations

Tibetan Nuns Project:
supports Tibetan nuns

The International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet (ICLT):
advises the Tibetan government on legal and constitutional matters

Bay Area Friends of Tibet (BAFOT):
cultural organization, presents annual Tibet Day celebration

Tibetan Association of Northern California (TANC):
A social support base for the five to six hundred Tibetans in the Bay Area

Students for a Free Tibet:

Milarepa Fund:; concerts and campaigns for Tibet

Dharma Centers in Bay Area Tse Chen Ling, San Francisco:

Vajrapani, Boulder Creek:

Land of Medicine Buddha, Soquel:

Spirit Rock, Marin:

Dharmadhatu, Berkeley:

San Francisco Zen Center:

Tibetan Web Sites

Tibetan Government in Exile's Official Website: 
Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy:
Tibet House, New York:; preservation of Tibetan art and culture

Inner Revelations, Inc.
(A California 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.)