In the High—and Hot—Seat

In April, the Dalai Lama’s U.S. tour included two symposia on science and religion, one at Stanford University in California, the other at Columbia University in New York City. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, he was hosted by Gelek Rinpoche and the Jewel Heart Buddhist Center and received the Paul Wallenberg Human Rights Award.

Gelek Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during His Holiness' April tour of the United States. Bill Levett.
Gelek Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during His Holiness’ April tour of the United States. Bill Levett.

At St. Peter’s Church in New York, His Holiness was also presented with a Peace Award from the New York Lawyers Alliance for World Security in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard Gere, who presented the award, noted that according to both Asia Watch and Amnesty International, human rights violations in Tibet had increased in the past year.

This year marks the thirty-fifth year of exile for Tibet’s spiritual leader, who has successfully called universal attention to the plight of his people. Yet there are growing numbers of militant young Tibetans who have become restless with His Holiness’ commitment to nonviolent negotiations with China and who have advocated guerrilla warfare.

During His Holiness’ U.S. tour, he did not shy away from questions relating to the Congressional debate on most-favored-nation status for China, but reiterated his commitment to peaceful means:

I firmly believe that the day is close when our beloved land of snows will no longer be politically subjugated, culturally ravaged, and economically and environmentally exploited and devastated. However, it is important that our struggle be based on nonviolence.

This year also witnessed the first human rights report to be released under a Democratic administration since President Carter. Disappointingly, the State Department’s report failed to take into account the substantial support for Sino-Tibetan negotiations voiced by President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Seattle earlier in the year. “We were very surprised that the State Department didn’t put more effort into making the report reflect this new administration,” said David Ackerly, Director of the International Campaign for Tibet. He then added:

They basically took the key words from previous reports, which do not reflect this new, very outspoken administration. And furthermore, they failed to notice a 30 percent increase in political prisoners since 1992—and that figure is just for Lhasa alone.

With the renewal of China’s most-favored-nation trade status up for debate in Congress on June 3, His Holiness’ Special Envoy, Lodi Gyari, has asked that American friends of Tibet contact their local representatives to urge that the U.S. pressure the Chinese to reduce their destruction of the people, culture, and religion of Tibet.

Meanwhile, communities of Tibetans in exile are embroiled in a public dispute that has been generating negative press for the Tibetan cause abroad. At the center of the controversy are two young boys, both of whom are being proclaimed as the one and only rightful incarnation of the late Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, who died in 1981 in a Chicago hospital. A Karmapa, like a Dalai Lama, holds the highest seat of authority for one particular lineage (in the Karmapa’s case, the Kagyu), and is considered to be one of the most revered and powerful leaders of the Tibetan people.

The controversy first erupted two years ago when Ugen Thinley, then seven years of age, was installed as the Seventeenth Karmapa. At the time, the regents who had been entrusted to find the new Karmapa were not in agreement on the selection. When the dispute came to the attention of the Dalai Lama, he supported the choice of Ugen Thinley. This spring, the opposing faction presented a second boy as the rightful heir to the Karmapa’s seat, ten-year-old Tenzin Khyentse. The announcement was followed by attacks on Tibetan monasteries and Buddhist monks from the different camps throwing bottles and rocks at each other.

When asked about this situation at a recent press conference in California, His Holiness said:

You know, the Buddhist tradition is very nonviolent, but that does not mean that over the past 2,500 years there has never been any violence.

What is new, however, is that Tibet’s fate has never before been so dependent on Western intervention—nor have its internal religious politics been so scrutinized by the Western press. This has led to rumors that the disharmony is being fomented by the Chinese. At the end of his tour, on April 28, the Dalai Lama met with President Clinton and Vice President Gore as well as other senior officials in Washington to stress “morality” in U.S. foreign policy. He also reiterated his willingness to negotiate with the Chinese, a position supported by the President. Following the visit, Dee Dee Myers, when asked about China’s most-favored-nation status, replied, “We’re watching to see how the Chinese behave over the course of the next several weeks.” For openers, Clinton’s meeting with the Dalai Lama drew an angry response from Beijing.



A ninth-century Vairochana Buddha from Indonesia (left) and an eleventh-century, kneeling woman from Cambodia—two of 1,300 objects in the newly opened Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Florence and Herbert Irving Galleries for the art of South and Southeast Asia. Collections that include art from India, Tibet, Cambodia, and Burma are housed in 18 new galleries architecturally modeled after Buddhist and Hindu monuments.

Temple Clash in Korea

In early April, the Chogye Buddhist Order, the largest in South Korea, erupted in a violent protest that resulted in the expulsion of its president, the Rev. Suh Euihyun. The unrest was precipitated on March 29, when Rev. Suh abruptly called for his own re-election to the head of the Chogye Order five months before the scheduled vote. Reformist monks were outraged by what they perceived to be the blatant manipulation of the Council—an act all too reminiscent of the maneuvers of previous dictatorial regimes—for it prevented them from preparing a challenger in due democratic process.

In order to block Rev. Suh’s re-election, almost 500 monks, nuns, and supporting students staged a nonviolent protest at the Chogye headquarters, but the confrontation quickly escalated into violence. Accounts of the conflict vary. While Western media reported that the monks had “invaded” the headquarters, thus creating the need for riot police, Frank Tedesco wrote in The Korea Times that “monks very close to Suh mobilized young street gangsters to attack the protesters,” causing a violent confrontation. Riot police then stormed the building with ropes and ladders, eventually arresting 300 people. Images of gray-robed monks with shaved heads battling police in riot gear were broadcast by news agencies around the world. The next morning, the reformers announced that elders had expelled Rev. Suh from the Buddhist faith. In the end, 80 monks and police were reported injured.

The powerful Chogye Order controls 1,750 temples and claims abour 80 percent of South Korea’s 20 million Buddhists (almost half the total population). Rev. Suh, who had ruled the order since 1986, had been repeatedly accused of keeping a mistress, using his office to amass a fortune, and hiring thugs to settle scores. The famous temples are popular tourist attractions, and bring in large amounts of cash, which is then divided among the temple administrations, Chogye headquarters, and the local municipalities. The violent affair began to take on a larger political significance when allegations were made that Rev. Suh had funneled the equivalent of $9.7 million to President Kim Young Sam’s coffers.

The expulsion of Rev. Suh has brought about a drive to reform the administration of the Chogye Order. As of April 4, a group of fifteen ordained members began a voluntary fast in the hope of applying pressure on the administration to reform. According to Korea Times columnist Tedesco,

The monks and nuns on fast appear determined to go on to the end of this debacle. The people in power have lost whatever slim moral stance they may have assumed to have had, and it is now up to them to admit their mistakes within their “sangha” circle and allow a new team of reformers to try to initiate more open and more democratic ways within the national temple administration.

Compassion on Seventh Avenue

Street sign at 39th Street & 7th Avenue. Jeri Copolla.
Street sign at 39th Street & 7th Avenue. Jeri Copolla.

Several years ago, in recognition of the fur and dress trade that defines the Manhattan thoroughfare, “Fashion Ave.” vanity plaques were officially installed on a stretch of Seventh Avenue between Times Square and Penn Station. Bur it is hard to imagine Mayor Rudolph Giuliani taking time off from arresting cops in the Harlem precinct, rounding up all the homeless people, and tangling with street vendors in order to sanction “Compassion” street signs. Yet, there they are, white on official city green, on the west side of Seventh Avenue in the upper thirties. Perhaps this signals a new era of urban terrorism. Imagine it: New York under siege by the Lotus Guerrillas.


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