AT the age of 24, Lobsang Jinpa has already known great sorrow. When he was just 13, he was expelled from school, paraded through the streets of a provincial Tibetan town, and publicly beaten for the crime of asking the Chinese authorities to permit the teaching of Tibetan language and culture. Three years later he entered the once-great Sera Monastery in Lhasa as a novice monk. Before the 1959 Chinese occupation of Tibet, more than 9,800 monks routinely studied there; in 1982, just 97 remained. The rest, like hundreds of thousands in other now devastated monasteries, had been sentenced to forced labor camps, where most eventually died. Of more than 10,000 Buddhist monasteries, shrines, and temples in existence before the Chinese invasion, a tiny handful remain today, their libraries plundered , their rooms used as military barracks and granaries.
At Sera, Lobsang Jinpa found few teachers, no texts, and just three days a month to study. Like his fellow monks, he would rise at 4:00 a.m. and spend most of the next 12 hours smashing rocks in a nearby quarry. Anxious for tourist dollars and an improved international image, the Chinese authorities carefully reconstructed portions of the monastery and opened them to public view. Lobsang served for a time as a cashier collecting donations from well-meaning Westerners who naively believed their money was going to the monks. In fact, the proceeds were routinely diverted to the Chinese authorities.
During the uprising in Lhasa that began Oct. 1, 1987, Lobsang and his fellow monks at Sera organized a peaceful protest, for which they were severely beaten by the Chinese police. His life in peril, Lobsang Jinpa went into hiding. In retaliation, the Chinese authorities beat and imprisoned his family and offered a reward for his capture.
Escaping Lhasa, Lobsang trekked on foot to the border under cover of night, sheltered by sympathetic peasants. After 45 days, having scaled 18,000-foot mountain passes, he reached safety in Nepal. Taking refuge in the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, India, he testified the following year about the abuses he had witnessed before an international human rights tribunal in Bonn. In retaliation for his public testimony, the Chinese seized and executed his mother.
Despite these brutal events, Lobsang Jinpa remains remarkably free of bitterness. His equanimity is an expression of the wisdom of the culture from which he comes, a culture he fears is close to extinction. ``It has gotten much worse since the 1987 crackdown,'' he says. ``I worry that the entire monastic way of life will be destroyed.''
Lobsang held a ``friendly debate'' recently with a State Department official who, on his return from a visit to Tibet, asserted that the Tibetans were being well-treated by the Chinese. ``He saw the surface but not the truth,'' says Lobsang. ``Thousands of Tibetans are dying. Every one of this man's words carries a responsibility for thousands of lives.
``What can Americans do to help? Change your government's policy. Support the Dalai Lama's five-point peace plan. Self-determination is one of your nation's most important principles, but you have not yet publicly committed yourselves to self-determination for the Tibetan people.
``The United States is a superpower with a great opportunity to make a difference. But you do not use that opportunity. Your policy sells Tibetans for the benefit of those in power.''
Lobsang views the future with foreboding. ``Young Tibetans are beginning to say, `Nonviolence is good, as the Dalai Lama says, but the world never pays any attention to us when we don't use violence. Well, we need international attention. And for that we are ready to sacrifice our lives.'''
During the Dalai Lama's visit to the US this month, the forgotten tragedy of Tibet will be briefly remembered. Will the Bush administration continue to turn a blind eye to Beijing's flagrant abuse of both the Tibetan people and its own suppressed democracy movement? Will it continue to reward Beijing with most-favored-nation status and a hefty trade surplus solely to cultivate a temporary strategic alliance?
Like any oppressed people, the Tibetans elicit our sympathy. But Tibet is no commonplace culture. Its ancient wisdom speaks directly to the world-threatening predicament in which mankind finds itself. Its teachings of nonviolence, tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion are far more essential to our survival and well-being than Middle Eastern oil. If by our neglect and complicity we allow this culture of wisdom to be extinguished, we may also diminish our own capacity to save ourselves.