Saturday, March 29, 2008

Zero Degrees of Separation

If you know me, you are way closer to Tibet than you are to Kevin Bacon.

In the notorious TV advertisement the actor demonstrates "six degrees of separation,"the idea that everyone is connected to everyone else in the world by a chain of only half a dozen acquaintances. The idea has been tested recently using email, and the average of six appears to hold true. Of course since this is an average it means some chains will be longer than others, while other chains may represent no separation at all.

It happens that I know someone from Tibet, so I am connected directly. This young man managed to escape to India by walking across the Himalayas, much as the Dalai Lama did many years ago. Now he makes his home on the West Coast of the United States, but he still has many relations back in Tibet, so what is happening there affects him as personally as if he were still there himself.

What can we do for this hapless country? Once the embodiment of the peaceable kingdom on earth, the very model for the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon fame, it has been occupied by its hugely more powerful neighbor and subjected to a policy of cultural extermination. It has been denied its name, its religion, its social order, its customs. It has been massively colonized while many of its inhabitants have been forcibly relocated or driven into exile.

It could be that by now it is too late. The time to get involved would have been in the late 1940's when China first declared its territorial claim to the region. But in the aftermath of World War II the United States was too busy restoring colonies to their European owners, and more worried about the outcome of the political struggle for China itself. In a few years war broke out anyway, but over Korea. Stung by this encounter, we were reluctant to get involved in the Tibetan uprising of 1959, which would have meant planting a foot smack between China and the USSR during the bleakest days of the Cold War. Seeming to acknowledge futility, not even the United Nations would recognize Tibetan independence.

It's harder to say what we are afraid of now, almost 50 years later, because it has more to do with global trade. No one wants to rock that enormous boat with the Chinese, which would send shudders deep through our own economy. It seems the most drastic action being contemplated is the withdrawal of commercial sponsors from the Olympic Games, maybe even some athletes. But this is not likely to achieve anything but a brief period of good behavior, after which the oppression will resume as brutally as before.

But can we not at least bear witness to what is happening? To their credit, both President Bush and House Speaker Pelosi have visited with the Dalai Lama to demonstrate sympathy and support. With amazing persistence, the Chinese continue to ascribe motives of conspiracy and rebellion to this kind man who has spent his entire life searching for peace, and in 1989 was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts.

There is still hope. It has happened before -- notably in the Irish uprising of the 1920's -- that world opinion has changed the policy of a nation and allowed an oppressed population to find its freedom. But even if the worst happens, and this defenseless people faces its end as one of the world's unique cultures, can we not at least pay tribute to the dream of peace that they embodied for so many years, one which might yet spread across the earth?

On our front porch fly some Tibetan prayer flags. Symbolic not of nationality but of the universal elements of creation, they are designed not to send prayers to the gods, but rather to send blessings to all humankind. Back in Tibet they were traditionally strung across high ground so their effects could be carried far and wide on the currents of the air.

A cold wind is blowing down from the mountains. Feel the breeze. Breath it in. Know what is passing.

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