My TED x Talk on Leading Freedom in Exile

58 years ago, on March 31st, 1959, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, reached India with approximately 80,000 Tibetans, who had known no home but their own. It was an escape from persecution and oppression from our adversary; Rehabilitation in India started with insurmountable challenge.

My father once told me a story that perfectly sums up the daily struggles of our people in a foreign land.

“When a group of Tibetans were stranded at a train station in North east India and they wanted to go to Delhi and then to Mussoorie because His Holiness at that point in time was residing in Mussoorie. It was for the first time, they were travelling in a train and devoid of tickets, they were looking to jump into the next train to Delhi. At the nick of the moment, they forget the name ‘Delhi’….. so one of the team leaders asked an Indian passerby at the pavement just two words ‘Dalai Lama….Kuuuuuoooooooo’ meaning train to Dalai Lama and the kind Indian got them onto the train to Delhi and from there to Dehradun.”

This is how we started…….

Acclimatization was a huge issue. Imagine… coming from the roof of the world to a hot and humid India. Indians in Delhi were surprised to see Tibetans clad in fur chupa (the Tibetan traditional dress) under Delhi’s hot May sun.

BUT , look at what we have achieved this far. We have a democracy in exile. The Central Tibetan Administration which many of you know as the de-factor Tibetan government in exile, headquartered here in Dharamsala, governs 46 settlements, 80 Schools, over 100 monastic institutes, scores of cultural centres in India, Nepal and Bhutan, 12 foreign missions covering all of the 5 continents. Tibetans are today in over 30 different countries, the general elections take place in 30 countries every five years.

The human elements of the exile administration: personal aspirations, challenges and triumphs reflect the large issues that the exile administration takes charge of, including international relations, welfare, education and sustenance of the settlements.

The CTA is one of the few entities that very effortlessly yet effectively engages in ‘Transnational governance,’ / digital governance. Very soon you will hear about ‘A Virtual Tibet.’ The possibilities for Tibetan people and our freedom struggle are limitless.

We have survived in exile as ‘the most successful’ refugee community in the world. So the question is how did a nation in exile could possibly grow to such levels in a span on 58 years, that many haven’t been able to do in complete independence? Well this because of three things: vision, leadership and the courage of conviction.

Under the leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his vision for a democratic Tibetan polity, we have a unique system of carrying out administrative responsibilities democratically but endowed with Buddhist spiritual values as core components.

Within months of arriving in exile, His Holiness’ vision—was to make education for Tibetan children his key mission… and he worked to realize his vision. One of my roles models is Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of the H.H Dalai Lama who set up the TCV Schools where I was educated at said,

“If a person has received an education that develops an inquiring mind, on his own he will begin to ask himself about his roots. Sometimes in the long run, that person will become even more involved in his culture and will contribute more.”

At TCV School we were taught to consider others before self and the importance of coming to learn but going to serve.

His Holiness’ vision was to see the future seeds of Tibet are educated with the right values- and become important contributing members of the global community.

The CTA is carrying forward this vision and now the Education ministry is incorporating secular ethics in the school curriculum, which is essentially, instilling the basic human values of love, compassion and altruism in the modern education system and the development of the head and the heart.

In his autobiography, His Holiness said that it was when he first stepped on the Indian soil, that he experienced real ‘freedom,’ It was in exile that he found freedom, led freedom and the quest for freedom has set the foundations for Central Tibetan Administration.

To lead freedom, one must first understand freedom. In trying to decipher what freedom means, we have much to learn from the Jewish experience. It is said that the symbol of slavery precedes symbols of freedom because only to someone who experienced slavery, will freedom taste better. So at the Jewish Passover, they eat the bread which symbolizes affliction first, then the bitter herbs that symbolize suffering/slavery and finally the wine which symbolizes freedom/liberation.

Therefore, I always believed that freedom is not just the absence of oppression, but the presence of purpose, a clarity in vision and mission to achieving that purpose. The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is a living testament to this belief I held onto all my life. It is driven by a vision and a purpose- to restore freedom inside Tibet and ensure the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lam to Tibet.

To achieve its vision and goals, CTA follows the Middle Way Approach. If you ask me what the middle way approach is about—, well, it has many layers and nuances to it. It is an ideology, a philosophy, a guiding princinple, an approach and a strategy For the Tibetans MWA is based on the principles of non-violence, truth and reconciliation, one that seeks to engage with the People’s Republic of China through dialogue and enable Tibetans to preserve their culture, language, environment, identity and religion. At the heart of this approach is the steadfast resilience of Tibetans inside Tibet, who are both the driver and the amplifier of the Tibet movement.

As the nerve centre of the Tibet Freedom struggle, the CTA is committed to not only uniting all Tibetans but is the custodian of their cultural identity and the harbinger of hope for every Tibetan.

It is said that the worst part of exile is to forget that you are in exile. CTA is a reiteration and expression of the Tibetan people’s desire to be free. We are a living proof that we cherish freedom and long for it. So this profound predicament that exists today of the Tibetan people in my view shows that despite the current darkness, pressures are building for change and the prospects are brighter for new beginnings for the people of Tibet. It is hope that steer us into the future.

I was in Taiwan earlier this week and while doing an interview with Radio International Taiwan, the host asked me ‘what does the Dalai Lama mean to you,’ and my response, in just 1 line was that His Holiness is my conscience and sets the moral barometer for everything I do and commit to. People in Tibet refer to him as the sun—the unifying figure—an assertion of the Tibetan cultural identity.

The four commitments of His Holiness the Dalai Lama: 1) Promotion of Human values 2) Religious Harmony 3) Preservation of Tibet’s Environment, Identity, Culture and Religion 4) Promotion of Secular Ethics and revival of the Ancient Indian Wisdom, these commitments define his vision and mission in life.

To the rest of us, His Holiness is someone whose words train the human mind, whose smile heals the human heart and whose actions transform human lives.

The year 2011 was a watershed year for Tibetans. It was the year in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama announced his decision to devolve his political leadership. All of us panicked and even urged him to rescind his decision. We lacked the courage and the conviction to see the strength in his vision. But like how a father would do to his child, His Holiness made us stand on our feet.

Today under the leadership of a democratically elected President/Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay, the CTA now multifariously spearheads its quest for freedom with the hope to finding a resolution through dialogue with China and at the same time preparing a clear long-term vision should it continuously have to remain in exile. Of this quest and aspiration gave birth to the ‘Five-Fifty Vision’ of CTA.

The CTA’s Five-Fifty Vision is premised on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s advice to ‘hope for the best and prepare for the worst.’ It seeks to restore freedom inside Tibet within the five-year tenure of the political leadership, through the Middle Way Approach (MWA). To restore freedom in Tibet, the foundations of freedom in exile Tibet should sustain, strengthen and succeed for fifty years, if needed. Therefore this vision is a win-win strategy.

In October this year, the Five-Fifty Forum was convened. The gathering of scholars, experts, policy makers, strategists, retired Tibetan officials and young Tibetan leaders met to discuss Tibet’s future. This is done on the strength of having survived and succeeded in exile for over half-a-century and on the basis of having a long history as an independent nation.

I can vouch for the fact that the purpose of a nation should not be based just in the present but the future as well. It is said that where there is no vision, there the people perish. The environmental crisis that stands to threaten humanity is also an example of our lack of vision. As a matter of fact, even the terrorism we see globally find its roots in the greed of the few and lack of a far sighted vision.

The Tibetan freedom struggle is guided by a vision. This vision guides all of our actions—at both strategic and tactical level. This vision conveys the message loud and clear that we will continue with our struggle until freedom is restored in Tibet.

Personally, as a Tibetan I feel truly privileged and more privileged that I work for CTA and am able to represent my nation’s struggle for freedom and justice. But my personal and professional life has not been one without its shares of struggles. One approach that has always guided me—is to not look at problems as problems but rather as challenges and every time you overcome a challenge, there is a sense of achievement. After all, what is life without challenges, without the ups and downs……you will be at the dead-end. Thanks to the challenges and my ability to overcome them…today I am standing in front of all of you. I truly believe—you are your life’s architect and author—at any point in time you could turn back and say…hey this is not how the story is going to end.   When one door-closes, the other opens.

The struggle that our country is going through now is just one such challenge that we need to overcome. Tibet represents a unique and precious spiritual and cultural tradition whose values of non-violence, mutual respect, and compassion are an important and special part of the heritage of humankind.

As much as we might try, humans are social beings who need one another for their survival and existence. While most countries are talking about keeping out other nations, His Holiness and the CTA recognise the importance of maintaining friendly relations with others and considers a mutually beneficial solution to resolving problems and differences.

The Tibetan approach to its freedom struggle can be a powerful inspiration and example to others around the globe as an alternative / antidote to the cruelty of war, violence, terrorism and extreme nationalism.

One pertinent question that every Tibetan gets asked is What after the Dalai Lama…? Will Tibet be a lost cause?’ My response to these questions is ‘His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not just an individual, but he is an idea…he is a phenomena and will live for ever. He is eternal, immortal and indelible……Every 6 million Tibetan and the billions of his followers will carry forward his vision and this will make him and his commitments live forever and to inspire possibilities.

The CTA under the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is today the mascot and symbol of Tibetan people’s quest and struggle for freedom. The very story of CTA, the story of hope and resilience as it continues to unfold, is a living proof that even in direst of situations and in most challenging times, leading freedom in exile is a possible reality and it is this freedom that we hope to restore and lead in our homeland and for our people and that day, I believe is not very far.

Finally, I would like to recount what a democracy activist from Northern Eretria (Africa) who I met at a ‘Initiatives for Change summit’ years…told me “ If Tibet succeeds, the world succeeds.”

And truly …the world has much to benefit from Tibet’s success story.

Watch the video on youtube  

The talk was part of TED x Dharasmala held on November 12, 2017

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