This past weekend, during his annual teaching on the holy 15th day of the first month in the Tibetan calendar (which fell on Feb. 27, 2021), the issue he addressed was the Tibetan language.
His Holiness understands the power of his platform. He began his teachings on Saturday saying that although the unfortunate pandemic situation has made him have to adapt to a new teaching format, it has also enabled these teachings to be seen and heard by people worldwide, including Tibetans living all over Tibet.
His Holiness then made a special appeal to Tibetans in Tibet, specifically the younger generation, to study the Tibetan language. He did this by virtually challenging them to make a paradigm shift in their thinking on the reasons for doing so.
It is commonly assumed that Tibetans should study the Tibetan language because we are Tibetan. Learning and using pure “father tongue” (Tibetans are among the few communities that use this term rather than the commonly seen “mother tongue”) is included as part of the broader movement to protect Tibetan identity. This can be seen in the Lhakar (“White Wednesday”) movement, which Tibetans in Tibet initiated informally many years back (and the Tibetan community in exile replicated, most visibly through performing circle dances on the day).
His Holiness first applauded a new interest in the Tibetan language that he was seeing in different parts of Tibet, giving the example of developments in Siling (Chinese: Xining) area. He said he saw some videos of Tibetan children there studying the Tibetan language, which wasn’t the case in the past.
His Holiness then said Tibetans, particularly the younger generation, should study the Tibetan language not from a sense of Tibetan nationalism, but because of its ability to impart knowledge about the profound Buddhist philosophy of the Nalanda tradition. His exact words, translated into English, were, “This is not a matter of attachment to one’s own nationality.”
He expanded on this saying (with reference to Tibetans in Tibet) that on subjects like science and politics, Chinese might be the dominant language in the short run. But on subjects of religion, culture and Buddhist philosophy, which enjoy worldwide interest, knowledge can only be gained through the Tibetan language. He referred to the two Tibetan Buddhist canons of Kagyur (with 100 volumes) and Tengyur (with nearly 200 volumes) and said that it will be almost impossible to translate them into Chinese. To me, this reference to the drawback in the Chinese language on matters of Tibetan Buddhism makes me feel the Dalai Lama is cognizant of the reports of efforts by the Chinese authorities to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism. I guess he is implying that the Chinese plan cannot succeed.
Secondly, His Holiness made the interesting point that studying Tibetan Buddhist culture does not necessarily mean one has to be a “believer.” This seems to me to be a direct message to those many Tibetans in Tibet who are members of the Chinese Communist Party and thus consider themselves to be non-believers. In recent times, the Chinese authorities have been restricting party cadres, government officials and their children from participating in religious activities. His Holiness explained his call by referring to several scientists who are his friends who study Buddhism as an academic subject, getting benefit in the process, but who are not necessarily Buddhist practitioners. This is because Buddhism is not only about faith, but also about knowledge, he said.
His Holiness also presented his call for studying the Tibetan language in the context of his now well-known emphasis on studying the Buddhist scriptures rather than merely having a superficial understanding. He urged the younger Tibetans to do deeper study of subjects like logic and perfection of wisdom. He made the case that this was necessary particularly in light of the “situation created currently by those narrow-minded Chinese Communist leaders bent on wiping out the Tibetan language.”
His Holiness’ call is topical, considering the way the Chinese authorities have been using their authority to undermine the Tibetan language, whether in changing the medium of instruction from Tibetan to Chinese or discouraging people through persecuting language rights advocates like Tashi Wangchuk.
One can only wait to see what the impact of His Holiness’ call to the Tibetans this time will be.