What was the 13th Dalai Lama’s message to the Tibetan people?

On Feb. 13, 2023 I was invited by the Tibetan Youth Congress and the Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies & Engagement to participate in an online discussion on the anniversary of the 1913 proclamation by H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso, popularly known as the reaffirmation of Tibetan independence proclamation. You can watch the full session online here.

The 13th Dalai Lama Thupten Gyatso

I am outlining here my presentation, in which I gave my take of the proclamation saying that it should not be seen in isolation but in conjunction with two other subsequent developments during the 13th Dalai Lama’s period, namely the 1913-1914 Tibet-Britain-China tripartite convention on Tibet in Shimla and the 1932 Last Testament by the 13th Dalai Lama. Accordingly, I laid out the following:

  1. What were the issues that were raised in the proclamation?
  2. The reason why the proclamation is important?
  3. What lessons should we learn from it?

What were the issues that were raised in the proclamation?

I mentioned that we needed to look at this proclamation in the context of the 13th Dalai Lama’s experience of British India’s invasion of Tibet of 1903-1904 and the subsequent invasion by China under the Manchus. These developments made the 13th Dalai Lama realize that in order to establish Tibet as a nation-state, Tibetans needed to be internally prepared and realize the threat and challenges to their national identity.

Therefore, even though the most prominent aspect of the proclamation known internationally is the reference to the political status of Tibet, it actually has four other additional points. Points 1 and 2 deal with preservation and promotion of Tibetan religious identity and institutions, including Buddhist study. Points 3 and 5 deal with the Dalai Lama’s call on Tibetan officials to maintain proper conduct, including in looking after the socio-economic welfare of the Tibetan people. Interestingly, in Point 3 the 13th Dalai Lama calls for doing away with corporal punishments, saying, “Furthermore, citizens’ limbs have been amputated as a form of punishment. Henceforth, such severe punishments are forbidden.”

At the popular level, this proclamation has been made more well known for its Point 4, which deals with Tibet’s political status. Given that the existing translations in English do not seem to reflect fully the text, I read the relevant portion of this point in Tibetan first.

“བོད་འདི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་གཞན་དག་ལྟ་བུའི་སྟོབས་འབྱོར་འཕྲུལ་ཆས་དང་མི་ལྡན་རུང་། ཆོས་མཐུན་ཞི་བདེར་གནས་པའི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་རང་དབང་དང་ལྡན་པ་ཞིག་ཡིན་སྟབས་།”

My translation of this is that: “Tibet is not endowed with wealth, power, and technology like other nations. It is nonetheless a free country abiding in peace and happiness in accordance with the Dharma.”

The exact Tibetan term used relating to the political status is Rangwang, literally “freedom,” but it has also been interpreted over the years to mean independence. Be that as it may, to me Point 4 is like the other points addressed to the people of Tibet, officials and citizens, rather than to the international community, in which the 13th Dalai Lama calls on them to understand their country’s status and come together to protect it. Each of the five points of the proclamation in fact ends with “should do this,” in what could be seen as direct order. Even at the end of the proclamation, there is a directive that a copy of the proclamation should be kept in all the Tibetan offices somewhat like a standing order so that successive officials can implement it. It says,

ཁེ་ཉེན་ལ་བསམ་ཞིབ་ཀྱིས་ལྷ་ཆོས་དང་། མི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་བླངས་དོར་ཕྱིན་མ་ལོག་པ་དང་ལེན་རྒྱུན་འཁྱོངས་དགོས་རྒྱའི་རྩ་ཚིག་འདི་བཞིན་མངའ་ཁུལ་དཀར་ཆག་ཏུ་བཀོད་ངོས་། ལས་བྱེད་རིམ་འབྱོར་ནས་རྩ་འཛིན་མཇུག་གཞོན་རྒྱུན་འཁྱོངས་ཚུལ་བཞིན་སྤྱོད་པ་གྱིས་།

Bearing in mind the consequences, and without confusing between what is to be accepted and abstained from divine and human conducts, all officials should keep this declaration in the records of their offices, abide by it by properly implementing it.

The reason why this declaration is important?

The importance of the 1913 proclamation can be understood when we look at the two subsequent political developments of the Shimla Convention on Tibet of 1913-1914 and the 1932 Last Testament by the 13th Dalai Lama.

In the 1913 proclamation, the 13th Dalai Lama had hoped that his officials and the citizens of Tibet will heed his call and rise to the occasion. While acknowledging that his government has been able to banish all Manchu forces from the areas under the then Tibetan Government, he hoped to be able to recover other Tibetan territories in the Dhokham that were outside of the rule of the then Tibetan government.

Related to this is a statement made about the 13th Dalai Lama by the present 14th. In response to a question, “Are there any of your predecessors in whom you have a special interest or with whom you have a particular affinity?” the 14th Dalai Lama says, “The Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He brought a lot of improvement to the standards of study in the monastic colleges. He gave great encouragement to the real scholars. He made it impossible for people to go up in the religious hierarchy, becoming an abbot and so forth, without being totally qualified. He was very strict in this respect. He also gave tens of thousands of monks’ ordinations. There were his two main religious achievements. He didn’t give many initiations, or many lectures. Now, with respect to the country, he had great thought and consideration for statecraft. The outlying districts in particular. How they should be governed and so forth. He cared very much how to run the government more efficiently. He had great concern about our borders and that type of thing.”

During the subsequent Shimla Convention in 1913 and 1914, the 13th Dalai Lama seems to have acted on his hope expressed in the proclamation to bring back the Tibetan territories in the east under his government’s control. His envoy Lonchen Shatra made efforts to reassert control over the Tibetan areas outside of the Tibetan government’s rule. Scholar Tsering Shakya says the “Tibetans demanded the return of all Tibetan territories occupied by the Chinese in Kham and Amdo” with some saying mule loads of documents to support the claim were brought to Shimla. Eventually, it only led to the outlining of what was called outer and inner Tibet.

The third important development is the 1932 Last Testament. In fact, Shakabpa calls it, མ་འོངས་སྔོན་གཟིགས་ཀྱི་ཞལ་འདམས་, “the testament that foresaw the future.” This testament was the response by the 13th Dalai Lama to a long-life offering made to him. While outlining all the efforts he made for the welfare of the Tibetan people, he included a stark warning, including the threat of takeover by Communism (which had taken over Mongolia by then), that unless the Tibetan people came together and worked for a common cause, there would be grave consequences.

The relevant portion of the 1932 Last Testament says this:

In the future, this [communist] system will certainly be forced on this land that cherishes the joint spiritual and temporal system, either from within or without. If, in such an event, we fail to defend our land, the noble ones who are holders of the doctrine, beginning with the triumphant father and son [the Dalai Lama and Paṇchen Lama] will be eliminated without a trace.

The 13th Dalai Lama was very critical of some of the people in the Tibetan leadership then. He said,

གནས་སྐབས་རང་དོན་སྒྲུབ་ཕྱོགས་ཕྱོགས་ལྷུངས་ངོ་སྲུང་ལས། ཆབ་སྲིད་ཀྱི་བདེ་དོན་ད་མུས་བཞིན་ཡལ་ཡོལ་འབའ་ཞིག་གིས་འཁུར་དུ་མ་བླངས་ན་ཕུགས་དོན་མི་འགྲུབ་པ་མཐོང་གསལ་ལྷར་། སླར་ཅི་དྲག་གི་འགྱོད་ཀྱང་ཕན་ཆ་མི་སྲིད་པས། ངོས་ནམ་འཚོའི་རིང་ལ་བོད་ལྗོངས་བདེ་ཐབས་ད་མུས་ཀྱིས་འཁྱོལ་བར་མཐོང་། ཕུགས་རང་རང་་མྱོང་ཆོས་རྣམས་སོ་སོའི་ཐོག་ཏུ་སྨིན་པ་ནི་ངོས་རང་གི་ཉམས་མྱོང་རྒྱུ་མཚན་གསལ་པོའི་སྟེང་ནས་གཞན་ལ་འདོམས་པ་འདི་ལྷག་བསླབ་བྱ་ལྷུག་པོར་སྟོན་རྒྱུ་མེད་་་་་།

“There are people who in order to serve their own interests, involve in factionalism and placation, and if they continue their careless attitude without shouldering their responsibilities, it is evident that their long-term objectives will not be met. Even if they have regrets subsequently, it will not be of help. It can be seen that as long as I remain, the well-being of Tibet will continue. In the long run, based on my own experience and with clear reason I do not have any more advice than to say that everyone will experience the fruition of one’s action…”

What lessons should we learn from it?

First, we have to look at this proclamation holistically and in conjunction with the subsequent Shimla Convention and the Last Testament in 1932. Looking at the 1913 proclamation alone does not provide the full picture of the intent of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Secondly, through the proclamation as well as his Last Testament, the 13th Dalai Lama was advising Tibetans to be mindful of the broader understanding of Tibetan politics and calling on the people to shoulder their due responsibilities.

Thirdly, the subsequent developments in Tibet showed that our people then failed to fully comprehend the advice of the 13th Dalai Lama and did not take adequate steps to protect Tibet.

What should we be doing?

The current Dalai Lama, while talking about the reasons for the continuation of reincarnation, has said primarily it is to continue the mission of the previous incarnation. Seen from this angle, we are all familiar with this Dalai Lama’s activities and vision, which all complement that of the 13th. In the above quote about the 13th Dalai Lama, the current 14th mentions two categories of contributions, namely in the field of religious reform and strengthening of Tibetan polity. In both fronts, the current Dalai Lama has continued the mission and made it possible for Tibetan religion and people to compete on a par with modern society. The monastic reforms in the Tibetan community in exile, including the introduction of scientific knowledge in monastic education, are part of this.

Similarly, what the 13th Dalai Lama began in trying to recreate a pan-Tibetan common identity, including Tibetans from all three provinces, is now made a reality under the present Dalai Lama. On this matter, Kasur Lodi Gyari, the Special Envoy of H.H. the Dalai Lama, in his memoirs talks about this contribution by the present Dalai Lama, saying he “gave a new hope for Tibet’s cohesiveness, creating a watershed moment in Tibetan history that has led to true unification in the Tibetan people’s hearts and minds.” I would urge each and every one of you to read the memoirs, which outline this foundational initiative of His Holiness soon after he escaped to India in 1959.

Similarly, the current Dalai Lama has, in accordance with his principle for hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, taken steps to provide a pathway to a firm foundation for the Tibetan struggle through the democratic system of governance. At the same time, he has issued stark warnings to today’s Tibetan people, like his predecessor did, to act on our obligation and work in a united front.

Here is a quote from his statement on Tibetan National Uprising Day in 1976:

བོད་མི་ཚོ། རང་ཡུལ་འཕྲོག་མཁན་དགྲ་བོ་སྣང་མེད་དུ་བཞག་ནས་བོད་མི་ནང་ཁུལ་ཚིག་སྐམ་སྟོང་བཤད་ཀྱིས་འཐེན་འཁྱེར་བྱེད་པ་དང་གཅིག རང་རིགས་རྒྱ་ཆེའི་མང་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་བདེ་སྡུག་ལ་སེམས་འཁུར་བོར་ཏེ་རང་ཉིད་གཅིག་པུ་རང་མགོ་གང་ཐོན་བྱེད་པ་དང་གཉིས། ད་ལྟ་བོད་མི་རིགས་སྤྱིའི་བདེ་སྡུག་གནས་སྟངས་ཛ་དྲག་གང་འདྲ་ཞིག་ཐོག་ཡོད་པ་ངོས་མ་ཟིན་པར། འབྱོར་ལྡན་རང་དབང་ཅན་གཞན་དག་ལ་དཔར་བཀབ་རྒྱས་སྤྲོས་སྐྱིད་འདོད་བྱེད་པ་དང་གསུམ་ནི། ཤིན་ཏུ་འཁྲུལ་ཚབས་ཆེ་བས་མནོ་བསམ་ནན་ཏན་གཏོང་དགོས།

My countrymen, beware of the yawning chasms. Forgetting the enemy who invaded and wrested the country, you indulge in squabbles and factionalism. Discarding the thoughts and motives to promote the interest of the larger masses of one’s own people, you seek and work to promote your own interest only. Refusing to recognize the grave economic situation that the Tibetan people are in, you desire and emulate luxury life-style of other rich people. These are unhealthy trends and matters of serious concern. So, give a thought to these seriously.

Here I want to say that we Tibetans should not shy away from discussing issues on which we have disagreements. We are living in a democracy, and so there would be diverse views among us. But difference of opinions should be put in proper context so that they don’t create misgivings and misunderstanding. We should spend all our time and resources in confronting external challenges instead of wasting time in trying to create issues within ourselves.

The current His Holiness has also categorically called for the need to establish the fact of the historical independence of Tibet even while striving for a future for Tibet through the Middle Way Approach.

Therefore one concrete initiative that Tibetan leaders and Tibetans and Tibet supporters of today can take is to see how this can be fulfilled. In the United States, in consultation with the Tibetan leadership and supporters of Tibet in the Congress, a new legislation, the Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act, has been introduced that asserts the historical independent status of Tibet, rejecting the Chinese claim that Tibet had been part of China since ancient times or since antiquity and saying that China should resolve the conflict through negotiations.

History has shown that the Tibetan people failed in heeding the warning of the 13th Dalai Lama and acting positively on it. This generation of Tibetans now should not fail the current 14th Dalai Lama in heeding the warnings he has been issuing about the future.

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Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering joined the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, DC in 1995 and is currently the head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. He worked as a journalist with Indian Express in New Delhi, and as an official of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, before joining ICT.
He is a member of the Task Force set up by the Central Tibetan Administration to work on issues relating to the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. He was also a member of the team led by the envoys of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the discussions that they had with the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2010.
He has contributed articles on Tibet and related issues to Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Swiss and American journals. He has also testified in Congress on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet and spoken at Universities and Think Tanks.

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • I see the statement of HH on March 10,1976 prophetic. “Refusing to recognize the grave economic situation that the Tibetan people are in, you desire and emulate luxury life-style of other rich people. These are unhealthy trends and matters of serious concern. So, give a thought to these seriously.”
    I include myself in it also. Ignoring the 13th’s direction we’ve become refugees and subjugated people. I wonder where we will be in the next 50-60 years from this reality today. An Indian friend in Dharamsala once said to me that the only Tibetan left in Dharamsala is His Holiness. From that moment I decided to continue my media work and quit my job. I am an ordinary guy wrapped in samsara but my conscience is clear. I am striving to heed his message in my little way. I cannot speak for everything but just in my field I see such a contrast. We were first to begin video work in the community even before VOA or RFA which were only radio then. Now technology is easy and reach so wide yet all I see is young people making vlogs of trivia. No one is talking about social, political issues. We have indeed changed. So give this a serious thought as Holiness says.