Tibetans in Quebec:|
Profile of a Buddhist Community
By Louis Cormier
The Buddhist community profiled in this paper represents the Vajrayana/Tantric schools of the Mahayana tradition.
We are mainly concerned here with the religious and cultural adaptation of Tibetan refugees and immigrants within Québec, and what changes were thus effected within this community. How has their Buddhist faith and practice enhanced their spiritual adjustment to living in Québec? How have they re-created, sustained and modified their Tibetan Buddhist identity in order to continue to live in Québec?
The main research method used by the author to gather information on the present state of the Tibetan Community in Québec after twenty-nine years of community life in the Montreal area was to interview nine Tibetans, men and women, of varying ages. There are approximately 110 Tibetans in the Montreal area, including Longueuil, Granby and St-Hyacinthe, and so these nine Tibetans make up almost ten percent of the Tibetan population of Québec.
The author is grateful to Mathieu Boisvert, Professeur, Département des sciences religieuses at l’Université du Québec à Montréal, who directed this mémoire. His direction, support, encouragement and insight have been invaluable. Although the author must take responsibility for his interpretations, Mr. Boisvert’s suggestions proved essential to the carrying out of this work. Sincere appreciation is also given to Marie-Andrée Roy, Directrice, Département des sciences religieuses, Université du Québec à Montréal, for assistance in the formulation of the questionnaire and making equipment available for transcribing, but most especially for her encouragement. Sincere thanks also to Professeur Louis Rousseau for his advice on Chapter I, and to Professeurs Guy Ménard and Jean-Jacques Lavoie, and to my fellow students, Mario Desaulniers, Louise Leblanc, Isabelle Richer, Ève Paquette and Julie Colpron, for the many discussions.
Special heartfelt thanks go to the members of the Tibetan community who kindly agreed to be interviewed, they have my utmost respect. I wish also to thank the many Tibetan lamas, including Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989), Geshe Khenrab Gajam (1928-1993) and Tsenshab Serkong Tugse Rinpoche (1914-1983), who helped me gain some small understanding of their tradition over the past twenty-eight years.
Thanks go to my wife Ellen Layer for her patience and loyal support (most especially her patience), as well as to my daughters, Miriam Paknys and Jessica Cormier. Acknowledgement and thanks go to my good friends Kristyna Paknys, Marc Plourde, Miriam Zehavi, Penny Hamer, Helen Grossman and Jean-Marc Dion for their many helpful suggestions and insights.
CTC - Canada Tibet Committee
PRC - People’s Republic of China
TCA - Tibetan Cultural Association
TGE - Tibetan Government-in-Exile
TWA - Tibetan Women’s Association
TYC - Tibetan Youth Congress
WTN - World Tibet Network
In brief, this paper hopes to present as accurate and complete a profile as possible of the small Tibetan community in Québec, first with a description of its place alongside four other Montreal Buddhist communities, namely, Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Chinese. Then, an attempt will be made to portray the state of the Tibetan language and culture in the Montreal area. This will be followed by an overview of Tibetan History, including the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, and an outline of Tibetan Buddhism.
We shall then address the present day concerns of nine interviewed members of the Tibetan community, in accordance with four broad categories:
c) The Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile;
d) Tibet and China.
In our conclusion, we shall present a synthesis of our interviews with nine members of this community, and outline their future concerns. An attempt will be made also to describe events and/or tendencies which are now influencing and shall further influence the various fields of Tibetan studies.
The fact that the country of Tibet was annexed by China in 1959 is rather well known. However, the Tibetans themselves - apart from Tibetan Buddhism which is presently riding a crest of popularity - are quite unknown to most Québécois, except for friends and colleagues who have come to know them personally over the years, and for other, often younger Western people, who are interested in the Tibetan cause of freeing their homeland from China.
Twelve years after the exodus of some 100,000 Tibetans from their country, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many of Tibet’s other spiritual leaders, a group of 228 Tibetans arrived in Canada and were settled in Québec (mostly Longueuil), Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario (Toronto, Lindsay and Belleville) (McLellan, 1999, p. 81). But the number of Tibetans has remained so small (630 according to the 1996 Canadian census, including 110 in Québec) that very often Tibetans go unnoticed as a distinct cultural and religious group.
A small group of approximately thirty Tibetans arrived in Montreal in February of 1971, with another equally small group arriving later that year, in June. In total, there were some sixty Tibetans, including eleven or twelve family units.
Also, when the Tibetans arrived in Canada in 1971, they were the first non-European refugees admitted into Canada (McLellan, 1999, p. 82), which may come as a surprise to many since we generally have been more aware of large numbers of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese refugees entering Canada during the 1970’s.
Because this first group of refugees to Canada was so small, and because they had never before been outside of Tibet or their new settlements in India, it is not an overstatement to say that some of them suffered at first from culture shock. In this regard (and this shall be discussed more extensively in section 1.2 of chapter IV of this paper), the Tibetans who arrived in Montreal in 1971 were unanimous in agreeing that they were very well treated by the government and the people of Québec. Not least among the happy memories of the first arrivals is that they were permitted to stay together as a group for an extensive period before being settled in their own apartments as families.
This paper shall attempt to construct a profile of the Tibetan community in Québec by firstly, in Chapter I, discussing their arrival in the Montreal area, and then drawing a comparison between the Tibetan community and the Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese communities mentioned above, as well as the Chinese community. We shall mostly limit ourselves to these communities as they pertain to Québec. However, we may include other elements and information from outside Québec, pertaining to these communities.
Next, in Chapter II, we shall present an overview of Tibetan history including a sketch of the earlier, pre-Buddhist history. The history of Tibet from the seventh century A.D onward must, of course, include the history of the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet and its interaction with Bön, the indigenous religion of Tibet.
Chapter III will present an outline of Tibetan Buddhism, and briefly compare it with other Buddhist traditions.
The purpose of Chapters II and III will be to familiarize ourselves with the historical, political and religious origins of the Tibetan people insofar as they permit us to have a greater understanding of those Tibetans living in Québec.
In the main body of this paper, Chapter IV, we shall describe the methodology which was utilized to analyze the interviews with Tibetans mentioned below. Then, we shall present an analysis of the interviews with nine Montreal area Tibetans, which were conducted in the course of researching this paper.
The analysis shall be done in accordance with the four broad categories mentioned in the Résumé: a) arrival, culture, language and organization; b) religion, c) the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile; and d) Tibet and China.
Among the nine persons interviewed, three were women and six were men. Four of the interviewees were between the ages of 49 and 61, while five were under the age of 40. This was done in order to get different perspectives, depending on when the interviewee entered Canada.
Five of the interviewees were born in Tibet while three were born in India and one was born in Montreal. This also permitted us to obtain information from three different perspectives, this time depending on birthplace.
The author has participated in many Tibetan community and religious events over a period of some twenty-five years, including attendance at lectures and retreats led by various Tibetan lamas. He assisted in the founding and incorporation of the Temple Bouddhiste Tibétain in 1980 as well as in the incorporation of the Tibetan Cultural Association in 1978. v
Having developed many friendships with members of the Tibetan community since 1976, and with a profound respect for their spiritual traditions as well as admiration for their courage and determination in the face of many hardships, it was essential that a formal questionnaire be used in the interviews with Tibetans in order to keep a critical distance from the subject, which is essential to a useful academic work. These interviews were recorded on audio tape and have been transcribed.
As mentioned above, nine Tibetans were interviewed. We shall refer to each person as Subject A, Subject B, and so on, up to Subject I. In the case of Subjects E and F, a couple, they were interviewed together. In fact, this particular interview proved to be one of the more interesting for the author, as the discussion was often quite lively.
Twenty questions were asked of each interviewee, and they were free to answer each question or not, as they wished. Because the author has been a long time friend of many of the Montreal area Tibetans and is well known by this community, particular effort was made to remain faithful to the questionnaire. This contributed greatly to the usefulness of the information gathered, since the author was able to maintain critical distance from the subject by means of the questionnaire method.
Where the author has erred in not formulating the questions clearly enough, or in not setting the interviewee at ease with the questioning, it is completely his responsibility and the fault of no other.
Finally, in our conclusion, we shall attempt to synthesize the above chapters into a coherent profile of the Tibetan community in Québec, which we hope will contribute in some small way to a better understanding of this small but thriving and very important component of the Tibetan diaspora.
With the arrival of between 60 and 70 Tibetans in February and June of 1971, there was hope in the community that many more would soon be joining them. This was not to be. By the mid-1980’s, the Québec population of Tibetans grew to a mere 100-120 persons, many of whom were children born to the original arrivals.
Today, from 228 persons in Canada, the community has grown to only 630 (Canada Census, 1996), some 200 or more of whom now reside in the Toronto-Lindsay-Belleville area. Some Tibetans have stated that some 400 new arrivals from Nepal have now taken up residence in Toronto, but that very few of them will make it to Québec. This information is unconfirmed as of this writing.
It is not within the scope of this paper to advance theories as to why the Tibetan community in Québec, and the community as a whole across Canada, has remained relatively static for some 10 to 15 years. Indeed, as of September 30, 1998, the web site of the Government of Tibet in Exile (http//www.tibet.com/exileglance.html) states that of the total of 131,000 Tibetans now in exile (some estimates go as high as 200,000, but this can not be confirmed), 100,000 have remained in India, 25,000 are in Nepal, 2,000 are in Bhutan and the remaining 4,000 are settled in the following countries: Switzerland, 2,000; Canada, 600; United States, 1,000.
If there are Tibetans settled elsewhere, the numbers are too small to warrant being mentioned on the exile government’s web site. This tells us that, including Québec’s 110 Tibetans, only between four and five thousand of these stateless people have been welcomed in Western countries.
In contrast to the small number of Tibetan refugees accepted to live in Canada, the Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese refugees, all of whom arrived much later than the Tibetans, have much larger populations (as mentioned in section 1.1 above). As of the 1996 Canadian Census, there are now 8,450 Cambodians, 3,795 Laotians and 23,510 Vietnamese living in Québec.1 There are also 46,115 Chinese in Québec, but they are an immigrant community and their presence here dates from the late nineteenth century.2
It must be noted at this juncture that Cambodian3, Laotian4 and Vietnamese5 refugees began arriving in Québec only from 1975 to 1977, four years later than the Tibetan refugees. Unlike the Tibetans, however, these three communities experienced a second influx of new refugees in 1979-1980. It is true that there were Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese living in Québec prior to 1971, that is to say, prior to the arrival of the Tibetans. However, these were immigrants, not refugees, and they were largely students and professionals.
In terms of religion, these five communities have Buddhism in common. However, there are great differences in the percentage of Buddhists within each population. It is safe to say, for example, that virtually 100% of the Tibetans living in Québec consider themselves to be Tibetan Buddhists, even when they are non-practising Buddhists.
By comparison, 72% of Cambodians consider themselves Buddhist, while 11% state they have no religion6, and 76% of Laotians are Buddhist while 5% say they have no religion.7 The Vietnamese are stated to be 53% Buddhist, with 20% stating no religion8, while only 21% of the Chinese population is Buddhist, with 54% stating they have no religion.9
In organizational terms, all five communities have well-established cultural organizations which not only keep them in regular communication and interaction as a community, but also permit them to maintain a network of information with other of their communities in Canada and other countries, as well as their countries of origin.
However, it is only within the past decade that several Buddhist temples have been noticed to be active within the Chinese community, while the Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese communities have had temples operating for at least a decade, and some for more than 20 years.
These many organizations and temples serve as identifiers, permitting the people to celebrate their respective holidays, and to permit cultural, economic and religious interaction. Especially in terms of religion, Raymond Brady Williams has said:
Immigrants are religious -by all counts more religious than they were before they left home - because religion is one of the important identity markers that helps them preserve individual self-awareness and cohesion in a group. [...] It is true that religious organizations make regular requests for support; furthermore, they are successful in gaining allegiance and contributions to support many programs, activities, and building projects. [...] In the United States, religion is the social category with clearest meaning and acceptance in the host society, so the emphasis on religious affiliation and identity is one of the strategies that allows the immigrant to maintain self-identity while simultaneously acquiring acceptance. That makes religion one of the most powerful of the value systems or ideologies of social groups. Apart from its spiritual dimension, religion is a major force in social participation; it develops and at the same time sacralizes one’s self-identity, and thus the religious bond is one of the strongest social ties. Migration, however, forces reformulation of the religious identity.10
While the Tibetans, along with the four other communities described herein, derive psychological comfort from their temples and other organizations, it must be added that the profound faith of the Tibetans in their spiritual and political leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, can be said to be a strong part of their ethnoreligious identity.
Furthermore, in contrast to the Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Chinese communities in the Montreal area, the Tibetan community is not growing, and there are no indications that it will grow much more in the future, aside from a few marriages and births in the coming years. This may very well be an important reason why the Tibetans are so tenacious about their culture, language and religion.
Another contrast is that, while there are presently seven Tibetan Buddhist temples in the Montreal area (with a Tibetan Buddhist centre in Chicoutimi as well), these temples are mostly organized by and for Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Until the death in 1993 of Geshe Khenrab Gajam, who had been assigned to the Québec community in 1972, the Tibetans frequented the Temple Bouddhiste Tibétain, now located on de l’Église Avenue in Côte St-Paul.
The Tibetans practised together in the home of one Tibetan family in Longueuil from 1993 until the recent founding of the Temple Bouddhiste Manjusri in Longueuil, under the guidance of Geshe Jamyang, but which is administered by members of the Vietnamese community who have become Tibetan Buddhists.
In other words, unlike the four other communities, the Tibetans have no temple of their own. This will be discussed further when we analyze the interviews with members of the Tibetan community. Thus, although the Tibetan Buddhist religion as well as the Dalai Lama are strong identifiers for the Tibetans in Québec, they have no community building of their own.
According to Hugh E. Richardson (Richardson, 1984, p. 34), the Tibetans do not figure in history as a separate people until the seventh century A.D. when they emerged as a powerful military force fighting their way into China and demanding a Chinese princess in marriage for their king. But in truth great powers do not happen overnight, and there were centuries of growth leading to this point. Unfortunately, archaeological excavations are not permitted in Tibet, and so we must content ourselves with Tibetan and Chinese sources which can only trace back to the early fifth century.
But, according to the Tibetan scholar Lobsang Lhalungpa:
Les anciens Tibétains formaient un peuple guerrier, trait qui persiste encore aujourd’hui chez les K’am-pa du Tibet oriental et les nomades Hor-pa du nord. L’épopée héroïque de Guésar de Ling conserve beaucoup d’attrait, ses accomplissements étant considérés comme un exemple à suivre. C’est pourquoi les qualités admirables d’un homme du monde sont la galanterie, la noblesse, la générosité, la courtoisie, l’honneur et la capacité de protéger les faibles. Toutes ces caractéristiques étaient tenues en haute estime par toute l’ancienne culture. Cependant, la prouesse physique dissocié de l’art de la conversation, d’un esprit vif, de la capacité de réciter les épopées et du don pour la disputation était considérée comme insuffisante. L’acuité mentale se trouvait donc liée à la prouesse physique. L’éloquence ne se limitait pas seulement aux gens de haute extraction, parmi les humbles, bon nombre s’exprimaient avec élégance; il arrivait que leur façon de dire ou leur tournure d’esprit tournassent en ridicule leurs supérieurs.1
We do know that Tibet was divided into several clans towards the end of the fifth century, and that early in the sixth century several of their chiefs supported the head of one particular clan as their chief, Song-tsen Gampo. Gradually, all of the clans bowed to his authority and he became recognized by all Tibetans as king. This young king became quite famous in Tibetan history, not only because he forged Tibet into a powerful military country at the time, but also because he introduced writing and the Buddhist faith (Richardson, 1984, p. 37).
By the seventh century, Tibet had walled towns and small castles surrounded by farmland, and were very skilled workers in metal and could make weapons and armour, which Richardson suggests is indicative of several centuries of development.
Following upon their first invasion of China in 635, Tibetans began to conduct expeditions in all directions: India in 648; the Koko Nor area in 670, followed by Chinese Turkestan. In the west, they inspired such fear that the Caliph of Baghdad at the time briefly allied himself with the Chinese against the Tibetans. The Tibetans frequently allied themselves with the Western Turks against China and dominated Nepal and the India hill tribes, going as far as Upper Burma (Richardson, 1984, p. 41).
Thus it is that, at the height of its power, Tibet had conquered as far east as the Bay of Bengal, and as far south as the then capital of China, Chang’an (Sian).
Treaties concluded between Tibet and China in 821 and 1794 were clearly treaties between equals and, in fact, Tibet was often the aggressor. From the seventh century, the Buddhist religion, encouraged by the king Song-tsen Gampo, began to reach a small number of people, although later histories written by Lamas who were also historians often referred to the lineage of the "Thirty-Three Kings"2, and referred especially to the last three as "Religious Kings," indicating that they were earlier incarnations of Chenresigs (Avalokitesvara).
What is certain from the historical records is that, by roughly 863 A.D. the Tibetans, after suffering several major defeats, ceased to be an imperial power (Beckwith, 1987, p. 67). Along with the dismantling of the empire came a difficult period for Buddhism, which was persecuted by king Lang Darma (d. 842) almost to extinction. Lang Darma was the last king in the lineage of king Song-tsen Gampo, and he made a strong effort to revive the ancient, indigenous Bön religion.v
By the late ninth century, after the death of Lang Darma, the Tibetan kingdom broke up, through dissension among the nobles, into several disunited parts and Buddhism was temporarily deserted. The histories tell us that the warlords, many of whom remained faithful to the ancient Bön tradition, took advantage of this period of disunity to once again raise Bön to the status of dominant religion of Tibet. There is, however, some confusion with regard to this period of Tibetan history, and so one must proceed with caution.
It is most interesting to remember that at the time that Buddhism was being firmly established in Tibet, between the seventh and ninth centuries, the Tibetans were also continuing with their widespread military activity and, in fact, reached the height of their military power.
The first Buddhist monastery, Samye, was established in 779 and, as Buddhism became established under the leadership of great Indian teachers such as the Tantric Master, Padmasambhava and the Indian scholars Santarakshita and Kamalashila, along with the Tibetan king Tri Song De-tsen, it began to assimilate many of the traditions and practices of the existing religion of Tibet, the Bön religion.
With regard to the famous debate of 792 A.D. when the Tibetans chose Indian Buddhism over Chinese Ch’an Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has this to
[...] in the Samye Temple during the formative era of Tibetan Buddhism in the reign of King Tri Song De-tsen, different wings were devoted to different practices. One section is devoted to the Vajrayana practitioners -- the tantricas. Another section is dedicated to the lozawas and the panditas -- the translators and the scholars. The third section is called the dhyana hall, the place of meditation. This is supposed to have been the residence of a Chinese master referred to as Hoshang. [...] My feeling is that Santarakshita [...] welcomed that tradition and recognized it as an important element of Buddhism in Tibet. However, during the time of his disciple, Kamalashila, it seems that certain followers of Chan in Tibet placed tremendous emphasis on rejecting all forms of thought. This is what Kamalashila attacked.3
Thus the Dalai Lama suggests that Indian Tantric Buddhism triumphed over Chan [more popularly known in the West as Zen] Buddhism due to the fact that an erroneous form of Chan was being transmitted during the time of Kamalashila (late seventh century A.D.).
What is certain, however, is that with the arrival of the great Indian teacher Atisha (982-1054) in 1042, there was a great revival of interest in Buddhism which would eventually re-shape the course of Tibetan history. Relations between Tibet and China were practically nonexistent for about three hundred years, from 905 to the thirteenth century, while both countries were mostly preoccupied with internal matters (Richardson, 1984, p. 73).
In the early thirteenth century, contact was re-established between China and Tibet, but only because they were both conquered by their neighbours to the North, the Mongols, under the leadership of Ghengis Khan. Mongol overlordship did not become formalized until 1249, when Godan Khan appointed the Sakya Pandita - the pre-eminent Tibet Lama at the time - to the position of Vice-regent of Tibet.
Thus began a tradition of Tibetan leadership of a religious nature. There were two other Sakya leaders of Tibet, to be followed by Chang-chub Gyaltsen of the rival Kagyüpa order in 1350. There followed a period of lay leaders of Tibet until the establishment of the authority of the Dalai Lamas (Richardson, 1984, p. 119).
Before we discuss the development and role of the Dalai Lama, however, it would be best to shed some light on the ancient Bön tradition of Tibet. Often called the "fifth tradition", the other four being the main orders of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug), the Bön tradition, after some painful major adaptations in the eleventh century, is very much vibrant and alive today.
The term bon-po originally designated a priest within the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. This religion is frequently referred to as "shamanism", a term which is, however, misleading. [...] an important if not the chief function of the bon-po priests seems to have been connected with the funeral rites of the kings. [...] What causes confusion, however, is the fact that in the 11th century, if not before, a religion appears on the scene, styling itself bon (hereafter referred to as Bonpo), but manifestly not identical with the ancient faith. In fact, not only does this religion appear simultaneously with various Buddhist schools introduced from India -- but as far as doctrine and practice is concerned, it is frequently difficult, from the point of view of comparative religion, to discern any really significant differences between bon and chos [chos is the Tibetan term for Buddha Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha].4
However, it is important to note that the Bonpo regard themselves as forming their own distinct religion, and Tibetan Buddhists are in accord with this view. In fact, the Bonpo have their own original "Buddha", Tonpa Shenrab, who lived long before Shakyamuni, and they do not accept the historical Buddha as the "Awakened One". Some scholars consider this religion to be of Zoroastrian or Kashmiri Buddhist origin.
By the 15th century, however, the Bonpos were organising their monastic life along the same lines as the Buddhist schools. [...] In 1834 the monastery of g.Yung-drung-gling was founded, likewise in gTsang [...] and both these monasteries were flourishing institutions, housing several hundred monks in 1959.5
Presently, in exile, the Bonpo have established some 14 or more new monasteries in India and neighbouring countries. While they perform certain ritual acts in the opposite manner of Buddhists, it is not their intent to distort or pervert the Buddhist teachings, as has been suggested by some Western writers. In fact, they are simply maintaining, in their fashion, the original religion of Tibet.
To return to the establishment of the lineage of Dalai Lamas, it is important to mention that the fourth major Tibetan school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelugpa (often referred to as the yellow hat school) was established by its founder Tsongkapa (1357-1419). Tsongkhapa was a monk of keen intellect and a great proselytizer, whose main aim was a return to pure monastic discipline. His nephew, Gedün Truppa, became one of his chief disciples, and he founded Tashilhunpo monastery near Shigatse, the second largest city of Tibet, where he died in 1475. His reincarnation was recognized in a young monk named Gedün Gyatso, who himself was succeeded by Sonam Gyatso. Sonam Gyatso was a brilliant scholar and a zealous missionary who visited Mongolia in 1578 and converted the Altan Khan to Buddhism. The Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the title of Dalai [Ocean] Lama.
Later, the title was given to Sonam Gyatso’s two previous incarnations. Thus the one named as the "first" Dalai Lama became the third Dalai Lama, while Tsongkhapa’s nephew Gedün Truppa became the first Dalai Lama and Gedün Gyatso the second (Richardson, 1984, p. 128).
The third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, had such an influence in Mongolia that all who converted to Buddhism followed the Gelugpa school, thereby eventually establishing that school as the ruling power of Tibet.
It was in 1642 that the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (often referred to as the "Great Fifth") was set up as the religious head of the country, supported by Gusri Khan.
The fifth Dalai Lama was a person of great strength of character and determination, and he was able to maintain his governorship of Tibet after the death of the Khan in 1655. The title of King of Tibet remained with Gusri Khan’s successors until 1717, but the holders of this kingship remained largely indifferent to Tibet.
Although the fifth Dalai Lama died in 1682, his death was not made public until 1696. His successor, Tsangyang Gyatso, was therefore not discovered until he was well into his teens. He is known as the Poet Dalai Lama, being the only writer of lyrical verse that Tibet has produced.6
The seventh (Kezang Gyatso) and eighth (Jampel Gyatso) Dalai Lamas lived to the ages of 49 and 46 respectively. However, the next four Dalai Lamas did not fare as well. The ninth, Luntok Gyatso, died at the age of nine in 1815; the tenth, Tshultrim Gyatso, died at the age of 21 in 1837; the eleventh, Khedrup Gyatso, died at the age of 18 in 1856; and the twelvth, Trinle Gyatso, died in 1875, at the age of 19 (Richardson, 1984, p. 132).
These early deaths of four of the five nineteenth century Dalai Lamas point to probable power struggles within the Dalai Lama’s court. Whenever a Dalai Lama died, a regent was appointed to rule until the next Dalai Lama came of age, usually at the age of eighteen. Thus it would seem that, due to these power struggles, Tibet seems to have been ruled by regents, for the most part, during the nineteenth century.
Although the nineteenth century was not kind to Tibet’s Dalai Lamas, (all four of them dying young under suspicious circumstances) the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who was born in 1876, lived to the age of 57 and, in a move similar to that of the present Dalai Lama, fled to exile in Mongolia in 1904. While in Mongolia, the Dalai Lama requested protection from the tsar of Russia so he could return to Tibet, but the Russians had just lost the Russo-Japanese War, and so the tsar politely declined.
The Dalai Lama again fled, this time to India, in February of 1909, when China sent 2,000 troops to Lhasa to control the city. It was during his three years in India that his views of the world broadened and he conceived a new vision of Tibet, after much contact with the British (Goldstein, 1989, p. 691).
The Chinese Rebellion of 1911 altered circumstances in Tibet. Tibetan troops rose to expel the Chinese troops and Tibetan independence was re-established in 1912 (after almost 200 years of overlordship by the Ch’ing Emperors of China). The thirteenth Dalai Lama then returned to Tibet in 1912 and to Lhasa in 1913 where he officially declared Tibet to be an independent country once again.
Circumstances, however, were not ideal for a unified Tibet. After twenty years of independence from China, filled with intermittent military conflict with China, the thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933. During the reign of the two regents (Reting Rinpoche to 1941 and Taktra Rinpoche to 1950) who would succeed him until a new Dalai Lama could be found and come of age to rule, circumstances deteriorated greatly.
The present, fourteenth, Dalai Lama was born in 1935 in a period of great instability in Tibet’s internal affairs, largely due to the fact that there was much jockeying for political power among many senior officials. While he was still a boy, Tibet was annexed by China in 1951, and in 1959 the Dalai Lama took refuge in India, along with some 100,000 other Tibetans, after the March 10th, 1959, uprising against the Chinese.
The Dalai Lama formed a Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala, India, and has worked to maintain a non-violent struggle to gain what he terms "genuine autonomy" for Tibet. In recognition of his insistence on non-violence, the XIVth Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Although there is still great suffering for the Tibetan people who have remained in Tibet, the Dalai Lama has had some success. On May 23, 1991, for example, the United States Congress declared Tibet an "occupied country". And on August 23, the United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a resolution on Tibet for the first time in 25 years Levenson, 1998, p. 147).
The nomination of a Special Coordinator for Tibet by Washington, D.C. in 1997 was also seen as very positive.
A recent history of Tibet, entitled The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 by a Tibetan historian, Tsering Shakya, decries the oversimplification of Tibetan history by the Chinese, by Tibetans themselves and by Westerners.
Presenting what he considers to be a truer reflection of the political complexity involved in the Tibet-China situation, he divides modern Tibetan history into three main periods:
While the destruction, for example of Tibet’s monasteries, has been well documented elsewhere, Shakya’s book sheds light on China’s more gradual destruction of traditional Tibetan ways of governing, and how the present Tibetan population of Tibet has been dealing with this.
Shakya also suggests that it is the internal workings of Beijing politics which ultimately decides Chinese policy towards Tibet, rather than any negotiation with outside parties, such as the Dalai Lama and/or the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Government-in Exile.
This view is reflected by several of our interviewees from the Tibetan community in Québec, who similarly think that things will have to change in China itself before any kind of freedom is possible for Tibet.
In America, the Free Tibet movement has taken on a higher political dimension with the actions of President Bill Clinton:
As worldwide interest in the Tibet cause grows, so does the pressure on world leaders to confront China on its human rights record. For example, John Avedon believes that Bill Clinton - despite his retreat from his election promise to revoke China’s MFN [Most Favoured Nation] status unless it made significant improvements in this area - has done more for Tibet than any previous US president. He points out that Clinton’s linkage of human rights and trade was the first time that any US administration has done so. Clinton has also raised Tibet as an issue in several meetings with Chinese leaders, most prominently in a June 1998 visit to China, during which he publicly debated Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin on Chinese television, pointedly challenging China’s human rights record and urging Jiang to talk with the Dalai Lama. In 1997, he also appointed a special assistant for Tibet affairs, a move China heatedly denounced as "interference in China’s internal affairs.7
Tibet has also taken on a higher profile with the Hollywood production of movies such as Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, which have helped to make the Tibet issue a popular subject among a younger generation of North Americans.
The Tibetans are grateful for the media attention to their cause, even if at times some of the information is not always accurate, such as
For the Tibetan community in Québec, it is the anniversary of the March 10th Tibetan Uprising which is the most powerful symbol of their feelings for their homeland. Each year, they hold a demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, speeches are made, slogans are chanted, and both Tibetans and Westerners dress in traditional Tibetan clothing for the occasion. Tibetan flags are waved and pictures of the Dalai Lama are held aloft, actions which Tibetans point out are illegal in China.
Despite all these political efforts, the fact remains that China is an extremely powerful country, its leaders easily angered and in spite of all the efforts in the West, the Tibetans we interviewed are well aware that their cause of freedom is an upward struggle.
Tibetan Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophical system. To suggest it is not a religion is inaccurate. There are several reasons why westerners may insist it is not a religion; indeed, sometimes even those who teach it may insist that it is not a religion. It is true that Buddhism does not entertain the concept of a creator God, and in that regard does not fit into the Judeo-Christian-Islamic mould of what a religion ought to be. Likewise, although all of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions are replete with various forms of "deity yoga," there is no central or peripheral deity which is to be adored and/or believed in.
Early western writers and commentators on Buddhist religion and thought would often write about these traditions in a way that would make them correspond to our aforementioned pre-existing concepts about religion. Recent scholarship, and the fact that there are now some accomplished western practitioners within each of the several Buddhist traditions, has drastically reduced the number of writers who take this approach. Nonetheless, perhaps out of some sense of duty to increase the popularity of Buddhism in an increasingly secular world, some western proponents of these traditions may indeed insist that "Buddhism is not a religion."
In order to maintain objectivity, it is important to recognize that something akin to faith does exist within Buddhism, and that the source of this faith may be found in the way Buddhism is usually transmitted, which is directly from teacher to student. Like any system, however, if there is not complete transparency on the part of all participants, there is room for abuse in this relationship, and it is for this reason that teachers such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama encourage people to be more critical in their approach to Buddhism and to teachers of Buddhism.
In his many public talks to Westerners, the Dalai Lama insists that Buddhism encourages people to investigate, that they are not encouraged simply to believe. Sometimes, half-jokingly but also half-seriously, he recommends that people spy on a teacher, or even hire a private investigator to check on a teacher, to make sure that they are authentic, that they are not charlatans.
When the best-selling author, Lobsang Rampa, was publishing his books in the 1950’s, because of the complaints of Tibetologists at that time Scotland Yard investigated and found that Rampa was actually a British citizen named Cyril Henry Hoskin, born in 1910, who was simply making creative use of ideas about Tibet which were circulating at the time through the efforts of the Theosophical Society, Madame Blavatsky, and Alexandra David-Neel, among others. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Hoskin became a multimillionaire and exiled himself to Canada, where he wrote twenty more books about his version of Tibet (Lenoir, 1999, p. 64).
The version of Tibet which was popular at the time was that the lamas were all clairvoyant, could levitate and do "astral travelling", which involved catapulting your mind out of your body so you could travel around invisibly. In short, the Tibetan masters were depicted as being superhuman, much to the chagrin of Tibetans fleeing their homeland in 1959, who were then besieged by wide-eyed Westerners who wanted to see this magic for themselves, and who wanted to receive "secret initiations".
Thus we can see that many of the myths about Tibet have been not only perpetrated by, but have been created by, Westerners. At the same, it may be argued that anything was permissible because it was so difficult to enter Tibet to verify the truth or falsity of these claims.
Certainly the Tibetans have their own myths, but when speaking in public, the Dalai Lama encourages Westerners to study their own religious traditions more deeply rather than appropriate the Tibetan or other traditions too hastily. In this message we find an echo of the Buddha’s message, at the moment of his death, where he exhorted his disciples to "work out your own salvation with diligence".
When comparing Tibetan Buddhism with other Buddhist traditions, Stephen Batchelor (Batchelor, 1987, p. 14) mentions that the Tibetans did not diverge a great deal from Indian Buddhism in terms of doctrinal content, but rather in the ways in which they organized this content into a systematic way of attaining enlightenment. Having said that, we must point out some differences between Tibetan Buddhism and most other traditions.
In terms of the "Taking of Refuge", for instance, whereas most traditions speak of the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma Sangha), the Tibetans added a fourth refuge, the Lama (Tibetan word for Guru, or spiritual teacher). A great deal of importance is attributed to the role of the Lama, who is often referred to as representing the Buddha. It does not take much stretch of the imagination to realize that this aspect could be and has been abused in the West, and this is why the Dalai Lama advises caution.
The refuge of Lama is considered so important that it is recited before the other three Refuges. In some traditions, there are even six refuges, which will not be discussed here, but which entail adding some from tantric practice (Batchelor, 1987, p.16).
Where there is another major difference is that some of the seminal sutras (sacred texts) of the Buddha were simply not translated into Tibetan, of which one example is the Buddha’s Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta). The systematic practice of mindfulness, then, was not preserved in the Tibetan traditions, with the possible exception of the Nyingma tradition, the oldest, which has a teaching called Dzogchen, which has the element of awareness or rigpa) (Batchelor, 1990, p. 19).
Another important sutra which was never translated into Tibetan is the Buddha’s Discourse to the Kalamas (Kalama Sutta), in which the Buddha says:
Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher.’ But, O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong, and bad, then give them up... And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.1
In the West, we now have access to all the major traditions of Buddhism, and so it is possible to investigate and compare these traditions. It is certain that the main ideas and practices of "mindfulness" and "doubt" are not as developed in the Tibetan traditions as they are in the Theravada and Zen traditions.
When Tibetan Buddhism is being taught in the traditional way, it is usual for the teacher, or the text, to begin by relating how this or that particular teaching or practice has been handed down, and how it is ultimately connected to the original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha. This is a way of authenticating the teaching and of letting the listener or the reader know they may have confidence that this particular teaching is accurate and worthy of their interest and trust.
In each of the four major, and the many minor, Tibetan Buddhist schools there are particular texts and practice traditions which take precedence over the many thousands of other different texts, both sutras and tantras, which were brought from India in the early years of the Buddhist transmission from India to Tibet.
Often, many of the same texts and practices are used within some or all of the Tibetan schools, but over the centuries they have been transmitted in slightly different ways and at different times. At best, this system or method ensures that Buddhism is transmitted accurately and completely from one generation to the next. At worst, this system can inspire a fierce type of sectarianism, and that has sometimes been the case.
Where does Tibetan Buddhism come from? It originated in the Buddhist traditions of India, more precisely, the Mahayana traditions. All the exotic and colourful imagery that is so striking to Western eyes is the outer wrapping of a rational, systematic and profound religious system. All the wrathful and peaceful images do have definite meaning, but the meaning can only be understood by penetrating to the heart of the system of which the symbol is but one expression (Batchelor, 1987, p. 23).
Also, the many colourful elements of Tibetan Buddhism demonstrate the Tibetan people’s way of appropriating Buddhism into their own culture and daily lives. When one gets to know Tibetan people very well, it can easily be understood why this proud, vibrant and fun-loving people would have transformed the very sober approach of Indian Buddhism into a system that more reflected Tibetan culture and society.
Although various Buddhist texts and religious objects began to reach Tibet as early as the fifth century, it was not until the reign of king Song-tsen Gampo (617-698) that a concerted effort was made to establish Buddhism as the national religion of Tibet.
In the centuries when Buddhism was making its way into Tibet, and when many Tibetans would make the arduous trip to India to study Buddhism and to formulate a written Tibetan language, the strain of Buddhism which was most popular in north-east India at the time is what we call Tantric Buddhism, and this reflects the type of Buddhism which evolved in Tibet. We shall discuss Tantric Buddhism later in this chapter.
The process of establishing Buddhism in Tibet took about 400 years (700-1100), and by the end of this period there had been collected more than one hundred volumes of what are usually called the discourses of the Buddha. This collection was called ‘Kangyur’ (translation of the word). At the same time, there were approximately four thousand commentarial works (Tengyur, or translations of shastras, which is the Sanskrit word for ‘commentaries’) written by Indian masters since the time of the Buddha. If we add to these the many explanatory works written by Tibetan masters as well, it is quite an extensive collection of Buddhist literature.
The beginning of each of the four major schools of Buddhism can be associated with a particular period of Tibetan history.
The Nyingma school, known as "the ancients" or, in other words, the oldest of the four schools, was founded by the great Indian Tantric Master Padmasambhava, who was largely responsible for the first wave of popularity of Buddhism in Tibet, in the eighth century A.D. The Nyingma tradition is also known for using the earliest of translations of Indian Buddhist texts.
Several new schools were created after the arrival of the great Indian Pandita Atisha, who arrived in Tibet in 1042, and three of these arose during the eleventh century. Atisha (982-1054) brought with him a very condensed text which he wrote entitled "A Lamp to Illuminate the Path to Awakening" (Bodhipathipradipa), which has inspired the great Lam Rim ("the stages of the path to awakening") traditions which became so highly popular and highly developed in Tibet. Indeed, this type of text helps to make Tibetan Buddhism unique.
After his arrival in Tibet, Atisha founded the Kadampa school. His approach was to emphasize the importance of a solid foundation based on the basic teachings of Buddhism before engaging in more advanced tantric practices. However, this school didn’t last very long, as it was absorbed into the other schools.
The second great tradition to arise in Tibet, and which continues today, is the Sakya or "gray earth" tradition, named for the region of Tibet where it was founded. Likewise the Kagyü school arose in the eleventh century, and it was founded by Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa. Marpa had travelled to Tibet to receive teachings from Naropa, and in turn he transmitted these teachings to Milarepa in Tibet. The main emphasis of this school was tantric practice, and they discouraged their followers from being sidetracked by intellectual and academic abstractions. Milarepa’s chief disciple, Gampopa, who had studied with Kadam teachers, was a monk, and from his teaching several sub-schools arose within the Kagyü tradition.
The Karmapa, who eventually became the head of this school, was the first Tibetan Lama to be recognized as the reincarnation of a previous teacher (circa 1272), and subsequently this became another popular form of transmission of Buddhism in Tibet. In fact, it is estimated that by the time of the 1959 Uprising in Tibet, there were some 2,000 recognized reincarnated lamas (tulkus).
The next major school, the Gelugpa, was founded some two hundred years later by a monk from eastern Tibet who would become known as Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). It was essentially a reform movement which wanted to reestablish the original Indian traditions of Buddhism. Tsongkhapa believed in the importance of a firm foundation in sutra study before going on to more advanced tantric practices, an approach which had been used by Atisha when he founded the Kadampa school (Batchelor, 1987, p. 37).
Eventually, the Gelugpa school became the largest in Tibet, and it is from this school that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas emerged.
It is important to note that all of these schools have substantially the same teaching content, and the major differences are in emphasis, terminology, and interpretation. Each tradition, has a special teaching which it considers to give it some superiority over the other schools, and this has sometimes led to disputes and even violence on occasion. It should be noted, in general, that the emphasis is on non-sectarianism, especially among the truly great teachers.
Also, while the Nyingma tradition relies on the older translations of sacred texts, the "new traditions" that is, Sakya, Kagyü and Gelug, rely on the later translations which were produced from the eleventh century onwards.
Once Buddhism had been firmly established in Tibet, further development came from within the country, and there was almost no further influence on Tibetan Buddhism from any other foreign Buddhist tradition. Indeed, there has been very little change in Tibetan Buddhism since the Dalai Lama became head of state in the seventeenth century.
The fourteenth Dalai Lama has defined the essence of Tibetan Buddhism in this way:
The perfection of Buddhist practice is achieved not merely through superficial changes, such as leading a monastic life or reciting sacred texts. Whether these activities in themselves should even be called religious is open to question, for religion should be practised in the mind. If one has the right mental attitude, all activities, bodily action, and speech can be religious. But if one lacks the right attitude - that is, if one does not know how to think properly - one will achieve nothing, even if one’s whole life is spent in monasteries reading the scriptures. The first requirement of Buddhist practice, therefore, is transformation of mental attitude. One should take the Three Jewels - Buddha, Dharma [the teachings of Buddha], and Sangha [depending on the context, it may be the community of awakened beings, or the monks and nuns, and at other times simply one’s fellow Buddhists] - as the final refuge, take into the account the laws of karma [the laws of causes and their results and the sense of responsibility which is to be attributed to one’s own actions] and its consequences, and cultivate thoughts that will benefit others. [...] What kind of Dharma can we prescribe for ordinary people? Ruling out immoral acts, any activity that is useful and productive in promoting the happiness of others can certainly go together with practising the Dharma.2
What specifically, then, is Tantric Buddhism? The late Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989) of the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism has said,
Tibetan Buddhism derives from the confluence of Buddhism and yoga which started to arrive in Tibet from India briefly around the late eighth century and then more steadily from the thirteenth century onwards. Indian Buddhism around that time had incorporated both Hindu yogic and tantric practices along with the classical teachings of the historical Buddha who lived around 500 B.C. It acknowledged that there were two paths to enlightenment (complete transcendence of identification with the ego). One path was that taught in the sutras according to the historical teachings. The heart of sutra practice was based on morality, concentration, and wisdom (not identifying with the personal ego). The other path, which has become the cornerstone of Tibetan variations, was tantric. This practice blended the sutra teachings with techniques adapted from Hindu systems of yoga and tantra. (http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~greg.c/tibet.html, August 5, 2000)
On the same web site, Kalu Rinpoche also lists the main elements of Lamrim (stages of the path). These are practices which are preliminary to and prerequisites for tantric practice:
Then there are the four types of common preliminary tantric practices themselves, which seem to be of a devotional nature, but which are actually meditation disciplines and which are also more or less common to all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
The actual tantric practices themselves unfold in two stages. There are originally four classes of tantra: Action (kriyatantra), Performance (charyatantra), Yoga (yogatantra) and Supreme Yoga (Anuttarayogatantra). For reasons which it is beyond the scope of this paper to explain, the Tibetan traditions utilize only the Action and Supreme Yoga tantras, having dispensed with the other two.
The Action tantras have to do with the visualization of peaceful deities which represent positive qualities such as compassion, wisdom and enlightened activity. One receives initiation from a qualified teacher in order to undertake the practice, and then one proceeds slowly to visualize or imagine the deity, according to a prescribed text, and then to identify with the deity. At the point of identification, one imagines that one has accomplished the quality represented by the deity. At the end of the practice session, one simply makes the deity disappear but tries to hold on to the quality in one’s daily life. There is no question of "belief" in the deity, but one eventually develops confidence in the practice if there is progress.
The Supreme Yoga tantras which also require initiation from a qualified teacher have two stages, generation and completion. Once again, at the generation level, one uses the imagination techniques to visualize the deity, which represents more complex spiritual qualities such as one might find in the Buddha. These "prepare the psychological and psychic groundwork for the spiritual energy that will be developed and harnessed in the following completion stage practices." (Kalu Rinpoche - see above).
The completion practices are an extremely complex series of meditations based on chakras (nerve centers) and energies (sometimes called "winds") within the body, and these meditation techniques may take years to perfect. The metaphysical structure of these tantras is similar to Hindu yoga, but more simplified, and has a different objective, which is the attainment of full awakening (Buddhahood) on the part of the practitioner.
Tibetan Buddhism provides a striking contrast with the elegant simplicity of Zen. The rituals, symbols, and ceremonials of Tibetan Buddhism generate a powerful sense of what Rudolf Otto called the ‘numinous’, or the apprehension of the supernatural as mysterious and uncanny. Tibetan rituals invoke the numinous through the use of chanting, mandalas, mantras, mystic symbols, ritual implements, candles, incense, and dramatic sounds such as the clashing of cymbals. Teachings are revealed gradually in the course of a series of hierarchical initiations.3
Indeed, many of the symbols of Tibetan Buddhism pre-date Buddhism in Tibet and are either symbols of the indigenous religion of Tibet, Bön, or were simply appropriated by the tantric Buddhists of Tibet for their rituals. Examples of these symbols, which are unique to Tibet, are: the prayer wheel, the white scarf of greeting (kata), prayer flags, the bell and "dorje" or thunderbolt scepter, and the distinctive red and yellow hats worn by the lamas of the various schools.
The present day Tibetan scholar, Lobsang Lhalungpa, has said, "… la culture religieuse tibétaine, pensée principalement bouddhique, fut notablement influencée par la religion pré-bouddhique Bön. À dire vrai, c’est précisément cette influence qui impartit sa dimension unique au bouddhisme tibétain."4
The questionnaire which was used to interview members of the Tibetan community was made up of twenty questions. The questions numbered 1 to 9, along with question number 15, pertain to the arrival of each Tibetan interviewee in Québec, as well as their thoughts on their language, culture, and organizations, while the questions numbered 10 to 14 pertain to their religion, Tibetan Buddhism. The final five questions, numbered 16 to 20, deal with their perceptions of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government-in Exile, and Tibet-China issues.
The questionnaire may be found in Appendix A and the interviews in Appendix B. In the formulation of the questions, the author has, to the extent possible, made an effort to avoid questions of the following types, as suggested by Maurice Angers in his Initiation Pratique à la Méthodologie des Sciences Humaines:
Question d’intention, d’anticipation ou de mémorisation excessive.
Question superflue (hors de l’analyse conceptuelle).
Question manquante (eu égard aux indicateurs).1
Before each interview commenced, each interviewee was assured of complete confidentiality, so that they could speak freely and candidly on the subjects addressed by the questionnaire. Although the interviews were being recorded, the interviewees were informed that they would remain anonymous. Furthermore, whenever an interviewee wished to speak "off the record" and indicated she or he did not want this information to be used in the production of this research work, the interviewer would turn off the tape recorder and would not take notes. The interviewer has remained faithful to this ethical principle, in the belief that misuse of the interviewees’ confidence could possibly cause future anguish to the participants and would be a hindrance to future research.
As stated by Angers:
La règle, en sciences humaines, est de ne pas divulguer l’identité de ceux et celles qui ont bien voulu collaborer à la recherche. Cette règle est d’autant plus nécessaire que la recherche exige des sujets libres de s’exprimer spontanément et non influencés par ce qui pourrait être dévoilé sur eux ou par l’image qu’ils projettent. […] Plus globalement, dans le rapport entre les personnes qui effectuent la recherche et celles qui y participent, il doit exister une confiance mutuelle. C’est à cette condition primordiale que l’entreprise d’investigation sera un succès. La ou le scientifique doit sincèrement être convaincu de l’apport inestimable que fournissent les participants à la recherche, et ces derniers doivent être assurés que leurs droits seront protégés et qu’ils retireront de cette expérience un certain bénéfice. Si ce respect mutuel s’établit, il assure la qualité morale du travail scientifique en sciences humaines.2
In addition, the type of research undertaken by the author is qualitative. That is to say, "Les méthodes qualitatives visent d’abord à comprendre le phénomène à l’étude. Il s’agit d’établir le sens de propos recueillis ou de comportements observés. On se base davantage sur l’étude de cas ou d’un petit nombre d’individus."3
We must also take into consideration that, by selecting only a few members of that group, there is always the danger of distortion of the views of the larger group. We feel that, to some degree, this has been avoided due to the following:
In the first place, although the Tibetan community is quite small and closely knit, there is a great diversity of opinion even within such a small community. We have, therefore, made an effort to ensure this diversity is expressed by requesting interviews from persons who arrived in Québec at different times, are of different age and gender, and who arrived under a wide range of circumstances.
To be more precise, three of the nine interviewees arrived in Québec as refugees in 1971, including a married couple and one male adult who arrived as a child of seven. Three of the subjects are female, two of whom arrived in 1984, while the other was one of the original refugees in 1971. Three adult males arrived between 1979 and 1989, while the youngest interviewee is a young man who was born in Montréal and is a student at a Montréal-area cégep.
Among the interviewees, two left Tibet as adults, one of them in 1959 and the other in 1981, and they offer a perspective on life in Tibet during two different periods.
Eight of the interviewees were interviewed in English, and one in French. The choice of language of the interview was left to the interviewees.
As a result of the above, we are of the opinion that the information gathered reflects the views of most of the various sectors of the Tibetan community in Québec and, we believe, offers an accurate profile of this community at the present time.
Generally speaking, those Tibetans who arrived in Québec in 1971 remember it as a happy time, mainly because they were permitted to live all together for several weeks in a large "centre d’accueil" where they first developed the strong sense of community and togetherness that has characterized them. They were able to take courses in French and English language, while their children were looked after by government staff. The Tibetans were grateful to those who helped them to settle here and continue to invite them as friends to their annual New Year’s celebration, usually in February or March.
Though the arrival was pleasant for most of the early refugees, those who came in later years as landed immigrants had a more difficult time at first. Among the six interviewees who came in later years, three found it easy to adapt while two found it difficult at first, but then slowly adapted. The cégep student who was born here, feels quite at home.
Five of the interviewees were landed immigrants, and the three who found it easy to adapt either had relatives here to help them or they had endured such great hardship in India or Tibet that arriving in Québec was truly a refuge for them.
The older interviewees have mentioned that those Tibetans who had problems with Québec’s language issues moved on to Toronto or Vancouver quite some time ago, and they insist that those who remain have no problems with the language issue.
Several interviewees mentioned the difference in the pace of life here as opposed to India:
Homesickness was also a factor for some:
By contrast, the Tibetan couple (Subjects E and F) who arrived in 1971 did not seem to have such problems:
It was found then that, generally speaking, those who arrived in the first wave of refugees to arrive in Québec made it much easier for those who followed later, since they had set up the social mechanisms to welcome new arrivals, which were formalized with the creation of the Tibetan Cultural Association in 1978.
We shall now discuss the Tibetan Cultural Association and its impact on the community.
In terms of culture, the Tibetan community founded the Tibetan Cultural Association (TCA) in 1978 as a means of keeping in touch with each other and of maintaining their cultural traditions, language, and religion.
As Subject H has said, "L’Association culturelle Tibétaine, c’est notre branche culturelle, pour préserver notre culture et nos traditions. Nous avons des réunions, des événements religieux. Nous sommes tellement petite comme communauté."8
Except for one interviewee, who seems to appreciate equally both the TCA and the Canada Tibet Committee (CTC, which we shall discuss further on), the Tibetans interviewed seem to feel that their cultural association is the more important of the two organizations because it gives them a sense of community, permits them to practice their religion together, and helps maintain awareness of the difficult political situation in Tibet.
Two of the interviewees were very involved in the TCA, one being a past president and one being a current vice-president. Two do not get involved at all, and the five others are involved as members only. One was a founder of the TCA along with the now deceased Geshe Khenrab Gajam, who was sent to Montréal in 1972 to serve the Tibetan community, a duty which he performed until his death in 1993.
Some of the interviewees mentioned the TCA also keeps them in touch with other Tibetan communities, both in North America and world-wide. The Tibetan Cultural Association is also important for community decision-making.
Recently, younger Tibetans have been elected to office in the Tibetan Cultural Association so they might gain experience working for the Tibetan cause [the "Tibetan cause" usually means working towards the eventual liberation of Tibet from Chinese occupation].
It will come as no surprise that a sense of community among Tibetans is extremely important to a majority of those interviewed. One interviewee, Subject A, is particularly proud of the efforts of his community:
We are very well organized, it is true, and we work very hard. We try to give our children a Tibetan education as much as possible, including dance. We explain the importance of the Dalai Lama. Sometimes groups of monks come and teach us, but mostly we teach Tibetan language and dance. Also, through the TCA we communicate with other communities here in the Montreal area. And we want freedom for our country, so that gives us even more to do. This kind of work helps us to get known by others. Each year on March 10th we do demonstrations, thousands of people help us all over North America and in many other countries. Do our children get involved? Well, lately, we have been electing youngsters to the TCA so they get experience with the Tibetan cause. And at Tibetan New Year’s (Losar) and other holidays, we use these as opportunities to pass out information.9
One interviewee, Subject B, has stated that although the TCA is very important, it is rather static since it is always the same people attending:
Not much has changed since I came from India. I don’t attend TCA often as it is always the same thing, the same size community, the same people. The people are getting older. What will the younger generation do? The older ones don’t have the time to spend with them, they are too busy making money and they don’t care that much. I find them narrow-minded - the older ones are not open-minded like the younger ones. That’s why the community doesn’t improve.10
And Subject C has expressed similar feelings, but with more optimism:
I feel that the grownups are often a bad influence on the young people in the community. They often bring up their personal problems in front of the children. Also, there is a language problem, the youngsters are not learning to speak Tibetan as well as we do. And the community is shrinking. But aside from that, I feel good helping with the Tibetan cause. We are a very small community but we are doing very well; we are quite successful, and I hope it continues. It would be good if the younger people would put more interest in the cause of Tibet. Thupten Samdup and other community leaders are focusing more on the young now.11
In terms of culture, the Tibetans have had a great deal of success teaching their children traditional Tibetan dance and music, due to the fact that there are several former members of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts now living in Montreal, and some of them were interviewed for this project. The Institute of Performing Arts is located in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama has his residence.
Language is the next major issue, and it is a difficult one. We have found that virtually all Tibetans in the Montreal area speak Tibetan, with the older Tibetans doing so more frequently with each other at home and at social gatherings, and sometimes at work if they happen to be employed in the same company. But, as Subject B says,
I speak Tibetan at home, with family, and at community gatherings. I can’t read or write, only speak. I speak Lhasa dialect. I never went to Tibetan school as a child - only English, also Hindi. I don’t have a child, but if I did, it would be very important to teach the language and culture, especially the language. I often tell young people to speak more Tibetan so they won’t forget. Also, parents are responsible to teach language at home. The root is Tibetan, even if you marry a Westerner. It is a big shame otherwise, if you lose your language. Also, we must show them Tibetan documentary movies. If not, they will forget and it is gone.12
There are some Tibetans who are well educated in their language and they are able to teach. As a result, several of the Tibetans do give language courses, but mostly to Westerners. However, the children who have grown up in Québec now are more interested in getting a good education here so that they can have careers.
The difficulty with the Tibetan children is best expressed by Subject C: "At the community centre, among Tibetans, I try to speak with my children, but we often end up speaking French or English because their Tibetan is not very good."13 In other words, many younger Tibetans prefer to speak French or English.
A similar problem is expressed by Subject H:
"Comme tous les Tibétains, nous parlons notre langue en famille, chez nous, et en communauté, pendant les réunions ou les rencontres familiales. Mais avec mes chums Tibétains, on parle français et anglais ensemble, surtout l’anglais. Mais moi, c’est le français. Je viens de l’une des quelques familles Tibétaines du Québec qui a choisi de vivre en français."14
In general, then, it can be said that the Tibetans of this community have continued to speak Tibetan among themselves and have made great effort to teach their children the language as well. In spite of these efforts, however, the parents have some concern that their children’s vocabulary in Tibetan language is much less extensive than their own and that not enough occasions arise for the richness of the language to be properly transmitted to the children. Also, the younger Tibetans do speak Tibetan, but they speak French and English more often. They are busy making friends, going to school and establishing careers.
In the past, there was a Sunday school where Tibetan children learned Tibetan language and religion, and the children were taught traditional dance and singing. In recent years this has not been happening.
On a positive note, we may conclude that, whether they participate a great deal or simply once in a while, most Montreal area Tibetans agree that the Tibetan Cultural Association is their most important organization in Québec. As Subject A has said, "Since I have come here, what I have come to understand is that we can do nothing without community."15
The other important organization in the Montreal area is the Canada Tibet Committee, which has branch offices across Canada, but has its headquarters in Montreal. Tibetans generally are very supportive of the CTC, although they are reluctant to get too involved because they feel they would have problems communicating, largely due to the fact that the majority of members of the CTC are French and English speaking.
The President of the CTC, Mr. Thubten (Sam) Samdup, along with his wife Carole, founded the Canada Tibet Committee in the early 1980’s as a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) which would permit the Tibetan community to have a voice at the political level. Today the CTC has become, in part through its development of the World Tibet Network News (WTN), a global source of information on Tibetans and the situation of Tibetans in China, on the Dalai Lama, religious persecution, and actions taken on behalf of the Free Tibet movement.
Although the network was originally set up to facilitate communication among Canadian chapters of the CTC and Tibet support groups around the world, it rapidly grew to include subscribers in sixty-four countries around the world (www.tibet.ca, August 8, 2000). This Montreal-based organization has been responsible for expanding email communication to the Governnment-in-Exile in Dharamsala, India, as well as many other support groups around the world.
The World Tibet Network News publishes news relating to Tibet from around the world on a daily basis. What is even more interesting is that they will often print articles and press releases from the point of view of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which lends a sense of balance and objectivity to this service. Furthermore, the online archives of the WTN (www.tibet.ca/wtnnews.htm, August 8, 2000) contains more than 1,000 articles dating back to 1992, and it is available to the public. WTN also administers an electronic discussion group which is open to the public, but which is directed towards academics and students.
The general attitude of Tibetans toward the CTC is best expressed by Subject H:
Le Comité Canada-Tibet, c’est notre branche politique. Il y a beaucoup plus d’occidentaux que de Tibétains dans ce comité. Seulement les jeunes Tibétains s’engagent dans ces activités puisque les plus âgés ont des problèmes à s’exprimer. Tout se fait en anglais et en français. Je suis très fier de notre branche politique. Ce comité a une influence sur l’échelle mondiale, pour assurer que le monde ne nous oublie pas. De plus, ce comité organise à chaque année le bazar Tibétain au mois de novembre. C’est une occasion pour les deux comités - l’Association culturelle Tibétaine et le Comité Canada-Tibet - de travailler ensemble.16
This pride in the accomplishments of Mr. Samdup and the Canada Tibet Committee is held by all the Tibetans interviewed even though they mostly felt they could only help this work in small ways.
Furthermore, it was learned that, although there are a few members of the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) in the Montreal area, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) and other such Tibetan organizations have no chapters in Québec.
Before we enter into the actual discussion of the Tibetan Buddhist religion, we shall first present the ideas of three of the interviewees regarding "the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism". While many Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism have aligned themselves with one or another of these traditions, the Tibetans themselves seem to have a rather different, more pragmatic approach to these divisions:
Subject H offers the point of view that "...nous ne sommes pas vraiment dans une catégorie. Nous avons autant de respect pour un moine d’une autre tradition"24.
The irony here is that, while Tibetan lay people themselves do not seem to get involved in sectarian preferences, the same can not be said of many Western adherents. Mistaking the collegial pride which each individual tradition takes in its accomplishments over many centuries as a statement of actual superiority over the other traditions, some Westerners proceed to develop the worst forms of sectarianism themselves. A recent example would be the ‘Shugden’ controversy (see Glossary) which, among many Tibetans, has become a non-issue, while Western adherents of one particular sub-tradition, dressed in Tibetan monks robes, protest against the Dalai Lama at every turn when he is visiting the West.
While it would be naïve to assume that sectarianism in any form does not exist within Tibetan Buddhism, nonetheless it may be stated that a great deal of effort has been made by Tibetans in exile, especially by leaders such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Karmapas,, to discourage this type of approach. For Westerners to get involved in these centuries old sectarian conflicts seems to be nothing less than an ill-informed and not very well examined merging of the sublime with the ridiculous.
It is perhaps for reasons such as this that three of the interviewees felt it was important to address this issue so directly, while others simply mentioned that they are Buddhist.
Seven of the nine interviewees feel that the practice of religion is very important to them, and they make some effort to practice in some way. The two who said they don’t practice at all nonetheless expressed their appreciation for the ethical base it gives them. They consider themselves to be Buddhists but are not followers.
Therefore, we can say that all nine interviewees consider themselves to be Buddhist and have no other religion although one interviewee stated that she does like to sing in church sometimes because she enjoys singing.
When questioned as to what Buddhism is, the most common response was that it is a way to benefit others (5 responses), or a way of being compassionate (4 responses). Some examples:
In order to understand this notion of benefitting others, which is so common among Tibetan Buddhists, it is important to know that all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions have a category of practice called "lo.jong" or "mind training". Within this broad category of practices, we find a specific practice called "tong.len", which may be translated as "Exchanging Self for Others" or "Taking and Giving". We feel that it will contribute to an understanding of how a Tibetan views religion if we explain this practice:
This practice involves "taking" the suffering and anguish of others upon oneself, along with its sources, mental distortions, negative energies and so on. Imagine that you are taking this suffering away from all others. In the beginning, some teachers say you may focus on one being, such as your mother or someone you care for, and then gradually include all living beings, while other teachers begin by including all living beings right away. One imagines the suffering of others as dense, black smoke; imagine drawing this black smoke away from the suffering being or beings and bringing it into one’s heart. Then one visualizes a blackness in one’s own heart, and this blackness represents self-centeredness, which prevents us from having true compassion. Then one imagines the black smoke of suffering and its sources dissolving into this blackness at one’s own heart center (chakra). The point here is not to imagine experiencing other people’s anger or pain or confusion, but rather one should imagine that the suffering comes directly into the heart, specifically to the self-centeredness of one’s own heart, and then one totally annihilates the suffering of others, leaving not a single trace.
In other words, one is trying to undo the selfishness in one’s own heart rather than to actually experience the suffering of others.
For example, if the person suffers from arthritis, one may imagine their hands and joints moving freely and delighting in the experience of the full and proper use of their limbs, back, and neck. Imagine that the suffering beings have regained their health, their anger has dissipated, their sorrows diminished.
In this way, one imagines removing layer after layer of the unhappiness and misfortune of others and dissolving them into one’s own heart. This is the practice of "taking," and it is the first half of the practice which Tibetans do to cultivate relative bodhicitta [the desire to attain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings].
The second half of the practice is known as "sending" or "giving." One first thinks some phrase such as: "May this being have happiness." One imagines giving away one’s body, possessions, virtue and so on without any sense of reservation, to this or to all beings. Imagine sending this positive energy in the form of a white light that radiates like a jewel at the heart, and then imagine the person or persons receiving all good things such as food, clothing, a place to live, helpers, spiritual guidance, happiness, even full awakening.
Many Tibetans do this "taking and sending" on a daily basis. It is important at this point to mention that virtue, in the Tibetan Buddhist context, means positive or wholesome imprints on one’s own mind stream. To a Buddhist, it is the deepening of these imprints that results from this practice which are the very sources of future happiness, both in mundane as well as in spiritual matters. The intent of the practice is to release the attachment we have to our own body and possessions - not only to detach ourselves from them, but also to offer them sincerely for the service of others.
Of course, it is important that the meditation manifest itself in external activity and not remain on the level of imagination, or it would become simply "armchair compassion". The purpose is to improve our own attitudes towards others and, eventually, to include even people we dislike as well as close friends.
Preparation for Death was next in importance, with four interviewees mentioning this:
Preparation for death is also a basic element of Tibetan Buddhism, and one’s meditation session would proceed something like this, with the number of elements differing depending on the tradition. This particular meditation, from the Gelugpa tradition founded by Tsongkhapa, is called the Nine-Point Meditation on Death:
The nine points comprise three main points, each of which has three reasons:
everyone has to die
our lifespan is decreasing continuously
the amount of time we devote to Dharma is very small
The time of death is uncertain
human life-expectancy is uncertain
there are many causes of death
the human body is very fragile
Only Dharma or spiritual insight can help us at the time of death
our possessions and enjoyments cannot help
our family and friends cannot help
our body cannot help
Three interviewees mentioned that their practice of Tibetan Buddhism brings them peace of mind, while one interviewee made a distinction between prayer and meditation:
Five of the interviewees mentioned prayer. In most cases, the prayer involved some way of thinking and/or wishing for the welfare of others, similar to the "taking and giving" practice described above.
Other benefits of religious practice which were mentioned by interviewees are: one becomes less materialistic, and it helps one to learn to control the mind. One Tibetan, in what would appear to be a willingness to go along with the manner in which many Westerners choose to describe Buddhism, mentioned that Buddhism is not really a religion.
One person, Subject G, who grew up in Tibet until the age of twenty-one, and who then left Tibet, had this to say about religion in Tibet:
I am Buddhist, but I don’t practice. Sometimes I say a prayer, a Ts’og ceremony [a verbal as well as a mental offering to a particular lineage of Gurus or Teachers] once in a while. In Tibet I went to temples often, I would prostrate and do circumambulations of the Jhokang [Tibet’s most famous temple] and I would visit the Potala. It was forbidden before. People are always observing you, like spies.33
In terms of venue for practice, five interviewees mentioned that they regularly go to the Manjusri Temple in Longueuil to practice, and two others said they practice mostly at home. Of the seven persons who practice regularly, six of them practice regularly at home.
The Manjusri Temple, which is located on chemin Chambly in Longueuil, was recently founded by several Vietnamese who practice Tibetan Buddhism, and they invited Geshe Jamyang, the abbot of a Tibetan monastery in south India, to be the main teacher. The Geshe is often away as he has many responsibilities, but the Tibetans make regular use of the temple on Sundays. There are now three Tibetan monks in residence at this temple.
All interviewees indicated they follow no other religion but Buddhism.
Finally, four of the interviewees gave critiques of some teachers within their own traditions which deserve repeating here, not only because of their obvious interest within the context of this paper, but also because they demonstrate that these individuals have a mind of their own and are not blind followers of their own traditions:
Subject G agreed with this sentiment, but demonstrated an understanding that Tibetan Buddhism now finds itself in a very different context: "Also, I don’t believe in using religion to make money. Here in the West, however, everything costs a lot, people have to pay fees. Here, there are expenses to pay, not like in Tibet. It is a different story."37
In terms of religion, then, the Tibetans interviewed demonstrated not only a good understanding of their own traditions, but also a strong independence of mind in expressing their opinions about them. Additionally, although during the interviews we addressed specific issues such as where and when religion is practised, and some even mentioned the names of certain practices, there was a deeper sense that religion is your own mind and how you choose to interact with the world.
Generally, there is a deep sense of faith, but one goes away from these interviews with the distinct impression that their idea of faith is not in something external to oneself. If one remembers the Dhammapada of the Buddha, a very ancient text for which there are many translations in English and French, it is most interesting to recall its first two verses (from memory) regarding the mind:
and all conditions are mind-made;
If with a pure mind one speaks or acts,
then happiness follows one like the wheel the hoof of the ox.
Mind is the forerunner of all conditions
and all conditions are mind-made;
If with an impure mind one speaks or acts,
then misery follows one like the wheel the hoof of the ox.
Often referred to in the media as the spiritual and political leader of six million Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has a special place in the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people. First and foremost, he is regarded by members of the community in the Montreal area as Chenresigs (Avalokitesvara), the embodiment of compassion who manifests lifetime after lifetime to help all sentient beings. Not only is he recognized as the 14th incarnation in Tibet as Chenresigs, but also, he is believed to be a reincarnation of each of the previous Dalai Lamas as well as the 74th manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the first being an Indian Brahmin boy who lived at the time of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni (Gale Research, 1998, p. 638).
Question 18 of the questionnaire dealt specifically with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Regarding the present Dalai Lama, three interviewees mentioned that he is Avalokitesvara (Chenresigs). For example, Subject A said:
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other teachers teach religion. The Dalai Lama is Avalokitesvara [ the Bodhisattva of Compassion ] as a human being. There are lots of other great teachers. They respect the Dalai Lama also. The Buddha predicted his religion would come to Tibet. His Holiness represents Buddha in Tibet - transformed into a human, and before he was Dalai Lama, he returned three times as a king. When Trisong Detsen became the 33rd king, then he became a monk - so that he can protect all sentient beings.38
It is not uncommon to hear the great teachers and reincarnated lamas of Tibet referred to as "living Buddhas" by Tibetans. Indeed, in-depth study of the Lam Rim (Stages of the Path) traditions of Tibet reveals that one’s own teacher is to be perceived as a living example of the Buddha. While this is intended as a practice tool as well as a gesture of respect towards the teachers, it certainly may seem disrespectful towards the Buddha in the eyes of Buddhists of other traditions. It is also possible for a teacher, whose intentions may not be entirely honourable, to abuse this type of teaching, especially if the intended result (on the part of the teacher) is some form of simple-minded hero worship.
And Subject D had this to say: "The Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of Chenresigs. He says he is a simple man, but we believe he is Chenresigs. To Westerners, the present Dalai Lama is a famous man, but to Tibetans, he has been with us for many lifetimes, helping us."39
Three others mentioned that, because the Dalai Lama is known by everyone this helps the Tibetan cause, while two others mentioned that the Dalai Lama works tirelessly for the Tibetan cause:
One interviewee suggested that the Dalai Lama is the main cause of Tibetan unity, while another mentioned his non-violent approach.
Thus we can see that, for the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama plays a complex role. At once spiritual and political leader, they look to him as teacher, advisor, example, living representative of Buddha, and he also represents Tibetan unity and the Tibetan cause of gaining freedom from China
Indeed, the Dalai Lama himself is well aware of this complex role. In an interview with Professor Robert A. F. Thurman of Columbia University, which was published in a Montreal newspaper in November of 1997, His Holiness said:
Up to now my involvement in the Tibetan freedom struggle has been part of my spiritual practice, because the issues of the survival of the Buddha’s teaching and the freedom of Tibet are very much related. When we meet real tragedy in life, we can react in two ways - either by losing hope and falling into self-destructive habits, or by using the challenge to find our inner strength. Thanks to the teachings of the Buddha, I have been able to take this second way. I have found a much greater appreciation of Buddhism because I couldn’t take it for granted here in exile.44
Regarding the Tibetan Government-in Exile, several members of the Tibetan community living in Québec had very strong opinions about the Government-in-Exile, which many of them feel must be discussed in tandem with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be properly appreciated. While the consensus is that it is a good thing to have a democratically-elected government, nonetheless there was some criticism.
Some scepticism regarding some of the Government-in-Exile’s activities was expressed by Subject G:
The Government-in-Exile - I don’t know what is happening, I hear they don’t do much and that even His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] is frustrated. For example, recently 1,000 Tibetans were accepted to enter the United States, and the government was supposed to choose only Tibetans in need, the poor people, not any officials or government types. But a lot of them came with the group. So even the people working for the government want to leave India, to get out of Dharamsala. The Dalai Lama is angry that they are leaving him alone. So there is corruption even outside Tibet.50
This same interviewee also expressed some of the difficulties among Tibetans: "Tibetans have a hard time getting along among themselves. If the Dalai Lama passes away, Tibetans will have a hard time to stay united. People will abandon the government and forget independence. Who will fight for it?"51
Aside from Subject G, however, most interviewees thought the Government-in-Exile was doing good work, and generally gave favourable opinions. As mentioned by Subject H, however, most Tibetans see the Government-in-Exile and the Dalai Lama working as a unit. To some, this is a fragile balance, and reflects perhaps too much dependence on the Dalai Lama on the part of the Government-in-Exile as well as among many Tibetans themselves.
But the view expressed by the majority of the Tibetans interviewed is that, while there is room for improvement (two interviewees), the biggest success of the Government-in-Exile is its ability to link all Tibetans world-wide (seven interviewees). Certainly it must be acknowledged that there does exist an excellent communication network within the world-wide Tibetan community, but the Montreal community of Tibetans is one of its main nerve centers, especially through the efforts of the Canada Tibet Committee, and including the Tibetan Cultural Association.
It is a certainty that the Tibetans living in Québec do not feel handicapped by the small size of their community in this regard. It may be said that the high speed communications possibilities of the Internet do play a role, but there is no escaping the fact that many members of the community spend a lot of their time doing community work which has an effect beyond Québec.
Many Tibetan families living in Québec still have links with family and friends in Tibet, and this is a cause of great concern, especially during times such as the present moment when there are many reports that the Chinese government is cracking down on any form of expression of unique identity especially religious identity, on the part of Tibetans.
One interviewee, Subject G, Described his experiences in Tibet before leaving in 1981:
I left Tibet and went to the United States. Then I came to Québec. I was 21 when I left Tibet. It was no longer possible to live in Tibet because my father had been a political prisoner. Although my family spoke Chinese, it was of no help. My life in Tibet was quite difficult. I couldn’t get good jobs. I was stupid because I resented the Chinese, so I wouldn’t learn the Chinese language. My sister went to college, but then she was not allowed to go any further. She is still in Tibet and can’t get a job. During the Cultural Revolution, life was hell in Tibet, many people died.52
Five of the nine interviewees expressed cautious optimism that Tibet can one day be free from China, especially if there are political changes at the highest level in China, such as a stronger move to democracy, while one interviewee said it would be impossible.
The idea of violence does not seem to be a realistic option, especially considering the size of the population of China (1.5 billion) and its being a nuclear power, versus six million Tibetans with virtually no army or weapons.
Although Tibetans retain cordial relations with Chinese people in Québec, they do not identify with Chinese ethnicity or nationalism.
Finally, we come to the question of whether or not the Tibetans from Québec would return there if the country were to be become free. Three interviewees said they would definitely return there to live, but there is much uncertainty among the others. Certainly all would like to visit Tibet, but most feel the same about the issue as Subject B:
Some people will want to go back, others will not. I wouldn’t like to return right away because I am afraid of the Chinese. I would wait three or four years to see what they will do. Can’t trust them. Also, I don’t know what the reaction of Tibetans still living there will be to us returning to Tibet.60
Subject B was the only interviewee to mention the possible negative reaction of Tibetans living in Tibet should the exile community return there to live. It is easy to imagine some conflict if the now more worldly-wise exiles return to their country of origin. However, considering the passion which the interviewees still obviously feel for their homeland, the idea of a possible negative reaction from Tibetans still in Tibet might seem like a happy problem indeed.
Since 1959 when 100,000 Tibetans fled Tibet into exile, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, under the Dalai Lama’s direction, set up some fifty-three refugee communities in both India and Nepal, and put in place the administrative apparatus for self-government in exile. This included setting up several schools for children called "Tibetan Children’s Villages", as well as various institutes to preserve the performing arts of Tibet such as traditional dance, opera and music. These institutes also work to maintain the medical and scriptural traditions of Tibet.
Several of the Tibetans interviewed benefitted from the creation of these institutes, and as a result they have retained a positive opinion of the Government-in-Exile and the efforts of the Dalai Lama.
We have also seen that the Government-in-Exile has become quite effective in gathering and disseminating information regarding the situation in Tibet, and these efforts are echoed by Montreal’s own Canada Tibet Committee as well as by the Tibetan Cultural Association. These efforts have given rise to what is now called the Free Tibet Movement, and it is no exaggeration to state that almost every university campus in North America has a student "Committee for a Free Tibet." It has, actually, become a global movement and is by no means confined to North America.
Who actually gets involved in these activities? To date, there is a long and diverse list of characters including Members of Parliament in Ottawa, both Democrat and Republican members of the U.S. Congress, movie stars, rock musicians, the American CIA, Tibetan refugees and Western students of Buddhism, as well as the thousands of university students who actively participate on campus committees.
Although many of these people are Buddhist, the Free Tibet movement is not a Buddhist movement, but rather has been a gradual global awakening to the Dalai Lama’s appeal for help from the world population in his efforts to come to some understanding with China. Those who work in the Free Tibet movement are motivated for diverse reasons, including human rights and opposing injustice (Powers, 2000, p. 1).
The irony is that, in spite of all these growing efforts, China seems to be increasingly turning a deaf ear to this movement. As mentioned by Subject H, whenever a statement is made by a public figure in the West, there seems to be a crackdown on the activities of Tibetans in Tibet.
To lend balance to the Tibetan side of the issue, Peter Hessler, who taught English in China from 1996 to 1998, has this to say:
In other words, where Tibetans in exile and Westerners see the migration of Han into China as a threat to Tibetan culture, Chinese workers who are in Tibet see their role in terms of service. It also helps that they are paid much higher to serve in areas such as Tibet than within China proper. Nonetheless, Mr. Hessler’s findings were that the Han people he met who are serving in China are similar to idealistic volunteers in any part of the world. While government workers are normally sent to Tibet for a period of only two to three years, these volunteers commit to eight years and must live in difficult conditions. Although they are paid much less than government workers, it is still two to three times as much as the salary they would make at home (Hessler, 1999, p. 61).
As China itself struggled to free itself from foreign imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and to reclaim its rights to areas such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, it seems that somehow Tibet fit into the category of parts of the Motherland which had been seized from them, due to the British invasion of Tibet in 1904.
Mr. Hessler further states:
The irony is that China, like an abused child who grows up to revisit his suffering on the next generation, has committed similar sins in Tibet: the overthrow of the monasteries and the violent redistribution of land, the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution, and the restriction of intellectual and religious freedom that continues to this day. And as in any form of imperialism, much of the damage has been done in the name of duty. When the Chinese speak of pre-1951 Tibet, they emphasize the shortcomings of the region’s feudal-theocratic government: life expectancy was thirty-six years; 95 percent of Tibetans were illiterate; 95 percent of the population was hereditary serfs and slaves owned by monasteries and nobles. [...] Virtually all my students were from peasant backgrounds, and like most Chinese, the majority of them were but one generation removed from deep poverty. [...] In my second year, I asked the class if China had any indigenous people analogous to the [North American] Plains Indians. All responded that the Tibetans were similar. I asked about China’s obligation in Tibet. The answers suggested that my students had learned more from American history than I had intended to teach. One student replied, "First, I will use my friendship to help [the Tibetans]. But if they refuse my friendship, I will use war to develop them, like the Americans did with the Indians.2
It will be no comfort at all to our Tibetan citizens and friends in Québec that many Chinese workers in their country regard them in the same way as the Europeans who conquered and settled North America regarded the North American Indians.
Yet there is room for much optimism. Some of our interviewees recognize the cyclic and volatile nature of human affairs, including politics, and they regard the situation in Tibet with what could be described as reluctant equanimity. Reluctant, yes, because they are only human, and it is a source of unhappiness to them to know that friends and relatives in Tibet must live in extremely difficult circumstances.
While the Tibetans in Québec deeply regret the loss of their country, they are successfully adapting to life here, perhaps due to the recognition by their Buddhist faith that all things in this life are impermanent, like bubbles on a moving stream, and that one must adapt to the present moment.
Indeed, this ability of Tibetans to adapt is observable not only here in Québec, but elsewhere:
It is beyond doubt that the majority of exiled Tibetans [...] belong to a ‘progressive’ class of refugees because of their high potential for adaptation. Many factors may be responsible for the Tibetans’ relative success in exile, but it is certain that Buddhist tenets proved to be helpful in enabling them to participate fully in the economic activities of their host societies.3
In terms of the Tibetan cause, it is often the case here in the West that to popularize is to trivialize, and the Tibet issue has been no exception.
Mass media has certainly played a role in simultaneously popularizing and trvializing Tibet. More importantly, however, the continued and perceived exotic appeal of Tibetan wisdom traditions even today has allowed contemporary New Age practitioners to partake of Tibet without fully committing to its rigorous spiritual training. [...] Wearing a rdor-je [dorje] necklace, prayer wheel earrings, or a so-called Tibetan shaman’s jacket allows the individual to be sympathetic to the Tibetan tradition in a postmodern fashion, but also safeguards her against any deeper engagement with the contemporary issues that Tibet, its people, and its culture are facing on a daily basis.4
Thus the serious concerns expressed by the Tibetans interviewed for this paper can be trivialized and undermined if attention is not brought to the underlying dynamics of these concerns. To appropriate Tibetan language, culture, fashion and Buddhism in order to flesh out one’s postmodern, eclectic and self-styled religion might be entertaining and meaningful to the person doing the appropriating, but ultimately it reduces the source and scope of these elements to manageable, bite-size pieces and sound bites which no longer have any meaningful relationship to Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism.
While the Tibetans in Québec make ample use of their two long-time organizations, the Tibetan Cultural Association and the Canada Tibet Committee, there is another outstanding organization which has been formed in exile which bodes well for the future of Tibetans in exile, if not in Tibet proper:
Tibetan refugees in India have established agricultural settlements, agro-industry centers, and more than eighty schools. Organizations, such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, the Tibetan Women’s Association, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, have not only maintained traditional Tibetan culture outside of Tibet, but have allowed for the formulation of new cultural and political manifestations. In perhaps the most enterprising case, the Amnye Machen Institute (AMI), Tibetan Center for Advanced Studies, was formed in Dharamsala in 1992 (with the support of the Dalai Lama) in order to address what the Institute’s founders see as serious deficiencies in Tibetan culture: (1) its near exclusive preoccupation with religion, (2) neglect of the secular aspects of its own history and culture, (3) failure to learn from the outside world, (4) its present tendency to ignore the cultural education of its own people, in contrast to its success in propagating Tibetan religion and culture in the West. To this end, AMI undertakes studies in science, history, culture, literature, and politics in Tibet and around the world.5
Although this particular movement has not yet taken hold within the community here in Québec, there is some indication that the Canada Tibet Committee, through the efforts of its president Thubten Samdup, is extending more opportunities to younger Tibetans to become engaged in a similar learning process, and this was expressed by some interviewees.
Among the interviewees, three were old enough to remember Tibet before 1959, or had left Tibet recently enough to remember Tibet quite well. Others, however, have never seen Tibet, but have learned of it from their parents, or from other members of the community.
For the latter, while there is genuine concern for Tibet and its future, as well as for the Tibetans in exile, there is a strong sense that Québec is their home. They have for the most part expressed reluctance to return to Tibet, should it become free, without an extended period of waiting to see just exactly what the real circumstances there might be.
Several of the interviewees were born in exile, most in India, and yet they retain their sense of cultural and religious roots while adapting quite well to life in Québec. This is not to say that there are no problems, of course. Lack of education in the French or English language has handicapped some of those who came as refugees or landed immigrants, but not to the point where they cannot function.
All interviewees at time of writing were working at regular jobs, or were in full-time school and working part-time. For the most part, in spite of difficulties, they are happy to be here and are happy in their jobs. Some who work in factories are actually quite well-educated and in India would be teachers, but this does not seem to pose a difficult adjustment problem for them.
Where there is greatest concern, in terms of life in Québec, is when they think of their children. While the children do go to cégep and university to get an education and to eventually establish themselves, the parents do worry that not enough of their Tibetan heritage is being passed on to them, either from lack of time or lack of interest.
At the same time, several of the older children have visited Tibet and India, some returning with spouses, and in this regard those who make the voyage do reconnect with their families’ origins. Those parents whose children have not yet been to Tibet or India express the wish that they may be able to do so in future.
Though many younger Tibetans may not yet have visited Tibet, and do not know what it looks like except from pictures and do not have the attachment to Tibet of the older generation, they are very conscious of their identity.
Will these younger Tibetans forge a new bond with an old Tibet, or will they demand a break with the past and go in a completely new direction, retaining some elements while letting others drop. What will their relationship be to Tibetan Buddhism? To their language and culture?
One common response is that, once they have completed their education and established their careers, they will take the time to go more deeply into their own religious and cultural heritage. Another response is that, if things keep going the way they are, the younger people will feel less and less attachment to being Tibetan, they will speak their language less and less, and they will simply assimilate into the dominant culture.
It is most difficult to predict which direction the young people might take, but if the efforts of the Tibetan community here in Québec are any indication, already there is a strong sense of values that has been passed on to the children -- the sense of benefitting others discussed earlier, for example.
And what of Buddhism? When the Buddha himself died, he did not appoint a successor and his followers were left to interpret Dharma for themselves. Of course, disagreements arose. In the same way, the Dalai Lama is held in high regard by almost all Tibetans. But what will happen at his passing? This question preoccupies some of our interviewees, and there is no simple answer.
Will the Government-in-Exile be strong enough, and have the support of enough Tibetans, to keep the exile community stable? Will another strong spiritual leader come forth? Will a regent be named while a successor is being found?
For the moment, there are no easy answers. The young Karmapa who recently left Tibet at the age of 14 is still much too young, as are many of the young tulkus. But there are some very highly respected teachers who will definitely be able to carry on the traditions.
Fortunately, the Dalai Lama is still relatively young and in good health, and the Tibetans in Québec are most concerned that this continue.
While the Dalai Lama is held in high regard, we might even say venerated, by most Tibetans, there are some disagreements with his views on a policy towards China. In a nutshell, the Dalai Lama’s view is that the best to hope for is genuine autonomy within China.
There are Tibetans, however, who are not confident that such autonomy would even be possible given the present leadership of China, and so they would prefer to push for the recognition of Tibet as an independent nation which is being occupied by China.
It is difficult to say which is the wiser approach, but with many countries of the world wishing to establish trade relations with China, including the United States and Canada, are there any major countries who would be willing to confront China as illegally occupying a sovereign nation? If we approach it from this point of view, perhaps the Dalai Lama’s policy is, for the time being, the more realistic.
In terms of the survival of the Tibetan language among Tibetans in Québec, this is somewhat more problematic. The community is quite small and, understandably, the younger ones are preoccupied with their education and economic future here. Thus the opportunities to learn and speak their language are limited.
In the Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Chinese communities, there are sufficient numbers of people to ensure that there are many occasions to speak their respective native language.
The difficulty with the Tibetan community is that, because Western countries are preoccupied with establishing trade relations with and therefore do not wish to offend China, there is very little immigration of Tibetans into either Canada or the United States. Because there are rarely any newcomers in the community, this limits the range of opportunities, especially for younger Tibetans, to gain greater fluency in their own language.
Within Tibet, there is the strong possibility that the Tibetan Buddhist religion could disappear within a few years if the present anti-religious policies of China continue. Although the religion has established a strong base in India, it is difficult to say at this time what effect such a tragedy in Tibet would have on the exile community.
With the disappearance in Tibet of the young Panchen Lama who had been recognized by the Dalai Lama, and with the recent escape of the young Karmapa from Tibet into India, there are signs that freedom of religion is virtually non-existent in Tibet at the present time.
With the Chinese language being the language of economic success in Tibet, and with the exile community having to learn several languages in as many countries in order to adapt, the survival of the Tibetan language may be as tenuous as religion.
It must be remembered, however, that the Tibetan Buddhist religion exists not only in Tibet, but also in Mongolia, including the Kalmyk and Buryat populations of the former Soviet Union. There are also large pockets of Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim, Nepal, Ladakh and even within certain areas of China itself. The Sherpa region in northern Nepal, for example, is culturally Tibetan and these people practice Tibetan Buddhism.
And where Tibetan Buddhism is practised, usually the Tibetan language is written and spoken. It is possible, therefore, to consider that this religion and language may continue to thrive well into the future.
What seems most likely for Buddhism in Tibet is that it will continue to be practised in secret, much as Christianity during the Soviet Communist regime. The fact that Tibetans most often practice their religion in their homes, as we have seen from our interviews with Tibetans from the Montreal area, means that the absence of outward signs of religion do not necessarily mean the absence of religion. As one of our interviewees has said, "religion is in your mind."
Finally, then, we may conclude that this profile of the Tibetan community in Québec is one of a small but dynamic community with a diversity of points of view and interests, regarding both their own Tibetan traditions and those of their new home, Québec.
While they participate to varying degrees in their two main organizations, the Tibetan Cultural Association and the Canada Tibet Committee, they understand the value of these, and are able to see that their efforts extend beyond the size and location of their small community in Montreal.
While demonstrating a great deal of attachment to their cultural and religious roots, they have also shown a great capacity for adapting to working and living conditions not only here in Québec, but in other communities across Canada and other Western countries as well.
It is hoped that, in some small measure, this profile has contributed to a better understanding of the Tibetans who live in Québec.
Subjects E & F
[Before the interview got underway with this couple, we had an animated discussion about the traditions of Tibet, which I recorded. I am inserting this discussion here because it seems most important in terms of how Westerners perceive the traditions of Tibet versus how lay Tibetans perceive them.]
[end of discussion on the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism]
Avalokiteshvara. ‘Chenresigs’ in Tibetan. A bodhisattva who personifies the compassion of enlightenment.
Bodhicitta. altruistic resolve to attain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. The foundation of Mahayana Buddhism.
Bodhisattva. A being who has developed bodhicitta and has dedicated her or his life to the attainment of enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings.
Chakra. Literally, ‘wheel.’ One of five principal points in the subtle body where the energy channels meet and are interconnected.
Chenresigs. See Avalokitesvara.
Deity. The term ‘deity’ is mainly used to refer to Buddhas and bodhisattvas who are visualized in a divine form during tantric practice.
Dharma. The Truth, the way things are. The teachings of the Buddha which reveal this truth. When uncapitalized, signifies phenomena, events.
Dorje. The dorje or vajra is a Vajrayana ritual implement symbolizing method.
Dzogchen. Literally, the ‘great perfection’ or ‘great completion.’ One of the highest forms of meditation practice which aims at a direct realization of the ultimate nature of reality.
Enlightenment. A state of Realization in which the most subtle traces of ignorance about the nature of reality are eliminated. There are degrees or stages of enlightenment.
Geshe. A title given to a monk who has completed extensive studies in Buddhist doctrine and philosophy.
Gompa. A place of meditation, temple or shrine room.
Guru. A qualified spiritual teacher.
Karma. Literally, ‘action.’ The sum of all an individual’s deeds, which ineluctibly determine their experiences during this life and in future births.
Lama. See ‘Guru’.
Lam Rim. Teachings delineating the step-by-step path to enlightenment.
Lotsawa. A translator.
Mahayana. The ‘Great Vehicle’ of Buddhist practice which emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment for the sake of all others.
Mandala. The abode or world of a deity. Symbolically depicted as a circular, symmetrical diagram.
Manjusri. A bodhisattva who personifies the wisdom of enlightenment.
Mantra. A group of syllables which express in a condensed, symbolic way the essential qualities of a deity. The speech of a deity.
Mindfulness. The paying of close attention to an object of contemplation or meditation.
Rinpoche. ‘Precious One.’ An honorific title given to Tibetan Lamas of high standing, particularly tulkus.
Sangha. Community. The third of the three jewels of refuge. In its deepest sense, enlightened beings. Generally, it is used to refer to the community of monks and nuns or, in the Mahayana, of bodhisattvas.
Shugden. A practice discouraged by the Dalai Lama, which primarily concerns the orientation of the Gelugpa tradition and its relation to other Tibetan Buddhist traditions
Sutra. A discourse taught by the Buddha.
Tantra. Literally ‘thread" or ‘continuity.’ Discourses attributed to the Buddha, or his manifestations, in which the "esoteric’ practices of the Vajrayana are explained.
Theravada. One of the earliest sub-schools of Buddhism. The form of Buddhism practised today in Sri Lanka and South-East Asia.
Three jewels. The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The three principles around which a Buddhist focuses and structures his or her life.
Tsampa. Roasted barley flour. The staple food of Tibetans.
Tulku. A lama of high attainment who has consciously taken rebirth and has been officially recognized as the reincarnation of his or her predecessor.
Vajrayana. ‘Diamond vehicle.’ The Buddhist path of tantric practice.
Information on Communities
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Soucy, Alexander. The Dynamics of Change in an Exiled Pagoda: Vietnamese Buddhism in Montreal. Canberra Anthropology, vol. 19, no. 2, p. 29-56.
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Tibetans in Exile
APPENDIX B. Personal Interviews. February to June, 2000, p. 69-104.v
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__________________. The Jewel in the Lotus: A Guide to the Buddhist Traditions of Tibet. London: Wisdom Publications, 1987, 280 p.
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Useful Web Sites
Canada Tibet Committee/Le comité Canada-Tibet. http://www.tibet.ca
Government of Tibet in Exile. http://www.tibet.com
Keown, Damian. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 141 p.
Lenoir, Frédéric. La rencontre du bouddhisme et de l’Occident. France: Fayard, 1999, 393 p.
Angers, Maurice. Initiation pratique à la méthodologie des sciences humaines, 2e édition. Anjou: Les Éditions CEC inc., 1996, 381 p.
May, Tim. Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1993, 193 p.
Ragin, Charles C. Constructing Social Research: The Unity and Diversity of Method. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press, 1994, 194 p.