FREMANTLE, Australia, 28 July 2009
What does one give a simple Buddhist monk for his 74th birthday?
A simple Buddhist monk who left Tibet 50 years ago and established the Tibetan community in exile in Dharamshala, India. A simple Buddhist monk who won the Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago, and in his acceptance speech noted the inspiration he had received from Mahatma Gandhiâ€™s program of non-violent action for change. A simple Buddhist monk who has stirred the world with his teachings on compassion, tolerance and universal responsibility.
Because the visit to Dharamshala by the first ever Australian parliamentary delegation coincided with the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we all faced the challenge of choosing an appropriate birthday gift (made more complicated by the Buddhist teachings on emptiness and non-attachment to material things!). I presented His Holiness with a jarrah wooden bowl and spoon from the Fremantle Arts Centre in my electorate, and my friend Olivia gave him a statuette of three kangaroos with paws over their eyes, ears and mouths in the style of Gandhi’s famous three monkeys, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. These small gifts seemed strangely appropriate.
Our cross-party delegation — featuring Michael Danby, Peter Slipper and myself as House of Reps Members and Senators Hanson-Young, Ludlam and Xenophon — was unofficial, with the economy airfares, accommodation and meals provided by the Tibet Information Office. The few family members and friends accompanying the delegation paid their own way. After a sometimes fierce Autumn sitting of Parliament I enjoyed the way our trip brought us together as Australian Parliamentarians, colleagues and even friends.
India has played graceful host to the Tibetan community in exile since 1959 when Indian Prime Minister Nehru invited them to stay in Dharamshala, also known as Dhasa in short. The town, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh at the foothills of the Himalayas, is laid out on narrow ridges and festooned with colourful Tibetan prayer flags. Upon arrival, we were met by the Speaker and Deputy-Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, and the Tibetan Prime Minister, all learned and articulate yet extremely humble people.
Over the next six days, in addition to an enlightening one and a half hour meeting with the Dalai Lama, we had an intensive series of meetings with other high-level lamas and Tibetan parliamentarians in exile. We also met with recently arrived refugees from Tibet and with human rights NGOs representing women, youth, students and political prisoners. The delegation was treated to a fantastic cultural dance and music performance by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and visited the Norbulingka Institute of Tibetan Art and Culture.
We were moved by our visit to the Tibetan Children’s Village which houses and educates orphans and refugee children. The school mottos are “others before self” and “individuals can make a difference”. The Tibetan Children’s Village managed to be simultaneously the saddest and the happiest place we had seen. Happy because the children are welcomed and loved within this exiled community; sad because many have been sent from Tibet for their protection into the care of the Dalai Lama — some never to have contact with their families again. Many of the kids’ drawings depict some of the difficult and terrible circumstances that they have experienced.
We visited the Tibetan library and archives containing ancient manuscripts smuggled out of Tibet for safekeeping, and the Institute of Tibetan Medicine where we learned that the first ever international medical conference was held in Tibet in the 8th century.
What we saw was democracy enhanced by spirituality. We saw both the careful preservation and the joyful celebration of Tibetan culture and language. We also saw the quiet hope and determination of these people to return home to Tibet. The visit was an extraordinary window to the Tibetan world and we were welcomed at all levels, leaving us humbled and inspired.
At the conclusion of the visit to Dharamshala I travelled under my own arrangements to visit some UNICEF health and education projects in the Indian state of Rajasthan, in my capacity as Chair of the UNICEF Parliamentary Association. It was incredibly heartening to see women and children who live in extreme poverty being assisted and empowered in very practical ways by grassroots projects managed collaboratively by UNICEF, the Rajasthan Government and community centres.
At the core of UNICEF’s work are efforts to address malnutrition in children — and again, this resonates inside me like the shock of a small explosion. Education, particularly for the poorest kids, is first about getting fed, and recovering from malnutrition, and warding off anaemia. In Rajasthan, 44 per cent of children under three years are underweight, and 79 per cent are anaemic. This makes computers in schools — which of course are incredibly important in Australia — seem like something from a distant, futuristic dream.
My trip to India was only 11 days long, which of course was hardly enough time to gain more than a passing sense of this country, of its multitudes and myriad riches. I was glad, however, for the opportunity to make this engagement with a nation and regional neighbour that will be of such significance to Australia and to the world in the years to come. And I felt blessed to have met with the Dalai Lama, one of the great modern leaders and advocates in the cause of peace.
In the end, the only real gift the Australian delegation could give to this simple Buddhist monk was our commitment to continue to pursue the cause of human rights for Tibetans and indeed for all.
About the author
Melissa Parke is the federal member of Australian parliament for Fremantle. Ms Parke visited India as part of an unofficial parliamentary delegation in July 2009.