KOH PHANGAN, Thailand, 28 February 2019
Jamyang Norbu is a rare breed as one of the few Tibetans who writes in English. He mostly writes polemical essays, the kind of work that he regularly publishes on his blog Shadow Tibet. Because his articles are often highly-opinionated, biased, ideological — and worst of all, outdated — he is not taken very seriously by the larger Tibetan public. That said, Norbu, like everyone else, is entitled to his own opinions. And he has a captive audience of a small group of diehard Rangzen-wala Tibetans, and some starry-eyed foreign sympathisers of the Tibetan cause.
In his article “Extinguishing the Embers of Freedom”, dated 17 January, Norbu published a scathing criticism of the respected scholar, spiritual leader, and former Prime Minister of Tibetans-in-exile, Professor Samdhong Rinpoche. The gist of his argument was that Rinpoche was instrumental in undermining the Tibetan freedom struggle in exile. More precisely, the article describes how Rinpoche, with the help of his supporters and students, had tried to sabotage the founding of the Tibetan Youth Congress, one of the largest non-governmental Tibetan organisations. One of Norbu’s main gripes was Rinpoche’s decision to help establish a separate organisation — Tibetan Freedom Movement — and he makes a bold accusation that it was, in retrospect, nothing but a de-facto coup orchestrated by Rinpoche to take over the Tibetan establishment in exile.
In this attempt to demonise one of the most respected leaders of modern Tibet, Norbu forgets to mention the enormous contribution Rinpoche has made (and continues to make) to the Tibetan community over a career spanning five decades. From his early days as an instructor in Tibetan refugee schools and the pioneering head of the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, and later, his career in politics, including his stint as the Speaker of the Tibetan Parliament-in-exile, and then as the Prime Minister, Rinpoche has remained an influential force in the exile society. And it is fair to say that Rinpoche, like any other public figure, let alone a political leader, had his share of controversies and critics over the years. He had, for instance, become a butt of many jokes for his somewhat stern and no-nonsense style of operation. Yet, his incorruptible integrity had earned him many followers, as Norbu himself points out in his article, not just in the Tibetan community but also within the broader Indian intelligentsia and beyond.
More importantly, what Norbu also fails to mention in his lengthy article is that Rinpoche, as a self-made scholar and intellectual, has as much right as Norbu to take part in politics and do what he thinks is the best for the Tibetan community. As Norbu himself notes: “But Samdhong Rinpoche’s political statement was that the exile government had failed to make any progress in India or abroad to promote the issue of Tibetan freedom and that it now required a group of educated and capable people to take charge of this vital function of Tibetan governance.” There is nothing seditious about any idealistic youth, let alone a self-respecting moral philosopher like Rinpoche, holding such a democratic aspiration. It was precisely the same ideals that had driven Norbu and his firebrand contemporaries to start their various reform initiatives. Norbu himself said that Rinpoche’s words had a strong influence on ordinary Tibetans.
It is not surprising why many Tibetans would be taken up more by the views of a person of Samdhong Rinpoche’s caliber than anybody else. But to say that Rinpoche’s decision to form the Tibetan Freedom Movement was aimed at undermining the authority of the exile government fails to stand the test of logic and reasoning. And the exile government was then led by the Dalai Lama — let alone the idea that anyone would dare to challenge his authority, any iota of feeling that such a conspiracy was being hatched would earn the wrath of the Tibetan public.
In that case, similar baseless arguments can be made against Norbu and his friends. Were the impressionable and nostalgic class of Dharamshala (including Norbu) of those days trying to help resurrect in exile the corrupt old system of Tibet that the CCP had so successfully helped to dismantle? It was probably no coincidence that Norbu likens Rinpoche and his supporters to “CCP cadres” on more than one occasion.
In those days, it was a common complaint that Tibetan aristocrats (kudraks) in Dharamshala, and their offshoots around the world, had sadly and hopelessly been functioning in the same elitist and undemocratic ways that they had done in the old, pre-occupation society of Tibet. As a consequence, there was nothing wrong in initiating any reform, or resistance movement for that matter, aimed at replacing the incestuous Tibetan ruling elite with a new modus operandi, or in mitigating their clout, so that a new culture could be introduced in exile.
Thanks to the benevolent wisdom and foresight of the Dalai Lama, as well as the education and growing social mobility of the ordinary people, the influence of the ruling elite (kudraks) has gradually faded into the background with the increased democratisation of Tibetan politics.
Rinpoche’s contribution towards empowering the Tibetan community cannot be dismissed so flippantly. It’s hard to deny that his work in the field of literacy and education, in particular, has not only been a source of both admiration and inspiration for many ordinary people, but a real “leveller” of Tibetan democratic politics and society, in every sense of the word.
As someone who has a thorough knowledge of the five major fields of knowledge (Rig gNas Che Wa lNga) and five minor fields of knowledge (Rig gNas Chung Wa lNga), Rinpoche is a keeper of Tibetan culture. He is also a thought leader and a visionary. Rinpoche has been working on creating a genuine grassroots movement informed by original and indigenous knowledge and culture of Tibet. Rinpoche would never let others influence him (such as the kudraks), and he would always support truth and justice.
With all that Rinpoche is, Norbu’s few books and essays do not even compare to Rinpoche’s shadow, let alone his real person, to use a common Tibetan phrase. What should be known is that the majority of the Tibetans in exile and the thinking youth are behind Samdhong Rinpoche; Norbu has a coterie of ill-advised youths who are as frightfully naive as they are over-confident.
Expectedly, Norbu does not mention any of this in his article. Instead, he assumes that Buddhist monks such as Rinpoche, and their supporters, were working against the cause of Tibetan freedom. He essentially portrays Rinpoche and his supporters as “bad” anti-establishment guys trying to wrest control from the “good” guys of the Tibetan establishment.
In the end, Norbu comes across as something of a sad apologist for the old Tibetan establishment, particularly the thankfully vanishing kudrak class. In writing this illogical diatribe against Samdhong Rinpoche, Norbu has given himself credit for the achievements of other people such as the founding of the Tibetan Youth Congress and the establishment of the tax system among the exiles. Norbu’s presumptuous folly fails to establish anything, but instead raises more questions about his real motive for attacking Samdhong Rinpoche.
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, India, with some travelling overseas, and edits the Tibet Sun website.
More articles by Lobsang Wangyal on Tibet Sun.