Book chapter

Foreign Policy and Religion: Tibetan Independence Movement (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Conventional wisdom holds that Buddhism plays an important role in fueling the Tibetan independence struggle. Monks and nuns occupy a prominent place in the Tibetan struggle and the Tibetan uprisings of 1987 and 2008 were led by monastics. There is strong evidence that Buddhist frameworks, folklore, and institutions have helped to sustain nationalist mobilization at the grassroots level. However, at the elite level, the effect of Buddhism's core doctrines on nationalist mobilization is puzzling. The Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan freedom struggle, has pursued policies that have restrained Tibetan nationalism and discouraged mass mobilization since the 1970s. Many of his political decisions—especially his 1988 decision to change the goal of the struggle from independence to autonomy—are anything but nationalistic. His successor Samdhong Rinpoche marginalized the Tibetan nationalists who demanded independence, setting in motion forces that contributed to the eventual de-escalation of the Tibetan freedom movement. While there are numerous explanatory variables behind the political decisions of both leaders, the unique fingerprints of Buddhist influence are evident in their politics and policies. How have Buddhist ideology and institutions constrained Tibetan nationalist mobilization? What role has Buddhist doctrinal belief played in the Tibetan leadership's concessions to China in the 1980s and the curtailing of the Tibetan independence movement in the 2000s? Examination of the complex relationship among Buddhism, nationalism, and Tibetan foreign policy highlights how some of the doctrines and institutions of Buddhism have constrained the Tibetan political movement.