The sikyong, Lobsang Sangay, offers advice on action, adaptation and repairing the world
By Maayan Hoffman
Lobsang Sangay’s name, given to him as per tradition by a Buddhist llama, means “kind-hearted lion.”
“Most of the time, I am kind-hearted,” he told eJewish Philanthropy. “But if necessary, I am ‘lioning’ 10 percent of the time.”
Sangay, the sikyong, or democratically elected president of the Tibetan diaspora, was in Israel for the first time between June 19 and 24. His visit culminated Sunday with a speech to 150 of the Jewish world’s leading young innovators from 29 countries who are in town for the 2018 ROI Summit, an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.
The sikyong’s visit was arranged through an ROIer with the intention, according to Justin Korda, executive director of the ROI Community, of framing this year’s event.
The 2018 ROI Summit, which runs from June 24 to 28, focuses on Israel’s 70th anniversary, the country’s accomplishments over 70 years, and the themes of independence and the interplay between dependence, independence and interdependence.
“We have to remember that 70 is 70 years young,” said Korda. Israel has a lot of work to do. Independence is not an end into itself, but the beginning of a long and complex journey.”
In a personal interview with eJP, Sangay said he hoped his talk would encourage the young crowd to take action for Tibet and any others who are suffering from similar injustices. Sangay, speaking just days after his first visit to Yad Vashem, quoted a plaque he saw and photographed on the museum wall of a poem by Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran minister and early Nazi supporter who was later imprisoned for opposing Hitler’s regime.
First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
“The Jewish people had the harshest experience,” said Sangay. “As such, they have the strongest credibility to be advocates and leaders on issues of injustice… Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. And silence is complicit.
“We must work together to make this world a better world, a peaceful world, a nonviolent world,” he said.
In his role, Sangay leads the political struggle for the autonomy of the Tibetan people in China. After becoming the first Tibetan to obtain his SJD from Harvard Law School (2004), and an expert on international human rights law, democratic constitutionalism, and conflict resolution, he returned to his country in 2011 to serve as president and help his people.
Since the Communist Chinese invasion in 1950 of Tibet and the subsequent complete overthrow of the Tibetan Government, including the self-imposed exile of the Dalai Lama and 100,000 Tibetans in 1959, the Tibetans have been fighting for autonomy and the right to maintain their identity in their native land.
The Chinese have systematically destroyed Tibet’s monasteries and temples, imprisoned and executed its people and encouraged the settlement there of ethnic Chinese. However, inside its borders and across the world – Tibetans are scattered among 40 nations – the Tibetan people have never stopped believing Tibet is a nation. With Sangay as their leader, they continue to resist China’s rule and defy its oppression.
Sangay said he sees his role as both preserving the identity of the Tibetan people – “language, culture, religion, so there is a Tibetan people” – and preserving the people’s dignity.
“We try to learn from the Jewish experience,” he said, by focusing on education. In Tibetan schools, students combine a rigorous secular academic program with Tibetan culture, song and dance.
“Integrate, don’t assimilate,” said Sangay.
The other aspect is achieving basic human, environmental and religious rights for his people, all of which he said Tibetans are denied in China. On Sunday, as Sangay was presenting at ROI, the Chinese government was simultaneously bulldozing an ancient Tibetan monastery at Yachen Gar.
Tibetans are discouraged from speaking their traditional language. In May, a young Tibetan businessman, Tashi Wangchuck, 33, who campaigned to preserve his native language from the encroaching dominance of Chinese, was sentenced to five years in prison.
“The Chinese want to make Tibetans into Chinese,” Sangay explained.
“There are so many parallels between the Tibetan and Jewish experiences, and hence we want to thank the Jewish people for all the support they have rendered to us until now and urge them to continue this support,” he told eJP.
Sangay said he has always had deep ties to the Jewish people. When he moved to the United States in 1995 to attend Harvard, his landlord was Jewish. His master’s and doctorate advisers and his Ph.D. mentor were all Jewish, too.
When Sangay gave his acceptance speech after becoming president in 2011, he ended it with, “Next year in Lhasa,” the capital of Tibet, a reference to the Jewish longing and hope to return to their ancient capital.
“For 2,000 years, the Jewish people said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ and now they are here [in Israel],” he said. “Returning to Lhasa should be sooner.”
He added, “As Buddhists and Tibetans, we are always optimistic and hopeful.”
However, Sangay said he does worry that as the Chinese government becomes more powerful economically and politically, it will limit Tibet’s chance for autonomy.
Sangay also taught the lessons of adaptation and sacrifice.
Despite his successes at Harvard, Sangay said he always knew he would return to help his people. He said the Buddhist notion of impermanence eased the transition from his upbringing in the fields among cows and chickens to Harvard and then back to serve his people.
“Today, I am in the Waldorf. Tomorrow, I could be in a refugee camp, on a thin mattress with Chinese blankets and mosquitoes,” said Sangay. “You have to learn to adapt.”
As president, Sangay is only paid $350 dollars a month. He travels economy.
“I am trying to fulfill the aspirations of Tibet – without that I am nobody,” he said.
He and ROI’s Korda said that just like Tibetans learn from Israel and the Jews, so too, can Israel learn from the Tibetans and the Buddhist concepts of self-reflection and renewal.
Korda said Judaism’s tikkun olam is about repairing the world – “not our internal world, not repairing ourselves, but the outside world. Sometimes we need to look inward.”
Sangay put it this way: Israel is like hardware – external, out-of-the box thinkers. Tibetans are more like software, with powerful internal resilience.
“I think if we combine this hardware and software, we could be an important force,” he said.