Buddhist Practice to End Violence Against Women: A Tibetan Woman’s Perspective

By Dechen Tsering

Over the past few years, I have become aware of the increasing number of reported incidents of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, in the Tibetan exile community. It is well known that violence against women is an issue that cuts across societies and social classes. Tibetan women are not exempt from violence in a world where one in three women will experience being beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused, usually by a family member or an acquaintance.[1] Yet to many, it may come as a surprise that within the Tibetan society, which is explicitly based on Tibetan Buddhist principles of compassion, acts of violence against women and girls do occur and until recently have gone largely un-reported and under-addressed.

Recently, the issue first came to the forefront on July 16, 2011, when a young Tibetan woman in a remote Tibetan settlement [Tenzinghang] in India was assaulted, beaten and paraded naked in a public space by other Tibetans for allegedly having an affair with a married man. Surprisingly, with the exception of the Tibetan Women’s Association, no public statement condemning the “Tenzinghang incident” was issued. Almost a year later, on August 23, 2013, Phayul reported that: “a five-year old Tibetan girl has allegedly been raped by two Tibetan men in Mungod Tibetan settlement” in India. For many of us, it was difficult to believe that such extreme cases of gender-based violence were possible in our community that is so deeply rooted in Buddhist teachings. Furthermore, publicly acknowledging and addressing these acts of violence appear to be a taboo in our society. In fact, there is strong resistance in the exile communities to acknowledge acts of violence for fear of tarnishing our image of being a peace-loving and non-violent society. Additionally, there appears to be a strong perception among many Tibetans that addressing issues of gender equality would divert from addressing our national freedom issue. As a result, perpetrators of violent incidents too often go unpunished, potentially increasing likelihood of repeat acts of violence. For instance, a Times of India report on May 11, 2014, noted that a 30-year-old Tibetan man was arrested on three-day remand for allegedly molesting two minor girls at the Tibetan Children’s Village school just a few miles from Dharamsala, India, the capital of the Tibetan exile community. According to a Phayul post on May 12, 2014, the first incident of molestation of an eight-year-old girl by the accused Tibetan cook at the same school was brought to light by the above case, suggesting that school authorities had possibly failed to address the initial case adequately. Since the above articles were published, there has not been any official update that I am aware of, on the arrest of the perpetrator nor the health of the two girls. On May 14, 2014, a newspaper in Scott County, Minnesota, reported that a 43-year old Tibetan man received a 15-month prison sentence for assaulting his former wife severely and stabbing her in the leg while in a hotel room at Mystic Lake Casino on New Year’s Day. According to the online news on June 25, 2014, on CanadaNepal.net, the principal of Srongtsen Bhrikuti Boarding High School in Kathmandu, Nepal was arrested for allegedly luring female students into sexual exploitations on repeated occasions until a young student finally spoke up about her experience. Tibetans have no population-wide statistics on gender-based violence – not because the issue does not apply to us but due to a lack of prioritizing this issue.

The shocking “Tenzinghang incident” was so egregious that it inspired a number of San Francisco Bay Area Tibetan women to organize and form a women’s support group to discuss the issue of violence against women and women’s empowerment. This impetus gave birth to the ACHA-Tibetan Sisterhood in the Fall of 2011. Co-founders of ACHA-Tibetan Sisterhood are educated, professional women who are committed to sharing their skills and resources with other Tibetan women. ACHA’s mission is to work toward women empowering women in creating safe, supportive, and inclusive spaces for all. It organizes acculturation and women’s empowerment workshops for women immigrants and refugees from the Tibetan and other Himalayan ethnic communities. Internationally, ACHA collaborates with existing Tibetan-led initiatives in the areas of health, education, leadership training and programs to end violence against women and girls in Tibet and the exile community. ACHA has given away 11 small grants totaling just over U.S.$10,000. Our workshops, aimed at empowering women, have been about citizenship and civic engagement, cross-cultural parenting, parent-teacher communication, job search training, women’s health as well as domestic violence.

Unfortunately, attempts to raise public awareness on the issue of violence against women by women’s groups can face surprisingly extreme pushback. For instance, ACHA faced unexpectedly strong resistance as an independent women’s organization openly advocating for women’s empowerment and addressing violence against women in the Tibetan community. Due to the pressure on ACHA members, the group shrunk from 14-members to only four in a span of few weeks. Nevertheless, the remaining four women forged ahead taking quiet and peaceful steps toward healing, recruiting and revival as ACHA-Himalayan Sisterhood. Today, ACHA-Himalayan Sisterhood is a national women’s group with close to 20 members (and growing) across San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C. with an international advisory committee of distinguished Tibetan women leaders. ACHA women continue to offer services to Tibetan women and invite local Tibetan organizations to collaborate in the interest of our shared humanity.

Despite the resistance and pushback that exists, I believe that the fact that the cat is out of the bag with regard to gender-based violence in our community is a positive development. We now have the option to take these shameful incidents and turn them into opportunities for positive transformation of our community. Our religion teaches us that change is the only permanent phenomenon of life. Tibetan Buddhist teachings are especially rich in practices that are designed to generate compassion in order to truly get to a place where we don’t feel separate but are in touch with the interconnectedness of all beings. For instance, Tonglin practice encourages us to take on and feel the suffering of all beings. In this instance, putting Tonglin into practice would encourage everyone to feel the pain of a woman or girl that is beaten, abused, violated or raped. For instance, if, in the exile community, these practices are strongly encouraged in everyday life, might a potential perpetrator of violence against women and girls think of the pain and suffering he may cause before acting? Might a neighbor who hears violence be moved to intervene and protect the victim? Might settlement officers take the initiative to assure that there is adequate public education and that services for the victims are made available? Might community leaders, parliamentarians and government leaders propose and develop policies and effective services for eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls?

Over the past 30 years, the issue of violence against women in the West, has been addressed in the realm of public services and education, policy development and the law. While violence against women in the West still exists, acts of violence against women have become societally unacceptable and have been criminalized. In that way, Western society, which has only recently had the benefit of the teachings of the Buddha, has made greater strides toward gender equality than the Tibetan society. While westerners spend a great deal of effort learning from Tibetan Buddhism, as evidenced by the great number of Buddhist centers around the world and the great number of western practitioners, I believe it is now time for Tibetans to learn from Western societies about the evolution of gender roles. There are many Tibetans who feel that Tibetan women have it far better than our sisters in other countries and to some extent that is true. However, this does not mean that Tibetan women ought to be “content” with the status quo. We need to acknowledge that violence against women does persist in our society and that the entrenched gender roles do not correspond to the philosophical and religious underpinnings of a Buddhist society, which strives for the interconnectedness and equality of all beings.

Some Tibetans may resist the idea of learning from the West since Western colonialism has destroyed many cultures by imposing Western values on indigenous practices. However, in this instance, Tibetans can learn how to live the principles of our own culture and society more fully i.e. principles of compassion, equality, and furthering the happiness of all being, by learning from the evolution of gender roles in the West. Tibetan society can incorporate some of the many models and strategies for eliminating violence against women, which have evolved in the West into our societal structure to better practice our own religion and culture. Moreover, as His Holiness teaches us almost every time he speaks to an audience, that everyone – whether we are black or brown, white or yellow, rich or poor, free or occupied – that all human beings strive towards happiness and strive to minimize their suffering. That is the basic life drive of every human being. To sacrifice that strive to happiness for a segment of the population cannot be excused by any issue and in fact, the society will be much stronger to address its national issues if each member is fully enabled and can come from a place of security and her physical safety and her mental safety, which will allow a person to develop their full potential, which is in the interest of the whole society.

Genuinely addressing the issue of violence against women can be an opportunity for our society to more deeply delve into understanding and putting into practice our Buddhist religion. In many audiences to the Tibetan community, the Dalai Lama stresses the need for Tibetans to understand Buddhism on a deeper and more fundamental level because the mere recitation of prayers does not result in the behaviors that the teachings try to engender and support. At a public talk in India from May 23-June 2, 2014, the Dalai Lama opened the 4-day teachings on “Living, Loving, Laughing and Dying: The Buddhist Way” by reminding the audience that despite the Buddha’s teachings being in existence for the past 2,600 years, many people who consider themselves Buddhist practitioners, “don’t know the real meaning of what is Buddhism.” He often challenges Tibetans and non-Tibetan Buddhist alike to strive toward becoming “21st Century Buddhists”, which he explains as having “Buddhist faith with fuller knowledge about the whole system of Buddha Dharma.” He reminds us that, “many Tibetans consider themselves as Buddhists simply like the tradition as a way of life without knowing the real Buddhist teaching. We should have fuller knowledge [of Buddha Dharma].” He reminds us that Buddha was a spiritually “very very ordinary being” who practiced for six years to better understand the root of human suffering, until he finally became the enlightened Buddha, and even after becoming the Buddha, he kept striving toward deeper understanding of his own discoveries. Essentially, what I take away from these reminders is that as ordinary Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, we should continuously strive to hone our ability to attain deeper understanding of Buddha’s teachings rather than letting our imperfections limit our full potential, an attitude I often hear from lay Tibetans. I am also reminded that the true value of Buddha’s teachings is in the practical implementation of the principles of altruism and compassion. The Dalai Lama often reminds us that the Buddha himself had instructed us to develop belief in the Buddha’s teachings based on having incorporated and examined the Buddha’s explanations in our own lives rather than on “blind faith” simply because “the Buddha said so”. I believe that any society that accepts violence against women and girls as a way of life undermines the full capacity of its people, something we Tibetans certainly cannot afford to do.

While some efforts have been made by the Tibet exile government and policy makers to address the issue of violence against women, much remains to be done. To its credit, in September 2011, the Tibetan Parliament-In-Exile (TPIE) passed a historic resolution condemning “Violence against Women”. After renewed social media campaign and pressure from Tibetan women activists and politicians, the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) issued its first public condemnation on August 24, 2013 following the Mundgod incident.[2] Finally, on June 25, 2014, following the CanadaNepal.net news of alleged sexual exploitation by the Nepali principal of a Tibetan student in a boarding school in Nepal, the Voice of Tibet radio news announced a statement from the Tibetan Prime Minister (Sikyong), Dr. Lobsang Sangay, on behalf of his Cabinet declaring “zero tolerance towards sexual assault on women in the Tibetan society.” These are clearly steps in the right direction. However, there is more work ahead and fortunately, many models to learn from. We need prevention programs in our schools, settlements, and communities across the diaspora to secure the safety of girls and women in our homes, schools, and communities. I believe that this responsibility lies in each of us because every Tibetan individual can contribute toward the solutions rather than relying solely on government and women in the community. Tibetan non-governmental organizations play a pivotal role in leading these efforts on the grassroots level. I applaud the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA) for prioritizing prevention of gender-based violence in our community through initiatives such as its Empowerment Through Action and the new resolution. This responsibility of creating a safe non-violent society, however, does not fall solely on the TWA, but needs to be shared by other organizations. Nor is this an issue, which should solely rest on the shoulders of women. We can start by recognizing and reporting gender-based violence, supporting and protecting the survivors, holding perpetrators accountable and offering rehabilitation programs for perpetrators. NGOs can also play a critical role in lobbying governments for appropriate policies, programs and resources to fund these initiatives. In many countries, gender-based violence is increasingly being understood as a public health issue rather than a private matter requiring strong action from government authorities to set appropriate legal standards and to enforce them. I hope that our government will follow this trend.

Our Buddhist principles of interconnectedness and equanimity show us that all sentient beings strive toward and deserve happiness. I believe that genuine equality will be possible when we do not simply accept the world the way it is at present but strive to build a world the way it ought to be – free of violence and filled with loving-kindness. Given that the Tibetan culture is deeply rooted in Buddhism, this vision of a genuinely equal and compassionate society should be especially evident to us. If Tibetan society doesn’t strive to incorporate its Buddhist principles into our social, economic, political and religious way of living, then what is the unique Tibetan culture we are trying to preserve?


Dechen Tsering is a human rights activist with a background in international development and philanthropy. She is the former president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California and the co-founder of ACHA Himalayan Sisterhood. She lives in Berkeley, CA with her unconventional family.

References

[1] Heise, L., M. Ellsberg, and M. Gottemoeller. 1999. “Ending Violence against Women.” Population Reports. Series L. No. 11. Baltimore, Maryland: Population Information Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.

[2] No public condemnation of the most recent incident was found on the CTA website at the time of writing this article.

Leave a Reply