The Buddha Finds Himself a Nationality

Nepali social media and news outlets lit up recently criticizing the Dalai Lama for his remark that the Buddha was not born in Nepal but in ‘big Bharat’ (an India beyond it’s current borders) instead. This reaction comes to no surprise if you’ve sat in a taxi in Kathmandu with a blaring “Buddha was Born in Nepal” sign on its windows. Nepalis places a lot of pride on the Buddha being born in Lumbini, Nepal.  Never mind that modern day nation-states and their borders did not exist during Buddha’s time period. Neither Nepal nor India existed then, so why are we stuck on this back and forth claim to Buddha’s birthplace? Nationalism does indeed make the largest outcry for matters that should take far less importance than they do.

In this instance, there were conversations that rose up about the Dalai Lama infringing on the sovereignty of Nepal, and the irony of his championing for Tibetan sovereignty but neglecting another nation-state’s assertion of sovereignty. Hardly has there been more talk on Tibet and Tibetans in Nepal than right now. There isn’t talk when movement of Tibetans in Nepal is being curtailed, there isn’t talk when Tibetan activities are being surveilled and their right to demonstrate being taken away. And there is hardly any talk on where Tibetans stand as a people, as communities, as migrants, as refugees, as descendants, in Nepal.

Nepal’s ongoing policy and attitude towards Tibetans living and crossing into Nepal has been largely influenced by Chinese investment flowing into the country. Chinese aid has paid for the development of roads and hydropower projects, and growing numbers of Chinese tourists have given a boost to the tourist economy.

Kodari is a border town in Nepal where the effects of growing Chinese influence and control in Nepal can be seen (LA Times). Chinese construction crews work on road projects in this area while Chinese police patrol the streets. Liping monastery which sits close by the border has enforced rules that dictate: “the monks may not publicly criticize China. They may not participate in Tibetan independence activities. They also are forbidden to display large portraits of the Dalai Lama or celebrate his birthday in public.”

It just so happened that I was back home in Nepal this summer. I went to Boudha in Kathmandu only to be greeted by blue army uniforms carrying their rifles and milling around the stupa. I completed my koras (rounds) and left Boudha wondering about the heavy policing only to return home and find out that it was July 6th, the Dalai Lama’s birthday. There was not a celebration in sight that day but on other days during non-Tibetan festivals, Boudha was packed with hollering and dances and no army police in sight.

Such discriminatory policing and crackdowns are the result of recently placed restrictions on Tibetan religious and cultural activities. On March 8, 2011, a group of thirty elderly Tibetan women and children were barred from boarding their bus bound for Namo Buddha, a Buddhist pilgrimage site (Human Rights Watch). They were due to travel from their refugee settlement in Ekantakuna, Lalitpur for Losar celebrations. The police gave no legal justification for this action which was illegal under both domestic Nepali law and international law. Along with constraints on movement, living conditions have also worsened where “Tibetans already in Nepal — many of them born here — are facing new restrictions on getting refugee certificates, jobs, drivers licenses and even exit visas to leave the country.” (LA Times).

In the decades prior to 2008, more than 2000 Tibetans entered Nepal yearly. Less than 171 Tibetans entered Nepal in 2014 (LA Times). The drastically low numbers are in part due to increased cooperation between Nepali and Chinese border security. Security is not the right word when both parties are agreeing to maintain a threat on Tibetans who seek safety and a place to exercise their freedoms. A Tibetan blogger was quoted on the Human Rights Watch saying that gaining travel documents such as passports is extremely difficult for minorities. For some, crossing the border into Nepal is their only option (LA Times).

Herein lies the question, where is the sovereignty that Nepalis seem to be defending? To assert that Buddha was born in Nepal or India is a matter of assigning a nationality to a figure who could care less about where he is boxed into. On the other hand, to ignore China’s growing hand in influencing Nepal’s policies that restrain the rights of Tibetans is to give up sovereignty. Not only in regard to Tibet and Tibetans but in general, there is much to be concerned about with China gaining more and more leverage in decision-making in Nepal. Will the people of Nepal voting in their recent historic federal elections hold their government accountable or will their votes be a show of democracy and the money flowing in from China hold the real power to keep the Nepali government in check?

Across the world, border policing and restriction of movement are taken up as symbols of nationalist pride because they outline a state and its people neatly (Trump and his wall). But the reality is that our lands and our peoples do not exist as distinct entities and they are in fact very messy. The movement of people in the past have created the regions and the cultures that we are familiar with. Across what is now Nepal, there are ethnic groups who trace their roots back to Tibet, who speak Tibetan, who still wear traditional dresses and play instruments that are similar if not the same as the ones used by Tibetans. And it is the movement of the people in the future that will create the lands that we know of tomorrow, although, always being wary of the forces of displacement, gentrification and the like.

On a last note, instead of prying at Buddha’s non-existent nationality, Nepali author Subodh Kumar Singh takes on a much more insightful look at who the Buddha is in his book, The Great Sons of the Tharus: Sakyamuni Buddha and Emperor Asoka. Singh argues that the Buddha was from the Tharu community, a people who have lived on the margins as bonded laborers in the lowest rungs of the caste system. “The word Tharu comes from Sthabir in Sanskrit, meaning monk or the Buddha,” Singh says. “The Tharus are therefore the Buddha’s people.” (DNAIndia). Our conversations should do more than play into simplified understandings of who we are. They should question, as Singh does, how certain narratives come into dominance and why others are suppressed. Nationalistic fervor simplifies how we see ourselves and our history when our identities, our lands and our current situations are laden in complexities and all too messy to be contained inside a banner. 



  1. Demick, Barbara, “Tibetans lose a haven in Nepal under Chinese pressure.” Los Angeles Times. (
  2. Human Rights Watch, “Nepal: Respect Basic Freedoms during Tibetan Holiday Season.” (
  3. DNAIndia, “Buddha’s sons reduced to outcasts in Nepal” (
  4. Image on header (


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