When Everett Gendler, an 80-year-old rabbi from New England, asks the class of Tibetans to describe what the word “power” means to them, the students hesitate at first. But as they go around the circle, they warm to the task and come up with some telling responses. Power means “something frightening,” says one young woman in soft English. Power means “bad or evil”; it means “violence” and “someone who monitors things,” some other students offer.
These Tibetans, in their late teens and 20s, are recent refugees who fled their homeland to this city in neighboring India, home to some 140,000 Tibetan exiles. Some of the young men sport trendy haircuts–spiky, tinted red or slacker shaggy–that must be fashionable back home. They hail from Tibet’s cities as well as from farming and nomad families.
Although it is their winter holiday, about sixty Tibetan students are attending this two-week workshop on “active nonviolence,” led by Rabbi Gendler, his wife, Mary (a psychologist), and staff from the Active Non-Violence Education Center (ANEC) in Dharamsala, the northern Indian hill town that has been home to the Dalai Lama for nearly fifty years.
Over the next few days ANEC will lead a workshop based on the teachings of Gene Sharp, who outlined 198 methods of nonviolent action in his 1973 book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. What are two Americans doing teaching peaceful resistance to Tibetan Buddhists, of all people? Rabbi Gendler, who has long white hair and a resonant voice, admits Tibetans already know about nonviolence. But ANEC provides something more. “We’re teaching them how to do it,” says Gendler, who founded ANEC with his wife in 2007 after retiring as Jewish chaplain at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile in March, freedom for Tibet remains elusive. The Chinese government has tightened a clampdown in Tibet that began last March after pro-Tibet demonstrations erupted across the country. About 120 Tibetans and several Chinese were killed last year in the worst violence in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989. The most dramatic headlines have subsided, but arrest and sentencing of Tibetans quietly picked up after the Olympics, says the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala. In anticipation of this year’s fiftieth-anniversary milestone, China launched a “Strike Hard” campaign in January; it has led to a sharp rise in arrests, raids and interrogations as authorities tighten control in Tibet.
Despite the deadlock in talks between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and their Chinese counterparts, pro-Tibet momentum outside China has increased. In recent years, activist groups have become more organized, media savvy and technologically sophisticated, allowing them to harness broader support among Tibetan exiles as well as international sympathizers. Mohandas Gandhi famously said, “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” But for the pro-Tibet movement, better nonviolence training and education have been critical to stepping up the campaign in the hills of Dharamsala and far beyond.