Westerners have long been fascinated with Tibet, nestled between China, Nepal and India and located on a plateau high in the Himalayas. The interest stems partly from the country's remoteness and partly from its particular strand of Buddhism, which focuses on curing the suffering of others rather than one's own.
Since the 14th century, the Dalai Lama, which means "Ocean of Wisdom," has continued as the ever-reincarnated spiritual leader of Tibet. The most recent incarnation of the Dalai Lama, born Lhamo Thondup, has lived in exile in Dharamsala, India, for almost 50 years. Believed to be the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, he took over running the Tibetan government in 1949, when he was just 15 years old. This was also around the time that the Chinese, under Mao Zedong, declared Tibet to be a territory of China. Tibet originally agreed to relinquish independence while retaining cultural and political autonomy, but resentment and resistance against Chinese rule started to build in the mid-1950s, particularly when the Chinese began destroying monasteries. The Dalai Lama finally fled to India in 1959, along with 80,000 other Tibetans, after the Chinese violently suppressed a massive uprising in Lhasa, the capital.
Today, although the Chinese government maintains that it is protecting religious freedom in what is officially called the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), worship of the Dalai Lama remains risky. Last year, the blog of a well-known Tibetan writer was shut down after he posted a photograph of the Dalai Lama and wished him a happy birthday. As one Tibetan told the BBC earlier this year, "The Dalai Lama is in here," he said, pointing to his heart. "But we cannot speak about him."
In addition, China's State Administration for Religious Affairs recently announced that all reincarnated living Buddhas would first have to be approved by the government -- guidelines that appear directed at the selection of the next Dalai Lama.
In recent years, the region has also experienced a cultural shift as increasing numbers of Han Chinese migrate there. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of Han Chinese in the TAR has almost doubled, from 3.7 percent to 6.1 percent. The recent opening of the Golmud-Lhasa railway, the first train line to connect mainland China to the TAR, is expected to further speed up the shift.
Close to the Sun
The train line is also likely to open up remote Tibet to more modernizations. With an average elevation of 15,000 feet, Tibet is the highest region in the world and has historically been shut off from the outside. The elevation and remoteness have combined to make the incidence of blindness in Tibet among the highest in the world. According to a survey from Tibet's health bureau and the Seva Foundation, a nonprofit that works to prevent loss of vision, almost 15 percent of the Tibetan population suffers from cataracts, which are the leading cause of preventable blindness among Tibetans. The People's Hospital of Northwest China's Qinghai Province also found that 40 percent of people above age 50 had cataracts, as extended exposure to sunlight at high altitudes is believed to be a primary cause. And while cataract surgery is a relatively simple procedure, the lack of facilities and trained surgeons has prevented many people from receiving care.
That is where Dr. Marc Lieberman and the Tibet Vision Project come in. Established in 1995 as an educational program to train Tibetan doctors from the First People's Hospital in Lhasa to perform cataract surgeries, the organization has grown to the point that some of the trained Tibetan doctors are now leading their own camps to train more doctors. In addition, doctors from First People's Hospital are now receiving specialty training focused on glaucoma and retinal care.
Sources: BBC, The Washington Post, The China Daily, FRONTLINE, Tibet Vision Project, and Braille Without Borders.
From Our Files
FRONTLINE: Dreams of Tibet
This site, which accompanied a FRONTLINE special from 1997, explores the enduring fascination the West has with Tibet, including interviews with Martin Scorsese, Richard Gere and China expert Orville Schell. The site also features examinations of China in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.
FRONTLINE/World: China Diaries
Filmmaker Brent E. Huffman reports from the road during a six-month assignment in western China and parts of Tibet. There -- with his Chinese-born producer wife, Xiaoli -- he filmed endangered wildlife and minority cultures. Huffman kept a diary and captured images of the beauty of China's last untouched wilderness, as well as some of the most polluted, decimated landscapes on the planet.
Tibet Vision Project
The project homepage provides an overview of its goals and methods and offers biographies of its leaders, including Dr. Marc Lieberman. There's also a history of the nonprofit's activities and an area to learn how to help.
BBC News: Inside Tibet
The BBC background site offers brief takes on the history, geography, religion and border issues in Tibet.
Washington Post: China Tightening Control Over Tibet
Maureen Fan reports on Chinese efforts to curb the influence of the Dalai Lama among Tibetans.
NPR: Climbing Blind in the Himalayas
Six Tibetan teenagers attempt to reach the summit of one of the world's highest peaks, Lapka Rhi, a feat made more challenging because they are blind.
The New Yorker: The Train to Tibet
Reporter Pankaj Mishra describes her two-day journey aboard the new train connecting Beijing to Lhasa, a $3.2 billion project that many have denounced as a means for Chinese officials to strengthen their hold on Tibet and to tap into the area's vast mineral resources.
Link TV: Tibet -- China's Treasure Basket
Link TV's Internet series Global Pulse examines international coverage of the new train line to Tibet, particularly its ability to support mineral extraction from the Tibetan wilderness.
International Campaign for Tibet (ICT)
ICT is a leading organization working to promote human rights and freedoms in Tibet, and its site offers a variety of Tibet-related material, including a guide to being a conscientious and informed tourist in the country.
For the view from Beijing, visit China's Official Gateway to News and Information, which includes the articles "Dalai Lama Unworthy of Religious Leader" and "Dalai Lama Accused of Provoking Religious Conflict."
-- Matthew Vree