Tibetan community center in Richmond prepares to receive His Holiness the Dalai Lama
on February 20, 2014
Richmond’s Tibetan community center on Huntington Avenue was abuzz on Saturday with chainsaws, children’s voices and chanting. Men and women dug asphalt out of an empty lot next to the center in preparation for a garden. Inside, monks assembled statues and holy texts in an upstairs room of the three-story building. The center serves the largest Tibetan population in California, according to the Tibetan Association of Northern California, with members from Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito and Richmond.
The excitement in the air was palpable and contagious. Smiles passed from face to face among the crowd of Tibetans. Though the entire building seemed in disarray, their anticipation wasn’t dampened by the scope of the task ahead: preparing for His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who will be coming to the center on February 23, to formally sanctify the grounds and empower the statues and texts.
“To us, he is everything,” said Kunjo Tashi, president of the Tibetan Association of Northern California. “We are here because of him. For us, he’s been a guiding force, a beacon of hope. It is such a big blessing.”
Though everything was light and happiness on this day, Tashi said the sober reality of his occupied homeland is never far from his mind. “Since 2009, over 125 people have burned themselves demanding freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama.” Six million Tibetans are currently living under Chinese rule, Tashi said. “I am appealing to all non-Tibetans to support us in our struggle for our homeland.”
The relationship between China and Tibet is a long and contentious one, said Jann Ronis, Tibetan language lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. As neighbors with complicated economic and cultural ties, Ronis said that they have had “political entanglements” for centuries.
When dynastic rule in China collapsed in 1911, Tibet saw an opportunity for recognized independence, Ronis said. But offered support from the United States and Britain failed to come through. Without their backing, Ronis said, Tibet never received recognition by the international community.
China asserted authority in the region, starting with “minor communist reforms,” according to Ronis. However, it quickly became clear to China that this would not work in an entrenched thousand-year-old theocratic society.
In the 1950s, the Chinese rolled into Lhasa and started intensifying its control. In 1959, simultaneous Tibetan and Chinese New Year celebrations and a suspected plot to assassinate the Dalai Lama ignited tensions, Ronis said. The Dalai Lama fled in disguise. When the Chinese discovered that he was gone, the military opened fire on largely unarmed Tibetans and shelled Lhasa, according to Ronis.
Many Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas and into India. Since then, Ronis said thousands of Tibetan refugees have established communities around the world, including the one located in Richmond.
Back at the center, the basement and carport area of the building was thronged with about 30 kids ranging from five to fifteen years old, all practicing traditional songs and dances, which they will perform for the Dalai Lama this weekend.
Occasionally, the children were interrupted by a sharp corrective bark from Tashi Tsering, the man who has undertaken the task of training these young performers. The younger ones wandered off for a surreptitious game of hide-and-seek before being corralled back to rehearsal by their mothers.
A dulcimer and a Tibetan lute accompanied the children’s voices and carried through the air and into the street. Richmond neighbors have welcomed the Tibetan center, according to Kunjo. He said the center brings a positive atmosphere to an area once troubled by junkies and crime.
“All the neighborhood people are really happy we moved in here,” Kunjo said.
On Sunday, local residents may get a glimpse of the Dalai Lama himself.
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