New Technology in relation to Tibetan Language
Tibetan is a unique and rich language which has its own long historical background. It is completely different from Chinese language and other languages. According to researchers, it is the mother tongue of 14 million people, mostly from the Himalayan regions, including Tibetans.
The Importance of Tibetan language
It is the basis of a very rich Tibetan literature which includes more than 300 Tibetan Buddhist canons translated from Pali and Sanskrit languages, and the religious scriptures by Tibetan scholars. For instance, Lama Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Geluk order of Tibetan Buddhism, has eighteen volumes in Tibetan on various topics ranging from religion, philosophy, logic, literature and many others. Concerning the time span and the scale of population, researchers claim Tibet has the largest number of pieces of historical literature in the world.
It is not only the identity of 14 million people living in Tibet and other Himalayan regions, even more importantly, it provides the basis for a variety of literature, including texts, treatises and commentaries on Buddhism.
Buddhism is not just a religion, and according to His Holiness the Dalai Lama it can be divided into three categories: Buddhist religion, Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist science. And these days, it has also become clear that it is now ONLY the Tibetan language which maintains and has preserved ALL the teachings of Buddha and the Indian Buddhist masters.
Today, the numbers of people taking an interest in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, is huge and growing, everywhere in the world. So far, there are more than 1700 Tibetan Buddhist Centers established across the world for people to study and practice Buddha Dharma.
For instance, in Dharamsala, the place where I live, regardless of the poor conditions and hardship, thousands of people come from different parts of the world to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to listen to his teachings and to learn Buddhist philosophy from many different teachers, lamas and Geshes .
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is of course a well-known world icon of peace and someone who can bring peace and happiness easily into the minds of people everywhere. He could do this with his extensive knowledge and practice of Buddha Dharma that he learned through the Tibetan language.
His Holiness for some years now has been holding Mind and Life dialogues with scientists and neuroscientists about the ways and means to serve the world, by exchanging knowledge and ideas between the worlds of science and spirituality.
It is well known that he has had a passion for science from an early age, and he is well known for his views on secular ethics.
Other than Buddhism, Tibetan language also preserves our ancient traditions of medicine, the long history of Tibet, Mongolia, China and India, and thousands of oral and written literatures. ONE example of this is the story of King Ling Gesar, which is the longest classical epic in the world and has hundreds of published volumes.
Therefore, Tibetan language has been very important, and the ATTEMPTED DESTRUCTION of Tibetan language means loss of identity for millions of people, as well as loss of the richness of all the subtleties of centuries of precious literature.
Status of Tibetan Language
Currently, due to political restrictions and the transfer of millions of Han Chinese people into Tibetan regions by Chinese government, there is a very real and great threat to the Tibetan language and its survival in Tibet.
For this reason, teachers and students in Tibet these days are often rising up and protesting against the linguistic rights which are being denied and restricted by the Chinese government.
More than 130 Tibetans have so far self-immolated in protest against the Chinese government for the return of Dalai Lama to Tibet and freedom in Tibet, AND the linguistic rights in Tibet. It is very clearly mentioned in the final testimonies of two Tibetan self-immolators that they were sacrificing their lives for the freedom of speech and linguistic rights for Tibetans in Tibet, and I would like to read them to you.
Jamphel Yeshi, who self-immolated in India on the 26th of March 2012, left a letter of testimony.
In that letter, he wrote: “We need freedom to practice and preserve our religion, culture and language descended [inherited] from our ancestors. People of the world should be given equal rights. People of the world, please support us. Tibet belongs to the Tibetans”.
Nyingkar Tashi, who self-immolated on the 12th of November 2012, wrote:
“Tibet and 6 million Tibetans including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama need freedom: The freedom of studying Tibetan language in Tibet, the freedom to practice Tibetan spoken language in Tibet. Release Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama should be allowed to return to Tibet. I am self-immolating to protest against the Chinese government.”
Tibetan language has currently not become completely useless but is in urgent need of protection.
I feel that in order to protect it, the Chinese government must lift the political restrictions imposed on the use of Tibetan language, and Tibetans in Tibet should be given every freedom to use and preserve their own language. Tibetan language should also be made accessible to all, in all forms of new technologies.
In Tibet, people’s knowledge and expertise in technologies and information technologies is very poor.
It is now more than 50 years since China invaded Tibet, but the number of Tibetans knowing about technologies is almost zero and expertise in information technology is also very weak.
Under the leadership of the Chinese government, few Tibetan fonts in computer were invented and few Tibetans emerged who can create websites, but I don’t think there are more than 10 Tibetans who are experts in information technology.
Tibetan writers in Tibet write articles in blogs and on other websites. However, the entire internet is under CCP government’s supervision and people are restricted from writing articles via internet freely.
For instance, an imprisoned Tibetan writer Konchok Tsephel, has made a website called “Lamp” and on it Tibetan writers have written articles related with the issues of Tibet. This became one of the causes of his 15 year imprisonment.
Compared to inside Tibet, the knowledge and the expertise in information technology are much better in the exile Tibetan community.
For instance, the renowned Monlam Tibetan Font (a unicode standard font) which is being widely used both inside and outside of Tibet in computers and smartphones, is made by an ordinary Tibetan monk from a monastery in exile. He has created Digital Tibetan dictionaries, universal Tibetan pronunciation software and different Tibetan fonts. They can easily work in computer and mobile software like Windows, Macs and Androids.
With the help of this Unicode Tibetan Font, Tibetan writers across the world, especially in Tibet, can write articles in Tibetan on new technologies.
So it is very obvious that, new technologies assist the writers to write their articles more easily and more quickly and make their articles known or available to a larger number of readers in the world. It also made it easier for the writers to get readers’ opinions, feedback and suggestions.
The number of articles and people writing articles is increasingly growing with the emergence of new technologies.
Moreover, the monk has established a research centre to explore avenues for expanding the scope and use of Tibetan language in high-end software like Google search engine. No effort is being spared to use modern technologies for restoration of Tibetan language to its rightful place. This research centre is undertaking some projects revolutionary in the Tibetan world. For example, some of its major projects are software for Grammar Check software, spelling check software, Animation with Tibetan characteristics and a digital dictionary covering all academic traditions of Tibet.
My hometown, Ngaba is not a part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR, but part of Sichuan province. The Chinese government has divided Tibet into five major provinces.
I was born in 1981 after the Cultural Revolution in China. During the cultural revolution in Tibet, the Chinese government destroyed around 6000 monasteries and nunneries, which were the highest centers of Tibetan Buddhism, culture and language.
In 1998, I escaped into exile in India along with 56 other Tibetans by walking across the snow in the Himalayas. I was 17. I came to exile mainly to receive an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and to avail myself to better study opportunities.
In Tibet I was a teacher for small monks in Kirti Monastic School, Ngaba. I had to escape Tibet and come to India because of the Chinese government’s repeated pressure in trying to shut down our school. In 2001, the central Chinese government was finally able to shut down the school forcibly because it was the heart of Tibetan studies in the district. At that time, there were around 700 Tibetan children studying in the school.
It has now been 16 years since I came to India. My beloved mother and all my other family members and relatives are still in Tibet. At the beginning of my exile life, I couldn’t communicate with them at all, and we were totally cut off from each other for years. In the meantime, my grandmother, my spiritual teacher and many other relatives died without ever seeing me again. I was very close to my grandmother and love my family.
In 2008, Tibetans all over Tibet rose up and protested against the Chinese government’s relentless brutal policies in Tibet. During that peaceful uprising, on the 14th of March, more than 10 Tibetan protesters were shot to death by Chinese armed forces in my home, Amdo Ngaba. Among them was my cousin Lhundup Tso, a 16 year old middle school student. She was shot in the forehead and died instantly. At the time of her death, she was carrying a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in her hand.
Until now I haven’t returned to Tibet and I will probably not be able to do so until Tibet is free. This is because I have written and published articles and a book on Tibet’s political and human rights issues. Moreover, I am the vice president of Tibetan PEN, and I report about the stories of imprisoned Tibetan writers and other artists to PEN International from time to time, and take part and speak about issues of Tibet in PEN International conferences. The Chinese government keeps records of these; therefore it would be dangerous for me to return back to Tibet. Even my phone calls are tapped and recorded by the Chinese government, because all the telecommunications in Tibetan areas in Tibet are censored. In my homeland Ngaba, except for local authorities, the internet is banned for ordinary people. For these reasons, when I can call my mother in Tibet, we can only speak about general things.
What I have just shared with you here is just one story of a single Tibetan. There are more than one hundred and twenty thousand Tibetan refugees in exile; some have similar stories and some have much worse stories to tell than mine. My country is in an unusual position, and we have no choice but to deal with it as best we can.
Thank you for listening.
Lobsang Chokta speaking at the meeting of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Commitee, Girona, June 25th to 27th, 2014