For Lords and Lamas
with the blood drenched landscape of religious conflict there
is the experience of inner peace and solace that every religion
promises, none more so than Buddhism. Standing in marked contrast
to the intolerant savagery of other religions, Buddhism is
neither fanatical nor dogmatic - so say its adherents. For
many of them Buddhism is less a theology and more a meditative
and investigative discipline intended to promote an inner
harmony and enlightenment while directing us to a path of
Generally, the spiritual focus is not only on oneself but
on the welfare of others. One tries to put aside egoistic
pursuits and gain a deeper understanding of one's connection
to all people and things. "Socially engaged Buddhism" tries
to blend individual liberation with responsible social action
in order to build an enlightened society.
at history, however, reveals that not all the many and widely
varying forms of Buddhism have been free of doctrinal fanaticism,
nor free of the violent and exploitative pursuits so characteristic
of other religions.
In Sri Lanka there is a legendary and almost sacred recorded
history about the triumphant battles waged by Buddhist kings
of yore. During the 20th century, Buddhists clashed violently
with each other and with non-Buddhists in Thailand, Burma,
Korea, Japan, India, and elsewhere. In Sri Lanka, armed battles
between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have taken many
lives on both sides. In 1998 the U.S. State Department listed
30 of the world's most violent and dangerous extremist groups.
Over half of them were religious, specifically Muslim, Jewish,
and Buddhist. 1
Korea, in 1998, thousands of monks of the Chogye Buddhist
order fought each other with fists, rocks, fire-bombs, and
clubs, in pitched battles that went on for weeks. They were
vying for control of the order, the largest in South Korea,
with its annual budget of US$9.2 million, its millions of
dollars' worth of property, and the privilege of appointing
1,700 monks to various offices.
The brawls damaged the main Buddhist sanctuaries and left
dozens of monks injured, some seriously. The Korean public
appeared to disdain both factions, feeling that no matter
what side took control, "it would use worshippers' donations
for luxurious houses and expensive cars." 2
any religion, squabbles between or within Buddhist sects are
often fueled by the material corruption and personal deficiencies
of the leadership. For example, in Nagano, Japan, at Zenkoji,
the prestigious complex of temples that has hosted Buddhist
sects for more than 1,400 years, "a nasty battle" arose between
Komatsu the chief priest and the Tacchu, a group of temples
nominally under the chief priest's sway.
The Tacchu monks accused Komatsu of selling writings and drawings
under the temple's name for his own gain. They also were appalled
by the frequency with which he was seen in the company of
women. Komatsu in turn sought to isolate and punish monks
who were critical of his leadership. The conflict lasted some
five years and made it into the courts. 3
of Tibetan Buddhism? Is it not an exception to this
sort of strife? And what of the society it helped to create?
Many Buddhists maintain that, before the Chinese crackdown
in 1959, old Tibet was a spiritually oriented kingdom free
from the egotistical lifestyles, empty materialism, and corrupting
vices that beset modern industrialized society.
Western news media, travel books, novels, and Hollywood films
have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-La.
The Dalai Lama himself stated that "the pervasive influence
of Buddhism" in Tibet, "amid the wide open spaces of an unspoiled
environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace and harmony.
We enjoyed freedom and contentment." 4
of Tibet's history suggests a somewhat different picture.
"Religious conflict was commonplace in old Tibet," writes
one western Buddhist practitioner. "History belies the Shangri-La
image of Tibetan lamas and their followers living together
in mutual tolerance and nonviolent goodwill. Indeed, the situation
was quite different. Old Tibet was much more like Europe during
the religious wars of the Counterreformation." 5
the 1990s, the Han, the ethnic group comprising over
95 per cent of China's immense population, began moving
in substantial numbers into Tibet.
13th century, Emperor Kublai Khan created the first Grand
Lama, who was to preside over all the other lamas as might
a pope over his bishops. Several centuries later, the Emperor
of China sent an army into Tibet to support the Grand Lama,
an ambitious 25-year-old man, who then gave himself the title
of Dalai (Ocean) Lama, ruler of all Tibet. Here is a historical
irony: the first Dalai Lama was installed by a Chinese army.
previous lama "incarnations" were then retroactively recognized
as his predecessors, thereby transforming the 1st Dalai Lama
into the 3rd Dalai Lama. This 1st (or 3rd) Dalai Lama seized
monasteries that did not belong to his sect, and is believed
to have destroyed Buddhist writings that conflicted with his
claim to divinity.
The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life,
enjoying many mistresses, partying with friends, and acting
in other ways deemed unfitting for an incarnate deity. For
these transgressions he was murdered by his priests. Within
170 years, despite their recognized divine status, five Dalai
Lamas were killed by their high priests or other courtiers.
of years competing Tibetan Buddhist sects engaged in bitterly
violent clashes and summary executions. In 1660, the 5th Dalai
Lama was faced with a rebellion in Tsang province, the stronghold
of the rival Kagyu sect with its high lama known as the Karmapa.
The 5th Dalai Lama called for harsh retribution against the
rebels, directing the Mongol army to obliterate the male and
female lines, and the offspring too "like eggs smashed against
rocks... In short, annihilate any traces of them, even their
many Kagyu monasteries were confiscated and their monks were
forcibly converted to the Gelug sect (the Dalai Lama's denomination).
The Gelug school, known also as the "Yellow Hats," showed
little tolerance or willingness to mix their teachings with
other Buddhist sects. In the words of one of their traditional
prayers: "Praise to you, violent god of the Yellow Hat teachings/who
reduces to particles of dust/ great beings, high officials
and ordinary people/ who pollute and corrupt the Gelug doctrine."
An 18th-century memoir of a Tibetan general depicts sectarian
strife among Buddhists that is as brutal and bloody as any
religious conflict might be. 9 This grim history remains largely
unvisited by present-day followers of Tibetan Buddhism in
have had a close relationship not only with violence but with
economic exploitation. Indeed, it is often the economic exploitation
that necessitates the violence. Such was the case with the
Tibetan theocracy. Until 1959, when the Dalai Lama last presided
over Tibet, most of the arable land was still organized into
manorial estates worked by serfs. These estates were owned
by two social groups: the rich secular landlords and the rich
theocratic lamas. Even a writer sympathetic to the old order
allows that "a great deal of real estate belonged to the monasteries,
and most of them amassed great riches." Much of the wealth
was accumulated "through active participation in trade, commerce,
and money lending." 10
monastery was one of the biggest landowners in the world,
with its 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 great pastures, and
16,000 herdsmen. The wealth of the monasteries rested in the
hands of small numbers of high-ranking lamas. Most ordinary
monks lived modestly and had no direct access to great wealth.
The Dalai Lama himself "lived richly in the 1000-room, 14-story
Potala Palace." 11
leaders also did well. A notable example was the commander-in-chief
of the Tibetan army, a member of the Dalai Lama's lay Cabinet,
who owned 4,000 square kilometers of land and 3,500 serfs.
Old Tibet has been misrepresented by some Western admirers
as "a nation that required no police force because its people
voluntarily observed the laws of karma." 13 In fact, it had
a professional army, albeit a small one, that served mainly
as a gendarmerie for the landlords to keep order, protect
their property, and hunt down runaway serfs.
Tibetan boys were regularly taken from their peasant families
and brought into the monasteries to be trained as monks. Once
there, they were bonded for life. Tashì-Tsering, a
monk, reports that it was common for peasant children to be
sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself was a victim
of repeated rape, beginning at age nine. 14 The monastic estates
also conscripted children for lifelong servitude as domestics,
dance performers, and soldiers.
Tibet there were small numbers of farmers who subsisted as
a kind of free peasantry, and perhaps an additional 10,000
people who composed the "middle-class" families of merchants,
shopkeepers, and small traders. Thousands of others were beggars.
There also were slaves, usually domestic servants, who owned
nothing. Their offspring were born into slavery. 15
The majority of the rural population were serfs. Treated little
better than slaves, the serfs went without schooling or medical
care, They were under a lifetime bond to work the lord's land
- or the monastery's land - without pay, to repair the lord's
houses, transport his crops, and collect his firewood. They
were also expected to provide carrying animals and transportation
on demand. 16 Their masters told them what crops to grow and
what animals to raise. They could not get married without
the consent of their lord or lama. And they might easily be
separated from their families should their owners lease them
out to work in a distant location. 17
a free labor system and unlike slavery, the overlords had
no responsibility for the serf's maintenance and no direct
interest in his or her survival as an expensive piece of property.
The serfs had to support themselves. Yet as in a slave system,
they were bound to their masters, guaranteeing a fixed and
permanent workforce that could neither organize nor strike
nor freely depart as might laborers in a market context. The
overlords had the best of both worlds.
history, culture, and certainly religion are slighted
in schools. Teaching materials, though translated into
Tibetan, focus mainly on Chinese history and culture.
22-year-old woman, herself a runaway serf, reports: "Pretty
serf girls were usually taken by the owner as house servants
and used as he wished"; they "were just slaves without rights."18
Serfs needed permission to go anywhere. Landowners had legal
authority to capture those who tried to flee. One 24-year-old
runaway welcomed the Chinese intervention as a "liberation."
He testified that under serfdom he was subjected to incessant
toil, hunger, and cold. After his third failed escape, he
was merciless beaten by the landlord's men until blood poured
from his nose and mouth. They then poured alcohol and caustic
soda on his wounds to increase the pain, he claimed. 19
were taxed upon getting married, taxed for the birth of each
child and for every death in the family. They were taxed for
planting a tree in their yard and for keeping animals. They
were taxed for religious festivals and for public dancing
and drumming, for being sent to prison and upon being released.
Those who could not find work were taxed for being unemployed,
and if they traveled to another village in search of work,
they paid a passage tax. When people could not pay, the monasteries
lent them money at 20 to 50 per cent interest. Some debts
were handed down from father to son to grandson. Debtors who
could not meet their obligations risked being cast into slavery.
religious teachings buttressed its class order. The poor and
afflicted were taught that they had brought their troubles
upon themselves because of their wicked ways in previous lives.
Hence they had to accept the misery of their present existence
as a karmic atonement and in anticipation that their lot would
improve in their next lifetime. The rich and powerful treated
their good fortune as a reward for, and tangible evidence
of, virtue in past and present lives.
serfs were something more than superstitious victims, blind
to their own oppression. As we have seen, some ran away; others
openly resisted, sometimes suffering dire consequences. In
feudal Tibet, torture and mutilation - including eye gouging,
the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation -
were favored punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway
or resistant serfs.
Journeying through Tibet in the 1960s, Stuart and Roma Gelder
interviewed a former serf, Tsereh Wang Tuei, who had stolen
two sheep belonging to a monastery. For this he had both his
eyes gouged out and his hand mutilated beyond use. He explains
that he no longer is a Buddhist: "When a holy lama told them
to blind me I thought there was no good in religion." 21 Since
it was against Buddhist teachings to take human life, some
offenders were severely lashed and then "left to God" in the
freezing night to die. "The parallels between Tibet and medieval
Europe are striking," concludes Tom Grunfeld in his book on
Anna Louise Strong visited an exhibition of torture equipment
that had been used by the Tibetan overlords. There were handcuffs
of all sizes, including small ones for children, and instruments
for cutting off noses and ears, gouging out eyes, breaking
off hands, and hamstringing legs. There were hot brands, whips,
and special implements for disemboweling. The exhibition presented
photographs and testimonies of victims who had been blinded
or crippled or suffered amputations for thievery.
There was the shepherd whose master owed him a reimbursement
in yuan and wheat but refused to pay. So he took one of the
master's cows; for this he had his hands severed. Another
herdsman, who opposed having his wife taken from him by his
lord, had his hands broken off. There were pictures of Communist
activists with noses and upper lips cut off, and a woman who
was raped and then had her nose sliced away. 23
visitors to Tibet commented on the theocratic despotism. In
1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace
was under the "intolerable tyranny of monks" and the devil
superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people.
In 1904 Perceval Landon described the Dalai Lama's rule as
"an engine of oppression." At about that time, another English
traveler, Captain W.F.T. O'Connor, observed that "the great
landowners and the priests... exercise each in their own dominion
a despotic power from which there is no appeal," while the
people are "oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism
Tibetan rulers "invented degrading legends and stimulated
a spirit of superstition" among the common people. In 1937,
another visitor, Spencer Chapman, wrote, "The Lamaist monk
does not spend his time in ministering to the people or educating
them... The beggar beside the road is nothing to the monk.
Knowledge is the jealously guarded prerogative of the monasteries
and is used to increase their influence and wealth."24 As
much as we might wish otherwise, feudal theocratic Tibet was
a far cry from the romanticized Shangri-La so enthusiastically
nurtured by Buddhism's western proselytes.
Secularization vs. Spirituality
happened to Tibet after the Chinese Communists moved into
the country in 1951? The treaty of that year provided for
ostensible self-governance under the Dalai Lama's rule but
gave China military control and exclusive right to conduct
foreign relations. The Chinese were also granted a direct
role in internal administration "to promote social reforms."
Among the earliest changes they wrought was to reduce usurious
interest rates, and build a few hospitals and roads. At first,
they moved slowly, relying mostly on persuasion in an attempt
to effect reconstruction. No aristocratic or monastic property
was confiscated, and feudal lords continued to reign over
their hereditarily bound peasants. "Contrary to popular belief
in the West," claims one observer, the Chinese "took care
to show respect for Tibetan culture and religion." 25
the centuries the Tibetan lords and lamas had seen Chinese
come and go, and had enjoyed good relations with Generalissimo
Chiang Kaishek and his reactionary Kuomintang rule in China.
26 The approval of the Kuomintang government was needed to
validate the choice of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. When
the current 14th Dalai Lama was first installed in Lhasa,
it was with an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending
Chinese minister, in accordance with centuries-old tradition.
What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas in the early 1950s
was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would
be only a matter of time, they feared, before the Communists
started imposing their collectivist egalitarian schemes upon
was joined in 1956-57, when armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys
of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army. The uprising received
extensive assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal,
and numerous airlifts. 27
Meanwhile in the United States, the American Society for a
Free Asia, a CIA-financed front, energetically publicized
the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the Dalai Lama's eldest
brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that organization.
The Dalai Lama's second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established
an intelligence operation with the CIA as early as 1951. He
later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose
recruits parachuted back into Tibet. 28
the rich lamas and secular lords, the Communist intervention
was an unmitigated calamity. Most of them fled abroad,
as did the Dalai Lama himself, who was assisted in his
flight by the CIA... The
Dalai Lama's annual payment from the CIA was US$186,000.
Indian intelligence also financed both him and other
Tibetan exiles. He has refused to say whether he or
his brothers worked for the CIA.
Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the
country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs.
Ninety per cent of them were never heard from again, according
to a report from the CIA itself, meaning they were most likely
captured and killed. 29 "Many lamas and lay members of the
elite and much of the Tibetan army joined the uprising, but
in the main the populace did not, assuring its failure," writes
Hugh Deane. 30 In their book on Tibet, Ginsburg and Mathos
reach a similar conclusion: "As far as can be ascertained,
the great bulk of the common people of Lhasa and of the adjoining
countryside failed to join in the fighting against the Chinese
both when it first began and as it progressed." 31 Eventually
the resistance crumbled.
wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese after
1959, they did abolish slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system
of unpaid labor. They eliminated the many crushing taxes,
started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and
beggary. They established secular schools, thereby breaking
the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed
running water and electrical systems in Lhasa. 32
Harrer (later revealed to have been a sergeant in Hitler's
SS) wrote a bestseller about his experiences in Tibet that
was made into a popular Hollywood movie. He reported that
the Tibetans who resisted the Chinese "were predominantly
nobles, semi-nobles and lamas; they were punished by being
made to perform the lowliest tasks, such as laboring on roads
and bridges. They were further humiliated by being made to
clean up the city before the tourists arrived." They also
had to live in a camp originally reserved for beggars and
vagrants - all of which Harrer treats as sure evidence of
the dreadful nature of the Chinese occupation. 33
Chinese occupation authorities expropriated the landed estates
owned by lords and lamas. They distributed many thousands
of acres to tenant farmers and landless peasants, reorganizing
them into hundreds of communes. Herds once owned by nobility
were turned over to collectives of poor shepherds. Improvements
were made in the breeding of livestock, and new varieties
of vegetables and new strains of wheat and barley were introduced,
along with irrigation improvements, all of which reportedly
led to an increase in agrarian production. 34
peasants remained as religious as ever, giving alms to the
clergy. But monks who had been conscripted as children into
the religious orders were now free to renounce the monastic
life, and thousands did, especially the younger ones. The
remaining clergy lived on modest government stipends and extra
income earned by officiating at prayer services, weddings,
and funerals. 35
the Dalai Lama and his advisor and youngest brother, Tendzin
Choegyal, claimed that "more than 1.2 million Tibetans are
dead as a result of the Chinese occupation." 36 The official
1953 census - six years before the Chinese crackdown - recorded
the entire population residing in Tibet at 1,274,000. 37 Other
census counts put the population within Tibet at about two
million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early 1960s
then almost all of Tibet, would have been depopulated, transformed
into a killing field dotted with death camps and mass graves
- of which we have no evidence. The thinly distributed Chinese
force in Tibet could not have rounded up, hunted down, and
exterminated that many people even if it had spent all its
time doing nothing else.
authorities claim to have put an end to floggings, mutilations,
and amputations as a form of criminal punishment. They themselves,
however, have been charged with acts of brutality by exile
Tibetans. The authorities do admit to "mistakes," particularly
during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when the persecution
of religious beliefs reached a high tide in both China and
Tibet. After the uprising in the late 1950s, thousands of
Tibetans were incarcerated. During the Great Leap Forward,
forced collectivization and grain farming were imposed on
the Tibetan peasantry, sometimes with disastrous effect on
production. In the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls
"and tried to undo some of the damage wrought during the previous
two decades." 38
the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed
to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration.
Tibetans would now be allowed to cultivate private plots,
sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops
to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. Communication with the outside
world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased
to permit some Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India
and Nepal. 39 By the 1980s many of the principal lamas had
begun to shuttle back and forth between China and the exile
communities abroad, "restoring their monasteries in Tibet
and helping to revitalize Buddhism there." 40
2007 Tibetan Buddhism was still practiced widely and tolerated
by officialdom. Religious pilgrimages and other standard forms
of worship were allowed but within limits. All monks and nuns
had to sign a loyalty pledge that they would not use their
religious position to foment secession or dissent. And displaying
photos of the Dalai Lama was declared illegal. 41
1990s, the Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 per cent
of China's immense population, began moving in substantial
numbers into Tibet. On the streets of Lhasa and Shigatse,
signs of Han colonization are readily visible.
Chinese run the factories and many of the shops and vending
stalls. Tall office buildings and large shopping centers have
been built with funds that might have been better spent on
water treatment plants and housing. Chinese cadres in Tibet
too often view their Tibetan neighbors as backward and lazy,
in need of economic development and "patriotic education."
During the 1990s Tibetan government employees suspected of
harboring nationalist sympathies were purged from office,
and campaigns were once again launched to discredit the Dalai
Lama. Individual Tibetans reportedly were subjected to arrest,
imprisonment, and forced labor for carrying out separatist
activities and engaging in "political subversion." Some were
held in administrative detention without adequate food, water,
and blankets, subjected to threats, beatings, and other mistreatment.
history, culture, and certainly religion are slighted in schools.
Teaching materials, though translated into Tibetan, focus
mainly on Chinese history and culture. Chinese family planning
regulations allow a three-child limit for Tibetan families.
(There is only a one-child limit for Han families throughout
China, and a two-child limit for rural Han families whose
first child is a girl.) If a Tibetan couple goes over the
three-child limit, the excess children can be denied subsidized
daycare, health care, housing, and education. These penalties
have been enforced irregularly and vary by district. 43 None
of these child services, it should be noted, were available
to Tibetans before the Chinese takeover.
rich lamas and secular lords, the Communist intervention was
an unmitigated calamity. Most of them fled abroad, as did
the Dalai Lama himself, who was assisted in his flight by
the CIA. Some discovered to their horror that they would have
to work for a living. Many, however, escaped that fate. Throughout
the 1960s, the Tibetan exile community was secretly pocketing
$1.7 million a year from the CIA, according to documents released
by the State Department in 1998.
Once this fact was publicized, the Dalai Lama's organization
itself issued a statement admitting that it had received millions
of dollars from the CIA during the 1960s to send armed squads
of exiles into Tibet to undermine the Maoist revolution. The
Dalai Lama's annual payment from the CIA was $186,000. Indian
intelligence also financed both him and other Tibetan exiles.
He has refused to say whether he or his brothers worked for
the CIA. The agency has also declined to comment. 44
a 67-year-old former slave, said he worshipped the Dalai
Lama, but added, "I may not be free under Chinese communism,
but I am better off than when I was a slave."
1995, the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina,
carried a frontpage color photograph of the Dalai Lama being
embraced by the reactionary Republican senator Jesse Helms,
under the headline "Buddhist Captivates Hero of Religious
Right." 45 In April 1999, along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope
John Paul II, and the first George Bush, the Dalai Lama called
upon the British government to release Augusto Pinochet, the
former fascist dictator of Chile and a longtime CIA client
who was visiting England. The Dalai Lama urged that Pinochet
not be forced to go to Spain where he was wanted to stand
trial for crimes against humanity.
the 21st century, via the National Endowment for Democracy
and other conduits that are more respectable sounding than
the CIA, the U.S. Congress continued to allocate an annual
$2 million to Tibetans in India, with additional millions
for "democracy activities" within the Tibetan exile community.
In addition to these funds, the Dalai Lama received money
from financier George Soros .46
the Dalai Lama's associations with the CIA and various reactionaries,
he did speak often of peace, love, and nonviolence. He himself
really cannot be blamed for the abuses of Tibet's ancient
régime, having been but 25 years old when he fled into
exile. In a 1994 interview, he went on record as favoring
the building of schools and roads in his country. He said
the corvée (forced unpaid serf labor) and certain taxes
imposed on the peasants were "extremely bad." And he disliked
the way people were saddled with old debts sometimes passed
down from generation to generation. 47
During the half century of living in the western world, he
had embraced concepts such as human rights and religious freedom,
ideas largely unknown in old Tibet. He even proposed democracy
for Tibet, featuring a written constitution and a representative
the Dalai Lama issued a statement that must have had an unsettling
effect on the exile community. It read in part: "Marxism is
founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned
only with gain and profitability." Marxism fosters "the equitable
utilization of the means of production" and cares about "the
fate of the working classes" and "the victims of... exploitation.
For those reasons the system appeals to me, and... I think
of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist. 49
also sent a reassuring message to "those who live in abundance":
"It is a good thing to be rich... Those are the fruits for
deserving actions, the proof that they have been generous
in the past." And to the poor he offers this admonition: "There
is no good reason to become bitter and rebel against those
who have property and fortune... It is better to develop a
positive attitude." 50
the Dalai Lama signed a widely advertised statement along
with 10 other Nobel Laureates supporting the "inalienable
and fundamental human right" of working people throughout
the world to form labor unions to protect their interests,
in accordance with the United Nations' Universal Declaration
of Human Rights. In many countries "this fundamental right
is poorly protected and in some it is explicitly banned or
brutally suppressed," the statement read. Burma, China, Colombia,
Bosnia, and a few other countries were singled out as among
the worst offenders. Even the United States "fails to adequately
protect workers' rights to form unions and bargain collectively.
Millions of U.S. workers lack any legal protection to form
Lama also gave full support to removing the ingrained traditional
obstacles that have kept Tibetan nuns from receiving an education.
Upon arriving in exile, few nuns could read or write. In Tibet
their activities had been devoted to daylong periods of prayer
and chants. But in northern India they now began reading Buddhist
philosophy and engaging in theological study and debate, activities
that in old Tibet had been open only to monks. 52
2005 the Dalai Lama spoke at Stanford University on "The Heart
of Nonviolence," but stopped short of a blanket condemnation
of all violence. Violent actions that are committed in order
to reduce future suffering are not to be condemned, he said,
citing World War II as an example of a worthy effort to protect
What of the four years of carnage and mass destruction in
Iraq, a war condemned by most of the world-even by a conservative
pope - as a blatant violation of international law and a crime
against humanity? The Dalai Lama was undecided: "The Iraq
war - it's too early to say, right or wrong." 53 Earlier he
had voiced support for the U.S. military intervention against
Yugoslavia and, later on, the U.S. military intervention into
Exit Feudal Theocracy
Shangri-La myth would have it, in old Tibet the people lived
in contented and tranquil symbiosis with their monastic and
secular lords. Rich lamas and poor monks, wealthy landlords
and impoverished serfs were all bonded together, mutually
sustained by the comforting balm of a deeply spiritual and
reminded of the idealized image of feudal Europe presented
by latter-day conservative Catholics such as G. K. Chesterton
and Hilaire Belloc. For them, medieval Christendom was a world
of contented peasants living in the secure embrace of their
Church, under the more or less benign protection of their
Again we are invited to accept a particular culture in its
idealized form divorced from its murky material history. This
means accepting it as presented by its favored class, by those
who profited most from it. The Shangri-La image of Tibet bears
no more resemblance to historic actuality than does the pastoral
image of medieval Europe.
in all its grim realities, old Tibet confirms the view I expressed
in an earlier book, namely that culture is anything but neutral.
Culture can operate as a legitimating cover for a host of
grave injustices, benefiting a privileged portion of society
at great cost to the rest. 56
Chinese live close to the poverty level or well under
it, while a small group of newly brooded capitalists
profit hugely in collusion with shady officials.
feudal Tibet, ruling interests manipulated the traditional
culture to fortify their own wealth and power. The theocracy
equated rebellious thought and action with satanic influence.
It propagated the general presumption of landlord superiority
and peasant unworthiness. The rich were represented as deserving
their good life, and the lowly poor as deserving their mean
existence, all codified in teachings about the karmic residue
of virtue and vice accumulated from past lives, presented
as part of God's will.
the more affluent lamas just hypocrites who preached one thing
and secretly believed another? More likely they were genuinely
attached to those beliefs that brought such good results for
them. That their theology so perfectly supported their material
privileges only strengthened the sincerity with which it was
be said that we denizens of the modern secular world cannot
grasp the equations of happiness and pain, contentment and
custom, that characterize more traditionally spiritual societies.
This is probably true, and it may explain why some of us idealize
such societies. But still, a gouged eye is a gouged eye; a
flogging is a flogging; and the grinding exploitation of serfs
and slaves is a brutal class injustice whatever its cultural
wrapping. There is a difference between a spiritual bond and
human bondage, even when both exist side by side
ordinary Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in their country,
but it appears that relatively few want a return to the social
order he represented. A 1999 story in the Washington Post
notes that the Dalai Lama continues to be revered in Tibet,
few Tibetans would welcome a return of the corrupt aristocratic
clans that fled with him in 1959 and that comprise the bulk
of his advisers.
Many Tibetan farmers, for example, have no interest in surrendering
the land they gained during China's land reform to the clans.
Tibet's former slaves say they, too, don't want their former
masters to return to power. "I've already lived that life
once before," said Wangchuk, a 67-year-old former slave who
was wearing his best clothes for his yearly pilgrimage to
Shigatse, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. He
said he worshipped the Dalai Lama, but added, "I may not be
free under Chinese communism, but I am better off than when
I was a slave." 57
be noted that the Dalai Lama is not the only highly placed
lama chosen in childhood as a reincarnation. One or another
reincarnate lama or tulku - a spiritual teacher of
special purity elected to be reborn again and again - can
be found presiding over most major monasteries. The tulku
system is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Scores of Tibetan lamas
claim to be reincarnate tulkus.
first tulku was a lama known as the Karmapa who appeared
nearly three centuries before the first Dalai Lama. The Karmapa
is leader of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as the Karma
Kagyu. The rise of the Gelugpa sect headed by the Dalai Lama
led to a politico-religious rivalry with the Kagyu that has
lasted five hundred years and continues to play itself out
within the Tibetan exile community today. That the Kagyu sect
has grown famously, opening some six hundred new centers around
the world in the last 35 years, has not helped the situation.
for a tulku, Erik Curren reminds us, has not always
been conducted in that purely spiritual mode portrayed in
certain Hollywood films. "Sometimes monastic officials wanted
a child from a powerful local noble family to give the cloister
more political clout. Other times they wanted a child from
a lower-class family who would have little leverage to influence
the child's upbringing." On other occasions "a local warlord,
the Chinese emperor or even the Dalai Lama's government in
Lhasa might [have tried] to impose its choice of tulku on
a monastery for political reasons." 58
may have been the case in the selection of the 17th Karmapa,
whose monastery-in-exile is situated in Rumtek, in the Indian
state of Sikkim. In 1993 the monks of the Karma Kagyu tradition
had a candidate of their own choice. The Dalai Lama, along
with several dissenting Karma Kagyu leaders (and with the
support of the Chinese government!) backed a different boy.
The Kagyu monks charged that the Dalai Lama had overstepped
his authority in attempting to select a leader for their sect.
"Neither his political role nor his position as a lama in
his own Gelugpa tradition entitled him to choose the Karmapa,
who is a leader of a different tradition..." 59
As one of the Kagyu leaders insisted, "Dharma is about thinking
for yourself. It is not about automatically following a teacher
in all things, no matter how respected that teacher may be.
More than anyone else, Buddhists should respect other people's
rights - their human rights and their religious freedom."
followed was a dozen years of conflict in the Tibetan exile
community, punctuated by intermittent riots, intimidation,
physical attacks, blacklisting, police harassment, litigation,
official corruption, and the looting and undermining of the
Karmapa's monastery in Rumtek by supporters of the Gelugpa
faction. All this has caused at least one western devotee
to wonder if the years of exile were not hastening the moral
corrosion of Tibetan Buddhism. 61
is clear is that not all Tibetan Buddhists accept the Dalai
Lama as their theological and spiritual mentor. Though he
is referred to as the "spiritual leader of Tibet," many see
this title as little more than a formality. It does not give
him authority over the four religious schools of Tibet other
than his own, "just as calling the U.S. president the 'leader
of the free world' gives him no role in governing France or
Tibetan exiles are enamoured of the old Shangri-La theocracy.
Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk
in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with
more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk's building.
When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland,
the sentiment was unanimously negative.
At first, Lewis assumed that their reluctance had to do with
the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise.
They said they were extremely grateful "not to have to marry
four or five men, be pregnant almost all the time," or deal
with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying
husband. The younger women "were delighted to be getting an
education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion,
and wondered why Americans were so naïve [about Tibet]."
interviewed by Lewis recounted stories of their grandmothers'
ordeals with monks who used them as "wisdom consorts." By
sleeping with the monks, the grandmothers were told, they
gained "the means to enlightenment" - after all, the Buddha
himself had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment.
also mentioned the "rampant" sex that the supposedly spiritual
and abstemious monks practiced with each other in the Gelugpa
sect. The women who were mothers spoke bitterly about the
monastery's confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. They
claimed that when a boy cried for his mother, he would be
told "Why do you cry for her, she gave you up - she's just
China is the great success story of speedy free market
development, and is to be the model and inspiration
for Tibet's future, then old feudal Tibet indeed may
start looking a lot better than it actually was.
who were granted political asylum in California applied for
public assistance. Lewis, herself a devotee for a time, assisted
with the paperwork. She observes that they continue to receive
government checks amounting to $550 to $700 per month along
with Medicare. In addition, the monks reside rent free in
nicely furnished apartments. "They pay no utilities, have
free access to the Internet on computers provided for them,
along with fax machines, free cell and home phones and cable
also receive a monthly payment from their order, along with
contributions and dues from their American followers. Some
devotees eagerly carry out chores for the monks, including
grocery shopping and cleaning their apartments and toilets.
These same holy men, Lewis remarks, "have no problem criticizing
Americans for their 'obsession with material things.'" 64
the end of the old feudal theocracy in Tibet is not to applaud
everything about Chinese rule in that country. This point
is seldom understood by today's Shangri-La believers in the
West. The converse is also true: To denounce the Chinese occupation
does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime.
Tibetans deserve to be perceived as actual people, not perfected
spiritualists or innocent political symbols. "To idealize
them," notes Ma Jian, a dissident Chinese traveler to Tibet
(now living in Britain), "is to deny them their humanity."
complaint among Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet's
religious culture is being undermined by the Chinese occupation.
To some extent this seems to be the case. Many of the monasteries
are closed, and much of the theocracy seems to have passed
into history. Whether Chinese rule has brought betterment
or disaster is not the central issue here. The question is
what kind of country was old Tibet.
What I am disputing is the supposedly pristine spiritual nature
of that pre-invasion culture. We can advocate religious
freedom and independence for a new Tibet without having to
embrace the mythology about old Tibet. Tibetan feudalism
was cloaked in Buddhism, but the two are not to be equated.
In reality, old Tibet was not a Paradise Lost. It was a retrograde
repressive theocracy of extreme privilege and poverty, a long
way from Shangri-La.
let it be said that if Tibet's future is to be positioned
somewhere within China's emerging free-market paradise, then
this does not bode well for the Tibetans. China boasts a dazzling
8 per cent economic growth rate and is emerging as one of
the world's greatest industrial powers. But with economic
growth has come an ever deepening gulf between rich and poor.
Most Chinese live close to the poverty level or well under
it, while a small group of newly brooded capitalists profit
hugely in collusion with shady officials. Regional bureaucrats
milk the country dry, extorting graft from the populace and
looting local treasuries. Land grabbing in cities and countryside
by avaricious developers and corrupt officials at the expense
of the populace are almost everyday occurrences.
Tens of thousands of grassroot protests and disturbances have
erupted across the country, usually to be met with unforgiving
police force. Corruption is so prevalent, reaching into so
many places, that even the normally complacent national leadership
was forced to take notice and began moving against it in late
in China who try to organize labor unions in the corporate
dominated "business zones" risk losing their jobs or getting
beaten and imprisoned. Millions of business zone workers toil
12-hour days at subsistence wages. With the health care system
now being privatized, free or affordable medical treatment
is no longer available for millions. Men have tramped into
the cities in search of work, leaving an increasingly impoverished
countryside populated by women, children, and the elderly.
The suicide rate has increased dramatically, especially among
natural environment is sadly polluted. Most of its fabled
rivers and many lakes are dead, producing massive fish die-offs
from the billions of tons of industrial emissions and untreated
human waste dumped into them. Toxic effluents, including pesticides
and herbicides, seep into ground water or directly into irrigation
canals. Cancer rates in villages situated along waterways
have skyrocketed a thousand-fold.
Hundreds of millions of urban residents breathe air rated
as dangerously unhealthy, contaminated by industrial growth
and the recent addition of millions of automobiles. An estimated
400,000 die prematurely every year from air pollution. Government
environmental agencies have no enforcement power to stop polluters,
and generally the government ignores or denies such problems,
concentrating instead on industrial growth. 67
own scientific establishment reports that unless greenhouse
gases are curbed, the nation will face massive crop failures
along with catastrophic food and water shortages in the years
ahead. In 2006-2007 severe drought was already afflicting
southwest China. 68
is the great success story of speedy free market development,
and is to be the model and inspiration for Tibet's future,
then old feudal Tibet indeed may start looking a lot better
than it actually was.
Michael Parenti is an internationally known award-winning
author and lecturer. He is one of the nation's leading progressive
political analysts. His highly informative and entertaining
books and talks have reached a wide range of audiences in
North America and abroad. Visit his site at http://www.michaelparenti.org/.
His latest book is "Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti
Reader". Order it here.
Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, (University
of California Press, 2000), 6, 112-113, 157.
2 Kyong-Hwa Seok, "Korean Monk Gangs Battle for Temple
Turf," San Francisco Examiner, 3 December 1998.
3 Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2006.
4 Dalai Lama quoted in Donald Lopez Jr., Prisoners of
Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago and
London: Chicago University Press, 1998), 205.
5 Erik D. Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering
Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today (Alaya
Press 2005), 41.
6 Stuart Gelder and Roma Gelder, The Timely Rain: Travels
in New Tibet (Monthly Review Press, 1964), 119,
123; and Melvyn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon:
China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (University of California
Press, 1995), 6-16.
7 Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 50.
8 Stephen Bachelor, "Letting Daylight into Magic: The Life
and Times of Dorje Shugden," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review,
7, Spring 1998. Bachelor discusses the sectarian fanaticism
and doctrinal clashes that ill fit the Western portrait of
Buddhism as a non-dogmatic and tolerant tradition.
9 Dhoring Tenzin Paljor, Autobiography, cited in Curren,
Buddha's Not Smiling, 8.
10 Pradyumna P. Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet:
The Impact of Chinese Communist Ideology on the Landscape
(Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1976),
11 See Gary Wilson's report in Worker's World, 6
12 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 62
13 As skeptically noted by Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La,
14 Melvyn Goldstein, William Siebenschuh, and Tashì-Tsering,
The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashì-Tsering
(Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997).
15 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 110.
16 Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet
1913-1951 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989),
5 and passim.
17 Anna Louise Strong, Tibetan Interviews
(Peking: New World Press, 1959), 15, 19-21, 24.
18 Quoted in Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25.
19 Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 31.
20 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 175-176;
and Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25-26.
21 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 113.
22 A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet
rev. ed. (Armonk, N.Y. and London: 1996), 9 and 7-33 for a
general discussion of feudal Tibet; see also Felix Greene,
A Curtain of Ignorance (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday,
1961), 241-249; Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet,
3-5; and Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, passim.
23 Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 91-96.
24 Waddell, Landon, O'Connor, and Chapman are quoted in
Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 123-125.
25 Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 52.
26 Heinrich Harrer, Return to Tibet (New York:
Schocken, 1985), 29.
27 See Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA's
Secret War in Tibet (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas
Press, 2002); and William Leary, "Secret Mission to Tibet,"
Air & Space, December 1997/January 1998.
28 On the CIA's links to the Dalai Lama and his family
and entourage, see Loren Coleman, Tom Slick and the Search
for the Yeti (London: Faber and Faber, 1989).
29 Leary, "Secret Mission to Tibet."?
30 Hugh Deane, "The Cold War in Tibet,"? CovertAction
Quarterly (Winter 1987).
31 George Ginsburg and Michael Mathos Communist China
and Tibet (1964), quoted in Deane, "The Cold War
in Tibet." Deane notes that author Bina Roy reached a similar
32 See Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, 248 and passim;
and Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, passim.
33 Harrer, Return to Tibet, 54.
34 Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 36-38, 41,
57-58; London Times, 4 July 1966.
35 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 29
36 Tendzin Choegyal, "The Truth about Tibet," Imprimis
(publication of Hillsdale College, Michigan), April 1999.
37 Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 52-53.
38 Elaine Kurtenbach, Associate Press report, 12 February
39 Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 47-48.
40 Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 8.
41 San Francisco Chonicle, 9 January 2007.
42 Report by the International Committee of Lawyers for
Tibet, A Generation in Peril (Berkeley Calif.: 2001),
43 International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, A Generation
in Peril, 66-68, 98.
44 im Mann, "CIA Gave Aid to Tibetan Exiles in '60s, Files
Show,"? Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1998; and New
York Times, 1 October, 1998.
45 News & Observer, 6 September 1995, cited in Lopez,
Prisoners of Shangri-La, 3.
46 Heather Cottin, "George Soros, Imperial Wizard,"
CovertAction Quarterly no. 74 (Fall 2002).
47 Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 51.
48 Tendzin Choegyal, "The Truth about Tibet."?
49 The Dalai Lama in Marianne Dresser (ed.), Beyond
Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses (Berkeley, Calif.: North
Atlantic Books, 1996)
50 These comments are from a book of the Dalai Lama's writings
quoted in Nikolai Thyssen, "Oceaner af onkel Tom," Dagbladet
Information, 29 December 2003, (translated for me by Julius
Wilm). Thyssen's review (in Danish) can be found here.
51 "A Global Call for Human Rights in the Workplace,"?
New York Times, 6 December 2005.
52 San Francisco Chronicle, 14 January 2007.
53 San Francisco Chronicle, 5 November 2005.
54 Times of India 13 October 2000; Samantha Conti's
report, Reuter, 17 June 1994; Amitabh Pal, "The Dalai Lama
Interview," Progressive, January 2006.
55 The Gelders draw this comparison, The Timely Rain,
56 Michael Parenti, The Culture Struggle (Seven
57 John Pomfret, "Tibet Caught in China's Web,?" Washington
Post, 23 July 1999.
58 Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 3.
59 Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 13 and 138.
60 Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, 21.
61 Curren, Buddha's Not Smiling, passim. For books
that are favorable toward the Karmapa appointed by the Dalai
Lama's faction, see Lea Terhune, Karmapa of Tibet: The Politics
of Reincarnation (Wisdom Publications, 2004); Gaby Naher,
Wrestling the Dragon (Rider 2004); Mick Brown, The Dance of
17 Lives (Bloomsbury 2004).
62 Erik Curren, "Not So Easy to Say Who is Karmapa," correspondence,
22 August 2005, www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=22.1577,0,0,1,0.
63 Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 15 July 2004.
64 Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 16 July 2004.
65 Ma Jian, Stick Out Your Tongue (Farrar, Straus
& Giroux, 2006).
66 See the PBS documentary, China from the Inside,
January 2007, KQED.PBS.org/kqed/chinanside.
67 San Francisco Chronicle, 9 January 2007.
68 "China: Global Warming to Cause Food Shortages,"?
People's Weekly World, 13 January 2007
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