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.
Old Tibet was much more like Europe during the religious wars of the Counterreformation.” 5 In the thirteenth 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.
His two 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. 6
An eighteenth-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 the West.
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.
Drepung 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.”
Secular 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. 12 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.
Young 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.
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.
What 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. ... Among the earliest changes they wrought was to reduce usurious interest rates, and build a few hospitals and roads. ... No aristocratic or monastic property was confiscated, and feudal lords continued to reign over their hereditarily bound peasants.
Over 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.
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 Tibet.
The issue 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.
Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs.
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.
Whatever 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.
Both 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.” The official 1953 census—six years before the Chinese crackdown—recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1,274,000.
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 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
In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration.
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.”
For 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. 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.
Whatever 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 ancien régime, having been but 25 years old when he fled into exile.
But he 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.”
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 democracy. 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.” Earlier he had voiced support for the U.S. military intervention against Yugoslavia and, later on, the U.S. military intervention into Afghanistan.
It should be noted that the Dalai Lama is not the only highly placed lama chosen in childhood as a reincarnation. ... 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. ... What 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.
Not all 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 4 or 5 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].”
The women 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.
Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, (University of California Press, 2000), 6, 112-113, 157.
Kyong-Hwa Seok, “Korean Monk Gangs Battle for Temple Turf,” San Francisco Examiner, 3 December 1998.
Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2006.
Dalai Lama quoted in Donald Lopez Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1998), 205.
Erik D. Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today (Alaya Press 2005), 41.
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.
Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling, 50.
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.
Dhoring Tenzin Paljor, Autobiography, cited in Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling, 8.
Pradyumna P. Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet: The Impact of Chinese Communist Ideology on the Landscape (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1976), 64.
See Gary Wilson’s report in Worker’s World, 6 February 1997.
Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 62 and 174.
As skeptically noted by Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 9.
Melvyn Goldstein, William Siebenschuh, and Tashì-Tsering, The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashì-Tsering (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997).
Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 110.
Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 5 and passim.
Anna Louise Strong, Tibetan Interviews (Peking: New World Press, 1959), 15, 19-21, 24.
Quoted in Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25.
Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 31.
Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 175-176; and Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25-26.
Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 113.
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.
Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 91-96.
Waddell, Landon, O’Connor, and Chapman are quoted in Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 123-125.
Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 52.
Heinrich Harrer, Return to Tibet (New York: Schocken, 1985), 29.
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.
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).
Leary, “Secret Mission to Tibet.”
Hugh Deane, “The Cold War in Tibet,” CovertAction Quarterly (Winter 1987).
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 conclusion.
See Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, 248 and passim; and Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, passim.
Harrer, Return to Tibet, 54.
Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 36-38, 41, 57-58; London Times, 4 July 1966.
Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 29 and 47-48.
Tendzin Choegyal, “The Truth about Tibet,” Imprimis (publication of Hillsdale College, Michigan), April 1999.
Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 52-53.
Elaine Kurtenbach, Associate Press report, 12 February 1998.
Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 47-48.
Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling, 8.
San Francisco Chonicle, 9 January 2007.
Report by the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, A Generation in Peril (Berkeley Calif.: 2001), passim.
International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, A Generation in Peril, 66-68, 98.
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.
News & Observer, 6 September 1995, cited in Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 3.
Heather Cottin, “George Soros, Imperial Wizard,” CovertAction Quarterly no. 74 (Fall 2002).
Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 51.
Tendzin Choegyal, “The Truth about Tibet.”
The Dalai Lama in Marianne Dresser (ed.), Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1996)
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 at ▻http://www.information.dk/Indgang/VisArkiv.dna?pArtNo=20031229154141.txt.
“A Global Call for Human Rights in the Workplace,” New York Times, 6 December 2005.
San Francisco Chronicle, 14 January 2007.
San Francisco Chronicle, 5 November 2005.
Times of India 13 October 2000; Samantha Conti’s report, Reuter, 17 June 1994; Amitabh Pal, “The Dalai Lama Interview,” Progressive, January 2006.
The Gelders draw this comparison, The Timely Rain, 64.
Michael Parenti, The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories, 2006).
John Pomfret, “Tibet Caught in China’s Web,” Washington Post, 23 July 1999.
Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling, 3.
Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling, 13 and 138.
Curren, Buddha’s Not Smiling, 21.
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).
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.
Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 15 July 2004.
Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 16 July 2004.
Ma Jian, Stick Out Your Tongue (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006).
See the PBS documentary, China from the Inside, January 2007, KQED.PBS.org/kqed/chinanside.
San Francisco Chronicle, 9 January 2007.
“China: Global Warming to Cause Food Shortages,” People’s Weekly World, 13 January 2007