The Dalai Lama and Tibet’s Bloody Theocratic History: A Glance
Many people love the Dalai Lama. They think of him as a dynamic and multifaceted leader. He is a leader of spirituality, of peace, of religious change and introspection, and of a cause against the evil and oppressive Han Chinese government of the People’s Republic of China. But what if you were told that the Dalai Lama and Tibet before the Chinese occupation are not as they’ve been popularly described? That in fact, it is, like many things, way more complicated and nuanced, and that the assumption that the Dalai Lama and pre-1959 Tibet are models of peace and egalitarianism is as false as Santa Clause?
This will be a very brief discussion on just that matter. My research is not terribly deep but it needn’t be since the facts are not difficult to find. You need only stop listening to the simpering of celebrities and the American government’s self-serving anti-China rhetoric and things will become clear. Mind you, this is no endorsement of China’s regime or government but it is, without a doubt, an attack upon the myth of Tibet and its supposed ‘spiritual leader’.
The Myth of Peaceful Buddhism
The first veil we need tear down is this nonsense about Buddhism as an exceptionally peaceful religion. Modern examples of the strife it has caused include 1930’s Japan where there was an assassination plot led by an ultranationalist Buddhist group, headed by a priest, called the ‘League of Blood Incident’ which attempted the killing of some 20 individuals. More recently in 1998, South Korea’s Chogye Buddhists fought over money, property, and power, and killed each other doing so. Within the past year Buddhists in Burma were reported by the U.N. to have murdered some 40 or so Muslims in a coordinated campaign of religious persecution. And, in Colombo, Sri Lanka just last year in 2013, Buddhists mobbed a Muslim mosque, leaving several injured.
Surprised? You really shouldn’t be. Buddhism in all its forms, like all religions, is a malleable philosophy that creates and perpetuates invidious doctrines that other (especially ‘materialist’) outsiders which perforce lead to violence. But what about the Buddhists of Tibet? Everyone says they’re different, and by everyone, I mean Westerners.
Let’s talk a little about the society of Tibet before the ‘evil’ Han Chinese began their occupation.
Tibetan Buddhism is no less violent than any of its varietals. The first ‘Grand’ Lama (the Lama of lamas) was established by the infamous Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century, himself a great warrior, and the establishment of the ‘Dalai’ Lama or ‘Ocean’ Lama, was a result of the then Emperor of China some centuries later. Since that time violent struggles between sects was not uncommon and despite being recognized as divine leaders, over the course of two centuries, five Dalai Lamas were murdered by their own high priests/courtiers. It is also notable that about 200 years ago today’s Dalai Lama’s sect, known as the ‘Yellow Hats’, forcibly converted other sects to their style of Buddhism while confiscating their rivals’ property. Peaceful indeed.
But this only speaks to the relationship various Tibetan Buddhist groups had with each other in history as well as the general establishment of the Dalai Lama as a position of power. What of the actual government and society in Tibet prior to 1959 when the current Lama was last in power?
Tibetan Society, Before Communist China
Before this time Tibet was controlled by wealthy secular landlords and powerful, equally affluent lamas. Much like the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and beyond, it was the Monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism that held a great portion of land and wealth.
There were of course many low level lamas which led ordinary, modest lives, despite the fact that several high-ranking lamas presided over serfs, herdsmen, and farmland while the Dalai Lama himself resided in the 14-story, 1000-room Potala palace. Modest and anti-materialist indeed. On top of this, a small, trained army was used to maintain order and protect the interests of the secular landlord class.
Serfdom in Tibet took on an interesting flavor as lords were not obligated to care for them; serfs needed to support themselves and yet, the serfs were still bound to their lords. Not uncommon, was also the practice of slavery. Young boys were regularly snatched from their families and used as anything from entertainers, servants, soldiers, and even sexual objects.
Tashi-Tsering, a monk, was repeatedly raped beginning when he was only nine, and writes about it in his autobiography, The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi-Tsering. Young girls were also sexually abused by their owners while serfs, in general, were tortured or killed for attempting escape.
Taxation was heavy and everywhere. Serfs were taxed for travel, for planting trees, for new livestock, and even for unemployment. All of this was glibly justified by Tibetan Buddhist teachings which emphasized the class order and its importance. The rationale was, of course, that the serfs had brought this misery upon themselves owing to the laws of karma. They could only hope that their lives would improve in the ‘next life’ and indeed, as usual, the empowered religious leaders took advantage of this mythical notion of the ‘afterlife’ to ensure power and wealth for themselves in the here and now, where it matters.
Tom Grunfeld, in his book, The Making of Modern Tibet, compares Tibet to medieval Europe in its religious terror and exploitation.
Anna Louise Strong, in her book, Tibetan Interviews, discusses an exhibition in 1959 of torture equipment used by the overlords, and relays accounts of severed hands, noses, and rape as punishment.
Various foreign visitors to Tibet before 1959 described the monks, the Dalai Lama, and his regime as ‘tyrannical’, ‘an engine of oppression’, jealous withholders of knowledge and power, and a ‘despotic power from which there is no appeal.’
There is so much more to say but the rest of these terrors you can continue to read about on your own time. Now we must move on to the Chinese and their influence.
The Communist Chinese began to play their part in 1951 when they allowed Tibet self-governance but took exclusive control of foreign relations and the military. It is true that they also desired to promote social reform, they advocated and indeed undertook such terrifying new policies as reducing exploitive interest rates and building some new hospitals and roads.
The reality is that Tibet’s power structure had previously functioned alongside China’s. Indeed, the current Dalai Lama was installed under the aegis of the then operating Chinese government. The reason why the Tibetan powers suddenly turned against China was because she had become Communist, which promotes egalitarianism to an extreme extent. This would obviously deprive the secular lords and monks of their exploitive class structure and power base. So, here we can conclude that their grievance was not grounded in a violation of human rights but rather their perceived right to continue to violate the human rights of those under their control.
Say what you want about China, but after 1959 they did in fact abolish slavery and the practice of unpaid serf labor in Tibet – something the Dalai Lama apparently had no problem perpetuating. They also removed the burdensome tax system, established secular schools, and greatly reduced unemployment while installing running water and electricity-giving infrastructure in Lhasa.
It is especially of note that the oppressive lords and monasteries were deprived of their monopoly over livestock and lands, all of which was handed over to established communes of formerly poor and unpaid peasants. Irrigation and domesticated breeds of vegetables and livestock were subsequently improved.
Because slavery and conscripted servitude had been abrogated, many thousands of previously conscripted monks were able to free themselves and did just that.
It is, of course true that the Chinese have not been perfect and are far from ‘saviors’. But the outrageous claim of 1.2 million Tibetans killed, as issued by the Dalai Lama himself, is both uncorroborated by reality and unsubstantiated by the 1953 census numbers (6 years before the Chinese crackdown) which show only about 1.2 million people to have been living there in the first place. And many Tibetans are on record as saying, that while they may not be fans of the Chinese, they are fans of the many reforms which have empowered the peasant class. And, for what might be the first time in centuries, the Tibetan population has been increasing since the 60’s.
As for the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, it is still allowed and legal in the region, though within certain limits by the Chinese authorities.
It is important to be suspicious and wary of any majority stance, especially those that people pressure us to take hold of. The United States of America has a personal interest in demonizing China and thus depicting pre-1959 Tibet as a place of peace and equality. The Dalai Lama himself says almost nothing of true substance at all. He is a man of platitudes and great hypocrisy when the sum of his spoken values are examined. He has also been photographed, affiliated, and associated with Nazis, cult leaders, and the CIA. The Dalai Lama was in fact paid, for many years, and in the hundreds of thousands, by the CIA. So much for anti-materialism. For this reason, it is important as thinkers to read about the topics we are interested in and seek the truth and facts of the matter as opposed to needlessly creating an easy-to-swallow black and white binary that protects us from thinking too critically.
I have relied heavily on the well-researched and gripping work by Michael Parenti, Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth. My entire report here is little more than a paraphrase of that very interesting and well-written work on Tibet’s history and relationship with China. I highly suggest you read it in order to gain deeper insight into what I have discussed here. My goal was to present a much shorter, faster read of this piece for people in my circle who are otherwise misinformed or even slightly interested in the topic. His bibliography will lead you to more comprehensive studies of Tibet and its history.
- Anna Louise Strong, Tibetan Interviews (Peking: New World Press, 1959)
- Melvyn Goldstein, William Siebenschuh, and Tashì-Tsering, The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashì-Tsering (Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997)
- A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet rev. ed. (Armonk, N.Y. and London: 1996)