Mar 22, 2008

Tibet



For a long time Tibetan civilization has had a powerful grip on the Western imagination. Alternately, it has been romanticized as a spiritual paradise, a Shangri-La or vilified as a last redoubt of superstitious obscurantism and feudalism. The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. While there is no denying that some of the social aspects of Old Tibet left somewhat to be desired, there is also no denying that the religious and cultural aspects were an astonishing human accomplishment.

Tibetan culture was unique. The religious background was an amalgam of several late forms of Buddhism coming from India just at the time when the Dharma there was sliding from brilliant cultural peak into the early stages of decadence. The various strands of classical Buddhist thought, together with brilliant philosophy (Nagarjuna), logic and epistemology (Dharmakirti), metaphysical speculation (the Cittamitra, "Mind-Only") and the quasi-magical practices of Tantra all these and more found there way across the Himalayas. Much of late classical Buddhist thought would be lost to us today if it had not been preserved in Tibet. And all these intellectual currents were stirred in with one of the most mature forms of Central Asian shamanism, the old Bon religion.

The result was something brand new, one of humankind's great achievements, Tibetan culture. While other societies put their physical and mental resources into conquest, industrialism and physical science Tibet put hers into spiritual exploration. The result was that although Tibet remained materially backward well into the twentieth century, she had developed spiritual "technologies" well beyond anything accomplished anywhere else. While Europe was busily sailing caravels across the oceans, conquering the world, Tibet set out on a much more important and difficult exploration, that of inner space.

Whatever else may be said about Tibet, the charge that it was a stagnant and backward culture is false. It is based on the myopic idea that the only progress that counts is the inventing of more and better machines to indulge more and better sense pleasures. Tibetans took little interest in that. There was very little material progress in Tibet for the millennium after the introduction of Buddhism. But the spiritual and religious texts and practices show a continual fruitful exploration and development. This is not surprising, in a way. The best and the brightest in Tibet didn't go into business or science but into the monasteries.

But the history of the rest of the world moved in other channels, driven by other forces. In the middle of that cruellest of all centuries, the terrible twentieth, Tibet was invaded and annexed by the rising power of the Chinese People's Republic. Tragically, the thousand year experiment was at an end.

Regarding the current situation, it is hard to see how any good will come of the riots in Lhasa and elsewhere. China will crack down with even greater ruthlessness. Nothing of consequence will come out of the rest of the world by way of help for the Tibetans. Nor could it, in practical terms. An Olympic boycott would end up dashing the hopes of young athletes, momentarily embarrassing China but do nothing for Tibet. An economic boycott of China might, just possibly, have some effect in forcing their hand. But that is not going to happen. China's huge pool of miserable labour provides all the worthless consumer crap that fills western economies. China uses the resulting cash to buy, among other things, U.S. Treasury Bills. The U.S. couldn't fund it's government for one week without China.

It's hard to take, but the situation of Tibet is nearly hopeless. In the short term, there will be a wave of arrests and executions and further restrictions on Tibetan culture. In the long term, the Tibetans will be swamped by demography as China moves in more and more Han Chinese settlers, reducing the Tibetans to a colourful minority in one province.

However, Tibetan culture survives with some vigour in the diaspora and much of it is now available to non-Tibetans in translation and through direct teaching. It may be that this cultural spread is a silver lining to the tragedy of the Chinese conquest.

A little earlier I said that Tibet's situation was "nearly hopeless." I put in the nearly because I can envisage one scenario that might yet save Tibet, although it is a long-shot. It may yet happen that the cultural spread of Tibetan Buddhism may wash over into China itself, infecting the youth of that land with ideas of harmlessness, contentment and transcendence.

It is not impossible. China is an ancient, sophisticated civilization; the oldest continual civilization on this planet. In previous times it went through phases of deep spirituality and cultural brilliance; one thinks principally of the Han Dynasty. Buddhism has deep roots there, although at present they are rather withered. China has been through some very rough times, the terrible twentieth wasn't kind to them either. Their traditional civilization had been seriously undermined by European colonialism in the nineteenth century, and their early attempts to modernize after the 1911 revolution ended badly, in anarchy and warlordism. Then there was the massive catastrophe of the Japanese invasion, with all it's attendant horrors.

The Chinese pulled themselves out of the abyss only by uniting under a tyrannical ideology. Mao's version of Communism was in reality a new and fanatical religion; secular humanism with bayonets. Like any fanatical reforming religion, they brooked no rivals and in the Cultural Revolution of the 'sixties much of China's remaining ties to their brilliant past were destroyed. Then the flame of the new religion, fed as it was on such tawdry fuel, sputtered and died. Now the Chinese don't believe even in their ersatz secular humanist religion anymore. Now the whole country is devoted only to the even more hollow capitalist enterprise of making money. China is now in a phase of deep spiritual winter.

But human beings need spiritual sustenance. The religious void in China cannot last forever, something will have to fill it. We can see the first fitful signs of the people's seeking in the rapid rise of the Falun Gong which so terrified the ruling technocrats. Maybe something that would help Tibet most would be for every tourist and journalist who goes to the games to carry along books about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese and pass them out to strangers or leave them in public places.

17 comments:

Dhanapala said...

Couldn´t agree more. Thanks for the thoughtful reflection!

Dhamma81 said...

Ajahn Punnadhammo -


This was a nicely done analysis of the situation in Tibet and China. I must say I agree with what you are saying here. On principle, I won't be watching the olympics, as in my mind that just legitimizes the Chinese regime. I understand that not watching the Olympics is not going to do much other then make me feel better. You're dead on about the U.S. economy, we owe a lot to China so our government pretty much has to stand silent on anything China does whether it's selling arms to the Burmese or harassing Tibetans. It's pretty sad really. Money and the economy take precedence over human lives once again.

glenn fitzgerald said...

"Alternately, it has been romanticized as a spiritual paradise, a Shangri-La or vilified as a last redoubt of superstitious obscurantism and feudalism."

Punnadhammo, are you sort of playing fast and loose with the truth here? It seems--at least it seems--to me that the Western myth-making and Hollywood culture has overwhelmingly romanticized Tibetan culture.

It also seems that lone dissenters have often championed the less romanticized version of Tibetan culture. I can recall that in Thunder Bay one lone voice once tried to present the other side of the picture, citing on his blog instances of a brutal theocracy which once existed in Tibet.

The local Buddhist sangha roundly silenced and condemned him for his commentary--and condemned him pretty past. I recall that someone had publicly remarked about his "harsh" criticism of Tibetan history without ever even having made the attempt to deal with his cited examples.

Anyway, I certainly don't believe that your view of popular attitudes of the West vis-à-vis Tibetan culture presents a very balanced picture.

But I could be wrong. Notice that my present post makes good use of the phrase, "it seems."

Glenn Fitzgerald,

Thunder Bay.

glenn fitzgerald said...

"The result was something brand new, one of humankind's great achievements, Tibetan culture."

Well, in your opinion anyway, Tibetan culture is one of humanity's great achievements.

Although, I'm not saying your wrong. I just think it prudent to point out that you haven't at all supported said opinion. Why would you say, for example, that:

"The various strands of classical Buddhist thought, together with brilliant philosophy (Nagarjuna),..."

Why would you consider "Nagarjuan" a brilliant philosophy? Why would you consider "Dharmakirt" a brilliant example of "logic" and "epistemology?"

All a rational being can legitimately draw from your discussion is that in the opinion of one man, Tibetan culture is, "one of humankind's great achievements."

Until you devote a post which provides a more detailed explanation about why you consider Tibetan culture so brilliant, I will have to suspect that your opinion rests on bias.

Anyway, in my mind, your piece raises some more hard questions which I will have to address later tonight or tomarrow.

Glenn Fitzgerald,

Thunder Bay

glenn fitzgerald said...

"Whatever else may be said about Tibet, the charge that it was a stagnant and backward culture is false. It is based on the myopic idea that the only progress that counts is the inventing of more and better machines to indulge more and better sense pleasures."

Well, a backward culture might also be considered "backward" when it lacks a compassionate approach to justice (re: the accounts of monk eye gouging). As well, a backward culture might be seen in the way a people give unqualified and blind worship to the leadership.

For example, accounts of how Tibetans once prostrated themselves worshipfully on the ground at the appearance of Lamas, might indicate a backward culture given to blind worship of the theocracy.

Well, it's also possible that I've got it wrong, and either Tibetans didn't prostrate themselves on the ground, or prostrated themselves for quite a different reason than I imagine (worship of the Lamas).

Your piece certainly does provoke questions for me, though.

Glenn Fitzgearld,

Thunder Bay.

glenn fitzgerald said...

""Whatever else may be said about Tibet, the charge that it was a stagnant and backward culture is false. It is based on the myopic idea that the only progress that counts is the inventing of more and better machines to indulge more and better sense pleasures."

Sometimes the West's perception of an advanced culture also rests on the percieved educational levels of a nation's people. I don't think the West relies soley on the possession of technology for its view of "advancement."

The question I particularly ask when I wonder about how advanced a culture is concerns how capable of critical thought and informed dissent its people are.

If I see evidence that a people lend to their leadership the role of psuedo-God, divinely inspired from some religious prophet,I suspect a backward culture.

In fact, in my eyes, all theocracies tend to be backward cultures--backward cultures which program their citizns to view the leadership worshipfully.

Cheers,

Glenn Fitzgerald

Dhamma81 said...

Maybe something that would help "Tibet most would be for every tourist and journalist who goes to the games to carry along books about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese and pass them out to strangers or leave them in public places."

Actually I think that might be dangerous and could possibly land whoever does those things in a Chinese prison.

Angulimalo said...

Considering that in 1959 that Tibet was a strategic "terra nullius" the Tibetans were facing a choice between the Chinese (who are using it to exert influence in Central Asia and to cause the Indians strategic worries in Kashmir), the Russians (who would have used Tibet to influence events on the Sub-Continent and China) and India (who would have used the place to influence China & Soviet Central Asia) Tibet was always going to end up with foreign masters.
Is the behaviour of the PRC in Tibet in accord with Human Rights? No. Is there ever going to be a Free Tibet? Yes, right after Jesus returns and Santa Claus finally gives me what I want for Christmas. China gives 3/4's of a rats anus about world opinion....the recent behaviour in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics confirms this. So protest all you want...it'll be like peeing in a scuba diving suit, which gives YOU a nice warm feeling, but no one notices.

Dhanapala said...

Then, Angulimalo, are you saying that you act based exclusively on the expected end results of your actions, and not based on what your conscience tells you to do? If you see a gang attacking a person, and know that your chances to help are nearly to zero, even if you don´t do anything right at the situation still you don´t protest later on? Are you proposing we all shut our mouths to all situations where our single actions and voices will not have visible results?

Angulimalo said...

No I'm not saying that. I'm saying that protest by all means, it's just that Beijing will ignore you. The PRC follows a policy of not commenting on the domestic conduct of foreign governments and in return asks that we do not comment on hers. I did remark and you've chosen to ignore it, that Tibet was always going to be occupied. By invading in 1951, the Chinese simply beat the Russians and the Indians to it
If a country does what China has done/is doing in Tibet 5 months out from the biggest public event it has ever staged, my bet is that it doesn't care what the world thinks.

Brian LePort said...

Off topic: but would you consider giving me feedback on the following post where I attempted to present Jesus' and Buddha's answer to the question of suffering:

http://bleport.wordpress.com/2008/04/04/jesus-among-the-gods-sermon-series-notes-buddhism/

Luckymortal said...

Dear Mr. Fitzgerald,

Your posts on Tibet here seem to me to reflect the historical truth that the winner writes the history books.

Living in the US, I'm well aware of how a nation, such as Iraq, can go from being "the great educated secular state of the middle-east," as it was when Donald Rumsfeld was delivering arms to the Bathist regime there, to being the "great terrorist state of the world!"

More importantly, as an American, I reject your notion that the worst of my culture defines it in whole. I'm proud to live in the country of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut--we're not all pre-emptive war, oil money, and unfettered corporatist "capitalism."

Any human culture, with its art and understanding is a remarkable achievement, but especially one so unique as Tibet's. And even more so, as MR. Punnadhammo points out, because its values were so beautifully unique, even if it sometimes failed to live up to them!

Your denial that a culture, Tibetan culture, has an intrinsic worth and beauty that we should sustain and protect is what seems deeply ethnocentric to me.

And your acceptance of the Chinese propaganda that any culture deserves to be erased because it's "backwards" seems biased and naive to me.

Your dismissal of the analysis based on your accusation that Ahahn Punnadhammo is simply "playing loose with the truth," I find offensive and fallacious.

If you were not attempting to undermine the points presented with an ad hominem attack on the author's honesty, then I misread your posts and I apologize.

If you would like to start at the basic premise that all cultures are great accomplishments and have an intrinsic value as great human achievements, and that cultural genocide is a means that no end can justify, then I would love to discuss some of your specific points with you. However, in my view, if you can't accept that, I don't think you'll find much common ground with me or any other objective, informed truth seeker.

I'm sorry if that sounded harsh, good luck to you.

Ajahn Punnadhammo said...

I think the negative portrayals of life in old Tibet come from two sources. The worst stuff is Chinese disinformation, to portray their invasion as a liberation.

The second is a reaction in academia to the earlier romanticized version. Some of this is a little naive, as if they just realized Tibet wasn't a Jeffersonian democracy.

Who knows exactly what the truth is? Somewhere in between most likely. One thing to bear in mind is that Tibet up to the middle of the 20th c. was basically a medieval society, isolated from modern trends. The fair comparison is not to modern democracies but to Europe in say the 13th c.

Robert said...

Somewhat related to this is a poll that I set up that you might be interested in: "What political activities should be considered permissible for monks?" I'm interested in what people think about this.

Robert said...


Maybe something that would help "Tibet most would be for every tourist and journalist who goes to the games to carry along books about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in Chinese and pass them out to strangers or leave them in public places."

Actually I think that might be dangerous and could possibly land whoever does those things in a Chinese prison.



If a foreigner does this they'll probably just get sent home and their name added to a blacklist of people not to issue Chinese visas to.

If you're an Asian or Chinese foreigner (say, Chinese-American) you're much more likely to get thrown in prison while they investigate whether you're involved in some sort of political movement with ties to dissident groups in China, but if it looks like you're just a crazy "laowai" hippy with no real ties to Chinese political groups then you'll probably just get thrown out of the country and denied future visas. This could be due to their desire to avoid diplomatic problems and the limited value of keeping such people in prison.

That's my GUESS anyway. I can't be held responsible for anyone who's left to rot in prison thinking they'd just get thrown out of the country....

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Aud Jensson said...

Tibet has always maintained a distinct cultural, religious, linguistic and ethnic identity. It is a rich and beautiful land, is located at the main part of Qinghai-Tibet plateau, south-West frontier of China. Thanks.
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