Mar 22, 2008


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.