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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth

July 17, 2008

Dr. Michael Parenti
Global Research (Canada)
November 18, 2007

Expanded and Updated Version


Along 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 right living. 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.

A glance 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 twentieth 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 thirty
of the world's most violent and dangerous extremist groups. Over half
of them were religious, specifically Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist. 1

In South 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
$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

As with 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

But what 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

A reading 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 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. Here is a historical irony:
the first Dalai Lama was installed by a Chinese army.

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

For hundreds 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 names." 7

In 1792, 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." 8 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.

Religions 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

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." 11

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. 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.

In old 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

As in 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.

One 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

The serfs 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
percent interest. Some debts were handed down from father to son to
grandson. Debtors who could not meet their obligations risked being
cast into slavery.20

The theocracy's 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.

The Tibetan 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 Tibet. 22

In 1959, 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

Earlier 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 and priest-craft." 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.


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. 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

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.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 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.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

Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the
country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs.
Ninety percent 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.

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.32

Heinrich 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

By 1961, 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

Many 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

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."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.

Chinese 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

In 1980, 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

As of 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

In the 1990s, the Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent 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.42

Tibetan 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.

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. 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

In 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.

Into the twenty-first 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

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. 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.47During 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 assembly.48

In 1996, 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

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."50

In 2005 the Dalai Lama signed a widely advertised statement along
with ten 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 unions…."51

The Dalai 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

In November 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 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."53 Earlier he had voiced support for the U.S. military
intervention against Yugoslavia and, later on, the U.S. military
intervention into Afghanistan.54


As the 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 pacific culture.

One is 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 lords.55 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.

Seen 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 In theocratic 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.

Were 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 embraced.

It might 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

Many 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, but . . . 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

It should 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.

The very 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
thirty-five years, has not helped the situation.

The search 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

Such 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."60

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. 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

What 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 Germany."62

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]."63

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.

The women 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 a woman."

The monks 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 TV."

They 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

To welcome 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."65

One common 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.

Finally, 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
percent 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 2006.

Workers 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 twelve-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 women.66

China's 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

China's 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

If 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.

Michael Parenti received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale
University. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities,
in the United States and abroad. Some of his writings have been
translated into Arabic, Bangla, Chinese, Dutch, French, German,
Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese,
Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.


1. Mark 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), 64.
11. See Gary Wilson's report in Worker's World, 6 February 1997.
12. Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 62 and 174.
13. As skeptically noted by Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 9.
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 conclusion.
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 and 47-48.
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 1998.
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), passim.
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 at
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, 64.
56. Michael Parenti, The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories, 2006).
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,,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,
67. San Francisco Chronicle, 9 January 2007.
68. "China: Global Warming to Cause Food Shortages,"  People's Weekly
World, 13 January 2007

Michael Parenti is a frequent contributor to Global Research.
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