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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Commentary: Religion and Politics

September 8, 2008

Samten G. Karmay
Special to WTN News

The Tibetans prided themselves on what they believed to be a unique 
tradition, the "combination of religion and politics" (chosi 
zungdrel). The concept itself goes a long way back in Tibet's 
history. However, many other countries still have similar traditions. 
It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that countries like 
France and Japan began to have the legislation for the separation of 
church and state that gave birth to the idea of practicing religion 
as a personal belief not regulated by the state. The process of 
secularization has been slow, but it is moving inexorably forward. 
This state secularism is the modern trend in many countries the world 

It was startling to see a political meeting that took place in 
Dharamsala on May 3-4 2008 and broadcast on YouTube. It was attended 
by the heads of all the Tibetan religious sects and was presided over 
by HH the Dalai Lama. One of the topics of the discussion was the 
tulku issue, the reincarnated lamas, but the outcome of the 
discussion has not been reported. Not a single layman took part in 
the gathering not to mention any women. One wondered what happened to 
the famous democratization of the exiled Tibetan community in India.

The separation of church and state does not imply abandoning the 
practice of the established religion. Far from it, it secures freedom 
of religious exercise and therefore the right of personal choice 
whether one wishes to practice a religion or not. Furthermore it 
establishes the neutrality of the state as far as the religious 
denominations are concerned. In the case of Tibet there would be no 
preferential status whether it is the Bon, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu or 
Gelug traditions or even the Tibetan Moslems and Christians. What the 
"separation" does imply, however, is the government and religious 
institutions being kept independent from one and another and not 
combined as in the Tibetan political tradition.

  A secular state is therefore neutral when it deals with religion by 
not supporting or opposing any particular sect nor does it give any 
preferential treatment for a citizen who belongs to a particular 

Buddhism as a state religion

Buddhism became the state religion of Tibet in the reign of the 
emperor Tri Song Detsen (742-797) and it remained so till the end of 
the Pugyal Dynasty in 941 AD.  During the imperial period the 
emperors were the supreme heads of the state and the emperors were 
entirely laymen. The fact that Buddhism was the state religion did 
not affect the personal choice of faith among its members and in the 
country. However, the imperial government did subsidize Buddhist 
establishments such as building temples and contributing to their 
maintenance and this was considered to be meritorious work.

There were other periods during which time a lay government was in 
power in Tibet, for example, during the Tsang Desi's regime (c.
1600-1642) which was most remarkable in its attempt to revive the 
national glory of the lay government of the imperial period.

The beginning of theocracy

  However, in 1642 the Tsang Desi's government was toppled by the 
combined forces of Tibetans and Mongols at the instigation of the 
Gelug sect which effectively empowered the Fifth Dalai Lama 
(1617-1685), as the head of state. He had been, until 1642, merely 
the abbot of Drepung Monastery. A new era of theocracy was ushered in 
with the total supremacy of the clergy and the subordination of 
laymen to it. At the time of the Sakya and Pakmotu administrations 
from the 13th to the 15th centuries there were of course elements of 
theocratic development, but from 1642 the Ganden Potrang, the 
official seat of the government in Drepung Monastery, came to 
symbolize the supreme power in both the theory and practice of a 
theocratic government. This was indeed a political triumph that 
Buddhism had never known in its history in Tibet.

The term "theocracy" is normally defined as a form of government in 
which a 'god' or 'deity' is recognized as the supreme ruler. In 
Tibet's case the Dalai Lamas are considered as the manifestation of 
the Buddhist deity of compassion. In this theocratic system the head 
of the state was not only the political leader of the people, but 
also their spiritual master. In other words, the whole population was 
subjected and put in the position of spiritual disciple to the 
master. Within the context of this essentially religious bond no 
devotee would ever dream of opposing the view of the master, because 
that would be tantamount to breaking the sacred relationship between 
the master and the disciple. How does this fit with the discussion of 
democracy among the Tibetans in exile for whom HH the Dalai Lama is 
the political leader, but who nonetheless bestows on them the 
Kalachakra initiation?

Since the head of the state was a "monk-king" (domtsun gyalpo) the 
entire manner of raising children was immersed in religious education 
from a very young age without it ever being realized where this was 
going to lead. In such a system there was no personal choice of the 
religion that an individual wished to practice. One became aware of 
what one was subjected to only when one reached a mature age. In 
other words the faith was simply imposed by the state. The idea of 
the right of personal choice of one's own faith was therefore totally 
unknown and in modern terms denied. Important and even enlightening 
as this religious education might be, it had the undesirable effect 
of barring the entire population from contact with any kind of 
progressive or modern education over the last three hundred and sixty 
years. It is no wonder that the outspoken French socialist Minister 
of Culture, Claude Allègre, once remarked that he had never come 
across a Tibetan who was a biologist, archeologist, mathematician or 

An incarnate Lama as ruler
The head of the state in Tibet, however, was never meant to be a 
tulku, a reincarnate lama. This status was inherited incidentally 
through the Fifth Dalai Lama when he was ushered in as the leader of 
the country. The irony is that not only he himself was a reincarnate 
lama, but he also embarked on creating others, for example, the 
Panchen Lama Lobzang Yeshe (1663-1737), who was recognized as the 
tulku of Panchen Lama Lobzang Chogyen (1567-1662), in 1667, by the 
Fifth Dalai Lama. This initiated the rapid increase of the number of 
tulkus especially in the Gelug sect. Perhaps one does not need to 
raise the question as to whether this tulku system ever served the 
national interest of Tibet at all. It is high time for the Tibetans 
to learn lessons from the checkered history of the tulku system that 
has caused so much political instability and disunity for Tibet.

In the 20th century alone, national unity completely broke down when 
one lama was set against the other as the pawns of great powers such 
as the Manchus, British India, the Russian Empire, the Guomintang 
government and now the Communist Party of China. In general, 
throughout the history of Tibet the tulku institution has invariably 
been the cause of schism, political intrigue and sectarian squabbles. 
Because of the tulku tradition we have now two Panchen Lamas and two 
Karmapas. Are we going to have two Dalai Lamas?

Recently the Religious Affairs Department of the Chinese government 
implemented a new law called "Order no. 5", containing 14 articles on 
"Management Measures for the Reincarnation of 'Living Buddhas' in 
Tibetan Buddhism". The Chinese government's strict control over tulku 
recognition further proves how politically vulnerable this system is 
and to what extent the tulku tradition can be exploited for political 
ends by an occupying power against the interests of the Tibetan people.

HH the 14th Dalai Lama has already announced that he will have no 
political role if "genuine autonomy" is established in Tibet. 
However, I believe that the Dalai Lama institution should be 
maintained if the majority of the Tibetan people agree upon it. Thus, 
in a future constitution this one should be the only incarnation in 
the country, and without any political prerogative. Ganden Monastery 
would be an ideal residence for the future Dalai Lamas if they wish 
to be a real "simple monk".

In the interview given to Euronews (August 11, 2008) HH the 14th 
Dalai Lama stated, I quote: "The Dalai Lama's rule is now outdated." 
If this is indeed the case, and I believe it to be so. it is 
desirable for the Tibetan people start to planning for the future 
with his help. He is the only one who has such long term world-wide 
experience and who if he wishes can assist the Tibetans in sorting 
out the theocratic conundrum in order to finally leave an unambiguous 
political legacy in the form of a total separation of religion and 

  Unless and until the Tibetan people come to comprehend the need for 
the separation of religion and state they will never be able to 
create a healthy and unified community under a truly democratically 
elected leader.

They do not need to look far a field for a good example of this. In 
2008 Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom, very successfully introduced a 
parliamentary democratic system. Although the Kagyu sect is the 
official religion of state as represented by the Zhung Datsang, this 
was left aside and did not play any role in the election. Its new 
constitution states "It shall be the responsibility of religious 
institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of 
the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from 
politics in Bhutan.."(article 3.3,
Of course it appears inconceivable or even sacrilegious to break the 
taboo on the separation of religion and state for the Tibetans, but 
we can no longer hide our heads in the sand.

Secularism, sectarianism

In an interview given in Tokyo, April 2008, HH the Dalai Lama stated 
that he favoured in fact "secularism". The reason he gave was that 
"secularism" has no room for "sectarianism". Indeed Tibetan Buddhism 
has often been plagued by sectarian strife and this is still 
continuing in spite of HH the Dalai Lama's strenuous efforts to 
discourage and condemn it. It is precisely because of sectarianism 
that he has himself abandoned the cult of the deity Shugden, as well 
as forbidding it in all religious institutions in the exiled 
community. The main reason for forsaking this cult is that it 
engenders a sense of the superiority on the part of the Geluk clergy 
and it acts as an anathema to the other sects. It is not only a 
question of spirit-worship as people tend to claim when explaining 
why the cult has been forbidden.

A secularization of the exiled community should contribute towards 
solving the unending sectarian problems and lead to true unity 
amongst the Tibetan people, without any further religious 
interference in the political domain.

Samten G. Karmay is one of Tibet’s foremost scholars. Karmay was born 
in Amdo Province and attended a local Bonpo monastery from ages eight 
to fourteen. He then followed a three-year course of Dzogchen 
meditation at Kyangthang Monastery. At twenty he obtained the Geshey 
degree and took further studies at Drepung. In 1959 he and his family 
left Tibet and settled briefly in India. From 1961 to 1964, he was a 
visiting scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies, 
London, where he earned an M. Phil. Degree for his thesis on Bon 
history and then his Ph.D. for his thesis on the origin and 
development of Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In 1980 he 
entered the National Centre of Scientific Research, Paris, where he 
became the Director of Research in history and anthropology. In 1996 
he was elected President of the International Association of Tibetan 
Studies. He has written a number of books on Tibetan religions, 
including a book on the Fifth Dalai Lama.
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