For quite some time now, the cause of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism has enjoyed a phenomenal vogue in the advanced circles of the West. The “Tibetan cultural heritage,” as it is known, is universally understood to be the repository of a precious spiritual wisdom—one, moreover, that is critically relevant to the future of the entire world. But Tibet’s heritage is also seen to be highly endangered, in need of urgent support and rescue by the West.
One can date the emergence of the Tibetan cause fairly precisely. It occurred after the country was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1950, and especially after the 1959 flight to India of its spiritual and temporal leader, the 14th Dalai Lama. Before that time, Tibet barely registered in the West’s consciousness. Indeed, for centuries it had effectively disappeared from the political map of the world.
In the 1960’s and 70’s a new Tibet was born, not so much a country as a mental construct. Its progenitor was the Diaspora establishment headed by the Dalai Lama, centered in the Himalayan hill station of Dharamsala in North India. There, the leaders of a small community comprising no more than 5 percent of the Tibetan people as a whole undertook to construct a wholly new idea of Tibetan identity—and hugely succeeded.
One of the reasons Tibet went largely unnoticed until 1959 is that it had never been colonized by a European power. Colonialism, whatever its sins, has been a great producer of knowledge. It modernized the countries under its sway, bringing technology, infrastructure, schools, and libraries. It also arranged for the education of native elites in the universities and professional schools of the colonial metropolis.
Tibet missed all this. Unlike in the case of India, no records, surveys, or reports about it accumulated in Western research institutes, no colonial scholar-officers explored local history and culture, and no means existed through which Western-style knowledge might be disseminated to the inhabitants. The harshness of the country’s landscape and climate, together with its self-imposed isolation, enhanced its reputation as a “forbidden land.” Until the second half of the 20th century, it was known mostly by adventurers, missionaries, amateur explorers, and (following the 1904 British invasion) a few political officers disguised as trade agents.
Which is not to say that it was without its fans. Detached from history, transcending time and change, Tibet became for many a kind of utopia—a Shangri-La.
That, of course, is the name of the fictitious trans-Himalayan valley that provides the setting of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, and of the 1937 film by Frank Capra made from it. In that inaccessible valley, a spiritual community has taken refuge in a monastery housing the most valuable treasures of civilization—treasures to be restored to the world after the exiled Christian faith returns to prevail on earth. Members of the community, leading a serene, tranquil existence, their wants seen to by peaceful local Tibetans, enjoy the blessings of an illness-free longevity.
Hilton’s novel is a Westernized and bowdlerized version of the ancient myth of Shambhala, a hidden kingdom somewhere north of Tibet where enlightened kings guard the secret core of Buddhist teachings until the moment when their armies will destroy the forces of evil and usher in a golden age. And here is but one aspect of the idealized notion of Tibet that would seize the imagination of the Western world: while Westerners look to Tibet as the locus of a sublime ancient wisdom, Tibetans themselves have traditionally, as in the myth of Shambhala, looked for it somewhere else.
The Shangri-La view of Tibet would be given fresh impetus by the countercultural movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. Young (and not so young) Europeans and Americans proclaimed themselves to be in search of a new “paradigm,” one based on moral and spiritual principles instead of the destructive forces of market capitalism and power politics. To many of them, Tibet seemed to offer such a paradigm, vague enough to serve as a kind of screen on which to project their own dreams and fantasies. Their Tibet, with its unique wisdom, not only was precious in itself but represented the last remaining hope for the ills of the materially rich but spiritually impoverished civilization of the West. It was a place inhabited by a simple, deeply religious, and inherently nonviolent people, ruled by an emanation of the Buddha in accordance with the tenets of benevolence, compassion, and the sanctity of all life.
How genuine is this version of Tibet’s religious and cultural heritage?
The form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet is a blend of indigenous and imported elements that consolidated itself in the period following the disintegration of the Tibetan kingdom in the 9th century. By the 11th century, this branch of Buddhism had developed several monastic orders or lineages, which soon accumulated great wealth. Unlike in other forms of Buddhism, the monastic establishment became strong enough to share power with the Tibetan aristocracy, and its hierarchs became not only prominent in political life but heads of Tibetan states.
As for the characteristic practices of Tibetan Buddhism, these comprise several strands. In the most familiar one, similar to forms of Buddhism found in other Asian societies, the primary pathway to ultimate enlightenment (buddhahood) lies through scholarship combined with monastic discipline; the paradigmatic figure is the scholar-monk. But what truly distinguishes Tibetan Buddhism is something else, namely, the shamanic component: that is, the use of psycho-physical techniques to create altered states of consciousness. This puts the practitioner in communication with a mode of reality more fundamental than that of everyday experience. Such shamanic techniques are found in many societies, but Tibet is the only known literate society in which they form a central rather than marginal element.
Shamanism operates in two distinct though overlapping areas of religious life. The first is folk religion. For the great majority of Tibetans, everyday existence is affected by a variety of spirits that populate forests, mountain peaks, lakes, rivers, rocks, caves, and house corners. Some of these spirits hide in people’s armpits, others take a ride on their shoulders. They are neither good nor bad; they help or harm, protect or attack, depending on how they are treated. Offense makes them dangerous; offerings pacify them. The domain they control is entirely mundane: health, wealth, crops, road safety, family and community life. Traffic with these spirits consists of pleasing, bribing, and paying ransom to them, and is mediated by shamanic specialists.
The second area, that of shamanic Buddhism proper, relates to the goal of achieving buddhahood. This state of being—conceived, as I have mentioned, in terms of an alternative mode of reality—is evoked through ritual, including the manipulation of consciousness by means of yoga, meditation, and the simulation of desired states of mind. The path toward enlightenment is represented by formulas like the mandala (most familiar to contemporary Westerners in the form of sacred sand paintings); the desired states of mind are symbolized by images of tantric divinities.
In shamanic Buddhism, the central figure is not a monk but the tantric lama, who need not be celibate or have formal monastic training but whose proficiency in ritual and yogic practice generates in him shamanic—i.e., “magical”—power. This he uses on behalf of the lay population. The lama is well aware that his clients are concerned mainly with securing a better reincarnation or other mundane benefits, and his use of his magical power for the good of his followers and in the training of other shamanic practitioners is an expression of his compassion—a virtue helpful in his own progress toward enlightenment. The nexus between the pursuit of enlightenment by a small minority and the demand for shamanic services by the great majority is the hallmark of Tibetan Buddhism.
If these are the main components of Tibetan Buddhism and by extension the Tibetan “cultural heritage,” whence the many other qualities imputed to it by Western admirers? Here we may return to the Dharamsala leaders, who were critically instrumental in re-positioning Tibet or, as we would say today, re-branding it, in a form palatable to Western audiences. They did so mainly by incorporating into Tibetan Buddhism a number of concepts and ideas that had never been part of Tibetan culture. These include the espousal of nonviolence, concern with the environment, human rights, world peace, feminism, and the like. At the same time, they brought forward the ethical element, hitherto minor in Tibetan Buddhism, and weeded out a number of specifically Tibetan features, especially the more esoteric and ritualistic ones.
They were abetted in this task by initiatives elsewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries to “modernize” Buddhism by, for instance, dispensing with the parts of its cosmology that were in conflict with Western scientific thought. This kind of Buddhist modernism, unknown in Tibet, was adopted by the Dalai Lama more or less simultaneously with his adoption of a philosophy of nonviolence derived from Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. To this he eventually added the rhetoric of world peace, ecology, human rights, and the rest of the amorphous agenda that informs the liberal Western conscience.
Catering to the tastes of Western academics and New Age adepts alike, the diaspora establishment led by the Dalai Lama also began stressing the elements of the sacred and the mystical in Tibetan discourse. For both internal and foreign consumption, it selected for publication mostly religious texts, especially hagiographies, while barring critical historical analysis and allowing very few translations into Tibetan from other languages. For a long time, contact with foreign cultures was limited to a small, English-speaking elite.
The last fifteen years have witnessed a watershed in academic research into the Tibetan past. Historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists, relying on extensive field work and critical readings of original documents, have shed new light on, among other things, Tibetan military expansionism in the imperial period (7th to late 9th century), the diversity of authority structures in different Tibetan states, and the practical workings of Tibet’s relations with the Mongols and the Manchus. These studies have shown the inadequacy of treating Tibet solely as a victim of outside forces rather than as also an agent in much of its own history.
And yet, despite the achievements of recent scholarship, the Shangri-La image continues to enjoy wide currency in the West, and not only among activists and partisans but among reputable scholars as well. To illustrate, let me briefly focus on the quality perhaps responsible more than any other for Tibet’s popularity in the West: namely, its allegedly deep-seated cultural affinity for nonviolence.
Even a cursory look at history reveals that nonviolence has never been a traditional Tibetan practice, or a societal norm, or, for that matter, a teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Before the present Dalai Lama’s encounter with the Gandhian concept of ahimsa, no Dalai Lama had ever invoked nonviolence as a virtue. Nor does ahimsa—meaning the abstinence from causing injury to any living creature—have any equivalent in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
True, compassion (Tibetan snying rje, Sanskrit karuna) is an important religious and philosophical tenet, but it denotes above all the wish to save others from suffering by imparting to them Buddhist wisdom. In any case, it is not known ever to have been applied to political life in the way that, for instance, Gandhi took ahimsa as mandating a strategy of passive resistance to evil.
Pre-modern and modern Tibet engaged in many offensive campaigns against its neighbors, all of them sanctioned by Dalai Lamas. Domestically, too, Tibetan monasteries maintained private armies that were deployed in conflicts with the local government, with other monasteries, and sometimes even among schools within the same monastery. Fighting “dobdos” were known to constitute 15 percent of the monks of the great Gelugpa monasteries in and around Lhasa. Political rivalries were often settled by assassination. Some Dalai Lamas may have been kind and compassionate in person, but the historical record before 1960 unequivocally contradicts the image of a Dalai Lama preaching or practicing nonviolence.
Yet here is Robert Thurman, the well-known professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University—and a leading pro-Tibet activist—declaring that the great 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682) was “a compassionate and peace-loving ruler who created in Tibet a unilaterally disarmed society.” And here, by way of contrast, are the instructions of the 5th Dalai Lama himself to his commanders, who had been ordered to subdue a rebellion in Tsang in 1660:
Make the male lines like trees that have had their roots cut; make the female lines like brooks that have dried up in winter; make the children and grandchildren like eggs smashed against rocks; make the servants and followers like heaps of grass consumed by fire; make their dominion like a lamp whose oil has been exhausted; in short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.
Apart from creating a Tibetan past that never was, the diaspora leadership and its non-Tibetan advisers and collaborators have deployed selected aspects of Tibetan culture as tools in their effort to influence the global agenda. Examples include events co-produced by Western activists and Tibetan artists and monks in theaters, museums, and parks in the United States and other Western countries. Most of these shows are funded by American philanthropic institutions (like the Ford Foundation) and star the Dalai Lama and a Western intellectual (like Thurman) or celebrity (like Richard Gere). Their purpose is to reinforce the establishment’s narrative of “Tibetanness” while recruiting new adherents to the agenda of support and rescue.
Here a genuinely Tibetan quality of mind is indeed manifest. The Dalai Lama has often stated that he sees his life’s mission as “the preservation of the endangered Tibetan cultural heritage for the sake of all humanity.” His formulation is rooted in a fundamental tenet of Mahayana Buddhism: individual practitioners should strive not solely for their own sake but for the sake of all sentient beings. This disposition, embodied in the figure of the bodhisattva (enlightened being) who out of compassion seeks to use his enlightenment for the good of others, is the principle on which the Dalai Lama—himself believed to be an emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion—rests his claim to relevance in the modern world.
And that relevance is indisputable. The Dalai Lama has been spectacularly successful in turning Buddhism into one of the world’s great living religions and a force in global intellectual and political discourse. He has enriched Western cultural life not only by offering alternative paths of spiritual experience but by stimulating in some circles a reappraisal of accepted paradigms of both thought and practice. And he has placed his authority and popularity at the service of such global concerns as peace and respect for life.
But the task he considers his life’s mission—“the preservation of the Tibetan cultural heritage”—is another matter. The effort to maintain an esoteric tradition, embodied in a numerically, politically, and economically negligible group of people, has confronted the Dalai Lama with a difficult dilemma. For a group dependent on others for its physical and cultural survival, the key consideration must be how it chooses to present itself to those who ultimately control its fate. The Dalai Lama seems to have chosen to buy a chance to continue the pursuit of scholarship and discipline within a very limited circle of insiders at the expense of offering an idealized and hybridized image of his culture for Western consumption.
That idealized image, skillfully adapted to the needs and expectations of the Western public, has indeed succeeded in gathering much enthusiastic support, thereby keeping alive both the Tibetan issue and the diaspora community embodying it. Nor, in point of fact, is the Dalai Lama’s use of Buddhism to recruit support or patronage without its own precedents in Tibetan history. Trading religious services and spiritual guidance for political, military, and material protection (Tibetan chos-yon, usually translated as patron-lama relationship) was the hallmark of Tibetan relations with the Mongol and later Manchu rulers of China since the 13th century.
Would it be far-fetched to see the whole complex of relations between the Tibetan exile community and the West, and in particular the Dalai Lama’s relations with the world’s rich, powerful, and glamorous, as a contemporary variant of the traditional patron-lama pattern? Is this how best to understand the public displays of embodied Buddhism: the ritual sand-mandala constructions by Tibetan monks in the foyers of museums staging exhibitions of Tibetan art, the mass initiations conducted by the Dalai Lama in New York’s Central Park, the mass prayers he leads for world peace? Is all of this most plausibly viewed as a contemporary instance of the same strategy that successfully mediated relations between the Tibetan vassal states and their Mongol and Manchu overlords for hundreds of years?
The historical ironies here are manifold, and quite delicious. Somehow, though, one doubts they would be appreciated by the Thurmans, the Geres, or any among the multitude of educated Westerners who have thrilled to the Shangri-La version of the Tibetan cultural heritage.