2016-06-30
Excerpted from "Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West," with permission from the University of Chicago Press.


It could be argued that the national culture (and nature) of Tibet was unified in the discursive sense only once the Dalai Lama had gone into exile in 1959. Introduced by Western supporters to the notion of culture, Tibetan refugees could look back at what Tibet had been. But this gaze, at least as it would be represented to the West, saw the Land of Snows only as it was reflected in the elaborately framed mirror of Western fantasies about Tibet. It was only through this mirror, this process of doubling, that a Tibetan nation could be represented as unified, complete and coherent. It was as if a double of Tibet had long haunted the West, and the Tibetans, coming out of Tibet, were not confronted with this double. In this sense the Tibetans stepped into a world in which they were already present, and since their belated arrival--often encouraged by the devotees of Tibet, missionaries of a different stripe--they have merged seamfully into a double that had long been standing. (In a recent visit to London the Dalai Lama was taken to Madame Tussaud's to inspect his wax image.)

In 1880 the master of the Great White Brotherhood, the Mahatma Koot Hoomi, described Tibet in a letter to A. P. Sinnett that materialized in Madame Blavatsky's [founder of the Theosophical Society] cabinet. It read, in part, "For centuries we have had in Thibet a moral, pure hearted, simple people, unblest with civilization, hence--untainted by its vices. For ages has been Thibet the last corner of the globe not so entirely corrupted as to preclude the mingling together of the two atmospheres--the physical and spiritual." From her we can trace a process by which Tibet becomes increasingly symbolic, ethereal and epiphenomenal, a surrogate society, even a sacrificial victim.

[For Westerners,] Tibet has become increasingly symbolic, a surrogate society.

In the preface to "My Life in Tibet" (1939) by Edwin J. Dingle (founder of the Science of Mentalphysics), Louis M. Grafe, in keeping with Hilton's vision of Shangri-La described in "Lost Horizon" just a few years before, portrays Tibet as a preserve of ancient wisdom, a place where Orientals safeguard the wisdom of the white race: "Amid all these changes, was the great original wisdom saved? Yes--thanks to the land which was free of strife and war--Tibet, protected by Nature herself with barriers insurmountable to the greed and war lust of surrounding nations. Here, men of Mongolian extraction were to preserve for the Indo-European the original wisdom of his own white race, to be given back when he showed himself ready for it, or when, as now, the barriers of Nature seem no longer sufficient to protect the sanctuary. Tibet is thus a service society for the white race, preserving a wisdom that originally belonged to it but in the meantime had been lost.

In 1966 the esoteric wisdom of Asia was once again in fashion. But by this time China had overrun Tibet, and the wisdom, held in safekeeping for so long, was in danger of being lost forever. Lama Govinda [a German student of Tibetan Buddhism who helped popularize the Tibetan cause] portrays Tibet as symbolic both of the ancient wisdom that all humanity laments and of the salvific knowledge it longs for in the future:

"...Why is it that the fate of Tibet has found such a deep echo in the world? There can be only one answer: Tibet has become the symbol of all that present-day humanity is longing for, either because it has been lost or not yet been realised or because it is in danger of disappearing from human sight: the stability of a tradition, which has its roots not only in historical or cultural past, but within the innermost being of man, in whose depth this past is enshrined as an ever-present source of inspiration."

In 1991 these sentiments could be reiterated. By this time, however, the cause of Tibet had entered more fully into popular culture and the contrast between the old and the new Tibet could be more sharply drawn. To be preserved, Tibet's wisdom must now be integrated into the world's culture, for the inspiration it provides. Thus, perhaps the most famous of the Western adherents of Tibetan Buddhism, Richard Gere, echoing Madame [Helena] Blavatsky [founder of the Theosophical Society], [Walter] Evans-Wentz [the first Western translator of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead"], and voices from a century ago, describes Tibet as everything that the materialist West wants. It is Tibet that can save the West by showing us, prophetically, what we can be by showing us what it had been. It is Tibet that can save the West, cynical and materialist, from itself. Tibet is seen as the cure for an ever-dissolving Western civilization, restoring its spirit.

An internal absence is thus perceived as existing outside, and if it be outside, let it be found in the most remote, the most inaccessible, the most mysterious part of the world: "Prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the Tibetans were unusually peaceful and happy. Isolated for centuries from a chaotic world they deeply mistrusted, they developed a wondrous, unique civilization based wholly on the practice of Buddhism's highest ideals. Theirs has been a revolutionary social experiment based on spiritual, psychological, and philosophical insights that provide us with models for achieving intimate and creative relationships with the vast and profound secrets of the human soul. Tibet's importance for our time, and for the future survival of Earth itself, is more critical than ever. Being our most vibrant link to the ancient wisdom traditions, Tibet, and the sanity she represents, must not be allowed to disappear." [See Marilyn M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurman, "Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet" (Harry N. Abrams)]

From here it is rather a small step to the view of Tibet as surrogate state and the Tibetan people as sacrificial victims. Such a view was expressed in a mimeographed document I received in 1993 from something called World Service Network; the document was titled "The New Tibet--The Pure Land." Here in a bizarre amalgam of Christian, Theosophical, and New Age imagery, Tibet and the Tibetan people are portrayed as innocent sacrificial offerings immolated in the horror of the Chinese invasion and occupation so that Tibet might be purified and transformed into a New Age mission field, which, once converted will serve as the headquarters of a global utopia.

On September 21, 1987, the Dalai Lama presented a five-point peace plan to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. He called for (1) the transformation of Tibet into a "zone of peace," (2) a cessation of the Chinese policy of population transfer into Tibet, (3) respect for the human rights of the Tibetan people, (4) the restoration and protection of Tibet's natural environment, including the removal of nuclear weapons and waste from Tibet, and (5) commencement of serious negotiations with the Chinese on the future status of Tibet. Receiving no positive response from the Chinese, he offered a new proposal before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on June 15, 1988, in which he moved away from his call for outright independence for Tibet, instead proposing that Tibet be "a self-governing democratic political entity...in association with the People's Republic of China," with China responsible for Tibet's foreign policy. Again, this proposal elicited only a negative response from the Chinese, as it did from certain members of the Tibetan refugee community, who saw it as an abandonment of the cause of independence.

These two proposals can be read as the Dalai Lama's concession to the political reality of China's occupation and colonization of Tibet.

Almost 40 years after the Chinese invasion, there was no indication that China would renounce its claims on Tibet in the foreseeable future (the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 provided a brief flicker of hope). By putting forward these two proposals, the Dalai Lama indicated his own flexibility to negotiate in order to improve the situation of the Tibetans in Tibet. It is difficult, however, for anyone, perhaps most of all the Dalai Lama, to speak about Tibet without a multitude of associations coming into play. Thus his proposals of 1987 and 1988 can be seen as an abandonment of the goal of an autonomous Tibetan nation-state just as the idea of such a state had begun to take form in exile.

At the same time, his turn away from the particularity of the nation-state to the ideal of a "zone of peace" is continuous with the Buddhist modernist universalism he espouses, with its strong emphasis on nonviolence as a fundamental component of Buddhism. He writes in "My Tibet," "It is my dream that the entire Tibetan Plateau should be a free refuge where humanity and nature can live in peace and in harmonious balance. It would be a place where people from all over the world could come to seek the true meaning of peace within themselves, away from the tensions and pressures of much of the rest of the world. Tibet could indeed become a creative center for the promotion and development of peace. The Tibetan Plateau would be transformed into the world's largest natural park or biosphere."

What seems inevitable, however, is the way in which his proposals appear to blend so seamlessly with the pre- and post-diaspora fantasies of Tibet as a place unlike any other on the globe, a zone of peace, free of the weapons that harm humans and the environment, where the practice of compassion is preserved for the good of humanity and all sentient beings. The Dalai Lama presents his position succinctly in the foreword to Pierre-Antoine Donnet's "Tibet: Survival in Question":

"Tibetan civilization has a long and rich history. The pervasive influence of Buddhism and the rigours of life amid the wide open spaces of an unspoilt environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and contentment. Since the Chinese invasion in 1950, however, the Tibetan people as a whole has endured untold suffering and abuse. Tibetan religion and culture has been attacked, its artefacts destroyed and its proponents condemned.

Tibetans have often perceived the relationship between Tibet and China as that of "patron and priest." Tibetans in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, have been forced to turn to new patrons--in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Japan and Taiwan.

"Tibet's religious culture, its medical knowledge, peaceful outlook and respectful attitude to the environment contain a wealth of experience that can be of widespread benefit to others. It has lately become clear that no amount of technological development on its own leads to lasting happiness. What people need is that sense of inner peace and hope that many have remarked among Tibetans, even in the face of adversity. The source of this lies mostly in the Buddhist teachings of love, kindness, tolerance and especially the theory that all things are relative. Our cultural traditions form a precious part of the world's common heritage. Humanity would be poorer if they were to be lost."

It would seem, then, that the Dalai Lama's teaching of universal compassion and the relative unimportance of national distinction are ultimately antithetical to the case for an autonomous Tibetan state. They are compatible, instead, when Tibet is made a surrogate state, a fantasy for the spiritualist desires of non-Tibetans, desires that have remained remarkably consistent during the past century, as evidenced by the string of quotations from Master Koot Hoomi to Richard Gere.

From another perspective, however, the Dalai Lama's teachings have played a most traditional role. Since Tibet's submission to the Mongols in the 12th century, Tibetans have often perceived the relationship between Tibet and China as that of "patron and priest" (yon mchod): the leading lama of Tibet (in subsequent centuries, generally the Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama) was seen as the religious advisor and chief priest to the emperor, who acted as the patron and protector of the lama and, by extension, of Tibet. It was a relationship of exchange. The lama provided rituals and instructions that would protect the emperor and his empire in this and future lives. In return, the emperor provided the lama and his state with material support and military protection. Since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the patron-priest relation with China has effectively ceased, with the Chinese now arrogating the role of the selection of the priest (as in the case of the Panchen Lama controversy of 1995 and 1996) to themselves.

Tibetans in exile, led by the Dalai Lama, have thus been forced to turn to new patrons--in Europe, the Americas, Australia, Japan and Taiwan--for whom they perform the role of the priest by giving religious instructions and initiations and from whom in return they receive financial contributions and political support for the cause of Tibetan independence. The measure of the success and of the sphere of patronage (and thus influence) of Tibetan lamas in this regard can be plotted historically by the increasingly larger geographical regions in which incarnate lamas are discovered. After the death of the third Dalai Lama, to whom the Mongol leader, the Altan Khan, had pledged his support, the Altan Khan's grandnephew was recognized as the fourth Dalai Lama. Today, incarnate lamas are discovered in Europe and America. In this way Tibetans have quite literally incorporated foreigners into their patronage sphere through their own version of colonialism, what might be termed a spiritual colonialism. Rather than taking control of a nation, Tibetan Buddhists are building an empire of individuals who, inhabited from birth by the spirit of a Tibetan saint, become, in effect, Tibetans, regardless of their ethnicity.

The Dalai Lama may have a long-term strategy, then, one that serves Buddhist universalism, the freedom of Tibet, and the utopian aspirations of Tibetophiles around the world. Since coming into exile, the Dalai Lama has given the Kalacakra initiation over 20 times. This initiation is unusual among tantric initiations in that it is given in public, often to large gatherings; recent attendance has exceeded 250,000 people. When the initiation is given in Europe or America (as in Madison Square Garden), it has often been called "Kalacakra for World Peace." This peace may have a special meaning, however, for those who take the initiation are planting the seeds to be reborn in their next lifetime in Shambhala, the Buddhist pure land across the mountains dedicated to the preservation of Buddhism. In the year 2425, the army of the king will sweep out of Shambhala and defeat the barbarians in a Buddhist Armageddon, restoring Buddhism to India and to the world and ushering in a reign of peace.

In Hilton's novel, the inhabitants of Shangri-La sometimes found it necessary to resort to kidnapping in order to populate their utopia, commandeering an airplane and bringing its occupants to the Valley of the Blue Moon. The Dalai Lama may have found a more efficient technique for populating Shambhala and recruiting troops for the army of the 25th king, an army that will defeat the enemies of Buddhism and bring the utopia of Shambhala, hidden for so long beyond the Himalayas, to the world. It is the Dalai Lama's prayer, he says, that he will someday give the Kalacakra initiation in Beijing.

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