Michael Parenti on Tibet

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 7 06:39:16 MDT 2003

Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth
by Michael Parenti
July 7, 2003

Throughout the ages there has prevailed a distressing symbiosis between 
religion and violence. The histories of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, 
and Islam are heavily laced with internecine vendettas, inquisitions, and 
wars. Again and again, religionists have claimed a divine mandate to 
terrorize and massacre heretics, infidels, and other sinners.

Some people have argued that Buddhism is different, that it stands in 
marked contrast to the chronic violence of other religions. But a glance at 
history reveals that Buddhist organizations throughout the centuries have 
not been free of the violent pursuits so characteristic of other religious 
groups. (1) In the twentieth century alone, from Thailand to Burma to Korea 
to Japan, Buddhists have clashed with each other and with nonBuddhists. In 
Sri Lanka, huge battles in the name of Buddhism are part of Sinhalese 
history. (2)

Just a few years ago in South Korea, thousands of monks of the Chogye 
Buddhist order---reputedly devoted to a meditative search for spiritual 
enlightenment---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 additional millions of dollars in property, and the privilege 
of appointing 1,700 monks to various duties. The brawls left dozens of 
monks injured, some seriously. (3)

But many present-day Buddhists in the United States would argue that none 
of this applies to the Dalai Lama and the Tibet he presided over before the 
Chinese crackdown in 1959. The Dalai Lama's Tibet, they believe, was a 
spiritually oriented kingdom, free from the egotistical lifestyles, empty 
materialism, pointless pursuits, and corrupting vices that beset modern 
industrialized society. Western news media, and a slew of travel books, 
novels, and Hollywood films have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a 
veritable Shangri-La and the Dalai Lama as a wise saint, "the greatest 
living human," as actor Richard Gere gushed. (4)

The Dalai Lama himself lent support to this idealized image of Tibet with 
statements such as: "Tibetan civilization has a long and rich history. The 
pervasive influence of Buddhism and the rigors of life amid the wide open 
spaces of an unspoiled environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace 
and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and contentment." (5) In fact, Tibet's 
history reads a little differently. 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.

To elevate his authority beyond worldly challenge, the first 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. (6) 
The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life, enjoying many 
mistresses, partying with friends, writing erotic poetry, and acting in 
other ways that might seem unfitting for an incarnate deity. For this he 
was "disappeared" by his priests. Within 170 years, despite their 
recognized status as gods, five Dalai Lamas were murdered by their 
enlightened nonviolent Buddhist courtiers. (7)

Shangri-La (for Lords and Lamas)

Religions have had a close relationship not only to violence but to 
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 religious or secular manorial estates 
worked by serfs. Even a writer like Pradyumna Karan, sympathetic to the old 
order, admits that "a great deal of real estate belonged to the 
monasteries, and most of them amassed great riches. . . . In addition, 
individual monks and lamas were able to accumulate great wealth through 
active participation in trade, commerce, and money lending." (8) 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 went to the higher-ranking lamas, many of them scions of 
aristocratic families, while most of the lower clergy were as poor as the 
peasant class from which they sprang. This class-determined economic 
inequality within the Tibetan clergy closely parallels that of the 
Christian clergy in medieval Europe.

Along with the upper clergy, secular leaders did well. A notable example 
was the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, who owned 4,000 square 
kilometers of land and 3,500 serfs. He also was a member of the Dalai 
Lama's lay Cabinet. (9) Old Tibet has been misrepresented by some of its 
Western admirers as "a nation that required no police force because its 
people voluntarily observed the laws of karma." (10) In fact. it had a 
professional army, albeit a small one, that served as a gendarmerie for the 
landlords to keep order and catch runaway serfs. (11)

Young Tibetan boys were regularly taken from their families and brought 
into the monasteries to be trained as monks. Once there, they became bonded 
for life. Tashì-Tsering, a monk, reports that it was common practice for 
peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself 
was a victim of repeated childhood rape not long after he was taken into 
the monastery at age nine. (12) The monastic estates also conscripted 
peasant children for lifelong servitude as domestics, dance performers, and 

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. A small minority were slaves, usually 
domestic servants, who owned nothing. Their offspring were born into 
slavery. (13)

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art9/mparen01.html

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