Before considering Tibet today, some words should be said about Tibetan Buddhism as a religion. The accommodations it made with Bon resulted in its becoming very different from other forms of Buddhism, particularly from the more common and much larger Chan Buddhism of China (called Zen in Japan). Images found in Tibetan Buddhist temples are much fiercer than those found in other Buddhist temples, and some Tibetan ceremonies that once used human skulls, human skin, and fresh human intestines clearly reflect the animistic elements of Bon.
Also, Tibetan Buddhists rely a great deal on prayer wheels, which most other Buddhists scorn. These are mechanical devices with prayers written on them that are constantly turned by water or wind so the forces of nature do the work of sending prayers to heaven.
The reincarnation of Living Buddhas, which is unique to this form of Buddhism, began as early as 1294 with the Karma Kagyu sect, a sub-sect of the Kagyu sect (known as the black hats). It then spread to all of Tibetan Buddhism’s other sects and monasteries, but it didn’t reach the Gelugpa sect (the one that includes the Dalai and Panchen Lama lines) until after 1419.
From the beginning, the system of selecting Living Buddhas was open to abuse because it was easy for clever members of the monk selection committee to manipulate the objects presented to potential child candidates in order to make sure a particular child was chosen. In the case of the fourth Dalai Lama, the child selected was the great-grandson of the Mongolian chief Altan Khan. He was chosen at a time when the Gelugpa sect badly needed the protection of the Altan Khan’s followers because the Gelugpa were being persecuted by the older Tibetan sects, who were jealous of the Yellow sect’s rapid growth.
Tibet Since 1949
In 1949, the Chinese Communists won the revolution and overthrew the Nationalist government. But they didn’t send their army into Tibet until October 1951, after they and Tibetan representatives of the 14th Dalai Lama and 10th Panchen Lama had signed an agreement to liberate Tibet peacefully. The Dalai Lama expressed his support for this 17-point agreement in a telegraphed message to Chairman Mao on October 24, 1951. Three years later the Dalai and Panchen Lamas went together to Beijing to attend the first National People’s Congress at which the Dalai Lama was elected vice-chairman of the Standing Committee and the Panchen Lama was elected a member of that committee. After the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered Tibet, they took steps to protect the rights of the serfs but didn’t, at first, try to reorganize Tibetan society along socialist or democratic lines. Yet, the landlords and ruling monks knew that in time, their land would be redistributed, just as the landlords’ property in the rest of China had been confiscated and divided among the peasants.
The Tibetan landlords did all they could to frighten the serfs away from associating with the PLA. But, as the serfs increasingly ignored their landlords’ wishes and called on the Communists to eliminate the oppressive system of serfdom, some leaders of the "three great monasteries" (Ganden, Sera, and Drepung) issued a statement, in the latter half of 1956, demanding the feudal system be maintained. At this point, the PLA decided the time had come to confiscate the landlords’ property and redistribute it among the serfs. The landlords and top-level monks retaliated by announcing, in March 1959, the founding of a "Tibet Independent State," and about 7,000 of them assembled in Lhasa to stage a revolt. Included were more than 170 "Khampa guerrillas" who had been trained overseas by the O.S.S. and air-dropped into Tibet, according to a former C.I.A. agent. The O.S.S. also gave them machine guns, mortars, rifles and ammunition.
The PLA put down the revolt in Lhasa within two days, capturing some 4,000 rebels. The rebellion had the support of the Dalai Lama, but not of the Panchen Lama. After it failed, the Dalai Lama, along with a group of rebel leaders, fled to India.
The most disruptive event of recent years was the "cultural revolution," which lasted from 1966 to 1976. It turned most of Tibet’s farm and herding areas into giant communes and closed or destroyed many monasteries and temples, just as it did elsewhere in China. At its end, the communes were disbanded and the temples and monasteries were repaired and reopened at government expense.
The idea that most Tibetans are unhappy about what has happened in Tibet and want independence from China is a product manufactured in the West and promoted by the dispossessed landlords who fled to India. Indeed, to believe it is true stretches logic to its breaking point. Who really can believe that a million former serfs – more than 90% of the population – are unhappy about having the shackles of serfdom removed? They now care for their own herds and farmland, marry whomever they wish without first getting their landlord’s permission, aren’t punished for disrespecting these same landlords, own their own homes, attend school, and have relatively modern hospitals, paved roads, airports and modern industries.
An objective measure of this progress is found in the population statistics. The Tibetan population has doubled since 1950, and the average Tibetan’s life span has risen from 36 years at that time to 65 years at present.
Of course some Tibetans are unhappy with their lot, but a little investigation soon shows that they are, for the most part, people from families who lost their landlord privileges. There is plenty of evidence that the former serfs tell a quite different story.
You will find some Tibetans who hate the Hans (the majority nationality of China) and some Hans who hate the Tibetans, a matter of ordinary ethnic prejudice something any American should be able to understand. But, this doesn’t represent a desire for an independent Tibet any more than black- white hostilities in Washington, D.C., Detroit, or Boston represent a desire on the part of most African-Americans to form a separate nation.
Tibetan Culture Today
The final part of the Tibetan myth has to do with Tibetan culture, which the Dalai Lama’s supporters say has been crushed by "the Chinese takeover of Tibet." Culture is an area that requires great care because it is fraught with biases and self-fulfilling judgments. The growth of television in America, for example, is cited as killing American culture by some and as enhancing it by others.
Regarding the field of literature, prior to 1950 Tibetans could point with pride to only a few fine epics that had been passed down through the centuries. Now that serfs can become authors, many new writers are producing works of great quality; persons such as the poet Yedam Tsering and the fiction writers Jampel Gyatso, Tashi Dawa, and Dondru Wangbum.
As for art, Tibet for centuries had produced nothing but repetitious religious designs for temples. Now there are many fine artists, such as Bama Tashi, who has been hailed in both France and Canada as a great modern artist who combines Tibetan religious themes with modern pastoral images.
Tibet now has more than 30 professional song and dance ensembles, Tibetan opera groups, and other theatrical troupes where none existed before 1950.
No, Tibetan culture is not dead; it is flourishing as never before.
Foster Stockwell is an American writer who grew up as the son of missionaries in southwestern China (Chengdu) near Tibet, and has visited China many times in recent years. His several books include Religion in China Today (New World Press) and Mount Huashan (Foreign Languages Press)