A friend asked a ticklish question on my return from China: “Is it true the Chinese are repressing the Tibetans? or are they liberating them?” The obvious answer is “it depends on whether you’re Chinese or Tibetan.” But that is too simplistic. Following is a brief historical background and some of my experiences in Tibet. I hope this will enable readers to decide for themselves.
Tibet – a Brief History
Tibetans according to myth are the spawn of the mating of a rock-ogress with a monkey. In pre-history they lived in Zotang Gongpori, a Garden of Eden where over the ages they shed their body hair and tails and began wearing clothes made of leaves. (It’s curious how this myth unites opposing beliefs in the theory of the origin of the species. Here, Biblical creationism meets Darwinism at least half way.) In those days before remembrance, forests covered the snowy mountains. Lakes and streams filled the valleys. But over the ages the trees were felled for fuel, and ditches were dug to drain away the water. Plains became fertile fields where cities grew.
Inevitable when more than one being is in a given place at a given time, an alpha male takes charge. And so came a long line of warrior kings who played games of give and take, and over time broadened Tibet’s borders by bagging parts of India, Nepal and China. Tibetans—and inhabitants of the Holy Land and India and many other lands, too—attribute this inhospitable trait, indeed most of man’s malevolence as an inheritance from beings bearing the double-X-chromosome. It’s all about, Eve!
By the early 7th century Tibet had become an empire, ruled by Songsten Gampo. This king took two wives, one Chinese, the other Nepalese. Despite the bad rap women bear, these wives proved a civilizing influence. Buddhism brought from India began to replace Bon (the ancient animist Pagan religion), and a written language based on the Sanskrit alphabet evolved. The queens may have also indirectly, or directly—with two wives a man needs a bit of privacy—influenced Songsten to build a meditation retreat on Marpo Ri (Red Hill), a structure that centuries later would be incorporated into the world’s highest building (over 12,000 feet) and, until relatively recently, the world’s tallest building: the 13-story Potala Palace.
Up until this time historians more-or-less agree on the myths, legends and facts. What follows depends on who wrote the history, the Tibetans or the Chinese.
Tibet in 634 C.E. (Common Era—Politically Correct for A.D.) either did or did not send envoys and tribute to China. China in 763 C.E. either did or did not pay an annual tribute of 10,000 rolls of silk to Tibet. What is agreed upon is that after centuries of war between neighbors, Lamaism eventually became Tibetans sole religion. They gave up expansionism, withdrew from conquered lands, laid down their weapons in front of Lord Buddha’s Lotus throne and studied war no more.
Genghis Kahn almost changed all that. The Mongol Emperor of just-about-Everywhere, up to and including parts of Europe, also made moves on Tibet. The peaceful Tibetans won him over, however, by serving up a cup of tea that without his help magically lifted itself to his lips. Genghis, recognizing a helluva good cuppa when he saw one, became a Buddhist, himself. Thus the Mongols and Tibetans enjoyed a priest/patron relationship that lasted many years. Genghis’ grandson Kublai eventually made Buddhism the state religion. The Mongols supplied the muscle; the Tibetans paid the tribute. Long live the protection racket!
At this point, historians again part. There is little, if any, agreement on dates or names or places. So I’ll attempt to summarize the next few centuries without mentioning any of the above—unless three or more historians agree within 100 years, two consonants and a vowel and/or 1,000 miles. Otherwise we’ll never get to the photos.
Somewhere between 13?? and 14??, the monk Tsong Khapa founded the Gelugpa sect (the Yellow Hats) and Tibet said bye-bye to kings and hello to Dalai. The Dalai Lama became both spiritual and political leader and was ruler over both for life—actually, thanks to reincarnation, ruler for many lives. When the Dalai Lama departed this life, lesser lamas would seek out the subject his soul elected to move into. This was all very convenient for the seekers, because it usually took only a few years to find the child that the spirit of the late Dalai Lama currently inhabited, which meant the monks were pretty much in total charge until he grew up. And they, being his mentors, pretty much controlled how he grew up. They didn’t do so well with the 6th Dalai Lama, though; his only interests were wine, women and song. He met an untimely and “mysterious” death. Though, in fairness, the wine, women and song may have just been perks for all he accomplished as Dali the 5th, who brought great prosperity to Tibet and built the still-magnificent Potala Palace. Fifteen years after his death—a fact kept quiet by the high muck-a-monks so there would be no interference with the plan—the palace was completed.
Just because religion and government are both necessary evils doesn’t mean that they are necessarily evil. But one can see how it doesn’t take long for a system such as this to become corrupt. Especially when the monks were in charge of international trade and usury, scarcely to mention the business of selling beads, prayer wheels, yak butter, incense, and yes, even prayers! And a most lucrative business it was. Add in tithes and tributes and pretty soon you’re talking real money. Is it any wonder that 20% of the population became priests?
As peaceful as the Tibetans tried to be, for the next 600 years it was one constant power struggle after another between China and Tibet, Nepal and Tibet, Mongolia and Tibet, the British and Tibet, and Tibet and Tibet. The Yellow Hats fought the Red Hats—which is to say Dalai Lama vs. Panchen Lama—landowners fought the monasteries and vice versa. In 1950 the Red Army of the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet to “liberate” the Tibetans from their poverty-stricken medieval backwardness. Like the man who came to dinner, they stayed. In 1959 to avoid assassination the 14th Dalai Lama fled the Summer Palace minutes before it was bombed. Dressed as a soldier, he escaped to India. The Chinese have since invited him back—if only he’ll stick to religion! He has yet to return. The 10th Panchen Lama (the Panchens were always allied with Han China, the Dalais with everyone else but) died in 1989. China denounced the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the 11th Panchen Lama and has replaced him with its own. So the U.S and Switzerland are now hosts to high Lamas but, as far as the PRoC is concerned, both are defrocked and dethroned. So Tibet today is officially an autonomous region within the PRoC—whatever that means—and it is still a poverty-stricken backward land, though striving hard to move out of the 15th century.
Lhasa (Holy Land) was the inspiration for James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, about a land called Shangri-La where people live well past a ripe old age. The population of Tibet, however, is in decline. The Chinese are accused of genocide. Yet short of the hundreds-of-thousands of priests and peasants killed, first by each other, then by the Red Army, then at the hands of the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guard, this decline is as much the fault of the Tibetans as of the Chinese.
Whereas it is true that the PRoC has an “only one child” policy (a very wise one, too, in my humble estimation), the policy does not apply to peasants (who may have two), or to the five minorities, which includes the Tibetans. They may have as many children as they please. Tibet’s mortality problems are unique and manifold and mostly of their own doing. Tibetans bathe but once a year, a ceremonial bath. I can understand that all life forms are sacred but including bacteria may be stretching it a bit far. Venereal disease is rampant, though when people bathe but once a year, I fail to see how it so easily spreads. The rarified air is hard on the heart and lungs, also on the skin. You do not see many old Tibetans, though many look old. Their diet is poor: yak, mutton, peas and buckwheat. The national staple is tsampa, powdered barley stirred into yuck butter tea. Tibetans eat neither fish nor fowl. One male in three becomes a priest, vowed to celibacy. As if that were not already enough, the traditional form of marriage is predominantly polyandry. A woman marries the oldest brother then all the other brothers as they come of age. Combined with lack of personal hygiene, that’s a sure form of birth control.
Until the ayatollahs threw out the shah, Tibet was the world's last theocracy. To the Tibetan, religion is life. Aside from yak herding and tending gardens, their life is spent praying, counting beads, twirling prayer wheels both small and large, and prostrating themselves then crawling about anticlockwise on their bellies to prepare for death and reincarnation in hope of a better life—though how a better life is possible if you come back a Tibetan is beyond me.
Death is handled differently here than in most places. There is an elemental choice of ways to dispose of the mortal remains: earth, fire, water and air. The first is the one most widely used in the Western world, though rarely in Tibet. Tibetans prefer cremation, as do many in the Far East. Given the overabundance of bodies in this part of the world, that makes perfect sense. Burial in water (the corpse as fish food) is more rare. But the most frequent and most bizarre is burial by air. The heirs pay a priest, who very carefully dissects the corpse (something like an overreaching moil) then feeds the morsels to the birds. No waiting. No body to mourn. The soul departs instantaneously and is back in a new form before the deceased is even missed! These latter practices may account for why Tibetans don’t eat fish or fowl. After all, they’re not cannibals.
Tibet is rich in timber, gems and gold. Supposedly, the world’s largest collection of gold is in the Potala Palace, in the form of jeweled topes. To their credit, the Chinese have not touched it . . . yet. But they are building a railroad from China to Tibet, and in traditional Chinese fashion, it is a monumental undertaking that requires boring hundreds of miles of tunnels through many mountains. So who knows what the future holds?
I don’t mean to beg the question of repression or liberation. It’s just that as a Gemini, I am naturally ambivalent. So I'll ask: Did Alexander or the Romans liberate the known world? Did the Mongols or the Manchurians liberate the Han and vice versa? Did Cortez liberate the Aztecs or Pizarro the Incas? Did the Portuguese, Dutch, French, Scandinavians, Spanish, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Russians, Turks or English ever liberate anyone? And let’s not forget the Americas, North, South and Central. History will provide the answer. And, as always, the answer will depend entirely on who writes it.
© copyright 2002 Robert Bowers