Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: A History Of The Real Tibet, Not The Tibet Of Our Imaginations

Where is Tibet?

That depends upon which Tibet you are talking about. Is it the Tibet that the Chinese occupiers refer to as the Tibet Autonomous Region? Is it the larger ethnographic Tibet that share the same language? Or is it the larger still Tibet of yore that overlaps with four Chinese provinces and four other Himalayan kingdoms?

And while we're at it, was Tibet the spiritual paradise that Hollywood movies evoke before the Chinese liberation or occupation or whatever you believe it to be? Or was it a place of medieval suffering in which peasants were bound to overlords for life, as Beijing would like you to believe?

Sam Van Schaik, an English Tibetologist, does an admirable job of sorting out those questions in
Tibet: A History, a newly published book that offers a fascinating narrative on the 1,400 year history of the kingdom at the top of the world. He notes that Tibetan history is replete with saintly traditions but it also was a violent and dangerous place, as well as a highly stratified society with an aristocratic minority and peasant and nomad majority. And of course the Dalai Lamas and priests living in the extraordinary latticework of monasteries and stupas.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from
Tibet: A History is that is has not been the isolated and unchanging place of our imagination, cut off from the rest of humanity by some of the world's high mountains. In fact, Van Schaik writes, Tibet was deeply involved with other cultures throughout much of its history, underwent enormous political and religious changes, but did not coalesce into anything resembling a national identity until the 20th century.

* * * * *
As has so often been the case with emerging kingdoms, the first man to lead Tibet -- Prince Songsten Gampo, a man whose father had semi-divine status -- united the region's once nomadic warring clans in the early 7th century and began looking outward for worlds to conquer. He also looked for cultures to assimilate.

Van Schaik writes that:

"Though not without a culture of their own, the Tibetans were hungry for more. And so they learned from Nepal, India, China and Persia, adopting and combining elements from each to create a distinct culture of their own. Lhasa, the empire's capital, became the centre of these new developments."

It was early in the 8th century that the scales started to tip toward Buddhism.

It was an unlikely patron of Buddhism, Princess Jincheng, daughter of the emperor of the Chinese Tang dynasty and teenage bride of the even younger Tibetan tsenpo (emperor), who instigated the sea change that would replace clan mythologies and rituals and make that religion the defining influence of Tibetan culture.

Tibet thrived, and under the leadership of Emperor Trisong Detsen its fearsome armies soon captured the Chinese capital. Although Tibet held it only briefly, it gained control of the Silk Road and control of its lucrative trade. It would be nearly 1,000 years before China was to lord over Tibet again.

Despite brief flirtations with Islam and Christianity, Buddhism's hold on the kingdom strengthened in large part because Tibetans became convinced by missionaries of the efficacy of Buddha's teachings.

Van Schaik:

"As well as teaching that karma was the true agent of happiness and sorrow, the missionaries spoke of a state entirely beyond the cycle of rebirth . . . The worship of local deities never died out in Tibet, but Buddhism provided a significant alternative to this spirit world, a broader framework that was attractive to those who envisioned a new international role for the Tibetan empire."

By the middle of the 11th century, monasteries and monks were a common sight, but Tibetan society was again in a state of turmoil and conflicts were constantly breaking out between rival warlords. It was impossible for the heads of monasteries to avoid becoming involved in politics as they vied for patronage from the local nobility.

Then in 1240 a small Mongol army invaded and took over Tibet with little resistance.

The kingdom's new ruler was Kubilai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and already a legend in his own time. The Mongols' primary contributions to Tibet were a reinstitution of central authority and levels of taxation never before seen; Tibet in return gave their conquerers Tibetan Buddhism, which became the main religion of the Mongol court.

Mongol rule last for 114 years, the last decade of which was characterized by a drawn-out civil war, but by 1315 a political realist by the name of Jangchub Gyaltsen took over and received official recognition from the teetering Mongol empire in the form of the title Tai Situ, meaning "Great Tutor," which still survives today as the title of a high lama in the Karma Kagyu school.

Gyaltsen instituted a less harsh legal code, ignored his largely powerless in-kingdom enemies and ushered in what is referred to as Tibet's Golden Age, a 228-year period of relative tranquility and freedom from invaders.

Van Shaik writes that it was an opportune time to consolidate Tibetan knowledge:

"The thousands of Buddhist scripture translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit were brought together in great canonical collections . . . [while] new books written by Tibetan scholars elegantly summarised the great panoply of Buddhist thought and came to define the specifically 'Tibetan' form of Buddhism. The authoritative texts for Tibetan medicine were written down in the form that is still used today."

* * * * *
The end of the Golden Age was marked by the coming of the first Dalai Lama.

Ranusi, which means "protected by goats milk" for the diet his parents fed him after all of their previous children had died in childbirth, had been recognized by Gelung lamas at age three as the rebirth of a recently deceased abbot. He took lay vows and was bestowed the religious name of Sonam Gyatso, or "Ocean of Merit."

Three Dalai Lamas succeeded him, but it initially appeared that there might not be a fifth because the powerful king of Tsang province, wary of the political potency of the role, banned the Gelung monks from appointing a new one. (The Chinese occupiers have gotten around this in the present century by naming their own successor to the 14th and present Dalai Lama. He is not recognized by most Tibetans and the international community.)

The monks defied the king and named a new Dalai Lama, but he immediately had to go into hiding and did not return to public view until Mongol troops swept back into Tibet in 1641 and overwhelmed the Tsang army.

The death of the fifth Dalai Lama was kept secret for years (in all likelihood so the immense Potala Palace, the greatest emblem of Tibet, could be finished ) and the sixth Dalai Lama -- a hard-drinking womanizer and writer of love songs -- was not enthroned until 1697.

The Dzungars, a Mongolian people, invaded Tibet in 1717 and a successor seventh Dalai Lama was installed in 1721 after the armies of Kangxi, the Chinese emperor, routed the Dzungars and Tibet was once again unified

* * * * *
By 1776, the year that American colonists declared their independence from England, British influence in South Asia extended to the foothills of the Himalayas. The East India Company, which had transformed India into the crown jewel of the British empire, knew that there is tantalizing new trade opportunities in Tibet, including gold, silver, musk and, because China had refused to enter into trade agreements, an indirect source of Chinese silk.

But repeated efforts by the British were rebuffed and it wasn't until the close of the 19th century that George Nathaniel Curzon, the viceroy of India, again turned Britain's attention to Tibet. This time the reason was not trade, but the perceived Russian threat to India. Afghanistan was already a useful buffer state and Curzon saw Tibet in the same role in the strategic rivalry immortalized in Kipling's
Kim that became known as The Great Game.

For three years Curzon sent letters to the 13th Dalai Lama and for three years they were returned unopened. Curzon grew increasingly worried because of reports from his Indian spies, who were known as "pundits," that the Dalai Lama and the Czar Nicholas II were about to sign a bilateral alliance. That was far from the case, but the British press was aflame with reports to the contrary and Curzon contemplated a military advance.

In December of 1903, an expedition of 2,500 soldiers, mostly Gurkhas and Sikhs under the command of British officers, and some 10,000 porters slowly made their way into Tibet. The tiny Tibetan army was armed with only creaky matchlocks and the British encountered little resistance. The Dalai Lama had fled into Mongolia by the time they entered the gates of Lhasa.

The British occupation was short lived and the Dalai Lama returned in November 1904, ushering in a period of independence and reform that would last until the Communist government incorporated Tibet into the People's Republic of China in 1950 after negotiating an agreement with the government of the newly crowned 14th and present Dalai Lama.

After a rebellion was crushed in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he established a rival government-in-exile. Upwards of a million Tibetans died during the Great Leap Forward as political and social "reforms" were put into place, which is to say the suppression of Tibetan culture and religion, and the Chinese repeatedly put down separatist campaigns, most recently in 2008 on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

Nevertheless, Tibetans --both in Tibet and in exile -- are perhaps more conscious of their cultural identities than ever.
At the end of Tibet: A History, Van Shaik concludes that:

"What is striking here is the way that elements of Tibetan culture going back centuries . . . are being used to strengthen a sense of identity, of distinctness from Chinese culture. And in defining what it means to be Tibetan largely in contrast to what it means to be Chinese, [contemporary Tibetan] writers are attempting to transcend the old regional and religious identities determined by which part of Tibet one was born in or which religious school one supported.

"For some, independence from China is not a viable or even particularly desirable option. Others fear that, without independence, Tibet will simply disappear. What is Tibet? Surely the most important answers will be those put forward not by foreign historians or political theorists, but by Tibetans themselves."

Click here for a link to a review of The Open Road: The Global
Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

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