Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Friendly Feudalism:

The Tibet Myth

by Michael Parenti (July 2004, updated)

The histories of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam are heavily laced with violence. Throughout the ages, religionists have claimed a divine mandate to massacre infidels, heretics, and even other devotees within their own ranks. Some people maintain that Buddhism is different, that it stands in marked contrast to the chronic violence of other religions. To be sure, for some practitioners in the West, Buddhism is more a spiritual and psychological discipline than a theology in the usual sense. It offers meditative techniques that are said to promote enlightenment and harmony within oneself. But like any other belief system, Buddhism must be judged not only by its teachings but by the secular behavior of its proponents.

Buddhist Exceptionalism?

A glance at history reveals that Buddhist organizations have not been free of the violent pursuits so characteristic of religious groups. In Tibet, from the early seventeenth century well into the eighteenth, competing Buddhist sects engaged in armed hostilities and summary executions. <1> In the twentieth century, in Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, Buddhists clashed with each other and with nonBuddhists. In Sri Lanka, armed 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 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 partly destroyed the main Buddhist sanctuaries and left dozens of monks injured, some seriously. The Korean public appeared to disdain both factions, feeling that no matter what side took control, "it would use worshippers' donations for luxurious houses and expensive cars". <3>

But what of the Dalai Lama and the Tibet he presided over before the Chinese crackdown in 1959? It is widely held by many devout Buddhists that Old Tibet was a spiritually oriented kingdom free from the egotistical lifestyles, empty materialism, and corrupting vices that beset modern industrialized society. Western news media, travel books, novels, and Hollywood films have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-La.

The Dalai Lama himself stated that "the pervasive influence of Buddhism" in Tibet, "amid the wide open spaces of an unspoiled environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and contentment." <4> A reading of Tibet's history suggests a different picture. 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 quite 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. The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life, enjoying many mistresses, partying with friends, and acting in other ways deemed unfitting for an incarnate deity. For this he was done in by his priests. Within 170 years, despite their recognized status as gods, five Dalai Lamas were murdered by their high priests or other courtiers. <5>

Shangri-La (for Lords and Lamas)

Religions have had a close relationship not only with violence but with 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 manorial estates worked by serfs. Even a writer sympathetic to the old order allows 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". <6> 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 mostly to the higher-ranking lamas, many of them scions of aristocratic families.

Secular leaders also 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. <7> 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". <8> In fact. it had a professional army, albeit a small one, that served as a gendarmerie for the landlords to keep order and hunt down runaway serfs.

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. Tashi-Tsering, a monk, reports that it was common for peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself was a victim of repeated rape, beginning at age nine. <9> The monastic estates also conscripted impoverished peasant children for lifelong servitude as domestics, dance performers, and soldiers.

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. <10> The greater part of the rural population - some 700,000 of an estimated total of 1,250,000 - were serfs. Serfs and other peasants generally were little better than slaves. They went without schooling or medical care. They spent most of their time laboring for high-ranking lamas or for the secular landed aristocracy. Their masters told them what crops to grow and what animals to raise. They could not get married without the consent of their lord or lama. And they might easily be separated from their families should their owners send them to work in a distant location. <11>

One 22-year old woman, herself a runaway serf, reports: "Pretty serf girls were usually taken by the owner as house servants and used as he wished". They "were just slaves without rights". <12> Serfs needed permission to go anywhere. Landowners had legal authority to capture those who tried to flee. One 24-year old runaway welcomed the Chinese intervention as a "liberation". He claimed that under serfdom he was subjected to incessant toil, hunger, and cold. After his third failed escape, he was merciless beaten by the landlord's men until blood poured from his nose and mouth. They then poured alcohol and caustic soda on his wounds to increase the pain. <13>

The serfs were under a lifetime bond to work the lord's land - or the monastery's land - without pay, to repair the lord's houses, transport his crops, and collect his firewood. They were also expected to provide carrying animals and transportation on demand. <14> They were taxed upon getting married, taxed for the birth of each child, and for every death in the family. They were taxed for planting a tree in their yard and for keeping animals. There were taxes for religious festivals, for singing, dancing, drumming, and bell ringing. People were taxed for being sent to prison and upon being released. Those who could not find work were taxed for being unemployed, and if they traveled to another village in search of work, they paid a passage tax. When people could not pay, the monasteries lent them money at twenty to fifty percent interest. Some debts were handed down from father to son to grandson. Debtors who could not meet their obligations risked being placed into slavery sometimes for the rest of their lives. <15>

The theocracy's religious teachings buttressed its class order. The poor and afflicted were taught that they had brought their troubles upon themselves because of their wicked ways in previous lives. Hence they had to accept the misery of their present existence as a karmic atonement and in anticipation that their lot would improve upon being reborn. The rich and powerful of course treated their good fortune as a reward for, and tangible evidence of, virtue in past and present lives.

Torture and Mutilation

In the Dalai Lama's Tibet, torture and mutilation - including eye gouging, the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation - were favored punishments inflicted upon runaway serfs and thieves. Journeying through Tibet in the 1960s, Stuart and Roma Gelder interviewed a former serf, Tsereh Wang Tuei, who had stolen two sheep belonging to a monastery. For this he had both his eyes gouged out and his hand mutilated beyond use. He explains that he no longer is a Buddhist: "When a holy lama told them to blind me I thought there was no good in religion". <16> Since it was against Buddhist teachings to take human life, some offenders were severely lashed and then "left to God" in the freezing night to die. "The parallels between Tibet and medieval Europe are striking", concludes Tom Grunfeld in his book on Tibet. <17>

In 1959, Anna Louise Strong visited an exhibition of torture equipment that had been used by the Tibetan overlords. There were handcuffs of all sizes, including small ones for children, and instruments for cutting off noses and ears, gouging out eyes, and breaking off hands. There were instruments for slicing off kneecaps and heels, or hamstringing legs. There were hot brands, whips, and special implements for disemboweling. <18>

The exhibition presented photographs and testimonies of victims who had been blinded or crippled or suffered amputations for thievery. There was the shepherd whose master owed him a reimbursement in yuan and wheat but refused to pay. So he took one of the master's cows; for this he had his hands severed. Another herdsman, who opposed having his wife taken from him by his lord, had his hands broken off. There were pictures of Communist activists with noses and upper lips cut off, and a woman who was raped and then had her nose sliced away. <19>

Early visitors to Tibet comment about the theocratic despotism. In 1895, an Englishman, Dr A L Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the "intolerable tyranny of monks" and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904 Perceval Landon described the Dalai Lama's rule as "an engine of oppression". At about that time, another English traveler, Captain W F T O'Connor, observed that "the great landowners and the priests ... exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal", while the people are "oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft". Tibetan rulers "invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of superstition" among the common people. In 1937, another visitor, Spencer Chapman, wrote, "The Lamaist monk does not spend his time in ministering to the people or educating them ... The beggar beside the road is nothing to the monk. Knowledge is the jealously guarded prerogative of the monasteries and is used to increase their influence and wealth." <20>

Occupation and Revolt

The Chinese Communists occupied Tibet in 1951, claiming suzerainty over that country. The 1951 treaty provided for ostensible self-government under the Dalai Lama's rule but gave China military control and exclusive right to conduct foreign relations. The Chinese were also granted a direct role in internal administration "to promote social reforms". At first, they moved slowly, relying mostly on persuasion in an attempt to effect change. Among the earliest reforms they wrought was to reduce usurious interest rates, and build a few hospitals and roads. "Contrary to popular belief in the West", writes one observer, the Chinese "took care to show respect for Tibetan culture and religion". No aristocratic or monastic property was confiscated, and feudal lords continued to reign over their hereditarily bound peasants. <21>

The Tibetan lords and lamas had seen Chinese come and go over the centuries and had enjoyed good relations with Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek and his reactionary Kuomintang rule in China. <22> The approval of the Kuomintang government was needed to validate the choice of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. When the young Dalai Lama was installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance with centuries-old tradition. What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time, they feared, before the Communists started imposing their collectivist egalitarian solutions upon Tibet.

In 1956-57, armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). The uprising received extensive assistance from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts. <23> Meanwhile in the United States, the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the Dalai Lama's eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that group. The Dalai Lama's second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA in 1951. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet. <24>

Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs. Ninety percent of them were never heard from again, according to a report from the CIA itself, meaning they were most likely captured and killed. <25> "Many lamas and lay members of the elite and much of the Tibetan army joined the uprising, but in the main the populace did not, assuring its failure", writes Hugh Deane. <26> In their book on Tibet, Ginsburg and Mathos reach a similar conclusion: "As far as can be ascertained, the great bulk of the common people of Lhasa and of the adjoining countryside failed to join in the fighting against the Chinese both when it first began and as it progressed". <27> Eventually the resistance crumbled.

Enter the Communists

Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese in Tibet, after 1959 they did abolish slavery and the serfdom system of unpaid labor, and put an end to floggings, mutilations, and amputations as a form of criminal punishment. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They established secular education, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa. <28>

Heinrich Harrer (later revealed to have been a sergeant in Hitler's SS) wrote a bestseller about his experiences in Tibet that was made into a popular Hollywood movie. He reported that the Tibetans who resisted the Chinese "were predominantly nobles, semi-nobles and lamas; they were punished by being made to perform the lowliest tasks, such as laboring on roads and bridges. They were further humiliated by being made to clean up the city before the tourists arrived." They also had to live in a camp originally reserved for beggars and vagrants. <29>

By 1961, the Chinese expropriated the landed estates owned by lords and lamas, and reorganized the peasants into hundreds of communes. They distributed hundreds of thousands of acres to tenant farmers and landless peasants. Herds once owned by nobility were turned over to collectives of poor shepherds. Improvements were made in the breeding of livestock, and new varieties of vegetables and new strains of wheat and barley were introduced, along with irrigation improvements, all of which reportedly led to an increase in agrarian production. <30>

Many peasants remained as religious as ever, giving alms to the clergy. But the many monks who had been conscripted into the religious orders as children were now free to renounce the monastic life, and thousands did, especially the younger ones. The remaining clergy lived on modest government stipends, and extra income earned by officiating at prayer services, weddings, and funerals. <31>

Both the Dalai Lama and his advisor and youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal, claimed that "more than 1.2 million Tibetans are dead as a result of the Chinese occupation". <32> But the official 1953 census - six years before the Chinese crackdown - recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1,274,000. <33> Other census counts put the ethnic Tibetan population within the country at about two million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early 1960s then whole cities and huge portions of the countryside, indeed almost all of Tibet, would have been depopulated, transformed into a killing field dotted with death camps and mass graves - of which we have not seen evidence. The thinly distributed Chinese military force in Tibet was not big enough to round up, hunt down, and exterminate that many people even if it had spent all its time doing nothing else.

Chinese authorities do admit to "mistakes", particularly during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when religious persecution reached a high tide in both China and Tibet. After the uprising in the late 1950s, thousands of Tibetans were incarcerated. During the Great Leap Forward, forced collectivization and grain farming was imposed on the peasantry, sometimes with disastrous effect. In the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls over Tibet "and tried to undo some of the damage wrought during the previous two decades". <34>

In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration. Tibetans would now be allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased to permit Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India and Nepal. <35>

In the 1990s, the Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent of China's immense population, began moving in substantial numbers into Tibet and various western provinces. On the streets of Lhasa and Shigatse, signs of Han preeminence are readily visible. Chinese run the factories and many of the shops and vending stalls. Tall office buildings and large shopping centers have been built with funds that might have been better spent on water treatment plants and housing. Chinese cadres in Tibet too often view their Tibetan neighbors as backward and lazy, in need of economic development and "patriotic education". During the 1990s Tibetan government employees suspected of harboring nationalist sympathies were purged from office, and campaigns were launched to discredit the Dalai Lama. Individual Tibetans reportedly were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor for carrying out separatist activities and engaging in political "subversion". Some arrestees were held in administrative detention without adequate food, water, and blankets, subjected to threats, beatings, and other mistreatment. <36>

Chinese family planning regulations allow a three-child limit for Tibetan families. (For years there was a one-child limit for Han families.) If a couple goes over the limit, the excess children can be denied subsidized daycare, health care, housing, and education. These penalties have been enforced irregularly and vary by district. Meanwhile, Tibetan history, culture, and religion are slighted in schools. Teaching materials, though translated into Tibetan, focus on Chinese history and culture. <37>

Elites, Emigres, and the CIA

For the rich lamas and lords, the Communist intervention was a calamity. Most of them fled abroad, as did the Dalai Lama himself, who was assisted in his flight by the CIA. Some discovered to their horror that they would have to work for a living. However, throughout the 1960s, the Tibetan exile community was secretly pocketing $1.7 million a year from the CIA, according to documents released by the State Department in 1998. Once this fact was publicized, the Dalai Lama's organization itself issued a statement admitting that it had received millions of dollars from the CIA during the 1960s to send armed squads of exiles into Tibet to undermine the Maoist revolution. The Dalai Lama's annual payment from the CIA was $186,000. Indian intelligence also financed both him and other Tibetan exiles. He has refused to say whether he or his brothers worked for the CIA. The agency has also declined to comment. <38>

In 1995, the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, carried a frontpage color photograph of the Dalai Lama being embraced by the reactionary Republican senator Jesse Helms, under the headline "Buddhist Captivates Hero of Religious Right". <39> In April 1999, along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and the first George Bush, the Dalai Lama called upon the British government to release Augusto Pinochet, the former fascist dictator of Chile and a longtime CIA client who had been apprehended while visiting England. The Dalai Lama urged that Pinochet not be forced to go to Spain where he was wanted to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

Today, mostly through the National Endowment for Democracy and other conduits that are more respectable-sounding than the CIA, the US Congress continues to allocate an annual $2 million to Tibetans in India, with additional millions for "democracy activities" within the Tibetan exile community. The Dalai Lama also gets money from financier George Soros, who now runs the CIA-created Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other institutes. <40>

The Question of Culture

We are told that when the Dalai Lama ruled Tibet, the people lived in contented and tranquil symbiosis with their monastic and secular lords, in a social order sustained by a deeply spiritual, nonviolent culture, inspired by humane and pacific religious teachings. The Tibetan religious culture was the social glue and comforting balm that kept rich lama and poor peasant spiritually bonded together, to maintain those proselytes who embrace Old Tibet as a cultural purity, a Shangri-La.

One is reminded of the idealized imagery of feudal Europe presented by latter-day conservative Catholics such as G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For them, medieval Christendom was a world of contented peasants living in a deep spiritual bond with their Church, under the protection of their lords. <41> Again we are invited to accept a particular culture on its own terms, which means accepting it as presented by its favored class, by those at the top who profited most from it. The Shangri-La image of Tibet bears no more resemblance to historic reality than does the romanticized image of medieval Europe.

When seen in all its grim realities, Old Tibet confirms the view expressed earlier in this book that culture is anything but neutral. Culture can operate as a legitimating cover for a host of grave injustices, benefiting some portion of a society's population at great cost to other segments. In theocratic Tibet, ruling interests manipulated the traditional culture to fortify their wealth and power. The theocracy equated rebellious thought and action with satanic influence. It propagated the general presumption of landlord superiority and peasant unworthiness. The rich were represented as deserving their good life, and the poor as deserving their mean lowly existence, all codified in teachings about the karmic residues of virtues and vices accumulated from past lives, all presented as part of God's will.

It might be said that we denizens of the modern secular world cannot grasp the equations of happiness and pain, contentment and custom, that characterize more traditionally spiritual societies. This is probably true, and it may explain why some of us idealize such societies. But still, a gouged eye is a gouged eye; a flogging is a flogging; and the grinding exploitation of serfs and slaves is a brutal class injustice whatever its cultural wrapping. There is a difference between a spiritual bond and human bondage, even when both exist side by side

Many ordinary Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in their country, but it appears that relatively few want a return to the social order he represented. A 1999 story in the Washington Post notes that he continues to be revered in Tibet, but

... few Tibetans would welcome a return of the corrupt aristocratic clans that fled with him in 1959 and that comprise the bulk of his advisers. Many Tibetan farmers, for example, have no interest in surrendering the land they gained during China's land reform to the clans. Tibet's former slaves say they, too, don't want their former masters to return to power. "I've already lived that life once before", said Wangchuk, a 67-year-old former slave who was wearing his best clothes for his yearly pilgrimage to Shigatse, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. He said he worshipped the Dalai Lama, but added, "I may not be free under Chinese communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave". <42>

Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk's building. When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At first, Lewis thought their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely grateful "not to have to marry four or five men, be pregnant almost all the time", or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying husband. The younger women "were delighted to be getting an education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why Americans were so naive". They recounted stories of their grandmothers' ordeals with monks who used them as "wisdom consorts", telling them "how much merit they were gaining by providing the 'means to enlightenment' - after all, the Buddha had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment".

The women interviewed by Lewis spoke bitterly about the monastery's confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. When a boy cried for his mother, he would be told "Why do you cry for her, she gave you up - she's just a woman". Among the other issues was "the rampant homosexuality in the Gelugpa sect. All was not well in Shangri-la", Lewis opines. <43>

The monks who were granted political asylum in California applied for Social Security. Lewis, herself a devotee for a time, assisted with the paperwork. She observes that they continue to receive Social Security checks amounting to $550 to $700 per month along with Medicare and MediCal. In addition, the monks reside rent free in nicely furnished apartments. "They pay no utilities, have free access to the Internet on computers provided for them, along with fax machines, free cell and home phones and cable TV". In addition, they receive a monthly payment from their order. And the dharma center takes up a special collection from its members (all Americans), separate from membership dues. Some members eagerly carry out chores for the monks, including grocery shopping and cleaning their apartments and toilets. These same holy men "have no problem criticizing Americans for their obsession with material things". <44>

To support the Chinese overthrow of the old feudal theocracy is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in Tibet. This point is seldom understood by today's Shangri-La adherents in the West.

The converse is also true. To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal regime. One common complaint among Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet's religious culture is being undermined by the occupation. Indeed this seems to be the case. Many of the monasteries are closed, and the theocracy has passed into history. What I am questioning here is the supposedly admirable and pristinely spiritual nature of that pre-invasion culture. In short, we can advocate religious freedom and independence for Tibet without having to embrace the mythology of a Paradise Lost.

Finally, it should be noted that the criticism posed herein is not intended as a personal attack on the Dalai Lama. Whatever his past associations with the CIA and various reactionaries, he speaks often of peace, love, and nonviolence. And he himself really cannot be blamed for the abuses of the ancien regime, having been but fifteen years old when he fled into exile. In 1994, in an interview with Melvyn Goldstein, he went on record as favoring since his youth the building of schools, "machines", and roads in his country. He claims that he thought the corvee (forced unpaid serf labor for the lord's benefit) and certain taxes imposed on the peasants were "extremely bad". And he disliked the way people were saddled with old debts sometimes passed down from generation to generation. <45> Furthermore, he now proposes democracy for Tibet, featuring a written constitution, a representative assembly, and other democratic essentials. <46>

In 1996, the Dalai Lama issued a statement that must have had an unsettling effect on the exile community. It reads in part as follows:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes - that is the majority - as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair ... I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist. <47>

And more recently in 2001, while visiting California, he remarked that "Tibet, materially, is very, very backward. Spiritually it is quite rich. But spirituality can't fill our stomachs." <48> Here is a message that should be heeded by the well-fed Buddhist proselytes in the West who wax nostalgic for Old Tibet.

What I have tried to challenge is the Tibet myth, the Paradise Lost image of a social order that actually was a retrograde theocracy of serfdom and poverty, where a favored few lived high and mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the many. It was a long way from Shangri-La.


1 Melvyn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 6-16.

2 Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 113.

3 Kyong-Hwa Seok, "Korean Monk Gangs Battle for Temple Turf", San Francisco Examiner, December 3 1998.

4 Dalai Lama quoted in Donald Lopez Jr, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1998), 205.

5 Stuart Gelder and Roma Gelder, The Timely Rain: Travels in New Tibet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964), 119, 123.

6 Pradyumna P Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet: The Impact of Chinese Communist Ideology on the Landscape (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1976), 64.

7 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 62 and 174.

8 As skeptically noted by Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 9.

9 Melvyn Goldstein, William Siebenschuh, and Tashi-Tsering, The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi-Tsering (Armonk, New York: M E Sharpe, 1997).

10 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 110.

11 Anna Louise Strong, Tibetan Interviews (Peking: New World Press, 1929), 15, 19-21, 24.

12 Quoted in Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25.

13 Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 31.

14 Melvyn C Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 5.

15 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 175-176; and Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 25-26.

16 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 113.

17 A Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet revised edition (Armonk, New York and London: 1996), 9 and 7-33 for a general discussion of feudal Tibet; see also Felix Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961), 241-249; Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951, 3-5; and Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, passim.

18 Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 91-92.

19 Strong, Tibetan Interviews, 92-96.

20 Waddell, Landon, and O'Connor are quoted in Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 123-125.

21 Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 52.

22 Heinrich Harrer, Return to Tibet (New York: Schocken, 1985), 29.

23 See Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison, The CIA's Secret War in Tibet (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2002); and William Leary, "Secret Mission to Tibet", Air & Space, December 1997 / January 1998.

24 On the CIA's links to the Dalai Lama and his family and entourage, see Loren Coleman, Tom Slick and the Search for the Yeti (London: Faber and Faber, 1989).

25 Leary, "Secret Mission to Tibet".

26 Hugh Deane, "The Cold War in Tibet", CovertAction Quarterly (Winter 1987).

27 George Ginsburg and Michael Mathos, Communist China and Tibet (1964), quoted in Deane, "The Cold War in Tibet". Deane notes that author Bina Roy reached a similar conclusion.

28 See Greene, A Curtain of Ignorance, 248 and passim; and Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, passim.

29 Harrer, Return to Tibet, 54.

30 Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 36-38, 41, 57-58; London Times, 4 July 1966.

31 Gelder and Gelder, The Timely Rain, 29 and 47-48.

32 Tendzin Choegyal, "The Truth about Tibet", Imprimis (publication of Hillsdale College, Michigan), April 1999.

33 Karan, The Changing Face of Tibet, 52-53.

34 Elaine Kurtenbach, Associate Press report, San Francisco Chronicle, 12 February 1998.

35 Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 47-48.

36 Report by the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, A Generation in Peril (Berkeley California: 2001), passim.

37 International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet, A Generation in Peril, 66-68, 98.

38 Jim Mann, "CIA Gave Aid to Tibetan Exiles in '60s, Files Show", Los Angeles Times, 15 September 1998; and New York Times, 1 October, 1998; and Morrison, The CIA's Secret War in Tibet.

39 News & Observer, 6 September 1995, cited in Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, 3.

40 Heather Cottin, "George Soros, Imperial Wizard", CovertAction Quarterly no 74 (Fall 2002).

41 The Gelders draw this comparison, The Timely Rain, 64.

43 John Pomfret, "Tibet Caught in China's Web", Washington Post, 23 July 1999.

43 Kim Lewis, correspondence to me, 15 July 2004.

44 Kim Lewis, additional correspondence to me, 16 July 2004.

45 Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon, 51.

46 Tendzin Choegyal, "The Truth about Tibet".

47 The Dalai Lama in Marianne Dresser (editor), Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1996).

48 Quoted in San Francisco Chronicle, 17 May 2001.

Copyright 1992 - 2005 Michael Parenti. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten


  • Probably the most important thing that should be remembered in this article is that no society is perfect, and that those who romanticize societies as absolutely perfect are typically false.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:24 PM, July 02, 2005  

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