200 years in Tibet: Glimpses in fact and film

by Leo D. Lefebure

Christian Century

Vol. 115 No. 8 03/11/98


Copyright by Christian Century

Section: THE Christian Century TIBET HAS REPRESENTED many things to the West: a remote and forbidden land, an exotic region of magic and mystery, and a source of spiritual wisdom and insight. In recent months, Hollywood has brought images of Tibet to American consciousness through two major movies. Seven Years in Tibet, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, is based on the adventures of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in the 1940s. Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese, is about the early life of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. (Kundun, which means "presence," is a title of respect used for the Dalai Lama.) Both movies include images of traditional Tibetan life and also of China's invasion and oppressive rule of Tibet. Many Americans, from Hollywood actor Richard Gere to conservative Republicans in Congress, have recently protested the. treatment of Tibet by the Chinese government and demanded a stronger U.S. response. Last year, when Chinese president Jiang Zemin was honored at a state dinner at the White House, a "stateless dinner" was held in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the sufferings of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese. Understanding Tibet, however, has proved difficult because of its remote location and its distinctive history, customs and religion. Tibetans even have difficulty communicating with other Buddhists. Some years ago, a leading Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Kalu Rimpoche, met with Korean Zen master Seung Sahn for dharma combat--an encounter that tests and challenges each master's understanding of Buddhist teaching. As the Tibetan lame sat fingering his prayer beads and murmuring a mantra, the younger Korean Zen master began the exchange by reaching inside his robe, drawing out an orange and holding it up. In a defiant and challenging tone, he asked, "What is this?" It was a classic Zen question, and Seung Sahn waited to pounce on any response that would betray ignorance. The Tibetan simply sat quietly without saying anything in reply. Seung Sahn moved closer, held the orange under the lame's nose and repeated his question: "What is this?" Kalu Rimpoche bent over to discuss the situation with his translator. The two Tibetans talked for several minutes, then the translator spoke to everyone in the room: "Rimpoche says, `What is the matter with him? Don't they have oranges where he comes from?"' The dharma combat went no further. For centuries, Western images of Tibet have stressed the exotic and incredible. Medieval Christians like Odoric of Pordenone, William of Rubruck and Marco Polo brought back reports of Tibetans' magical powers and strange customs. Some 19th-century Europeans believed that Tibet was the homeland of the Padaeans who, Herodotus reported, lived east of India and had the custom of eating their dead. More recently, in Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), Parisian-born scholar Alexandra David-Neel recounted her experiences in Tibet at the beginning of the 20th century. She told of Tibetan monks who could survive in freezing temperatures with little or no clothing, who could float on air or walk over water, become invisible at will, send messages across large distances by telepathy, and choose to die by dissolving their bodies at will, leaving no trace behind. David-Neel reported that when the Tashi Lama departed from the city of Shigatse he allegedly left behind a "phantom perfectly resembling him who played his part so thoroughly and naturally that every one who saw him was deceived. When the lame was safe beyond the border, the phantom vanished." David-Neel claimed to have learned the skill of magical formation herself. She created the image of a monk who was her servant, visible to herself and sometimes to others. He would perform various actions for her, and he would occasionally touch her shoulder. As her relationship with the phantom developed, he underwent changes in appearance and behavior, eventually escaping the control of his creator. At length, David-Neel decided to dissolve the phantom, but this required six months of difficult struggle. "My mind-creature was tenacious of life," she later reflected. "There is nothing strange in the fact that I may have created my own hallucination. The interesting point is that in these cases of materialization, others see the thought forms that have been created." When I was in Tibet in 1988, a Tibetan tour guide affirmed that the stories of such monastic feats were historically true, but lamented that Tibetan monks today are not as strong as those of earlier days. Western visitors to Tibet from the 17th through the 20th centuries were most impressed by the humanity of the Tibetan people--their kind and gentle spirit, their cheerful demeanor, their generosity to travelers and above all their devotion to Buddhist practice. Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri, who lived in Lhasa from 1716 to 1721, immersed himself in the study of Tibet's language and religious customs. He was deeply impressed by the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, contrasting it with the lesser devotion of Christians; and he mourned that he himself had not been able to follow Jesus as faithfully as the Tibetans served their leader. Desideri learned Tibetan well enough to present learned arguments against Buddhist teachings. His writings were read with great interest and admiration by the people of Lhasa--without, however, leading to many conversions. The most prominent image of Tibet in Western consciousness today is the smiling face of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, whose life is one of the most dramatic of the 12th century. The position of the Dalai Lama is not hereditary but depends upon the identification of a new incarnation in a young boy, usually about two years old, often from a simple family. The Dalai Lama is viewed as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, also known in Tibet as Chenrezi. In the Buddhist tradition a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who defers entrance into nirvana and returns to earth to help suffering beings attain enlightenment. The institution began in 1578, when Sonam Gyatso converted Mongol ruler Altan Khan to Buddhism and accepted the title of Dalai Lama ("Broad Ocean" in Mongolian). Because Sonam Gyatso was already seen as the reincarnation of two earlier leaders, he became known as the Third Dalai Lama. Originally the title implied only a spiritual authority, but in the mid-17th century the Fifth Dalai Lama became the temporal ruler of Tibet, uniting spiritual and political responsibilities and reorganizing the government structures. His successors, however, were not of the same stature. The Sixth Dalai Lama was a libertine and a poet. The Manchu rulers of China attempted to depose him and appoint another Dalai Lama, but this move was overwhelmingly rejected by the Tibetan people. At the age of 24 or 25, the Sixth Dalai Lama was taken on a journey to China. He died en route amid suspicions of Chinese treachery, and the Chinese emperor ordered that his body be disgraced. The institution continued to face many challenges. From the early 18th to the late 19th century, no Dalai Lama emerged as a ruler. Several died young, either before their accession to power at age 18 or soon thereafter. The regents were often suspected of killing the young leaders in order to preserve their own power. The 13th Dalai Lama survived an attempt on his life and became a forceful leader who restored Tibet's independence in 1912. He worked to open Tibet to the outside world, fostering close ties to the British Empire, founding English schools in Lhasa and Gyantse in the 1920s, introducing electricity and telegraph lines and sending Tibetans abroad for studies. He launched reforms in land use and taxes and sought to place limits on the most powerful monasteries. In 1931 he warned his compatriots of the coming danger of communism: "It will not be long before we find the red onslaught at our own front door. It is only a matter of time before we come into a direct confrontation with it, either from within our own ranks or else as a threat from an external nation. And when that happens we must be ready to defend ourselves. Otherwise our spiritual and cultural conditions will be completely eradicated." The 13th Dalai Lama died at the age of 58 in 1933. After the death of their leader, Tibetans looked for signs as to where the new leader would be born. The Panchen Lama, the second most important leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a critical authority for recognizing the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, identified three boys as likely candidates. To identify a reincarnation, search parties traditionally test the young boys by presenting them with various objects, including some which belonged to the earlier Dalai Lama. If a boy can consistently recognize the objects that belonged to the late Dalai Lama, this is a strong indication that he is the reincarnation. A candidates should also be able to recognize people who were familiar to the deceased Dalai Lama. THE MOVIE Kundun presents the recognition of the 14th Dalai Lama and follows the events of his early life as recounted in his autobiography and other sources. In 1937, a search party entered a home in Takster, a village in northeastern Tibet, a region then ruled by a Muslim governor and nominally part of China. A two-year-old boy named Lhamo Dhondup asked for a rosary worn by a monk who was dressed as a servant in the search party. The "servant" told the boy he could have the rosary, which had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama, if the boy knew who the man wearing it was. The young boy replied correctly that the man was a lame of the Sera monastery. Lhamo Dhondup also knew the name of the monk who was pretending to be the master of the search party and the name of the real servant in the search party. Later on, the boy was presented with several pairs of objects; one of each pair had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. The boy correctly claimed those objects that had belonged to the late leader and was able to speak the refined dialect spoken at the court in Lhasa. One of the state oracles affirmed that Lhamo Dhondup was indeed the 14th Dalai Lama. As Kundun shows, the boy, who would be renamed Tenzin Gyatso, was taken at the age of four to live in the Potala Palace, the great residence built by the Fifth Dalai Lama in Lhasa. What impressed British observers such as Sir Charles Bell and Hugh Richardson was that the young boy adapted easily to his new role and home. During the long ceremony of homage, the boy's attention did not flag. Tenzin Gyatso was given a rigorous course of instruction in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but he lived an isolated life. His mother, known as "The Great Mother," could visit him freely but was not allowed to spend the night at the Potala Palace. Regent and senior tutor Reting Rimpoche and his allies were corrupt, seeking personal profit more than the good of Tibet. Kundun includes the story of how Reting was forced to resign before administering the vow of celibacy to the Dalai Lama because Tibetans feared that someone who was not observing the vow could not validly administer it to someone else. In 1947 Reting was implicated in an antigovernment plot that was supported by monks from the Sera Monastery; he died under mysterious circumstances in the dungeons of the Potala Palace. In fighting at the Sera monastery, 200 monks were killed by government troops. Tibet in the 1940s was extremely isolated. It had no modern roads or bridges, so access was difficult. Tibet had closed its doors to the outside world in 1792, and the 13th Dalai Lama had not sought to join the League of Nations or to obtain widespread international recognition of the independence of Tibet. As both Kundun and Seven Years indicate, the young 14th Dalai Lama was very curious about the outside world and loved to look out on his people and his city through a telescope. In 1943, Heinrich Harrer escaped from a British internment camp in India and fled into Tibet. After many difficulties, recounted in his memoir Seven Years in Tibet, Harrer and companion Peter Aufschmaiter reached Lhasa and were given asylum. Harrer became a friend to the Dalai Lama's brother Lobsang Samten, and then a companion and mentor to the young Dalai Lama. Like many foreign observers, Harrer was struck by the gentleness and peacefulness of Tibetan life, and wondered about the so-called advantages of Western civilization: "Here no one is made to lose face, and aggressiveness is unknown. Even political enemies treat each other with consideration and politeness, and greet each other cordially when they meet in the street." The repeated intrigues at court, however, indicate that not everyone was as benign as Harrer remembered. SINCE imperial times, Chinese governments had had pretensions of authority over Tibet, but they had never exercised long-term governmental control over the region. Tibetans viewed themselves as an independent nation, while the Chinese viewed the region as part of the Chinese empire. On October 7, 1950, the Chinese invaded Tibet from the east and northwest and quickly crushed organized resistance. Both movies dramatically portray how the poorly equipped Tibetan army of 8,500 soldiers could hardly withstand the onslaught of Chinese veterans who had fought both Japanese and Chinese armies for years. In this time of national crisis, there was a widespread demand for the young Dalai Lama to assume full responsibilities for the nation even though he was not yet of age. Thus Tenzin Gyatso was invested with full authority as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1950 when he was 15 years old. Seven Years in Tibet concludes with the ceremony of the investiture of the Dalai Lama and the departure of Harrer. At the recommendation of his ministers, the Dalai Lama withdrew to a monastery near the Indian border. Some months later Tibetan representative Ngapo Ngawang Jigme went beyond his delegated authority and signed an accord with the Chinese in Beijing. The Seventeen-Point Agreement of May 23, 1951, which was eventually accepted by the Dalai Lama, stated that Tibet was part of China, but promised: "the central authorities [of the Chinese People's Government] will not alter the existing political system in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama." It also promised that "the religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected and lame monasteries shall be protected." These promises were not kept. Under the pretense of "liberating" Tibet from allegedly oppressive feudal and monastic rule, the Chinese government confiscated land and goods, imprisoned upper-class families and forced the population into near starvation by demanding food, gold and silver for the maintenance of Chinese soldiers. In an effort to destroy Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese authorities ordered religious leaders to be humiliated, tortured and put to death. Chinese troops and farmers settled in Tibet. Children were removed from their families for indoctrination. When the Chinese found it difficult to destroy the religious convictions of Tibetan children, they seized Tibetan babies and took them to China to be trained as communists. Tibetans increasingly took up arms against the Chinese forces, and by 1956 Tibetan guerrilla forces were destroying roads and bridges and raiding supply posts. In response, the Chinese tortured and killed more monks and lay Buddhists, deported people from their homes and sent them to forced labor, and raped many women. Monasteries were shelled and destroyed by Chinese troops. Children were forced to abuse, beat or even shoot their own parents. In villages where men had gone to fight with the guerrillas, women and children were slaughtered by machine gun. The Chinese sterilized the men and women of some villages. In 1958 they expelled many men from Lhasa, but most of these joined the guerrilla forces in the mountains. In 1958, one Chinese garrison of 1,000 men was wiped out; another garrison of 3,000 soldiers was destroyed. Kundun presents selected images of the violence, often through the Dalai Lama's visions or dreams. In one dramatic boom shot the Dalai Lama stands in the middle of the bodies of slain monks. At first, only a few are visible, but as the camera pulls away, a vast field of bloodstained bodies fills the screen. In 1959, when the Chinese invited the Dalai Lama to attend a performance in the Chinese barracks without any bodyguards, most Tibetans suspected that the Chinese intended to seize the Dalai Lama. Thousands surrounded the summer palace to protect him. The Chinese moved artillery pieces within range of the palace and on March 17, two shells fell into the grounds of Norbu Lingka. The Dalai Lama was persuaded to flee the country. He left the summer palace in disguise in the middle of the night. Tibetan guerrillas escorted him along mountain trails to the Indian border, where he was offered asylum (this is the concluding scene of Kundun). He settled in Dharamsala, India, where he has since resided in exile. When the Chinese realized that the Dalai Lama had fled, they abolished the Tibetan government and established a military dictatorship. The Dalai Lama appealed to the United Nations, insisting that Tibet was an independent nation, but to no avail. The International Commission of Jurists, an independent body supported by 30,000 lawyers from 50 countries, concluded that Tibet was a sovereign nation and that the Chinese were committing genocide by seeking to eliminate the Buddhists of Tibet. THE SUFFERINGS of Tibet have continued. In the 1960s, during China's Cultural Revolution, the Chinese destroyed 6,400 (or 99.9 percent) of the monasteries in Tibet, according to the Dalai Lama's estimates. Chinese occupation policies directly caused the deaths of approximately 1.2 million people (out of a population of 6 million). China's order to replace barley with wheat, combined with the confiscation of food for Chinese soldiers, led to mass starvation in 1961. The Chinese arrested, tortured and killed thousands of Tibetans who engaged in peaceful demonstrations and protests. The Chinese government continues to settle large numbers of Chinese in Tibet, and these settlers currently hold all positions of political, cultural and economic power. The Tibetans live a marginalized existence in their own land. Despite the tremendous sufferings of his people, the Dalai Lama continues to have a peaceful demeanor and resilient spirit. A Western reporter once asked him how it could be that the Chinese had taken his land and his people, had killed so many Tibetans, and yet the Dalai Lama was not angry at them. The Dalai Lama acknowledged that the Chinese had indeed taken his country's freedom and possessions and had taken the lives of many Tibetans. But he posed his own question. "Why should I give them my mind as well?" This principle is at the heart of Tibetanpracticed by the Dalai Lama religious practice develops the mind so that we can live more peacefully and happily ourselves and bring peace and happiness to others. Following a basic principle of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Dalai Lama teaches that "all pleasures and pains basically derive from the mind." Cultivating the mind allows one to respond to anger with compassion and patience. "We regard inner strength, gentleness, love, compassion, wisdom and a stable mind as the most important treasures a human being can collect in his or her lifetime." Genuine religious practice cultivates generosity, wisdom, compassion, love and tolerance in the most difficult sufferings. This principle also illumines the Dalai Lama's acceptance of the plurality of the world's religions: "In this world, just as there are many medicines for a particular disease, so there are many religious systems that serve as methods for achieving happiness for all sentient beings, human and otherwise. Though each of these systems has a different mode of practice and a different mode of expression, I think that they are all similar in that they improve the body, speech and mind of those who practice them, and in that they all have good aims." Tibetans have become a minority in their own land. Religious freedom and freedom of speech are rigorously restricted. Any show of allegiance to the Dalai Lama is harshly punished. The Dalai Lama calls for dialogue: "I am not asking for the independence of Tibet. While Tibet was historically an independent and separate nation from China, I am aware of the possibility that in a changing world, a smaller community or nation could benefit by being associated with a larger state. I do not want to debate history; I want to look to the future. Concerns over military and foreign matters, which I assume are high on the list of the Chinese, can be handled by Beijing. What is essential is that the Tibetans have genuine self-rule." The Dalai Lama has called for genuine democracy in Tibet and "for Tibet to be gradually transformed into a zone of `Ahimsa,' a zone of nonconflict." He has been recognized for his nonviolent struggle for his people and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The inspirations of his life are the teachings of the Buddha and the witness of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1956, in the middle of his struggles in Tibet, he traveled to India to celebrate the anniversary of the Buddha and visited the place where Mahatma Gandhi's remains were cremated. He reflected on the life and witness of this man, "perhaps the greatest of our age," and resolved to "follow his lead whatever difficulties might confront me. I determined more strongly than ever that I could never associate myself with acts of violence." In a century of mass murder and exile, of refugees without passports, perhaps the greatest gift that Tibet has to give to the world is this witness of nonviolent compassion, endurance and faithfulness amid horrible sufferings. [PHOTO (COLOR): KUNDUN: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (l) plays the young Tenzin ... ] KUNDUN: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (l) plays the young Tenzin Gyatso in Martin Scorsese's film about the 14th Dalai Lama. ~~~~~~~~ by Leo D. Lefebure Leo D. Lefebure is professor of systematic theology at University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein Illinois. -------------------