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Lost Horizons

The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape

by Peter Bishop
University of California Press, 308 pp., $29.95

Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

HarperCollins/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 288 pp., $22.95

My Tibet

Dalai Lama, photographs and introduction by Galen Rowell
University of California Press, 162 pp., $35.00

The day I saluted the Grand Lama! Beautiful youth. Face poetically affecting; could have wept. Very happy to have seen him and his blessed smile. Hope often to see him again.”

This could have been said of the present Dalai Lama by his visitors, who usually are similarly affected. In September, press photographers in London, who normally trample anything in their path to get a picture, called out to the Dalai Lama to shake their hands and thanked him humbly when he did.

In this case, however, the speaker is Thomas Manning, who met the Dalai Lama in 1811, the first British traveler to do so during a period of more than one hundred years; he was an example of the overwhelmed traveler in Tibet described in Peter Bishop’s The Myth of Shangri-La, an unusual study of the interplay of exploration and the imagination.

Except for the Chinese Communists, who call him names like “the wolf in monk’s robes,” or “the criminal Dalai,” virtually everyone speaks well of the Dalai Lama. The latest incarnation is the Fourteenth in a line that began in 1351 and exists simultaneously with the seventy-fourth “manifestation” (the Dalai Lama’s term) of Chenrezig the Compassionate Bodhisattva, a contemporary of the Buddha in the fifth century BC. It is impossible not to like him. “I am not the best Dalai Lama ever,” he said when he was in London in September. “Or the worst. Maybe I’m just the most popular. Perhaps it’s time to stop having Dalai Lamas.”

Years ago, when the Dalai Lama was visiting London for the first time, my then foreign editor asked me after the interview, “What is this fellow, a god or what?” I relayed this question—more respectfully—to the Dalai Lama, who replied that while many of his followers regarded him as divine, “to me it is unimportant,” and indeed the Fourteenth usually describes himself as “a simple monk” who wouldn’t mind being reborn as an insect if he could be of service in that incarnation. He also insisted in September that even if someday he goes back to an independent Tibet, “I will take no part in government there. People take me too seriously. If I’m not in the government there will be more room for individual initiative.” But the Fourteenth also writes in his autobiography, “I have no difficulty accepting that I am spiritually connected both to the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas, to Chenrezig and to the Buddha himself.”

Such statements pose two large questions: Is Tibet just a kind of exotic, medieval China or, despite Chinese claims, is it sui generis? And the Dalai Lama—what is he?

The Dalai Lama makes it clear throughout his autobiography that Tibet is not a part of China. The Chinese insist that the opposite has been true for at least seven hundred years. Most recently, on Tibetan television, China was referred to by the official Tibetan announcer as “a big socialist family, consisting of fifty-six fraternal nationalities, including the Tibetans, [who] have made indelible contributions to development and progress.”1

More to the point is Beijing’s fear of what it calls “splittism,” the drive for autonomy or outright independence among its “minority peoples,” who number sixty million; this sounds like a very small proportion of the total population of over one billion, but it becomes strategically important when one looks at the Chinese map: Tibet and Xinjiang, another “autonomous region,” occupy vast frontier areas bordering on India, Russia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. These regions are supposed to be rich in timber and minerals, including oil, and are also nuclear-testing grounds or bases. Hundreds of thousands of troops are stationed in both regions.

Outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, in Chinese districts that used to be part of Tibet and have now been grafted on to other provinces such as Gansu and Qinghai, there are other Tibetans with nationalist aspirations. Altogether there are perhaps six million Tibetans. In Xinjiang there are almost seven million Muslims, with ethnic ties to their already unruly cousins across the border in Soviet Central Asia. The Xinjiang Muslims have been a thorn in the flesh of Chinese governments since the nineteenth century, and in April of this year the latest outburst occurred in Baren, in far western Xinjiang, where the rebels called for the restoration of the East Turkestan Republic, a cause already decades old, which the Chinese regularly denounce. The Baren uprising officially cost twenty-two dead, including six policemen, but Xinjiang was immediately shut off to journalists (it has been recently reopened to those whose applications are accepted), and the number of dead may have been much greater.

Until the Beijing massacre last year few Chinese, including dissidents such as Fang Lizhi, were willing to consider that Tibet might not be part of China; last year in Paris Chen Yizi, one of the leaders of the exile Chinese Democratic Front, whom Beijing identifies as a criminal, told me that if Tibet were removed from China it would feel to him as if he had lost his liver. The best the front can do, even now, is to suggest a loose federation with Tibet—but not independence.

It must be said that the two cultures have little in common, whether in their spoken languages—Tibetan is in a different family from Chinese—or in script—Tibetan is alphabetical, not ideographic. Tibetan food is based on barley and butter and not eaten with chopsticks. In Tibet, religion is of all-embracing importance, while it has not been central to Chinese culture for many years. In Tibetan tradition the dead are not buried as in China but are exposed to the elements, and sometimes dismembered. Since the seventeenth century, moreover, the Panchen and Dalai Lamas have been important, and sometimes preeminent both as civil and religious leaders, something unthinkable in China, and, in contrast to China’s imperial behavior, Tibet has traditionally tried to keep itself apart from all other countries.

Hugh Richardson, the British official who after nine years during the Thirties and Forties as head of the British mission in Lhasa probably had more direct experience with Tibetans than any other Westerner, says,

The Tibetans emerge as a people deeply conscious of their separateness and resenting foreign intrusion into their way of life; devoted to preserving their peculiar culture, institutions, and above all their religion…. For 1,300 years they succeeded in preserving a purely Tibetan form of government, changing and developing to meet different circumstances but always containing elements and ideas which can be traced back to the sixth century.2

The Tibetans’ capacity to adjust to changed circumstances is open to debate, as discussed below, but practically all of them I have known would agree with the rest of Richardson’s description.

Richardson is right to say “and above all their religion.” Every foreign traveler to Tibet has been struck by its pervasive force: in the daily life of pilgrimages, prostrations, prayer wheels and flags (both ways of repeating mantras especially quickly to gain merit), and the bringing of offerings such as butter for prayer lamps (to lighten the darkness of ignorance) and needles (to sharpen one’s wisdom) to temples and monasteries; in the omnipresence of monks and nuns (although in much smaller numbers under Chinese rule, during which many were killed or driven into secular life); and in art and architecture. Monks and nuns, believing themselves to be defending Buddhism itself, have been in the forefront of all the recent anti-Chinese uprisings, and were the principal targets of Chinese retaliation. And it is Tibet’s religious leader, the Dalai Lama—the reincarnation and impersonation, he claims and Tibetans believe, of the deity associated with compassion—who is also the ultimate civil authority and Tibet’s most important representative abroad.

The British student of Tibetan Buddhism Stephen Batchelor, a former monk, says of Buddhism that for Tibetans “it informed their entire view of life: the origin and nature of the world, the principles of ethics the arts, medical science, and of course religion. Their lives were permeated by Buddhist values. It is impossible to understand Tibetans without knowing the basic tenets of Buddhism and how they interpret them.”3

It is also the case, however, as will be noted later, that, as Melvyn C. Goldstein puts it in his history of modern Tibet, religion “was also a fragmenting and conflicting force” because of competition between monasteries, sects, and factions. Some of their interests were far from spiritual and concentrated, for instance, on personal power or on revenues. Such competition could be enforced violently, if necessary, by the dobdos, “fighting monks” in the three main monasteries, 20,000 in all (the Lhasa military garrison, by contrast, numbered only between 1000 and 1500 soldiers), who were skilled in athletics and the ritualized use of weapons and acted as monastic bodyguards. Goldstein observes that the presence of such a large force of “this worldly, aggressive, fighting monks, traditionally afforded the three monasteries tremendous coercive leverage vis-à-vis the government….” This fighting tradition also helps explain the role of monks in the anti-Chinese demonstrations of recent years, in which the monks attacked the soldiers and police, although only with stones and bricks.

The main tendencies of Buddhism were introduced into Tibet between the seventh and twelfth centuries, over-whelming and transforming Bön, the native faith. Trends and sects appeared and differentiated, but it is not difficult to see how Buddhism underlies Tibetan national belief and political behavior. In the Buddhist view, existence as we immediately experience it, with its longings, agonies, pleasures, and disappointments, is unfulfilling and finally meaningless because we do not adequately comprehend what is really important: selflessness and compassion. Where possible these should be approached through meditation, study, and discipline, and by the avoidance of killing, coveting, lying, and sexual intercourse. These avoidances and practices may lead to a state of enlightenment but they can best be performed in a monastic setting, and those who perform them are believed by Tibetans to be acting for the benefit of all.

Monasteries, therefore, with their concentrations of monks, libraries, religious art, and teaching, are regarded as the defenders and repositories of Buddhism, and those who do not or cannot live the monastic life support them with their prayers and other observances, and with their donations of money, labor, objects, or even of their children, who become monks and nuns.

In some forms of traditional Indian, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhism the ideal toward which the faithful, especially monks and nuns, aspire is the bodhisattva, a person, as Batchelor says, “who selflessly aspires to realize enlightenment for the sake of everything that lives.” In traditional Tibet and in Tibet today, more than in any other country, the population admires above all those selfless persons who, having achieved enlightenment, turn back to assist others farther behind on the Path toward understanding.

The quality which, besides wisdom makes it possible for these generous ones to aid others by shattering the illusions which divide people, is compassion, of which the ultimate embodiment is the bodhisattva Chenrezi (the Tibetan name for an Indian bodhisattva). His present reincarnation is the Dalai Lama, who beyond all other enlightened persons is believed to be the guide who can lead people away from suffering, confusion, and frustration, as well as being the chief defender of the faith against those who threaten it. This explains why, although the Chinese call him “the criminal Dalai,” Tibetans worship him with a faith both devout and nationalist.

  1. 1

    Survey of World Broadcasts, BBC, FE 0862 B2/2, September 6, 1990.

  2. 2

    Tibet and Its History, second edition (Shambala, 1984), p. 240. Richardson refers to the China’s “mania for imposing conformity,” and draws attention to a prospect both horrifying and true: “By deporting much of the male population, by dispersing and resettling communities, and by pouring in floods of their excess population the Chinese, who have already been successful in swamping other races, threaten the very existence of the people, the language, the literature, the customs, and even the name of Tibet,” p. 241.

  3. 3

    The Tibet Guide (Wisdom, 1987), p. 41.

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