Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama; drawing by David Levine

“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.

The struggle against those, like the Chinese, who attempt to destroy Buddhism, while preferably nonviolent, can sometimes, when the taking of a few lives may save many, include killing. But the Dalai Lama explains that the compassionate killer is not guiltless; he takes on a great burden of suffering for what he has done and may be reborn as a lesser being. The Dalai Lama says he would not kill, although he sometimes sympathizes with those who do. His reluctance to take life helps to explain why, despite Tibetans’ capacity for ferocity, so few Chinese have been killed in Tibet during the forty years in which they have taken many lives and destroyed much of the Buddhist fabric.

Most Chinese who live in Tibet regard Buddhism as at best exotic nonsense, and at worst the reason for Tibet’s backwardness. The monasteries, in this view, exploit the poor and ignorant to support their own self-indulgence. With a few exceptions, the occupiers hate the place, regard Tibetans as barbarians, and can’t wait to get back to what they call “Inside,” or China proper, Chinese guides in the Region are deeply ignorant about the region and speak only a few words of Tibetan, if any; the more reliable ones rely on guidebooks left behind by earlier tourists. Almost all Chinese behave contemptuously in Tibet’s religious places; the security forces in Lhasa walk counterclockwise in places where the pious and respectful walk clockwise.

An exception to this dislike is a small group of Chinese cadres I met in Lhasa this October. These young men and women in their late twenties and early thirties volunteered several years ago to come to Tibet to help, as they imagined, to “civilize” it, or at least bring it into the twentieth century. It soon dawned on them that Tibetan high culture was no less sophisticated than China’s and that China, backward as it was economically, and autocratic politically, could not do much to help Tibet. Ashamed of Chinese cultural condescension and brutality, they knew that the despoiling of the monasteries the brutal secularization of monks and nuns, and the wrecking of a precarious economy had begun in the Fifties, well before the Cultural Revolution, still the one period in which the Chinese government concedes that bad things happened. Official propaganda insists that all Chinese—as if Tibetans are Chinese—suffered only during the “terrible ten years,” 1966–1976.

The young Chinese spoke to me under conditions of secrecy and anonymity during a week of especially tight security. The Chinese, afraid of an uprising during the so-called National Day celebrations on October 1, had filled Lhasa with armed police and plainclothes security men, and set up road blocks around and within the city. But the young cadres were eager to have their views known abroad. Some went so far as to insist that the only hope for Tibet was complete independence. Otherwise its native culture would disappear under the weight of the Chinese emigration that has already turned Lhasa and the few other main towns into essentially Chinese places. Others advocated total Tibetan internal autonomy, with Beijing responsible only for foreign relations and defense. (Although these Chinese didn’t know it, this was the Dalai Lama’s own compromise position, which he first laid out in a speech at Strasbourg two years ago, and which put him at odds with many of his followers. In the face of Beijing’s intransigence he appeared, in a recent speech in Philadelphia, to revert to a demand for complete independence.)

Unless there are Chinese nearby, it is very difficult to find a Tibetan who says Tibet is a part of the Chinese motherland. In the great monasteries on the edges of Lhasa, the Drepong and the Sera, Chinese-speaking monks are keen to give their views on this question. Since the anti-Chinese uprising of early March 1989, which resulted in the imposition of martial law two months before its declaration in Beijing during the Tiananmen demonstrations, the monks claimed that they had been cooped up in the monasteries. This was to stop them from marching down to the Barkhor, Lhasa’s central market, where together with the city’s militant nuns they periodically raised the forbidden Tibetan flag, with its snow lions and mountains, and shouted for independence. Such demonstrations often ended after stone-throwing civilians joined in and the police opened fire. Two years ago a Dutch woman was wounded just after a Chinese officer walked up to an unarmed monk who was taking part in a demonstration and, with several foreigners looking on, shot him dead. The March 1989 demonstration was followed by a massacre estimated by some Chinese to have left hundreds of Tibetans dead.

“When we do go into the city,” a monk said to me, “the Chinese beat and shoot us (sui bian), as they please. So who is really backward?” Another said, “China needs Tibet because it is a rich place, full of things the Chinese need.” One of the young Chinese I met put the same thought in more theoretical language. The Chinese, he said, strip Tibet of its raw materials to use in their own factories, and block any industry in Tibet that might compete with Chinese products. “I don’t know whether you call this imperialism or colonialism,” he said.

The historical relationship between Tibet and China until the eighteenth century can be variously interpreted. The Chinese like to refer to the marriage, in the seventh century, of a T’ang dynasty princess and the great early Tibetan king Srong-btsan-sgam-po, as a sign of close relations between the two countries, and of the Tibetan desire to gain from China’s more “advanced” status.4 But the marriage was in fact concluded because the Chinese emperor, during one of the greatest periods in Chinese history, realized that the Tibetans were too strong for him to refuse. As Howard Wechsler of the University of Illinois observes, the Tibetans “developed into a powerful state which would remain China’s most problematical neighbor until the mid-ninth century.”5 In 763 Tibetan cavalrymen briefly captured Ch’ang-an, the capital of the T’ang, and although they withdrew after a sack that lasted several weeks, they menaced the capital for the next thirteen years and were said by one of the emperor’s commanders to have terrified the T’ang army.6 In subsequent centuries the relationship varied with Tibetan weakness and Chinese power until the Mongol period, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when a closer relationship began between the two capitals. This is the time the Chinese characterize as the beginning of Tibetan subordination, but the Mongols were not Chinese—the Chinese certainly regard them as alien rulers—and the Mongol relationship with Tibet was in any event not one of superior and inferior.

During the thirteenth century a new relationship of priest and patron was formed between the powerful lamas of the Sakya monastery and the Mongol khans.7 It was, as Melvyn Goldstein of Case Western Reserve puts it in his magnificent study of modern Tibet, a

symbiotic relationship between a religious figure and a lay patron…. Thus, for the Tibetans, the Dalai Lama and the Manchu emperor [the Manchus succeeded the Ming in 1644, three hundred years after the Mongol empire collapsed] stood respectively as spiritual teacher and lay patron rather than subject and lord.

By 1800, Manchu authority in Tibet, such as it was, had become negligible. In early 1913, after the Manchus fell, the few remaining Chinese officials and soldiers were expelled from Tibet. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama proclaimed that the Mongol, Ming, and Manchu dynasties had recognized the patron-priest relationship, and reminded his officials that “We are a small, religious and independent nation.”

During the next decades, realizing that it was caught in the Great Game between Great Britain, Russia, and China, each of which sought to establish borders advantageous to themselves, Tibet, in Hugh Richardson’s words, “swiftly fell victim to the Western craving for definition and became a comparatively well-outlined and restricted buffer.”8 The Tibetans sometimes drew nearer to the Chinese, sometimes to the British, while Britain, depending on the degree to which it felt able to stand up to China, used words like autonomous and suzerainty to define its territories bordering on India. Despite repeated appeals from Lhasa in the early Forties for arms to defend itself against China, London’s view was summed up in a letter from the India Office to the Foreign Office in 1943 stating that “China is bound to absorb Tibet at the end of the war if not before and…we can do nothing to prevent it.” America’s modest offers of aid to Tibet were for precisely the opposite reason—to confront the Chinese Communists, whom Washington saw gathering in strength as war ended. As the Dalai Lama noted in his autobiography, when it subsequently suited Washington to make friends with Mao, the help to the Tibetans was suddenly withdrawn.

By 1946, Hugh Richardson tried to explain what appeared in London as Tibetan machinations:

One must make allowances for this [Tibetan] disingenuous tortuosity from people placed in such a difficult position as is the Tibetan government—an anachronism without material strength trying to keep up with opponents who are rapidly becoming modernised and with their only source of support in a [British] Government which deliberately limits its promises of help to diplomatic support (only translatable into Tibetan as “words”).

Richardson, speaking as a British official of long and distinguished standing, says that Britain’s role in the UN, where after forty years of recognizing Tibet’s de facto independence from China it refused to support the Tibetan claim against the Chinese invasion of 1950, “must be recorded with shame.”9

Tibetans’ mistrust of the British understandably revives when they hear Mrs. Thatcher’s explanation of why Britain keeps the Dalai Lama at arm’s length. In a letter to Cecil Franks, MP, on January 11, 1990, in reply to a question about whether she would meet the Dalai Lama now that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Prime Minister referred to the Dalai Lama as “a distinguished spiritual leader” but added that there are “wider considerations,…in particular the interests of Hong Kong…. I have no plans for a meeting.”

As for the Dalai Lama himself, to his learned followers he is Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshi Tenzin Gyatso—Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Eloquent, Compassionate, Learned Defender of the Faith, and Ocean of Wisdom Inside Tibet, he is now believed to be the supreme religious and temporal figure—which is how he was proclaimed as a youth of fifteen—and every foreign traveler there encounters people clamouring for his photograph and repeatedly calling “Dalai Lama Dalai Lama,” as a defiant anti-Chinese mantra. He is, as he said in September, “associated in people’s minds with Tibet the country.” He then added, “This must change.”

This is more than mere modesty. Although some of his followers abroad state that the Dalai Lamas have always been the supreme religious and temporal figures in Tibet, only the final period of the Thirteenth’s rule can be described that way. From their emergence in the seventeenth century as significant figures, beginning with the Fifth Dalai Lama, Dalai Lamas often turned over many of their temporal duties to lay and religious officials. Furthermore, as discussed below, many Dalai Lamas did not outlive their youths, so that until another incarnation was discovered Tibet was frequently ruled by regents and other powerful ministers. The power and status of the present Dalai Lama became more and more widely recognized after the Chinese occupation of 1950 and his flight into exile in 1959.

Before 1950, the Fourteenth was regarded as the head of the Gelugpa sect and the temporal ruler of central Tibet—in which less than half of all Tibetans live. The followers of the Panchen Lama often maintained the Panchen’s supremacy, at least in temporal terms, over the Dalai. It should be remembered that in Amdo, in eastern Tibet, where the Fourteenth was discovered, the Panchen was the most important figure; indeed as discussed more fully below, he appears to have had a critical role in the selection of the present Dalai Lama.

Beijing, when not calling the Dalai Lama a wolf in monk’s robes, sometimes grants that he is “a spiritual leader” of the Western Treasure House, or Xizang, the Chinese name for Tibet. This is the formulation favored by Mrs. Thatcher. And although the Dalai Lama travels to many countries and occasionally meets their leaders, despite strenuous protests from the Chinese, Beijing is right when it says that no government recognizes the independence of Tibet and the Dalai Lama as its head of state. “Sometimes this makes me sad,” he admitted in London. “Governments always put their own interests first. I expect that.”

Dalai Lamas do not have easy lives. This one had a lonely childhood. His brother was told by the Chinese to kill him.10 He fled Lhasa once in 1950, after the Chinese invasion, and again, into Indian exile in 1959. Since then he has roamed the world explaining his country’s plight and receiving vast admiration—including last year’s Nobel Peace Prize—but little concrete commitment. But at least he has lived to be fifty-five years old. The little boy seen by Manning in 1811, the Ninth Dalai Lama, died in 1815, the Sixth was deposed by the Mongols and died when he was twenty-three; the Seventh went into Chinese exile (but eventually returned); the Tenth died at twenty-one, the Eleventh at eleven, and the Twelfth at nineteen. “There is ample reason to suspect,” writes Melvyn Goldstein, “that some of these Dalai Lamas were ‘encouraged’ to leave their human form.” A Tibetan historian in London, Tsering Shakya, has pointed out that Dalai Lamas do not last long in times of relative peace; in periods of crisis, he supposes, like those occurring during the last two reigns, they have lived longer, perhaps because the job, so to speak, was less inviting to others.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, called “my great Predecessor” by the present incarnation, died in 1933, age fifty-seven, but left behind a famously gloomy Testament:

This present era is rampant with the five forms of degeneration, in particular, the red ideology…. In the future, this system will certainly be forced either from within or without on this land that cherishes the joint spiritual and temporal system. If, in such an event, we fail to defend our land, the holy lamas, including “the triumphant father and son” [the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama] will be eliminated without a trace of their names remaining,…and my people, subjected to fear and miseries, will be unable to endure day or night. Such an era will certainly come!

Nor was all tranquil within the Dalai Lamas’ courts, although, as Bishop points out, for several centuries tranquility has been one of the foreign fantasies about Tibet, culminating in the image of the serene old Chief Lama in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. This fantasy of beauty and serenity reappears, for example, in My Tibet, with pictures by the wilderness photographer Galen Rowell and most of the text by the Dalai Lama. Rowell’s photographs of birds, animals, flowers, and landscapes, taken during a number of visits to Tibet since 1981, would be appropriate for the National Geographic, to which he has contributed. Happy, contented Tibetans smile at the camera, prostrate themselves, and whirl prayer wheels. Some work at gentle occupations such as weaving. Rowell feels a kinship between Tibetan pilgrims, making their way through rugged terrain and “the wilderness travels we in the West find so liberating.”

In a statement accompanying My Tibet the publisher says “The author and photographer agreed that the book should sidestep contemporary politics.” In the pictures, although not in the text, this sidestep means that forty years of military occupation are not mentioned. Although there are between two and three hundred thousand Chinese soldiers and tens of thousands of Chinese settlers in Tibet, if any of them are to be seen in Rowell’s images I missed them. Nor does Tibet’s urban squalor or the poverty of its inhabitants disturb our view, although the publisher claims that the book is intended “to foreground the more enduring qualities” of Tibetans.

In his text, however, Rowell provides many grim statistics of Chinese brutality and a shameful quote from George Bush in 1977, after his visit to Tibet as head of the American mission in Beijing. Bush accused the Dalai Lama of having “led an unsuccessful revolt against Peking” and criticized his “callous attitude towards these people.”

But most of the book’s text is taken from the Dalai Lama’s previous writings and speeches, although he also supplies captions to Rowell’s pictures. The Dalai Lama understandably misses Tibet, which he last saw in 1959, and Rowell says that he “squirmed with joy” on seeing some of the photographs. Shown a picture of a woman, he guesses that she is praying to find a way to tell her child she can’t afford to buy him a bicycle. Such remarks will be congenial to those who like to think of the Dalai Lama not as a man struggling to keep his country in the minds of world leaders and to modernize his government-in-exile but as a down-to-earth sort of guru with a sense of fun. The Dalai Lama writes, for example, that “Tibetans are naturally a happy and well-adjusted people…worthy of emulation by sensible people the world over.”

In one of his captions, however, the Dalai Lama shows no regret for some defensive violence. Of Rowell’s picture of a drong, Tibet’s wild yak, the Dalai Lama says, “Their nature is very admirable,” but he adds that although the drong are peaceful creatures, they charge and kill hunters. It is clear from the continuous uprisings against the Chinese since the 1950 invasion, one of them sponsored for years by the CIA which flew guerrillas to a secret camp in Colorado,11 that Tibetans themselves are far from nonviolent. As a few of the travelers mentioned by Bishop noted, there was plenty of cruelty and violence before 1950. It could even become a joke: George Bogle, who visited Tibet in 1774, said, “Let no one who has been at a public school in Europe cry out against the Tibetans for cruelty.”

In 1934, a year after the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and before his present reincarnation was discovered in 1935, a progressive high official, Lungshar, who in 1913 had accompanied four Tibetan boys to school in England, called for limited terms for the highest officials in Lhasa, who should, he recommended, be elected by the National Assembly. This threatened the position of large landholders. Lungshar was accused of conspiracy and treason, and his eyeballs were removed. (This was now such a rare punishment that no one knew how to do it; the job, as Goldstein luridly describes, was horribly botched.) His sons were condemned to mutilation—the amputation of a hand each—but were spared. Goldstein points out, as one of his central propositions, that

Lungshar’s movement was the last attempt to reform and revitalize the traditional political system before World War II. Its destruction was a major turning point in modern Tibetan history…and must be seen as a major factor underlying the demise of the Lamaist State.

The young but very senior monk and regent, Reting, whose vision of letters on the surface of a lake in 1935 is said to have pointed the way toward the next Dalai Lama, committed real treason. This is alluded to delicately and regretfully in the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. The Dalai Lama says he liked Reting, although “his most striking feature, I remember, was a continually blocked nose.” It was “suggested,” the Dalai Lama notes, that Reting “had broken his vows of celibacy and was therefore no longer a monk.” In 1941 Reting was forced to resign as regent. But mere incelibate behavior was not the reason. As Goldstein notes, Reting’s sexual conquests, which included his sister-in-law, would not ordinarily have aroused disfavor.

In and of themselves, these affairs would not have been regarded as very important: for incarnate lamas such behavior was easily accepted as high-level siddhi [enlightened beings] activities that people of lower consciousness could not understand.

The problem was that in 1942 Reting was to administer thirty-six vows to the Dalai Lama, including the vow of celibacy. To have such vows administered by an incelibate monk, says Goldstein, would have meant that the Dalai Lama himself had not taken such a vow.

The Reting affair did not end there, and when he discusses it the Dalai Lama’s tone is again one of regret and slight puzzlement. In 1947, he writes, gunfire in the capital signaled that Reting, accompanied by an armed band, was attempting to reclaim his regency. Reting was arrested, many of his followers were killed, and Reting himself “died in prison not long afterwards…. All in all the whole affair was very silly.” The Dalai Lama says too that he retains “deep personal respect for Reting Rimpoché as my first tutor and guru.”

This account is inadequate. In fact, Reting invited the Chinese government, then still led by Chiang Kai-shek, to supply troops, weapons, and airplanes, in support of his attempted coup. As Goldstein says, “the political status of Tibet itself was threatened…. Tibet would unquestionably become subordinate to China.”12 The ex-regent was arrested, tried, and soon died in prison. “It now appears very likely,” writes Goldstein, “that Reting was poisoned.” Some of his followers were sentenced to having their eyeballs removed but the new regent, whom Reting had sought to displace, asked that this sentence be reduced “for the benefit of the young Dalai Lama’s long life.”

The violence in the Reting affair was not limited to putting down the conspiracy. In the Sera, one of the great Lhasa monasteries, monks supporting Reting hacked their abbot to death, and rebelled. Within a few days Lhasa was in uproar. Four hundred troops supported by machine guns encircled the Sera. When hundreds of monks sallied out the soldiers opened fire. Soon army howitzers, ineptly aimed, joined in. By the time the disorder had ended in early May 1947, Goldstein estimates, between two and three hundred monks and about fifteen soldiers had been killed. Twenty-two monks received whippings of one hundred to two hundred strokes and, restrained by irons and wooden yokes, were handed over as servants to aristocratic families.

In the light of such events it is not surprising that for some British travelers between 1759 and 1959, the years covered by Peter Bishop’s fascinating book, Tibet was a country of cruelty, backwardness, and dead dogs. For most, Bishop emphasizes, it has remained primarily “a landscape to which the soulful imaginings of many westerners were drawn,” one of “the sacred places located at the periphery of the social world,” and a place for inner or pyschological travel over time and distance. (Bishop is very good on inner travel; I suspect from his book, however, that he has not himself been to Tibet.) Such places—Arcadia, the Mountains of the Moon, the source of the Nile, Cathay, Tartary, the Orient, the Indies—Bishop says, possess “paradoxical power—of destruction, and also of renewal. They can induce a sense of both serenity and terror.” They are supposed to be fabulously inhabited as well, by the Sphinx, the Maji, Sheba, Cleopatra, Prester John—and the Dalai and Panchen Lamas. Bishop observes that Tibet itself was always notable—and still is—for its exhilarating air and light, its reincarnated lamas and abominable snowmen, or yetis, and monumental buildings like the Dalai Lama’s Potala.

Otherwise sober travelers found themselves saying extraordinary things in Tibet: Captain Samuel Turner was dispatched there in 1783 by the East India Company especially to make contact with the Third Panchen Lama. But he had died, and Turner confronted his eighteen-month-old reincarnation, who, he was assured, could understand what was said although as yet he was too young to speak. Bishop quotes Turner’s speech to “the little creature…[who] nodded with repeated but slow movements of the head as though he understood every word I said.” Turner told the newest Panchen Lama that

The Governor-General, on receiving the news of his decease in China, was overwhelmed with grief and sorrow, and continued to lament his absence from the world, until the cloud that had overcast the happiness of this nation was dispelled by his reappearing…. The Governor…was hopeful that the friendship which had formally subsisted between them, would not be diminished….

Tibet baffled foreigners. The British were amazed to discover when they were negotiating peace terms with Tibetan envoys outside Lhasa in 1904 that their opposite numbers did not intend to discuss peace terms; instead they would “beg us not to cut grass in a particular field.” When the Russian diplomat Prejevalsky struck out for Tibet from Siberia in 1879, his twenty-three camels, according to Peter Bishop, carried tinted pictures of Russian actresses and wild strawberry jam, “which Prejevalsky had bottled personally for the Dalai Lama.” But he soon came to see Lamaism as “the curse of Tibet”—in contrast with the seasoned Swedish traveler Sven Hedin, who spoke of “Tibet; the country whence the light of holiness streams forth upon the world of Lamaism….”

After a number of visits to Tibet I can understand these swings in perception. I have sensed in the Sera and Drepung monasteries what Hedin describes, but also sympathize with the member of the British 1904 expedition in his Tibetan town:

Everything in the place is coated and grimed with filth. In the middle of the street, between two banks of filth and offal, runs a stinking channel…. In it horns and bones and skulls of every beast eaten or not eaten by the Tibetans…. The stench is fearful.

And yet, the same Englishman saw “hanging in mid-air above this nest of mephitic filth, the cold and almost saintlike purity of the everlasting snows of Chumolhari—a huge wedge of argent a mile high….”

Bishop is right to say that in its continued fascination with Tibet—although no government has dealt with it openly and directly since 1950—

The West seemed to need at least one place to have remained stable, untouched, an unchanging centre in a world being ripped apart. Many hoped [and hope] that Tibet would be that “still centre.”

More particularly still, the Dalai Lama, although today accessible as never before, remains “the embodiment…of Tibetan wisdom, knowledge, compassion,” and is still often referred in the British press, and not in quotes, as the god-king.

The Dalai Lama appears in his autobiography very much as he seems in person: unassuming but conscious of his special characteristics (“the simple monk” who is also spiritually connected to his thirteen predecessors and to the Buddha). Sometimes he is ready to abandon his dignity: he remembers fearing that he would lose control of his bladder during long solemn rituals, and hoping, while walking arm in arm with a Chinese general along a perilous path, that if his partner’s “time had come” a falling rock would hit him and not the Dalai Lama. He is determined to discover what is human in his most dangerous adversaries, but admits that sometimes they frighten him. After Mao Zedong whispered to him in Beijing in early 1955, “Your attitude is good, you know Religion is poison,” the Dalai Lama felt a “violent burning sensation all over my face and I was suddenly very afraid. ‘So,’ I thought, ‘you are the destroyer of the Dharma [the Buddhist truth or law] after all.’ ” He sees behind false fronts: most foreigners who met Zhou Enlai found him charming; to the Dalai Lama “he was over-polite, which is invariably a sign of someone not to be trusted.”

As I have already noted, the Dalai Lama can skate over difficult subjects, such as the Reting conspiracy. (This is not a question of language. Although eloquent in conversation, the Dalai Lama admits, in the autobiography, that his English is limited. Perhaps his publisher should have added “as told to Alexander Norman” on the title page, instead of allowing this helpful editor to be tucked away in the acknowledgments.) The problem, where it arises, is one of omission. A more intimate example than the Reting affair is the conduct of his father, whom the Dalai Lama sums up as a man of quick temper, but very kind and no holder of grudges. He describes how when he had been selected as Dalai Lama, his family was plucked from its simple village life, brought to Lhasa, and installed in the highest aristocracy with “considerable property.”

From Goldstein we learn more: the Yabshi Kung (the term for Dalai Lama’s father) ignored Tibetan laws, refused to pay taxes on his considerable estates, and interfered in legal cases. Those who failed to pay him sufficient respect were beaten by his servants. Eventually, in 1942, an edict was published: “Be it known to the public that henceforth the Dalai Lama’s father has been ordered to behave himself in a manner similar to the other Yabshis.” In their officially approved history of Tibet Wang Furen and Suo Wenqing state flatly that the same pro-British elements in the Lhasa establishment who murdered Reting—they say by hanging—also murdered the Dalai Lama’s father by poison. This would be an extraordinary event for the Dalai Lama to conceal.

In his first autobiography, My Land and My People,13 published in 1962, the Dalai Lama left out the CIA’s part in the uprising in the late Fifties, saying that the guerrillas’ weapons had been captured from the Chinese. Now he describes how in 1958, as the resistance to the Chinese spread from eastern to central Tibet, some of their weapons “had duly materialised courtesy of the CIA.” He goes on to say that after he went into exile in 1959 he heard that more weapons and money were dropped by air into Tibet, but that “these missions caused almost more harm to the Tibetans than to the Chinese forces,” because the Americans were reluctant for the arms to be traced to them and sent obsolete foreign equipment, which in any case was often damaged when dropped.

Even this does not tell the whole story, well described in John Avedon’s In Exile From the Land of Snows,14 which involved a network of CIA operations stretching from several small countries in the Himalayas to Okinawa and on to Colorado (the Rockies were supposed to resemble the terrain in which the Tibetans would be righting) and hundreds if not thousands of guerrillas carrying American-supplied weapons, miniature radios, and suicide pills. With some bitterness, the Dalai Lama records that in the early 1970s, when the US began to establish links with China, the CIA broke off contact with the Tibetan resistance, “which indicates that their assistance had been a reflection of their anti-Communist policies rather than genuine support for the restoration of Tibetan independence.”

This account sounds genuine, as do other, more personal observations. The Dalai Lama recalls his loneliness when, having been chosen as the Fourteenth reincarnation, he was separated from his family and for years spent most of his time with servants and with tutors, some kind, some frightening, who prepared him for his eventual religious and civil responsibilities. Of his selection he repeats the familiar and wonderful story about how disguised emissaries, directed by the visions of the Regent Reting, arrived at his humble house and offered the child, barely two, a selection of objects, some of which had belonged to the Great Thirteenth, who had died two years earlier. Unerringly, the child picked only the correct spectacles, canes, and pencils, and said significant-sounding things as well.

What the Dalai Lama does not say is—according to Goldstein, whose source is Kusantse Kheme, the senior lay member of the search party—that the then incarnated Panchen Lama had drawn up a list of several possible infant reincarnations, including the present Dalai Lama. This episode is also alluded to, but only partially, by his elder brother (as well as by Hugh Richardson), who says nothing about one of the boys being his brother.15

It is convenient for the Dalai Lama’s exile government in Daharmsala in northern India to leave out this fact, if it is one. It is omitted as well in the Dalai Lama’s 1962 autobiography. Because the dying Panchen Lama, like his successor who died last year, was under Chinese control, it may be important today that China cannot be seen to have had a part in choosing Dalai Lamas.16 The Dalai Lama himself makes it clear, when the subject of succession comes up in conversation, and in his autobiography, that there need be no Fifteenth reincarnation but that if one does appear he is likely, since the Fourteenth is in exile, to be found outside Tibet.

The whole matter of the selection is so important that other nonmysterious factors which may have played a part are ignored in the current autobiography. The Dalai Lama merely mentions, for example, that before his own discovery, his brother, who is thirteen years older, had already been identified as the reincarnation of the abbot of the nearby powerful Kumbum monastery. In his autobiography, his brother remembers the forty-member search delegation staying at Kumbum for two years while carrying out its hunt “quietly and unobtrusively.” He insists that even when he heard the delegation had visited his house and inspected his little brother that he never discussed the matter with its search party’s members, although it had become a subject of gossip in the monastery.17 Only a person wholly devoted to the miraculous story of the discovery of the Dalai Lama can ignore the significance of the Panchen Lama’s list—if it existed—and the fact that the little boy in Takster had a powerful brother with whom the search delegation stayed for two years.18

The Dalai Lama prefers simplicity, but he noticed that the first Chinese general he met was wearing a gold Rolex, and he was proud of the “pair of beautiful singing birds and a magnificent gold watch” sent him by President Roosevelt in 1942. (Goldstein pointedly describes these as: “gifts which the British snidely assessed as being far too inexpensive to impress the Tibetans.”) He also remembers with obvious pleasure—although the words cannot be his—the processions leaving the thousand-room Potala, which included porters carrying his caged songbirds and “a posse of horses from the Dalai Lama’s own stables, all nicely turned out, caparisoned and led by their grooms.”

More poignantly, he recalls his tiny freezing bedroom, thick with dust, in the Potala, once the bedroom of the Great Fifth, the first all-powerful Dalai Lama. Its little dishes of food offerings at the altar were “plundered by mice. I became very fond of these little creatures…. Sometimes they came over my bed,…[which] was surrounded by long, red curtains. The mice would clamber over these too, their urine dripping down as I snuggled under my blankets below.”

All this is charming, and can easily disarm the reader into thinking that Tibet was a victim, guilty at worst of what Richardson calls “tortuosity,” suffused with the exotic innocence which, in 1947, permitted the present Dalai Lama, then twelve, to write to President Truman,

I am glad that you are enjoying the best of health and doing good service to uplift the happiness and prosperity of the whole world. Here, I am well and doing my best for the religion of Lord Buddha and welfare of all beings…. With greeting scarf, a portrait of myself bearing my seal and a silk embroidered Thangka [a religious painting].

This is the kind of Tibet that fed the Western fantasies discussed so ably by Bishop.

But the Dalai Lama himself describes another Tibet, which in addition to being a truly fantastic place had to a considerable degree rendered itself incapable of avoiding or at least blunting the tragedy of Chinese occupation that has attracted widespread compassion. In 1950, when he was only fifteen, the Dalai Lama was enthroned, and as he puts it,

I found myself undisputed leader of six million people facing the threat of a full-scale war…. But what made it even more difficult to instigate reforms was the religious community’s fear of foreign influence, which they were convinced would damage Buddhism in Tibet.

The lamas’ fear of reform is much emphasized in Goldstein’s marvelous book, which, while compassionate, is also clearsighted, and will doubtless attract the indignation of those who need Tibet—as Bishop has shown—to be a perfect place, not for its sake, but for theirs. Tibet, Goldstein states, “unquestionably controlled its own internal and external affairs during the period from 1913 to 1951.” Even though throughout this period Chinese leaders, Nationalist and Communist, believed the opposite, namely that Tibet had for centuries been part of “the Motherland,” only in 1951 was Tibet forced to yield up its sovereignty to Beijing.

Although Tibet had, therefore, almost four decades to create a modern army, and there had been high officials who not only wanted this but had begun to create one, “Tibet’s religious segment was ultimately responsible for its military backwardness….” The Tibetan elite insisted that Tibet was a country unique, devoted, as its government wrote to Chiang Kai-shek in 1946, “to the well-being of humanity in the world.”

This was said at a time when it was clear to many in Washington and London that if the Chinese Communists won, Tibet would be gobbled up. To sustain this special global role, the Tibetan elite considered it vital to have the largest possible monastic system, which in turn devoured most of the region’s resources. The principal monasteries invariably took the most traditional view—or the most blinkered and reactionary—of most questions, as the Fourteenth Dalai Lama himself has conceded.

This meant that when it became apparent to the leading monks in 1918 and 1919 that Tibet was developing a compact modern army with instructors who had received weapons and tactical training from the British, and that this army would require taxes that the great monastic and aristocratic estates would have to furnish, they persuaded the Thirteenth Dalai Lama that the new military and its creators were a subversive antireligious force. In 1924–1925 the Dalai Lama got rid of the tiny modern army, its commanders, and its champions. “It is not surprising, then,” according to Goldstein, “that when the People’s Republic of China confronted Tibet in 1950–1951, Tibet was unable to defend its territory for more than a matter of days.” Accounts of those first days bear this out: where the Tibetans resisted the Chinese were balked; but repeatedly the defenders, chaotically commanded from Lhasa, fell into confusion and were crushed, although the Chinese forces were often exhausted, badly equipped, and out of their element.19

A second self-inflicted wound, according to Goldstein, was the appointment in 1933 of the twenty-four-year-old Reting as regent. He had been favored by the traditionalists because he was believed to be the reincarnation of a famous eighteenth-century lama who became the Seventh Dalai Lama’s tutor, and because the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was said to have favored him as a potential Regent before a Fourteenth Dalai Lama came of age. Reting, dismissed because of his erratic private life, attempted to regain the regency, invited in the Chinese, and instigated civil war, which created further instability only seven years before the Chinese Communist army invaded Tibet.

The third internal blow was the destruction in the early Thirties of the lay official Lungshar, blinded, as I have noted, for daring to suggest a limitation on the absolute rule of the Dalai Lama’s Kashag, or cabinet; this might have led to the recreation of an effective army and the beginnings of modern administration.

Outside Tibet, Goldstein lays blame on Britain, which after 1914 “dealt with Tibet completely independently of China, but officially…recognized Tibet only as autonomous under Chinese suzerainty. Britain therefore was unwilling to assist Tibet in securing an independent international status”—as it still is. Richardson, Britain’s own most expert Tibetanist official, understood that the Tibetans interpreted this diplomatic language as mere “words.”

As for the US, Goldstein explores the machinations of American officials who hampered or blocked Tibetan delegations from working abroad or within the United Nations. The US offered various forms of asylum to the Dalai Lama, and wrote him letters offering limited military assistance against the Chinese, but did not sign them. Even when the CIA organized a guerrilla force, as the Dalai Lama says, this was not a pro-Tibetan policy but an anti-Chinese one which became a casualty of Sino-American détente in 1972.

The story of Tibet in the twentieth century is noble, tragic, and brutal. There is plenty of room in it for fantasy and bewilderment, because Tibet is that kind of a place: the Dalai Lama describes himself as “half Marxist” and a reincarnation of the Compassionate Bodhisattva. And as Peter Bishop says, people have long wanted Tibet to be Shangri-la. But Tibet deserves the critical attention we give other countries, which would reveal Tibet’s own grievous shortcomings and the hollowness of Chinese claims to the “Western Treasure House.”

The Dalai Lama told me in London in September that while he patiently waits “for five years, for ten years” for Beijing to change enough to discuss Tibet’s future with him, the Chinese continue to pour into the Region. They settle on the agricultural land, take Tibetan wives, and abhor Tibetan culture. “This is the problem,” he said. “In Amdo, the part of Tibet where I was born, there are about 750,000 Tibetans and 2.5 million Chinese. We may become insignificant in our own country.”

This Issue

December 20, 1990