[This was written about 30 years ago, but the situation is the same and worse in Tibet as it was in 1950, with monasteries now being monitored with spy-cameras, and the Chinese bulldozing a Tibetan settlement and monastery of Larung Gar last summer. See: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-36863888?SThisFB Let’s hope the U.S.’s new administration will have more backbone in challenging the biggest murderer of human rights in the world.]
In what was to be the beginning of one of the periodic madnesses that grip parts or all the globe, in the spring of 1950 Tibet was invaded by China after China’s declaration that it intended to free Tibet from “the influence of foreign imperialists” (there being six westerners in Tibet at the time) It was to prove the total destruction of the base of exoteric Mahayana Buddhism, which has near identical doctrines to that of Theosophy. The invasion was to directly and indirectly result in the death of some one million Tibetans and to make refugees of 100,000 others including the Dalai Lama.
Before China’s attempted “modernization” of Tibet, it was the home of some 3,000 Buddhist monasteries and 200,000 monks. By 1984 these vast numbers had shrunk to a remaining or rebuilt 45 monasteries housing some 1,400 monks. For years any practice of religion was forbidden in Tibet, but in the last ten years under a new Chinese administration some of these strictures have been loosen. Partially this change in policy is due to the value of Buddhism as a tourist attraction. While the superficial ceremonial practice of Buddhism is allowed, any serious scholastic study of its scriptures is forbidden.
Most the destruction of monasteries occurred during the chaos of China’s “Cultural Revolution” in the 1960’s. Some monasteries were taken apart brick by brick while most were dynamited or shelled with field artillery – although the walls of most were too thick to be totally destroyed. The process was to first take an inventory of all valuables. Gold and silver artifacts were taken in truck convoys to China to be melted into bullion. Manuscripts were either burned on the spot or sent for use as shoe padding and toilet paper. Clay images were pulverized and recast for the specific purpose of making public lavatories. At the central temple in the capital at Lhasa, sacred manuscripts kept bonfires burning for five days. Monasteries not totally destroyed were used for granaries, barracks or offices. The temple at Lhasa was renamed “Guest House #5” and used for government offices and its courtyards for keeping pigs.
Monks were either killed or shipped with other Tibetans to work camps such as that at Golomo to build railroads, Tsala Ka to mine borax, or Kongpo for Timbering. At Golomo, which is at 10,000 foot elevation and has six months of winter with gale force winds much of the time, large numbers died almost immediately from exposure and starvation. One account claims that 1,400 of 1,700 prisoners held at Drepang monastery died of starvation from November 1960 to June 1961. Tibetan’s homes were arbitrarily seized and all their possessions sold. During this period Tibet’s agricultural production actually increased, but nearly all the harvest, except that kept for Chinese troops, was shipped to China. to offset its own famine. While famine was previously unknown in Tibet, formerly prosperous peasants were reduced to stealing scraps from the Chinese pigs, picking horse offal for undigested grain, and feeding their own blood mixed with tsampa to their starving children. Fare at the work camps, when there was any, was typically barley husks mixed with sawdust or ulcer-producing tree bark.
Monks and Lamas were special objects of Chinese persecution. Lamas, formerly heads of monasteries, were lashed through the streets of Lhasa with heavy statues of Buddha strapped to their backs. Monks and nuns were forced to copulate in public or branded with irons. There were crucifixions. Monks and nuns were forced to marry while other Tibetans were sterilized in large numbers. One of Tibet’s highest Lamas, the Panchen Lama, was publicly beaten in his trial for “crimes against the state” – chiefly his support of the Dalai Lama. His aged tutor was sent to Golomo where he shortly died and the Panchen himself was imprisoned for fourteen years, and released in 1978 for political reasons. [After the Panchen Lama died, the Chinese kidnapped his recognized child-reincarnation, and substituted their own state-sponsored reincarnation.] It is still illegal today to even have a picture of the Dalai Lama. NBC recently reported an arrest for having the Lama’s picture on a T-shirt.
In China’s “development” of Tibet, the provinces of Gansu and Amdo were transformed into what a 1979 Time magazine article calls a “vast sea of prison camps” with up to ten million Tibetan and Chinese prisoners – a “black hole … from which little information ever reached the outside world.” By 1978 China’s largest nuclear weapons factory was located at Nagchuka 165 miles north of Lhasa. Whole mountain ranges have been denuded of timber. Tibet’s vast herds of wild ass were machine-gunned, her snow leopards, himalayan monkeys and wild yaks have become nearly if not extinct and her formerly endless flocks of ducks and geese have disappeared. Sixty western scientists were allowed to visit Tibet in 1980 and according to their account there is not a large wild animal to be seen anywhere and only a few birds in Tibet’s now sterile landscape.
In short, there has been nothing worse in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Gulag, or under the Khymer Regime in Cambodia than what has occurred in Tibet under the Chinese. There is no outcry in the West, however, over this great atrocity or even sparse public knowledge. It is good politics to be friends with China and its billion people, while Tibet is important neither economically nor militarily and Buddhism matters very little in the political grist mills of the world. Our country, which prides itself for its stand on worldwide human rights, has chosen expediency and officially recognizes China’s claim to right of sovereignty over Tibet.
What was to befall Tibet was perhaps foreseen by the thirteenth Dalai Lama when he wrote in 1932 a year before his death:
“It may happen that here, in the center of Tibet, religion and government will be attacked both from without and from within. Unless we can guard our own country, it will now happen that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Father and Son, and all the revered holders of the Faith,, will disappear and become nameless. Monks and their monasteries will be destroyed. The rule of law will be weakened. The lands and property of government officials will be seized. They themselves will be forced to serve their enemies or wander the country like beggars. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and overpowering fear; the days and nights will drag on slowly in suffering.”
While the present Dalai Lama has become a world ambassador in his never ending efforts to gain independence for Tibet, his attitude is also objective and philosophic. “There are many prophecies which indicate that I will be the last Dalai Lama. The world is changing so dramatically, that there may no longer be a need for the lineage.” Elsewhere he has stated that “the very aggregates of a human mind and body have, as their actual nature, suffering. They serve as a basis for suffering, and as long as one has them one is susceptible to suffering. From a deep point of view, while we Tibetans don’t have our independence and are living in someone else’s country, we are subject to a certain type of suffering, but when we return to Tibet and gain our independence, then there will be other types of suffering. So, you see, this is just the way it is. You might think that I’m pessimistic, but I am not. This is Buddhist realism. This is how, through Buddhist teaching and advice, we handle situations. These sorts of thoughts make one stronger, more active.”
– In Exile from the Land of Snows, John F. Avedon, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1984
– The Making of Modern Tibet, A. Tom Grunfeld, M.E. Sharp Inc., Armonk, NY, 1987
(from Protogonos, Winter 1987-8)