I gave a talk called ‘Beyond the sacred’, on the changing character of ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy, at a conference on blasphemy organised this weekend by the Centre for Inquiry at London’s Conway Hall on Saturday. Here is a transcript.
To talk about blasphemy is also to talk about the idea of the sacred. To see something as blasphemous is to see it in some way as violating a sacred space. In recent years, both the notion of blasphemy and that of the sacred have transformed. What I want to explore here is the nature of that transformation, and what it means for free speech.
For believers, the idea of the sacred is key to moral life. Detachment from the sacred, the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor claimed at the installation ceremony for his successor, Archbishop Vincent Nicholls, has been responsible for war and terror, sin and evil. In this view the acceptance of the sacred is indispensable for the creation of a moral framework and for the injection of meaning and purpose into life.
I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the relationship between religion and morality. As an atheist, I do not see myself as lacking a moral compass, or being unaware of boundaries, or being burdened by a sense of a purposeless life. What I do want to do is look more carefully at what we mean by the ‘sacred’. Religion, Leszek Kolokowski, the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, acknowledged, ‘is man’s way of accepting life as inevitable defeat’. ‘To reject the sacred is’, as he puts it, ‘to reject our own limits.’ In this Tragic view of the human condition, the sacred exists to protect human beings from the flaws of their own nature. ‘The sacred order’, as Kolokowski observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’
The sacred, in this sense, is less about the transcendent than it is about the taboo. The sacred sphere, as French sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out a century ago, constitutes a social space that is set apart and protected from being defiled: a set of rules and practices that cannot be challenged. It provides a means of protecting not the kingdom of heaven but the citadels of earthly power. The sacred, Kolakowski observes, ‘simply reaffirms and stabilizes the structure of society – its forms and its systems of divisions, and also its injustices, its privileges and its institutionalized instruments of oppression.’ Blasphemy, and the sacred, in other words, are not simply about theology and religion, but also about politics and power. We can see the way that blasphemy and the sacred have helped speak to social and political power if we look at the history of blasphemy in Britain.
Until the abolition of the offence in 2008, blasphemy was committed in British law if there was published ‘any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject using words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive, and which tend to vilify the Christian religion’. The origins of the law go back a millennium. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 two orders of courts were established. Church courts decided all ecclesiastical cases, under the guidance of canon law, which legislated on moral offences. The civil or king’s courts were concerned with offences against the person or property. In 1401, King Henry IV empowered bishops to arrest and imprison suspected heretics, including ‘all preachers of heresy, all school masters infected with heresy and all owners and writers of heretical books’. If a heretic refused to abjure, or if he later relapsed, he could be ‘handed over to the civil officers, to be taken to a high place before the people and there to be burnt, so that their punishment might strike fear into the hearts of others’.
Despite the concern with God and Christianity, the outlawing of blasphemy was less about defending the dignity of the divine than of protecting the sanctity of the state. In 1676 John Taylor was convicted of blasphemy for saying that Jesus Christ was a ‘bastard’ and a ‘whoremaker’ and that religion was a ‘cheat’. ‘That such kind of wicked and blasphemous words were not only an offence against God and religion’, observed the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, in front of whom Taylor was tried, ‘but a crime against the laws, States and Government; and therefore punishable in this court; that to say religion is a cheat, is to dissolve all those obligations whereby civil societies are preserved; and Christianity being parcel of the laws of England, therefore to reproach the Christian religion is to speak in subversion of the law.’
Any challenge to Christian doctrine was, in other words, also a challenge to the secular social order. The heresy that troubled Lord Chief Justice Hale was the kind of heresy that promoted ‘subversion of the law’, the kind of dissent that might unstitch civil society. The outlawing of blasphemy was therefore a necessary defence of traditional political authority.
Four hundred years after Taylor’s conviction, Lord Denning, perhaps Britain’s most important judge of the twentieth century, made, in 1949, much the same point about the relationship between blasphemy and social disorder, though he drew the opposite conclusion about the necessity of the law. Historically, he observed, ‘The reason for this law was because it was thought that a denial of Christianity was liable to shake the fabric of society, which was itself founded on Christian religion.’ But, Denning added, ‘There is no such danger in society now and the offence of blasphemy is a dead letter.’
Not only had Christianity become unwoven from the nation’s social fabric, but over the next half-century other faiths and cultures wove themselves in. The multicultural transformation of Britain made even less plausible the traditional arguments for the blasphemy law. In 1985, three years before the Rushdie affair, the Law Commission published a report on blasphemy entitled Offences against Religion and Public Worship. ‘In the circumstances now prevailing in this country,’ the Commission argued, ‘the limitation of protection to Christianity and, it would seem, the tenets of the Church of England, could not be justified.’ It should be abolished ‘without replacement’.
But if the reweaving of Britain’s social fabric provided an argument for the abolition of the blasphemy law, it also provided a reason, in some people’s minds, for its refashioning into a new offence that embraced non-Christian faiths and cultures. ‘A significant number of lawyers, clergymen and laymen’, wrote Richard Webster in A Brief History of Blasphemy, a book that came out a year after the Satanic Verses controversy and was highly critical of Rushdie and his supporters, ‘have begun to take the view that some protection of people’s religious feelings is necessary not primarily for religious or spiritual reasons but in the interests of social harmony.’
One such figure was Lord Scarman. Two years before he wrote his famous report on the Brixton riots, he was one of the Law Lords who presided over thelast great blasphemy trial in Britain. In 1977 Mary Whitehouse had brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against the newspaper Gay News. It had published a poem by James Kirkup called ‘The Love that Dares to Speak its Name’, about the love of a centurion for Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. Whitehouse won the case and Gay News appealed against the conviction.
In 1979 the case finally came to the House of Lords, then the highest appeal court in Britain. The Law Lords, one of whom was Lord Scarman, upheld the original verdict. ‘I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law,’ Scarman wrote in his judgement. But such a law must be extended ‘to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians’. Blasphemy ‘belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom. In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, ridicule and contempt.’ ‘The internal tranquility of the kingdom’: the role of blasphemy, in other words, is again acknowledged not as protecting religion but as defending social peace.
In 1985 the Law Commission looked into this and rejected such an extension, arguing that the deficiencies of the law ‘are so serious and so fundamental that… no measure short of abolition would be adequate to deal with these deficiencies’. The Commission dismissed the idea that religion should have special protection, observing that ‘Reverence for God… does not differ fundamentally in character from reverence accorded to any person against whom those according respect are unwilling to entertain grounds of criticism.’ It pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’.
The Law Commission inquiry was, however, far from united in its view. Two of the five members appended a Note of Dissent to the majority report. The dissenters were particularly influenced by an outside working party that had insisted that some legal constraints were necessary for the protection of social harmony. ‘If scurrilous attacks on religious beliefs go unpunished by law,’ the working party suggested, ‘they could embitter strongly held feelings within substantial groups of people, could destroy working relationships between different groups, and where religion and race are intimately bound together could deepen the tensions that already are a disturbing feature in some parts of this country.’ The Note of Dissent proposed the replacement of blasphemy by a new offence that recognized ‘the duty on our citizens, in our society of different races and people of different faiths and of no faith, not purposely to insult or outrage the religious feelings of others’.
In the end both the majority and minority views came to fruition. The blasphemy law was finally repealed in 2008. But it had already been replaced by a number of laws that secularized the offence of blasphemy. Two years before the blasphemy law was abolished, parliament had passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, which made it an offence to incite hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. The aim was to extend to Muslims, and other faith groups, the same protection that racial groups, including Sikhs and Jews, possessed under Britain’s various Race Relations Acts. In fact, it was already an offence to perpetrate hate speech. In 1998 the Public Order Act had been amended to make it an offence to ‘display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress’.
Blasphemy was a form of social regulation for society that thought of itself as homogenous. For a society that thinks of itself as plural, blasphemy can no longer play that role, at least in its traditional sense. Society was, in fact, never as homogenous as we now imagine that it used to be. Contemporary society is not as plural as many insist. What matters, however, is the perception of this shift, and the consequences of this perception for ideas of the sacred and of blasphemy. As people came to see themselves as living in a far more plural society, so blasphemy became reworked to be an offence not primarily against God, or even religion, but against an individual’s identity.
Consider, for instance, Ziauddin Sardar’s account of his encounter with The Satanic Verses. Sardar is a liberal Muslim, highly critical of Islamism and other fundamentalist strands. In his book Distorted Imagination, he describes reading Rushdie’s novel on a plane from Kuala Lumpur to London. By the time he landed at Heathrow, he writes,
It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity. Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.
Sardar’s friend Gulzar Haider, Professor of Architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, was ‘lying on a sofa’ when he heard the news of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. ‘So catastrophic was the effect’, Sardar reports, ‘he couldn’t move, it was as though his body had been struck down by a disease. He was sofa bound for almost a year. His friend and colleague Merryl Davies ‘bellowed like a fiery dragon goaded by a million arrows, writhing by turns with sorrow and rage.’ It is almost as if Sardar and his friends were driving themselves into a kind of self-induced hysteria, as if they felt that they had to suffer personally for their faith to be meaningful.
This intensely personal, deeply emotional response marks a shift in the way that believers understood their relationship to belief. Faith has always had an emotional components and for some faiths such emotional spirituality has been central to their outlook. Nevertheless there has been a fundamental shift in the character of religious belief in recent decades. Sociologist talk of the rise of the ‘therapy culture’ to describe the growing emotionalism of our age. Scholars such as the philosopher Charles Taylor and the sociologist Olivier Roy have described how such emotionalism has become central to new forms of ‘expressive’ faiths. Faith, as Charles Taylor observes in his book A Secular Age, has become disembedded from its historical culture, and reconstituted instead as part of the culture of ‘expressive individualism’, forms of spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and rooted in the social values of what the writer Tom Wolfe has called the ‘me generation’. ‘All religious revival movements of the late twentieth century’, Olivier Roy writes, are marked by an ‘anti-intellectualism that favours a more emotional religiosity’, so that ‘feelings are more important than knowledge’. This is true not just of radical Islam but also of other ‘born again’ religions such as charismatic Christianity, the Lubavitch, one of the largest Jewish Hasidic communities, and the Hinduvta, a Hindu revivalist movement. Such faiths, in Roy’s words, ‘play on emotion through ritual and collective expressions of faith, using symbolic and ostensible markers of belonging’.
In Spiritual Revolution, their study of religious practices in a small town in northern England, the sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead show that while traditional religious congregations are on the decline, ‘New Age’ forms of spirituality are beginning to fill the gap. But more than this, many once-traditional believers are beginning to adopt New Age attitudes and rituals, developing new forms of faith that celebrate the emotional aspects of spirituality and seek to fulfil the believer’s inner needs. Such congregations often combine a literal reading of the Holy Book, and an insistence on the unchanging character of religious truths, with a God that speaks to their individual, subjective needs. ‘We don’t go to mass because we feel like it, or not go because we don’t feel like it, we go because the church gave us an obligation to go to mass’, an elderly Roman Catholic lady explained to Heelas and Woodhead. For all the literalism of the new forms of faith, such obligation is alien to them. Instead, they provide ‘more space for each every individual participant to explore and express his emotions in his own way, and to let those emotions set the agenda of the religion rather than vice versa.’
In recent decades, faith has, in other words, transformed itself into the religious wing of identity politics. Religion has, ironically, become secularised, driven less by a search for piety and holiness than for identity and belongingness. The rise of identity politics has transformed the meaning not just of religion but of blasphemy too. Blasphemy used to be regarded as a sin against God. These days it is felt as a sin against the individual believer, an offence against the self and one’s identity. That is why for Sardar, ‘Every word [of The Satanic Verses] was directed at me and I took everything personally’, why he imagined that Rushdie had ‘despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity’. This is also why many laws these days that ostensibly protect faith – such as Britain’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act – are framed primarily in terms of protecting the culture and identity of individuals or communities. In today’s world, identity is God, in more ways than one.
The transformation in the meaning of blasphemy has not, however, transformed its underlying role. The prohibition of blasphemy remains a means, in Kolokowski’s words, of ‘reaffirming and stabilizing the structure of society’, of ‘proclaiming “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”’. But it has become a means of protecting beliefs deemed essential not to society as a whole, but to specific communities, and to an individual’s identity and self-esteem. What, however, defines a community? And who defines which beliefs are essential to a community? Or to the identity of individuals within it? These, too, are matters not of theology, or even of culture, but of power. The struggle to define certain beliefs or thoughts as offensive or blasphemous is a struggle to establish power within a community and to establish one voice as representative or authentic of that community. What is called offence to a community is in reality usually a debate within a community. – but in viewing that debate as a matter of offence or of blasphemy, one side gets instantly silenced.
Take the row over Salman Rushdie’s appearance, or rather non-appearance, at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The Islamists who, with connivance from the state and the festival organizers, successfully prevented Rushdie from appearing, even by video link, no more spoke for the Muslim community than Rushdie himself did. Both represented different strands of opinion within different Muslim communities. And this has been true since the beginnings of the Rushdie affair. Back in the 1980s Rushdie gave voice to a radical, secular sentiment that in then was deeply entrenched within Asian communities. Rushdie’s critics spoke for some of the most conservative strands. Their campaign against The Satanic Verses was not to protect the Muslim communities from unconscionable attack from anti-Muslim bigots but to protect their own privileged position within those communities from political attack from radical critics, to assert their right to be the true voice of Islam by denying legitimacy to such critics. And they succeeded at least in part becausesecular liberals embraced them as the ‘authentic’ voice of the Muslim community.
The same is true of, say, the controversy over Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti which was driven off stage by protestors in 2004. The protestors outside the Birmingham Rep outraged by Kaur Bhatti’s play no more spoke for the Sikh community than did Kaur Bhatti herself. Both spoke for different strands within that community. But, as in the Rushdie affair, only the protestors were seen as authentically of their community, while Kaur Bhatti, like Rushdie, was regarded as too Westernized, secular and progressive to be authentic or truly of her community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, in secular liberal eyes, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Behzti. The argument for the necessity of blasphemy laws, or for the outlawing of offensiveness, is, then, both rooted in stereotypes of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce those stereotypes. This, of course, has nothing to do with the reality of being a Muslim or a Sikh, but everything to do with the reality of identity politics. Identity politics has rendered communities into homogenous, distinct, authentic groups, composed of people all speaking with a single voice, all driven by a single understanding of their faith. Once authenticity is so defined, then only the most conservative, reactionary figures come to be seen as the true voices of those communities.
The idea that certain views are off limits because they are offensive or blasphemous is both an expression of an essentialized view of what constitutes a community and a means of justifying that view. On the one hand, the contemporary, identity-driven notion of blasphemy only makes sense if we accept the myth of communities as homogenous, distinctive, authentic, composed of people all speaking with a single voice. On the other, it is a means of instantiating that myth by asserting the power of one strand of opinion within that community, by establishing that strand as the true authentic view, and hence of silencing all opposing views. Or, to put it another way, ‘You can’t say that!’ is the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be contested, that certain beliefs are so important or valuable or essential that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. It is the creation of a sacred space safe from the prospect of violation.
The idea of blasphemy or offensiveness speaks to power in a second sense too. It has become an important means not just of grounding the power of particular community leaders, but of allowing the state to regulate relations between social groups. The modern argument for blasphemy laws from liberals such as Lord Scarman or Richard Webster is that such laws are necessary ‘in the interests of social harmony’, to protect ‘the internal tranquillity of the kingdom’. In fact the consequence of such laws has been the creation of greater disharmony and turmoil. Every group has sought to create its own sacred space, upon which no one may encroach, leading to an explosion of sectarian rivalries as each one demands its right not to be offended or blasphemed against. As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’
But the marketplace of outrage has created not just a problem but an opportunity too. For in a fragmented, tribal society, the state is able to step in as peacemaker. Speech regulation has become a mechanism through which to regulate social relations between groups in an era of identity politics. And that only establishes even more securely the need for a secular sacred space, or rather for a plethora of secular sacred spaces, none of which must not be violated.
The importance of blasphemy is in providing a language of power. To decree certain views, certain ideas, certain practices, even certain thoughts, as taboo is to demand that certain forms of power cannot be contested. The importance of the principle of free speech is, on the other hand, in providing a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence in acting as an ever-present test to authority. Its importance is in insisting that nothing is so sacred that it cannot be questioned or debated. Once we give up the right to offend or to blaspheme, once we accept the idea of a sacred space, whether religious or secular, then we erode our ability to defy those in power. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’
Peers in the House of Lords this week rejected moves to make collective worship in schools optional, rather than compulsory.
The law in England and Wales states that children at all publicly-funded schools “shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship”.
One of the proposed amendments to the Education Bill would have given community schools the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to hold acts of religious worship. A second amendment would have given pupils the right to withdraw themselves from worship. A further amendment would have allowed pupils aged 15 or older to withdraw themselves, building on the NSS success in 2006 in introducing sixth form pupils’ self-withdrawal.
The amendments were moved by NSS Honorary Associate Lord Avebury during the Report Stage of the Bill on Monday. He said: “It is time for the long-standing tradition which no longer reflects the beliefs of more than a tiny fraction of the people to be jettisoned”.
Speaking in the Chamber, Lord Avebury set out a list of reasons why requiring schools to conduct a daily act of religious worship is no longer appropriate. Not least of these were numerous references to the high rate of schools’ non-compliance with the law, showing it to be unenforceable and unpopular. Ahead of the debate, the NSS sent extensive evidence to the Education Minister at the request of the Department for Education. England and Wales are alone among Western democracies in requiring such enforced worship in community schools. The Joint (Parliamentary) Human Rights Committee endorses the proposal to bring down the age of self -withdrawal.
Speaking on behalf of the Government, Lord Hill of Oareford made it clear that the Government did not support the amendments. He said “Our starting point is that the requirement is long-standing. It is difficult to dissociate that from the history of the country and the role that the Church has played over a long period in individual schools and also collectively in society. A full account of the debate can be readhere.
Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the National Secular Society said “It is disappointing to hear the Government repeat the same old tired justifications for insisting on a daily act of Christian worship.
“The amendments were pragmatically drafted not to argue for an end to all worship in schools but simply to allow schools the freedom to choose for themselves whether hold it. It is perhaps an indication of the influence wielded by the Church of England that the Government wasn’t willing or able to make even the smallest concession, in the face of such reasonable amendments.
“The law requiring worship will eventually change; it is just a question of when. It is important that people make their views known to their MPs as it will clearly take a massive groundswell of public opinion to give the Government the backbone to stand up to the Church on this issue”
Sex and relationship education
Also this week, during Wednesday’s Education Bill debate NSS honorary associate Baroness Massey of Darwen issued a strong rebuke to the Christian Institute over their deceitful campaign against her amendment to ensure that the chief inspector of schools reports on the delivery of personal, social and health education including sex and relationship education.
Speaking during the debate, the Baroness said: “My amendment is about well-being and protecting children. The public have been fed dangerously misleading information. Never in the time that it has been my honour to serve in your Lordships’ House have I known such a sinister and vicious campaign, which has sought to misinform others.”
Baroness Walmsley, who also put her name to the amendment, told the chamber, “we have a so-called Christian organisation telling lies and being both uncharitable and cruel.”
The amendment was not supported by the Government, who are seeking to make inspections less prescriptive and more focused, and was withdrawn.
A further amendment from NSS Honorary Associate Baroness Flather to re-introduce the duty for the Inspector to report on schools’ contribution to community cohesion went to the vote but was narrowly defeated.
From Paul Stott’s blog
An interesting insight into the vision David Cameron has for Britain comes from an article he has written for issue 68 of Keep The Faith magazine.
For the uninitiated, Keep The Faith styles itself, according to its blurb on Google, as ‘Britain’s leading magazine about black faith’. Personally I am not sure how ‘faith’ can be black or indeed any colour, and I feel rather perturbed by the suggestion that it can be. Then again I have always been a staunch atheist, so what do I know?
In a way, Cameron’s approach to Keep The Faith is far from unique. Issue 68 is devoted to a series of condemnations of this summers riots, and Cameron makes it clear that he sees faith as a way of countering such violence. Underwhelmed as I was by the political content of the riots, it is hard not be reminded of the way the 1980s urban clashes were followed by politicians embracing multi-culturalism, community leaders and religious figures in the inner-cities – all to buy off future problems. Put simply, the Prime Minister does not want to see young black kids on street corners, but in church. Here Christianity remains in its traditional role as far as British political leaders are concerned – it is for civilising black people.
What is also interesting, and deeply disturbing, is how Cameron sketches the big society to this audience. Consider this quote:
“I don’t agree with people who say there is no place for faith in society and public service. Just look at the good work of faith schools – including the one my own son and daughter attend – or the work of Street Pastors and the Salvation Army. In every town and every city, there are charities and voluntary organisations of all faiths doing teriffic things. And through the new Localism Bill, they are freed up like never before to transform their local communities. This revival is at the heart of what I want to achieve.”
The privatisation or reduction of public services, with religious organisations filling the gap, was envisaged in the US by the neo-Conservative right and by George W Bush. In Britain, it picked up pace in London with Ken Livingstone’s funding of East London Mosque’s welfare programmes, and is set to continue with the big society. On this issue at least, the right, the left and the centre-right appears in harmony.
Several problems emerge with this approach. Firstly, what about those who don’t want their local community ‘transformed’ by the church down the road? When Cameron praises faith schools, is he really unaware of the division they have fostered in Northern Ireland, and to a lesser extent Scotland? Why is their promotion in England going to be different, especially when we already see significant differences between, to take one example, Muslim and non-Muslim communties in places like Birmingham and east Lancashire? What if traditionally antagonistic faiths compete for influence in the same area, both looking to ‘transform’ the community?
Writing for Shift magazine in 2010, I warned that the big society was likely to end up as an Islamist beanfeast. The reality now appears worse – a beanfeast for any religious current going.
|By Michael Parenti|
I. For Lords and Lamas
Along with the blood drenched landscape of religious conflict there is the experience of inner peace and solace that every religion promises, none more so than Buddhism. Standing in marked contrast to the intolerant savagery of other religions, Buddhism is neither fanatical nor dogmatic–so say its adherents. For many of them Buddhism is less a theology and more a meditative and investigative discipline intended to promote an inner harmony and enlightenment while directing us to a path of right living. Generally, the spiritual focus is not only on oneself but on the welfare of others. One tries to put aside egoistic pursuits and gain a deeper understanding of one’s connection to all people and things. “Socially engaged Buddhism” tries to blend individual liberation with responsible social action in order to build an enlightened society.
A glance at history, however, reveals that not all the many and widely varying forms of Buddhism have been free of doctrinal fanaticism, nor free of the violent and exploitative pursuits so characteristic of other religions. In Sri Lanka there is a legendary and almost sacred recorded history about the triumphant battles waged by Buddhist kings of yore. During the twentieth century, Buddhists clashed violently with each other and with non-Buddhists in Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan, India, and elsewhere. In Sri Lanka, armed battles between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have taken many lives on both sides. In 1998 the U.S. State Department listed thirty of the world’s most violent and dangerous extremist groups. Over half of them were religious, specifically Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist. 1
In South Korea, in 1998, thousands of monks of the Chogye Buddhist order fought each other with fists, rocks, fire-bombs, and clubs, in pitched battles that went on for weeks. They were vying for control of the order, the largest in South Korea, with its annual budget of $9.2 million, its millions of dollars worth of property, and the privilege of appointing 1,700 monks to various offices. The brawls damaged the main Buddhist sanctuaries and left dozens of monks injured, some seriously. The Korean public appeared to disdain both factions, feeling that no matter what side took control, “it would use worshippers’ donations for luxurious houses and expensive cars.” 2
As with any religion, squabbles between or within Buddhist sects are often fueled by the material corruption and personal deficiencies of the leadership. For example, in Nagano, Japan, at Zenkoji, the prestigious complex of temples that has hosted Buddhist sects for more than 1,400 years, “a nasty battle” arose between Komatsu the chief priest and the Tacchu, a group of temples nominally under the chief priest’s sway. The Tacchu monks accused Komatsu of selling writings and drawings under the temple’s name for his own gain. They also were appalled by the frequency with which he was seen in the company of women. Komatsu in turn sought to isolate and punish monks who were critical of his leadership. The conflict lasted some five years and made it into the courts. 3
But what of Tibetan Buddhism? Is it not an exception to this sort of strife? And what of the society it helped to create? Many Buddhists maintain that, before the Chinese crackdown in 1959, old Tibet was a spiritually oriented kingdom free from the egotistical lifestyles, empty materialism, and corrupting vices that beset modern industrialized society. Western news media, travel books, novels, and Hollywood films have portrayed the Tibetan theocracy as a veritable Shangri-La. The Dalai Lama himself stated that “the pervasive influence of Buddhism” in Tibet, “amid the wide open spaces of an unspoiled environment resulted in a society dedicated to peace and harmony. We enjoyed freedom and contentment.” 4
A reading of Tibet’s history suggests a somewhat different picture. “Religious conflict was commonplace in old Tibet,” writes one western Buddhist practitioner. “History belies the Shangri-La image of Tibetan lamas and their followers living together in mutual tolerance and nonviolent goodwill. Indeed, the situation was quite different. Old Tibet was much more like Europe during the religious wars of the Counterreformation.” 5 In the thirteenth century, Emperor Kublai Khan created the first Grand Lama, who was to preside over all the other lamas as might a pope over his bishops. Several centuries later, the Emperor of China sent an army into Tibet to support the Grand Lama, an ambitious 25-year-old man, who then gave himself the title of Dalai (Ocean) Lama, ruler of all Tibet.
His two previous lama “incarnations” were then retroactively recognized as his predecessors, thereby transforming the 1st Dalai Lama into the 3rd Dalai Lama. This 1st (or 3rd) Dalai Lama seized monasteries that did not belong to his sect, and is believed to have destroyed Buddhist writings that conflicted with his claim to divinity. The Dalai Lama who succeeded him pursued a sybaritic life, enjoying many mistresses, partying with friends, and acting in other ways deemed unfitting for an incarnate deity. For these transgressions he was murdered by his priests. Within 170 years, despite their recognized divine status, five Dalai Lamas were killed by their high priests or other courtiers. 6
For hundreds of years competing Tibetan Buddhist sects engaged in bitterly violent clashes and summary executions. In 1660, the 5th Dalai Lama was faced with a rebellion in Tsang province, the stronghold of the rival Kagyu sect with its high lama known as the Karmapa. The 5th Dalai Lama called for harsh retribution against the rebels, directing the Mongol army to obliterate the male and female lines, and the offspring too “like eggs smashed against rocks…. In short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.” 7
In 1792, many Kagyu monasteries were confiscated and their monks were forcibly converted to the Gelug sect (the Dalai Lama’s denomination). The Gelug school, known also as the “Yellow Hats,” showed little tolerance or willingness to mix their teachings with other Buddhist sects. In the words of one of their traditional prayers: “Praise to you, violent god of the Yellow Hat teachings/who reduces to particles of dust/ great beings, high officials and ordinary people/ who pollute and corrupt the Gelug doctrine.” 8 An eighteenth-century memoir of a Tibetan general depicts sectarian strife among Buddhists that is as brutal and bloody as any religious conflict might be. 9 This grim history remains largely unvisited by present-day followers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.
Religions have had a close relationship not only with violence but with economic exploitation. Indeed, it is often the economic exploitation that necessitates the violence. Such was the case with the Tibetan theocracy. Until 1959, when the Dalai Lama last presided over Tibet, most of the arable land was still organized into manorial estates worked by serfs. These estates were owned by two social groups: the rich secular landlords and the rich theocratic lamas. Even a writer sympathetic to the old order allows that “a great deal of real estate belonged to the monasteries, and most of them amassed great riches.” Much of the wealth was accumulated “through active participation in trade, commerce, and money lending.” 10
Drepung monastery was one of the biggest landowners in the world, with its 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 great pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. The wealth of the monasteries rested in the hands of small numbers of high-ranking lamas. Most ordinary monks lived modestly and had no direct access to great wealth. The Dalai Lama himself “lived richly in the 1000-room, 14-story Potala Palace.” 11
Secular leaders also did well. A notable example was the commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army, a member of the Dalai Lama’s lay Cabinet, who owned 4,000 square kilometers of land and 3,500 serfs. 12 Old Tibet has been misrepresented by some Western admirers as “a nation that required no police force because its people voluntarily observed the laws of karma.” 13 In fact. it had a professional army, albeit a small one, that served mainly as a gendarmerie for the landlords to keep order, protect their property, and hunt down runaway serfs.
Young Tibetan boys were regularly taken from their peasant families and brought into the monasteries to be trained as monks. Once there, they were bonded for life. Tashì-Tsering, a monk, reports that it was common for peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself was a victim of repeated rape, beginning at age nine. 14 The monastic estates also conscripted children for lifelong servitude as domestics, dance performers, and soldiers.
In old Tibet there were small numbers of farmers who subsisted as a kind of free peasantry, and perhaps an additional 10,000 people who composed the “middle-class” families of merchants, shopkeepers, and small traders. Thousands of others were beggars. There also were slaves, usually domestic servants, who owned nothing. Their offspring were born into slavery. 15 The majority of the rural population were serfs. Treated little better than slaves, the serfs went without schooling or medical care, They were under a lifetime bond to work the lord’s land–or the monastery’s land–without pay, to repair the lord’s houses, transport his crops, and collect his firewood. They were also expected to provide carrying animals and transportation on demand.16Their masters told them what crops to grow and what animals to raise. They could not get married without the consent of their lord or lama. And they might easily be separated from their families should their owners lease them out to work in a distant location. 17
As in a free labor system and unlike slavery, the overlords had no responsibility for the serf’s maintenance and no direct interest in his or her survival as an expensive piece of property. The serfs had to support themselves. Yet as in a slave system, they were bound to their masters, guaranteeing a fixed and permanent workforce that could neither organize nor strike nor freely depart as might laborers in a market context. The overlords had the best of both worlds.
One 22-year old woman, herself a runaway serf, reports: “Pretty serf girls were usually taken by the owner as house servants and used as he wished”; they “were just slaves without rights.”18 Serfs needed permission to go anywhere. Landowners had legal authority to capture those who tried to flee. One 24-year old runaway welcomed the Chinese intervention as a “liberation.” He testified that under serfdom he was subjected to incessant toil, hunger, and cold. After his third failed escape, he was merciless beaten by the landlord’s men until blood poured from his nose and mouth. They then poured alcohol and caustic soda on his wounds to increase the pain, he claimed.19
The serfs were taxed upon getting married, taxed for the birth of each child and for every death in the family. They were taxed for planting a tree in their yard and for keeping animals. They were taxed for religious festivals and for public dancing and drumming, for being sent to prison and upon being released. Those who could not find work were taxed for being unemployed, and if they traveled to another village in search of work, they paid a passage tax. When people could not pay, the monasteries lent them money at 20 to 50 percent interest. Some debts were handed down from father to son to grandson. Debtors who could not meet their obligations risked being cast into slavery.20
The theocracy’s religious teachings buttressed its class order. The poor and afflicted were taught that they had brought their troubles upon themselves because of their wicked ways in previous lives. Hence they had to accept the misery of their present existence as a karmic atonement and in anticipation that their lot would improve in their next lifetime. The rich and powerful treated their good fortune as a reward for, and tangible evidence of, virtue in past and present lives.
The Tibetan serfs were something more than superstitious victims, blind to their own oppression. As we have seen, some ran away; others openly resisted, sometimes suffering dire consequences. In feudal Tibet, torture and mutilation–including eye gouging, the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation–were favored punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway or resistant serfs. Journeying through Tibet in the 1960s, Stuart and Roma Gelder interviewed a former serf, Tsereh Wang Tuei, who had stolen two sheep belonging to a monastery. For this he had both his eyes gouged out and his hand mutilated beyond use. He explains that he no longer is a Buddhist: “When a holy lama told them to blind me I thought there was no good in religion.”21 Since it was against Buddhist teachings to take human life, some offenders were severely lashed and then “left to God” in the freezing night to die. “The parallels between Tibet and medieval Europe are striking,” concludes Tom Grunfeld in his book on Tibet. 22
In 1959, Anna Louise Strong visited an exhibition of torture equipment that had been used by the Tibetan overlords. There were handcuffs of all sizes, including small ones for children, and instruments for cutting off noses and ears, gouging out eyes, breaking off hands, and hamstringing legs. There were hot brands, whips, and special implements for disemboweling. The exhibition presented photographs and testimonies of victims who had been blinded or crippled or suffered amputations for thievery. There was the shepherd whose master owed him a reimbursement in yuan and wheat but refused to pay. So he took one of the master’s cows; for this he had his hands severed. Another herdsman, who opposed having his wife taken from him by his lord, had his hands broken off. There were pictures of Communist activists with noses and upper lips cut off, and a woman who was raped and then had her nose sliced away.23
Earlier visitors to Tibet commented on the theocratic despotism. In 1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904 Perceval Landon described the Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time, another English traveler, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the great landowners and the priests… exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal,” while the people are “oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft.” Tibetan rulers “invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of superstition” among the common people. In 1937, another visitor, Spencer Chapman, wrote, “The Lamaist monk does not spend his time in ministering to the people or educating them. . . . The beggar beside the road is nothing to the monk. Knowledge is the jealously guarded prerogative of the monasteries and is used to increase their influence and wealth.”24 As much as we might wish otherwise, feudal theocratic Tibet was a far cry from the romanticized Shangri La so enthusiastically nurtured by Buddhism’s western proselytes.
II. Secularization vs. Spirituality
What happened to Tibet after the Chinese Communists moved into the country in 1951? The treaty of that year provided for ostensible self-governance under the Dalai Lama’s rule but gave China military control and exclusive right to conduct foreign relations. The Chinese were also granted a direct role in internal administration “to promote social reforms.” Among the earliest changes they wrought was to reduce usurious interest rates, and build a few hospitals and roads. At first, they moved slowly, relying mostly on persuasion in an attempt to effect reconstruction. No aristocratic or monastic property was confiscated, and feudal lords continued to reign over their hereditarily bound peasants. “Contrary to popular belief in the West,” claims one observer, the Chinese “took care to show respect for Tibetan culture and religion.”25
Over the centuries the Tibetan lords and lamas had seen Chinese come and go, and had enjoyed good relations with Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek and his reactionary Kuomintang rule in China.26 The approval of the Kuomintang government was needed to validate the choice of the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. When the current 14th Dalai Lama was first installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance with centuries-old tradition. What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas in the early 1950s was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time, they feared, before the Communists started imposing their collectivist egalitarian schemes upon Tibet.
The issue was joined in 1956-57, when armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army. The uprising received extensive assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts.27Meanwhile in the United States, the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA-financed front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that organization. The Dalai Lama’s second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA as early as 1951. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet.28
Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs. Ninety percent of them were never heard from again, according to a report from the CIA itself, meaning they were most likely captured and killed.29 “Many lamas and lay members of the elite and much of the Tibetan army joined the uprising, but in the main the populace did not, assuring its failure,” writes Hugh Deane.30 In their book on Tibet, Ginsburg and Mathos reach a similar conclusion: “As far as can be ascertained, the great bulk of the common people of Lhasa and of the adjoining countryside failed to join in the fighting against the Chinese both when it first began and as it progressed.”31Eventually the resistance crumbled.
Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese after 1959, they did abolish slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system of unpaid labor. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa.32
Heinrich Harrer (later revealed to have been a sergeant in Hitler’s SS) wrote a bestseller about his experiences in Tibet that was made into a popular Hollywood movie. He reported that the Tibetans who resisted the Chinese “were predominantly nobles, semi-nobles and lamas; they were punished by being made to perform the lowliest tasks, such as laboring on roads and bridges. They were further humiliated by being made to clean up the city before the tourists arrived.” They also had to live in a camp originally reserved for beggars and vagrants–all of which Harrer treats as sure evidence of the dreadful nature of the Chinese occupation.33
By 1961, Chinese occupation authorities expropriated the landed estates owned by lords and lamas. They distributed many thousands of acres to tenant farmers and landless peasants, reorganizing them into hundreds of communes.. Herds once owned by nobility were turned over to collectives of poor shepherds. Improvements were made in the breeding of livestock, and new varieties of vegetables and new strains of wheat and barley were introduced, along with irrigation improvements, all of which reportedly led to an increase in agrarian production.34
Many peasants remained as religious as ever, giving alms to the clergy. But monks who had been conscripted as children into the religious orders were now free to renounce the monastic life, and thousands did, especially the younger ones. The remaining clergy lived on modest government stipends and extra income earned by officiating at prayer services, weddings, and funerals.35
Both the Dalai Lama and his advisor and youngest brother, Tendzin Choegyal, claimed that “more than 1.2 million Tibetans are dead as a result of the Chinese occupation.”36 The official 1953 census–six years before the Chinese crackdown–recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1,274,000.37 Other census counts put the population within Tibet at about two million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early 1960s then almost all of Tibet, would have been depopulated, transformed into a killing field dotted with death camps and mass graves–of which we have no evidence. The thinly distributed Chinese force in Tibet could not have rounded up, hunted down, and exterminated that many people even if it had spent all its time doing nothing else.
Chinese authorities claim to have put an end to floggings, mutilations, and amputations as a form of criminal punishment. They themselves, however, have been charged with acts of brutality by exile Tibetans. The authorities do admit to “mistakes,” particularly during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when the persecution of religious beliefs reached a high tide in both China and Tibet. After the uprising in the late 1950s, thousands of Tibetans were incarcerated. During the Great Leap Forward, forced collectivization and grain farming were imposed on the Tibetan peasantry, sometimes with disastrous effect on production. In the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls “and tried to undo some of the damage wrought during the previous two decades.”38
In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration. Tibetans would now be allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased to permit some Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India and Nepal.39 By the 1980s many of the principal lamas had begun to shuttle back and forth between China and the exile communities abroad, “restoring their monasteries in Tibet and helping to revitalize Buddhism there.”40
As of 2007 Tibetan Buddhism was still practiced widely and tolerated by officialdom. Religious pilgrimages and other standard forms of worship were allowed but within limits. All monks and nuns had to sign a loyalty pledge that they would not use their religious position to foment secession or dissent. And displaying photos of the Dalai Lama was declared illegal.41
In the 1990s, the Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent of China’s immense population, began moving in substantial numbers into Tibet. On the streets of Lhasa and Shigatse, signs of Han colonization are readily visible. Chinese run the factories and many of the shops and vending stalls. Tall office buildings and large shopping centers have been built with funds that might have been better spent on water treatment plants and housing. Chinese cadres in Tibet too often view their Tibetan neighbors as backward and lazy, in need of economic development and “patriotic education.” During the 1990s Tibetan government employees suspected of harboring nationalist sympathies were purged from office, and campaigns were once again launched to discredit the Dalai Lama. Individual Tibetans reportedly were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, and forced labor for carrying out separatist activities and engaging in “political subversion.” Some were held in administrative detention without adequate food, water, and blankets, subjected to threats, beatings, and other mistreatment.42
Tibetan history, culture, and certainly religion are slighted in schools. Teaching materials, though translated into Tibetan, focus mainly on Chinese history and culture. Chinese family planning regulations allow a three-child limit for Tibetan families. (There is only a one-child limit for Han families throughout China, and a two-child limit for rural Han families whose first child is a girl.) If a Tibetan couple goes over the three-child limit, the excess children can be denied subsidized daycare, health care, housing, and education. These penalties have been enforced irregularly and vary by district.43 None of these child services, it should be noted, were available to Tibetans before the Chinese takeover.
For the rich lamas and secular lords, the Communist intervention was an unmitigated calamity. Most of them fled abroad, as did the Dalai Lama himself, who was assisted in his flight by the CIA. Some discovered to their horror that they would have to work for a living. Many, however, escaped that fate. Throughout the 1960s, the Tibetan exile community was secretly pocketing $1.7 million a year from the CIA, according to documents released by the State Department in 1998. Once this fact was publicized, the Dalai Lama’s organization itself issued a statement admitting that it had received millions of dollars from the CIA during the 1960s to send armed squads of exiles into Tibet to undermine the Maoist revolution. The Dalai Lama’s annual payment from the CIA was $186,000. Indian intelligence also financed both him and other Tibetan exiles. He has refused to say whether he or his brothers worked for the CIA. The agency has also declined to comment.44
In 1995, the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, carried a frontpage color photograph of the Dalai Lama being embraced by the reactionary Republican senator Jesse Helms, under the headline “Buddhist Captivates Hero of Religious Right.”45 In April 1999, along with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and the first George Bush, the Dalai Lama called upon the British government to release Augusto Pinochet, the former fascist dictator of Chile and a longtime CIA client who was visiting England. The Dalai Lama urged that Pinochet not be forced to go to Spain where he was wanted to stand trial for crimes against humanity.
Into the twenty-first century, via the National Endowment for Democracy and other conduits that are more respectable sounding than the CIA, the U.S. Congress continued to allocate an annual $2 million to Tibetans in India, with additional millions for “democracy activities” within the Tibetan exile community. In addition to these funds, the Dalai Lama received money from financier George Soros.46
Whatever the Dalai Lama’s associations with the CIA and various reactionaries, he did speak often of peace, love, and nonviolence. He himself really cannot be blamed for the abuses of Tibet’s ancien régime, having been but 25 years old when he fled into exile. In a 1994 interview, he went on record as favoring the building of schools and roads in his country. He said the corvée (forced unpaid serf labor) and certain taxes imposed on the peasants were “extremely bad.” And he disliked the way people were saddled with old debts sometimes passed down from generation to generation.47During the half century of living in the western world, he had embraced concepts such as human rights and religious freedom, ideas largely unknown in old Tibet. He even proposed democracy for Tibet, featuring a written constitution and a representative assembly.48
In 1996, the Dalai Lama issued a statement that must have had an unsettling effect on the exile community. It read in part: “Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability.” Marxism fosters “the equitable utilization of the means of production” and cares about “the fate of the working classes” and “the victims of . . . exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and . . . I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.49
But he also sent a reassuring message to “those who live in abundance”: “It is a good thing to be rich… Those are the fruits for deserving actions, the proof that they have been generous in the past.” And to the poor he offers this admonition: “There is no good reason to become bitter and rebel against those who have property and fortune… It is better to develop a positive attitude.”50
In 2005 the Dalai Lama signed a widely advertised statement along with ten other Nobel Laureates supporting the “inalienable and fundamental human right” of working people throughout the world to form labor unions to protect their interests, in accordance with the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In many countries “this fundamental right is poorly protected and in some it is explicitly banned or brutally suppressed,” the statement read. Burma, China, Colombia, Bosnia, and a few other countries were singled out as among the worst offenders. Even the United States “fails to adequately protect workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. Millions of U.S. workers lack any legal protection to form unions….”51
The Dalai Lama also gave full support to removing the ingrained traditional obstacles that have kept Tibetan nuns from receiving an education. Upon arriving in exile, few nuns could read or write. In Tibet their activities had been devoted to daylong periods of prayer and chants. But in northern India they now began reading Buddhist philosophy and engaging in theological study and debate, activities that in old Tibet had been open only to monks.52
In November 2005 the Dalai Lama spoke at Stanford University on “The Heart of Nonviolence,” but stopped short of a blanket condemnation of all violence. Violent actions that are committed in order to reduce future suffering are not to be condemned, he said, citing World War II as an example of a worthy effort to protect democracy. What of the four years of carnage and mass destruction in Iraq, a war condemned by most of the world—even by a conservative pope–as a blatant violation of international law and a crime against humanity? The Dalai Lama was undecided: “The Iraq war—it’s too early to say, right or wrong.”53 Earlier he had voiced support for the U.S. military intervention against Yugoslavia and, later on, the U.S. military intervention into Afghanistan.54
III. Exit Feudal Theocracy
As the Shangri-La myth would have it, in old Tibet the people lived in contented and tranquil symbiosis with their monastic and secular lords. Rich lamas and poor monks, wealthy landlords and impoverished serfs were all bonded together, mutually sustained by the comforting balm of a deeply spiritual and pacific culture.
One is reminded of the idealized image of feudal Europe presented by latter-day conservative Catholics such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For them, medieval Christendom was a world of contented peasants living in the secure embrace of their Church, under the more or less benign protection of their lords.55 Again we are invited to accept a particular culture in its idealized form divorced from its murky material history. This means accepting it as presented by its favored class, by those who profited most from it. The Shangri-La image of Tibet bears no more resemblance to historic actuality than does the pastoral image of medieval Europe.
Seen in all its grim realities, old Tibet confirms the view I expressed in an earlier book, namely that culture is anything but neutral. Culture can operate as a legitimating cover for a host of grave injustices, benefiting a privileged portion of society at great cost to the rest.56 In theocratic feudal Tibet, ruling interests manipulated the traditional culture to fortify their own wealth and power. The theocracy equated rebellious thought and action with satanic influence. It propagated the general presumption of landlord superiority and peasant unworthiness. The rich were represented as deserving their good life, and the lowly poor as deserving their mean existence, all codified in teachings about the karmic residue of virtue and vice accumulated from past lives, presented as part of God’s will.
Were the more affluent lamas just hypocrites who preached one thing and secretly believed another? More likely they were genuinely attached to those beliefs that brought such good results for them. That their theology so perfectly supported their material privileges only strengthened the sincerity with which it was embraced.
It might be said that we denizens of the modern secular world cannot grasp the equations of happiness and pain, contentment and custom, that characterize more traditionally spiritual societies. This is probably true, and it may explain why some of us idealize such societies. But still, a gouged eye is a gouged eye; a flogging is a flogging; and the grinding exploitation of serfs and slaves is a brutal class injustice whatever its cultural wrapping. There is a difference between a spiritual bond and human bondage, even when both exist side by side
Many ordinary Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in their country, but it appears that relatively few want a return to the social order he represented. A 1999 story in the Washington Post notes that the Dalai Lama continues to be revered in Tibet, but
It should be noted that the Dalai Lama is not the only highly placed lama chosen in childhood as a reincarnation. One or another reincarnate lama ortulku–a spiritual teacher of special purity elected to be reborn again and again–can be found presiding over most major monasteries. The tulkusystem is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Scores of Tibetan lamas claim to be reincarnate tulkus.
The very first tulku was a lama known as the Karmapa who appeared nearly three centuries before the first Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is leader of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as the Karma Kagyu. The rise of the Gelugpa sect headed by the Dalai Lama led to a politico-religious rivalry with the Kagyu that has lasted five hundred years and continues to play itself out within the Tibetan exile community today. That the Kagyu sect has grown famously, opening some six hundred new centers around the world in the last thirty-five years, has not helped the situation.
The search for a tulku, Erik Curren reminds us, has not always been conducted in that purely spiritual mode portrayed in certain Hollywood films. “Sometimes monastic officials wanted a child from a powerful local noble family to give the cloister more political clout. Other times they wanted a child from a lower-class family who would have little leverage to influence the child’s upbringing.” On other occasions “a local warlord, the Chinese emperor or even the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa might [have tried] to impose its choice of tulku on a monastery for political reasons.”58
Such may have been the case in the selection of the 17th Karmapa, whose monastery-in-exile is situated in Rumtek, in the Indian state of Sikkim. In 1993 the monks of the Karma Kagyu tradition had a candidate of their own choice. The Dalai Lama, along with several dissenting Karma Kagyu leaders (and with the support of the Chinese government!) backed a different boy. The Kagyu monks charged that the Dalai Lama had overstepped his authority in attempting to select a leader for their sect. “Neither his political role nor his position as a lama in his own Gelugpa tradition entitled him to choose the Karmapa, who is a leader of a different tradition…”59 As one of the Kagyu leaders insisted, “Dharma is about thinking for yourself. It is not about automatically following a teacher in all things, no matter how respected that teacher may be. More than anyone else, Buddhists should respect other people’s rights—their human rights and their religious freedom.”60
What followed was a dozen years of conflict in the Tibetan exile community, punctuated by intermittent riots, intimidation, physical attacks, blacklisting, police harassment, litigation, official corruption, and the looting and undermining of the Karmapa’s monastery in Rumtek by supporters of the Gelugpa faction. All this has caused at least one western devotee to wonder if the years of exile were not hastening the moral corrosion of Tibetan Buddhism.61
What is clear is that not all Tibetan Buddhists accept the Dalai Lama as their theological and spiritual mentor. Though he is referred to as the “spiritual leader of Tibet,” many see this title as little more than a formality. It does not give him authority over the four religious schools of Tibet other than his own, “just as calling the U.S. president the ‘leader of the free world’ gives him no role in governing France or Germany.”62
Not all Tibetan exiles are enamoured of the old Shangri-La theocracy. Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk’s building. When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At first, Lewis assumed that their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely grateful “not to have to marry 4 or 5 men, be pregnant almost all the time,” or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying husband. The younger women “were delighted to be getting an education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why Americans were so naïve [about Tibet].”63
The women interviewed by Lewis recounted stories of their grandmothers’ ordeals with monks who used them as “wisdom consorts.” By sleeping with the monks, the grandmothers were told, they gained “the means to enlightenment” — after all, the Buddha himself had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment.
The women also mentioned the “rampant” sex that the supposedly spiritual and abstemious monks practiced with each other in the Gelugpa sect. The women who were mothers spoke bitterly about the monastery’s confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. They claimed that when a boy cried for his mother, he would be told “Why do you cry for her, she gave you up–she’s just a woman.”
The monks who were granted political asylum in California applied for public assistance. Lewis, herself a devotee for a time, assisted with the paperwork. She observes that they continue to receive government checks amounting to $550 to $700 per month along with Medicare. In addition, the monks reside rent free in nicely furnished apartments. “They pay no utilities, have free access to the Internet on computers provided for them, along with fax machines, free cell and home phones and cable TV.”
They also receive a monthly payment from their order, along with contributions and dues from their American followers. Some devotees eagerly carry out chores for the monks, including grocery shopping and cleaning their apartments and toilets. These same holy men, Lewis remarks, “have no problem criticizing Americans for their ‘obsession with material things.’”64
To welcome the end of the old feudal theocracy in Tibet is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in that country. This point is seldom understood by today’s Shangri-La believers in the West. The converse is also true: To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. Tibetans deserve to be perceived as actual people, not perfected spiritualists or innocent political symbols. “To idealize them,” notes Ma Jian, a dissident Chinese traveler to Tibet (now living in Britain), “is to deny them their humanity.”65
One common complaint among Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet’s religious culture is being undermined by the Chinese occupation. To some extent this seems to be the case. Many of the monasteries are closed, and much of the theocracy seems to have passed into history. Whether Chinese rule has brought betterment or disaster is not the central issue here. The question is what kind of country was old Tibet. What I am disputing is the supposedly pristine spiritual nature of that pre-invasion culture. We can advocate religious freedom and independence for a new Tibet without having to embrace the mythology about old Tibet. Tibetan feudalism was cloaked in Buddhism, but the two are not to be equated. In reality, old Tibet was not a Paradise Lost. It was a retrograde repressive theocracy of extreme privilege and poverty, a long way from Shangri-La.
Finally, let it be said that if Tibet’s future is to be positioned somewhere within China’s emerging free-market paradise, then this does not bode well for the Tibetans. China boasts a dazzling 8 percent economic growth rate and is emerging as one of the world’s greatest industrial powers. But with economic growth has come an ever deepening gulf between rich and poor. Most Chinese live close to the poverty level or well under it, while a small group of newly brooded capitalists profit hugely in collusion with shady officials. Regional bureaucrats milk the country dry, extorting graft from the populace and looting local treasuries. Land grabbing in cities and countryside by avaricious developers and corrupt officials at the expense of the populace are almost everyday occurrences. Tens of thousands of grassroot protests and disturbances have erupted across the country, usually to be met with unforgiving police force. Corruption is so prevalent, reaching into so many places, that even the normally complacent national leadership was forced to take notice and began moving against it in late 2006.
Workers in China who try to organize labor unions in the corporate dominated “business zones” risk losing their jobs or getting beaten and imprisoned. Millions of business zone workers toil twelve-hour days at subsistence wages. With the health care system now being privatized, free or affordable medical treatment is no longer available for millions. Men have tramped into the cities in search of work, leaving an increasingly impoverished countryside populated by women, children, and the elderly. The suicide rate has increased dramatically, especially among women.66
China’s natural environment is sadly polluted. Most of its fabled rivers and many lakes are dead, producing massive fish die-offs from the billions of tons of industrial emissions and untreated human waste dumped into them. Toxic effluents, including pesticides and herbicides, seep into ground water or directly into irrigation canals. Cancer rates in villages situated along waterways have skyrocketed a thousand-fold. Hundreds of millions of urban residents breathe air rated as dangerously unhealthy, contaminated by industrial growth and the recent addition of millions of automobiles. An estimated 400,000 die prematurely every year from air pollution. Government environmental agencies have no enforcement power to stop polluters, and generally the government ignores or denies such problems, concentrating instead on industrial growth.67
China’s own scientific establishment reports that unless greenhouse gases are curbed, the nation will face massive crop failures along with catastrophic food and water shortages in the years ahead. In 2006-2007 severe drought was already afflicting southwest China.68
If China is the great success story of speedy free market development, and is to be the model and inspiration for Tibet’s future, then old feudal Tibet indeed may start looking a lot better than it actually was.
As secular protesters in Spain clash with pilgrims at the Vatican’s World Youth Day, preparations are under way for a large-scale protest in Britain against the encroachment of religion into civil society.
The Secular Europe Campaign will march through London on 17 September, a year after the large-scale march during the Pope’s visit to the UK.
Marco Tranchino, who is organising the Secular Europe Campaign, said: “Wherever the Pope goes now he will be sure to face criticism and protest. We want to keep the impetus going that started last year at the Protest the Pope event, and encourage all people who believe in separation of religion from the state to join us.”
Mr Tranchino said that the Vatican had far too much influence on the institutions of the European Union and it was time for that to be challenged.
“We have the support of feminist, gay and secular groups from all around Europe and large numbers of individuals who are following us on social network sites. We hope that this will send a message to the governments of Europe and Great Britain that alarm is growing at the undue influence of religion on political decision-making. We want a secular Europe where there is room for everyone, whether they have a religious belief or not, where policy is directed only by elected politicians, not by priests who are answerable to no-one.”
The campaign has launched a series of videos on its Youtube channel from prominent supporters including Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, Father Bernard Lynch, comedian Robin Ince and many others.
Marco Tranchino said: “This is not an anti-religious campaign, it is a campaign that should be shared by all people who believe in democratic decision-making and the separation of religion and politics.”