Tibet and Its Guardians – between China and the West (2)

This article was first published in New View magazine Issue 49 -  4th Quarter Autumn 2008

Following on from part 1 (New View 3rd Quarter Summer 2008) this article will consider the question: “Why are China and the West so concerned to be the guardians  of  Tibet and its people?” from three aspects: economic, political and spiritual.

Tibet on the Economic Chessboard

In April 1904 the British geographer, Halford J. Mackinder, wrote a hugely influential essay in The Geographical Journal (Vol. 23, No. 4) titled “The Geographical Pivot of History”. It focused on the supreme geopolitical importance of what he called “the Heartland”  -  the region from Eastern Europe through Central Asia and Northern Tibet to eastern Siberia . His slogan was : Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland  Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island (the Eurasian continent) Who rules the World-Island commands the World.  His ideas about the central importance of the Heartland and the World Island would go on to influence German geopolitics expert Karl Haushofer, who introduced them to Hitler. They were also noted by Zbigniew Brzezinski (picture), former National Security Adviser in the Carter Administration in the US (1976-1980) and current foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate Barack Obama. (1) The Russophobic Brzezinski made them an underlying axiom of his master text of global strategy, The Grand Chessboard (1997). Then, in March 1999,  the U.S. Congress adopted the Silk Road Strategy Act [updated 2006], which defined America’s broad economic and strategic interests in a region extending from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia… The successful implementation of the SRS requires the concurrent “militarization” of the entire Eurasian corridor as a means to securing control over extensive oil and gas reserves, as well as “protecting” pipeline routes and trading corridors.” (2)

Brzezinski’s book makes clear how crucially western policymakers regard control over Eurasia, which includes 75% of global population,

America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained…most of the world’s physical wealth….60% of the world’s GNP and about three fourths of the world’s known energy resources”. … Eurasia is geopolitically axial. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions.. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa ‘s subordination. … Eurasia is the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played.(3)

Brzezinski has tended to stay focused on Russia as the main threat to western interests and rarely criticises China; he knows the interest that his political mentor, David Rockefeller, has had in that country since his first visit there in 1973. That same year Rockefeller established the influential thinktank and lobby group, the Trilateral Commission, which was intended to link the elites of N. America, Europe and East Asia,  and made his protégé Brzezinski a leading light in it. It is noteworthy that Tibet nowhere figures in Brzezinski’s book, though, like the government in Beijing,  he is no doubt aware of the natural resources of Tibet:

    …. some of the world’s largest uranium and borax deposits, one half of the world’s lithium, the largest copper deposits in Asia, enormous iron deposits, and over 80,000 gold mines. Tibet ‘s forests are the largest timber reserve [in China]… Tibet also contains some of the largest oil reserves in the region. On the provincial border between Tibet and Xinjiang [there] is a vast oil and mineral region in the Qaidam Basin, known as a “treasure basin” [with] 57 different types of mineral resources with proven reserves including petroleum, natural gas, coal, crude salt, potassium, magnesium, lead, zinc and gold. These mineral resources have a potential economic value of 15 trillion yuan or US$1.8 trillion. Proven reserves of potassium, lithium and crude salt in the basin are the biggest in China …. Tibet is perhaps the world’s most valuable water source, …. the source of seven of Asia ‘s greatest rivers which provide water for 2 billion people. He who controls Tibet’s water has a mighty powerful geopolitical lever over all Asia. (4)

Here is one important reason why, in a world where the Great Powers  and mega-corporations increasingly compete for resources,  China is concerned to keep control of Tibet and why certain forces in the west are equally determined to prise Tibet from that Chinese control. Brzezinski may well have avoided mentioning Tibet in The Grand Chessboard because he seeks to ‘manage’  China by granting it regional hegemony, such as it last enjoyed in the days of the Manchu dynasty (1644-1912). Brzezinski believes that China wants to return to its former position as the centre of the world, or at least, of the East Asian world, and he thinks China will be satisfied with a regional hegemony, because he knows that China has never been an aggressive state that sought to conquer the world, and that consequently, western fears of a Yellow Peril that would sweep all before it like the Mongols are unrealistic. In this, I believe, he is partly right, for China has never been a nomadic culture like the Mongols or the Manchus; the settled urban and agrarian culture of China always feared attacks from the wandering shamanistic nomads on its own borders.

No sentimentalist about Tibet, Brzezinski is much more interested in the ‘Stans’, the new states of Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan (5). He is content to leave Tibet under nominal Chinese control, a diplomatic position that indeed, all western countries, including Russia, have maintained for over 200 years, and one that the present Dalai Lama himself agrees with. However, while professing himself willing to see China once more the regional hegemon, Brzezinski feels China must be kept under control, and one means for doing this is the nationalities and minorities question, hence his great interest in what he calls ‘the Balkans of Asia’, the Stans. Just as 100 years ago, the European Balkans were a  point of stress that the Great Powers could use to put pressure on each other, so today is the region from Chechnya and Georgia in the west to Tibet and Xinjiang in the east, where the USA can pressurise Russia, India and China by manipulating ethnic issues. American power projected in this area also enables the US to get close to the region’s sources of minerals and oil, as well as Chinese pipelines.

Drawing boundaries, pulling strings, mouthing phrases…

The political dimension to Chinese and western claims for guardianship of Tibet has two aspects – the boundaries of Tibetan control or autonomy, and human rights. One problem often missing from western discussion of Tibet   and which has always got in the way of negotiations between Chinese and Tibetans, is the significant question of which borders Tibet is to have (see map). Traditionally, Tibet consisted of three provinces –

Cultural/historical Tibet (highlighted) depicted with various competing territorial claims.Ü-Tsang, Amdo and Kham, The Chinese have always been prepared to allow  autonomy for ‘inner Tibet’ (Ü-Tsang, yellow on map), which they now call Xizang Autonomous Province, while the Tibetan Government-in-exile wants full autonomy (not independence) over Amdo and Kham as well (orange and red), which it claims has always been part of the greater Tibetan cultural area historically. This would include the current Chinese provinces of Qinghai and most of Sichuan. The Chinese have never been prepared to allow this, for obvious strategic reasons; Tibet would then simply be too large and would extend almost as far north as Mongolia.

For 46 years, from the time of the British invasion of Tibet in 1904 until the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet’s political status was in a kind of limbo. Recognised by the Powers as still nominally part of China, Tibet was left alone by Beijing in a de facto state of complete autonomy, as China descended into its 20th century chaos. The first western notions of full ‘independence’ for Tibet emerged only in the context of the Cold War, after a Communist takeover in China began to seem inevitable in the late 1940s. CIA veteran John K. Knaus’ book Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival (1999) details the secret 1943 mission to Lhasa by the OSS (forerunners of the CIA) in which Major Ilia Tolstoy (grandson of Leo Tolstoy) and Captain Brooke Dolan II established the first official contact between the Dalai Lama’s government and Washington . Their expedition was a classic, daring ‘forward manoeuvre’ in the old imperial Great Game tradition The two men swiftly fell for the Tibetan mystique and, claiming that America was ‘a great nation that supported the rights of small countries’, found themselves implanting in the Tibetans hopes of support for independence that could not be fulfilled.

The British, who for decades had maintained the only non-Chinese official representation in Lhasa (a ‘trade agency’), were at cross purposes over this OSS mission. The Viceroy in New Delhi loftily commented that it would not be ‘sound’ for Britain to hasten the process of American enlightenment ‘in matters Tibetan’. He was reiterating the traditional British position: Tibet remains part of China. Meanwhile, in Lhasa, Frank Ludlow, the head of the British Mission was encouraging the Americans and informed New Delhi: “some good might result [from this first contact] with the President and people of a great nation which champions the rights of small nations. It might also be indicated [by the Allies] that Tibet regards itself as independent and is different in race, physical features, religion and language from any other nation.” (6)

This was the line the two Americans themselves took and which later would be followed by hard-line ideological anti-communist elements in the CIA and the US establishment who wished to cause trouble for China within the context of the Cold War. The traditional British imperial position would come to be adopted by the more realpolitik-oriented elements in the US , especially after the  ‘pong pong’ diplomacy that preceded the visit to China by Nixon and Kissinger in 1972.

With the outbreak of the Korean War and China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, Washington began to study more seriously how it could benefit from the issue of Tibetan independence. Recently declassified detailed documents have revealed the CIA’s Operation CIRCUS (1956-1969) that trained Tibetan guerillas, particularly members of the martial Khampa people of northern Tibet, in Colorado (1958-64) and then flew them out to Nepal for infiltration into Tibet. The campaign included cooperation with Indian intelligence services and frequent airdrops to Tibetan insurgents; it continued until Nixon ‘s rapprochement with Maoist China in the early 1970s. With the failure of the CIA-sponsored 1959 uprising in Tibet, any American hopes for Tibetan independence faded. Sam Halpern, ex-head of CIA Far Eastern Operations, has cynically if realistically commented: “Basically [the CIA's activity in] Tibet was just a nuisance to the ChiComms. It was fun and games. It didn’t have any real effect.”(7) Most of the Khampa guerillas trained by the CIA, however, surely did not see it that way; it has been estimated that probably three out of four of them were  tracked down and killed by Chinese forces.

It is highly unlikely that the significant events of 2008 (the Tibetan riots of March, the massive earthquake in May in the half-Tibetan province of Sichuan, the insurgent violence in Xinjiang and Yunnan, the spectacular success of the Olympics) will lead China to change its views on the issue of independence  for Tibet, nor does the Dalai Lama himself claim to seek independence but rather, greater autonomy for Tibet within China. However, in recent years a more militant campaign has emerged among younger Tibetan emigrés which does call for full independence, and this ‘Free Tibet’ movement has been substantially funded and supported by US intelligence agencies and NGOs. To this writer, a greater measure of autonomy within China, which has been the de facto position for the last three centuries, would indeed seem to represent the best option for Tibet. The problem is how great that ‘measure’ is to be. The Tibetan people’s movement is increasingly in danger of fragmenting as younger, more westernised Tibetans lose patience with the Dalai Lama’s more nuanced position or feel rejected by his excommunication of the followers of the deity Dorje Shugden (see part 1 of this article). The Dalai Lama has warned his own people against resorting to violence but has also said that Tibetans should be in control of everything except for foreign policy and defence; however, there is no way China is going to allow the Tibetans any real control of the region’s key natural resources. They are too important to the economy of China as a whole and to her national defence and strategic interests.

With China’s increasing integration into global affairs and the steady decay of communism itself, the West ought not to be thinking any longer of using Tibet as a weapon against China. It is surely hypocritical of the western media, who lose no opportunity to undermine or attack religion, especially Catholicism, to claim to support a Tibetan Pope and the idea that he should re-establish  temporal and spiritual control over Tibet, a state of affairs, incidentally, which only existed for some 300 years after 1642, when the 5th Dalai Lama and his Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect was able for the first time to gain temporal power over a unified Tibetan state with the assistance of the  Mongol warlord, Ghushi Khan. While there are monks in all the sects of Buddhism, only in Tibet have monks and monasteries achieved any real degree of systematic political power. This was never the case in China, Korea and Japan, where  Mahayana Buddhism  also flourished. The Dalai Lama may feel himself to be in his heart, as he says, “just a simple monk”, but no Dalai Lama is in fact ever “just a simple monk”. He is regarded as a king and the incarnate Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan). We in the West have had a faith – Christianity -  according to which a Being from another world than the physical entered this physical plane in the Incarnation: Jesus is of the world, the Christ is not. This twofold nature of Jesus-Christ implies balance between the material and the immaterial. Before Christ, Asian Buddhists, oppressed by the pain of material existence,  longed to escape from the material into the immaterial and return to mankind’s spiritual roots. The western world by contrast, since Christ , has steadily turned its back on the immaterial and embraced the physical plane, to the point where, since the 18th century, the educated increasingly pour scorn on the very notion of a non-physical existence, a life before birth and after death. As part of this intellectual rejection, the concept of reincarnation – which has always existed in Hinduism and Buddhism – was very largely excised from western culture,  and many westerners today still find this concept difficult to entertain. If we accept the idea of reincarnation for a moment, it could raise the interesting picture of numerous people walking around in the West today, who in their previous lives were in Asia or other cultures with a looser connection to this physical plane, souls who have a stronger yearning for a spiritual world or something resembling it, than do the rest of the western community. Whilst many such westerners rally to what they see as the cause of Tibet,  others, with neither of these motivations, may call for a ‘free Tibet’ out of a straightforward, very modern but often very abstract idealism based on their personal understanding of human rights, irrespective of whether they know much or anything about Tibet and China. Meanwhile, other westerners who may have no spiritual interests or inclinations nevertheless support the Tibetan cause for psychological reasons, perhaps because they were bullied at school or by a family member and therefore sympathise with underdogs everywhere. Those without such personal experiences may nevertheless be more or less unconsciously influenced by ideas that tell them that one should take the side of the underdog, and that, for example, Britain went to war for the sake of Belgium, Poland etc. – ideas which, on examination, sometimes bear little relation to reality.

In 1918 Rudolf Steiner observed that often the deepest impulses in the West are fostered by nothing more powerfully than by the development  of feelings that are untrue but are sensed as in some way holy, that can represent the people of the East….as barbarians. In this connection he referred to the “crusading temperament in America: This consists  in the feeling  that America is called  to spread over the whole earth freedom and justice and I know not what other beautiful things.(1.12.1918) In Britain too, the deep-rooted imagery of King Arthur’s heroes venturing forth to slay demons and right wrongs and of St. George rescuing the princess from the dragon influences many Britons subconsciously to adopt this ‘holier-than-thou’ crusading mentality. Steiner drew attention to the fact that what he called “the age of economic imperialism”, in which we now live, is marked by an absence of spiritual values and a consequent culture of ‘empty words and phrases’. Fine-sounding words are used as impulses, to get people to agree to this or that (“the will of the international community”, “democracy”, “freedom”, “the rule of law”) but underlying them is actually nothing but the desire for economic gain. This is because people would not readily fight and die if their politicians urged them to do so for the sake of another X million barrels of oil, but feel impelled to action to stop the suffering in Darfur, In Burma, Zimbabwe, or Tibet. “Free Tibet !” “To Save Tibet is to save the World!” they shout, ignorant of the complexities of the issue or the clandestine funding and manipulation that may be fuelling such a cause for ulterior motives. For example, an American organisation called ‘the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)’ sounds a fine thing, yet it is but a polite front for the CIA. Founded by the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s, on the recommendation of William Casey, Reagan ‘s CIA Director, and  designed to pose as an autonomous NGO, the first acting President of the NDA, Allen Weinstein, commented to the Washington Post that, “A lot of what we [the NED ] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”

The most prominent pro-Dalai Lama Tibet independence organization today is the International Campaign for Tibet , founded in Washington in 1988. Since at least 1994 the ICT has been receiving funds from the NED . The ICT awarded their annual Light of Truth award in 2005 to Carl Gershman , founder of the NED . …The ICT Board of Directors is peopled with former US State Department officials…Another especially active anti-Beijing organization is the US-based Students for a Free Tibet, (founded 1994) as a project of the US Tibet Committee and the NED-financed International Campaign for Tibet (ICT). The SFT is most known for unfurling a 450 foot banner atop the Great Wall in China ; calling for a free Tibet , and accusing Beijing of wholly unsubstantiated claims of genocide against Tibet . …The SFT was among five organizations which …proclaimed the start of a “Tibetan people’s uprising” [for] Jan 4 this year and co-founded a temporary office in charge of coordination and financing. …Among related projects, the US Government-financed NED also supports the Tibet Times newspaper, run out of the Dalai Lama’s exile base at Dharamsala, India. The NED also funds the Tibet Multimedia Center for “information dissemination that addresses the struggle for human rights and democracy in Tibet,” also based in Dharamsala. And the NED finances the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy. (8)

Wang Lixiong is a Chinese intellectual, a writer who is deeply sympathetic to the Tibetan cause and yet is without illusions about how the Tibetan and foreign representatives of that cause often operate. He and his Tibetan wife have been under house arrest in Beijing since the  disturbances in Tibet last March. Wang is well aware of how skillfully the Tibetans have quickly adapted to western concerns and inclinations:

 …the  14th Dalai Lama  has now become one of the most  influential figures in the international community, more welcomed in the West than  even the West’s own religious leaders. There is no denying that through decades of  constant interaction with the international community, the exiled Tibetans have  succeeded in establishing their own image, and consequently have become the darlings of  the international community.

The Dalai Lama…has learned well how to exploit Western social psychology and manipulate the Western media to break into Western affairs. He has Western advisers who have long served him, having hired the best legal firms in the  United States to conduct extra-legal proceedings for him. His speeches throughout the  West are invariably about burning issues in the West such as human rights, the environment, peace, the anti-nuclear issue . . . with his values and language also being particularly  consistent with the Western model. The cleverness of the Dalai Lama, who is well aware  of the Western humanitarian climate, can also be seen in that the movement that he leads  does not take a purely political line. For instance, he avoids directly discussing Tibetan  independence, always saying that he is most concerned about continuing Tibetan  civilization. His suggestion for settling the Tibet matter is to make Tibet a naturally and  culturally protected zone with neither an army nor environmental pollution, a peace zone  overseen by the international community. Since this blueprint coincides exactly with the  Western ideal of a pure land, it has won widespread support. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama goes about saying that he is not just taking from the West, but is giving the West a precious gift: Tibetan religion. On 5 October 1989 , the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced that it was giving the Dalai Lama the Nobel Peace Prize. All Western nations [then] threw open their doors to him, and all leaders met with him. (9)

While this Chinese writer has respect for the Dalai Lama as an individual and as a leader of his people, one can see here that he has concerns about the Dalai Lama’s methods of advocacy on their behalf. From 1959 until 1985 the Dalai Lama was not the cult figure in the West that he is today, moving easily among high profile western political, scientific, religious, and artistic figures. In the 1970s and early 80s he had to content himself with bringing his cause to the attention of the New Age movement, who were attracted to the awesome powers of the seemingly authentic and enlightened Tibetan monks and spiritual teachers who moved West in the 1960s and 70s. Through these young people the Dalai Lama would later be able to connect with the environmental movement. Petra Kelly, a high profile young leader of the German Green Party, for example, rendered especial service in this regard. But from about 1985 the Dalai Lama began to break into the western political establishment and a formidable ‘Tibet Lobby’ was formed. A key figure in this process was the Dutch lawyer Michael van Walt van Praag, who became the Dalai Lama’s personal legal adviser.(10) After Tiananmen Square in 1989, American criticism of China greatly increased; that same year the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the following year The Voice of America began broadcasting programs in Tibetan; in 1991 van Walt van Praag managed to enable the Dalai Lama to address Congress in the USA.  He had thus ‘arrived’ in political terms. He went on to meet President George Bush (Snr.), who began to refer to Tibet as an “occupied country”. With his Nobel Peace Prize as the door-opener, the Dalai Lama was welcomed in all kinds of western political circles, right or left, red, blue or green; he was made welcome everywhere. Major entertainers and environmentalists, wrote the German magazine Der Spiegel, have found a common denominator in their commitment to the kingdom on the roof of the world. Hollywood meets Robin Hood — Tibet’s Buddhism is the common denominator.(11) In 1992 he showed up at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and on the Greenpeace flagship The Rainbow Warrior.

Alienation, longing, pride and fear

The Dalai Lama’s triumphal progress through the West steadily increased in the 1990s and peaked in 1998-9. Certainly, the cause of Tibetan Buddhism as a spiritual path was facilitated enormously by the political cause of the Tibetan people, which garnered sympathy even from people with no spiritual interests. Omnipresent in the West in the  1990s, from Vogue to Playboy, from religious conferences on ecumenism to scientific seminars on particle physics, the Dalai Lama’s success in the West’s ‘spiritual’ realm was especially evident in Hollywood, where in 1998 alone two major movies about him were released and five others were in the pipeline.  Among numerous Hollywood celebrities, Martin Scorsese, Brad Pitt and the Dalai Lama’s own personal pupil Richard Gere (picture) were especially voluble in their advocacy. Other doors were opened through actress Uma Thurman, the daughter of the Dalai Lama’s first initiated westerner and pre-eminent propagandist in the USA, Robert A. Thurman, whom the Herald Tribune called the academic godfather of the Tibetan cause. The readiness with which such western cultural figures look beyond themselves and their own culture for spiritual nourishment may be understandable but can yet be called into question. Rudolf Steiner once remarked that: the hollow mockery of a situation must be sensed in which the British Isles founded an economic empire that spanned the world and then, when seeking profound mystical spirituality, turned to those  they had conquered economically – and are now exploiting economically – in order to glean from them their spirituality. The real obligation is to take one’s own spiritual substance and pour it into the outer form of the social organism. (lecture of 22.1.1920) (my emphasis)

Steiner was speaking here about Britain, but the same could well be applied to the West in general. What lies behind the ‘hollow  mockery’ of western spiritual alienation? After the religious wars of the 17th century in Europe, natural science came to dominate intellectual life; passionate ‘enthusiasm’ of any kind was frowned on, and a cool, intellectual rationalism was valued. Gradually, Europeans’ pride in their new technical, scientific and intellectual achievements, together with a parallel decline in understanding of spiritual affairs, combined to produce something completely new in European history  – the cult of the modern. For the first time, Europeans began to feel contempt and distaste for their own past, especially for the age between the end of the Roman Empire and  their own era. This was accompanied by an arrogance towards the ‘less civilised’ cultures they were encountering as they explored the wider world. As the teenager, full of his own growing sense of self, often begins to feel embarrassed about his childhood, forgetful or even contemptuous of it and of his elders, who he sees as representing the ignorant past, so European intellectuals looked down on the mediaeval past of their own culture and on other non-European cultures, with one notable exception.

During the 17th century, Jesuit priests (picture), impressed by much in China, brought back the first detailed descriptions of Chinese society, culture and philosophy, which found favour with many of the European intelligentsia. Reading the Jesuit accounts, they felt that in China, cool-headed philosopher-kings seemed to be in charge, technical science honoured, objective examinations provided for a meritocratic, well-ordered and rational society. Things Chinese, from porcelain, tea-drinking, silks and rococo-style chinoiserie  had by about 1750 become the height of fashion in Europe.  Then came the inevitable reaction. From the mid-18th century, stimulated by the publications of James Macpherson (the Ossian poems) and Horace Walpole (the Gothic novel), the pendulum began to swing back for some to a nostalgia for Europe’s lost culture of magic, simplicity, Nature-worship, the irrational, the numinous and the transcendent so that by 1800 the white powdered wigs of the Augustan Enlightenment were very much out of fashion. For the next 100 years cultural life in the West would be swayed by the struggle between the ‘rationalist’ Classical and the ‘anti-rationalist’ Romantic/Gothic modes. China was associated with the older inclination towards rationalism and both suffered accordingly in the more avant-garde salons of Europe . In 17th century Europe only Jesuit priests had had really close experience of China. As increasing numbers of traders and merchants came into real contact with the country in the late 18th century, they declared that they were not impressed – not least perhaps because the Chinese were not interested in what the westerners had to sell. As China’s cultural stock fell, another Far Eastern stock rose – that of Tibet and the mystical land of Shambhala that was associated with it. These too had first been revealed to Europe by Jesuits. The first westerner in Tibet was a Portuguese Jesuit, Antonio de Andrade. (12) It was another Portuguese Jesuit, Estevao Cacella , who brought West word of the magical land of Shambhala. In 1627, the year after Andrade, he entered eastern Tibet from Bhutan and died there three years later.

Translations of Buddhist works into European languages steadily began to appear after the Napoleonic era. As nostalgia for an imagined transcendent past replete with art and spiritual beauty grew apace, the longing for a Pure Land of spirit and art became overwhelming for many who recoiled from the burgeoning Industrial ugliness and materialistic obsessions of the Victorian age. Many cultural phenomena of the 19th century can be understood in terms of this polar perspective of spiritual ‘inflation’ of the self and the spiritual deflation of materialism  which saw Man as but a machine or an animal. Interest in Buddhism – or rather, what they imagined to be Buddhism -  grew steadily as people became familar with, for example,  the works of Schopenhauer and then Madame   Blavatsky’s  Theosophical movement; it was especially the latter  which familiarised westerners with the notion that spiritual teachers of great wisdom, perhaps even the ‘Hidden Masters’ of world evolution, had always resided on the high Tibetan plateau. Many westerners longed to escape into an imagined past of nobility, aestheticism or simplicity, whether in the physical world, in the wilds of Africa or the vastness of the Indian Raj, or for example, in the worlds of art.  Others sought transcendence in political causes, in revolutionary struggle for some romantic utopia, and  were willing to sacrifice themselves at the altar of some national deity. Concepts of other dimensions, spiritual paradises, including Shambhala, were eagerly embraced by sensitive souls, not least by those with a growing sense of guilt or shame at what western humanity had done to itself, to nature and to non-western peoples. Such sentiments and motivations, redolent of the later ‘New Age’ movement, were rampant in educated circles in the decades before the First World War. Suppressed by the wars of the mid-20th century, such spiritual aspirations  re-emerged powerfully in the 1960s when so many headed east in search of meaning, while Tibetan exiles and spiritual teachers headed west after the failed uprising of 1959, taking with them the teaching of Shambhala, which merged vaguely into stories of Atlantis and other lost civilisations, or combined with yearnings for brave new Aquarian communities of the future. Western attitudes towards Tibet and Shambhala cannot be understood without taking into account this 200 year-old story of western alienation. Chang Chun-yi, who once served in the Taiwan government as chairman of its “Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission,” commented:

 ”We . . . have found that modernization brings many social flaws that can hardly be remedied [and] we naturally long for the lost past . . . the Tibetan race that lives there in relative  isolation from the rest of the world and is quite content with its intellectual lot also has its  ancient, unique, and mystical religious traditions. All of which fits in nicely with the Western concept of an ideal and lost past. So, in their minds, Tibet has become the world’s last pure land, sacred and inviolable. Unfortunately, Tibet is under Chinese Communist rule now, with it being understood that the Han Chinese are stripping the Tibetans of the right to pass on their own ethnic culture, using migration to eventually exterminate the race, and conducting nuclear tests in that pure land that could destroy the human race. How could that not fill post-modern Westerners who are ardent nature and peace-lovers with bitter hatred, [and] arouse real sympathy? That is a basic reason why the Western public takes such an absolutely different and extremist stance on the Tibet matter than does their government, and is the basic reason why the Tibet matter has  ultimately become an international one.” (13)

The Tibetan Bulletin Online, the official journal of the Central Tibetan Administration of the Dalai Lama referred again in Nov. 2006 (Vol. 10. No. 6) to :

the desire of His Holiness the Dalai Lama that the Tibetan people must be empowered to preserve and expand upon Tibet’s precious spiritual traditions, which is of benefit to the whole of humankind, including the Chinese people. In order to do this, the Tibetan people, inhabiting the whole of the Tibetan plateau, which is one geographic and composite ecological unit, must be given sufficient political freedom to ensure the continued survival and integrity of a unique civilization.

Here we see the Tibetan claim, referred to earlier, to the whole of the Tibetan cultural-geographical region. We see also the assertion that Tibetan Lamaism is of benefit not only to China but to the whole of humanity. Buddhism may indeed be of some benefit to humanity, but the rulership and guidance of modern society by all-male monastic orders…?

It has occurred to many observers that In another of history’s great ironies, the invasion of Tibet by the supposedly ‘materialist’ Chinese Maoists in 1959 drove the profoundly ‘spiritual’ teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to the West as many Tibetan teachers relocated in Europe and America. But is this actually the case? Could it not be that the Chinese Communists in fact share with the Tibetans something of a magical, symbolic and ‘mythic conception’ of history:

  …history for [the Chinese] was not simply a scientific study. It had the features of a cult, akin to ancestor worship, with the ritual object of presenting the past, favorably emended and touched up, as a model for current political action. It had to conform also to the mystical view of China as the Centre of the World, the Universal Empire in which every other country had a natural urge to become a part … The Communists … were the first Chinese to have the power to convert their atavistic theories into fact.(14)

There had always been a spiritual rivalry between the Tibetans and the  Chinese since the two cultures first ‘met’ in the Tang era. The geomantically aware Chinese were only too conscious of the fact that, while they claimed that China was the Centre of the World, Tibet stood at the roof of the world, and China’s great rivers rose in Tibet. The Chinese have long been wary, even in some awe, of the much-vaunted magic powers that are said to reside in the Land of the Snows. The Tibetan lamas were treated with respect by the Chinese elite, especially under the (Manchurian) Ching dynasty (1644-1912). This awareness gave rise to a kind of symbolic spiritual struggle between the ‘magical’ worldviews of, for example, Chairman Mao and the current Dalai Lama. We recall that the Dalai Lama’s Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) sect had already defeated the ‘Red Hats’ in Tibet centuries before. After ten years of the Cultural Revolution, things looked bad for Tibet, but then, in 1976, China suffered a massive earthquake (over 200,000 victims), and shortly afterwards Chairman Mao died. After his death, the Chinese reversed their stance towards Tibet ; their official gesture was now to offer everything short of full independence, but this only had the effect of stimulating Tibetan resistance.

The question can arise, absurd though it may seem to some: could Tibetan Buddhism take over China in the future and the apocalyptic Shambhala myth at the heart of the Kalachakra Tantra become the centre of an aggressive pan-Asian imperialism? This question is indeed not as far-fetched as it seems. First, as Indian Buddhism all but died out in its homeland and  successfully rooted itself in other Asian cultures, so Tibetan Buddhism could also transplant itself elsewhere. Second, the Japanese and Koreans managed to fuse Buddhism with their native shamanistic traditions over a thousand years ago, and the Japanese imperialist regime in the 1930s actually sought to rally Mongols, Manchus and other East Asians round the Shambhala myth and use it to turn them against the West. Third, the feud between Beijing and Taiwan has been easing considerably of late, and in Taiwan Tibetan Buddhism has established a real presence, with half a million followers; hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist shrines have been built, and many Tibetan lamas visit every year. It is indeed not far-fetched to imagine that even as Han Chinese migrants and tourists pour into Tibet on the newly built railway, two Tibetan spiritual trojan horses will make their way into Han China from both Tibet itself along that railway, and from Taiwan, as it gradually reintegrates with the motherland. The Tibetans are already claiming that high lamas are reincarnating in Chinese families in Taiwan. (15)

In a speech made in front of Chinese students in Boston ( USA ) on September 9, 1995, the Dalai Lama… nonchalantly proposes Tibetan Buddhism as China’s new religion: “A huge spiritual and moral vacuum is …being rapidly created in Chinese society. In this situation, the Tibetan Buddhist culture and philosophy would be able to serve millions of Chinese brothers and sisters in their search for moral and spiritual values. After all, traditionally Buddhism is not an alien philosophy to the Chinese people.”.(16)

In 1997 the Chinese government refused a request from the Dalai Lama to conduct a pilgrimage to the Wutai mountains in Shanxi province, China and discuss Tibet’s autonomy there with the [then] Chinese President Jiang Zemin. It is a location lamaism believes sacred to the bodhisattva Manjusri (17), who was traditionally associated with the Chinese emperor, and it is thus a geomantically significant area. A kalachakra ceremony conducted in such a spot could, in the magical Tibetan view, serve to launch ‘a spiritual conquest of China’. It is perhaps out of a sense of wary respect for the assumed ‘magical’ power of the Tibetan monks that Beijing has thus far shown its determination not to deal with the Dalai Lama officially even while it maintains back channel contacts with his ‘government-in-exile’ and pushes the claims of Tibet’s No. 2 religious figure, the Panchen Lama, whom it has controlled since 1995? Beijing is well aware of the custom that the Panchen and Dalai Lamas have to go through a formal process of ‘discovering’ each other’s reincarnations, thus in effect ‘selecting’ the next Panchen or Dalai Lama. Having chosen another boy, known as Qoigyijabu, as Panchen Lama, the Chinese authorities took the Dalai Lama’s choice, a boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, into ‘protective custody’ in 1995. If the government controls the Panchen Lama, it has a chance to select who will be the next Dalai Lama.

China has never been an aggressive, missionarising culture in the religious sense; on the contrary, it has often been open to receiving missionaries of various kinds over the centuries, from Buddhism, Islam and Manichaeism to the pseudo-Christianity of the Taiping rebels (1850-64) and indeed Marxism itself. The current Chinese ‘neo-Confucianist’, semi-Marxist elite cannot but be aware of the effects on the Chinese State over the centuries of their people’s receptivity to ecstatic cults and religions. However, some conservative circles in both East and West would like to push this Chinese fascination with Tibetan Buddhism in a particular direction. There are those, for example, in Japan and Taiwan who hope that

 …a Chinese reactivation of the Shambhala myth could… deliver a traditionally anchored pan-Asian ideology to replace a fading communism. As under the Manchus, there is no need for such a vision to square with the ideas of the entire people.(18)

In the West, the British former diplomat and ex-MP George Walden has this year authored a book (19) in which he raises the spectre that what he calls the normally ‘sheepish’ Chinese may be about to  become more ‘wolfish’, and ‘Mongolian’ in spirit. But a resurgent Mongolia has as its central totems Genghis Khan and Lamaism, with its Kalachakra tantra teaching of the world ruler, the chakravartin, who will unite all Asia against the peoples of ‘the West’. Walden and others in the western media therefore are playing with fire, reawakening fears of a self-conjured ‘Yellow Peril’. For whilst it has often been noted that the peaceful religion of Mahayana Buddhism moved from India to minister unto the martial peoples of northeast Asia – and Buddhism can certainly be said to have contributed to ‘calming’ the Mongols – China is not to be confused with Mongolia. The peoples of East Asia are as different from each other as are those of Europe; there is no amorphous East Asian Yellow Peril. What there is in Tibetan Buddhism, however, is a religious doctrine that could be used in a perverted way to unite the peoples of East Asia and turn them against other peoples, just as the idea of the socialist brotherhood of Man was so used. For just as the noble ideal of the brotherhood of Man was accompanied in socialism by the nefarious doctrines of class struggle, the theory of surplus value and the materialist interpretation of history, so the noble truth of Buddhism is accompanied in Tibet by a doctrine of an apocalyptic racial conflagration, rituals of male superiority that are manipulative of women and of the female principle in general, and a social system of theocratic rule.

As these two articles have indicated, the Buddhism of Tibet includes key elements that are no more in harmony with the essential spirit of Buddhism than crusaders and all-male monkhood are in harmony with the spirit of Christianity. It would not be desirable for Tibetan Buddhism and its monks to take the place of the presently fading Chinese version of Marxism and its Party cadres. If the notion that this could happen at all seems absurd to some, they should look again at how close-run a thing was the Great Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64. That movement, based on a non-Chinese religion (a form of pseudo-Christianity), grew from just two people to ruling over 30 million and might well have taken over the Chinese Empire had not the West thrown in its lot with the Ching dynasty; between 20 and 30 million died in the conflict. This is not to claim that Tibetan Buddhism would take over China by force (after all, it ‘conquered’ the Mongol Empire by  peaceful means) but merely to indicate that a seemingly harmless religious movement can indeed ‘conquer’ a vast State, as the Romans experienced some 1700 years ago.  It is not the conflict between the Dalai Lama and Beijing which poses a threat for the  West and the world community, but rather, in contrast, a possible future cultural conquest of the “Chinese dragon” by the “Tibetan snow lion”.(20) Meanwhile, Robert Thurman, Richard Gere, and multitudes of Americans today earnestly believe in a ‘Buddhocratic’ conquest of America by the monks of Tibet and in the spiritual guardianship of the West by “His Holiness” the Dalai Lama. Stranger things have happened in the history of the world. We need to look not only at what is front of us, but to scan the horizon for what may be in the process of emerging, both within our own souls and in the world at large.


(1) Grand Chessboard  – American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997), p.38  Brzezinski ‘s book  illuminates much of what has been going on in world affairs since the mid-1990s. His son Mark is also an adviser to Obama, while his other son Ian is current U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Affairs and advises the other presidential candidate,  John McCain. Bzezinski’s daughter, Mika, is a prominent TV news journalist and presenter with MSNBC

(2)  http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=8673

(3) Grand Chessboard, pp.30-31

(4) http://onlinejournal.com/artman/publish/article_3173.shtml

(5) ‘ Stans ‘: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan

(6) K.Meyer & S.Brysac, Tournament of Shadows – The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Asia (1999) pp.542-5

(7) Tournament of Shadows, p.552; see also  Orphans of the Cold War (1999) by John Knaus, ex-chief of the CIA Tibet Task Force

(8) http://onlinejournal.com/artman/publish/article_3173.shtml

(9)  Wang Lixiong, TIBET : The PRC’s 21st Century Underbelly

http://www.columbia.edu/itc/ealac/barnett/pdfs/link14-wang-lixiong.pdf. See also Wang’s  Reflections on Tibet   http://newleftreview.org/A2380

(10) He practiced law in Washington D.C., London and San Francisco with the law firms of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, and of Pettit and Martin . He teaches international law at Golden Gate University, San Francisco. From 1991 to 1998 he was the general secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). During that time (1994-7) he was advisor to the Chechen government delegation on their negotiations with the Russian Federation   and advisor to the Abkhazian government delegation in peace talks between Georgia and Abkhazia (1993-95). He is a member of the Netherlands Development Assistance Research Council (RAWOO), an advisory body of the Netherlands foreign ministry. He is the President and co-founder of Kreddha, an NGO that works for “prevention and resolution of violent conflicts between population groups and states”.

(11) Der Spiegel, No.16 (1998), p. 109

(12) He visited the western Tibetan kingdom of Guge in 1626 and converted its monarch, who had resented the growing power of Buddhist monks and saw Christianity as a counterweight. The monks called in the Muslim warriors of neighbouring Ladakh, who destroyed the 700 year-old kingdom of Guge completely.

(13) http://www.columbia.edu/itc/ealac/barnett/pdfs/link14-wang-lixiong.pdf.

(14) http://www.iivs.de/~iivs01311/SDLE/Part-2-14.htm

(15) Tibetan Review, May 1995, pp. 10-11

(16) Tibetan Review, Oct. 1995, p. 18

(17) Mt. Wutai, in the north of China, was regarded as one of the 4 sacred mountains of Buddhism in China and the abode of Manjusri on earth. Manjusri (Wenshu) is one of the four great bodhisattvas of Chinese Buddhism, the others being Avalokiteshvara, Kshitigarbha, and Samantabha.  Manjusri (“Gentle Glory”, Ch: Wenshu; Tib: Jampelyang) Mahayana bodhisattva of wisdom (prajna), doctrine and awareness. He is often shown riding on a lion’s back, with a flaming sword in his right hand (wisdom cutting through ignorance error)  and a flower-borne scripture in his left hand (the Prajnaparamita, ultimate realisation, enlightenment). In Tibet his wrathful form is that of Yamantaka, ‘Terminator of Death’.

(18) http://www.iivs.de/~iivs01311/SDLE/Part-2-14.htm

(19) George Walden, China : A Wolf in the World? (2008) and also Walden: ‘China, Red in Tooth and Claw’ in Standpoint magazine July 2008 (Issue 2). See also Pico Iyer, ‘The Real Dalai Lama’, in Standpoint magazine, August 2008 (Issue 3)

(20) http://www.iivs.de/~iivs01311/SDLE/Part-2-17.htm

© Terry Boardman 2008

This page was first uploaded  30.9.2008  Last updated 7.2.2012