Close Relations

T.H. Barrett

  • The Buddha of Brewer Street by Michael Dobbs
    HarperCollins, 288 pp, £16.99, January 1998, ISBN 0 00 225412 3
  • The Book of Tibetan Elders: Life Stories and Wisdom from the Great Spiritual Masters of Tibet by Sandy Johnson
    Constable, 282 pp, £17.95, February 1997, ISBN 0 09 476950 8
  • The Art of Tibet by Robert Fisher
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £7.95, November 1997, ISBN 0 500 20308 3
  • Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations by Warren Smith Jr.
    Westview, 732 pp, £59.50, December 1996, ISBN 0 8133 3155 2
  • The Way to Freedom by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
    Thorsons, 181 pp, £7.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 00 220043 0
  • Awakening the Mind, Lightening the Heart by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
    Thorsons, 238 pp, £8.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 00 220045 7
  • Kundun: A Biography of the Family of the Dalai Lama by Mary Craig
    HarperCollins, 392 pp, £17.99, May 1997, ISBN 0 00 627838 8

If you can’t keep a good man down, it’s no wonder if that genuine rarity, a very good man, sometimes seems to be incessantly on the up and up. The Dalai Lama has already achieved cinematic immortality in Seven Years in Tibet, even though obliged to survive association with a slightly dodgy Austrian (but so did the UN), and has further film apotheoses in prospect, threatening to turn even Gandhi into an also-ran. Meanwhile, he makes a cameo appearance in Michael Dobbs’s new Good-fellowe thriller, which revolves around the hunt for his next incarnation in London. The Chinese villains are as dastardly as one might wish from HarperCollins, as sinister as the Manchu embassy officials who in 1896 kidnapped the obscure Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen in London and made him world famous, yet ultimately human enough for their allied Anglo-Tibetan opponents to outwit them. Thomas Goodfellowe MP, fictional hero as battered old teddy bear, is due for another outing this autumn, says the blurb. By then, where will our real-life hero, the Dalai Lama, be?

Thomas Carlyle was wrong, on the whole, about heroes as the makers of history, but perhaps he had more of a point than we have been prepared to give him credit for. Our own century has seen its fair share of monsters but it has still managed to produce leaders whom, whatever their flaws, we can only respect. Not a long list, but one to which it would be fair to add the Dalai Lama, although unfortunately he disqualifies himself by revealing that he is not a bona fide 20th-century figure, but the 14th reincarnation of a personage who has been playing his part in history since long before Carlyle was born.

To judge by the constant and often lengthy references to the Chinese Communists in the Dalai Lama’s writings ostensibly devoted to Buddhist doctrine, there still exists, quite undeniably, a Tibetan Question. Foreign correspondents who want to curdle our blood with predictions of an all-out shooting war in East Asia prefer to concentrate on the prospects for China’s claim to the Spratlys and the Paracels, virtually uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea which could indeed become test-sites for the hardware of a number of competing armed forces. Tibet, sustaining as it does some two million inhabitants, gives much more scope for the quieter application of policies of suppression, and a quiet problem is not the same as a solution.

Nor, despite the waxing and waning of interest, is complete silence ever likely to fall on the matter of Tibet, for reasons which become clear from a reading of Sandy Johnson’s work. She presents a remarkable picture of a diaspora driven from its homeland whom one might expect to become the Parsees of the next millennium, using the close-knit ties of religious distinctiveness to concentrate on economic survival. Instead, we find a national élite of conspicuously outward-looking teachers, winning proselytes in different countries who will not only sustain their tradition but spread it across the globe.

She also presents a detailed portrait of Sandy Johnson, a restless, slightly feckless mother whose children threaten to write above her grave: ‘We think she is in here.’ But this account of me-generation spiritual craving offsets Tibetan Buddhism surprisingly well, since there is a strong tradition within Tibetan religion of directing the Buddha’s message to the recipient’s specific problems, and of dealing with fallible human lives as much as abstract issues of time and eternity. Mary Craig’s approach to the Tibetan exile community concentrates much more on the frustrations of émigré politics. Her group portrait of the Dalai Lama’s family does not gloss over nepotism, failure and apostasy. What hope for the future these books suggest can only be appreciated after a glance at the past. And while the Tibetan past is well represented by its art, of which a sufficient quantity has found its way to the West to merit a compact but lavishly illustrated history from Robert Fisher, a grasp of the current situation needs more explicit testimony than even these powerful images provide.

It is obvious from Warren Smith’s marathon retelling of the tangled tale of Tibet and its longstanding relationship with China that things may be yet more complex than his seven hundred pages allow for, since he reads neither Chinese nor Tibetan, and depends for the most part on the careful use of what is already available in English. This is nothing new: the 1993 International Conference of Lawyers on Tibet attempted to tackle the issue of Tibetan rights in the absence of any historian with such skills. They are in fact remarkably hard to find: since Tibet is only sporadically in the headlines, there is no prospect of permanent employment for such experts, and most people with linguistic talents of this order find that the education market sustains a far better living teaching Tibetan religion than the minutiae of Sino-Tibetan relations. Where authors like Smith slip up, failing to pick up the fine detail of their secondary sources, they leave themselves completely exposed to Chinese counter-claims which they are not in a position to refute. And, of course, the Chinese are right to point to a long history of close relations. The story began with a marriage between a seventh-century Tibetan king and a Chinese princess. In Britain a royal family of foreign origin has been cheerfully marrying more or less exclusively with foreigners until quite recently, but diplomatic marriages in early medieval East Asia were a fraught affair – the young Chinese bride is said to have arrived in Tibet to find that she was expected to share her marriage with a Nepalese princess – and often ended in tears. In the late eighth century, for example, the Tibetans actually turned the Chinese emperor out of his capital in favour of a more pliant relative.

Worse was to come with the collapse of the Tibetan monarchy in the following century, since political authority then gravitated into the hands of various Buddhist hierarchs, obliging the Chinese, whose empire was controlled by an entirely secular bureaucracy, to deal diplomatically with the sort of holy men who in China were kept very much in their place. Khubilai Khan’s Mongols had fewer scruples in this regard, not only taking over Tibet and ruling largely through holy men of their own choice, but importing Tibetan lamas to act as administrators in their conquered Chinese territories, where they became famous for their venality.

The Chinese Embassy in London declined to send a representative to the International Lawyers’ Conference in 1993 on the grounds that the Chinese state had inherited Tibet as a successor to the Mongol Empire – presumably to its East Asian dominions, though this would imply continued claims on Vietnam and Korea. It is true that in the south-east, Yunnan, once an independent kingdom which had fallen to the Mongols, became part of the resurgent Chinese empire at the same period. Yunnan’s incorporation into Chinese territorial space is easily attested by the appearance not long afterwards of local histories in Chinese, a common by-product of Chinese provincial administration. But no such histories appear at this point for Tibet, whose relations with China continued to be conducted diplomatically between emperors and various local holy men. In fact during the last purely Chinese dynasty the emperors showed a degree of respect for their Tibetan teachers which their officials probably found alarming: one emperor humbly represents himself as a puppet-sized inferior in an official portrait of a Tibetan hierarch.

In his early lives, the Dalai Lama had little to do with the Chinese. He first came to public notice as a disciple of a religious reformer, an early 15th-century Tibetan Luther attacking the corrupt practices of the overweening prelates who had flourished under Mongol rule. Yet it was a revival of Mongol power to the north of China that secured the Dalai Lama his earliest powerful patronage – indeed, for one lifetime he was a Mongol himself, a great-grandson of their leader. Only in his fifth reincarnation did he visit China, but not to treat with any Chinese emperor, for by the late 17th century China had fallen to Manchu warriors. The Manchus were near neighbours of the Mongols, and had enlisted a good number of Mongol leaders into their enterprise. More hostile Mongol groups remained, however, to be pressed westwards away from the new acquisition. Since these surviving rivals were still in a position to interfere in Tibetan politics, it became very important to the Manchu emperors to cultivate good relations with the Dalai Lama, and the best way to do that was to accept his spiritual guidance in return for whatever temporal advantages their patronage might offer.

In the long run this policy committed them to persistent interference in Tibetan affairs. The sixth incarnation of the Dalai Lama turned out to be an excellent poet, but rather a wild young man. A Mongol leader attempted to exploit the resulting political uncertainty in Tibet, and the Manchus responded with a military expedition. The vicissitudes of Tibetan politics in the 18th century drew the Manchus into even deeper involvement, with threats from Nepal eventually replacing the Mongol problem as a defence issue. Meanwhile, the authority of the Dalai Lama became more and more crucial to the Manchu position – he rescued the fleeing Chinese citizens of Lhasa from a Tibetan mob, for example, in 1750, and it was his authority which allowed the Manchus to maintain only a minimal military presence in Tibet – fewer men by far than the number of US troops now stationed in our own, much smaller country.

This begs the question whether the Tibetans had by now ceded their sovereignty to the Manchus. But it would have been hard to pin down 18th or 19th-century Tibetan or Manchu politicians on this question, even supposing they understood its meaning. We are just beginning to find out, through the work of historians like James Hevia and others exploring the political arrangements in East Asia at the time when British imperialism started to intrude, quite how flexible, practical and efficient a world without abstract notions like sovereignty could be. While we take control of foreign policy, for example, as one indication of the independence of a nation-state, during this period the Tibetans – but not the Manchus – exercised some sort of sovereignty, involving the receipt of tribute, over the neighbouring state of Ladakh, while the Nepalese, as a result of their incursions into Tibet, enjoyed a number of extraterritorial rights there which did not extend to Manchu domains in China.

In this world much still depended on the mutability of personal relations. In 1750 the Manchu emperor of the day was still a young man, diligently studying Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhism with a Mongol preceptor; by the end of the century he had become much more cynical, and devised the system of determining important Tibetan reincarnations by lot – the very system now employed by the Chinese Government to legitimate their choice of the new Panchen Lama, the next figure in importance to the Dalai Lama. In fact, the Tibetans in the 19th century seem to have opposed this system, and though they were forced to back down in the case of the tenth reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, it is quite certain that the 13th was not chosen by lot. But when this 13th Dalai Lama, at the end of the Manchu dynasty, attempted to proclaim the end of the personal ties that linked Tibet with the Emperor of China, and to assert Tibetan independence, he found that the world had changed in ways that the traditional Tibetan polity found very hard to cope with.

Chinese reformers, after seeing the Manchus deprived by the Western imperial powers of any territory over which Manchu claims did not conform to European norms (and also quite a few bits and pieces where they clearly did), substituted for the authority of the emperor – supreme arbiter over a multicultural empire of Tibetan and Mongol Buddhists, Muslim Uighurs and Confucian Chinese – the authority of the Chinese people, in whose name the empire was reconstituted as a nation-state. Impeccably liberal thinkers, reinterpreting older, much vaguer notions of diplomatic submissiveness in terms of modern political sovereignty, grumbled about the foreign imperialism that prevented the incorporation of Korea into this new nation (‘a problem for our descendants to resolve’), and it seems fairly clear that North Vietnam and Outer Mongolia (which did successfully declare its independence at this point, but which Bill Jenner has discovered is still the object of Chinese ambitions today) came into the same category. The Chinese people were standing up for themselves, while their former equals, the Manchus, Mongols and Tibetans, were reduced to the status of ‘minorities’ and expected to tag along.

Twenty years ago, when all one needed to know about Chinese foreign policy could apparently be deduced from a reading of the collected speeches of Mao Zedong, this era in Chinese political thought was conveniently forgotten. Now, however, researchers like Frank Dikötter and Pamela Kyle Crossley are trying to piece together the attitudes to race and nation that first took on a modern Chinese guise in the early 20th century, since they provide important clues as to how the descendants of those impeccably liberal thinkers are prepared to solve their problems at present and in future. As a complete guide to the possibilities now confronting the Beijing leadership, early 20th century Chinese racial rhetoric is about as reliable and informative as the works of Mao were as a guide to revolutionary China. Nor can we expect any Chinese government to take advice from a country like Britain, which has hardly made a success of sorting out a modus vivendi for the different cultural traditions within its own narrow islands, to say nothing of its attitudes towards its neighbours.

If the Chinese have got the Panchen Lama of their choice, and caused the candidate favoured by the Dalai Lama to disappear, then things look bad, in that it is the Panchen Lama who authenticates the incarnation of the Dalai Lama. But there is room for doubt as to whether a Panchen Lama who is not authenticated in his youth by a Dalai Lama is qualified to perform this role, and in any case control over reincarnations may not be as crucial as it seems. One rival to the Dalai Lama was actually forbidden to reincarnate in the late 18th century after being caught conniving with the Nepalese. Tibet, Mongolia, and even odd corners like Bhutan, Tuva and the north-eastern shores of the Caspian all produce a good number of incarnate Buddhist authorities, and the Dalai Lama himself points out that Tibet had already evolved its distinctive culture long before he first appeared on the scene. Sandy Johnson describes an encounter with a very young incarnation who has an American mother, a certain ‘Caroline Lama’, so even if the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is forced to survive in exile, its sources of spiritual guidance show no obvious signs of drying up.

The Dalai Lama is now on record as being prepared to jettison the entire scriptural Buddhist picture of the cosmos, which is far more subtle than the ‘turtles-all-the-way-down’ stereotype of Indian cosmology allows. And he is clear that cosmological particulars do not alter the central message of Buddhism – an attitude which is bound to make the Tibetan religious message more available to Westerners. The quantity of Tibetan literature in English is rising steadily, as pioneering religious seekers of the Sixties, now ensconced in colleges across the United States, organise courses for the second-generation Buddhist offspring of their contemporaries. One Tibetan Buddhist nun interviewed by Johnson was prepared to countenance yet more radical changes: ‘it is conceivable that women in the West will be recognised as tulkus, incarnate lamas.’ A religious tradition in which the reassuringly patriarchal figure of the Dalai Lama is displaced by a regiment of American women might have to represent itself as something entirely different, but Warren Smith suggests that Tibetan culture will have a future even so, since its essence lies in the Tibetan language.

The historical status of Tibetan Buddhism makes it likely that the language will not be forgotten, even with more and more recruits depending on English translations. For in the same way that the Slavonic lands were heir to the lost civilisation of Byzantine Christendom, so Tibet inherited the ancient traditions of Indian Buddhism, just as they, too, were on the point of falling to Muslim invaders. Both traditions are ancient enough to have picked up over time their own disreputable camp followers, leading to accusations of spiritual etiolation and contamination with folk beliefs. But both also preserve a great trove of patristic writing, which may not conform to the Protestant assumption that the earliest scriptures are the only ones to read, but which even so contain a wealth of doctrinal discussion on every conceivable issue. For example, the Dalai Lama quotes Candrakirti’s doctrine that animals are afflicted by the same false notion of the self that prevents enlightenment in human beings – a possibility which few of us will have mulled over on our own initiative – yet the same medieval Indian thinker also has important if extremely difficult things to say on the nature of reality.

For the past century or so, the Buddhist doctrinal riches available in the Tibetan tradition have won increasing admiration in East Asia, where Buddhism has been filtered through the medium of Chinese culture. The faithfulness of Tibetan exegesis to its Indian originals has enabled it to be used as a key to reassessing the validity of East Asian Buddhist thought. The work of scholars like Hakamaya Noriaki at Komazawa University has done much to challenge Japanese Buddhists as to the correct understanding of their religion, and to remind them of the degree to which it has been converted from a radical philosophy into an ideology supporting the political establishment.

Nor have Chinese scholars neglected Tibetan sources, for all the chauvinism of Chinese scholarship in this field. Tibetan Buddhism has continued to attract adherents in China, especially since some of the country’s holy places are holy to Tibetans, too, and bring pilgrims from Tibet as far as North China – to say nothing of places like the home village of the Dalai Lama, which, as Mary Craig points out, contained a couple of Chinese families living alongside a predominantly Tibetan population. Not all Chinese converts will support the Dalai Lama, especially in his political role, though until her death in 1986 he did have a Chinese sister-in-law, who showed exemplary loyalty to his cause. But devotion to the master (a lama is, after all, a guru in Tibetan translation) puts the religious lives of many Chinese, including the Hong Kong film magnate Sir Run Run Shaw, into the hands of Tibetan spiritual masters. Respect for the close connection between Tibetan Buddhism and the original lost heartland of the faith in North India explains the readiness of Buddhists in Taiwan not simply to receive the Dalai Lama but also to support Tibetan Buddhist causes, such as the compilation of a Tibetan-English dictionary. As Buddhism, in its current revival, recaptures lost ground throughout the Chinese world, embodying as it does a loyalty to Asian tradition that transcends nationalism, the danger of Tibetan Buddhism being reduced to a mere component of Californian religion recedes.

In about 1980, when the first tentative stirrings of an academic interest in religion appeared in Beijing, mainly in the form of periodicals heavy with articles on the glorious history of Chinese atheistic thought, I met a Chinese professor of Buddhism. ‘We must,’ he said, ‘support young researchers into Buddhism, or there is no hope for China!’ I smiled inwardly, thinking this a case of the folie de grandeur that leads professors to imagine they are capable of influencing events. But, looking back, I wonder if he was not a good deal wiser and more prescient than I took him to be. Terrible things may yet happen: one can easily imagine that an intransigent Chinese leadership, seeking to solve the problems of the ancestors with the methods of modern imperialism, might force the Dalai Lama to retreat into a purely religious role, leaving the field free to terrorism and massacre.

But it may be that China will become confident enough to sustain an open society, in which Buddhism might still renew its civilising mission: it is, after all, at home in Chinese culture, but it is also cosmopolitan, without being Western. Could the Dalai Lama, if not in this lifetime then perhaps in his 15th appearance in this world, find himself once more spiritual adviser to the rulers of Beijing?