Can the Dragon defeat Tibetan Buddhism?
by Vijaya Rajiva on 25 Oct 2012 19 Comments

The answer to that question is no, simply because of the many Buddhisms that grew up in Asia, Tibetan Buddhism as a genre is the closest to Hinduism and like Hinduism has had a long civilisational history and will continue to have it. Much has been written about the historical/ political/ legal aspects of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949 and the interested reader will find the following bibliography useful. [1].  The writer will focus on the question of Tibetan Buddhism. The excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward of the Maoist regime in Tibet are well known now: the destruction of monasteries, execution of monks, killing of the native Tibetan population (some 300,000 are said to have died in a 5-year period).


After the death of Mao in 1976 and the accession to power of Deng Xiaoping there was a noticeable moderation in China's persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and Buddhist practice, but the policies remained the same. The old order had to be destroyed so that China's control over the local population and territory would remain intact. The soft power approach was different from the old approach which sparked off the revolt in 1950 and the subsequent fleeing in 1959 of the Dalai Lama to India and formation of a government in exile. However, the soft power approach simply meant old wine in new bottles. Tibetans were put through an educational program to indoctrinate them in the Thought of Mao Zedong and monks were called upon to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama. Those who resisted were imprisoned, tortured and in some cases just disappeared.


The soft power approach can be seen in the Chinese puppet Panchen Lama blessing Tibetans who seek audience with him. But none of this has doused the fires of rebellion in the lower classes and even some of the middle class who benefitted at least marginally in the modernisation and economic package that China invested in Tibet. The discontent is beneath the surface and erupts frequently in the self immolation of monks and now also of the laity.


The People’s Republic of China routinely continues to demonise the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India, even though the Dalai Lama has come a long way from his earlier demands for independence to autonomy within the Chinese orbit. They accuse him of hypocrisy and of continuing to harbour and encourage independence. They call him a splittist, one who will break the unity of the Chinese dominions in that region. Mao Zedong had held up his hand with five fingers indicating Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. No one can doubt that this remains the PRC's aim. Add Tibet to that list. Tibet used to be the buffer state between China's great power ambitions and India.


But Tibetan Buddhism remains an obstacle to this dream, as does a powerful neighbour to the south.


To understand the hold of Tibetan Buddhism on the masses one has to understand the characteristics of Vajrayana Buddhism that went from India and the manner in which it intermingled with the native Bon religion of pre-Buddhist times. The result was the characteristic use of rituals, mantra, mudra and murtis which Hindus recognise as those aspects of Tantric Hinduism which has influenced their daily practices. These can be described as Agama (in Hinduism), on which the writer has written previously.


Some scholars have wondered whether the rituals, mantras, mudra and murtis which went into Vajrayana Buddhism were not inherited by Buddhism from the Vedic tradition. In articles on Hindu Polytheism, the writer has pointed out that obviously ritual, mantra, mudra can be directly traced to the Vedic homa. Even murtis were not unknown in the late Vedic period. In Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrayana influence is seen in their meditational and ritual practices, as well in the murtis (metal statues) and the mandala. All these practices are found in non-Tantric Hinduism and tantric Hinduism (A good account of Tibetan Vajrayana is found in John Powers' book Introduction to Buddhism, 2007).

The second great influence on Tibetan Buddhism is the Madhyamika system founded by Nagarjuna who is said to have been born in south India, circa second century CE. The historical Buddha is known to have rejected traditional philosophical speculation and is accredited with the doctrine of dependent origination. This simply means that everything is connected and no phenomenon is independently arisen. Hence, even the self is an aggregate of these interrelated phenomena and will pass away. Nagarjuna took this a step further and said that all phenomenal existence is Sunya (void) or unreal. However, he is interpreted by scholars to say that this negativism or nihilism as it is called applies only to our ordinary phenomenal world. What lies beyond this, we cannot talk about.

It is worth paying attention to Nagarjuna's Madhyamika since the Dalai Lama is said to be an expert on Madhyamika.

The Buddha's ethical teachings were based on his philosophical teachings and these can be summed up as: (1) the theory of dependent origination, (2) the theory of karma, (3) the theory of change, and (4) the theory of the non existence of  the soul.

The Theory of Dependent Origination: Everything is dependent on something else. In other words, there is always a cause. Cause becomes effect, which in turn becomes cause. In this chain there are also multiple causes and effects. In other words, not one cause produces a certain effect and no one effect produces a complex effect in turn. This law is the dhamma (dharma).

The Theory of Karma: Hence, everything now is the effect of the past, and will then be the cause of the future.

The Theory of Change: There is universal change and impermanence. There is nothing everlasting.

The Theory of the non existence of the Soul: there is no permanent atman that stands outside of the stream of successive states that rise and pass away.

Nagrajuna's philosophy: It is also referred to as Sunya vada, since he maintained that the universe has no reality, that everything is sunya or void. It is often described as nihilism. However, most contemporary philosophers have interpreted this differently (correctly in my opinion). Sunya applies only to the phenomenal world, the apparent one perceived by us. Behind it is a reality which we cannot describe because it is beyond our limited mental and sense apparatus. The word 'sunya' then only stands for the characteristics of the phenomenal world. This is the Middle Path philosophy (Madhyamika). Nagarjuna also argued that this is what the Buddha meant. And Nirvana is beyond the phenomenal world of dependent origination.

The writer would like to draw the reader's attention to Adi Sankara's advaita or mayavada as it is called. Here too, the phenomenal world is seen as transitory and illusory, but what lies beyond is the real Brahman. Nagarjuna does not use that word but the implications of the super-phenomenal world beyond that which is transitory can be understood in the same way.

Such profound philosophical notions were discussed (and continue to be discussed) by monks in the hundreds of Tibetan monasteries, as also the questions concerning nirvana, reincarnation etc. The point that is sought to be made is the intimate connection between Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, whether at the philosophical level or at the popular level of murti worship or the very tangible worship of the Bodhisattva (Avalokiteswara, the downward looking Buddha, that we see in the Ajanta frescoes) who rejects entry into nirvana in order to incarnate in the world to help humans out of their bondage to suffering (dukkha).


The Dalai Lamas are believed by the Tibetans to be incarnations of the Bodhisattva. It should be pointed out that the meditational practices of Hinduism also migrated to Tibet and the monks use the Tantric mandala for their meditational practice.

In mainland China today, there are Han Chinese who practise Tibetan Buddhism. There was a recent photo of some of them a few miles north of Beijing doing a fire ceremony reminiscent of the Vedic homa. A huge bonfire is lit into which oil, food, etc are offered as oblations. China is unable to contain such expressions of Tibetan piety by the Han Chinese themselves, and for the time being is looking the other way, but on occasion cracking down on the sects.

The Dalai Lama has applied the Middle Way to politics. Recently, in his public lectures he has explained his (and the Central Tibetan Administration's) position this way:

The Tibetan people do not accept the present status of Tibet under the People's Republic of China. Nor do they seek independence. What they want is genuine Autonomy for the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the PRC. And so he calls for:

(1)   Protection and preservation of their culture, religion and national identity.

(2) This would mean for the Chinese the security, territory and integrity of their motherland.

(3) This would also mean that for neighbours and third parties there will be peaceful borders and good international relations.

As of now China does not seem to be responding.

These are changing times and it is entirely possible that with the Dalai Lama saying that he is retiring from politics and considering his age that China may shelve the alternative of putting forward its own Panchen Lama or even insisting that the next Dalai Lama should be born in China!

The Government of India’s immediate recognition of the Central Tibetan Administration (government in exile) as the legitimate government in exile (as called for recently by journalist and Tibet expert Claude Arpi) may give a certain push to events. Certainly, the strength of a resurgent Tibetan Buddhism will be a formidable obstacle for the PRC to handle. Like Hinduism it may yet turn out to be an invincible bulwark against asuric forces.

1] Arpi, Claude. 2008.  The Lost Frontier and Missed Opportunity. Lancer Publications (India China relations, based on Indian Government archives)

2] -- 4th October, 2012. 'A New India's Tibetan Policy ' . . tibetain/p/. . . /claude-arpi-a new-india-s-tibet-policy (the well known journalist calls for the GOI to immediately recognise the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala as the legitimate exiled government).

3] Dalai Lama. 1964. My Land and My People. London

4] Goldstein, Melvyn C. 1989. A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951. Berkeley. University of California

5] -- 2007. A History of Modern Tibet 1951-1955. Berkeley. University of California

6] 100 Questions about Tibet. 1989. PRC (Peoples Republic of China). Beijing

7] Rtsis -dpon Zhwa- sgab-pa. writings online

8] Van Walt Van Praag, Michael C. 1987. The Status of Tibet : History, Rights and Prospects in International Law. Boulder. Colorado (an eminent international lawyer hired by the Central Tibetan Administration to argue their case before the international community; the first to advance the theory of the Patron-Priest relationship as characteristic of Tibet China relations before the invasion of Tibet in 1949). The theory of the Patron-Priest relationship is an interesting one and offsets other interpretations of Tibetan history as either merely vassal or as feudal. Goldstein argues that this was feudal.

9] Smith, Warren W. Smith. 2008. China's Tibet? : Autonomy or Assimilation

10] Tsering Shakya. 2000. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (This also documents the failures of the Tibetan leadership).

The writer is a political philosopher who taught at a Canadian university

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