Tibet’s Transition to the Modern World

In the 9th chapter of The Tibetans, Matthew Kapstein describes the recent history of Tibet, as they transitioned from an essentially autonomous state to one occupied and controlled by Communist China. He especially touches upon the loss of religious freedom and culture that Tibet is experiencing, due to strict Chinese rule.

First, Kapstein describes how Tibet was in a period of pseudo-turmoil right before the People’s Republic of China absorbed Tibet into their country in 1951. This period of uncertainty began when the Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December 1933. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Tibetan state, and as his successor had not yet been found, it was unclear who would rule the region. In the interim that they were searching for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the government decided that power “would be shared by a lama serving as regent… and a lay chief minister.” (271) The Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s nephew, Langdün, was selected for the lay chief minister position, and Reting Rinpoché would serve as the regent. Much more occurred at this time, as there were others in consideration to rule the government, controversies surrounding Reting which inspired a coup d’état by his supporters, and other power struggles in Tibet, making the region unstable and unprepared for the Chinese invasion.

Although Tibet was considered an autonomous region since the fall of the Manchu dynasty, when Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang government entered power, they considered re-absorbing Tibet under Chinese control. Communists, led my Mao Zedong, challenged the Guomindang government and a power struggle in China erupted. Even though they were fighting, “the need to restore Tibet to the motherland was in fact one of the few things that the Communists and the Guomindang seemed to agree about.” (273) When Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek, taking control of Tibet was thus on his agenda. The Communist victory in China paired with the internal turmoil in Tibet created perfect conditions for the Chinese to occupy the region, as a divided Tibet stood no chance in defending itself about the new, powerful People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese exerted their control on the Tibetans very gradually, initially only holding negotiations and promising that existing systems in Tibet would remain unchanged. “Mao wished to avoid a prolonged conflict and urged instead Tibet’s “peaceful liberation.” (280) After some negotiations, there was some initial military action to ensure that the Tibetan army was immobilized; however they “did not push on with an actual invasion of Tibet. Their intention was just to make it clear to the Tibetans that they could not expect to resist” and that they would be under Chinese control. (280) Some of the initial promises that the Chinese made to the Tibetans included that “…the existing political system and military will not be changed…All members of the religious bodies of all classes, government officials, and headmen will perform their duties as usual… The PLA… will respect the religion and customs and habits of the Tibetan people.” (280) The Chinese government issued these words in a policy statement after the invasion, and later presented the Tibetans with the 17-Point Agreement, reinforcing these promises that they made but also confirming their control over Tibet. In Point 7, religious freedom was again promised. The Tibetans agreed, for they had few other options.

Once Tibet was officially a part of the People’s Republic of China again, things began to change. The promises that the Chinese made ensuring rights for the Tibetans began to break. The Chinese started to institute reforms to make Tibet more resemble the Communist empire that they were building and they attempted to rearrange Tibetan power structures. Leaders of Tibet became fearful of Chinese rule and many fled the country, including the head of the state, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The greatest promise that the Chinese government failed to keep was their guarantee of religious freedom. The Chinese became stricter in their toleration of free religious practice, which affected many Buddhist monks and nuns, forcing many to leave their monasteries and nunneries. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 further worsened the situation. During this period, “all but a few of the thousands of Tibetan temples and monasteries were razed, their artistic treasures and libraries destroyed or plundered. Tens of thousands of monks and nuns, together with what remained of the aristocracy and the middle-class peasantry as well, were forced to undergo “reeducation.”” (290) Buddhism and religious practice were staples of Tibetan culture, the Chinese essentially took away their identity.

Once the Cultural Revolution ended, conditions became slightly better for Tibetans, in terms of religious freedoms, as some monasteries were rebuilt and people were allowed to more freely practice Buddhism. However, Tibet in no way has complete religious freedom, as they once did before. The Dalai Lama is still in exile and people are penalized for devotion to him. The nation is still not independent and their struggle for autonomy continues.

Something that I found very interesting in the chapter was the lack of international support that Tibet received in their struggle with China. Unfortunately the Chinese invasion and occupation occurred just as the Korean War was beginning and as India was in a dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. The countries that might have offered aid and support were preoccupied, and thus Tibet remained vulnerable against the Chinese.

When the United States did start giving support to Tibet in the 1950’s through the late 1960’s, they really only did so for their containment policy. The United States was not truly helping Tibet in their fight for freedom, but using them as “pawns in a much larger game.” (286) When the containment policy ended and Nixon and Kissinger “embarked upon the normalization of relations with China in 1971,” support for Tibet was severed. I was bothered by the United States’ selfishness and want to know what others think about their role in the struggle.

Although I didn’t go in depth in my summary of the chaos occurring in Tibet, I was shocked by the internal strife before the occupation. I had always considered Tibet to be a region of peaceful monks, but obviously there are more complex power systems and struggles that exist. I would be curious to know what others thought of this.

In class, we have been talking a lot about the spread of Buddhism by different individuals. This reading suggests that the Dalai Lama’s absence from Tibet and role in the international world as he advocates for Tibet has helped spread the religion even more. Has anyone considered how Buddhism would have spread if the Dalai Lama were not exiled and this conflict did not exist? What is the conflicts role in how Tibetan Buddhism has infiltrated the Western world?





The Inequality of the Economy of Merit

In the third chapter of her book, Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas, Kim Gutschow further explains the concept of the economy of merit, which she mentions briefly in the first chapter of her book.

The accumulation of merit is very important in Buddhism, as it will help a person on the path towards enlightenment. A person can accumulate merit in many different ways, but a common way is through generosity and by making donations. Because of the way in which the economy of merit works, making a donation to a person who has more merit will in turn give the donor more merit for their generosity. “The more meritious the recipient, the greater the merit accrued by the donor.” (86) Thus, a donor is most likely to give to a person with much merit, like a monk who dedicates his life to embody the ideals of Buddhism.

Monks supposedly have more merit to give than nuns do for a variety of reasons. Because nuns are female, they cannot help a layperson in the same capacity as a monk can, and it seems that monks have more to offer. “Monks engage in Tantric meditations which secure symbolic power and efficacy that make them ideally suited for pragmatic rites which protect and secure the individual life cycle, the household, and village-wide fertility and prosperity…By contrast, nuns are called to perform more mechanical acts of generalized merit making, which have fewer instrumental or pragmatic functions.” So, people are more likely to want to receive merit from monks than nuns, because monks have more merit that they are able to give.

The economy of merit creates unfairness. Monks receive more donations because they have more, while nuns who have little receive almost nothing. Both monks and nuns take vows of renunciation and help their communities, but monks are paid with endowments from their monasteries, while nuns are not. “It is an unpaid vocation for nuns.” (84) Although the roots of inequality lie in doctrine, which state that females are not as capable of reaching enlightenment as men, the problem also stems from the economic inequality that exists between monks and nuns. Because monks receive more donations, they are wealthier and more powerful than nuns.

Gutschow makes an interesting comparison that I thought really put the issue with the economy of merit in perspective. She describes how “sending a daughter to the nunnery is akin to placing her in a community college without any scholarship” while “sending a son to the monastery is like enrolling him in an Ivy League or Oxbridge college on full scholarship.” (84) In both situations, sons and daughters are going to school and getting educations. However, the resources and opportunities of one are exponentially better than those of the other. To make inequality worse, the one going to the school with the worse resources has to still continue to find a way to economically support themselves, while the one that probably would have a better chance supporting themselves is already economically stable. So, nuns are systematically disadvantaged.

The idea of compensation and wealth for monks and nuns seems contrary to beliefs of Buddhism, as the philosophy “celebrates the renunciation of material rewards.” (87) However, although Buddhists extoll renunciation, wealth itself is not the issue; “it is attachment – not riches or rags – which is dangerous. Both poverty and wealth are not threatening in themselves so much as the conditions which could breed greed or avarice.” (87) So the system of donations and accruement of wealth persists.

As I read this chapter, I kept wondering how these nuns have the ability to not resent the male monks that have so much more power and respect than them, even though they are essentially doing the same thing. In the first chapter, she mentions how many nuns said that they would like to be reincarnated as a woman, but this baffles me too. It makes me wonder whether change in the system to create more equality will take place. To me, it seems like a change of this kind should take place, but that it won’t because the beneficiaries of such a change, the nuns themselves, do not sense its urgency.

Furthermore, I feel like more than just the inequality between men and women should be changed. If it were up to me, I would institute a whole new system of economy of wealth, because the current one that is in place does not seem just or fair.