Tibet & China: Then and Now

In the ninth chapter of the Matthew Kapstein’s book “Tibet in the Modern World,” he discusses in detail the great divide between China and Tibet and the civil unrest that Tibet faced as a result. Kapstein explains how the “interpretation of this history is still very sharply contested, even where there is consensus regarding what actually took place,” (Kapstein, 269). This is important to note because it indicates the multitude of sides to this particular part of history which makes it difficult to decipher the actual truth. I however found that Kapstein did an excellent job of profiling the history in an unbiased and truthful manner.

Kapstein begins by depicting how the widespread perspective of the United Sates and Western Europe of what took place between China and Tibet was that the “brutal machinery of Chinese communism invaded an independent, peace-loving land, and has since been determined to eradicate any trace of Tibetan cultural and religious traditions in China,” (269). Kapstein further explains how in this same perspective, though Tibet has continually faced hardship in recent decades, they still strive to “preserve” their “enlightened, spiritual civilization against all odds.” (269) Kapstein adds that of course the Chinese perspective is completely opposite. In China’s view, Tibet has “for centuries been part of China and the Tibetans now enjoy unprecedented liberty and prosperity,” (269). Kapstein goes on to tell how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) feels that this liberty and prosperity is in great contrast to what the Tibetan people experienced under the Dalai Lama’s rule. The CCP’s view is that the Dalai Lama is actually the source of divide, trying to split China apart by supporting Tibet’s independence.

Though Kapstein’s summary of what takes place between China and Tibet is a shortened version of all that happened, I can’t possibly summarize all that he does. So instead I have chosen a few of the main events that took place surrounding Tibet’s relations with China in order to give a decent scope of the all that is explained in the chapter. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December of 1933, which marks the beginning of all that ensued. His death left Tibet in a sort of “vacuum” state, especially since the government had not found a proper successor to take the Dalai Lama’s place (270). During this period Tibet faced much conflict within itself about who should rise to power and how. The internal power struggles Tibet faced at this time left it weak to outside forces, and China saw this as an opportunity to reclaim Tibet.

Tibet had been technically independent from China ever since the Manchu dynasty lost power. However, as Kapstein puts it, “Chinese leadership never accepted this sate of affairs.” As a result General Musong was sent to Lhasa by the Guomindang government. Even though they presented it as a show of condolence in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s death, it was really a means to “open negotiations regarding Tibet’s status vis-à-vis China.” (273) Kapstein further writes how the Guomindang and Communists both agreed that Tibet was rightfully a part of China. Those in power in the Tibetan government were skeptical of negotiating with China, yet at the same time were also worried to completely end discussions with the Guomindang representatives. The Tibetan leaders knew that at some point soon the issue would need to be dealt with and therefore tried to maintain an unstrained relationship.

Meanwhile, the search for a new Dalai Lama was underway. A new Lama was found in a place that was not part of political Tibet, also under the control of the Chinese Muslim warlord, Ma, Bufang. After debate about being able to bring the boy they’d found from his home for further study to see if he was the Dalai Lama they’d been searching for, the Guomindang government assisted in getting Ma to allow the child to leave under certain “conditions so as to secure a role for China in the new Dalai Lama’s recognition and installation: the director of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission was to participate in the ceremonies in Lhasa.” (275)

A multitude of events followed that presented civil unrest: a coup d’état took place lead by Reting, the appointed regent. Although that attempt failed, this set-off violent conflict between the two sides. A rebellion also took place at Reting’s monastery some time later. It was after these events, which the Dalai Lama found to be “deeply disturbing,” that the Dalai Lama truly realized the turmoil of the political system he was being “raised to rule.” (278). It was around this time that Mao Zedong claimed his victory in China. Mao’s “intention” became to “ ‘liberate’ ” the Tibetan people from the “grips of imperialism, which they found puzzling as no imperialists were known to be active in Tibet at the time.” (279) At first, the Chinese, made it clear that they wanted this transition to be peaceful, and they didn’t begin with an invasion. Instead they just wanted to make it clear that the Tibetans simply could not resist against China’s immense force. Negotiations between sides therefore commenced. An agreement was formed that encompassed the “17-Point Agreement,” which essentially established that although Tibet would return as a part of China, the Chinese government would respect and allow Tibet to uphold its cultural and political system. In light of this, the Dalai Lama’s advisers motivated him to make his return to Lhasa as well as publically accept the 17-Point agreement, after being in exile for some time.

However, the 17-Point agreement was highly controversial. Though much ensued following this, the essence of it all was that the Dalai Lama returned to Tibet, and following that, the United States became involved as support for Tibet. This was until Nixon and Kissinger wanted to ease tension with China and when aiding Tibet was no longer in their personal interest they ceased US presence in Tibet. Following this, the Dalai Lama, now 25-years-old, was thought to be in danger due to “declarations of oracles as well as astrological indications.” (287) Therefore, when the Dalai Lama was invited to a musical concert that was going to be held at Chinese military headquarters, the news spread through the Tibetan people like wildfire. Rumors began that this concert was to be the Dalai Lama’s doom, and that it was secretly an elaborate assassination or kidnapping. Though there was no “factual evidence,” that this was true, a “spontaneous demonstration of thousands” began “during which one leading Tibetan official was stoned and another, a prominent monk…was beaten to death,” (277-288). As a result of the protests, the Dalai Lama ended up cancelling his plan to attend the concert in light of all that was taking place. Demonstrations continued, and “disturbances” took place throughout the country (288). An oracle pronounced the Dalai Lama was no longer safe in Tibet, and so, as a result he fled from Tibet, arriving in South India. Though many events took place in much more detail than I will describe, the end result was that China lost its trust in the Dalai Lama and his ability to negotiate. With the Cultural Revolution in China at its peak, it was time for Tibetan traditional culture to take a massive hit. Kapstein illustrates this time as follows:

…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.” Many thus perished under extraordinarily harsh conditions, or suffered prolonged maltreatment in prison. (289-290)

Furthermore, a Tibetan community had formed in India, the Dalai Lama at its forefront. Refugee camps were formed in parts of India, with the support of the Indian government. During this time, several major monasteries were able to reestablish themselves,” as well as making it a “priority,” now more than ever, to educate monks (290). Kapstein concluded by explaining that the “Dalai Lama himself emerged as a spiritual leader of international renown, struggling to use him prominence to call the world’s attention to his nation’s predicament” (290).

When I read the article, I was incredibly intrigued by the detail Kapstein was able to give. I had known generally about the Tibetan-Chinese conflict but I had no idea of the intricacy of it its complexity. I was really fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s role throughout. I really found it interesting how, at the end of everything he became an outspoken figure for what his people were facing, as well as a respected figure all over the world. Even though some of his decisions became catalysts for added conflict, he was always respected by the Tibetan people. I also found the relationship between the Dalai Lama and his people and vice versa to be really interesting because it seems to truly be one of epic care and compassion. Tibetan culture is so unique that I feel like this is part of why the Tibetan people have such an immense bond.

As Kapstein continues until the end of the article to describe the aftermath of the cultural revolution to present day, I also was interested by his discussion of re-education of children and how the Tibetan language is becoming less and less used in schools. This to me is a clear sign of China’s influence, even though the Tibetan people have fought so hard to maintain a sense of tradition. It made me really wonder what Tibetan culture will be like in the years to follow present day.

Discussion Questions are as follows:

  1. What, in your perspective, was the climax of the Chinese-Tibetan conflict and why do you think this?
  1. Do you think that there is anything that could have changed the course of events if something had gone just a bit differently?
  1. In your opinion, how do you feel about where Tibet and China stand today? What course of action do you think should be taken (if any) to try and come to some kind of compromise between the two sides?


Questioning the Intention of ‘The Divine Madman’

In Keith Dowman’s “The Divine Madman: The Sublime life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley,” he re-tells the legend and subsequent teachings of Lama, Drukpa Kunley, also referred to as the “Master of Truth, Lord of Beings, Drukpa Kunga Legpa,” (Dowman, 119). A multitude of legends are depicted in this particular excerpt of Dowman’s book ranging from how Kunley began his mythic journey as well as how he displayed his powers. Though there were too many stories to summarize in full here, I will do my best to describe a few to give the best sense of Kunley’s character. His spiritual path began when he had a dream while staying at “Lady Semzanngmo’s house in Nangkaste,” (119). In his dream he saw “a woman dressed in a yellow skirt, and holding a flaming sword,” (119). She spoke to him:

‘Drukpa Kunley, it is time that you fulfilled the prophecy that foretold the               conversion of the people of Bhutan, and the magical purification of that land. In            Bhutan you will establish a family which will serve the Drukpa Tradition to great advantage in the future. You must shoot an arrow to the south early in the morning as a harbinger of your coming.’ So saying, she disappeared, and Kunley awoke. (119)

Kunley discerns this dream as a divine message from the “Smoky Goddess” and thus follows the goddess’s instructions (119). The arrow travels far making a sound that the people think is a “dragon roaring,” but the children discern as Kunley’s arrow (119). The arrow lands in the home of a young couple whom become important much later in Kunley’s legend. The stories that follow all detail exactly what the chapter-head foretells. Essentially, they are all tales of how Kunley defeats demons that terrorize the lands as well as how he helps elderly women in their stages of death. The powers of which Kunley utilizes to defeat the demons derive from his erect penis, also referred to as his “flaming thunderbolt of wisdom.” (120) He uses his “thunderbolt” to hit the demons in the mouth and smash their teeth. In another interaction with a demoness, he unrolls his penis’ foreskin and covers the demoness with it, “render[ing] her completely helpless” (121). In yet another, a demoness, becomes “petrified,” unable to bear the sight of his “magical tower” (128). All the demons of which he interacts with either become bound to Kunley to do his biddings or become imprisoned in some natural formation.

I was completely struck when the first story of Kunley heavily involved his erect penis began because I found it so utterly jarring in comparison to other Buddhist texts we have read. I also found it quite a comment on the importance of being a male in society. To me, it almost seemed to edge on propaganda for how having a penis (or being male) is what matters in society. Kunley is essentially teaching how one can use masculinity to ward off evil as a weapon, as he does in the story. There is also a portion of the legend where after Kunley has smashed in a demon’s teeth, the demon runs to a nun sitting in deep meditation to ask for her advice (126). The nun explains that the demon has been hit by a “magical device” and that the kind of wound never heals. She opens her legs and reveals that the “wound” between her legs was made by the same weapon, and that it will never heal (126). The demon touches her “wound” or vagina, and smells his finger, complaining of its “putrid” smell. He exclaims, “I suppose mine will go the same way,” (127). Here, a clear comment on being a woman in Buddhist culture is being made. Essentially that as a woman one is wounded from the beginning. Unlike the penis, or as is described in the story as a “thunderbolt of wisdom,” one should be ashamed and wary of the vagina as it is a wound that cannot be healed. That like a wound, it is rotted and that is why the smell is so “putrid.” (127) This is in great contrast to the wisdom and great power of Kunley’s sexual organ which is to practically be worshipped.

The other portion of the first half of the text is about his dealings with old women near death. In the first story, in his travels Kunley passes a woman who is praying to him to receive his blessing (121). He reveals his identity to her, and she invites him to stay with her for food and ‘chung’ (a kind of alcohol) (122). She invites some of her friends, who are also older women to “pay their respects.” (122) To prove her faith to Kunley, she explains that she would give him her life (122). Kunley, fully intoxicated with chung, as well as knowing that she was to die that night anyways, shoots her with his bow and arrow. Due to this action, all the people in the town think he is a fraud, and are greatly angered. Kunley takes the old woman’s corpse to a storeroom and locks it inside. He promises to return in seven days, and for no one to open the storeroom before his return. However, on the sixth day, the old woman’s son returns home and hears what has happened. He is completely appalled by what he’s heard, and breaks open the storeroom. To the son’s great surprise he finds a pleaseant odor wafting out of the storeroom and the corpse transformed into a rainbow of light except for the “big toe on the right foot.” (123) Kunley returns at this moment and bites the ear of the woman’s son because he had opened the door too early. The son praised to Lama with “thanksgiving and devotion,” (123). The Lama explains that the son’s ‘thanks’ is not important but the fact that his mother was living in a “pure Buddha Land” now was what truly mattered (123). These kinds of stories continue all along the same theme of helping the elderly find peace in death. In one story he releases a dead person from the cycle of Samsara after bringing her back to life (124).

Leading up to the second half of the text, the reader gets the first look at Kunley’s escapades with girls. At one point when he finally reaches the home where his arrow landed, he becomes infatuated with the wife of the man of the house and wants to take her for his own (129). The man of the house tries to stab Kunley but fails as Kunley uses his powers to block his aim. The man of the house realizes Kunley is a Lama of great power and immediately offers the Lama his wife as well as his house to stay (129). The second part of the text is titled, “How Drukpa Kunley Instructed his Consorts in the Southern Valleys” (137). This part of the text describes Kunley’s ability to seduce many young virgins all of whom he promises to return to at different moments in time.

There is also a major moment in the text where the consorts and patrons of Bhutan ask him to give a “discourse upon the Buddhas’ Teaching,” (138). They ask him to make it understandable to common people but also for the teaching to have a “profound inner meaning.” (138) It is in these teachings that for me, raised the most questions as well as the most comments. Kunley presents himself as a highly powerful, highly sexualized being. His most powerful weapon is his penis and he uses it to both seduce virgins as well as to enslave demons. He makes comments on gender in his teachings that I found quite interesting in light of what we have learned previously about Buddhism. Sex is not something that I thought was forefront in Buddhist teachings, but in Kunley’s tales it is a huge part of his identity. Each teaching is riddled with gender binaries. What we’ve read about the subordination of nuns in Buddhist tradition was suddenly much clearer. One line is as follows: “Kunely never tires of girls, Monks never tire of wealth, Girls never tire of sex,” (140). The meaning here is clear: Kunley values sex, and “never tires” of his sexual escapades. He also dictates that Monks value wealth, which is interesting because much of Buddhist teaching is avoiding greed, and yet he explicitly notes that Monks value this. Additionally, he stereotypes and categorizes girls as to be used for sex by explaining that they “never tire,” (140). He also describes how “The sign of a rich man is a tight fist, The sign of an old man is a tight mind, The sign of a nun is a tight vagina” (139) His comment on gender here seems to allude to the fact that a nun’s virginity is her value and her power, and that is why she is a nun. I was extremely bothered by his attitude throughout the story. Other than his heroic dealings with demons, his demeanor was rude and arrogant. To me he came across as a figure I would be turned off by in worship, not one to glorify. In many of his dealings he is entitled as well as often highly intoxicated with chung, which seems to be used as an excuse for his behavior at times. I found Kunley’s teachings highly problematic. On the one hand I found it beautiful that he released the elderly women from the cycle from Samsara and the imagery of rainbows as well as the story of giving life to a corpse were truly engaging. However, they were in great contrast to his teachings on sex as well as a man and woman’s place in society which to me represented a facet of Buddhist tradition that is not well known or publicized.

Discussion Questions:

In scrutinizing his teachings, I would love to know how the rest of the class felt about the emphasis of Kunley’s “Thunderbolt of Wisdom” as such a main part of his legend. Specifically what role this statement would have on the followers of the religion and what impact it may have had on nuns as well as women in Buddhist culture.

Another question I would pose would be to discuss the significance of the people of whom he released from samsara being elderly women?

Lastly, I wanted to pose the question of why these legends were written? Who do you believe they were written for and what purpose would they serve?