Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Tibetans are caught between a Chinese authoritarianism that treats them as undeserving of liberty, and a shallow Western solidarity that treats them as incapable of exercising liberty.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is reporting from Tibet.

The truth about Tibetan Buddhism

I have a new theory as to why some Westerners come to Tibet, visit a high-up monastery, and decide to stay there forever, eking out a simple Buddhist existence. It’s because the journey to these places in the sky can be so sphincter-relaxingly scary that staying put is a preferable option to risking life and limb on the journey back down again.

We drive up the mountainsides of Nyingchi County, outside the city of LinZhi in south-east Tibet, and by the time we get to the top – having swerved and beeped our way past herds of goats and sheep and people-packed pick-up trucks on the skinny roads drizzled on to this vast mountainous range – I am ready to stay here the rest of my days. Despite the fact that, for the first time since Lhasa, an altitude-related headache is making my temple throb.

It’s worth it, of course. Here, 4,100 metres above sea level, on a viewing platform that stretches over the forest-covered mountains, you can see why Tibet is called the ‘roof of the world’. I’ve never seen anything like it. There might not be much oxygen but the air is lung-strippingly fresh, and even being culturally mugged by some very impressive Tibetan saleswomen – all trying to get me to wear their goat-skin coat and hat for that special top-of-the-world photo op – cannot ruin the moment.

spiked‘s editor goes native
on the roof of the world

I have my own kind-of conversion on the matter of Tibetan Buddhism up here, but it’s not the same as that experienced by other Western visitors. We visit the Lamaling monastery and temple in the Nyingchi River valley. It was first built in the seventh century and then rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1930. And… how can I put this without sounding offensive? It’s an ugly, scary place.

Not the people who work and worship here, the young, fresh-faced, suedeheaded monks and nuns who chat and tell jokes as they sweep the temple’s floors, or the men in white vests, labourers from nearby villages I guess, who prostrate themselves on the floor before Buddha. As a firm (though not religious) believer in Marx’s view of religion as ‘the illusory sun which revolves round man as long as he does not revolve around himself’, I can understand why a grand, profound-feeling place like this would be attractive to people whose lives consist largely of farming and labour. No, it’s the temple itself, and its contents, which are ugly.

There are no photos I’m afraid (not allowed) so you’ll have to take my word for it. The temple is stuffed with garishly coloured statues of dancing demons with contorted faces. There are fat gold Buddhas with yuan notes left at their feet (probably by worshippers who can ill-afford to chuck money around). Even the most modern-looking statue is weird: it depicts the Living Buddha (now deceased) who administered this monastery and temple in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and it is wearing sunglasses. It looks like Bono. No one wants to travel halfway around the world to a temple on a hillside and be confronted by something that looks like Bono.

This brings to the fore what I have discovered to be the greatest mystery about Tibetan Buddhism: how it has come to be seen in the West as a hippyish religion that involves sitting in the lotus position for 20 hours a day and being a Really Nice Guy. It is no such thing. It’s a religion of violent imagery and fiery stories about the end of days. Worshipping Buddha is like a full-on workout here: in the Lamaling temple I see two women in their fifties first getting on to their knees, then lying on their bellies, then getting back on their knees, before standing upright again – they repeat these actions over and over like religious Mad Lizzies. It looks exhausting.

Of course, the reason why Tibetan Buddhism here looks and sounds and smells so different to the Tibetan Buddhism of Richard Gere, Sharon Stone or those shaven-headed women I saw getting backrubs at the Tibetan-themed festival in Lambeth, London, is because these Westerners are not practising Tibetan Buddhism at all. Instead, in the words of Frank J Korom of Boston University, ‘Tibet and portions of its religious culture have been appropriated over time by proponents of the New Age for their own purposes’. As one of Korom’s students told him when he asked why she was wearing a Tibetan Buddhist necklace: ‘When I wear it, it keeps me healthy and happy.’ (1) It’s a bit like saying you’re a Catholic because you sometimes drink wine. This is ‘New Age orientalism’, as Korom describes it, this borrowing of bits and pieces from ‘fantastic Tibet’ until Tibet becomes merely ‘an essentialised sacred space vaguely located on the mythic New Age landscape… denying agency to real Tibetans and erasing Tibet from any physical map’ (2).

Prayer sheets in the forests around Lamaling temple

I have an idea: in future, in order to be taken seriously as a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, you have to come to Nyingchi County, drive up those winding mountain roads, visit the Lamaling temple, do back-breaking worship for days and weeks on end despite the fact that you will be short of breath due to the lack of oxygen, and ingest all those books and sutras of Buddhist teaching. Then, Gere and Co., I might take your religion seriously. Though I probably still won’t like it.

Tibet: a rock and a hard place

Fittingly for a part of the world covered with mountains, my impression of Tibet is that it is stuck between a rock and a hard place: the rock of Chinese authoritarianism, which denies Tibetans even basic political freedoms, and the hard place of shallow international solidarity, which treats Tibetans, in the stinging words of the Tibet authority Robert AF Thurman, as the ‘baby seals of the human rights movement’ (3). On one side Tibetans are treated by their rulers as individuals incapable of exercising political judgement or of being free, and on the other side they are treated by their ‘friends’ in the pro-Tibet lobby as incapable of liberating themselves from this situation. Instead, they must be cared for and spoken up for by good, decent outsiders, much as PETA adopts baby seals in an attempt to prevent them from being killed by demented Canadians.

Of course the most pressing problem for the people who live in Tibet is the daily authoritarianism they experience under Lhasa and Beijing: the denial of rights such as the right to protest, to speak freely, to publish political material, to put up pictures of the fourteenth Dalai Lama (pictures of the other Dalai Lamas are okay), and to directly elect their rulers. Yet this should not distract us from the very real impact that the patronising solidarity of Western activists and government officials also has on Tibetans’ political lives and liberties.

So it is true, and terrible, that the rulers of Tibet forbid Tibetans from openly talking about, or expressing support for, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Yet at the same time, the Western world-of-opinion’s transformation of the Dalai Lama into the sole representative of the Tibetan cause – the man who embodies the whole of Tibet and its future – has also had a detrimental impact on political debate in Tibetan communities. It has helped to stifle the development of a real, lively movement for liberty and democracy. As one author on Tibetan politics argues, ‘the Dalai Lama’s role as ultimate spiritual authority is holding back the political process of democratisation’, since ‘the assumption that he occupies the correct moral ground… means that any challenge to his political authority may be interpreted as anti-religious’ (4).

Lhasa city

It is true that Chinese officials deny Tibetans, like all other people in China, the right to organise politically and independently. Yet the transformation of the ‘Tibet issue’ into a super-childish issue through which activists and politicians over here try to look Caring and Morally Upstanding has also warped the dynamic of Tibetan politics. It has encouraged Tibetans to orient their protests towards an international audience, seeking more Western sympathy as a weapon against Beijing, rather than to focus on what they want to achieve and how they might achieve it. Tibet only gains traction on the international stage to the extent that it presents itself as a bleeding victim; when Tibetans take action, as they did in March 2008, they become an embarrassment as much to their shallow backers over here as they do to Beijing. As one writer says, this victim script, this pitying ‘solidarity’, creates a situation in which ‘other, non-uniform voices [from Tibet] cannot be heard or easily included’ (5).

In everyday life, the rulers of Tibet deny Tibetans their agency – yet as Robert Barnett argued in an important essay on the ‘Violated Specialness’ of Tibet, Western pity also ‘deprives them of agency and treats them in the colonising manner, as lesser, quaint, or predictable, or as victims, or as embodiments of an idea’ (6). Leaving Tibet it strikes me that in order to shake off the shackles of authoritarian rule, Tibetans might first need to wriggle free from the straitjacket of a Western pity which masquerades as their friend, but is in truth an enemy of their interests.

This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill will be reporting from Tibet. Read all of Brendan’s reports here.

(1) ‘The Role of Tibet in the New Age Movement’, Frank J Korom, Boston University, 2001

(2) ‘The Role of Tibet in the New Age Movement’, Frank J Korom, Boston University, 2001

(3) Quoted in Should China care about Richard Gere?, Small Swords magazine, 2007

(4) The Tibetan Independence Movement: Political, Religious and Gandhian Perspectives, Jane Ardley, Routledge, 2002

(5) ‘Violated Specialness’, in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

(6) ‘Violated Specialness’, in Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies, Wisdom Books, 2001

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Topics World


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