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Soul of Tibet

THE SOUL OF TIBET


 Many of us were deeply moved by the tragic happenings in Tibet which led to the dramatic escape and exile of the Dalai Lama. Here was a harmless, happy people, with a distinctive culture and a traditional society totally different from that existing anywhere else in the world. To some of us this society seemed to be an archaic survival, an anachronism in the modern world, a "theocratic" system which Europe had rejected long before the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. And yet, in spite of all our attempts to label Tibet, many of us had a feeling of deference towards a religious culture that we could not claim to understand. Despite all the travellers" tales, the many volumes written by scholars and by people interested in Tibet, we still felt that the essential truth had not been told, that perhaps it never could be told by anybody inside that remote and close-knit community to anyone outside it. A few of us went so far as to follow Burke's maxim: "We must venerate where we cannot understand." But even the most insensitive of persons, willing to write off Tibet and dismiss its traditions, had somewhere deep down in his mind a sense of not knowing what he was talking about.

 All of us, ranging from the troubled sceptic to the ardent admirer and even to the believer – all of us felt that there had taken place a sudden confrontation, unprecedented in history, between a way of life centred on spiritual concerns – which could be criticized in terms of modern criteria but none the less had a radiant integrity of its own – and the crude forces of aggression and the destructive passions of politics which are all too familiar in the outside world. It seemed as though Tibet was a test case: can a spiritual tradition survive if it does not arm itself against aggressors who are ruthless, who care nothing for the tradition they are prepared to tear apart or for the culture they are willing to destroy in the name of modernization? This is a question which still troubles many of us.

 The Dalai Lama is fortified by his faith that in the end Tibetan tradition, embodied in the way of life of which he is the custodian and the conscience, will survive, will even eventually triumph. He is also convinced that, as time goes on, more and more people will come to see that Tibet has a profound political and spiritual significance for us. Elementary human rights have been flagrantly violated by aggressors among a people who were not linked with any foreign power, who were not involved in any sense in the cold war or giving cause for offence to any neighbouring nation.

 Here, then, is a test case of the vindication of human rights, and the Dalai Lama pins his hopes on people everywhere who think about this, who read the reports of the International Commission of Jurists, who seriously try to get some idea of the implications, for a people such as the Tibetans, of the desecration of their monasteries and hamlets, and of a stable religious and social order in need of internal reform. His Holiness feels that if men continue to be silent about Tibet they will be betraying their very humanity.

 We find that on the political plane the issue has been so sharply and squarely stated that it ultimately touches upon those fundamental decencies which make life meaningful. But, also, the Dalai Lama is convinced that the tragedy of Tibet has a spiritual significance and a meaning even for those who are not primarily interested in Buddhist tradition. Even for them it must appear tragic that there should have been this brutal interference with the beliefs of a gentle and tolerant people. Do the virtues of tolerance and civility for which Europe fought so hard, and which were finally enshrined in the seventeenth century – do these virtues mean nothing to people who may not necessarily share in the beliefs of the Tibetans?

 The Dalai Lama speaks with a faith and confidence akin to that of the Encyclopaedists, the great humanists and the religious prophets, and it would be wonderful for any of us to get something of this faith. How this could be translated into immediate political action is a question which is not a matter for casual discussion. Although nowhere more than in England was there an immediate response in the way of sympathy and material support for the Tibetans in their plight, yet already, in a short time, many people even there have begun to take the subjugation of Tibet for granted, and sometimes to talk as though the Tibetan cause were wholly lost. The Dalai Lama has spoken very warmly about England as the leading spiritual and cultural centre of the whole of Europe. He thought that the British Government, more than any other Government in the West, was aware of the historical background of Tibet and the implications of all that had happened. He also felt that the admirable work of the Tibet Society in England was a pointer to the kind of sympathy and support which could be fruitful.

 It is indeed distressing that we should come across the feeling that Tibet is a lost cause, an irretrievable tragedy, and that perhaps the time has come to write Tibet's epitaph. Some of us are keen to do what we can for the refugees and to assist the Dalai Lama, while still regarding the cause of Tibet, at least in a political sense, as hopeless. This feeling of hopelessness is unwarranted but perfectly understandable in our time. Whatever we may feel about the legitimacy of the survival of the Tibetan way of life, we are all affected by the tremendous increase in historicism, determinism and fatalism in the modern world, and especially in our own century, even though we instinctively condemn these attitudes when they are couched in their crudest Marxist form. Many of us think that there is something irreversible about the process of modernization, something titanic and totally irresistible about the Industrial Revolution, the march of science and technology. We consequently feel that when any country, but especially a country with an archaic society and a simple economy, with a monastic culture and old-fashioned ideas of government, comes up against a modern aggressor, be he communist or anyone else, the traditional system must necessarily give way to the forces of modernization.

 When the British entered Tibet at the time of the famous Younghusband Expedition, and even earlier – going back to the emissary sent out in the eighteenth century – there was a willing recognition that Tibet was no worse for being different. It is Britain, more than any other power that has moved out into far places, which has preserved that due respect for differing cultures and traditions which comes naturally to a people steeped in a traditional culture that has set a high value upon tolerance and the acceptance of diversity. The British failed in the assimilation of people who were racially and culturally different, but they were able to play a protective role in many areas of the world where they were in power. Even in countries where they unwittingly launched the process of modernization they had doubts and reservations; they were never too certain that this was the universal panacea.

 But when a country such as Tibet comes into violent contact with fanatical believers in the gospel of material progress and ruthless modernization, can it survive? If we are convinced it cannot, then we can do no more than merely deplore the actual methods used by the Chinese, which indeed are ghastly. And here we have the cruel paradox of modernization introduced by methods which take us right back to the Middle Ages, methods which beggar description. Sickening details of the heinous things that are being done in Tibet in the name of modernization are to be found in the objective reports prepared by the International Commission of Jurists.

 Are we going to be content with deploring the pace, the cost, the pains and the ruthlessness of this compulsory modernization? Has not the time come for us to re-assess our high valuation of the very process of modernization? If we do this, we shall become less inclined to accept without question the notion that it is inevitable and unavoidable in every part of the world. We may even come to distrust the dogmatism or fatalism with which people declare Tibet to be a lost cause.

 If we wish to appreciate the significance of Tibet, we must not merely have second thoughts about the blessings and inevitability of modernization but also discard at least one version still in vogue of the doctrine of Progress. No doubt the idea of progress is an ancient one, derived from several sources of the Western tradition, different from the cyclical views of history of the East, but it assumed a wholly new form in the last sixty years. All the early apostles of progress – Herder, Kant, Condorcet, Renouvier – regarded it mainly as a moral concept, an ethical ideal towards which modern man was moving. Renouvier clearly condemned the deterministic notion of progress. There is, after all, no religious warrant for the belief that the Kingdom of God will inevitably appear on earth in the foreseeable future. There is no scientific proof for the belief that technological and scientific developments will necessarily ensure better social relations, happier and more harmonious human relationships. There is no economic basis, either, for the belief in indefinite and automatic expansion.

 But none of these doubts entered sixty years ago into the minds of those who took the permanency of their political universe for granted. Then, for the first time, as a result of the Darwinian theory of evolution, a new and specious form of the doctrine of progress came into being: the idea of inevitable, automatic, cumulative and irreversible progress achieved purely through technological inventions, economic betterment and the raising of living standards. This idea, although it was powerfully attacked and rejected by several leading thinkers and writers in Europe, still lingers on in people's minds even if they disavow it. This lingering latter-day notion of progress is a serious obstacle to our appreciation of the significance of Tibet.

 If we look at Tibet with this idea in our minds, there is no chance of our really understanding it. Tibetans have lived in a land rich in mineral resources but refused to develop them because they believed that this would be an unnecessary and undesirable interference with the soil. These are people willing to spend a significant proportion of their meagre earnings upon the maintenance of a vast number of monasteries; a people completely happy to accept that the only education available to them (and it was generally available in Tibet) was an essentially religious education. It is true that those who did not wish to become monks went to these ancient monastic universities and got some kind of secular learning, but not what we would today call secular learning. They might acquire a little knowledge of elementary mathematics, indigenous medicine, traditional arts and crafts and practical skills. But how could such people be fitted into any scale of values we might have?

 It is not going to be easy for "progressive" people to seize on the true significance of Tibet, and to realize that they are confronted not just by helpless exiles pleading for sympathy but by a moral challenge to many assumptions they normally would not question. As the Dalai Lama has said in his book My Land and My People, one cannot understand Tibet if one has no feeling for religion.

 What is religion to the Dalai Lama, to Tibetans?

 Religion, he says in his book, has got everything to do with the mental discipline, the peace of mind, the calm and poise, the inner equanimity achieved by any human being, which is bound to show in his daily life. The Dalai Lama says explicitly that religion is not a matter of merely going into retreats and monasteries. No doubt when this is done it has its value, but religion is not a matter of outward profession or formal observance. His Holiness does not even use the word "Buddhism" with anything like a sectarian sound. He is simply not interested in making claims of any sort. Religion means for him something quite different from what it means to almost all of us in the modern world. For him, and for the Tibetans, religion means what it meant in Carlyle's definition – the beliefs by which a man really lives from day to day, not the beliefs to which he merely gives verbal or even mental assent.

 The Tibetan view of religion is indeed something totally different from our ordinary response to religious as opposed to secular thought. How many of us really believe that even more important than material advancement and the utilitarian criterion of physical pleasure, is the possession of priceless truths concerning the numerous inhibitions and tendencies which afflict the human psyche and of which we have hardly any definite and exact knowledge? If we do believe this, we will be prepared to approach in a spirit of humility the thousands of Buddhist texts in Tibet that came from India, Nepal and China. Tibet is a repository of the real wisdom of the East – a much abused phrase. It has been the home of thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, scrolls, and volumes in which we have not only profound spiritual truths but also examples of a highly developed system of logic and dialectics that was primarily put to a metaphysical and a religious use but which in itself provides a unique discipline to the mind. Tibet has no parallel in this sphere. Of course, no one would admit that he does not care for logical processes. But how much thought do we give simply to perfecting the art of enquiry and disputation? How much time do we give to evolving a technique of constructive discussion? Do we really know how it is possible to resolve the apparently contrary standpoints of relative truths in religion and philosophy and our human relationships?

 This technique was highly developed in Tibet. It was founded upon the doctrine of what the Dalai Lama calls the Dual Truth: the distinction between a Platonic archetype of absolute truth, which is unknown to mortal man but can always be held up as an ultimate ideal, and the relative truth every human being embodies, acquired purely by reference to his own experience. We have here the basis of an epistemology which in its higher flights enters into mysticism and metaphysics, but which at the same time is firmly grounded in undogmatic empiricism. The resulting attitude of mind enshrines the belief that a man can only speak authentically in the name of the experience he himself has had. That is why to the Dalai Lama and to the Tibetans it would be irrelevant what one calls oneself or how one is labelled, and this is as true on the political as on the religious plane.

 It is simply not possible for people who rely largely on their own direct experience to make a general issue out of Communism or to generalize about the Chinese, though they have had to suffer acutely from acts of aggression performed by particular people calling themselves Communists and Chinese. This does not mean that they are "soft" on Communism or blind to the developments in China, but it is a generally shared attitude to life in Tibet – a willing recognition of the inherent worth and true measure of any man, as well as of his stature as a soul, manifested through his acts and gestures, his face, his smile, his total self. There is also an immediate recognition of the evil, separative tendencies in all of us which cause violence, but with this recognition there is a spontaneous compassion for the evil-doer. It is quite literally possible, in the case of Tibetans, for thousands upon thousands of people to say, in their daily lives, "Lord Buddha, forgive him for he knows not what he does." The doctrine of renunciation, of universal salvation and collective welfare, a doctrine embodied in the ideal figure of the Bodhisattva, is meaningful to the ordinary man in Tibet. It is not just a mysterious truth to which a chosen few have privileged access. It is significant that the Dalai Lama in his book does not wish to make special claims on behalf of Gautama the Buddha. He casually states that the Buddha is one of a thousand Buddhas. But this makes no difference to the inward gratitude and profound reverence that he has for the Buddha as the transmitter and exemplar of truths that have become part of the way of life of millions of people in the world.

 So the very idea of renunciation is absorbed into the consciousness of ordinary people: the idea that a man reveals himself by the extent to which he can shed what he has, and not by how much he acquires. This is an idea which we might put under the label of Christian charity, or Buddhist compassion, or something else – but the fact of the matter is that modern society is founded, as William Morris saw, upon the opposite principle. It is only in the modern world with its shallow moral values that the very spirit of acquisitiveness has given us a new and dominant criterion of judgment, so that we feel if a person acquires more and more of this or that – be it degrees or titles, wealth, or property shares, fame or influence – he is worthy of admiration and imitation. He may at best use his assets in the service of some exclusive cause. It is very difficult for a man to pretend that he is acquiring something for the sake of the whole of humanity; it is not so difficult to pretend that he is acquiring something for the sake of a particular nation, or group – to identify his own personal ambition with a narrow conception of collective self-interest. And we all know how easy it is indeed for us to say that we wish to get ahead for the sake of our children and our families. But once the acquisitive instinct becomes deep-rooted, there takes place a total transvaluation of values – something that is so subtly pervasive that we do not notice the resulting corruption in our natures and in the society to which we belong.

 Once this happens, inevitably we begin to set up new idols and false gods. We gradually come to abandon the heroic ideal as well as the very notion of intrinsic value and merit. The heroic ideal which was precious to the Greeks and to the ancient Indians has been applied by the Tibetans to the unseen odyssey of the human soul. We cannot easily imagine what it means to live by the idea that an individual can by his self-discipline dare all, that the world is a place of probation, that he does not have to take what does not belong to him, that he can take freely from nature and put his own talents to a use that may compel admiration and evoke emulation but dispenses with the cruder forms of competition and conflict. This heroic ideal, which even in its worldly form did so much good to Europe and to England even as late as the nineteenth century, has gone – some feel for good.

 In Tibet, then, there have been large numbers of people who were shown a technique of creative thinking based upon the doctrine of the Dual Truth, a technique perfected by lamas in the great monasteries of Drepung and Sera. Among the Tibetan people the doctrine of renunciation, as opposed to the notion of personal salvation, is deeply rooted, more than anywhere else even in the East. In India, the original home of the Buddha, the doctrine of Moksha or Mukti , the quest for personal salvation, became so deeply rooted for centuries that it engendered a selfish individualism, a subtle kind of spiritual isolationism. As a result, most people are not wedded to a living ideal of renunciation, although it is to be found in the Indian scriptures. But this ideal did mean, and has continued to mean, a very great deal to a large mass of people in Tibet. So here is a claim to uniqueness that we may make on behalf of the Tibetans, though they have no interest in making any claims to uniqueness, unlike people less deeply rooted in their cultures and religions.

 This is not the occasion to go into all the Tibetan beliefs. The moral values that flowed from their system of beliefs were richly reflected in their daily lives, despite their human failings. Many visitors to Tibet in the course of centuries were much struck by the gentleness, humility, humour and dignity of the people, such as they had not seen anywhere else. These endearing qualities were combined with the rare virtue of intense devoutness to which there is no parallel, as was freely admitted even by the missionaries who went to Tibet. Tibetans are men of quiet faith, but also men of cheerful simplicity; not men of words, not men obsessed with the idea of personal development or any activity that merely enhances the ego. These men were constantly retreating within, training themselves to meditate and to maintain peace of mind in daily life, preparing themselves for the tests that are brought to light by intense suffering. It is not then surprising that the Dalai Lama should now say in effect: "This is the hour of our trial, this is the time when we must show our faith." In his book he extols the creed of ahimsa or non-violence and salutes Gandhi as the greatest man of the age.

 This does not mean that the Dalai Lama has no use whatever for the small but brave Tibetan army. He recognizes, as indeed any person who believes in the Dual Truth must, that while we must keep clearly before our minds the unadulterated ideal, we must also be prepared to allow others to show their courage and their integrity in differing ways – each human being in a sense being a law unto himself. This is implicit in the very notion of the doctrine that each person has to find out his own way and his own sphere of duty. In his book the Dalai Lama's plea is somewhat like this: "This is our great moment of trial; we have had such moments in our history, but more than ever before we are being tested in our capacity to endure immeasurable suffering with courage and compassion. We must show our willingness to speak the truth until men may hear it in all quarters of the globe, but at the same time preserving, with deliberate intention, freedom from hatred of the people responsible for our suffering." Almost everyone who reads the Dalai Lama's book will be deeply moved by the last paragraph, in which he clearly conveys this spirit of detachment, non-retaliation and of active compassion. At the same time he does not flinch throughout the book to state courageously what is at stake.

 Mr. Hugh Richardson has pointed out, in his excellent book Tibet and Its History, that although one may deplore the blunder committed by the Indian Government in its handling of the entire Tibetan question in 1950 – in allowing itself to be mesmerized by the word "suzerainty" while not laying down the full implications of the word "autonomy" – it has at least atoned, if atonement were possible, by doing all it can, freely and generously, for the Tibetan refugees. And yet not enough could be done by any Government. Other Governments gave money – Australia and England, initially, and some assistance has also come from other countries. The scale of the problem is so vast, however, that unless we can organize effective international action to provide the material basis for the scattered community of Tibetans outside Tibet, we will not really be doing our bit for Tibet.

 All this only refers to the sheer physical survival of an uprooted community. But is this all that will be left of the old Tibet? Is it not possible that ancient Tibet may rise again? In India, or perhaps elsewhere? Or will there be several little Tibets? We are here faced with large questions, and it is because these occur at the most practical level that it has been necessary to look a little at Tibetan values and beliefs. In rendering elementary assistance to these Tibetans we must not forget that it is also our duty to help them to maintain their spiritual independence and the integrity of their way of life.

 Of course, the eminent monks who have come from Tibet and who represent the efflorescence of the Tibetan tradition do not need to be cushioned and protected. But what of the children? Mr. Christmas Humphreys, in two lectures which he gave in London, spoke with very great feeling about the problem of the Tibetan children, who are now beginning to receive Tibetan education but are being approached on every side by swarms of missionaries. The very idea is repellent – of children being looked upon simply as religious cannon-fodder, and actually being approached, not because their souls are to be saved (for which of us is going to fall for that kind of self-deception?), but just so that the egotistical claims of some people may be statistically fulfilled to their own satisfaction. If the whole world were to become Catholic or Protestant or Communist, the outcome would only be that we should find the largest number of lapsed Catholics or Protestants or Communists in world history. The idea of formal conversion is absurd and even irreligious, and now there is a real danger that many of these Tibetan children would be the hapless victims.

 In the past we have been given subtle distortions of Tibetan thought. The remarkable Englishmen who visited Tibet, from Bogle to Gould – men like Sir Charles Bell – wholly responded to Tibet, as they might respond to the classical culture of Europe. Lesser men who did not know any better were merely interested in stressing the oddities and peculiarities of Tibetan beliefs, without adequate understanding or spiritual insight. A great deal was written about the ritual dances, about necromancy and polyandry and other such intriguing practices. No attempt was made to distinguish the crude and the vulgar, the debased and the distorted (which exist in every religious tradition) from the pure and the sublime aspects of Tibetan religion.

 In his book, the Dalai Lama draws attention to the wholly false picture often given of "Lamaism" in Tibet, implying that Buddhist tradition in Tibet is something totally different from elsewhere. On the contrary, when they left India, the original and primeval Buddhist teachings took root in Tibet. This can be verified by reference to innumerable texts which have never left Tibetan soil until recently with the dramatic flight of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama says in his book that no one today can say he really understands Buddhist philosophy unless he studies these Tibetan texts.

 The Dalai Lama's book also clears up some other common misconceptions about Tibet. He readily concedes that there were social abuses in the old system, but refers to the programme of reform begun by the previous Dalai Lama and which he himself tried to continue. In any case, the existence of social abuses and pseudo-religious practices in Tibet does not lend any real justification for the Chinese conquest or for present attempts to Christianize Tibetan refugee children and alienate them from their traditional culture. If we are at all sensitive to the best in Tibetan tradition and recognize the importance of preserving its integrity intact, then we could do a real service to Tibet by raising our voices against the Westernization of Tibetan children.

 Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama, characteristically, does not complain but looks ahead. For him there is still much to be done. Countless Tibetan refugees need practical assistance. The cause of Tibet must continue to be raised at the United Nations; it must secure the active support of an increasing number of people and their Governments. At the same time, he realizes that the suppression of religious life and thought in Tibet itself may result in a steady diffusion of Buddhist teaching throughout the world. In India itself, for the first time in many centuries, Hindu and Buddhist are drawing together, an event of great significance. It is as though Judaism and Christianity really drew together without people from one religion being converted to the other. It is as though for the first time Protestants were really prepared to learn from the Catholics, and Catholics prepared to learn from the Reformation. Of course, the renewal of the Hindu-Buddhist tradition is now only in its early, seminal phase, but it could eventually produce a rich harvest. The Dalai Lama himself may move about from one end of the country to the other, reaffirming once again, in the homeland of the Buddha, the simple and profound truths that he preached on Indian soil. The soul of Tibet will survive, and therefore we cannot despair of the survival of Tibet, in that ultimate sense.

 But we dare not despair of the survival of Tibet even in the more worldly and ephemeral sense as long as Tibetan resistance continues and men respond to the claims of conscience, as long as we can still take a long view of history and smile at the inordinate pretensions of messianic systems, and as long as people retain their faith that truth must triumph and justice will prevail.

The Royal Society, London
June 13, 1962

Hermes, February 1976
by Raghavan Iyer

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