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Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and religious life in Tibet
January 22nd, 2017 by admin

Global Faiths: Buddhism, the Dalai Lama and religious life in Tibet

One of the most religious countries in the world in the last centuries of history has been Tibet. By the second half of the 700s, a Tibetan king made Buddhism the state religion.

The form of Buddhism that came to Tibet had been refracted by Hinduism, so that it included some aspects of tantrism — sexual symbols and even practices incorporated into Buddhist meditation. Several sects emerged in Tibetan history, the last one popularly called the Yellow Hat sect because of the color of hats its monks wore. This Yellow Hat sect is also called the Virtuous sect because it did away with tantric practices. It is the largest sect and the one headed up by the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama escaped Tibet in 1957 during China’s takeover of that country. Tibet had enjoyed de facto independence from the 1930s until 1957 because of the Kuomintang’s political problems, then the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and finally the civil war that ended with the victory of Mao Zedong and Communism.

But earlier China had always regarded Tibet as part of greater China. In fact, when the present Dalai Lama was found as a child in Eastern Tibet and taken to Lhasa for his training, Tibet had to pay a ransom to a Chinese Muslim warlord. And in the US even non-Communist Chinese ex-patriates have argued that Tibet has always belonged to China.

The Chinese Communist takeover of Tibet introduced far-reaching changes, including the shutting down of many monasteries, something even non-Communists and anti-Communists agreed was needed, seeing that at some points in its modern history up to one third of adult males were in monasteries, in effect parasites needing to be supported by the other two thirds of Tibet’s population, an arrangement with crippling economic effects for all of Tibet.

China’s reforms in Tibet did not get implemented all at once. The Chinese Communist government tolerated some of Tibet’s monasteries. Then last year, 2016, it launched a massive deconstruction of Larung Gar, a city of monks — and nuns — that was possibly the largest religious institution in the world. Larung Gar was reportedly founded as recently as 1980, but in only 35 years exploded to an astounding population of 40,000 monks and nuns. “Monks and nuns are segregated by age and sex. Housing for monks and nuns is divided by a winding road that divides the city,” says BBC News online. A photo of it shows a veritable maze of houses climbing up the side of a mountain.

As of June 2016, “Chinese authorities ordered a reduction of the resident population to no more than 3,500 nuns and 1,500 monks, which was implemented by a housing demolition” (Wikipedia, “Larung Gar”). According to the BBC News report, the Chinese government reason for razing much of this city is the overcrowding. One can only imagine the disaster that could be caused by a fire, since most dwellings are made of wood. Workers engaged in the demolition were accompanied by Chinese police and members of the militia in plain clothes. Fortunately some of the head lamas have reportedly instructed their followers not to oppose the demolition.

It should be clear to any observer of this development that it will prove to be a major disruption for thousands of people. Reports of this development do not say whether the government will assist in relocating and retraining the displaced people. And we can only guess what effect this demolition will have on the longterm religious life of Tibet.

Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia.

Got your facts wrong, the 13th Dalai Lama declared Tibet’s independence at the fall of the Qing Empire in 1913. While Nationalist China claimed Tibet (and Mongolia, which remains independent to this day) it never exerted control over Tibet.  So Tibet was a sovereign nation when invaded in 1950 for nearly half a century.  Even Qing  control varied greatly over the couple of centuries it existed, for example by the late 1800s Tibet was in effect operating with minimal or no interference from China. A short lived invasion by a warlord following an equally short lived invasion by the British occurred in the early 1900s but otherwise Tibet ran its own affairs.   Tibet’s mistake was not seeking international recognition when it could have, instead of elying on an isolationist policy for protection.


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