The invasion (and continued occupation) of Tibet by Communist China was a disgrace, and remains a disgrace, but that’s no reason to romanticize the monk-ridden squalor that preceded Maoist rule. Yet that’s what many in the West did—and still do.
In this splendid piece (originally published in the London Spectator), Brendan O’Neill gives those who make a fetish of Tibetan “spirituality” a well-deserved kick. The whole thing is a must-read, but here are a few choice extracts:
[W]estern Tibetophiles, those largely posh lovers of all things Tibetan, mysterious and Dalai Lama-related, have…sown a whole lot of BS about Tibet. Their depiction of Tibet as a unique paradise packed with softly smiling monks and childlike men and women is as skewed — and patronising — as any piece of Chinese misinformation.
Right from the publication of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon in 1933, which invented the idea of Tibet as ‘Shangri-La’, to the pro-Tibet fawning of modern celebs such as Richard Gere, Sharon Stone and our own Prince Charles, the popular image of Tibet is, in the words of one academic Tibetologist, as ‘somehow outside the rest of the world’. Gere, who follows the Tibetan Buddhist religion, says Tibetan culture has a ‘resonance and a sense of mystery’ and says you can find ‘beingness’ in Tibet (apparently you can’t really ‘be’ anywhere else)…Of course Tibet has some striking cultural traditions and its fair share of religious devotion. Out of a population of 2.9 million, 46,000 — around 1.5 per cent — are Buddhist monks and nuns. When I visit Jokhang Temple in central Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, I see more and more of these saffron-clad monks and nuns and also ordinary Tibetans, very poor-looking ones, fully prostrating themselves on the ground in devotion to the Buddha, their heads stained with mud and their faces red and raw as a result. But most inhabitants of Lhasa are not like that. At a bazaar near the temple a handsome young Tibetan in an Italia football top and jeans is telling two wide-eyed British women in pidgin English why they should buy his ‘very sacred, very special beads, bracelets’. You can’t help feeling that he is exploiting the naive western middle-class thirst for a bit of Tibetan magic in order to make a quick buck. Good on him.
Tibetophilia has always been about well-to-do westerners trying to escape what they see as soulless modernity by running off to a fantasy paradise. They want to keep Tibet as their own personal museum, to preserve it in cultural formaldehyde, to freeze it in time. As Philip Rawson said in his 1991 book Sacred Tibet, ‘Tibetan culture offers powerful, untarnished and coherent alternatives to western egotistical lifestyles, our short attention span, our gradually more pointless pursuit of material satisfactions…’.
Well, leaving Lhasa and driving to the city of Linzhi in south-east Tibet, I see some of this real Tibetan culture — and it isn’t pretty. Here in the countryside, people are much poorer than they are in Lhasa. The vast majority of them work in agriculture or animal husbandry. Most look exhausted. I am introduced to a 47-year-old herdsman, who looks at least 60, who works thankless hours on the land and still pumps water from a well. Is this the natural, sacred, at-one-with-nature kind of existence that the rich Tibetophiles would like Tibetans to continue ‘enjoying’? The herdsman’s ten-year-old son, Gamagongbu, wearing a Puma cap, tells me he definitely doesn’t want to be a herdsman; he wants to work in Lhasa city. Has this simple child of Tibetan tradition ‘lost his focus’ [to quote Richard Gere] or achieved enlightenment?
Oh, enlightenment, I think. And so, clearly, does Mr. O’Neill. That’s the thing about good old western materialism: it may not deliver the gods, but it’s more likely than anything else to deliver the goods, and that, in the end, is what creates the space—and the freedom—for everything else.