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Monday 28 March 2016

Classic Rant: Sex, Corruption and Violence in Old Tibet

I don't want people to think that I'm only critical of organized religion if that religion is Judaeo-christian. My own personal spirituality is of an eastern lineage, but don't let that lead you think that I'm going to let the Buddhists off scot-free.

My practice is Tantric in essence, and the Tantric Buddhist lineage par excellence is what we generally term "Tibetan Buddhism", Vajrayana. And I love Tibetan Buddhism, its richness (tied only with Latin Catholicism and eastern orthodox Christianity in terms of the beauty and richness of its imagery and ceremony), the purposefulness of its teaching, and the general goodness that its Lamas have spread out to the world in the last few decades.

But it simultaneously amuses and annoys me to no end that people (in the west in particular) end up creating fantasies in their minds about the Tibetan Buddhist RELIGION (that is to say, the organized institution of the Tibetan religion), both in terms of its history and its present structure, and I'm convinced that the Dalai Lama and the rest of the priesthood actively foment these misunderstandings because it at times serves their purposes. These misunderstandings mainly have to do with the completely confused perception people have of the Lamas and how they work, and the mythical history of "Old Tibet" as having been some kind of peaceful cloud-kingdom utopia until the Chinese came along and ruined it.

Shit, where to begin?
Ok, imagine the Catholic Church. Now imagine that somehow a malevolent force, let's say the Dutch... no, wait, the Gnomes... no, no, the Dutch.. anyways, someone went and somehow conquered the Vatican and simultaneously shattered the Church's religious infrastructure, taking away all of the Church's lands, its resources and properties and its valuables. Now imagine that the Pope was some doofus kid that had a very limited connection to previous events in his own history, and now imagine that the remnants of the church hierarchy and some of their followers are transplanted to Mars, where the native martians know very little about the church, except that it came from the Exotic Earth, and most everything else they will learn will be told to them by the surviving Church officials.
Its not difficult to imagine, under those contexts, Catholicism evolving to become a generally peaceful and loving religion based on genuine humility, and where the entire history of exploitation, manipulation, autocracy and constant, constant boy-fucking is all conveniently whitewashed, isn't it?

Well, its kind of like that with Tibetan Buddhism. We're the Martians.

So let's start with the most basic element: Tibetan Lamas are not Buddhas, they're Boddhisatvas. Their original spiritual purpose was to remain on the verge of full enlightenment, perpetually reincarnating in order to be able to point the way to the fully realized Buddhas that existed in any spiritual generation, to guide people to truth. A pretty freaking humble job, actually. Instead, they are often now seen as perfect god-kings with magic superpowers who are authorities in and of themselves. Sort of like the catholic bishops were originally meant to be the humble administrators of local communities and over time turned themselves into the "princes of the church".

Another common misconception that people have about Tibetan Buddhism is that it is really ancient. It isn't. It dates only back about nine hundred years, making it one of the newest schools in Tibetan Buddhism; and the current structure of the hierarchy of Lamas wasn't really established until the 14th century, making that even newer.

By the way, do you know who created the Lama system? Kublai Khan.
Yeah, that Kublai Khan, the Mongol warlord become emperor of China Kublai Khan. The whole structure of Lamas presiding over monasteries was created as a kind of political exercise by the Mongols, who were then the Chinese, by the way, so in a way you could kind of say its a bit ironic that the Tibetan monks in particular are claiming sovereignty from China. I support freedom for Tibet, but let's not invent fairy tales to try to push it.

(the totally spiritual founder of modern Tibetan Buddhism)

The biggest fucking fairy tale of all, by the way, was that pre-invasion Tibet was a Shangri-la paradise of love and peace. It was a theocracy. Direct rule by the church, with massive control over property and power and absolute authority to rule over people's lives.
Authority given by the Chinese, by the way. The Dalai Lama (the first one to actually use that title, not the current one) was established as the "head" of Tibetan Buddhism with the help of a large Chinese imperial army, that assisted him in seizing monasteries and properties he had no natural claim to, and destroyed Sutras (holy books) that could be used to question his claims to power.

The Dalai Lama is not, contrary to what some believe, the absolute authority of Tantra, Vajrayana, Tantric Buddhism, or even Tibetan Buddhism. He wasn't even the first Lama (that would be the Karmapa Lama). He is merely the head of his order (one of several Tibetan orders), but that was inflated with the help of good political maneuvers and lots of help from Chinese Emperors and Mongol chieftains into being the King of Tibet.
In fact, the fourth Dalai lama was the grandson of the Mongolian Khan who gave the Dalai Lama his title (and thus a descendant of Genghis Khan). He was famous for his corrupt and decadent lifestyle, and was ultimately murdered, probably by his own priests.
The 6th Dalai Lama was famous for being a heavy drinker, womanizing and writing erotic poetry. He was murdered by his feudal Chinese masters.
The 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Dalai Lamas all died very young, before reaching adulthood, many of them very mysteriously; almost certainly murdered by the regents and advisers who wanted to hold on to their political power through never-ending child-lama-regencies.

So let's consider: at least a couple of the Dalai Lamas were completely in bed with the Mongols/Chinese; several of them were murderers and brutal dictators, others were just hedonists and degenerates, and then a few never got to be old enough to be degenerates on account of being murdered by their kindly monk-tutors in power grabs. Roughly half of the Dalai Lama's incarnations died violently.

The Dalai Lama's lineage, the "yellow hats", are actually the newest school of Tibetan Buddhism; and during the time of the Dalai Lama's rule, in particular the 3rd and 5th Dalai Lama, they engaged in brutal repression of the other lineages, particularly the older, and at times more popular Karmapa (Kagyu) Lineage. The 5th Dalai Lama invited a Mongol Warlord to sweep into Tibet and all but raze it to the ground just to break the power of the Karmapas, forcibly converting a great number of monks from the Kagyu lineage to the Gelug (Dalai Lama's) lineage. They conquered by sword & fire, no differently than the popes did in Europe.

The 13th Dalai Lama, the one just before the current one, was another man of skillful means, finally wising up to the fact that it kind of sucks getting murdered in your teens all the time, he made friends with a Russian who'd come to Tibet to become a monk, and got that Russian to help him flee the Potala Palace before the rest of his tutors could off him. He actually left the country, fleeing first to Mongolia and then to.. you guessed it... China. He spent 4 years away, then came back when he was old enough not to get murdered, then had to flee again in 1910 when the Chinese sent a military force to stop him from making reforms of the system, spending another 2 years in exile in India. He did finally return and make reforms of the whole system, and declared Tibet's independence from China, in 1913. 

So how the fuck do we get from that to the peaceful and loving perspective we see today? There's two parts to the answer to that question.
First, the Tibetan exile. Being forced out of Tibet, and material and political power, was without question the best thing that ever happened to Tibetan Buddhism. Political power corrupts. Removing it, and the hopelessly corrupt system that surrounding the Tibetan Theocracy, allowed for a reform of the whole structure of Tibetan Buddhism, not to mention the influx of new, western ideas and synthesis that has made Vajrayana Buddhism one of the most dynamic and spiritually powerful forms of Buddhism to emerge in a long time.

The second part of the answer is that it hasn't changed, at least not totally. There's still a powerful junta of monks whose chief interest is no different from the chief interest of the rich Cuban exiles in Miami, to get back their land and property so they can get back to exploiting people.
And remember, the vast majority of Tibetans living under the old Theocracy were serfs, with no rights, no education, no health care, no hope for anything better, being excessively and ridiculously taxed in order to maintain the lifestyle of their feudal Monk rulers, and being routinely beaten, raped and mutilated with impunity. The serfs lived lives of perpetual poverty, being taxed well above the level that most could ever hope to subsist on, then being loaned money by the monasteries at interest rates that made the debts impossible to pay back, and in Old Tibet debt was passed down from father to son to grandson. Most serfs by the time of the Chinese invasion were born owing more money than they could ever hope to earn. Female serfs were often used as sex slaves by their masters, and women, even nuns, received no education whatsoever.
There are reports also from monks who lived in Old Tibet that, since they were chosen for monastic training as young boys, and since celibacy was the expected norm inside the monasteries, you can imagine that the place became an absolute hotbed of sexual abuse.

And in all these material, physical and sexual abuses, the corrupt monks used religion as a justification. Not unlike the the way the Evangelical "prosperity gospel" types distort Christian teaching to suit their agendas, these Buddhist monks distorted the very notion of Karma to claim that anyone born a serf was being punished for "bad karma" in previous lives, and anyone born a ruler was being rewarded for their virtuous lives.
European visitors to Old Tibet often wrote about the horror of the feudal theocracy. One called it "the intolerable tyranny of monks"; another, Percival Landon, described it (in 1904) as "an engine of oppression".
In 1937, only 22 years before the Dalai Lama's exile, Spencer Chapman wrote:

“The Lamaist monk does not spend his time in ministering to the people or educating them. . . . The beggar beside the road is nothing to the monk. Knowledge is the jealously guarded prerogative of the monasteries and is used to increase their influence and wealth.”

This is the world that Tibetan Buddhism had created when it had power, and that some still want to imagine they can return to.
But even those others, who are western and reform-minded, are not the saints people make them out to be. The Dalai Lama, the current one I mean, has been taking support and money from the C.I.A. for decades now; and this is no conspiracy theory, he's admitted as much, you can google it.
He's also been in many respects a wonderful spiritual teacher, spreading an incredible message. He's expressed openly that the corruption of the Old Tibet was wrong. He's tried to reform the system. He's certainly a better spiritual leader than any Catholic Pope I've seen in my lifetime (having missed John XXIII).

But that doesn't mean he isn't also still very concerned with his own political authority, and still playing some of the old games of conflicts with the other lineages, trying to bully them around. The Karmapa lineage in particular has been a serious thorn in the side of the Dalai Lama's Gelug school, because it turns out that the exile has been especially good for them: the Karmapa (Kagyu) school has been more popular than the Dalai Lama's own Gelug school in exile, and has grown incredibly fast, growing in power and influence as it outstrips the Gelug school in size. In great part this was thanks to the wisdom of the 16th Karmapa, the Lama of the Kagyu school who was (alongside the great Chogyam Trungpa) probably one of the greatest spiritual practitioners to have emerged from Vajrayana in the last several centuries, and who was really the first great proponent of bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the west.

When the 16th Karmapa died, the Dalai Lama became personally involved in supporting a particular claimant to the succession of that title (something he has NO right to do, no authority, as his lineage is totally separate); backing a claimant that was NOT the choice of the majority of the Karmapa monks. In fact, the Dalai Lama's choice was also the choice of the hated Chinese government! Why would the Dalai Lama back a puppet Lama chosen by the Chinese occupation? Simple: if the Karmapa was a prisoner of the Chinese state with no ability to rule over the Kagyu lineage in the west, the Kagyu school would find itself greatly disadvantaged, to the benefit of the Gelug school. As it turns out, that kid managed to also escape from the Chinese and now there are TWO Karmapas running around in the west, creating a religious clusterfuck of epic proportions and a decade and a half of infighting among Tibetan Buddhists that has escalated more than once to physical conflict, not to mention serious lawsuits going on in India over who has control of the Kagyu hierarchy and properties.

So where does this all leave us?
The problem is not with Christianity, or Buddhism, or with God, or even with religion; except inasmuch as people misunderstand these things and make absurd expectations, wanting Gurus to be perfect beings (rather than total humans) or priests to be infallible sources of spiritual wisdom and authority rather than administrators who should be looked upon as civil servants for the church rather than wise masters. The problem is when you create a hierarchy that allows very imperfect people to end up inheriting spiritual authority, not on their merits as enlightened individuals but on the basis of their following a set of misplaced rules or blood-inheritance, or their administrative skills; when you confabulate, in other words, wearing a fancy hat with being a truly spiritual person. The problem is with the Organization of religion beyond the immediate relationship of teacher and student into an administrative structure that quickly loses sight of what the fuck it was there for in the first place.


Currently Smoking: Italian Redbark + Argento Latakia

(Originally Posted April 29, 2010)

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