Author Topic: Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth - michael parenti part 3  (Read 6206 times)

polartortoise

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Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth - michael parenti part 3
« on: March 19, 2008, 06:07:45 PM »
 
http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html
Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth
(updated and expanded version, January 2007)
Michael Parenti
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III. Exit Feudal Theocracy
As the Shangri-La myth would have it, in old Tibet the people lived in contented and tranquil symbiosis with their monastic and secular lords. Rich lamas and poor monks, wealthy landlords and impoverished serfs were all bonded together, mutually sustained by the comforting balm of a deeply spiritual and pacific culture.

One is reminded of the idealized image of feudal Europe presented by latter-day conservative Catholics such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. For them, medieval Christendom was a world of contented peasants living in the secure embrace of their Church, under the more or less benign protection of their lords. Again we are invited to accept a particular culture in its idealized form divorced from its murky material history. This means accepting it as presented by its favored class, by those who profited most from it. The Shangri-La image of Tibet bears no more resemblance to historic actuality than does the pastoral image of medieval Europe.

Seen in all its grim realities, old Tibet confirms the view I expressed in an earlier book, namely that culture is anything but neutral. Culture can operate as a legitimating cover for a host of grave injustices, benefiting a privileged portion of society at great cost to the rest. In theocratic feudal Tibet, ruling interests manipulated the traditional culture to fortify their own wealth and power. The theocracy equated rebellious thought and action with satanic influence. It propagated the general presumption of landlord superiority and peasant unworthiness. The rich were represented as deserving their good life, and the lowly poor as deserving their mean existence, all codified in teachings about the karmic residue of virtue and vice accumulated from past lives, presented as part of God’s will.

Were the more affluent lamas just hypocrites who preached one thing and secretly believed another? More likely they were genuinely attached to those beliefs that brought such good results for them. That their theology so perfectly supported their material privileges only strengthened the sincerity with which it was embraced.

It might be said that we denizens of the modern secular world cannot grasp the equations of happiness and pain, contentment and custom, that characterize more traditionally spiritual societies. This is probably true, and it may explain why some of us idealize such societies. But still, a gouged eye is a gouged eye; a flogging is a flogging; and the grinding exploitation of serfs and slaves is a brutal class injustice whatever its cultural wrapping. There is a difference between a spiritual bond and human bondage, even when both exist side by side.

Many ordinary Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in their country, but it appears that relatively few want a return to the social order he represented. A 1999 story in the Washington Post notes that the Dalai Lama continues to be revered in Tibet, but . . . few Tibetans would welcome a return of the corrupt aristocratic clans that fled with him in 1959 and that comprise the bulk of his advisers. Many Tibetan farmers, for example, have no interest in surrendering the land they gained during China’s land reform to the clans. Tibet’s former slaves say they, too, don’t want their former masters to return to power. “I’ve already lived that life once before,” said Wangchuk, a 67-year-old former slave who was wearing his best clothes for his yearly pilgrimage to Shigatse, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. He said he worshipped the Dalai Lama, but added, “I may not be free under Chinese communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave.”

It should be noted that the Dalai Lama is not the only highly placed lama chosen in childhood as a reincarnation. One or another reincarnate lama or tulku--a spiritual teacher of special purity elected to be reborn again and again--can be found presiding over most major monasteries. The tulku system is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. Scores of Tibetan lamas claim to be reincarnate tulkus.

The very first tulku was a lama known as the Karmapa who appeared nearly three centuries before the first Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is leader of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition known as the Karma Kagyu. The rise of the Gelugpa sect headed by the Dalai Lama led to a politico-religious rivalry with the Kagyu that has lasted five hundred years and continues to play itself out within the Tibetan exile community today. That the Kagyu sect has grown famously, opening some six hundred new centers around the world in the last thirty-five years, has not helped the situation.

The search for a tulku, Erik Curren reminds us, has not always been conducted in that purely spiritual mode portrayed in certain Hollywood films. “Sometimes monastic officials wanted a child from a powerful local noble family to give the cloister more political clout. Other times they wanted a child from a lower-class family who would have little leverage to influence the child’s upbringing.” On other occasions “a local warlord, the Chinese emperor or even the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa might [have tried] to impose its choice of tulku on a monastery for political reasons.”

Such may have been the case in the selection of the 17th Karmapa, whose monastery-in-exile is situated in Rumtek, in the Indian state of Sikkim. In 1993 the monks of the Karma Kagyu tradition had a candidate of their own choice. The Dalai Lama, along with several dissenting Karma Kagyu leaders (and with the support of the Chinese government!) backed a different boy. The Kagyu monks charged that the Dalai Lama had overstepped his authority in attempting to select a leader for their sect. “Neither his political role nor his position as a lama in his own Gelugpa tradition entitled him to choose the Karmapa, who is a leader of a different tradition…”  As one of the Kagyu leaders insisted, “Dharma is about thinking for yourself. It is not about automatically following a teacher in all things, no matter how respected that teacher may be. More than anyone else, Buddhists should respect other people’s rights—their human rights and their religious freedom.”

What followed was a dozen years of conflict in the Tibetan exile community, punctuated by intermittent riots, intimidation, physical attacks, blacklisting, police harassment, litigation, official corruption, and the looting and undermining of the Karmapa’s monastery in Rumtek by supporters of the Gelugpa faction. All this has caused at least one western devotee to wonder if the years of exile were not hastening the moral corrosion of Tibetan Buddhism.

What is clear is that not all Tibetan Buddhists accept the Dalai Lama as their theological and spiritual mentor. Though he is referred to as the “spiritual leader of Tibet,” many see this title as little more than a formality. It does not give him authority over the four religious schools of Tibet other than his own, “just as calling the U.S. president the ‘leader of the free world’ gives him no role in governing France or Germany.”

Not all Tibetan exiles are enamoured of the old Shangri-La theocracy. Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk’s building. When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At first, Lewis assumed that their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely grateful “not to have to marry 4 or 5 men, be pregnant almost all the time,” or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying husband. The younger women “were delighted to be getting an education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why Americans were so naïve [about Tibet].”

The women interviewed by Lewis recounted stories of their grandmothers’ ordeals with monks who used them as “wisdom consorts.” By sleeping with the monks, the grandmothers were told, they gained “the means to enlightenment” -- after all, the Buddha himself had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment.

The women also mentioned the “rampant” sex that the supposedly spiritual and abstemious monks practiced with each other in the Gelugpa sect. The women who were mothers spoke bitterly about the monastery’s confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. They claimed that when a boy cried for his mother, he would be told “Why do you cry for her, she gave you up--she's just a woman.”

The monks who were granted political asylum in California applied for public assistance. Lewis, herself a devotee for a time, assisted with the paperwork. She observes that they continue to receive government checks amounting to $550 to $700 per month along with Medicare. In addition, the monks reside rent free in nicely furnished apartments. “They pay no utilities, have free access to the Internet on computers provided for them, along with fax machines, free cell and home phones and cable TV.”

They also receive a monthly payment from their order, along with contributions and dues from their American followers. Some devotees eagerly carry out chores for the monks, including grocery shopping and cleaning their apartments and toilets. These same holy men, Lewis remarks, “have no problem criticizing Americans for their ‘obsession with material things.’”

To welcome the end of the old feudal theocracy in Tibet is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in that country. This point is seldom understood by today’s Shangri-La believers in the West. The converse is also true: To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. Tibetans deserve to be perceived as actual people, not perfected spiritualists or innocent political symbols. “To idealize them,” notes Ma Jian, a dissident Chinese traveler to Tibet (now living in Britain), “is to deny them their humanity.”

One common complaint among Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet’s religious culture is being undermined by the Chinese occupation. To some extent this seems to be the case. Many of the monasteries are closed, and much of the theocracy seems to have passed into history. Whether Chinese rule has brought betterment or disaster is not the central issue here. The question is what kind of country was old Tibet. What I am disputing is the supposedly pristine spiritual nature of that pre-invasion culture. We can advocate religious freedom and independence for a new Tibet without having to embrace the mythology about old Tibet. Tibetan feudalism was cloaked in Buddhism, but the two are not to be equated. In reality, old Tibet was not a Paradise Lost. It was a retrograde repressive theocracy of extreme privilege and poverty, a long way from Shangri-La.

Finally, let it be said that if Tibet’s future is to be positioned somewhere within China’s emerging free-market paradise, then this does not bode well for the Tibetans. China boasts a dazzling 8 percent economic growth rate and is emerging as one of the world’s greatest industrial powers. But with economic growth has come an ever deepening gulf between rich and poor. Most Chinese live close to the poverty level or well under it, while a small group of newly brooded capitalists profit hugely in collusion with shady officials. Regional bureaucrats milk the country dry, extorting graft from the populace and looting local treasuries. Land grabbing in cities and countryside by avaricious developers and corrupt officials at the expense of the populace are almost everyday occurrences. Tens of thousands of grassroot protests and disturbances have erupted across the country, usually to be met with unforgiving police force. Corruption is so prevalent, reaching into so many places, that even the normally complacent national leadership was forced to take notice and began moving against it in late 2006.

Workers in China who try to organize labor unions in the corporate dominated “business zones” risk losing their jobs or getting beaten and imprisoned. Millions of business zone workers toil twelve-hour days at subsistence wages. With the health care system now being privatized, free or affordable medical treatment is no longer available for millions. Men have tramped into the cities in search of work, leaving an increasingly impoverished countryside populated by women, children, and the elderly. The suicide rate has increased dramatically, especially among women.

China’s natural environment is sadly polluted. Most of its fabled rivers and many lakes are dead, producing massive fish die-offs from the billions of tons of industrial emissions and untreated human waste dumped into them. Toxic effluents, including pesticides and herbicides, seep into ground water or directly into irrigation canals. Cancer rates in villages situated along waterways have skyrocketed a thousand-fold. Hundreds of millions of urban residents breathe air rated as dangerously unhealthy, contaminated by industrial growth and the recent addition of millions of automobiles. An estimated 400,000 die prematurely every year from air pollution. Government environmental agencies have no enforcement power to stop polluters, and generally the government ignores or denies such problems, concentrating instead on industrial growth.

China’s own scientific establishment reports that unless greenhouse gases are curbed, the nation will face massive crop failures along with catastrophic food and water shortages in the years ahead. In 2006-2007 severe drought was already afflicting southwest China.

If China is the great success story of speedy free market development, and is to be the model and inspiration for Tibet’s future, then old feudal Tibet indeed may start looking a lot better than it actually was.

Biography
Michael Parenti received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, in the United States and abroad. Some of his writings have been translated into Arabic, Azeri, Bangla, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish. 

“... this tough, hilarious, right-on mix of scholar and street.”
                                                                     KPFA-Pacifica, 1994   

Michael Parenti has won awards from Project Censored, the Caucus for a New Political Science, the city of Santa Cruz, New Jersey Peace Action, the Social Science Research Council, the Society for Religion in Higher Education, and other organizations. In 2007 he was awarded a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from U.S. Representative Barbara Lee.

During his earlier teaching career he received grants or fellowships from the Louis Rabinowitz Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Brown University, Yale University, State University of New York, and the University of Illinois. For several years he was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.
He now serves on the board of judges for Project Censored, and on the advisory boards of Independent Progressive Politics Network, Education Without Borders, and the Jasenovic Foundation; as well as the advisory editorial boards of New Political Science and Nature, Society and Thought.

He is the author of twenty books:
Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader (City Lights Books, 2007)
Democracy for the Few (Wadsworth, eighth edition, 2007)
The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press, 2006)
Superpatriotism (City Lights Books, 2004)
The Assassination of Julius Caesar (The New Press, 2003)
The Terrorism Trap (City Lights Books, 2002)
To Kill a Nation (Verso Books, 2001)
History as Mystery (City Lights Books, 1999)
America Besieged (City Lights Books, 1998)
Blackshirts and Reds (City Lights Books, 1997)
Dirty Truths (City Lights Books, 1996)
Against Empire (City Lights Books, 1995)
Inventing Reality (Wadsworth, second edition, 1993)
Land of Idols (St. Martin's, 1993)
Make-Believe Media (Wadsworth, 1992)
The Sword and the Dollar (St. Martin's, 1989)
Power and the Powerless (St. Martin's, 1978)
Ethnic and Political Attitudes (Arno Press, 1975)
Trends and Tragedies in American Foreign Policy (Little, Brown, 1971)
The Anti-Communist Impulse (Random House, 1969)

Some 300 articles of his have appeared in scholarly journals, political periodicals and various magazines and newspapers.

He appears on radio and television talk shows to discuss current issues and ideas from his published works. Dr. Parenti’s talks and commentaries are played on radio stations and cable community access stations to enthusiastic audiences in the United States, Canada, and abroad.

He lectures on college campuses and before a wide range of community audiences, peace groups, labor organizations, scholarly conferences, and various other venues. His books are enjoyed by both lay readers and scholars, and have been used extensively in college courses.

Among the many topics he treats are:
Democracy and Economic Power
Imperialism and U.S. Interventionism
Empires, Past and Present
Political Perceptions and Deceptions
Ethnic-Class Experience
Terrorism and Globalization
Political Bias in the U.S. News Media
Ideology and History
Race, Gender, and Class
The Overthrow of Communism
Fascism: Past and Present


polartortoise

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Re: Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth - michael parenti part 3
« Reply #1 on: March 20, 2008, 03:30:53 AM »
in a perfect world, the red indians and the australian aboriginals would still have their land. i understand the wounds from disrespect but really there is no need to be overly pre-occupied by form. the situation in tibet pre-invasion was no sugar plum fairy land. i can't help but think, the overpowering destructive force of the red guards destroyed (cleansed?) a big chunck of an old outused way of life (and not only in tibet), paving the way for a new way of being. will the tibetan intellectuals who can be part of the creative building process of a potential new order continue to be a silent spectator on the sidelines?

a friend

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Re: Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth - michael parenti part 3
« Reply #2 on: March 22, 2008, 02:02:22 AM »
Thank you Polartortoise for posting Parenti's work. This is a guy to whom to send some of our letters updating him on the doings of the Tibetan leader.

In a way I think part of the serf superstition described by Parenti was inherited by many a Western practitioner.

Doctor Ursula Bernis published an article on the Shangrila myth in PARABOLA. I would like to read it again and it would be interesting for our bunch here to read it, since, unlike Parenti it seems, she was a Buddhist practitioner. Anyone happens to have a copy of that article?



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« Last Edit: March 22, 2008, 02:10:24 AM by a friend »

polartortoise

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Re: Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth - michael parenti part 3
« Reply #3 on: March 22, 2008, 03:40:45 AM »
i've not read ursula's article in parabola. i was thinking tho who has the rights to ursula's work? could the dorje shugdan society not purchase the rights to her manuscript and be the custodian of her archive of works? i read a copy of a copy of her work on the ds issue and it must have been a monumental research work done. she interviewed everyone. she passed away 7 nov 2000 but i can't imagine she would not want someone to pick up her torch and carry it the last few steps to the finnish line?

which brings to mind, admin or beggar or whoever it is who has the genuine aspiration to collect and collate the works, stories, lineage of ds, i would recommend it be housed in a legal structure. that the information, data and copyright be owned by a society. perhaps the ds society? a committee could be formed with some of the masters as advisers to specially focus on this task? i think some form of organisation is needed to kick start this aspiration and get the interviews done with the lineage masters before more of them leave their physical emanations.