Sunday 2 August 2009

The Tragedy of the Mountain Kingdom of the Spirit

China and Tibet existed together for many centuries in what might be thought of as a symbiotic partnership, where each derived positive benefits from the other. Tibet is a poor country with few natural resources. What was important, it might be said, was its spiritual power, not its material wealth. It was this that the Tibetans used in their exchanges with their more powerful neighbour to the east; passing on something of their spiritual knowledge-and magic-in return for protection and other forms of support. It was a mutually-beneficial relationship that went back to the time of the Mongols.

In 1244 the Mongols, who had conquered much of China, reached an agreement with the powerful Buddhist religious order of Tibet. In return for access to some of the more esoteric branches of Tibetan knowledge, the Mongols appointed the monks to rule the area on their behalf. It was the beginnings of the patron/priest relationship. Even Kublai Khan's chief spiritual advisor was a Tibetan Buddhist, famed for his alleged magical powers. The relationship between the Mongols and the Tibetans deepened over time. It was Altan Khan, a later Mongol ruler, who is though to have bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on the Tibetan holy man who converted his people to Buddhism. The fifth Dalai Lama was even to call on Mongol troops to defeat his internal enemies. And thus the partnership was established, one of equals. And for as long as the rulers of China coveted Tibet's spiritual wealth, then it remained for all practical purposes as an independent nation. From the Mongols to the Manchus, Lhasa was the spiritual centre of the Chinese world.

But Tibet's unique spiritual heritage, the tradition of Lamaism itself, was accompanied by growing political weakness. The whole structure, the balance between spiritual wealth and earthly power, was threatened as external forces came into play in the nineteenth century, when Britain and Russia began to struggle for influence in Central Asia in the so-called Great Game. When the British invaded Tibet in 1903, forcing the then Dalai Lama to take refuge in China two things became clear: Tibet was incapable of defending itself and its weakness was a threat to the security of the Chinese state. It was from this point that the ancient symbiosis began to degenerate. The Chinese managed to re-impose their control of the area but were driven out by the Tibetans themselves after the onset of the Revolution of 1911.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, ending decades of anarchy and civil war, the old spiritual bond between Tibet and China was gone forever. All that remained was a security threat. Mao Zedong, fearful that Tibet would fall under the control of the western powers during the Cold War, invaded and occupied the country in the early 1950s. The Chinese arrived no longer as protectors but as nationalists, determined to continue with the creation of an integrated and unified state. It was against this background that Tibetan cultural identity was seen not as an asset but as a threat. The Mountain Kingdom of the Spirit was simply no longer needed.

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