Revolutionary Worker #944, February 15, 1998
Tibet is one of the most remote places in the world. It is centered on a high mountain plateau deep in the heart of Asia. It is cut off from South Asia by the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world. Countless river gorges and at least six different mountain ranges carve this region into isolated valleys. Before all the changes brought about after the Chinese revolution of 1949, there were no roads in Tibet that wheeled vehicles could travel. All travel was over winding, dangerous mountain trails--by mule, by foot or by yaks which are hairy cow-like mountain animals. Trade, communications and centralized government were almost impossible to maintain.
Most of Tibet is above the tree-line. The air is very thin. Most crops and trees won't grow there. It was a struggle to grow food and even find fuel for fires.
At the time of the revolution, the population of Tibet was extremely spread out. About two or three million Tibetans lived in an area half the size of the United States--about 1.5 million square miles. Villages, monasteries and nomad encampments were often separated by many days of difficult travel.
Maoist revolutionaries saw there were "Three Great Lacks" in old Tibet: lack of fuel, lack of communications, and lack of people. The revolutionaries analyzed that these "Three Great Lacks" were not mainly caused by the physical conditions, but by the social system. The Maoists said that the "Three Great Lacks" were caused by the "Three Abundances" in Tibetan society: "Abundant poverty, abundant oppression and abundant fear of the supernatural."
Tibet was a feudal society before the revolutionary changes that started in 1949. There were two main classes: the serfs and the aristocratic serf owners. The people lived like serfs in Europe's "Dark Ages," or like African slaves and sharecroppers of the U.S. South.
Tibetan serfs scratched barley harvest from the hard earth with wooden plows and sickles. Goats, sheep and yaks were raised for milk, butter, cheese and meat. The aristocratic and monastery masters owned the people, the land and most of the animals. They forced the serfs to hand over most grain and demanded all kinds of forced labor (called ulag). Among the serfs, both men and women participated in hard labor, including ulag. The scattered nomadic peoples of Tibet's barren western highlands were also owned by lords and lamas.
The Dalai Lama's older brother Thubten Jigme Norbu claims that in the lamaist social order, "There is no class system and the mobility from class to class makes any class prejudice impossible." But the whole existence of this religious order was based on a rigid and brutal class system.
Serfs were treated like despised "inferiors"--the way Black people were treated in the Jim Crow South. Serfs could not use the same seats, vocabulary or eating utensils as serf owners. Even touching one of the master's belongings could be punished by whipping. The masters and serfs were so distant from each other that in much of Tibet they spoke different languages.
It was the custom for a serf to kneel on all fours so his master could step on his back to mount a horse. Tibet scholar A. Tom Grunfeld describes how one ruling class girl routinely had servants carry her up and down stairs just because she was lazy. Masters often rode on their serfs' backs across streams.
The only thing worse than a serf in Tibet was a "chattel slave," who had no right to even grow a few crops for themselves. These slaves were often starved, beaten and worked to death. A master could turn a serf into a slave any time he wanted. Children were routinely bought and sold in Tibet's capital, Lhasa. About 5 percent of the Tibetan people were counted as chattel slaves. And at least another 10 percent were poor monks who were really "slaves in robes."
The lamaist system tried to prevent any escape. Runaway slaves couldn't just set up free farms in the vast empty lands. Former serfs explained to revolutionary writer Anna Louise Strong that before liberation, "You could not live in Tibet without a master. Anyone might pick you up as an outlaw unless you had a legal owner."
The Dalai Lama writes, "In Tibet there was no special discrimination against women." The Dalai Lama's authorized biographer Robert Hicks argues that Tibetan women were content with their status and "influenced their husbands." But in Tibet, being born a woman was considered a punishment for "impious" (sinful) behavior in a previous life. The word for "woman" in old Tibet, kiemen, meant "inferior birth." Women were told to pray, "May I reject a feminine body and be reborn a male one."
Lamaist superstition associated women with evil and sin. It was said "among ten women you'll find nine devils." Anything women touched was considered tainted--so all kinds of taboos were placed on women. Women were forbidden to handle medicine. Han Suyin reports, "No woman was allowed to touch a lama's belongings, nor could she raise a wall, or 'the wall will fall.'... A widow was a despicable being, already a devil. No woman was allowed to use iron instruments or touch iron. Religion forbade her to lift her eyes above the knee of a man, as serfs and slaves were not allowed to life the eyes upon the face of the nobles or great lamas."
Monks of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism rejected sexual intimacy (or even contact) with women, as part of their plan to be holy. Before the revolution, no woman had ever set foot in most monasteries or the palaces of the Dalai Lama.
There are reports of women being burned for giving birth to twins and for practicing the pre-Buddhist traditional religion (called Bon). Twins were considered proof that a woman had mated with an evil spirit. The rituals and folk medicine of Bon were considered "witchcraft." Like in other feudal societies, upperclass women were sold into arranged marriages. Custom allowed a husband to cut off the tip of his wife's nose if he discovered she had slept with someone else. The patriarchal practices included polygyny, where a wealthy man could have many wives; and polyandry, where in land-poor noble families one woman was forced to be wife to several brothers.
Among the lower classes, family life was similar to slavery in the U.S. South. (See The Life of a Tibetan Slave.) Serfs could not marry or leave the estate without the master's permission. Masters transferred serfs from one estate to another at will, breaking up serf families forever. Rape of women serfs was common--under the ulag system, a lord could demand "temporary wives."
The Tibetan people called their rulers "the Three Great Masters" because the ruling class of serf owners was organized into three institutions: the lama monasteries possessed 37 percent of the cultivated land and pasture in old Tibet; the secular aristocracy 25 percent; and the remaining 38 percent was in the hands of the government officials appointed by the Dalai Lama's advisors.
About 2 percent of Tibet's population was in this upper class, and an additional 3 percent were their agents, overseers, stewards, managers of estates and private armies. The ger-ba, a tiny elite of about 200 families, ruled at the top. Han Suyin writes: "Only 626 people held 93 percent of all land and wealth and 70 percent of all the yaks in Tibet. These 626 included 333 heads of monasteries and religious authorities, and 287 lay authorities (including the nobles of the Tibetan army) and six cabinet ministers."
Merchants and handicraftsmen also belonged to a lord. A quarter of the population in the capital city of Lhasa survived by begging from religious pilgrims. There was no modern industry or working class. Even matches and nails had to be imported. Before the revolution, no one in Tibet was ever paid wages for their work.
The heart of this system was exploitation. Serfs worked 16- or 18-hour days to enrich their masters--keeping only about a quarter of the food they raised.
A. Tom Grunfeld writes: "These estates were extremely lucrative. One former aristocrat noted that a 'small' estate would typically consist of a few thousand sheep, a thousand yaks, an undetermined number of nomads and two hundred agricultural serfs. The yearly output would consist of over 36,000 kg (80,000 lbs.) of grain, over 1,800 kg (4,000 lbs.) of wool and almost 500 kg (1,200 lbs.) of butter... A government official had 'unlimited powers of extortion' and could make a fortune from his powers to extract bribes not to imprison and punish people.... There was also the matter of extracting monies from the peasantry beyond the necessary taxes."
The ruling serf owners were parasites. One observer, Sir Charles Bell, described a typical official who spent an hour a day at his official duties. Upper class parties lasted for days of eating, gambling and lying around. The aristocratic lamas also never worked. They spent their days chanting, memorizing religious dogma and doing nothing.
Defenders of old Tibet portray Lamaist Buddhism as the essence of the culture of the people of Tibet. But it was really nothing more or less than the ideology of a specific oppressive social system. The lamaist religion itself is exactly as old as feudal class society. The first Tibetan king, Songsten-gampo, established a unified feudal system in Tibet, around 650 A.D. He married princesses from China and Nepal in order to learn from them the practices used outside Tibet to carry out feudalism. These princesses brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, where it was merged with earlier animist beliefs to create a new religion, Lamaism.
This new religion had to be imposed on the people over the next century and a half by the ruling class, using violence. King Trosong Detsen decreed: "He who shows a finger to a monk shall have his finger cut off; he who speaks ill of the monks and the king's Buddhist policy shall have his lips cut off; he who looks askance at them shall have his eyes put out..."
Between the 1400s and the 1600s, a bloody consolidation of power took place, the abbots of the largest monasteries seized overall power. Because these abbots practiced anti-woman celibacy, their new political system could not operate by hereditary father-to-son succession. So the lamas created a new doctrine for their religion: They announced that they could detect newborn children who were reincarnations of dead ruling lamas. Hundreds of top lamas were declared "Living Buddhas" (Bodhisattvas) who had supposedly ruled others for centuries, switching to new bodies occasionally as old host bodies wore out.
The central symbol of this system, the various men called Dalai Lama, was said to be the early Tibetan nature-god Chenrezig who had simply reappeared in 14 different bodies over the centuries. In fact, only three of the 14 Dalai Lamas actually ruled. Between 1751 and 1950, there was no adult Dalai Lama on the throne in Tibet 77 percent of the time. The most powerful abbots ruled as "regent" advisors who trained, manipulated and even assassinated the child-king Dalai Lamas.
Tibetan monasteries were not holy, compassionate Shangrilas, like in some New Age fantasy. These monasteries were dark fortresses of feudal exploitation--they were armed villages of monks complete with military warehouses and private armies. Pilgrims came to some shrines to pray for a better life. But the main activity of monasteries was robbing the surrounding peasants. The huge idle religious clergy grew little food--feeding them was a big burden on the people.
The largest monasteries housed thousands of monks. Each "parent" monastery created dozens (even hundreds) of small strongholds scattered through the mountain valleys. For example, the huge Drepung monastery housed 7,000 monks and owned 40,000 people on 185 different estates with 300 pastures.
Monasteries also made up countless religious taxes to rob the people--including taxes on haircuts, on windows, on doorsteps, taxes on newborn children or calves, taxes on babies born with double eyelids...and so on. A quarter of Drepung's income came from interest on money lent to the serf-peasantry. The monasteries also demanded that serfs hand over many young boys to serve as child-monks.
The class relations of Tibet were reproduced inside the monasteries: the majority of monks were slaves and servants to the upper abbots and lived half-starved lives of menial labor, prayer chanting and routine beatings. Upper monks could force poor monks to take their religious exams or perform sexual services. (In the most powerful Tibetan sect, such homosexual sex was considered a sign of holy distance from women.) A small percent of the clergy were nuns.
After liberation, Anna Louise Strong asked a young monk, Lobsang Telé, if monastery life followed Buddhist teachings about compassion. The young lama replied that he heard plenty of talk in the scripture halls about kindness to all living creatures, but that he personally had been whipped at least a thousand times. "If any upper class lama refrains from whipping you," he told Strong, "that is already very good. I never saw an upper lama give food to any poor lama who was hungry. They treated the laymen who were believers just as badly or even worse."
These days, the Dalai Lama is "packaged" internationally as a non-materialist holy man. In fact, the Dalai Lama was the biggest serf owner in Tibet. Legally, he owned the whole country and everyone in it. In practice, his family directly controlled 27 manors, 36 pastures, 6,170 field serfs and 102 house slaves.
When he moved from palace to palace, the Dalai Lama rode on a throne chair pulled by dozens of slaves. His troops marched along to "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," a tune learned from their British imperialist trainers. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama's bodyguards, all over six-and-a-half feet tall, with padded shoulders and long whips, beat people out of his path. This ritual is described in the Dalai Lama's autobiography.
The first time he fled to India in 1950, the Dalai Lama's advisors sent several hundred mule-loads of gold and silver bars ahead to secure his comfort in exile. After the second time he fled, in 1959, Peking Review reported that his family left lots of gold and silver behind, plus 20,331 pieces of jewelry and 14,676 pieces of clothing.
The people lived with constant cold and hunger. Serfs endlessly gathered scarce wood for their masters. But their own huts were only heated by small cooking fires of yak dung. Before the revolution there was no electricity in Tibet. The darkness was only lit by flickering yak-butter lamps.
Serfs were often sick from malnutrition. The traditional food of the masses is a mush made from tea, yak butter, and a barley flour called tsampa. Serfs rarely tasted meat. One 1940 study of eastern Tibet says that 38 percent of households never got any tea--and drank only wild herbs or "white tea" (boiled water). Seventy-five percent of the households were forced at times to eat grass. Half of the people couldn't afford butter--the main source of protein available.
Meanwhile, a major shrine, the Jokka Kang, burned four tons of yak butter offerings daily. It has been estimated that one-third of all the butter produced in Tibet went up in smoke in nearly 3,000 temples, not counting the small alters in each house.
In old Tibet, nothing was known about basic hygiene, sanitation, or the fact that germs caused disease. For ordinary people, there were no outhouses, sewers or toilets. The lamas taught that disease and death were caused by sinful "impiety." They said that chanting, obedience, paying monks money and swallowing prayer scrolls was the only real protection from disease.
Old Tibet's superstition, feudal practices and low productive forces caused the people to suffer terribly from disease. Most children died before their first year. Even most Dalai Lamas did not make it to 18 years old and died before their coronations. A third of the population had smallpox. A 1925 smallpox epidemic killed 7,000 in Lhasa. It is not known how many died in the countryside. Leprosy, tuberculosis, goiter, tetanus, blindness and ulcers were very common. Feudal sexual customs spread venereal disease, including in the monasteries. Before the revolution, about 90 percent of the population was infected--causing widespread sterility and death. Later, under the leadership of Mao Tsetung, the revolution was able to greatly reduce these illnesses--but it required intense class struggle against the lamas and their religious superstitions. The monks denounced antibiotics and public health campaigns, saying it was a sin to kill lice or even germs! The monks denounced the People's Liberation Army for eliminating the large bands of wild, rabies-infested dogs that terrorized people across Tibet. (Still today, one of the "charges" against the Maoist revolution is that it "killed dogs"!)
In old Tibet, the upper classes preached mystical Buddhist nonviolence. But, like all ruling classes in history, they practiced reactionary violence to maintain their rule.
The lamaist system of government came into being through bloody struggles. The early lamas reportedly assassinated the last Tibetan king, Lang Darma, in the 10th century. Then they fought centuries of civil wars, complete with mutual massacres of whole monasteries. In the 20th century, the 13th Dalai Lama brought in British imperialist trainers to modernize his national army. He even offered some of his troops to help the British fight World War I.
These historical facts alone prove that lamaist doctrines of "compassion" and "nonviolence" are hypocrisy.
The former ruling class denies there was class struggle in old Tibet. A typical account by Gyaltsen Gyaltag, a representative of the Dalai Lama in Europe, says: "Prior to 1950, the Tibetans never experienced a famine, and social injustices never led to an uprising of the people." It is true that there is little written record of class struggle. The reason is that Lamaism prevented any real histories from being written down. Only disputes over religious dogma were recorded.
But the mountains of Tibet were filled with bandit runaways, and each estate had its armed fighters. This alone is proof that constant struggle--sometimes open, sometimes hidden--defined Tibetan society and its power relations.
Revolutionary historians have documented uprisings among Tibetan serfs in 1908, 1918, 1931, and the 1940s. In one famous uprising, 150 families of serfs of northern Tibet's Thridug county rose up in 1918, led by a woman, Hor Lhamo. They killed the county head, under the slogan: "Down with officials! Abolish all ulag forced labor!"
Daily violence in old Tibet was aimed at the masses of people. Each master punished "his" serfs, and organized armed gangs to enforce his rule. Squads of monks brutalized the people. They were called "Iron Bars" because of the big metal rods they carried to batter people.
It was a crime to "step out of your place"--like hunting fish or wild sheep that the lamaist declared were "sacred." It was even a crime for a serf to appeal his master's decisions to some other authority. When serfs ran away, the masters' gangs went to hunt them down. Each estate had its own dungeons and torture chambers. Pepper was forced under the eyelids. Spikes were forced under the fingernails. Serfs had their legs connected by short chains and were released to wander hobbled for the rest of their lives.
Grunfeld writes: "Buddhist belief precludes the taking of life, so that whipping a person to the edge of death and then releasing him to die elsewhere allowed Tibetan officials to justify the death as 'an act of God.' Other brutal forms of punishment included the cutting off of hands at the wrists, using red-hot irons to gouge out eyes; hanging by the thumbs; and crippling the offender, sewing him into a bag, and throwing the bag in the river."
As signs of the lamas' power, traditional ceremonies used body parts of people who had died: flutes made out of human thigh bones, bowls made out of skulls, drums made from human skin. After the revolution, a rosary was found in the Dalai Lama's palace made from 108 different skulls. After liberation, serfs widely reported that the lamas engaged in ritual human sacrifice--including burying serf children alive in monastery ground-breaking ceremonies. Former serfs testified that at least 21 people were sacrificed by monks in 1948 in hopes of preventing the victory of the Maoist revolution.
The central belief of lamaism is reincarnation and karma. Each living being is said to be inhabited by an immortal soul that has been born and reborn many times. After each death, a soul is supposedly given a new body.
According to the dogma of karma, each soul gets the life it deserves: Pious behavior leads to good karma--and with that comes a rise in the social status of the next life. Impious (sinful) behavior leads to bad karma and the next life could be as an insect (or a woman).
In reality, there is no such thing as reincarnation. Dead people do not return in new bodies. But in Tibet, the belief in reincarnation had terrible real consequences. People intrigued by Tibetan mysticism need to understand the social function served by these lamaist beliefs inside Tibet: Lamaist Buddhism was created, imposed and perpetuated to carry out the extreme feudal oppression of the people.
Lamaists today tell the story of an ancient Tibetan king who wanted to close the gap between rich and poor. The king asked a religious scholar why his efforts failed. "The sage is said to have explained to him that the gap between rich and poor cannot be closed by force, since the conditions of present life are always the consequences of actions in earlier lives, and therefore the course of things cannot be changed at will."
Grunfield writes: "From a purely secular point of view, this doctrine must be seen as one of the most ingenious and pernicious forms of social control ever devised. To the ordinary Tibetan, the acceptance of this doctrine precluded the possibility of ever changing his or her fate in this life. If one were born a slave, so the doctrine of karma taught, it was not the fault of the slaveholder but rather the slaves themselves for having committed some misdeeds in a previous life. In turn, the slaveholder was simply being rewarded for good deeds in a previous life. For the slave to attempt to break the chains that bound him, or her, would be tantamount to a self-condemnation to a rebirth into a life worse than the one already being suffered. This is certainly not the stuff of which revolutions are made..."
Tibet's feudalist abbot-lamas taught that their top lama was a single divine god-king-being--whose rule and dog-eat-dog system was demanded by the natural workings of the universe. These myths and superstitions teach that there can be no social change, that suffering is justified, and that to end suffering each person must patiently tolerate suffering. This is almost exactly what Europe's medieval Catholic church taught the people, in order to defend a similar feudal system.
Also like in medieval Europe, Tibet's feudalists fought to suppress anything that might undermine their "watertight" system. All observers agree that, before the Maoist revolution, there were no magazines, printed books, or non-religious literature of any kind in Tibet. The only Tibetan language newspaper was published in Kalimpong by a converted Christian Tibetan. The source of news of the outside world was travelers and a couple of dozen shortwave radios that were owned only by members of the ruling class.
The masses created folklore, but the written language was reserved for religious dogma and disputes. The masses of people and probably most monks were kept completely illiterate. Education, outside news and experimentation were considered suspect and evil.
Defenders of lamaism act like this religion was the essence of the culture (and even the existence) of the Tibetan people. This is not true. Like all things in society and nature, Lamaist Buddhism had a beginning and will have an end. There was culture and ideology in Tibet before lamaism. Then this feudal culture and religion arose together with feudal exploitation. It was inevitable that lamaist culture would shatter together with those feudal relations.
In fact, when the Maoist revolution arrived in 1950, this system was already rotting from within. Even the Dalai Lama admits that the population of Tibet was declining. It is estimated there were about 10 million Tibetans 1,000 years ago when Buddhism was first introduced--by the time of the Maoist revolution there were only two or three million left. Maoists estimate that the decline had accelerated: the population had been cut in half during the last 150 years.
The lamaist system burdened the people with massive exploitation. It enforced the special burden of supporting a huge, parasitic, non-reproducing clergy of about 200,000--that absorbed 20 percent or more of the region's young men. The system suppressed the development of productive forces: preventing the use of iron plows, the mining of coal or fuel, the harvesting of fish or game, and medical/sanitary innovation of any kind. Hunger, the sterility caused by venereal disease, and polyandry kept the birthrate low.
The mystical wrapping of lamaism cannot hide that old Tibetan society was a dictatorship of the serf owners over the serfs. There is nothing to romanticize about this society. The serfs and slaves needed a revolution!
Through the 1930s and '40s, a revolutionary people's war arose among the peasants of central China. Under the leadership of the Communist Party and its Chairman Mao Tsetung, the revolution won overall state power in the heavily populated areas of eastern China in 1949. By then, U.S. intrigues were already starting at China's northern border with Korea, and French imperialists were launching their colonialist invasion of Vietnam along China's southern border. Clearly, the Maoist revolutionaries were eager to liberate the oppressed everywhere in China, and to drive foreign intriguers from China's border regions.
But Tibet posed a particular problem: In 1950, this huge region had been almost completely isolated from the revolutionary whirlwind that swept the rest of China. There were almost no Tibetan communists. There was no communist underground among Tibet's serfs. In fact, the serfs of Tibet had no idea that a revolution was happening elsewhere in their country, or even that such things as "revolutions" were possible.
The grip of the lamaist system and its religion was extremely strong in Tibet. It could not be broken simply by having revolutionary troops of the majority Han nationality march in and "declare" that feudalism was abolished! Mao Tsetung rejected the "commandist" approach of "doing things in the name of the masses." Maoist revolution relies on the masses.
In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss how Maoist revolution got its foothold in Tibet, and how the revolution grew into great mass storms that blew away the lamaist oppression.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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