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Saturday, 01 September 2007

Tibet: Visiting a Dying Culture

Written by Steven Mendel
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womanVisiting Tibet is like watching someone drown. They are calling out for help as you stand on shore not knowing how to save them. An elderly Tibetan woman grabs my wife’s hand stares intently in her eyes and sweeps her free hand across the sky, encompassing the mountains and says, “Tibet, Tibet.” A middle aged man in an outdoor market beckons me to sit next to him and for the next fifteen minutes pours out his life story and that of his beleaguered country, all the time anxiously looking out for anyone who may be eaves dropping.

Tibet’s religion, Tibetan Buddhism, is the heart of their culture. What makes their beliefs so unique is that there is no separation between the everyday world and the holy. Religious beliefs form the basis of every facet of Tibetan society. Heaven, or nirvana, is present right now and we are living in it, or at least in the possibility of it. The spiritual world is all around you and infuses everything you say and do. This outlook is so fundamentally different than that of the west that it is hard to put into words.

palaceThe fusion of everyday life and religion is present among Tibetans from all strata of society. Many people of the capital city, Lhasa, organize their daily routine around their religious rituals. Each day thousands of Tibetans walk around the perimeter of Potala Palace which was home to the Dalai Lama. All ages and sexes walk the circuit, often dozens of times, spinning prayer wheels while their lips move silently, chanting prayers. They are joined by groups of mainly young devotees prostrating themselves in front of the temples. Many of these pilgrims live miles from the capital and have walked long distances falling on the ground prostrate every three steps. The fervor of their belief is breathtaking for a skeptical westerner.prostrating

The Buddhist clergy exemplify the Tibetan religious commitment. A fascinating teaching technique is how students quiz one another regarding Buddhist text. The students are paired up. One stands while the other sits down. The standing one asks his sitting colleague a question and if the answer is wrong the standing student claps his hands loudly right in the other student’s face. This is done in a courtyard with the entire student body. The clamor is unbelievable as hundreds of students are clapping and others are yelling out what they hope are right answers.

There is also no separation between politics and religion. The Dalai Lama is the de facto Tibetan political and religious leader. The current politics of the country is related to the reigns of the different Dalai Lamas, the way English historical eras are identified by the names of the monarchs.

The same interdependence is seen between religion and science. The Tibetan practice of medicine is based on Buddhist principles. A Tibetan medical professor explained their understanding and treatment of diseases: Tibetan biology is based on the presence of three elements, wind, bile and phlegm. It is the imbalance of any of these three elements that causes disease. Like traditional Chinese medicine, Tibetans use acupuncture as one of the main forms of treatment, but it differs in the fact that they use only one spot on top of the head to manipulate with a needle.

monksTibet has to be one of the few remaining places where the spiritual continues to provide the organizing principles of every facet of society and offers a reminder as to how most of the world lived at one time. Today, when so many other cultures are looking for meaning, Tibet is a living example of what a society founded on meaning can look like. But, unfortunately, this indigenous society seems doomed.


The Tibetan culture is under attack by the Chinese government. China’s strategy is not subtle but it doesn’t have to be. One statistic tells the story: the population of China is 1.3 billion; the population of Tibet is 2.7 million. With such a vast differential, subtlety is not necessary.

All the Tibetans I met want to stop this destruction, but if there are too few to do that, they want rest of us to at least bear witness. They want the world to understand what they are going through.

lasaThe annexation of a smaller country by a larger one is nothing new, but to witness it firsthand is heartbreaking. The US’s past relations with the Native Americans closely parallels the Chinese in Tibet.

I imagine that communicating with the Tibetans was what it must have been like to listen to an American Indian chief in the 1840’s; they know their way of life is doomed, yet there is nothing they can do to stop it.

The Chinese government is utilizing two brutally effective strategies that were once employed by the US government in the repression of its native population. The first is to use the disparity in numbers to overwhelm the native people and the second is a protracted campaign to obliterate their culture. In the Homestead Act of 1862 settlers were promised one hundred and sixty acres of land at no cost by the government, if they settled on it for a certain amount of time. But of course this land was not “free” It belonged to the indigenous people. In a similar fashion, the Chinese government’s policy is to encourage Chinese immigration to Tibet. The goal of this emigration is to overwhelm the native population until Tibet becomes just another province of China.

monksThe Tibetan culture and their central religious practice is likewise under assault by the Chinese government. There used to be six to eight thousand monks studying at the main Buddhist monastery in Lhasa, now there are only six to eight hundred. The Chinese also control who gets selected for monastic study, choosing Tibetans from “reliable” families. This is similar to how America sent Native American children into English-only schools, banning their native languages.

Of course the best-known example of the repression of Tibetan Buddhism is the exile of the Dalai Lama after his escape to India. The fourteenth Dalai Lama has become the international symbol of his struggling religion. The popularity of the Dalai Lama in the west is because he personifies living a life guided by compassion but despite (or maybe because of) his celebrity, he is still unable to live freely in his native country.

In the past twenty years China has accomplished economically what has taken the west one hundred years. Future generations of Chinese who will take their material comfort for granted may also come to look to Tibetan traditions as a source of meaning in their lives. It would be tragic for them and for all of us if this rich and unique culture were consigned to a museum exhibit of past dead societies. The Chinese government has the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that economic development does not have to be gained through the destruction of a traditional culture. Let’s hope they take it.

© Steven Mendel

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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