Thursday, June 26, 2008



I'm generally skeptical of Shangri Las, and as a result, don't know that I believe the hoopla surrounding Tibet as a once perfect society which has been demolished by the evil Chinese. I don't doubt that many ethnic Tibetans want the Chinese out of their homeland--people generally despise occupation. However, did the average Tibetan farmer happily accept his lot under the theocracy of pre-1950? Did the average girl really want to marry several men and spend most of her life pregnant? How stiff was the competition to get your child considered as a candidate for monastic enlightenment? (And notice the fuss is always made over boys and not girls).
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.”

See, this I believe about people--that they would behave politically, regardless of the political system (theocracy, democracy, oligarchy, what have you).

I'm in the middle of a number of books now, including Thurman's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I picked up on the urging of a friend to whom I'd recounted some of my recent experiences. In general, I like sacred texts because they seem to me the purest form of getting at someone's spiritual truth. But whole societies devoted to a spiritual teaching? And absolutely everyone benefitted and was happy? I can't help but be skeptical--people being people.

What's more, people need to be materially taken care of--in addition to their spiritual needs being met. I realize it is popular among the elite to focus on the spirit and to lament our lack of attention to the spirit. I certainly feel this way. But this is also generally the attitude of those who already don't have to worry about money, health care, education, food, etc.

Show me a society where everyone has everything and everyone shares and everyone is happy and then I'll pay attention. Until then, I maintain that creating perfection is a slippery and difficult thing, and which we would like, in our lazy moments, to believe is easy if only we would just behave like people did in some mythical past in a far-away land.

There was a book I read (I think it was by Thomas Laird) on the history of Tibet which was based on extensive series of interviews with the Dalai Lama. So it was presented through two prisms - the author's more conventionally narrative view and the Dalia Lama's experience of either living through it or learning about it in a particular context. One particularly fascinating section talked about his engagement with Mao and his initial (and ongoing) admiration for the ideal represented by socialism. He's also quite categorical about how he would not return as a political leader, only a religious one. Certainly as presented by Laird, he'd be in agreement with a lot of your points. Me, I'd agree with all of them. A theocracy is a theocracy is a theocracy - be it run by Tibetan monks, ayatollahs or David Koresh...
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