Monday, November 22, 2010


By Gabriel Lafitte, 22 Nov 2010


China's greatest fear is that modernity is skin deep, and is easily lost. The gleaming modernity of the glass towers is just a skin, covering what lies behind: a vast sea of seething irrationality, superstition, ignorance and mutual obligation; which modern China left behind only yesterday, which could reassert itself at any time. Modern China fears that its grip on modernity, and on the hearts of the masses who are yet to benefit much from modernity, is fragile, and could easily be shaken.

I used to walk the streets of Beijing in my frequent visits in the 1990s, marvelling at the new skyscrapers, the archetypal symbols of modernity springing up at an astounding pace, all along the wide straight streets bulldozed by the architects of modernity. But I would also walk through the shining glass, steel and concrete and out the back door, and suddenly I would be in a hutong, the winding lanes of closely clustered courtyard houses of Chinese tradition, with peddlers on bicycles, full of life. Modernity was, at that time, literally only skin deep, just a facade, with the real Beijing just one glossy building away from the grand avenues of straight-line modern rationality.

Of course, since the 1990s the pace of construction, and concentration of power in the hands of the party-connected elite has only intensified, and the hutongs have been almost entirely bulldozed too, and modernity is no longer only one building deep, but extends across the entire city. Now, in 2010, modernity is city wide, but in the wider context of China's rural hinterland, it remains only city-deep. The countryside is still, in the eyes of the urban elite, full of ignorant peasants, of low human quality (sushi), who need to be vigorously controlled and propagandised so they will see the cities as their cities and feel proud of China's achievements even if their share is small. But the peasants easily get swept up in mass enthusiasms, in sects and cults, in martial arts and mystical nonsense, in warrior cults that can threaten an entire ruling dynasty. Powering these irrational eruptions is a primitive, superstitious mentality, that sees omens in earthquakes and floods, in the sky and in the earth. Then deepest source, hardest to eradicate, is Tibetan Buddhism, which is not only anti-modern, it is highly organised and has centuries of resistance to Chinese power.


But communism is only the most urgent form of modernity. When Mao died, and the communist revolution died shortly after, China's modernising elite lost none of their drive to attain modernity; in fact the failure of revolution was their big opportunity to adopt the other path to modernity: capitalism, with Chinese characteristics of monopolising the accumulation of wealth in the hands of those connected to the party.

All along, this elite has been haunted by the nightmare that it could all collapse, as it did many times in China's difficult path to modernity, much more difficult than Japan's, which also took violently wrong turns on the path. The nightmare is that the enlightened islands of modernity -the cities- will be engulfed by the superstitious masses.

This is a nightmare of their own making, the fearful vision of those who delude themselves that they alone are rational and everywhere else there is only irrationality. This elitist, arrogant assumption may be necessary as a way of justifying the party-state's failure to share its wealth, to redistribute wealth to the poor by providing social welfare, health insurance, decent schools in poor counties, and many other redistributive state failures. But it is an isolating delusion, cutting the elite off from what they most fear, exaggerating in their minds the fear of a great sea of superstitious peasants, ethnic minorities, even the rural migrants to the cities who operate the machines in the factories.

Modernity rests on the delusion of rationality, as if the actual decision-making done behind the closed walls of the old Zhongnanhai palace in Beijing, headquarters of the Communist Party, are supremely rational, when they are evidently contradictory, political, bent by current fashions in ideas and slogans, driven by basic emotions, none more powerful than fear and suspicion. China's surly stance towards the world, its quickness in adopting the posture of global victim of global conspiracy, its willingness to believe that Meiguo, the beautiful country (America) which it most seeks to imitate, is actually conspiring for China's downfall; all these postures towards the outside world suggest not the rule of rationality but a highly emotional tribe of party leaders who dare not step out of line.

Likewise, the elite's gaze inwards, into rural, hinterland and western China is deeply irrational, suffused with the elite obsession with sushi, the illusion that the only knowledge that matters, indeed the only knowledge that exists, is modern knowledge, of the sciences of material conquest of nature. Knowledge of ploughing the land or herding on the grassland is at best primitive knowledge, nothing to do with the knowledge economy that fascinates the modernisers, and we might as well ignore it as a kind of knowledge altogether.


When Mao whispered in the Dalai Lama's ear that religion is poison, he was repeating an orthodoxy of the communist ideology. But communism is just an urgent short path, a tantric path, to modernity. Like tantra, it requires total commitment, total mobilisation of all human energies, utterly focussed on attaining its goal of a paradise on earth. But unlike mantrayana, it is bound to fail because its vision of perfection is a collective perfection of the material world.

The Communist Party's great project of perfection on earth requires a strong nation-state, in order to save China from itself, from backwardness, from external threat, from irrationality. “Attacking religion meant attacking a dispersed and eclectic agglomeration of institutions among various traditions, all of which in the revolutionaries' view encouraged a mindset that impeded the construction of the nation and the development of modernity.” (Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the politics of Chinese modernity, Harvard, 2009, 5)

While the Chinese state has long asserted its right to regulate religious activity, the modernisers of the Kuomintang and the Communist Party were alike in seeing “the world of religious affiliations and ties as a dangerous realm of superstition that would lead the nation to ruin. It convinced them that faith in the party-state would replace those ties: (Nedostup, 4) Thus faith in the state and faith in religion are a zero/sum, an either/or. You can have one or the other, not both. The very fact that Tibetans remain stubbornly loyal to their leader, on the far side of the mountains, outside China's control, means they have no loyalty to the state.

Chen Duxiu in 1918 wrote: “Now there are two possible roads in the world. One is the bright road of republicanism, science and atheism, and the other is the dark one of autocracy, superstition and divine authority.” (Nedostup 15) The Kuomintang felt as much urgency as the communists in sweeping away old China, saving China from humiliation, often repeating the rallying phrase:” to make revolution we must uproot hearts and minds.” (Nedostup 14) The KMT launched its “campaign to destroy superstition”, so as “to facilitate both the creation of a nation and the governance of the party by cleansing society of its deleterious aspects and fundamentally reordering it. Social harm allegedly emanated from wealth-gathering temples, wasteful rituals, and parasitic clergy, fortune tellers, mediums and the like.” (Nedostup 15).


On 1 November 2010 repressive new regulations intruding into management of Tibetan monasteries came into force. On top of existing regulations interfering in monastic life and religious practice, these new invasions were denounced by Kalon Tsering Phuntsok as “an evil design on the part of the Chinese government to obstruct the Buddhist teachings and its sacred transmissions inside Tibet and makes it extremely difficult for the monastic institutions to undertake their important religious activities,.” Yet, at the same time, a leading academic analyst of Chinese policy could write: “China’s new religious policy expands the institutional autonomy of religious organizations, limits the power of religious affairs bureaus, and provides for administrative appeal, judicial challenge, and sanctioning errant officials. The 2005 Regulations on Religious Affairs (RRA) stipulations expanding the institutional autonomy of religious organizations, affirming the property rights of religious communities, and transferring some government functions to religious organizations all are embedded in the reform to separate state from society, and to protect human and civil rights. RRA provisions of administration transparency, administrative appeal, and judicial challenge and sanctioning of errant officials are part of the policy to govern by law. We thus view the new religious policy as an effort by the Chinese government to fold the management of religion into its larger systemic reform portfolio, to synchronize an anachronistic policy, and to integrate religious policy that diverges from its systemic socioeconomic and political reforms.”..

What sense can we make of this contradiction? The commonest exile response is to say the Chinese leaders are liars, and atheists with no business interfering in what they cannot possibly comprehend. Religious Kalon said this is also a means employed by the Chinese government to not only destroy the tradition and study of Tibetan Buddhism but also to uproot the monastic institutions and the transmission of Buddhist teachings in these centers of learning by diluting the spiritual bond between teacher and pupil. The religious minister said that the People's Republic of China, which claims itself to be officially an atheist state, cannot have the authority to formulate rules and regulations on the management of religious affairs of the Tibetan Buddhism.

But the contradictions go deeper.

Why do China's leaders insist they must oppress Tibet? There are many obvious answers to this most basic of questions, yet none of the usual answers get to the heart of China's fear and loathing of Tibetan culture, especially its' leaders hatred of Tibetan religion. People say it is because the Chinese are communists and communist hate religion, as if nothing in China has changed since Mao told the Dalai Lama in 1954 that religion is poison. Now the Communist Party is barely communist in its ideology, but the ferocious antagonism to Tibetan culture continues. We cannot create dialogue with China's elite until we understand what drives that negative attitude. So we need first to clarify our own thinking. We do this by looking back, at the past century of China's violent struggles to achieve modernity, discovering deep hostility to institutional religion throughout.

Today's China is booming, forging ahead, making fast progress in any aspect of human endeavour one can name, and communism is merely a remnant ideology for imposing discipline on the poor and disadvantaged. So it is worth asking again this old question: what drives the hatred of the Chinese elite towards Tibetan Buddhism, as its primary enemy? In order to answer more deeply, we look more closely at China's current ambitions, hopes and desires; and go more deeply into the historic origins of Chinese modernity, including the discovery that the Kuomintang, like the communists, saw religion as the enemy of modernity.

If it is not communism but modernity that is the antiagonist of Tibetan Buddhism, in the eyes of China's elite, then we can identify the core problem, and stop blaming communism. One reason the world is not listening to Tibetans, though it used to listen not so long ago, is that Tibetans continue to name communism as the enemy, and those who deal with China every day see little sign of communism.

Once we identify China's total determination to attain complete modernity as the reason why Tibetan culture has to be repressed, Tibetan language removed from the classroom, we know what we are up against. China's quest for modernity is older and deeper than communism. For more than a century Chinese elites have argued about how to achieve modernity, but almost all have agreed that religion and superstition must be removed from the public space, and be limited to a purely private role in individual lives. The Kuomintang was just as committed as the Communist Party to strictly controlling religion, because it holds back modernity and a strong state.

How did it come about that modernity sees public religion as its enemy? What are the origins of this antagonism? Can religion play a constructive role in public debate and policy, without being a hindrance to modernity? When Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche once said he was anti-modern, did he mean he wanted to go backwards, or further forward, beyond the limitations and materialist obsessions of modernity?

Japan, like China, was suddenly faced with the challenge of modernity but took a different path, and now manages to be both modern, developed, prosperous and entirely Japanese. Why is the Chinese path to modernity more violent, contradictory, repressive, fragile and fearful of collapsing into chaos?

The fundamental question is: how did it come about that the project of creating a modern society, of literate, productive individuals, made religion into its enemy? To answer this we must go beyond China and Japan, to Europe, to discover assumptions inherited by Asian modernisers. We must look at the European invention of modernity, as a new way of understanding the purpose of human life, a new set of assumptions about the sources of human happiness. We must look at the great revolutions in France and russia, as violent attempts at attaining modernity as fast as possible.

Modernity is much more than railways and bridges, power stations and skyscrapers. It is a mindset, an aggregation of assumptions that have become naturalised, internalised, second nature and no longer visible. Modernity not only overthrows traditional power and privilege, which gives aristocrats a monopoly on education and wealth creation, it insists that everyone must work productively. Women must participate in the workforce and be publicly visible, no longer confined to the home. Everyone should have access to education, not just as a right, but because widespread education contributes both to personal welfare and to collective productivity. That is why the jargon used by economists calls education “human capital formation.” It is the duty of every citizen in a modern society to act rationally, and to maximise productivity, thus raising standards for everyone. Low human quality not only holds back the individual, it also holds back society. In a modernising society that nation-state must be strong, in order to rationally direct investment and maximise growth. Citizens should feel a strong sense of loyalty to the nation-state as a source of identity, rather than to feudal superstitions which retard progress, sinking people into passivity and unproductiveness. If necessary, the nation-state must become a tyranny, in order to break old mindests, because the old society suffered the tyranny of religion, which held back the productive potential of the people. The nation-state can impose behavioural prohibitions and promotions, rewarding and punishing behaviours to ensure modernity succeeds and irrational superstitions fade.

Religion can be reduced to being merely an expression of psychological and social needs. The inner legitimacy and inner subjective experience of religious practice is denied and obscured. Instead an aloof, distant, objective, scinetific stance is taken, in which religion can be explained by the sciences of sociology and psychology, as the yearnings of people for happiness, which has sedimented over time into specific practices. Religion is no more than its observable practices, and those practices do not promote rational productivity, so at best they are useless, at worst they are obstacles to the creation of a new focus for the aspirations and yearnings of the masses, which is the nation-state.

All of the above were core beliefs of not only the Communist Party of China but also the Kuomintang; and of the Kemalist revolutionaries of Turkey, the PRI revolutionary regime in Mexico, as well as Soviet Russia and revolutionary France. Even in the Qing dynasty's last decades there was a strong movement to separate science from religion, with legislation prescribing behaviours to be both rewarded and punished. Whether we consider France in the 1790s, USSR, Turkey, KMT China or Mexico in the 1920s, or Communist China since the 1950s, these same assumptions have become natural categories that are unquestionable and even invisible because they are so pervasive, ever-present, like water is to fish.

James Tong, political science professor at University of California and close observer of China (also quoted above on RRA) expresses the hope that: “Once the modernizing state has consolidated its power, state-religion relations may evolve from competitive conflict to accommodative cooperation.” (JAMES W. TONG: The New Religious Policy in China: Catching up with Systemic Reforms, Asian Survey Vol. 50, Number 5, pp. 859–887. Sept 2010) This is a similar optimism to regular hopes expressed by the Dalai Lama, that as China matures it can relax and become more tolerant. It is the hope that modernity is not an endless, all-embracing project, forever requiring the exclusive loyalty and energy of all citizens; that at a certain point China can feel confident it has attained modernity, it has at last caught up with the leading developed countries, can stand among the great nations as an equal, and no longer needs to prove anything.

But is modernity a destination, and an attainable one which is known to have been attained when it arrives? Or is modernity, and the cycles of creative destruction inherent in capitalism an ever receding goal on the horizon, for which further “arduous struggle” a favoured communist party metaphor) is always required? Above all, the party-state clearly does not feel it has “consolidated its power” in Tibet; in fact it reads the unhappiness of the Tibetan people, so obvious since early 2008, as clear sign that it is yet to consolidate the power of the modern nation-state and must crush the disloyal Buddhists ever more fiercely. Elsewhere in China, modernity is flowering and maturing, but in Tibet the modernity project remains at a preliminary and tenuous stage, and might collapse altogether if tight control is relaxed. So Prof Tong may be right about other parts of China, where the modern state may be willing to curb the harsh and arbitrary powers of the official religious Bureaus, but not in Tibet, where their obnoxious intrusions into the realm of the transcendental is as zealous as ever.

This is not an academic debate about vague terms like modernity, religion, superstition and the nation-state. We need to understand what drives the antagonism. Why is it that the Communist Party remains locked in seeing the Tibetan monasteries as a seriously threatening enemy? Until we understand how this has happened, we have not yet found a language in which any future negotiations may begin. Until we acknowledge the roots of China's fears, it is a dialogue of the deaf, on all sides. There is no dialogue, only monologues that fly past each other, with no contact.

The optimism of Professor Tong seems excessive. While the rule of law is promoted as a goal, and the role of government is somewhat downsized in today's China, there is little sign that a rational, modern, confident and relaxed China is emerging any time soon. China reverts to harsh language and harsh actions when it feels threatened, and clearly it continues to feel threatened by Tibetan monks praying, chanting and meditating. 2011 is the centenary of the revolution which not only overthrew the crumbling Qing dynasty, but ushered in the open embrace of modernity. But a century later, China's leaders unmistakably feel they have been unable to establish even basic modernity in Tibet, since the Tibetans identify more with the Dalai Lama than with the nation-state. Prof Tong's belief that the party-state now submits itself to the rule of law is wildly optimistic, in Tibet. Can one imagine a Tibetan monastery actualising the theoretical right to seek administrative review of the harsh actions of a religious bureau's interference in monastic life? It is impossible.

So the stalemate remains. Can this fundamentally dualistic zero-sum conflict ever be resolved? As long as it requires one side to win and the other to lose, there can be no resolution and the situation will remain as locked as ever. The state will not relent in its oppressive invasion of the sacred; and the Tibetans will not renounce their gurus.

But are there ways in which this conflict can be reframed? Modernity's foundational assumption is that religion is an irrational yearning for security in an unpredictable natural world where the forces of nature are untamed, and the modern alternative, of conquering nature, can successfully replace irrational yearnings with rational productivity guided by a strong state. In vain do religious practitioners protest that the modernizers know nothing about the true purpose and practice of Buddhism. But what if Buddhism could demonstrate it is actually rational and scientific? This is where, as usual, the Great Fourteenth has been way ahead of everyone. He has pioneered the dialogue with neuroscientists, over a long period, and gioven much of his precious time to it, even when many of the scientists seemed to have little to offer. Yet he persists to this day in the collaborative rediscovery of Buddhist logic, philosophy, epistemology and ontology as rational, long predating the insights of 20th century physics and quantum mechanics, and 21st century neuroscience. The Dalai Lama, while unafraid to drop old metaphors such as the earth being flat, has not sought to change Buddhism, as Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi more radically repackaged Hinduism to accommodate modernity. Buddhism has not changed, but it is open to science. For years I watched these well-documented dialogues, and only thought the Dalai lama was exercising a personal curiosity. Not until much later did it dawn on me that his dialogues with so many scientists are part of an undoing of what began in the European revolutions of the 18th century, and their entrenched assumption that churches and religion are by their nature forces of backwardness, superstition and irrationality.

Finding modern ways of not only representing Buddhism to nonBuddhist audiences, but modern ways of doing Buddhism as a practice, is of utmost importance. In modern times people come to Buddhism as individuals, seeking self-realisation. They may conceive of their quest as a purely personal one, having accepted modernity's definition of religion as purely personal, yet the practice itself connects them to the entire community of fellow practitioners (gendun, the sangha) and to connecting, as imaginatively as possible, with all sentient beings. There are so many lamas around the world capable of turning minds reared in conditions of high modernity, with all its pretensions of having solved all human problems. Among these great modernisers are Gyalwa Rinpoche and Gyalwa Karmapa, conquerors of modern minds, able to dissolve the self-importance of modernity and address the heart of human experience, in ways that are fresh.

This is a task that not only liberates inji, Chinese and Tibetan practitioners, but also addresses the prejudices and entrenched blindness of China's leaders. It shows that Buddhism, far from being an enemy of modernity, is entirely modern in its engagement with the powerful agency of the individual, the capacity of the modern self to transcend. What is the alternative? Endless repetition of stale, dualistic set positions. When China announces even more invasive interrogation of monks and nuns, this is denounced by the relevant kalon, himself a venerable monk. Monk denounces Chinese communist interference in religion. Is this a headline? Is this a story the media will report? No. Not any longer. It is all too predictable, stale, repetitive. Only the most conscientious of Tibetan media attend the press conference and report such statements. The rest of the world has stopped listening. Only a perpetuation of stalemate can come of denouncing the party-state's tormenting of monks as “evil intent.”


Tibetan historians chose to ignore China's repressive stance towards religion, preferring instead to paint an ideal picture, of the patron-priest relationship, in which the emperor is the patron and protector of Buddhism, and in turn the Dalai Lama and other great lamas are the priests and preceptors. This mutuality makes them equals, while inhabiting very different realms, with different sources of authority and legitimacy, different capabilities in this world, and different territories under their control.

In reality, there have been individual emperors who were sincere Buddhists, but only a few. For the rest, their professed inclination towards Buddhism was probably, as modern historians all say, part of their statecraft, a posture to legitimise their power over their Buddhist subjects, Mongolian, Tibetan and others.

The Chinese historians tend to represent imperial displays of patronage of Buddhist hierarchs purely as skilful means to pacify the Buddhist peoples of the periphery. Their picture is sharply different to that of the Tibetan historians. In their view all emperors of the Ming and Qing bestowed lavish gifts and titles on the lamas only to bend them to imperial will.

What we may learn from these opposing versions of a long past is that both sets of historians were writing ideal versions, according to Sinocentric or Tibetocentric ideals. History writing, and the writing of county level gazetteers were all meant to put the best face on reality, and edit out that which did not fit the ideal.

This has consequences for us today, since we have all learned a Tibetan version that edits out the reality of Chinese imperial animus against religion, especially Buddhism, over many centuries. Because of the idealised chod-yon patron-preceptor model, we have failed to notice that imperial suspiciousness towards Buddhism was frequent, and often resulted in vigorous attempts to heavily tax monasteries, to close them and seize their property for the state, to forbid new monasteries, and many other constricting regulations.

Timothy Brook, a Canadian historian, has filled in the gaps edited out by pious Tibetan historians, showing the continuity of imperial regulation of Buddhism, stretching all the way back to the Ming dynasty which overthrew the Buddhist Mongol Yuan dynasty over 700 years ago. He also brings the story forward, through the Qing, the Republican Kuomintang regime, and into the communist era. What remains is a consistent pattern of imperial disdain for Buddhism and attempts to control it.

Prof. Brook says: “the Chinese state has a long tradition of regulating organised religion. The regulatory state has in fact been the norm throughout the late-imperial and republican periods. The prohibitionist state that emerged in the 1950s was not an aberration borrowed from the atheist strain in nineteenth-century European socialism that appealed so strongly to Marx and Engels. It drew just as surely on late-imperial traditions.” (Timothy Brook, The Politics of Religion: Late-Imperial Origins of the Regulatory State, in Yoshiko Ashiwa ed., Making Religion, Making the State, Stanford University Press, 2010)

The Ming dynasty emperors who persecuted Buddhism almost as ferociously as the Party persecutes Tibetan Buddhism today were not at all concerned about the urgent necessity of building a modern nation-state. Hongwu, the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty, himself shifted during his 30-year reign (1368-1398) from presenting himself, as his Yuan Mongol predecessors had, as a patron of Buddhism, to persecutor. Buddhism was almost prohibited. His successors were somewhat more moderate, but “regulation became entrenched as the dominant posture of the Ming state, and of all subsequent Chinese states, towards religion. This entrenchment was not new. The Chinese state for the previous millennium assumed that religion was appropriately within its purview, that the work of good government included keeping religious institutions under supervision and even limitation, and that it had a legitimate right to regulate religion in the public interest as well as its own.” (Brook 24)

This deeply rooted statist intervention in religion was driven by “the Confucian establishment that feared for its own authority and privilege as the class deserving to rule the ideal Confucian state.” In many ways, all that has changed is that while the state still sees religion as its competitor for the loyalty of the masses, modernity has replaced Confucian orthodoxy as the reason for persecution.

Now, China officially permits only “normal” religion, which is explicitly defined as religion whose believers accept the “leadership of the party and government” and also accept that it is necessary to “form a united front with atheists in the common effort for socialist modernisation.” To be defined as “normal” and thus acceptable to the state, religious believers must also “centre their will and strength on building a powerful, modern socialist state.” The above quotes are direct translations of the key Document 19 issued by the Communist Party in 1982, “Regarding the basic viewpoint and policy on the religion question during our country's socialist period.”


Modernity is a vision of human perfection which is illusory, a vision that always recedes, like a mirage, as one advances towards it. Modernity can never be attained, because there are always fresh areas to be conquered, in order to attain the shifting goal of comprehensive national power, with rational modernity pervading all aspects of society, all corners of the nation-state, with all citizens rationally producing to their maximum capacity. Not only can we never become fully modern, we have never been modern, if look carefully, as the French philosopher Bruno Latour reminds us.

Modernity, rationality, the European enlightenment, the banishing of superstition, the eclipse of the church, the triumph of science over blind faith, were French inventions of the 18th century that now have China's elite in their grip. Paris is the global capital of modernity. But this French invention is a fantasy, a collective delusion of rationality, whether in France or China, in the 18uth or 21st centuries. It is a deeply self-deluding complex of beliefs, an ideology that unnecessarily clutters the mind with categories that are mutually exclusive and must not be allowed to mingle. Religion is strictly private, and has no role in public affairs. Space and time are separate, and exist objectively, beyond human conventions. Rationality is factual, irrationality is infected with emotion. Mind and body are separate (even though party cadres go privately to Chinese healers who continue to understand mind and body as intimately interdependent).

The ideology of rationality, as Bruno Latour's ethnographies of scientists at work in their laboratories show us, requires editing out all the messiness, emotionality, contradictions and confusions of daily existence. Scientists edit themselves out of their writing, as if they are simply the messengers of externally existing valid truths of objective reality, which remain true until the next scientist reverses everything and establishes a new truth. The actual mess of laboratory life is made invisible, not only to the public, but to the scientists themselves.

It is no accident that when China removes nomads from their pastures, and forces them to live in squalid concrete huts, those huts are built in a straight line. Modernity worships the straight line, it is the yidam of rationality. The straight line represents the capacity of the modern mind to discern the simple geometry embedded in the endless shapes of nature, the capacity to extract an abstraction that seems to be an ideal form, a law of nature, a basic principle of the universe, a key to unlocking mastery of the physical world. The straight line, and all geometric shapes thus are given absolute status, as eternal, fixed truths, not just convenient and useful human conventions (which from a Buddhist viewpoint is all they are).

The straight line is the altar of modernity. It is no accident that one of the earliest acts of the communist revolution was to bulldoze central Beijing, make huge straight boulevards (Chang'an) and greatly enlarge Tiananmen Square, lining it with strictly rectangular buildings proclaiming the party's power. Straight lines rule. The ruler is king.

Now those straight lines have been imposed on nomadic lives. In China's eyes the irrational, ignorant, selfish, unreliable and unproductive nomads must be civilised, and civilisation begins with straight lines. This will teach them objective truth and the material base of everything that matters.

The British colonisers had the same obsession with straight lines, and with the mapping that proceeds from it. Wherever the European colonisers went, they imposed straight lines in the name of civilisation. I remember when I first visited Bougainville, a rich, tropical Pacific island, meeting a local leader named Martin Laina. Somehow his name did not seem similar to others I had met, so I asked, and was told he had been designated, by the Australian colonialists, to be in charge of a brand new “line village” just constructed, and named Laina to signify his new status as the man in charge of keeping everything in line.

In reality, the new line village meant bringing people down from the mountain, down to the coastal plain where malarial mosquitoes breed. Up in the mountains there are few mosquitoes, so the modern line village caused serious debilitating disease burdens on the villagers, but they could be proud of being modern.

Likewise, modernity, in Tibet, is reducible to laughable tokens and fetishes such as the nomadic line village, built of concrete which is cold in winter, hot in summer, in which people now live useless lives, crowded together in ways nomads are not used to, leaving little to do but get drunk, fight, play pool and steal. That is how China introduces its pedagogy of modernity. That is how China deals with its deepest fear, that the nomads and the Tibetans have turned their backs on Chinese modernity, and given the chance, prefer instead the Buddhism of Tibet and the mantrayana path to inner transformation.


What is the point of regurgitating Chinese history of persecution of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, going back over many centuries? There is perhaps a danger that we might become depressed, thinking the obstacles in the minds of the Chinese elite are just too great, too entrenched and habitual.

But that is not the point. First, it helps identify what lies behind China's aggressiveness towards Tibetan Buddhism. It begins not in aggression but in fear, in a sense of the weakness of the state when facing a strong society with its own deeply rooted values, practices and sources of inner contentment. Looking at history means we don't make the mistake of thinking the problem is communism, official atheism, or a European ideology; it goes deeper, has its' roots in Confucian worship of the state.

Our focus on the long lineage of Chinese statist fear and regulation of Buddhism does not mean that all power, all agency rests with the state. Far from it. Buddhism in China and especially in Tibet is so deeply grounded that it has enormous inner strengths capable of dealing with the anxieties of a state that cannot accept that people can be loyal both to their lamas and to their country. Just because Chinese historians write from above, as if the actions of emperors and ruling parties are all that matter, does not mean other voices are powerless.

We must first know what we are up against, then remind ourselves that Chinese Buddhism and even more so, Tibetan Buddhism, have successfully resisted the impositions, regulations and prohibitions of the Chinese state for centuries, and in the case of Tibet, with great vigour and skill. Despite the resources mobilised by the Chinese elite to discredit Buddhism as mere wasteful superstition, the faith of the Tibetans has grown. China's actions have been utterly counter-productive and self-defeating, strengthening the very faith they sought to undermine. Far from the state establishing hegemony, not only winning the game but writing the rules of the game, the reality is that Tibetan Buddhism's inner strengths have been crucial. One might say this is Tibet's secret weapon; so secret that even many modern Tibetans cannot name it. In Buddhist terms it is self-secret, a process of inner transformation that can be published in books, proclaimed in mass media yet still be incomprehensible to ordinary busy modern minds so easily distracted that they fail to see the significance of what presents itself to them.

Since Tibet's secret weapon remains invisible even to modern Tibetans who have hazy ideas about Buddhist practice, it may be a highly useful project to establish what Tibet's inner strength is.

(Writer is a noted Sinologist and Tibetologist, based in Australia. He can be reached by

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