Theosophy | THE SOUL OF TIBET – I

 Many souls all over the globe were deeply moved by the tragic happenings in Tibet which led to the dramatic escape and exile of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Here was a harmless, happy people, with a distinctive culture and traditional society totally different from that existing anywhere else in the world. To some this society seemed to be an archaic survival, an anachronism in the modern age, a ‘theocratic’ system which Europe had rejected long before the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. And yet, in spite of all facile attempts to label Tibet, many had a feeling of deference towards a religious culture they could not claim to understand. Despite all the travellers’ tales, the several volumes written by scholars and by others fascinated by Tibet, one still felt that the essential truth had not been told, that perhaps it could never be told by anybody inside that remote and close-knit community to anyone outside it. A few went so far as to follow Burke’s maxim: “We must venerate where we cannot understand.” But even the most insensitive of persons, willing to write off Tibet and dismiss its tradition, had somewhere deep down a sense of not knowing what one was talking about.

 Most observers, ranging from the troubled sceptic to the ardent admirer and even to the true believer — most felt that there had taken place a sudden confrontation, unprecedented in history, between a way of life centered on spiritual concerns — which could be criticized in terms of modern criteria but nonetheless had a radiant integrity of its own — and the crude forces of aggression and the destructive passions of politics which are all too familiar in the outside world. It seemed as though Tibet was a test case: can a spiritual tradition survive if it does not arm itself against aggressors who are ruthless, who care nothing for the tradition they are prepared to tear apart or for the culture they are willing to destroy in the name of modernization? This is a question which still troubles many people.

 The Dalai Lama is fortified by his faith that in the end Tibetan tradition, embodied in the way of life of which he is the custodian and the conscience will survive, will even eventually triumph. He is also convinced that, as time goes on, more and more people will come to see that Tibet has a profound political and spiritual significance for all humanity. Elementary human rights have been flagrantly violated by aggressors among a people who were not linked with any foreign power, who were not involved in any sense in the Cold War or giving cause for offence to any neighbouring nation.

 Here, then, is a test case of the vindication of basic human rights, and the Dalai Lama pins his hopes on people everywhere who think about this, who read the reports of the International Commission of Jurists, who seriously try to get some idea of the implications, for a people such as the Tibetans, of the desecration of their monasteries and shrines, and of a stable religious and social order in need of internal reform. His Holiness feels that if men and women continue to be silent about Tibet they will be betraying their very humanity.

 We find that on the political plane the issue has been so sharply and squarely stated that it ultimately touches upon those fundamental decencies which make life meaningful. But, also, the Dalai Lama is convinced that the tragedy of Tibet has a spiritual significance and a meaning even for those who are not primarily interested in the Buddhist tradition. Even for them it must appear tragic that there should have been this brutal interference with the benefits of a gentle and tolerant people. Do the virtues of tolerance and civility for which Europe fought so hard — and which were finally enshrined in the seventeenth century — do these virtues mean nothing to people who may not necessarily share in the beliefs of the Tibetans?

 The Dalai Lama speaks with a faith and confidence akin to that of the Encyclopaedists, the great humanists and the religious prophets, and it would be wonderful for any of us to get something of this faith. How this could be translated into immediate political action is a question which is not a matter for casual discussion. Although nowhere more than in England was there an immediate response in the way of sympathy and material support for the Tibetans in their plight, yet already, in a short time, many people even there have begun to take the subjugation of Tibet for granted, and sometimes to talk as though the Tibetan cause were wholly lost. The Dalai Lama has spoken very warmly about England as the leading spiritual and cultural centre of the whole of Europe. He thought that the British Government, more than any other Government in the West, was aware of the historical background of Tibet and the implications of all that had happened. He also felt that the admirable work of the Tibet Society in England was a pointer to the kind of sympathy and support which could be fruitful.

 It is indeed distressing that we should come across the feeling that Tibet is a lost cause, an irretrievable tragedy, and that perhaps the time has come to write Tibet’s epitaph. Some of us are keen to do what we can for the refugees and to assist the Dalai Lama, while still regarding the cause of Tibet, at least in a political sense, as hopeless. This feeling of hopelessness is unwarranted but perfectly understandable in our time. Whatever we may feel about the legitimacy of the survival of the Tibetan way of life, we are all affected by the tremendous increase in historicism, determinism and fatalism in the modern world, and especially in our own century, even though we instinctively condemn these attitudes when they are couched in their crudest Marxist form. Many of us think that there is something irreversible about the process of modernization, something titanic and totally irresistible about the Industrial Revolution, the march of science and technology. We consequently feel that when any country, but especially a country with an archaic society and a simple economy, with a monastic culture and old-fashioned ideas of government, comes up against a modern aggressor, be he communist or anyone else, the traditional system must necessarily give way to the forces of modernization.

 When the British entered Tibet at the time of the famous Younghusband Expedition, and even earlier — going back to the emissary sent out in the eighteenth century — there was a willing recognition that Tibet was no worse for being different. It is Britain, more than any other power that has moved out into far places, which has preserved that due respect for differing cultures and traditions which comes naturally to a people steeped in a traditional culture that has set a high value upon tolerance and the acceptance of diversity. The British failed in the assimilation of people who were racially and culturally different, but they were able to play a protective role in many areas of the world where they were in power. Even in countries where they unwittingly launched the process of modernization they had doubts and reservations; they were never too certain that this was the universal panacea.

 But when a country such as Tibet comes into violent contact with fanatical believers in the gospel of material progress and ruthless modernization, can it survive? If we are convinced it cannot, then we can do no more than merely deplore the actual methods used by the Chinese, which indeed are ghastly. And here we have the cruel paradox of modernization introduced by methods which take us right back to the Middle Ages, methods which beggar description. Sickening details of the heinous things that are being done in Tibet in the name of modernization are to be found in the objective reports prepared by the International Commission of Jurists.

 Are we going to be content with deploring the pace, the cost, the pains and the ruthlessness of this compulsory modernization? Has not the time come for us to reassess our high valuation of the very process of modernization? If we do this, we shall become less inclined to accept without question the notion that it is inevitable and unavoidable in every part of the world. We may even come to distrust the dogmatism or fatalism with which people declare Tibet to be a lost cause.

 If we wish to appreciate the significance of Tibet, we must not merely have second thoughts about the blessings and inevitability of modernization but also discard at least one version still in vogue of the doctrine of Progress. No doubt the idea of progress is an ancient one, derived from several sources of the Western tradition, different from the cyclical views of history of the East, but it assumed a wholly new form in the last sixty years. All the early apostles of progress — Herder, Kant, Condorcet, Renouvier — regarded it mainly as a moral concept, an ethical ideal towards which modern man was moving. Renouvier clearly condemned the deterministic notion of progress. There is, after all, no religious warrant for the belief that the Kingdom of God will inevitably appear on earth in the foreseeable future. There is no scientific proof for the belief that technological and scientific developments will necessarily ensure better social relations, happier and more harmonious human relationships. There is no economic basis, either, for the belief in indefinite and automatic expansion.

 But none of these doubts entered sixty years ago into the minds of those who took the permanency of their political universe for granted. Then, for the first time, as a result of the Darwinian theory of evolution, a new and specious form of the doctrine of progress came into being: the idea of inevitable, automatic, cumulative and irreversible progress achieved purely through technological inventions, economic betterment and the raising of living standards. This idea, although it was powerfully attacked and rejected by several leading thinkers and writers in Europe, still lingers on in people’s minds even if they disavow it. This lingering latter-day notion of progress is a serious obstacle to our appreciation of the significance of Tibet.

 If we look at Tibet with this idea in our minds, there is no chance of our really understanding it. Tibetans have lived in a land rich in mineral resources but refused to develop them because they believed that this would be an unnecessary and undesirable interference with the soil. These are people willing to spend a significant proportion of their meagre earnings upon the maintenance of a vast number of monasteries; a people completely happy to accept that the only education available to them (and it was generally available in Tibet) was an essentially religious education. It is true that those who did not wish to become monks went to these ancient monastic universities and got some kind of secular learning, but not what we would today call secular learning. They might acquire a little knowledge of elementary mathematics, indigenous medicine, traditional arts and crafts and practical skills. But how could such people be fitted into any scale of values we might have?

 It is not going to be easy for ‘progressive’ people to seize on the true significance of Tibet, and to realize that they are confronted not just by helpless exiles pleading for sympathy but by a moral challenge to many assumptions they normally would not question. As the Dalai Lama has said in his book My Land and My People, one cannot understand Tibet if one has no feeling for religion.

 What is religion to the Dalai Lama, to Tibetans? Religion, he says in his book, has got everything to do with the mental discipline, the peace of mind, the calm and poise, the inner equanimity achieved by any human being, which is bound to show in his daily life. The Dalai Lama says explicitly that religion is not a matter of merely going into retreats and monasteries. No doubt when this is done it has its value, but religion is not a matter of outward profession or formal observance. His Holiness does not even use the word ‘Buddhism’ with anything like a sectarian sound. He is simply not interested in making claims of any sort. Religion means for him something quite different from what it means to almost all of us in the modern world. For him, and for the Tibetans, religion means what it meant in Carlyle’s definition: the beliefs by which a man really lives from day to day, not the beliefs to which he merely gives verbal or even mental assent.

Raghavan Iyer
The Royal Society, London June 13, 1962

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