The Story of Tibet

It must be summer because I'm back blogging again! After a whirlwind first year back in the classroom, I'm spending vacation preparing four new seminar courses next year. First up on the reading list? Thomas Laird's The Story of Tibet.

The Book

Laird spent nine years interviewing the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and researching Tibetan history while writing this book. Although mostly focused on the life and times of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas, his book also includes a retrospective of Tibetan history from archaeological times through 2010. I appreciate that this is a text where the historian is very present; Laird wavers between historical inquiry, swooning over personal audiences with the Dalai Lama, and executing a personal mission to eradicate the Chinese rewriting of Tibetan history. His obvious crushing on the Dalai Lama gets a little old sometimes, but honestly if I were meeting the Dalai Lama for personal audiences I'd fall prey to the same phenomenon.

This is called The Story of Tibet and not "The History of Tibet" because it straddles the fine line between myth and verifiable history. "'There can be two visions of the same thing,' the Dalai Lama said, 'one of people who have a pure insight developed through spiritual practice and one that is purely conventional. In these special cases- and these events are rare, but important- both are true, both are reality'" (5). It's perhaps a dangerous text to use in the classroom of a school populated by history PhDs, but I feel it's time to inject some context into the history my students learn. Rarely is history, as a remembered tradition, up to the rational standards of professional historians. It instead lies somewhere between rational truth and religion, belief and academic theory.

Trisong Detsen

Tibet has a long and, I discovered, interesting history. Songzen Gampo, the first Tibetan emperor, married both a Chinese princess and a Nepalese princess, demonstrating the importance of Tibet amongst its neighbors around 600 CE. Both wives brought images of the Buddha to Lhasa with them. As the first emperor, Songzen Gampo instituted a unified law code and supported the creation of the Tibetan script to aid the study of Buddhism. But it's Trisong Detsen, Songzen Gampo's great-great-grandson, that I'll be talking about in class for blending politics and Buddhism. Trisong Detsen sacked Chang'an, the Tang Chinese capital in 763. An eventual peace treaty recognized China and Tibet as equal powers. 

Trisong Detsen is most famous for inviting the two Indian Buddhist masters, Santaraksita and Padmasambhava, to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, was founded during his reign. Padmasambhava is not recorded in the Indian historical record, but was crucial to Trisong Detsen's success. "'The religious king- and we say that Trisong Detsen was a Dharma Raja- he had his own domain. Then the spiritual teacher had his own domain. There is a special relationship between Trisong Detsen and Padmasambhava, and in fact Tibetans believe that any ruler of Tibet must have some special relationship with Padmasambhava'" (57). The complementary nature of religion and rule is a theme that will cycle throughout Tibetan history.

Mongol Empire

And then, of course, the Mongol Empire thundered onto the scene.  Although some historians estimate that he reduced the world population by 11% during his reign, I was still shocked to learn that 8% of all men in contemporary lands once conquered by Genghis Khan bear a Y chromosome marker that can be traced directly to Genghis Khan's family (105). This DNA legacy reveals the awesome power and ruthlessness of the Mongols. Tibet, recently divided by the persecution of Buddhism and internal fighting, made the fateful choice to collaborate with the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan's grandsons became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, and eventually Kublai Khan established the Tibetan monk Phagpa as his imperial preceptor in 1260.

The two created a unique partnership, with Kublai as the "'sovereign of terrestrial power'" and Phagpa as "'the cornerstone of sacred religion'" (115). Phagpa eventually created a script for Mongolian, which may be the foundation for the modern Korean alphabet. Buddhism spread widely throughout the Mongol Empire with Phagpa's help, and Tibetan Buddhist temples in Iran were patronized by local Mongol rulers. Kublai sent Phagpa to rule Tibet for the Mongols, and later Kublai established the Yuan Dynasty in China. The relationship between Mongolia and Tibet continued through the work of the Third Dalai Lama with the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan, resulting in the birth of the Fourth Dalai Lama in Mongolia.

Fourteenth Dalai Lama

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama identifies most closely with the Fifth Dalai Lama, who unified Tibet and built the Potala, and his immediate predecessor, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Despite a rigorous education in Buddhist philosophy, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama found himself struggling to adjust to a modernizing world. Tibet was a pawn in the Great Game between Russia and Britain during the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's reign, with invasions by the British in 1904 (they were afraid Tibet was aligning with Russia) and the Manchus of Qing Dynasty China in 1910 (they were afraid of British power in Tibet). As a result, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama spent many years in exile. Once he was able to return to Tibet he moved to modernize the country and create an army, but his reforms angered the conservative landowners and monastics in the country. Interestingly, before the end of his life the Thirteenth Dalai Lama predicted the invasion of the communists and the destruction of Tibetan culture.

I'd never really associated the destructive force of communism with the Chinese invasion of Tibet, but it makes sense. Mao's invasion of Tibet was presaged by the brutality of Soviet occupation of Mongolia. In 1954, when Mao at the height of his power, he rather impressed the 19-year-old Dalai Lama. "'I thought he was a great and powerful and revolutionary... and I still feel that the early part of his life was really dedicated to the people'" (323). The Fourteenth Dalai Lama was quite taken by the ideals of Marxism, but as he noted, "'Of course, if at that time I had known how many people he killed, then my impression would be different'" (328).

Dharamsala, the Tibetan Government in Exile

The best part of The Story of Tibet is the last portion about the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. My takeaway is that the majority of the history the Dalai Lama learned was from the sweepers, or low-class servants, that he was surrounded by as a child. That makes the current Dalai Lama's view of Tibetan history strangely subaltern.