Found Horizon


Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily clearing his throat to deposit a green gob of spit beside my left shoe, I wondered what it was about Tibet that has made so many intelligent people go wobbly. The landscape, with its jagged chocolate-colored mountain peaks, its glassy lakes and emerald rivers, is spectacular, to be sure. And some of the other passengers on my bus—a herdsman with finely worked silver daggers, a monk in burgundy robes and Nike shoes, country women with turquoise jewelry threaded through their hair—looked exotic enough. But there was nothing really to suggest that we were in a particularly spiritual place, where wise men knew the meaning of life, and incarnations of great lamas could fly.

But then, of course, it never was the actual place that fired the imagination of romantic seekers; it was the idea of Tibet, far away, impenetrable, isolated in the higher spheres of the earth. To see the real thing was to destroy the illusion. For the enchantment of Tibet lay in its remoteness. Indians and, later, Europeans, and even some Chinese, could project their spiritual fantasies onto a land they had never seen, and probably never would see. Those who felt discontented with their own complicated lives were consoled by the idea that in one isolated spot lived a people who still held the key to happiness, peace, and spiritual salvation, who had, as it were, by some miracle of nature, been spared the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

It was often the nature of nature itself that caught the fancy of “civilized” men and women. Orville Schell, in his book Virtual Tibet, mentions a genteel English lady in 1869 who fell in love with the majestic Himalayan mountains because “no solemn garden parties or funereal dinners, no weary conventionalities of society, follow us here.” Another British traveler, in 1903, compared one of the mountains to “a vast cathedral,” and when a French Orientalist, around that same time, emerged onto the Tibetan highlands, he felt as though he had risen “through layers of cloud, from hell to heaven, leaving behind and below me this scientifically technical world which has done so much to increase man’s misery.” Blake would have understood: here, in the thin mountain air, amid those icy peaks, was sweet Jerusalem at last.

But then, these early seekers never sat in a rickety bus, with vomiting Chinese hookers for company. Orville Schell, a seasoned traveler in China, probably has, and his book has the bracing air about it of disenchantment. The fact that he was a bit of a seeker once himself, mesmerized by the idea of Tibet, and of Communist China, makes him the perfect chronicler of such afflictions in others. In an earlier book of his, about the advent of Chinese-style casino capitalism, he expressed a fleeting sense of nostalgia for an earlier China, austere, remote, high-minded, inaccessible, xenophobic, poor. Mao’s China, after all, was a kind of Tibet for would-be refugees from Western civilization too.

* * *

Having read his book on Tibet, I understand Schell’s romantic longings a bit better. Here he is, on the set of the movie Seven Years in Tibet, high up in the Andes mountains, gazing in wonder at a replica of Lhasa. He feels “overwhelmed by a yearning for a place like the one I see being set in motion before me—a fantastic island of escape from the prosaic, the rapacious, the speed and falseness of modern life.” The fact that he is looking at a movie set adds a nicely poignant touch: this is the genuine stuff of fantasy.

Schell’s descriptions of earlier Tibetophiles, trying to make a getaway from the solemn garden parties of life, are lively and interesting enough, but some of them have been told quite a few times before. To me the more arresting parts of his book are about the peculiar symbiosis between Hollywood and Tibet. The number of men and women who go wobbly at the thought of Tibet and its highest representative on earth, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, seems to be remarkably high in the main factory town of American fantasies. Why?

Why would Martin Scorsese, for example, a director of hard-nosed American movies, react like a gushing schoolgirl to the Dalai Lama, about whose life he was inspired to make the film Kundun? “Something happened,” he is quoted as saying. “I became totally aware of existing in the moment. It was like you could feel your heart beat; and as I left, he looked at me. I don’t know, but there was something about the look, something sweet…. I just knew I had to make the movie.” Scorsese was raised as a Catholic, and Catholics have their own rich tradition of religious ecstasies. Nevertheless, I find it hard to imagine him reacting quite in this way to an audience with the Pope.

Scorsese, in any case, has only a mild case of Tibetitis compared to other Hollywood celebrities. Schell meets most of them. His interviewing technique is feline rather than confrontational; he lets the words of his interlocutors speak for themselves, and sometimes, in my view, leaves the tape recorder running for too long. They certainly sound pretty silly: Richard Gere, for instance, expects to “get ‘zapped”’ every time he is around His Holiness, and believes that Tibet has remained “the last real, living ‘wisdom’ civilization.” But by far the most egregious exponent of this type of thing is the director and star of violent action pictures Steven Seagal. Seagal, as described by Schell, is clearly a fantaisiste. An oddball in traditional Chinese clothes, cowboy boots, and a pigtail, he likes to present himself as a pistol-packing tough guy, boasting of affiliations ranging from Japanese gangsters to the CIA, and as an Oriental holy man. Not only does Seagal go wobbly at the sight of His Holiness, but he claims that His Holiness also goes wobbly at the sight of him. The Dalai Lama, in Seagal’s account, kissed the action-man’s feet as a tribute to a fellow deity. He told Schell:

I’ve kept my spiritualism secret because people don’t understand it. Friends have never gotten this part of my life, but there are many great lamas who recognize me as something strange and from another time, who refer to me as one of them. I feel a kinship beyond words with them, something really deep. People all over the world come up to me and recognize me as a great spiritual leader.

The problem for the Dalai Lama and his canny government in exile is that he needs the support of such Hollywood Buddhists, but cannot risk having his sacred aura contaminated by too much contact with them. Tibetan worshippers find it unseemly. Somehow, the sight of His Holiness standing on stage at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel or the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, with Steven Seagal, Richard Gere, and Sharon Stone in a silk pantsuit, renders somewhat implausible his status as the latest incarnation of the ancient God of Compassion. It brings to the proceedings an air of fraudulence. This is not the Dalai Lama’s fault. But magic relies on obscurity. The nature of Hollywood magic is different from the religious kind. Or is it?

* * *

Schell makes a case that the Hollywood star system is in some ways similar to the order of Tibetan monks and holy men. It is a provocative idea: Grauman’s Chinese Theater as the Potala of Tinseltown; Gere, Stone, and Harrison Ford as cinematic lamas; the fans in Bermuda shorts and reversed baseball caps as pilgrims at the sacred shrines of Hollywood Boulevard. As Schell says,

…with its own nobility of stars and celebrities, distinctive rites, costumes, festival-like awards ceremonies, celebrated monuments, potent mythologies, studio complexes as vast as monasteries, and a reigning pantheon of semidivine deities worshiped around the world, Hollywood might well appear as alien and mysterious to outsiders as the forbidden city of Lhasa once did to those Westerners who first breached its carefully guarded perimeters.

The comparison would seem strained if one believed that traditional religious practices were more genuine, or authentic, than the new forms of worship that have taken their place in Hollywood or on television gospel hours. To be sure, tradition creates its own kind of authenticity. Time has a way of legitimizing all manner of human practices, which if they were newly invented would cause outrage: bullfighting, for example. But is it really so implausible to think of Hollywood Buddhism as the result of a natural affinity between a new quasi religious order and a traditional one?

Schell has a few other explanations for Hollywood Buddhism, too, however, some of which are a little too generous for my taste. He believes that the likes of Steven Seagal, having triumphed over “adversity” themselves, “identify with the Dalai Lama and Tibetans as underdogs—the little guy against the big bully.” Maybe, but in that case I would like to know a bit more the exact nature of Seagal’s or Gere’s adversities before I am convinced. I’m sure Gere’s ascent to stardom has not been easy, and Seagal has to work hard to administer to his spiritual needs while making his action pictures, but it is rather a long way from these hardships to identification with persecuted Tibetans.

There is another possibility. It is implied in Schell’s text without being developed as a theme: the ambivalence of imperialism. British colonialism in Asia, like most forms of colonialism, was a combination of commerce and manifest destiny. The main idea was to make as much money as possible. This meant that markets and sources of production had to be conquered. To justify this enterprise, a mission was concocted to bring civilization to the natives. Meanwhile, however, many an ardent imperialist fell in love with the conquered lands, and developed romantic notions of the cultures his own mission civilisatrice was busy converting to modern, Western ways. Schell mentions Lord Curzon and Major Francis Younghusband, who blasted his way to Lhasa in 1904 with Indian troops and Maxim guns. Younghusband certainly believed in the British Empire, but he also went wobbly in Lhasa, being “insensibly suffused with an almost intoxicating sense of elation and good will.” Never again could the major “think of evil” or “be at enmity with any man. All nature and all humanity were bathed in a rosy glowing radiancy; and life for the future seemed nought but buoyancy and light.” The effusions of Gere or Seagal are hardly more extravagant than this. The point, I think, is that some of the more sensitive imperialists realized what they were destroying, or at least changing forever by their presence, and ended up idealizing it.

I have sometimes wondered what it must be like to be, say, Mick Jagger, and pay a great deal of money for a trip to some outpost of native “authenticity,” remote from the vulgar noise of Western civilization—Borneo, say, or, indeed, Tibet—only to find his own voice blaring from a village jukebox. I suppose he might feel flattered, but perhaps—I don’t know—also a tiny bit ambivalent, perhaps even a touch disappointed, or even—and I know this is a long shot—guilty. Surely there must be Major Younghusbands among the movie stars and rock idols of the West. Richard Gere, say, or Sting? For their enterprise, as much as that of the Curzons of yesteryear, is touched with the same combination of commerce and claims to a universal civilization. And what better way to resolve any ambivalence about such claims than to make a commercial movie about a lost arcadia?

Hollywood’s imperialism is not real, of course, in the sense of territorial conquest. American pop culture only colonizes our imaginations. It is a virtual empire. And Schell traveled all the way to the Andes to see the soldiers and administrators of this great empire in the process of building a virtual Tibet, with a truncated Potala of chicken wire and plywood, and heaps of yak dung made of pottery, and monks recruited from the native Indian population, and Tibetan extras flown in from India and California, and Chinese soldiers played by Japanese Argentines. This movie set arcadia was built for Jean-Jacques Arnaud’s Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer who made it to Tibet in 1943.

The actual story of Harrer’s infatuation with Tibet, as Schell recounts, was more sinister than the moviemakers realized when they started their project. Not only was Harrer a successful mountain climber, decorated by Hitler for planting the swastika on top of the Eiger in 1938, but he was a keen member of the Nazi Party, who joined the SA in 1933, when it was illegal for Austrians to do so, and the SS in 1938. The Nazis, especially Heinrich Himmler, had their own Tibetan romance. Central Asia, and Tibet in particular, was believed to be the ancient homeland of the Aryans. To penetrate Tibet and its secrets was, to Himmler and his fellow enthusiasts of mystical racism, part of their effort to trace the bloodlines of the German Volk.

News of these facts came rather late in the planning of Arnaud’s movie. The idea of Brad Pitt as a Nazi mystic was of course impossible. Harrer’s shady past was made a part of his story of redemption: a flawed European, consumed by selfishness and ambition, would be saved by the innocence and ancient wisdom of Tibet—rather like what Younghusband thought he had been. When the real Harrer met the current Dalai Lama in Lhasa, the holy man was already a teenager. In the movie, His Holiness is more childlike, perhaps to emphasize the purity of his extraordinary wisdom. Even Harrer, who idealized Tibet in his book, did not pass over less innocent episodes during his stay, such as armed rebellions in the monasteries. The movie Tibet, however, really is like Richard Gere’s “last real ‘wisdom’ civilization,” which lasted until the Chinese arrived in 1950, with their own civilizing mission.

Grafted onto the Nazi myth, then, which is spun out of sight, is another, no less potent myth, that of a land of spiritual purity despoiled by evil foreign forces. This myth, too, fits in well with Hollywood’s old obsession with the corruption of innocence—the theme of so many movies about America, from the early westerns to Apocalypse Now.

In fact, when the Chinese Communists claimed Tibet as part of China—just as the Nationalists had done, and the Qing government before them—they were careful not to antagonize the Tibetans needlessly. They did not immediately set about insulting the clergy, as shown in the film. Instead they organized lavish banquets for the Lhasa aristocracy, many of whom believed that communism might be the best way to modernize their country, which had gotten stuck in a state of poverty and corruption—not least in the monastic orders.

(China Photos/Getty Images)
The Potala Palace illuminated during the Randeng Festival (lamp lighting festival) in Lhasa.

Most of these early Tibetan Communists were later murdered in Maoist purges.1 But their intention to find some political solution for Tibet which would be neither theocratic nor entirely dependent on the Chinese was not ignoble. The movie, in which every Chinese is an evil monster, trampling on Tibetan Buddhist images or killing innocent monks, and every Tibetan who tries to negotiate with the Chinese a wicked traitor, suggests that it was. Just as Richard Attenborough’s movie Gandhi took Indian nationalist myths at face value, so Arnaud’s Seven Years in Tibet subscribes without a hint of skepticism to the nationalist myths of the Tibetan diaspora. That a half-century of Chinese communism has done a great deal of harm to Tibet is beyond doubt. But sentimental myths of childlike innocence despoiled by absolute evil will not help us see how some of that harm might be undone.


In the Tibetan monasteries and private houses, amid the images of Buddha, Boddhisattvas, divine monks, and monstrous tantric deities festooned with skulls and trampling on ghostly corpses, one will very often come across the bland, amiable, roly-poly features of one man. One might mistake him for the head of state, or even a friendly bank manager in a robe. In fact, he is neither. He is the tenth Panchen Lama, incarnation of the first Panchen Lama, who was the spiritual mentor of the Dalai Lama in the seventeenth century. The Panchen Lamas, unlike the Dalai Lamas, were never heads of the state, but they have been revered for four hundred years as spiritual leaders. This particular one, the tenth, died in 1989. His official successor, or last incarnation, is a young boy said to be living in Beijing. You see his picture too, though not as often as that of his predecessor. Because he was designated by the Chinese government, few Tibetans believe he is the real thing. The “real” incarnation of the Panchen Lama, endorsed by the Dalai Lama, is now a phantom figure. People believe in him, but don’t know where he is, or even whether he is still alive. The boy was “disappeared” by the Chinese authorities.

Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images
A man holding a picture of the kidnapped Panchen Lama takes part in a demonstration at the Chinese embassy in Madrid, Spain.

Isabel Hilton has tried, in her excellent book The Search for the Panchen Lama, to disentangle the extraordinary politics that went on behind the omens, divinations, designations, incarnations, monastic rituals, and Communist Party propaganda surrounding the two boy lamas. It is the story of a succession struggle, but also of a fundamental conflict between two systems, a medieval religious one and a more modern invention whose main patriarch is a German Jew who wrote his political bible in the reading room of the British Museum.

The ubiquitous image of the late Panchen Lama in Tibet plays a central part in this conflict. This plump, avuncular figure personifies the tragedies and contradictions of modern Tibet. But the problems began long before the Chinese Communists took over. One of the lasting conflicts in Tibet is the rivalry between Lhasa, where the Dalai Lama traditionally resides, and the region around Shigatse, with its beautiful, badly damaged (during the Cultural Revolution) Tashilhunpo monastery, seat of the Panchen Lama. This rivalry has been exploited at various times by the British, the Russians, and the Chinese.

* * *

Born in China, the tenth Panchen Lama arrived in Tibet in 1952 under the protection of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. He was only fourteen, and would have had little idea of Communist theory. His followers and mentors hardly knew more, but they were keen to restore the authority of Shigatse at the expense of Lhasa, an ambition the Chinese did everything to encourage. This is why the Panchen Lama began his clerical career as a pro-Chinese campaigner for socialist reform. And yet this same man, after an extensive tour of the Tibetan areas in 1960, came to realize how badly many Tibetans had suffered under Communist rule. People went hungry, religious life was being destroyed, monks were humiliated and tortured, and everywhere Tibetans were being abused by Chinese officials, whose contempt for Tibetan culture was matched only by their rank ignorance of it. In 1962, the Panchen Lama wrote one of the most courageous and devastating documents about Tibet after “liberation.” It comprised 70,000 Chinese characters and was entitled “A report on the sufferings of the masses of Tibet and other Tibetan regions and suggestions for future work to the Central Committee through the respected Premier Zhou [Enlai].”2

The language of this private document was politely Marxist and the tone respectful of the Great Leadership of Chairman Mao, but the criticisms were detailed and exact. The Panchen Lama wrote about famines caused by absurd policies, about the suppression of religion and Tibetan customs, about mass arrests and executions. He warned that

there has been an evident and severe reduction in the present-day Tibetan population. Needless to say, this was not only harmful to the flourishing of our Tibetan nationality, but it was also a great threat to the continued existence of the Tibetan nationality, which was sinking into a state close to death.

The Panchen Lama had hoped his criticisms might be regarded as constructive. Mao thought otherwise. And the Panchen Lama would pay for his impudence. For fifteen years, eleven of which he spent in sordid confinement, he was bullied, humiliated, paraded through the streets, tortured, spat upon, and put under pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama, which he refused to do, whereupon he was denounced himself as “the biggest reactionary serf owner” and the “biggest parasite and bloodsucker in Tibet.” Even his poor dogs at Tashilhunpo were branded as “counterrevolutionaries.” The clash between the cleric and the commissars was probably inevitable. You could not be a religious leader, upholding the ancient traditions of Tibetan monastic culture, as well as a loyal supporter of the Communist Party. The two roles were simply not compatible.

Nonetheless, the Panchen Lama was rehabilitated in 1988, one year before his untimely death. The reform-minded government hoped to appease the Tibetans by using him as a token of its apparent religious tolerance. His picture, unlike that of the Dalai Lama, could be openly displayed again. And because of his bravery and suffering on their behalf, Tibetans were pleased to display it. Having originated as a rival to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama became a kind of substitute, a political stand-in.

Unfortunately, however, he is no longer alive. And this made the search for his successor such a pressing problem—a political problem, wrapped in religious ritual. Hilton tells the story with a mixture of vivid reportage and lucid historical explanation. Her sympathy for Tibet is clear, but there are no stars twinkling in her eyes. Some of her best descriptions are of interviews with Tibetans, where high politics lurch into high mysticism, leaving her engagingly baffled. This tends to happen even in talks with the Dalai Lama himself.

* * *

The Dalai Lama is both a divine figure and a shrewd politician, who not only has to mobilize international public opinion behind the Tibetan cause but also has to manage the many factions, sects, and groups that make up the Tibetan diaspora. So far he has done so with great skill and charm, but he knows that a dent in his own authority could make the whole thing fall apart, for his authority, as a holy man and a political leader, is the only thing that holds the Tibetans together. In the case of finding a new Panchen Lama, this called for some deft diplomacy. The traditional practice was for senior monks to be guided by visions in their search for the reborn lama. Clerical politics must always have played a part. However, under the Chinese, the politics were no longer just clerical. If the new incarnation happened to be found among the Tibetans in exile, the Chinese would certainly not accept him; they would appoint their own candidate, thus defying the Dalai Lama’s authority. And two different incarnations might also split the people in Tibet from their brethren abroad. And so an incarnation was duly discovered inside Tibet in 1994. After explaining to Hilton why this was a desirable event, the Dalai Lama suddenly turned to miracles. In Hilton’s description:

“While this child was still in the mother’s womb,” [the Dalai Lama] said, “he recited a mantra. The mother heard it. Then the day the child was going to be born, he spoke from inside the womb, and said, ‘I am going to be born today’—exactly as it happened.” He laughed. “Talking before birth—and immediately afterwards.” He shook his head. “Curious,” he said.

I felt the ground give way as the foundations of the conversation shifted. Moments before we had been analyzing a grim political game. Now we were discussing a talking foetus.

So it goes with lamas. It might not have surprised Steven Seagal. But then the mythology of Hollywood, with its celebration of innocence, magic, and the clash between Good and Evil, blends in with the mythology disseminated from the exiled Dalai Lama’s headquarters in Dharamsala, India. The Chinese were less indulgent. Indeed, they were furious. This, too, was inevitable. Again, hard politics—the conflict of authority—mixed with historical emotions. The Tibetan myth of a happy, independent, spiritual arcadia before 1950 clashes with the Chinese myth that communism not only reunited Tibet with the Chinese motherland but freed the Tibetans from slave-owning despots who ruled by spreading superstition.

The Chinese, in fact, have been in the grip of two myths, Communist and nationalist. Nowadays, the latter has almost entirely eclipsed the former. The idea, drummed into Chinese heads since the early twentieth century, is that foreign imperialists carved up the motherland. Unification is the only way to redress the national humiliation. So anyone who doubts that Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet must be reclaimed is clearly anti-Chinese. On this issue, hurt pride has a way of clouding the minds of even the most reasonable people in China.

The problem with Tibet is not only that Tibetans have their own version of nationalism, but that it is based almost entirely on religion, and a rival religion is the one thing Communists cannot tolerate. In the late 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Maoist fervor, the Chinese tried to stamp out what was distinctive about Tibetan culture, not just the clothes, the diet (Tibetans were made to grow wheat instead of barley, with catastrophic consequences), and the language, but of course the religion itself. The aim was a total cultural Gleichschaltung with China. Mao was the new divine leader and atheism his creed.

The Panchen Lama wrote in his report: “Once a nationality’s language, costume, customs and other important characteristics have disappeared, then the nationality itself has disappeared too—that is to say, it has turned into another nationality.” In fact, this never happened. Apart from a tiny elite—and even their true feelings are ambivalent—Tibetans refused to be assimilated. Some years after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping (the very man, by the way, who planned the invasion of Tibet in 1950) and his reformist Party secretary, Hu Yaobang, decided it would be less trouble to allow Tibetans to stick to at least some of their old habits. Wearing turquoise jewelry and embroidered boots was not a threat to the state. And if Tibetan pilgrims wished to crawl to their holy places by prostrating themselves in the dust, that was their business. But the holy places themselves, and the monks who ran them, would have to be strictly controlled. Maoism, however murderous, was at least honest about its aims. Chinese communism after Mao is far less harsh, but in many ways more duplicitous.

* * *

Chinese guidebooks to Tibet speak of “respect” for the ancient Tibetan traditions, and of religious freedom. And to be sure, there are monks in-side the partially restored monasteries reading the sutras, wearing their red robes, and blowing their long horns, much to the delight of foreign and Chinese tourists who love to pose for holiday snaps with these fine ancient traditions acted out in the background. But every monk is in fact a state employee, carefully screened for his political reliability, and I am told that more time is spent in the monasteries on Marxist instruction than on the sutras. The official, outward manifestations of Tibetan religion, then, are a carefully constructed façade, as controlled in its way as Jean-Jacques Arnaud’s movie set, meant to bring in the tourist trade and demonstrate religious freedom. This is not to say that those pilgrims, crawling on their stomachs, are acting. There is no reason to doubt their devotion. But once you scratch the colorful façade of organized religion, you will find hard politics. Perhaps to some extent it was always so, but the politics used to be Tibetan, while now they are Chinese.

That is why, just after midnight on November 29, 1995, Chinese Communist officials, together with handpicked Tibetan monks, conducted a bizarre ritual to make sure that fate had blessed their own chosen incarnation of the Panchen Lama. There was a golden urn, and there were three ivory tallies, each bearing the name of one child. The tallies were wrapped in yellow silk and placed in the urn, which, in Hilton’s phrase, was turned about like “an over-sized cocktail shaker” and put down before a statue of the Buddha. A tally was drawn, and the name of the latest incarnation was announced: the child of two Communist party members, backed from the beginning by the government in Beijing.

This melancholy denouement of the political struggle between the Communist government and the Dalai Lama, between Dharamsala and Beijing, was the result of a failed Tibetan game plan. The Dalai Lama’s people, in and outside Tibet, had planned an elaborate ruse, whereby the Dalai Lama would endorse his candidate in secret, after which the boy’s name would be presented to the Chinese, who would then acknowledge him as the latest incarnation. Only then would the Dalai Lama make his approval public, but to prove that his endorsement preceded that of Beijing, he had his own secret ceremony filmed. And the producer of that surreptitious piece of moviemaking in Dharamsala was none other than Isabel Hilton, the author of the book at hand. It was hoped that this ingenious plot would allow Chinese politics and Tibetan religion to coincide without sparks. But things went wrong. Messages didn’t get through. The Dalai Lama got nervous, and decided to announce the name before the Chinese had made their decision. This compelled the Chinese to pick a rival. Their authority, even in questions of divine rebirth, had to be paramount.

* * *

I found no evidence in Tibet that anyone believed in the official Panchen Lama. His photograph, distributed by the Chinese government, is displayed in various chapels inside the Tashilhunpo monastery, though far less often than pictures of the old Panchen Lama, whose image, festooned with silk shawls and paper money, is worshiped along with other deities. I asked a truck driver with whom I had struck up a conversation about this. He said: “Those pictures are only there because of government regulations. But it really doesn’t matter. The Chinese cannot change our minds. We all know who the real Panchen Lama is. We can show any kind of picture they want. The real thing is inside our heads.”

It makes for a strange air of unreality when the world inside people’s heads and the visible world outside diverge so oddly. Tibet is of course not unique in this way. Most Chinese suffer from this kind of disjunction, as indeed do subjects of all dictatorships. But it is one thing for Chinese to pay lip service to Marxist dogma, and quite another for Tibetans to pretend to worship sacred incarnations inside their most revered institutions, while in fact believing in a figure whose image is outlawed. Marx, Engels, and Lenin are hardly central to the continuation of Chinese civilization. Tibetan Buddhism, with its lamas and deities, is the one thing that defines Tibet, both inside and outside the People’s Republic of China.

At least on a film set you know everything is fake—even though Orville Schell found that some Tibetan extras were so moved by the décor that they almost thought they were home. In the actual monasteries of Tibet, you have no way of knowing what is virtual and what is real. Even the carefully screened official monks are prone to rebel against Chinese Communist rule when the opportunity is there. In a society whose history, religion, and culture are manipulated, blanked out, or distorted to the degree they are in Tibet, it is hard to be sure what anybody really believes anymore.

Late one afternoon, when the sun was beginning to set, a chilly wind began to blow around the Tashilhunpo. I was told by a young monk that there would be some “activity” at six o’clock. So I waited, together with Tibetan pilgrims, covered in dust and grime, and tourists armed with cameras. The sounds of long horns and clashing cymbals echoed from the whitewashed walls. An elderly monk with a huge yellow hat, rather like a giant cockscomb, appeared at the head of about twenty monks. They went up to a bundle of straw outside the main gate tied together with rope, rather like a stake for a public execution. After more banging, a young monk was handed a bow and arrow. He shot several arrows into the straw. The old monk then handed him a torch. It was lit and the straw went up in flames, leaving a black smudge on the street after it had burned out.

“What was all that about?” a plump German woman asked her husband, who had been busy recording the event on his video camera. “Something symbolic,” he answered with great authority.

He was right. It was a symbolic driving out of evil demons. The question is: Who were the demons?

This is the first of two articles.

Tibet Disenchanted

Ian Buruma from New York Review of Books
The first time I visited Tibet, in the fall of 1982, scars of the Maoist years were still plain to see: Buddhist wall paintings in temples and monasteries were scratched out or daubed with revolutionary slogans. Now that new winds are blowing, these...

  1. For a detailed description of this, see Tsering Shakya's superb book The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (Columbia University Press, 1999).
  2. Published as a book, A Poisoned Arrow, by the Tibet Information Network (London) in 1997.