This article was published by Revolutionary Worker on February 22, 1998 at “revcom.us/a/firstvol/tibet/tibet2.htm”. The following are the excerpts […]:
Hard Climate, Heartless Society
At the time of the revolution, the population of Tibet was extremely spread out. Villages, monasteries and nomad encampments were often separated by many days of difficult travel.
Maoist revolutionaries saw there were “Three Great Lacks” in old Tibet: lack of fuel, lack of communications, and lack of people. The revolutionaries analyzed that these “Three Great Lacks” were not mainly caused by the physical conditions, but by the social system.
The Dalai Lama’s older brother Thubten Jigme Norbu claims that in the lamaist social order, “There is no class system and the mobility from class to class makes any class prejudice impossible.” But the whole existence of this religious order was based on a rigid and brutal class system.
Serfs were treated like despised “inferiors” – the way Black people were treated in the Jim Crow South. Serfs could not use the same seats, vocabulary or eating utensils as serf owners. Even touching one of the master’s belongings could be punished by whipping. The masters and serfs were so distant from each other that in much of Tibet they spoke different languages.
It was the custom for a serf to kneel on all fours so his master could step on his back to mount a horse. Tibet scholar A. Tom Grunfeld describes how one ruling class girl routinely had servants carry her up and down stairs just because she was lazy. Masters often rode on their serfs’ backs across streams.
The lamaist system tried to prevent any escape. Runaway slaves couldn’t just set up free farms in the vast empty lands. Former serfs explained to revolutionary writer Anna Louise Strong that before liberation, “You could not live in Tibet without a master. Anyone might pick you up as an outlaw unless you had a legal owner.”
The Dalai Lama writes, “In Tibet there was no special discrimination against women.”
But in Tibet, being born a woman was considered a punishment for “impious” (sinful) behavior in a previous life. The word for “woman” in old Tibet, kiemen, meant “inferior birth.”
Lamaist superstition associated women with evil and sin. It was said “among ten women you’ll find nine devils.”
Masters transferred serfs from one estate to another at will, breaking up serf families forever. Rape of women serfs was common–under the ulag system, a lord could demand “temporary wives.”
Tibetan monasteries were dark fortresses of feudal exploitation – they were armed villages of monks complete with military warehouses and private armies.
The huge idle religious clergy grew little food – feeding them was a big burden on the people.
Monasteries also made up countless religious taxes to rob the people–including taxes on haircuts, on windows, on doorsteps, taxes on newborn children or calves, taxes on babies born with double eyelids…and so on. A quarter of Drepung’s income came from interest on money lent to the serf-peasantry.
The class relations of Tibet were reproduced inside the monasteries: the majority of monks were slaves and servants to the upper abbots and lived half-starved lives of menial labor, prayer chanting and routine beatings.
After liberation, Anna Louise Strong asked a young monk, Lobsang, if monastery life followed Buddhist teachings about compassion. The young lama replied that he heard plenty of talk in the scripture halls about kindness to all living creatures, but that he personally had been whipped at least a thousand times. “If any upper class lama refrains from whipping you,” he told Strong, “that is already very good. I never saw an upper lama give food to any poor lama who was hungry. They treated the laymen who were believers just as badly or even worse.”
These days, the Dalai Lama is “packaged” internationally as a non-materialist holy man. In fact, the Dalai Lama was the biggest serf owner in Tibet. his family directly controlled 27 manors, 36 pastures, 6,170 field serfs and 102 house slaves.
The first time he fled to India in 1950, the Dalai Lama’s advisors sent several hundred mule-loads of gold and silver bars ahead to secure his comfort in exile. After the second time he fled, in 1959, Peking Review reported that his family left lots of gold and silver behind, plus 20,331 pieces of jewelry and 14,676 pieces of clothing.
Bitter Poverty, Early Death
The traditional food of the masses is a mush made from tea, yak butter, and a barley flour called tsampa. One 1940 study of eastern Tibet says that 38 percent of households never got any tea–and drank only wild herbs or “white tea” (boiled water). Seventy-five percent of the households were forced at times to eat grass. Half of the people couldn’t afford butter–the main source of protein available.
In old Tibet, nothing was known about basic hygiene. The lamas taught that disease and death were caused by sinful “impiety.” They said that chanting, obedience, paying monks money and swallowing prayer scrolls was the only real protection from disease.
A third of the population had smallpox. A 1925 smallpox epidemic killed 7,000 in Lhasa. It is not known how many died in the countryside. Leprosy, tuberculosis, goiter, tetanus, blindness and ulcers were very common. Feudal sexual customs spread venereal disease, including in the monasteries. Before the revolution, about 90 percent of the population was infected – causing widespread sterility and death. Later, under the leadership of Mao Tsetung, the revolution was able to greatly reduce these illnesses–but it required intense class struggle against the lamas and their religious superstitions.
The lamaist system of government came into being through bloody struggles. The early lamas reportedly assassinated the last Tibetan king, Lang Darma, in the 10th century. Then they fought centuries of civil wars, complete with mutual massacres of whole monasteries. In the 20th century, the 13th Dalai Lama brought in British imperialist trainers to modernize his national army. He even offered some of his troops to help the British fight World War I.
These historical facts alone prove that lamaist doctrines of “compassion” and “nonviolence” are hypocrisy.
Daily violence in old Tibet was aimed at the masses of people. Each master punished “his” serfs, and organized armed gangs to enforce his rule. Squads of monks brutalized the people. They were called “Iron Bars” because of the big metal rods they carried to batter people.
It was a crime to “step out of your place” – like hunting fish or wild sheep that the lamaist declared were “sacred.” It was even a crime for a serf to appeal his master’s decisions to some other authority. When serfs ran away, the masters’ gangs went to hunt them down. Each estate had its own dungeons and torture chambers. Pepper was forced under the eyelids. Spikes were forced under the fingernails. Serfs had their legs connected by short chains and were released to wander hobbled for the rest of their lives. Other brutal forms of punishment included the cutting off of hands at the wrists, using red-hot irons to gouge out eyes; hanging by the thumbs; and crippling the offender, sewing him into a bag, and throwing the bag in the river.” After the revolution, a rosary was found in the Dalai Lama’s palace made of 108 piece of human skins from 108 individuals. After liberation, serfs widely reported that the lamas engaged in ritual human sacrifice–including burying serf children alive in monastery ground-breaking ceremonies.
Tibet’s feudalist abbot-lamas taught that their top lama was a single divine god-king-being – whose rule and dog-eat-dog system was demanded by the natural workings of the universe. These myths and superstitions teach that there can be no social change. This is almost exactly what Europe’s medieval Catholic church taught the people, in order to defend a similar feudal system.
Defenders of lamaism act like this religion was the essence of the culture (and even the existence) of the Tibetan people. This is not true. There was culture and ideology in Tibet before lamaism. Then this feudal culture and religion arose together with feudal exploitation. It was inevitable that lamaist culture would shatter together with those feudal relations.