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Book Review: Sam Van Schaik, Tibet, a History , Yale University Press, New haven and London.

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

When I first heard Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s description of the community around his own teacher Chanchub Dorje I failed to realise the significance of what he was saying. Coming from our society that values democratic equality I had no notion of how uncharacteristic this community was within Tibetan society as a whole. Reading Sam van Schaik’s new book Tibet, a History, published this year, has corrected this – I now realise Chanchub Dorje’s community was something extraordinary and why it acted as such an inspiration for Norbu Rinpoche’s vision of his own Dzogchen Community.

Sam van Schaik is best known for his interest in early Tibetan history. He presently works at the British Library translating the Dunhuang documents and has a web site called Early Tibet[i] where he writes fascinating notes on his unfolding work. He has published various papers on the origins of Dzogchen[ii] and the Buddhist cultural matrix from which it emerged in the late ninth century CE. He has also written a very good book, Approaching the Great Perfection[iii], on Jigme Lingpa, the eighteenth century Terton and Dzogchenpa, and author of the Longchen Nyingtig.

In this new book van Schaik displays his academic credentials and his ability to write a really good story clearly and simply. And what a story! If we once imagined that Tibet was a Utopian Shangri La this book leaves us with no illusions. Drawing upon primary sources it starts from the first kings and traces a path that leads right up to the present day. This chronicals the first dissemination of the Dharma in the eighth century and continues through the rise and fall of the Sakya and then Gelug schools under the patronage of various Mongol warlords and Chinese Emperors, ending with the present day Chinese colonisation and Tibetan diaspora.

Despite this being a balanced account this is not a story for the faint hearted. Dirtier and more cunning than the darkest soap the Tibetan nobility and princely Abbots of the great monasteries duck, dive, connive and murder their way to power. At every turn bodhichitta is adjacent to blood and for the losers the most appalling instruments of punishment and execution await. We learn about the continuous sectarian violence, some scholastic, much militaristic, and the suppression of schools of Tibetan Buddhism that preach a different view of emptiness from that of the ruling Gelugpas. We also learn of fighting monks, dob-dobs, and less spoken of still, young monks, drombo’s, being socially acceptable sexual partners for older monks. It’s racy and for the innocent, shocking stuff.

And of course there is the other side. Again and again enlightened individuals renew the teaching from the depth of their practice. Atisha, Longchenpa and Tsongkhapa being but a few from a deep pool of greater and lesser luminaries. For me, as no lover of organisations, I was particularly attracted to those members of the nineteenth century non-sectarian Rime movement, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye and all those associated with them. Born in Eastern Tibet both men, Sakya/Nyingma and Kagyu respectively, brought about a Buddhist renaissance. Within the shadow of a particularly murderous local chieftain they drew together great treasuries of teachings from all sects that were in danger of being lost – so valuable that when the Chinese Red Guards arrived over a hundred and fifty years later their works were amongst those that were desperately grabbed from the shelves and ferreted to safety.

This Nyingma reticence to form large sectarian power bases returns me to my point. Chanchub Dorje’s community of practitioners, while not unique, was certainly not the norm. We already know the ruling powers of the land, aristocracy and abbots, operated a feudal system that relied on the labour of the peasants and nomads. What van Schaik reveals is just how fractured and shaky this system was on the eve of the Chinese intrusions during the 1950’s. While films such as Scorsese’s Kundun give us the comfort of easily identifiable goodies and badies, the more difficult truth seems to be, from this account, less polarised. Tibet, as an entirely independent nation state, was something new the thirteenth Dalai Lama had tried to establish after his exposure to British India and the wider world. However for many, more closeted and fearful of change, their understanding of the relationship between Tibet and China was less about geographical borders and more about the bond between priest and disciple – the relationship that had existed one way or another for a thousand years. Before it became apparent that China was now more rapacious then ever there were many who thought first the Nationalists and then the Communists could be worked with. To this end Kham, virtually a different country, shifted wary alliances between Central Tibet and China according to what best suited its needs and many Tibetans, monastics and laity, fought on the side of the Peoples Liberation Army before realising too late their mistake. This is a complex story I will not try to retell here but for anyone who is interested in a less Hollywood version of Tibetan history, something sadder, more confusing, more human, then this has it all.

Finally what came out for me is that Buddhism is also a product of the unenlightened. The turbulent, conflicted history of aspects of Tibetan religion is testament to the Buddhist truth that when run by the three poisons of craving, aversion and ignorance suffering will follow. What is difficult to swallow is that this country, though soaked with the Dharma, seems to have had a history quite as bloody and spiritually ignorant as almost any other country on earth. While it is true there were many exceptionally bright lights in the darkness and a great amount of faith and devotion, for many, religion contributed to making life frighteningly more uncertain and for the bonded serfs of the great monasteries of Central Tibet, perhaps close to slavery. The question then is why was this so? Maybe part of the answer is that political and spiritual power was disastrously mixed. Perhaps what made Chanchub Dorje’s community different was that these two were largely separate, it seems there was no intention to be anything other than be a group of people working and practising together. Its ambitions were personal and local, small was beautiful. However it would be naive to think, even in this ideal situation, that politics can be entirely avoided. As we know where there are people there is grasping for power and empire building and if we do not consciously acknowledge this, and work with it through our practice, then we too, like many Tibetans, may fall victim to its dark side.

Nigel Wellings June 2011

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