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The Shangri-La pendulum

When it comes to Tibet, opinions swing like a pendulum.

It’s often said that for the last century or so, the Tibet of the popular imagination was a magical land filled with wise monks, mystics dwelling in caves above the snow line, a repository of magical, mystical lore engraved on gold plates, where even the ignorant were pious and kind. Something of that sort, anyway.

There are two exaggerations here. One, the obvious one, is the exaggeration of Tibet’s qualities. The other, I submit, is the assumption that this caricature truly ruled the popular imagination.

It is of course true that an image of Tibet shrouded in rosy rainbows did circulate. Whether dear old H P Blavatsky was the first is something I’m not sure of, but she clearly gave the myth a jump-start. The Shangri-La of Lost Horizon and the fantasies of “Lobsang Rampa” both drew heavily on her tales. But were there not also those who, starting from a fascination with Tibet, actually tried to look at its history, culture, geography, religion and so on? Early last century, resources were thin, but study, investigation – even exploration –  were possible.

That being said, I return to the fact that the caricature did circulate, and was possibly large in the minds of some who took up Tibetan Buddhism. And that being so, the image of a Tibet sprinkled with fairy dust must, it seems to me, be a large factor in the development of the precisely opposite view. Isn’t it like the yin-yang symbol, where each side already contains the seeds of its opposite?

Chinese propaganda around the time of the invasion, and later the cultural revolution, therefore found at least a few ready ears. Much of it was quite fantastical in its attribution of violent cruelty to those who held power in Tibet – as fantastical as the ideas of Blavatsky and Rampa had been in their different way. But if we were uncertain about the power of an outright lie repeated sufficiently often, we only have to look at today’s politics. West or east of the Atlantic.

So we then find those, the Trimondis being a well-known, extreme case, for whom every lama appears to be a power hungry, money grabbing, sex abusing, throne owner, and that the compassion is fake, the celibacy is fake, and the enlightenment of the so-called “masters” is fake. (I have borrowed some phrases here from a couple of fb posts, but I intend them merely as examples of views that are floated these days.) As former Maoists, the Trimondis took Chinese propaganda onboard as a key ingredient in their toxic brew.

My submission is that this negative view is essentially a reaction to the “fairy-dust” view. It may act as a corrective, but it is no more accurate.

Tibet, after all, was practically a complete civilisation, with many features that might remind us of mediaeval Europe. Not only did it have more than its share of mystics, seers and magicians, but it was filled with kings, wealthy religious institutions, far more monks than I can believe is healthy, soaring scholarship, desperate ignorance, faith, superstition, intrigue, murder, banditry, political alliances, betrayal, astonishing art, scheming, abuse (to be sure), self-sacrifice and compassion, great imagination and great failures of imagination.

So guys – what did we expect? There’s gold in them mountains – there’s adders, thieves and mountain lions too.

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