Tibetan Culture

An Outline of Tibetan Culture, by Robert A. F.

Thurman Professor Robert A. F. Thurman is the President of Columbia University’s American Institute of Buddhist Studies. Reprinted from Cultural Survival Quarterly. Vol. 12. 1988

StupaAnyone who knows the Tibetan language and has firsthand experience of Tibetan people knows the utter distinctness of the Tibetan culture. But to demonstrate this fact it is helpful to think back to ground principles. What is a “national culture”?

A nation is more than a state, which is more than a tribe, which is more than a clan, which is more than afamily. The only common political unit larger than a nation used to be called an “empire” though now there are entities called “United States” and “Union of Republics.” The English nation’s descendants of Angles and Saxons and Celts and Normans, to name a few tribes, themselves the amalgams of clans, can usually think of themselves as members of a single nation. Scots sometimes have difficulty thinking of themselves as part of the English nation, and the Irish cannot, though both groups were part of Great Britain for centuries. A people seem to think of themselves as a single nation when they:

  • Have come together in a common territory through history,
  • Share a common language fixed on a writing system,
  • Live under a common system of laws,
  • Are imbued with a common sense of history,
  • Tolerate an understood range of religious beliefs and
  • Intuitively feel a common sense of identity through any of these commonalties, often buttressed by a sense of racial similarity.

Tibetans claim that Tibet is a separate nation with a distinct culture, yet the Chinese claim that it is a minority member of the Chinese nation (sometimes they say, inexplicably, “family of nations”) with a local variation of a common culture. Taking the above six points as elements of a working definition of the term culture, we can examine the historical facts point by point.

Common Territory

No sizable Chinese populations had settled in Tibet until China’s occupation. A border was established between the warring Tang Empire and Yarlung Empire running east of Chamdo and Derge up toward Lanchou. Invading warlord armies—Mongol and Manchu troops in the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively—came to Tibet, as well as sporadic diplomatic missions, a few merchants and visiting monks. But there were no noticeable settled Chinese populations. This has of course changed since 1959: there are now 7.5 million Chinese settlers in Tibet, excluding army garrisons. In historical terms, they have to be considered recent colonists, in no position to anchor a common culture.

Common Language

Tibetan is quite different from Chinese. It used to belong to the “Tibeto-Burman” family, although recently some linguists have taken up the label “Sino-Tibetan” (to include Sinic, Daic, Bodic [Tibetan] and Burmic, with the first two and the last two forming distinct subfamilies). These terminological games do not alter the fundamental difference in the languages. Chinese is written in ideograms and is monosyllabic, non inflected and tonal. Tibetan is written in an alphabet and is polysyllabic; is inflected with case , declension and gender structures adapted from Sanskrit; and is not semantically tonal. Tibetan borrows some words from Chinese, but it also borrows Indian, Nepali and Mongolian words. After 30 years of occupation, a mere handful of the present Chinese colonists speak Tibetan, although a younger generation of Tibetans has been forced to learn colloquial Chinese.

Common System of Laws

The first laws were promulgated in Tibet by Emperor Songtsen Gampo in the seventh century A.D. They refer to the Buddhist moral laws of India, with no relation to the Confucian canon of Chinese tradition. Under the Mongolian Empire, Mongol military laws were occasionally enforced in both Tibet and China. During all other periods of Tibetan history Tibetan laws based on Buddhism were administered in Tibetan courts by officials of the various Tibetan governments. The Chinese did not think of Tibetans as accepting of their laws, and the Tibetans did not even know what laws of China were.

Common Sense of History

The Tibetan national sense of history has strong ties to Buddhism. Also, the Tibetan national epic, poetry, drama, and historical literature emphasizes Tibetans’ distinctness from China and other Asian nations. Tibetan classics are totally unknown to the Chinese, and, conversely, the Chinese classics and literary masterpieces were never translated into Tibetan until China’s occupation of Tibet. Tibetans take greatest pride in their spiritual relationship with the Holy Land of India, and vast numbers of Buddhist and literary works were translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan over a period of seven centuries.

The Chinese have considered the Tibetans as uncivilized barbarians since the time of Confucius. The Tibetans were among the serious dangers to the Chinese, part of the reason for the building of the Great Wall. Tibetan armies conquered the then-Chinese capital at Chang-an in the eighth century. Good relations with the Tibetans were considered important by Mongol emperors, such as Kublai Khan , and Manchu emperors, especially K’ang-hsi and Ch’ien Lung, who considered the Tibetans the key to staying on the good side of the redoubtable Mongols. Thus, in historical terms, it is understandable that the Tibetans feel crushed to be under the domination of and occupation by China. The present Chinese colonists also feel themselves to be beleaguered masters of an alien land—among savages, so to speak—and hence tend to treat the Tibetan “natives” much more harshly than they do their fellow Chinese.

Common Religions

PaintingThe common thread of Buddhism bound China and Tibet together to some degree in some eras. However, Confucianism and Taoism were always important in China, but totally absent in Tibet. Even in terms of Buddhism’s, Tantrism is central to Tibetan Buddhism but only represents a small movement in Chinese Buddhism. Most Chinese Buddhists to this day have great difficulties with Tantric ideas, misunderstanding Tantrism completely and considering it a “debased” form of Buddhism. (Most Chinese Buddhists are unaware that Chinese Buddhism itself includes traditions of Tantrism.) Very little religious common ground, therefore, exists between Chinese and Tibetans.

The Mongols and Manchus were different in this respect, and that is why the famous “priest-patron” relationship was only formed between Sakyapa Lamas and Mongol emperors in the thirteenth century, and between Gelukpa Dalai Lamas and Manchu emperors in the seventeenth century. Relationships were never formed between any Tibetan lamas and any actually Chinese emperors during the 900 years of the Tang, Sung and Ming dynasties combined. Most recently, the Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang) government set no foot in Tibet, from 1911 until its departure from China in 1947. And, so, the first Chinese rulers to have any political role in Tibet have been the Chinese Communists, since 1950. Naturally there is no question of the Communists sharing any common religious ground with the Tibetans, who are so devoted to Buddhism.

Common Race

On the street, so to speak, neither Tibetans not Chinese consider themselves to be racially related. Some Tibetans do seem to resemble the Sinitic racial type, with a epicanthal fold at the eye and a certain roundness of head. But there are also Mongolian-type Tibetans, Indic types, Dardic types, Burmese types, Turkic types and even Caucasian types in the north-east province. Although Tibetans, Mongolians and Burmese are not so racially different from Chinese as whites or blacks, most Chinese can easily identify them by face as Tibetans, not as fellow Chinese.

This leaves quite remote the possibility of Tibetans and Chinese coming to share a common identity. It seems hard to ground such a sense when they share no common territory, no common language, no common laws, no common sense of history or common literature, only marginal communality of religious beliefs and no common racial type. The Manchu emperors were quite aware of the lack of common identity between Manchus, Mongols, Uighurs, Tibetans and Chinese, and so they tried to draw their legitimacy from their role as conqueror and mediator between these hereditary enemies. The Kuomintang dreamed of retaining the Manchu Empire but failed even to get started. The Communist government stepped in militarily to every territory patrolled by the Manchu armies, except for Outer Mongolia, and has been trying very hard to create a common sense of identity, using the internationalist ideology of world Communist revolution. Indeed, the whole aim of China’s cultural policy in Tibet has been to eradicate the Tibetan sense of distinct identity and inculcate in the Tibetans a sense of communality with the Chinese as fellow Communists and revolutionaries.

That policy has so far proved dramatically unsuccessful. The Tibetans’ immediate return to monastery rebuilding and other religious pursuits since the relaxation of policies in the 1980s has shown the world how totally they have repudiated communism, how wholeheartedly they have rejected becoming part of a Chinese nation and how devotedly they are clinging to their Buddhist faith. The present Chinese government is quite aware of this immovable core of Tibetan national identity, and therefore has begun to allow for its resurgence as a tourist attraction, perhaps trying the impossible in letting the Tibetans reconstruct the form of the culture while trying to prevent the revival of its heart.

Tibetans are unique on the planet in that their national life is wholly dedicated to Buddhism. For them the Dharma is all in all. Their culture was laboriously transformed over the thousand-year period from Srong btsan sgam po (early seventh century) to the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (early seventeenth century) from a normally ethnocentric, warlike, imperialistic national culture to a universally Buddhicized spiritual, peaceful culture. Essentially ,they have been unilaterally disarmed for over 300 years. Their material development has been systematically neglected in favor of their spiritual development. For centuries, the main line item in the budget of the national government has been support of the monasteries and the studies and the practices of the monks and nuns. The wheel was purposely never used for transport, but only for generating prayers, the energy of OM MANI PADME HUM. Their rulers have been spiritual lineages of wisdom and compassion, triumphing over dynastic blood lineages.

Tibetan culture thus represents Buddhism’s most sustained experiment in transforming a social environment. It is of course a still incomplete experiment, and the present Dalai Lama and other active leaders look forward to completing it, especially by balancing spiritual development with more effort toward a modest, post-industrial level of material progress. Elsewhere, I have described Tibet in sociological terms as having evolved a unique personality constellation called “inner modernity,” in contrast with the “outer modernity” of oursocieties (which we view as the only modernity). It is a culture of inestimable value us, as a mirror of ours, as extremely inward as we have been extremely outward. It may contain precious keys with which we can rediscover planetary equilibrium, restoring spiritual sanity to those maddened by extreme materialism. Its life or death is our life or death. It lives underground at home, in open air only in exile. We must protect it, nurture it and patiently wait for all concerned to rediscover its jewel-like value and need for special treasuring.

*Photo by Galen Rowell