The Tibetan Diaspora and Tibetan Buddhism in the West

Nov 17, 2005

Category: Tibetan History

The Tibetan Diaspora and Tibetan Buddhism in the West by Keith Dowman

Only a hundred thousand Tibetans left their homeland in the wake of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama in 1959. Thirty-five years later, small but flourishing Tibetan lay communities exist in most large cities of America, Europe and East Asia, hundreds of Tibetan gompas and temples have been built in the Indian sub-continent and around the world, and Tibetan Buddhism has become one of the fastest growing religions on the planet. The Dalai Lama himself, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has international status as a man and politician of rare, if not unique, integrity, and has assumed a high media profile in his crusade for the survival of Tibetan culture and for the oppressed people of his country. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Geluk order and his name is well known, but performing the same quality of spiritual guidance are scores of other lamas with similar status within their communities of Tibetan, Asian and Western disciples. How has this tiny number of representatives of a nation of four million people achieved such international renown?

In October of 1959 the Lhasa valley was full of refugees from Eastern Tibet, mostly Khampas, who had fled Chinese persecution in their homelands. Fearing for the safety of the Dalai Lama, they attacked the occupying Chinese People's Liberation Army whose artillery positioned on the valley sides mercilessly pounded the insurgent concentrations in Lhasa. In the wake of the failure of the Lhasa Uprising those Khampas who did not take to the hills, joining the Chushi Kangdruk guerillas, left for exile in India following the Dalai Lama himself, a large part of the Lhasa government, the abbots and many of the monks from the great Lhasa and provincial gompas, the land-owning families of Central Tibet, and the faithful from all walks of life who heeded the Dalai Lama's warning of dire times to come under the heel of the rabid Chinese Communists. Over the next few years these refugees were followed by small bands of monks and laymen, frequently led by a lama, from communities all over the Tibetan ethnic region as far away as Amdo and eastern Kham. Travelling at night to avoid Chinese patrols, their routes led them to the closest Himalayan passes into India where Prime Minister Nehru had vouchsafed sanctuary. Many died on the way from starvation, disease and the vagaries of climate and landscape.

In the pacification or 'liberation' of Tibet, the Communists naturally targeted the ruling classes. These consisted of the secular land-owning nobility and the religious hierarchs - abbots and tulkus - of the gompas, who, accurately enough, were labelled the feudal leadership. The Chinese unleashed a revolution that was to turn society on its head and instate the impoverished serfs and peasants of Tibetan feudal society in political control. Religious practice constituted evidence of reactionary thinking and anti-revolutionary activity and was suppressed mercilessly. Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution stressed the Communist imperative to eliminate representatives of the old regime, and with the application of doctrinaire policies, many of which were ill-suited to Tibet even from the pragmatic Communist standpoint, starvation, forced labour, imprisonment of 'class enemies', constituted a strategy of genocide. During the late 'sixties a constant trickle of refugees from the Cultural Revolution arrived in India and Nepal.

Although Nehru opened India's doors to the Tibetans, like Nepal and Bhutan, he could not condone the settlement of tens of thousands of Tibetans in the ecologically fragile and politically sensitive Himalayan borderlands. So the Tibetan refugees were herded into reception camps on the Indian plains, particularly in Bengal, where they died from tropical disease by the thousands. After months or years in the reception camps the refugees, according to their Tibetan communal origin, were allocated land in Central and Southern India. The Dalai Lama and his government were given an old British Raj palace in Dharamsala, where the Tibetan leader was kept as a tame mouthpiece for the Government of India in the propaganda war with China. The Sixteenth Karmapa, the spiritual leader of the Kagyu order, whose foresight had prepared a sanctuary and a cache of treasure in Sikkim before the Dalai Lama's flight, had the wealth and influence to establish an independent foothold in exile. Likewise, Dudjom Rimpoche, the head of the Nyingma order, was blessed by the support of the Nyingma community in the Darjeeling area of West Bengal, and remained independent.

While the mass of peasant refugees were sent to the camps in inhospitable Madhya Pradesh and South India, the lamas with their monks were permitted the freedom to establish religious bases wherever they could. The lamas and their monks constituted a disproportionate number of the exiles, and a large proportion of the lamas were from Kham. In just a few years there were Tibetan temples, or at least shrinerooms in old colonial style houses, in virtually every Indian hill station and at the major places of Buddhist pilgrimage on the Indian plains, particularly Bodhgaya and Sarnath. This was achieved through the financial liquification of the treasure that some lamas had managed to bring out of Tibet, through international government aid funnelled through the Dalai Lama's government in Dharamsala, through Western refugee organisations, and also through a few sympathetic private Indians and Europeans. In this way the old religious traditions and the lineal teaching were given a home and the lamas some security out of which they could provide their refugee communities with the customary religious support and also offer the Tibetan Buddhists of the southern Himalayan slopes the kind of vital mainstream Buddhist attention that they had never known before.

It was from these bases that the lamas began an extraordinary relationship - or love affair - with Westerners. It was a reciprocal relationship in which their spiritual wares were exchanged for a place in the modern world. Their association with just a few responsive Westerners was to grow into a worldwide fellowship. The lamas who had the spiritual goods on offer were mature teachers, scholars, adepts in meditation and yoga, who had successfully undergone the full rigorous regimen of monastic and yogic training in their homelands and had deep experience in transmitting the fruit of their mystical experience to at least one generation of devotees before their departure. They represented all the religious orders of Tibet, and all had the initiations and powerful authority derived from lineal transmission originating with a buddha-adept who had lived hundreds if not thousands of years before. Their allure, perhaps, lay in their cheerfulness and humour, the happy acceptance and openness, with which they had emerged from the physical suffering and mental anguish of oppression and exile. Even the humblest itinerant monk had this spontaneous warmth. But the most highly-charged magnets were the lamas of renown whose Tibetan devotees provided a structure and a conduit for Western devotees, like the Karmapa, Dudjom Rimpoche, Khamtrul Rimpoche, and Drukpa Thuktse. Lamas of lower profile with evident spiritual qualities, like Lama Kalu, Kanjur Rimpoche and Abu Rimpoche also attracted devoted Western disciples. All these lamas passed on many years ago and they are now incarnate as children.

The original western characters in this scenario were diverse in personality and nationality, in motivation and intent, but what they had in common was an admiration, or reverence, for Tibetan religious culture and the men who embodied it. There was the Indian Parsee grande dame, a devotee of the Karmapa, who founded a nunnery and a school to prepare young tulkus for admission into Western universities - from which Chogyam Trungpa, amongst others, graduated. There was the American bibliophile from the Library of Congress, who paid the lamas for the privilege of publishing the manuscripts that they had carried with them - rather than food - in their escape from Tibet. A French film-maker amazed by the sensory display of Tibetan ritual had an enlightenment experience while filming the lamas and gave European television audiences a preview of the experience that hundreds of his viewers would later experience for themselves. There were scholars like the American anthropologist who came to study the phenomenology of lamaism and stayed to devote his life to the tradition as a monk, and others like the Scottish anthropologist who spent twenty years translating the magnum opus of his guru-lama, obsessed with the task of translating the voluminous Tibetan scriptures. Diplomats like the Canadian ambassador played a crucial role in providing the keys to the locks of the refugee cage and offering the possibility of travel to the West.

Then there were the old-style hippie travellers who became fascinated by the lamas and caught in relationships with them. Many of these individuals had come to India to pursue the quest for psychedelic experience begun in the spiritual awakening of the 'sixties in Europe and America and continued within the ambience of the Hindu sadhu tradition. When the Tibetans, laymen and lamas, appeared on pilgrimage in Banares and Bodhgaya, and in Kathmandu, an immediate rapport with the hippies led to life-transforming relationships, for the hippies had neither personal agendas nor attachment and were wide open to the existential experiences that attended such meetings. They had the time to spend in learning the language in order to recite the liturgies and speak with the lamas in their own tongue. They lived already the renunciate lifestyle necessary to stay with the Tibetans in their abject poverty. They already possessed a similar philosophical vision, either subconscious or articulated, that facilitated absorption of tantric metaphysics, and they had a psychedelic drug-induced responsiveness to the transmission of mind-to-mind and symbolic meaning. Some ex-hippies still remain in India or Nepal today absorbed in meditation and study. But many more, after some years, returned to the West, carrying the lore of the lamas with them, some to establish Tibetan Buddhist centres in their own countries, some to enlarge Tibetan departments in the universities, and all to swell the popular support for the Dalai Lama and his political agenda and private promotion of the numerous lamas who later would travel to the West.

By the end of the 'sixties each of the Buddhist orders had established at least one major centre on the Indian sub-continent. In the 'seventies these evolved into vital teaching institutions, and those lamas who were able, lamas of all orders, began to establish Indian replacements for their gompas destroyed in Tibet. By the end of the 'eighties this had been achieved in either India or Nepal. Nepal had taken in about ten thousand refugees. Many Western Tibetans had crossed over the Himalayas on the western borders of Nepal and had been settled in camps on that side. Many others had come in bands, led by their Lamas, from Nangchen in Western Kham, and settled by the great stupas of Boudhanath and Swayambhu, both magnets for pilgrims from all over the Himalayan area. Mainly red hat gompas, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya, were established there, but also the Geluk Kopan Monastery of Lama Thubten Yeshe, which was to become the home-gompa of one of the largest international Buddhist fellowships.

In India, Dharamsala was the headquarters of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government and the Geluk order. The Tibetan Library there became a centre of study for both Tibetan and foreign students. The Drepung and Sera gompas were replicated in South India. The Karma Kagyupas, led by the Sixteenth Karmapa, were a wealthy and powerful order established in Rumtek, Sikkim, until the Sixteenth Karmapa's death in a Chicago hospital led to a schism, rival candidates for the Karmapa's throne, and separate seats for their conflicting supporters - the Zhamarpa in Delhi on one hand, and Gyeltseb Tulku in Rumtek and Situ Rimpoche in Bir, Kangra Valley, on the other. The Drukchen and the Drukpa Kagyu were based in Hemis, Ladakh, and in Darjeeling. Sakya Tridzin and the Sakya order were established in Rajpur, Dehra Dun. The Nyingmapas, always a decentralised order, were based in Darjeeling, the Kathmandu Valley, Dehra Dun and in South India. The Bonpos were blessed with a remarkable lama-savant called Khenpo Tenzin Namdak who founded the Dolanji gompa, Simla, and more recently a gompa in the Kathmandu Valley.

The first lamas to travel to the West were young tulkus eager to escape from caste-ridden India. Amongst them were Chogyam Trungpa who first attended Oxford University and then established a centre in Scotland called Samyeling before moving on to the US where he was immensely successful in building a Kagyu empire. Lama Thubten Yeshe travelled from Kopan to Europe to teach and founded the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. Tartung Tulku migrated from Sanskrit University in Banares to Berkeley, California, to found a popular Nyingma centre. Some of the old grand-father lamas, like Lama Kalu and Dudjom Rimpoche, followed this first wave of tulkus to the west and bestowed upon their serious students the authority and initiations necessary for prolonged meditation practice. The first meditation retreat centres were established and Western practitioners were ushered into three year retreat programs.

From the beginning of the close association of lamas with western friends and devotees in India, the lamas had encouraged their students to make the basic commitment of refuge in the Three Jewels - Buddha, his teaching and the Community - and, amongst the red hats, to practise recitation of fundamental tantric liturgies and their accompanying meditation exercises. But despite the old tried and tested adage that no Buddhist community can thrive without a monastic base, there was some divergence of opinion amongst the lamas as to wisdom of ordaining Western monks and nuns. Those who had trust in the ultimate efficacy of the Buddhist institutional forms to function in any society had no qualms, and Western monks and nuns of all orders wearing the traditional maroon Tibetan robes were soon to be seen at the gompas, in places of pilgrimage in India, and also in the West. Other lamas, perhaps those who were less sure of their complete comprehension of the nature of Western mind, were uncertain of the capacity of Westerners to maintain the lifelong vows that ordination implied.

This divergence of opinion was to separate the lamas into two camps in regard to their Western disciples. The first was of a deeply conservative mould that felt that if Tibetan Buddhism was to take root in the West as the prophecies of Guru Rimpoche had foreseen ('When the iron bird flies the buddha-dharma will go to the West') then it would be in Tibetan form with Tibetan language, along the strictly defined graduated path of study and meditation, with traditional ritual modes, hats and all. Those lamas who were more fluent in cross-cultural communication, whose exposure to Westerners was more intimate, whose personal experience and vision of the tantric tradition allowed a more flexible approach, tended to a more liberal agenda for the West. There were Western disciples, meanwhile, who were not ready even for the most indulgent attitudes of these lamas, and who perceived the Tibetan tradition as a vast resource of spiritual largesse from which could be extracted, at no cost, elements that their impoverished Western consciousness required to regain its health or to enrich it with mystical experience. No lama could sanction this individualistic attitude and continue to give structured teaching because tantric practice required tantric commitment, and the first commitment was obedience to the teacher. As more lamas travelled to the West and established dharma centres, whether they were of a conservative or liberal bent, their disciples organised themselves into social mandalas with the lama at the centre, those fully committed to him forming an inner circle, those with tentative commitment in an outer circle, and those with a peripheral interest on the outside.

Within these community mandalas the lamas' teaching styles differed radically. One lama would make menial discipline the chief practice and index of commitment, in imitation of Jetsun Milarepa's mentor Marpa, perhaps. Another lama taught 'crazy wisdom', using psycho-drama and alcohol to break through the obstacles to buddha-awareness. Many others insisted upon the three year retreat as the open-sesame to spiritual realisation. Some saw philosophical and metaphysical study of the Buddhist texts as not only a prerequisite for tantric initiation and practice but as an end in itself. Others bestowed frequent ritual empowerment as the means to imbue students with the basic receptive attitude to the lama's blessings and instruction. Some relied on traditional exposition, or extempore homily, on philosophical and moral topics. Each lama developed his own teaching methods and styles, aspects or combinations of the above, in response to the peculiar Western social and psychological base with which he was presented and to the needs of his disciples.

In the 'nineties the old grandfather lamas have passed on, and there is a new generation of tulkus educated in India and Nepal who never knew the rigours of Tibet. They have grown up in gompas steeped in the old traditions, but in the materialistic social environment that is the contemporary Indian sub-continent. Funds have poured into the lamas' coffers, not only from western disciples and sympathisers but also from the devotees in the newly rich countries of Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the Chinese have continued in a modified manner the old relationship of priest-patron. The lama-priest performs psycho-magical rites for the laymen-patron's longevity, health, wealth and success in any enterprise, in exchange for the large offerings that Western disciples usually are unable to afford. In Tibetan and Chinese society wealth is an indicator of spiritual power, but part of the post-Christian West is loath to accept conspicuous consumption as a sign of Buddhahood.

For the younger tulkus now teaching in the West, wealth is only one obstacle to continued growth of their fellowships that has arisen with the popularity of the Tibetan Buddhist cult. The number of nominal adherents to Tibetan Buddhism in Europe, America and Australasia is now counted in millions, their centres in many hundreds, and the leaders of the movement naturally attract media attention. Their sexual activity has been under scrutiny, particularly what is perceived as the exploitation of female disciples by unscrupulous gurus, but what is better seen from within the tradition as a dereliction in skilful employment of psycho-sexual training methods. Schism within the Tibetan Buddhist orders has also received media attention, particularly the sometime violent conflict between the rival supporters of the two candidates for the Karmapa tulkuship. The recent political polemics between a schismatic Buddhist fellowship in England and the Dalai Lama himself concerning the moral integrity of worship of a particularly virulent guardian protector, a god imported from the old Tibetan shamanic milieu, also gained international media coverage.

The lamas have come a long way down the road to acceptance as the high priests of the planet since their incarceration in refugee camps only thirty five years ago. Despite accusations of charlatanism, commercialism, exploitation of the naive, power-politicking, primitive shamanic practices, and conventionally immoral behaviour, Tibetan Buddhism continues to thrive. Evidently the positive, psychologically beneficial, elements of this complex, multifaceted religion continue to fill spiritual gaps in Western consciousness. The tradition itself can attribute its success in the West to a compassionate core in the minds of its exemplars that facilitates a transformative relationship with their disciples. It can emphasize the basic sanity of its moral doctrine. It can point to the efficacy of its meditation techniques that produce a balanced quiet centre in a mind then capable of insight into the nature of reality. It can highlight the traditional methods that bring an integration of the unconscious depths of the mind, where images of archetypal power lie latent, with superficial conscious activity. And ultimately it can indicate the soteriological imperative of liberation from suffering achieved by the Buddhas of its lineages. Outside observers may stress an analysis that features the sense of social community in an exotic esoteric ambience, or an indiscriminate hunger for replacement of discredited indigenous religious forms. But no simple rationale appears sufficient to explain the diversity of benefits that seem to accrue to all kinds of adherents to the tradition.

The success of the Tibetan lamas in their missionary activity in the West has a parallel within the lay communities in India and Nepal. Particularly in the Kathmandu Valley, laissez-faire economic conditions are conducive to commercial success, and for free-wheeling trading the reputation of Tibetans was second to none in Central Asia. The carpet industry, along with less reputable trading activity, was the source of capital that is now invested in legitimate commercial ventures throughout Asia. A significant percentage of profits go to the lamas. The Tibetan trading network includes representatives in cities throughout the world. This affluence affords a stark contrast with the relative poverty of the Tibetans still in the camps of Central and Southern India, but even here, where agriculture has been the basic source of survival, men leave the community to trade and bring back the illusive cash that raises their level of prosperity way above that of Indian villages. As in religion so in commerce: what is the secret of Tibetan success?



Karmapa Symposium

Thaye Dorje Urgyen Dorje

Articles and News Reports


News from Enlightened Heart RSS © Enlightened Heart 2015
Home | Introduction | Karmapa Symposium | Karma Kagyu Lineage | Aspirations | Events | Contact | Sitemap