Said Franz Michael in 1982…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

In 1982, Franz Michael published Rule by Incarnation: Tibetan Buddhism and its Role in Society and State. In the concluding chapter, Michael had this to say about the adaptation of the traditional Tibetan polity in exile in India.

‘The lack of communication, isolation, and lack of time spelled disaster for the continued political independence of the unique Tibetan order, not any basic incompatibility between Tibetan Buddhism and a modernized society. In principal, it seems, Tibetan Buddhism could have adjusted well to the modern world.

That assumption is strengthened by the experiences of the Tibetan diaspora. If the growing commercial segment in both the secular and the ecclesiastical sectors of the Tibetan society bode well for the potential of modern transformation, the true test of the adaptability of the religiopolitical order to modern life came when the Dalai Lama, his court, and some one hundred thousand Tibetans from all walks of life fled across the Himalayas into India. In exile, the test was not only continued Tibetan success in commercial trade and financial matters, in the continuation and development of Tibetan crafts, or even in industrial labor and management, but in agriculture, which to some observers had remained the most tradition-bound part of the economy, at least in its social structure. The present situation of the Tibetan refugee communities in India and of their religiopolitical leadership shows an extraordinarily successful ability not only to survive but to flourish.

In his extremely good essay on the Tibetan settlements at Munda Ruppe in India and their relationship to the Dalai Lama’s quasi-government at Dharamsala, Melvyn C. Goldstein comes to the same conclusion.1

After listing all the disadvantages the Tibetan refugees had to deal with in their new surroundings—as an uprooted population thrown into an alien culture in a hostile climate without the technical knowledge or a knowledge of the language to facilitate their adaptation—Goldstein comes to the conclusion that their adaptation has been very successful. Not only did the stereotyped refugee syndrome not develop, but the most successful programs of rehabilitation occurred in the very area that might have been suspected of causing the greatest difficulties, the area of permanent agricultural settlement. Disregarding the long-range questions about the future, Goldstein contends that “in particular, the traditional Tibetan political structure possesses a high ‘adaptive capacity’ and is the single most important variable underlying the successful initial adaptation of the Tibetan,” a conclusion fully share by the author of this book.

Before dealing with the various elements of the transfer of this traditional society, it should be pointed out that the adaptation of Tibetans to their new condition as refugees was greatly improved by the generosity and consideration of the Indian government. Not intimidated by Pekings pressure and accustomed to tolerance because of the great variety of ethnic and religious components within the Indian polity, the Indian government not only offered tolerance and financial support, but also permitted the Tibetans to form their own communities. It also offered encouragement to the Dalai Lama and his court and recognized his role as the religious and secular head of the exile communities (and other Tibetan population groups in Ladakh and other parts of India). In spite of that help, it is extraordinary that the Tibetan emigrants have established themselves successfully within the Indian polity. The dramatic adaptation may be described as a situation in which some of the unessential aspects of the Tibetan order—the surface trimmings of inherited tradition—fell off and the essence remained.

What has remained is, first of all, the religiopolitical structure, the Personal-Union of the Dalai Lama’s religious and temporal authority. When the Dalai Lama arrived in India, the Indian government recognized and accepted that authority. Although not approving of any government in exile, it permitted the establishment at Dharamsala of the Dalai Lama’s hierocracy for the Tibetans in India. This government consists of the Dalai Lama’s Cabinet with portfolios on resettlement, finance, education, and security; a Tibetan assembly with elected representatives from the different settlements and groups; and a considerable staff to deal with all the problems of the new development. The authority in the settlements themselves is divided in a fashion very similar to that which had existed in Tibet. The heads of the settlements and their staffs, corresponding to the dzongpon in the Tibetan homeland, are appointed and their salaries paid by the Dharamsala administration. Under them, there are elected representatives of family groups (ten families), called bcudpon, and—on a higher level—representatives of differing language groups, called gardu, from central and eastern Tibet (Ü/Tsang, Kham, and Amdo). The elected representatives are paid by Dharamsala but represent the people of the communities in the same way the headmen and elders did in Tibet. Again it is on the community level that the central government and the people’s representatives cooperate in the management of local affairs.

As in Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s authority is strengthened by his ability to provide financial support for local religious and community purposes and to attract people from all levels for a government career. And again the real source of authority is religious. It is the acceptance of the Buddhist faith and the role of the Dalai Lama as the incarnaton of an emanation of Avalokitesvara that is the basis of all authority among the Tibetans in exile. This, indeed, is the same system that existed in Tibet until 1959.

If some wonder how it is possible to maintain authority without an army or police force, it must be pointed out that the same extraordinary form of government existed in Tibet, where the Dalai Lama ruled without an army or a police force. And if some wonder how easy it was to end the miser status and disregard the aristocracy, it must be pointed out that without the
mistaken notions of “feudalism” and “serfdom,” those institutions clearly could not be regarded as a crucial part of the traditional order. In fact, since the aristocracy no longer has any obligation to serve, the vast majority of the Dharamsala officials and, of course, the local representatives are of common and secular background. If there are some questions about the autonomy of the non-Gelukpa sects, that situation, too, appears to have changed little from the former situation in Tibet. But on the whole, a common fate and danger appear to have formed a stronger bond among the sects than existed in the past.

In addition, there may be a new force to cement Tibetan unity in exile that is stronger than any such force prevailing in Tibet: modern nationalism. There has been an ethnic nationalism in Tibet ever since the aristocrats invoked it in the eighth century in their attacks against the Indian Buddhist missionaries the kings had imported. Today this nationalism among the exiles is linked to their hope of returning to their homeland under their own rule, and it transcends the particularist inclinations of the past. The settlements contain population groups from all regions of Tibet, and the Lhasa language has become more of a lingua franca than ever. The nationalism is inextricably linked to Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama is its focus and chief symbol.

Questions about the future remain, of course. There is the question of future financial resources for the Dharamsala administration and the monastic life. There are no more estates, and state support, voluntary contributions, and new taxes may pose problems. There is also the question of future incarnations—will they be found in India or will some of the present incarnations not be reincarnated after they have passed away?

Most of all, there is a grave question about the survival of the faith and the culture in the Tibetan homeland, which has been subjected to physical, political, and ideological blows. The signs are that in spite of the vast destruction of temples and monasteries by the Chinese before and during
the “cultural revolution” and the harsh suppression of all religious life, the Tibetan people who remained in their homeland have clung to their faith and their belief in the Dalai Lama. This continued tie was demonstrated by their spontaneous, enthusiastic reception of the Dalai Lama’s visiting delegations in 1980 and by many other testimonies.

Much, however, will depend on the survival of a religious base outside the Chinese orbit, and so far there are no signs of disintegration. On the contrary, the story of the success in India and the survival of a culture in exile after an unparalleled disaster at home indicate that human faith and
willpower are still the chief weapons for national survival, and Tibetan Buddhism has proved its strength in adversity. We may learn even in our time that the cultures that survive are those that can maintain their beliefs and values above the vicissitudes of any outrageous fortune.’2

  1. Goldstein, Melvyn C. (1978). Ethnogenesis and Resource Competition Among Tibetan Refugees in South India: A New Face to the Indo-Tibetan Interface. In J. F. Fisher (Ed.), Himalayan Anthropology: The Indo-Tibetan Interface (pp. 395-420). The Hague: Mouton Publishers.
  2. Michael, Franz. (1982). Rule by Incarnation: Tibetan Buddhism and Its Role in Society and State. Boulder: Westview Press. (pp. 167-160)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.