‘The Demise of the Lamaist State’ (1989)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

9 minutes

Melvyn Goldstein’s A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State (1989) is the first of four large volumes on modern Tibetan history. The full book is available here. Goldstein has this to say about the role and sexual practices of dop dop (Wyl. ldob ldob), also known as ‘punk monks’ or ‘fighting monks’ in and around the Tibetan capitol Lhasa around 1950:

“Sera, Drepung, and Ganden were collectively known by two main names. Often they were called the ‘three seats’ (densa sum ) of the Gelugpa sect, because they acted as the main monasteries for hundreds of smaller branch monasteries. More commonly they were known simply as sendregasum, an abbreviation of the first syllable of each of their names. (Hereafter, the term ‘Three Seats’ will be used.) Sera and Drepung were both located within the Lhasa valley, Sera about three miles north of the city of Lhasa and Drepung about five and a half miles northwest of the city. Ganden was located outside the valley about twenty miles east of the city.

These three monasteries were enormous, resembling bustling towns as much as sanctuaries for the pursuit of otherworldly studies. Their monks were basically divided into two groups, those who were pursuing higher studies, the ‘readers,’ and those who were not. The former became the scholars, while the latter typically could only read and chant their prayer books. In the Mey college of Sera monastery, for example, only about 800 of the 2,800 monks, or 29 percent, were ‘readers.’ And of these 800, many never went beyond the lower levels of learning. The nonreaders worked for the monastery (or for themselves) or simply lived off the daily distributions and teas provided by the monastery during the collective prayer sessions. However, although many of the monks were engaged in nonscholarly and nonmeditative pursuits, all were celibate.

Drepung, the largest of the three monasteries, officially held 7,700 monks, but actually contained about 10,000 in 1951. Sera officially held 5,500 and Ganden 3,300, with each also actually housing more monks: Sera about 7,000, and Ganden about 5,000. By contrast, the army normally present in Lhasa numbered only 1,000 or 1,500 troops. Moreover, as many as 10 to 15 percent of the monks housed in the Three Seats were dobdos or ‘fighting monks.’ These monks had a distinctive appearance (style of hair, manner of tying their robes) and belonged to clubs that held regular athletic competitions. They also typically engaged in ritualized combat with weapons according to a code of chivalry, and often acted as bodyguards for the monastery. The presence of 20,000 monks in and around Lhasa, thousands of whom were this-worldly, aggressive, fighting monks, traditionally afforded the three monasteries tremendous coercive leverage vis-à-vis the government, whose army in the pre-1913 period they dwarfed.

These three monasteries had extensive networks of affiliated monasteries throughout the country, and there was a continuous flow of monks and monastic officials between smaller village and regional monasteries and the parent monastery. Thus, when the Three Seats took a position on some issue they could claim to be speaking for the overwhelming majority of Gelugpa monks.” (pp. 24-26).

Under the heading ‘Attempts at Modernization,’ Goldstein writes about the constant risk of predatory sexual behaviour aimed at violating young children posed by dop dop:

“As long ago as the time of the Gould mission of 1936, Tibet had unsuccessfully tried to persuade India to supply it with wireless equipment. The confrontation with China over the transport road in 1941–1943 had reaffirmed the importance of wireless communications and had induced the Tibetan government to broach the subject with American officers Tolstoy and Dolan when they visited Lhasa in 1943. As was discussed in Chapter 11, the Americans responded favorably, recommending to OSS that the United States provide Tibet with three fully equipped portable wireless stations so that a trans-Tibet network could be set up in the border areas such as Chamdo, Gartok, Nagchuka, Tsöna, and Rima. This communiqué was sent through Gould, who immediately advised his superiors in Delhi that Britain should also give Tibet transmitting equipment so as to lessen the impact of the American gift of the wireless sets.

In the United States, W. Donovan, the head of OSS, approved Tolstoy’s recommendation, arguing to the Division of Far Eastern Affairs of the State Department that this would be a historic precedent that would open Tibet up to U.S. influence. The State Department responded that such support would inevitably ’cause irritation and offense to the Chinese’ and urged OSS to drop the idea. Donovan, not easily deterred, continued to press for approval. The State Department in turn tried to forestall a decision by asking General Stillwell in China to render an opinion as to whether this would offend Chinese susceptibilities.

Ultimately, the United States Government presented three wireless sets and five receiving sets to Tibet. The British, now eager not to be left out, gave Tibet two more sets and, at the request of the Tibetan government, agreed to train Tibetans at their Mission in Lhasa to operate them. This training was not an easy task since it involved not only transmitting and receiving but also maintenance of the sets, and this required some basic Western education. H. E. Richardson commented:

‘The Tibetan Government have shown great eagerness to get the equipment as soon as possible, but it is probable that they do not fully appreciate the difficulties there will be in setting up an efficient wireless network. The officials who are undergoing training are reported to be very keen, but they are few in number and have no technical background, and the very small number of Tibetans who know any English limits the choice of suitable people to train.’

The British Lhasa Mission’s report of a conversation with one of the Tibetans who went to school in London in 1913 is also revealing:

‘I took this opportunity of discussing with Ringang the question of future Tibetan wireless officials and their treatment by the Government. No officials draw pay which is of any use to them. Their money has to be made in other ways, and Government posts are not sought after because of the pay the post carried, but because of the opportunities it offers for money making. A future wireless official might draw pay of Rs. 200 a year, and if this is all he is to get, he will not want the job. I suggested that Ringang tell the Kashag that unless a dzong [district] is given as well as the post of wireless official, no one will show any keenness. The Kashag have agreed, I understand, that some such arrangement must be made. Better than this would be adequate pay and the prospect of adequate rank, and I intend to talk to the Kashag about this at our next party on January 30th.’

Richardson and G. Sherriff also advised the Kashag that if they were to utilize Western technology, many more English-speakers would be needed. The British pointed out that English had become the most widely known language in the world and that Tibet should arrange to produce a sizable corps of officials who knew it.

The importance of English for the development of Tibet was not a new idea there. The late Dalai Lama had sent four young aristocrats to London in 1913 to receive a British education, and in 1923 he opened an English school in Gyantse under the tutelage of Frank Ludlow, an Englishman. However, when the Dalai Lama turned against the military clique in 1924, these initial moves were terminated. A few aristocrats continued to send their children to India for schooling, and a few children of officials were tutored at the British Mission, but after 1926 there was no program to teach English in Tibet. In 1938, Reting sent a few boys to the British Mission to learn some English and Hindi, but this was solely to enable them to work more effectively in Reting’s own trading company in India, and the group included no government officials.

Because of the need for English-educated officials to operate the wireless units, hydroelectric works, and other modern technology, the shapes, with the Chigyab Khembo Ngawang Tenzin, approached Taktra with a plan to open a school. He quickly agreed, rationalizing that such a school was merely an extension of the late Dalai Lama’s policy. In January 1944, the Kashag asked the British Mission in Lhasa for help in finding a good headmaster; on their advice, R. A. Parker was hired. The new school was to combine Tibetan education for part of the day with English education for the remainder.

A site for the school was selected in the center of town and a substantial construction budget was allocated. All books and supplies left from the earlier Gyantse school were sent to Lhasa, and Parker purchased the remaining items from India. To facilitate the recruitment of students, the Yigtsang and the Tsigang called meetings of all monk and all lay officials, respectively, explaining the nature of the new school and asking them to enroll their sons or, in the case of monk officials, their nephews and monk disciples. Thirty-three lay aristocratic children and ten commoners ranging in age from about seven to eighteen were enrolled; significantly, no pupils were relatives of monk officials. It very soon became obvious that many among the monk-official segment and the monasteries strongly objected to the school, fearing that it represented a major threat to religion and to the Tibetan monastic system. In the two decades that had elapsed since the confrontation and destruction of the pro-Western military clique in the mid-1920s, the monastic segment had gained no awareness of the grave danger China presented to Tibet, or at least would present after the war.

The school was officially opened on 31 July. At the opening ceremony Kapshöba, one of the heads of the Tsigang, read the regent’s official pronouncement:

‘All political activities no matter how large or small they may be depend not only on the intellect and ideas, but also on composition and arithmetic. Nowadays, unlike previously, the educational emphasis is more on practical science everywhere. Therefore it is necessary to have not only a perfect basis in the traditional abstract arts and arithmetic, but a thorough knowledge of the English language and the other educational topics prevalent in the rest of the world. For that reason, the late 13th Dalai Lama who foresaw the future sent a few Tibetan Government officials to London for such education with no consideration for expenditures. Thereafter, in the Water-Pig year, they established another school at Gyantse with Ludlow as the teacher. Students were selected by the Tsigang from the various aristocratic lay official families.
Now it is necessary for us to continue the great idea and the important decisions of the late Dalai Lama. We are here to establish this school where one can study both Tibetan and English. As far as admission of students is concerned, only the real sons of medium and lower aristocratic families can be admitted.’

The regent’s eloquent justification of this school and his efforts to allay the monastic segment’s fears were not successful. After two or three weeks of classes, the monastic segment openly raised objections. It appears certain that important conservative monk officials encouraged the monks to take action, and it is also generally understood that Shen, the new Chinese representative, viewed the school as a British attempt to tear Tibet further away from China and that he lobbied the monks to close the school. Kapshöba and Lhalu mention that the former regent, Reting, was among those opposed to the school.

The abbots and other conservative monk officials believed, as they had in 1920–1925, that educating young and impressionable boys in the English style of thinking would change their attitude toward Buddhism and the Tibetan way of life. They feared that such boys would no longer be strong patrons of the monastic order and that the income of the monasteries would eventually be severely damaged. The monks also feared that as these young boys became ranking officials, they would want to give predominance to the temporal segment of the Tibetan government, thus potentially endangering the dominance of Tibet’s religious form of government. In contrast, the monks did not consider future Chinese domination as a threat to religion. The Three Seats had many monks from Kham and Amdo who had lived under Chinese rule, and those areas had many monasteries of their own. The Manchu emperors, moreover, had been patrons of Tibetan Buddhism. The same, however, could not be said of the Christian British. Consequently, the abbots and monks were unalterably opposed to the school.

Led by Jungnay of Drepung monastery’s Gyeba college and by the abbot of Sera Che college, meetings regarding the school were held in each monastic college. These discussions produced agreement that if the government was unwilling to close the school on its own, the dobdo monks of the three monasteries would be sent en masse to close the school by force. Having decided on confrontation, the abbots requested that the Kashag convene a meeting of the National Assembly. Since the abbots dominated the assembly, they felt confident that they could influence the assembly to recommend closure of the school. The Kashag responded that the new school was approved by Taktra Regent for the long-term benefit of Tibet and that the monks were exaggerating the importance of the issue. The abbots insisted on the assembly considering the issue, and by early October 1944 the school’s future looked less than promising. In the bazaar, rumor had it that the dobdo monks were going to kidnap the students and take them to the monastery, a threat the lay-official families believed.[Footnote 50 says: “Since dobdos were notorious for stealing young boys for homosexual practices, these threats to the new school had overtones beyond simply holding them in the monastery.]

Just as pressure to disband the school was reaching its apex, Lhasa was stunned by the news that a group of monks from Sera monastery had murdered the acting district commissioner of Lhundrup Dzong. Sera monastery, moreover, challenged the government by refusing to give up the guilty monks. Faced now with a serious internal monastic threat, the Kashag and the regent decided the prudent course of action was to close the school and thereby preclude the possibility that the monasteries might unite against them. Thus, in January 1945, during the three-month school winter holiday, the Tibetan Foreign Affairs Bureau notified the British Mission in Lhasa that they had decided to close the school permanently, due to public pressure. The explanation they offered is simple and basically forthright: ‘It is found that there is open resentment and strong public feeling against school because most of the boy(s) are from the nobility and so young that they are not capable of judging for themselves and therefore they are afraid of its leading to changes in habits and religious belief.'” (pp. 419-425, with slight edits for readibility).

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.