The issues seem clearcut here in the West: the evil Chinese empire invaded the sovereign state of Tibet and now needs to now get out. But nothing is quite that simple and clear-cut — it never is!
WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO FREE TIBET? This question is hardly ever asked here in the West because it is taken for granted by anybody with a conscience that Tibet should be freed from the evil Chinese empire, an empire that cruelly swallowed up a peaceful sovereign nation, enslaved and tortured its people, destroying its culture and banned its religion. It cannot be more clear-cut. In fact, the only individuals who seem to disagree or remain quiet on the issue are those sucking up the the Chinese — our politicians and business leaders. But whilst it is undeniable that China, like every other empire, has behaved abominably, there are also factors in the equation that blur the ideological separation between an evil China from a good Tibet.
If you ask most people about their vision of Tibet before the Chinese invaded, they would say that it was a peaceful Buddhist country, with a free and happy population, a powerful yet peaceful religious tradition, and a sovereign state that has always been separate from China. They would tell you all this because it is the prevalent view of exotic far-away Tibet. But this is a myth, and it is a myth that fuels support for Tibet's liberation here in the West.
Like all myths, some of it is based on truth, and some of it is not. The Tibetan issue is very far from black and white, and most of us here in the West have been played by propaganda campaigns.
The first inkling I had that something was wrong with my view of Tibet and its history was reading, in Nexus Vol 12, No.4, an article by Dr. S. D'Montford entitled Unveiling Bloody Buddhism. In reviewing the evidence, D'Montford makes it very clear that Tibetan "Buddhism" is NOT Buddhism at all, but is more accurately described as "Lamaism". The original religion of Tibet was Bon-Po, a form of shamanism, but this was oppressively and systematically replaced by an imported and bastardised form of Buddhism, with the aid of the 8th Century Tibetan King Khri Srong-Ide'ti-btsan. He issued an ultimatum to his religious subjects to either turn Buddhist or become ordinary tax-paying citizens, or leave the country. Most chose to leave. Those that refused all options were threatened with death. The Bon-Po monasteries were stolen, holy shrines were destroyed and the King tried to burn all holy writings. (These were hidden in the mountains, ravines and even in some converted Buddhist monasteries.)
And so Tibet became a "Buddhist" country, except that it was not Buddhism as we know it. It was violent, brutal, oppressive, political, despotic and cruel, bearing no relation to its Indian or Chinese counterparts, which is why it is often described as Lamaism by true Buddhists. If you don't believe this, look at the religions yourself: notice the stark contrast between genuine Buddhist temples and Tibetan Buddhist temples, and the enormous differences in the teachings and the teachers. Nobody who understands any of the original Buddha's teachings would in any way categorize Tibetan Buddhism as Buddhism. It simply is something else entirely, something that masquerades as Buddhism. (This does not negate it as a spiritual system, only as a Buddhist spiritual system.)
And under this system, that tightened its iron grip on the Tibetan people over the centuries, the ordinary person suffered extensively, oppressed into supporting an elite cast of Lamas, who ruled their "subjects" with none of the compassion and mercy that is generally associated with Buddhists. Life in sovereign Tibet was brutal and oppressive, with Lamas thinking nothing of issuing orders for the murder of their political and religious opponents. For example, the Penchen Lama was forced, in 1923, to flee tibet because the 13th Dalai Lama had ordered his soldiers to kill him on sight because he believed he was undermining Lamaism by promoting a more just society that would not be under the theocratic rule of Lhasa. (Ironically, he sought refuge in China which was more tolerant and civilized than Tibet at that time.)
And those that believe that such repression is merely a mistake of the past should take note that the present Dalai Lama (the beautiful man with a warm smile and kind heart) will also occasionally issue an edict that must be obeyed by the whole Tibetan church around the world. For example, he banned the worship of Shugden in 1996 as he believed it was a "relapse to shamanism".
The original religion of Tibet was Bon or Bonpo shamanism. Bon is the true shamanic or animistic heritage of Tibet and its aim is to bring internal peace so that a transcendent oneness — called rigpa — is realized. Trance states are used in conjunction with possession by spirits at special dances so that voice can be given to the gods, demons and other spirits that are believed to inhabit the land. The worship of idols is also central to Bonpo.
When Bon was outlawed by Tibetan Buddhist King Khri Srong-Ide'ti-btsan and its monasteries destroyed, there followed a 400 year period of persecution of those that followed the traditional beliefs, similar to the Christian faith's inquisitions. One old Tibetan shaman from the Kham provinces who fled to Kashmir before the Chinese invasion describes how practitioners of Bonpo were imprisioned or skinned alive en masse by the Tibetan Buddhist monks and how the skins were hung out to dry in the streets of Lhasa.
As a result of this persecution, many of the Bon practitioners moved over to the new official religion, but coloured it strongly with their shamanism. And so, Tibetan Buddhism became a bastardised form of Buddhism, a mishmash of Buddhism and Bonpo Shamanism.
It is interesting how this religious persecutions is paralleled by that of the Chinese in the last century. Persecution begets persecution. You cannot just sublimate that level of trauma in a population; it needs to play out… and it did. Tibetan Buddhism has a very bloody history and is light-years away from the peaceful religion it has now become. And its past has undergone extensive revisionism, largely through the PR efforts of the current Dalai Lama and his contingent. (This is not to say that the present Dalai Lama is not a genuinely peaceful man, or that he has a secret political agenda, only that he is the head of an organisation that is not completely honest with its past.)
So even though the Chinese invasion of Tibet has caused so much suffering and should be condemned (any invasion of any country and persecution of its people should be condemned), it inadvertently served to liberate the Tibetan people from persecution by the Lama ruling classes, bringing the opportunity to become more than just slaves to that outdated and cruel lama-centered system. Of course, the emancipation of the Tibetan people was no doubt furthermost from the minds of the Chinese invaders as they coveted a neighbouring sovereign country, but relative emancipation (China is hardly a democracy) is one of the beneficial side-effects of this crime.
So here in the West we should not fall for the Tibetan Buddhist PR. We should realize some of the complexity of the issue, and not allow ourselves into the knee-jerk response of automatic support for the "Free Tibet" campaigns and vilification of China. Tibet should be liberated, that is without question, but liberated to a new democracy and not for a return to Lamaism or any other theocratic dictatorship.