Food for thought: from Wang Lixiong’s article on Tibet from “New Left Review” March/April 2002
Replace the word: “Tibetan” and “Tibetans” with any other nation or nationality and “Buddhist” with any other religion and the analysis is very nearly unchanged. The origins of the usefulness of religious mythology in the maintenance of the social status quo is explored; the use of fear of death and of angering the gods by opposing their “divine plan” here in this life is exposed. Without the intervention of conscious revolutionaries bearing Marxist materialist ideas and ideals, the masses remain trapped by the all-pervasive fear of the gods and of the capitalist state which – in the view of the religious believers of any faith – exists due to the fact that the status quo is ordained by God and cannot – must not – be opposed. This is the “slave mentality” that cripples workers and peasants throughout the capitalist world.
“A fear above all others
“One of the unique characteristics of traditional Tibetan society was that, despite a considerable degree of social and economic polarization, there was hardly any history of actual class confrontation. Conflict was generally between upper-class factions, or between Tibetans and other ethnic groups. What explains such an unusual degree of deference and obedience? The answer surely lies in the deeply rooted religious traditions of Tibet. Even if aware of their suppressed and exploited status, the poor would resign themselves to their fate, seeing it as retribution for their previous lives. According to Buddhist doctrine, their hope of freedom from suffering lay entirely in the hereafter: only by resigning themselves to their present condition and enduring its misery might they hope to win the favours of the deities, and the chance of being born into a better afterlife. Any resistance was disobedience to the divine will and would be met with suitable punishment. This staunch belief moulded the Tibetans’ attitude of passive submission. The benefits of reform in this world could never match the happiness of the afterlife; if they committed the crime of ‘defying their superiors’ or ‘enriching themselves with dubious wealth’, the dreadful punishment that awaited them would far outweigh any earthly gains. This was why so many felt uncertain about class struggle…”
[In this section of Wang Lixiong’s essay, replacing the word “Buddhism” with “capitalism” – the national religion of the USA – you get even more surprising and enlightening results. — IWPCHI]
“If the highly evolved doctrines of the lamaist tradition are almost impossibly abstruse, the faith of the masses is far more comprehensible. The roots of their intense religiosity lie in the terrors of their natural environment—the explanation, surely, for the extraordinary proliferation of deities and monsters within Tibetan Buddhism, differentiating it from Indian and Chinese variants. Fear is the key factor […] [f]ear provoked awe, and awe gave rise to the totem of deities and monsters:
“The Tibetans were living in a state of apprehension and anxiety. Every perturbation, either physical or spiritual, every illness, every susceptible or dangerous situation, would drive them to search feverishly for its causes, and for preventative measures.
But the search for solutions only reinforced the anxiety: the more thought and explanation was lavished upon it, the deeper it grew. Faced with a fear that they could neither escape nor conquer, Tibetans were in need of a larger fear, clearly defined and structured, one that exceeded all others and which, so long as one obeyed it totally, would keep at bay all the lesser fears, lifting the intolerable psychological burden.
Fear formed the core of the Tibetans’ spiritual world. Only by propitiating their terror, by offering sacrifices to it in complicated ceremonies, by worshipping and obeying it, could one feel safe and free, reassured by its vast dominion and tremendous power. Such a fear already possessed, at a certain level, the nature of divinity; the origins of the vast number of ferocious and terrifying objects worshipped in Tibetan religion—including those of the Bon shamanism that predated the eighth-century introduction of Buddhism from India—can surely be traced back here. In that frightful environment, humankind can scarcely persevere without some sense of divine guidance and support. From this perspective it might be argued that, even if all other religions were on their way to extinction, the Tibetan creed would probably be preserved to the very last day.
“Tibetan Buddhism exacts an exorbitant price from its followers. The hope of a better life hereafter demands a punishing regime of forbearance, asceticism and sacrifice in the present. Tibetans also have to contribute a considerable part of their personal wealth to religious activity—building monasteries, providing for monks and nuns, performing ceremonies, making pilgrimages and so forth. Under the Dalai Lama’s government, 92 per cent of the budget was devoted to religious expenditure. Even today, according to some estimates, the Tibetans pay about a third of their annual income to the monasteries. This was money that would not be transformed into productive investment nor used to improve the people’s lives. For over a thousand years, the sweat and toil of the Tibetans had gone to encrust the monasteries, while the governing monks formed an enormous parasitic social stratum. […] This unproductive layer was a heavy burden on Tibetan society…”