The Tibetans by Kapstein

Matthew T. Kapstein. The Tibetans. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Hardcover, xviii + 360 pp.

This general introduction to Tibet and Tibetans is grounded in the latest scholarly research but very much has the nonspecialist reader in mind. Ever since the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in 1959, Tibet’s cultures and religions (note the plural) have claimed the attention of many Westerners. Yet, despite or possibly because of the overwhelming amount of information available, Tibet and Tibetans are not widely understood.

Kapstein, who is a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Chicago, has produced a finely textured work that can correct prevailing misconceptions and introduce the reader to the amazing complexity of what he calls the “Tibetan civilizational sphere.” His focus is on Tibet’s cultural history, commencing with prehistory, which is known primarily from early legends and Paleolithic archaeological artifacts (some dating back to c. 30,000 B.C.).

The country emerged into history as late as the closing quarter of the sixth century B.C. Imperialism made its appearance with the famous ruler Songtsen Gampo (c. 605-650 A.D.), during whose reign the Tibetan script was created as well as other cultural innovations were introduced. Significantly, it was also during this era that Tibet and China came first into military conflict.

While Buddhism appears to have come to Tibet through Songtsen Gampo’s and also his successors’ marriages to Chinese princesses, later traditions often credit him with having been the first staunch support of Buddhism in his country. This role really belongs to King Tri Songdetsen (742-c.797 A.D.), who ordered the construction of Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. He is said to have invited Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava, two highly esteemed teachers and adepts of Indian Buddhism.

After Tri Songdetsen, the Tibetan empire continued to expand for a short time and then disintegrated gradually, punctuated by a series of uprisings, in the ninth century. A certain cultural renaissance occurred toward the end of the tenth century (coinciding with the arrival of the renowned Buddhist master Atisha), but political fragmentation remained a problem until the late thirteenth century.

Kapstein admirable disentangles for us, as much as this is possible from the source materials, the rather tangled history of Tibet, especially its political connection with the Chinese civilization. He also sheds important light on the equally tangled history of the various Tibetan Buddhist orders whose conflicts seem to have been mostly politically rather than doctrinally motivated. His explanations are helpful in understanding some of the intricate issues associated with the institution of the hitherto fourteen Dalai Lamas.

All this will be found quite sobering by those who indulge in a romanticized version of Tibet as a Shangri-la. Buddhism has failed to root out rivalry, political intrigue, corruption, murder, and even armed conflict. Kapstein spends considerable space on the history of the Dalai Lamas without whom we cannot possibly understand the history of Tibet, as it has unfolded in the period after the fifteenth century.

In the twentieth century, two events proved singularly fateful for Tibet. The first was the isolated rule of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and his death in 1933, which left the country highly vulnerable at a most critical time. The second was the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which then sought to assert its control over Tibet, leading in 1959 to a mass exodus of 100,000 Tibetans led by H. H. the fourteenth Dalai Lama and the subsequent slaughter or brutal suppression of those who chose to remain behind in their homeland.

Tibet’s culture and society have received a terrible blow from the Chinese Communist regime. Tibetans in Tibet continue to suffer, and many expatriates either miss their homeland and their old ways or are struggling to come to terms with their expatriate existence in India and elsewhere in the world. The Tibetans helps us better understand the historical and cultural forces that have shaped Tibet’s destiny.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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