The optimistic view of [Tibet’s] military incompetence would be that it came from instinctive pacifism. Martin Scorsese’s 1997 movie Kundun, a beautifully crafted piece of Dalaidolatry, opens with the claim that “Tibetans have practised non-violence for over a thousand years.” The Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman, has similarly depicted Tibet as a land of “psychonauts,” where “the cool-revolutionary counter-culture” entered the mainstream. Tibet was “a laboratory for the enlightenment movement to create its model society,” replete with “pacifist monks and nuns spending their days in learning, meditation, and creativity.” Helped by the teachings of the Buddha, the country had developed “industrial-strength mass monasteries in which individuals conquered their innermost energies and transformed their world into a buddhaverse.”
The idea is appealing, but unreal. The Dalai Lamas rode to political power on the back of the military might of the Mongols. Tibet’s history, like the history of any country, is full of war, gore and male domination, even if revenge slaughter never became as popular as in neighbouring lands. As late as May 1947, the footballer Reting Rinpoche was punished for insurrection by having a silk scarf stuffed down his throat, or his testicles crushed, or being poisoned with yellow pills, depending on which version you prefer. Tibet’s lack of initiative in the 1930s came from the loss of focus and ambition caused by extended reliance on the mediation and patronage of outsiders. As the historian Owen Lattimore has written, “the tributary or feudatory status of Tibet” began when the Sakya sect submitted to Kublai Khan in the thirteenth century: “Politically, the supreme pontiffs of Tibet have from the beginning acted as the agents of one or another alien overlord.”
So, while the newly discovered Fourteenth Dalai Lama grew to adulthood and Mao’s Communist rebels edged closer to victory in China’s civil war, the Tibetan government remained rudderless, unsure how to proceed. The three great monasteries—Drepung, Sera and Ganden—continued to be a powerful bulwark of tradition, opposing the very idea of change and progress. As an unnamed British diplomat noted in 1940, “Tibet’s military weakness is a danger to her continued independence, if ever the Chinese should have time and energy to spare to attempt once more to establish their domination over the country.”
Most of the reforms attempted by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama during his lifetime had failed. Ambitious modernising initiatives such as the creation of paramilitary units and secular schools, where football might be played, were overturned by the entrenched conservatism of the monastic establishment. When the army did turn out on parade, it was not for rifle-shooting or machine-gun practice; rather, the soldiers concentrated on the maintenance of decorum, tradition and precedent. Each year, on the penultimate day of the Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival, a military review was held at Drabchi.
This was Tibet, alone, reliving its glorious past. Symbolically, it was the days of empire that counted. During the Monlam Chenmo, a pair of Tibetan aristocrats would be temporarily awarded the Mongol title of Yaso, making them commanders of the two wings of the ancient army. Dressed in stupendous brocade robes trimmed with fur, supported by noble attendants, in the decade in which Salvador Dali gave a lecture in a diving-suit in London, they would watch the cavalry turn out in scraps of ancient chain-mail and peacock feathers, each horseman carrying a quiver of five plumed arrows. At their head rode two standard bearers holding tall lances and painted banners, wearing cherished helmets, possibly dating to the eighth century, with the name of Allah inscribed on the front in gold filigree.
The Arab influence, from the days long before Tibet became the forbidden land of European invention, was not forgotten by Tibetans. The past lived. During the early ninth century, soldiers of the Tibetan empire had harassed Muslim forces in Central Asia, and laid siege to Samarkand. Correspondingly, Arab troops, stirred by the spread of Islam, had captured parts of Kashmir and Wakhan, and taken the Tibetan general (“the commander of the cavalry of al-Tubbat,” they recorded) and his horsemen back to Baghdad where they could be paraded in triumph, like downed airmen during the Gulf War.
Martial influence travelled in all directions, with Chinese and Arab sources reporting the superiority of early Tibetan armour. A Tang historian noted the quality of the weaponry of a joint Turkic-Tibetan army in the early eighth century.