Michael Parenti: Friendly Feudalism

About the Author:

Michael Parenti: received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, in the United States and abroad. Michael Parenti has won awards from Project Censored, the Caucus for a New Political Science, the city of Santa Cruz, New Jersey Peace Action, the Social Science Research Council, the Society for Religion in Higher Education, and other organizations.


I’m sure a few of you have already read this essay before since its quite popular but here is a link to the full copy:http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html

The basic message of this essay is that Buddhism is no less violent than all of the other religions of the world: Christianity, Islam, etc… Since historically Buddhism has blood on its hands just as most other religions do. Thus the notion of Buddhism being a religion that “stands out in marked contrast to the violence of other religions” is a false perception. Parenti’s essay states that Tibet was not the Shangri-la movies and western people perceive it to be before China’s invasion. He explains how it was only a “Shangri-la” for Lords and Lamas and how torture and mutilation as present in Tibetan society as a form of punishment.

What I have tried to challenge is the Tibet myth, the Paradise Lost image of a social order that actually was a retrograde theocracy of serfdom and poverty, where a favored few lived high and mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the many. It was a long way from Shangri-La.”
Michael Parenti

Key Points:
-” Religions have had a close relationship not only with violence but with economic exploitation. Indeed, it is often the economic exploitation that necessitates the violence. Such was the case with the Tibetan theocracy. Until 1959, when the Dalai Lama last presided over Tibet, most of the arable land was still organized into manorial estates worked by serfs. Even a writer sympathetic to the old order allows that “a great deal of real estate belonged to the monasteries, and most of them amassed great riches.” Much of the wealth was accumulated “through active participation in trade, commerce, and money lending.”4 Drepung monastery was one of the biggest landowners in the world, with its 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 great pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. The wealth of the monasteries rested in the hands of small numbers of high-ranking lamas. Most ordinary monks lived modestly and had no direct access to great wealth. The Dalai Lama himself “lived richly in the 1000-room, 14-story Potala Palace,” and admits to having owned slaves during his reign.”

-“Young Tibetan boys were regularly taken from their families and brought into the monasteries to be trained as monks. Once there, they became bonded for life. Tashì-Tsering, a monk, reports that it was common for peasant children to be sexually mistreated in the monasteries. He himself was a victim of repeated rape, beginning at age nine.9 The monastic estates also conscripted impoverished peasant children for lifelong servitude as domestics, dance performers, and soldiers”.

-“In the Dalai Lama’s Tibet, torture and mutilation—including eye gouging, the pulling out of tongues, hamstringing, and amputation—were favored punishments inflicted upon runaway serfs and thieves. Journeying through Tibet in the 1960s, Stuart and Roma Gelder interviewed a former serf, Tsereh Wang Tuei, who had stolen two sheep belonging to a monastery. For this he had both his eyes gouged out and his hand mutilated beyond use. He explains that he no longer is a Buddhist: “When a holy lama told them to blind me I thought there was no good in religion.”16 Since it was against Buddhist teachings to take human life, some offenders were severely lashed and then “left to God” in the freezing night to die. “The parallels between Tibet and medieval Europe are striking,” concludes Tom Grunfeld in his book on Tibet”.

-“Whatever wrongs and new oppressions introduced by the Chinese in Tibet, after 1959 they did abolish slavery and the serfdom system of unpaid labor, and put an end to floggings, mutilations, and amputations as a form of criminal punishment. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and beggary. They established secular education, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems in Lhasa”.

-“In theocratic Tibet, ruling interests manipulated the traditional culture to fortify their wealth and power. The theocracy equated rebellious thought and action with satanic influence. It propagated the general presumption of landlord superiority and peasant unworthiness. The rich were represented as deserving their good life, and the poor as deserving their mean lowly existence, all codified in teachings about the karmic residues of virtues and vices accumulated from past lives, all presented as part of God’s will.”

-“Many ordinary Tibetans want the Dalai Lama back in their country, but it appears that relatively few want a return to the social order he represented. A 1999 story in the Washington Post notes that he continues to be revered in Tibet, but:
…few Tibetans would welcome a return of the corrupt aristocratic clans that fled with him in 1959 and that comprise the bulk of his advisers. Many Tibetan farmers, for example, have no interest in surrendering the land they gained during China’s land reform to the clans. Tibet’s former slaves say they, too, don’t want their former masters to return to power. “I’ve already lived that life once before,” said Wangchuk, a 67-year-old former slave who was wearing his best clothes for his yearly pilgrimage to Shigatse, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. He said he worshipped the Dalai Lama, but added, “I may not be free under Chinese communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave.”42

-“Kim Lewis, who studied healing methods with a Buddhist monk in Berkeley, California, had occasion to talk at length with more than a dozen Tibetan women who lived in the monk’s building. When she asked how they felt about returning to their homeland, the sentiment was unanimously negative. At first, Lewis thought their reluctance had to do with the Chinese occupation, but they quickly informed her otherwise. They said they were extremely grateful “not to have to marry 4 or 5 men, be pregnant almost all the time,” or deal with sexually transmitted diseases contacted from a straying husband. The younger women “were delighted to be getting an education, wanted absolutely nothing to do with any religion, and wondered why Americans were so naive.” They recounted stories of their grandmothers’ ordeals with monks who used them as “wisdom consorts,” telling them “how much merit they were gaining by providing the ‘means to enlightenment’— after all, the Buddha had to be with a woman to reach enlightenment.”

The women interviewed by Lewis spoke bitterly about the monastery’s confiscation of their young boys in Tibet. When a boy cried for his mother, he would be told “Why do you cry for her, she gave you up – she’s just a woman.” Among the other issues was “the rampant homosexuality in the Gelugpa sect. All was not well in Shangri-la,” Lewis opines”.


-“To support the Chinese overthrow of the old feudal theocracy is not to applaud everything about Chinese rule in Tibet. This point is seldom understood by today’s Shangri-La adherents in the West.

The converse is also true. To denounce the Chinese occupation does not mean we have to romanticize the former feudal régime. One common complaint among Buddhist followers in the West is that Tibet’s religious culture is being undermined by the occupation. Indeed this seems to be the case. Many of the monasteries are closed, and the theocracy has passed into history. What I am questioning here is the supposedly admirable and pristinely spiritual nature of that pre-invasion culture. In short, we can advocate religious freedom and independence for Tibet without having to embrace the mythology of a Paradise Lost.

Finally, it should be noted that the criticism posed herein is not intended as a personal attack on the Dalai Lama. Whatever his past associations with the CIA and various reactionaries, he speaks often of peace, love, and nonviolence. And he himself really cannot be blamed for the abuses of the ancien régime, having been but 15 years old when he fled into exile. In 1994, in an interview with Melvyn Goldstein, he went on record as favoring since his youth the building of schools, “machines,” and roads in his country. He claims that he thought the corvée (forced unpaid serf labor for the lord’s benefit) and certain taxes imposed on the peasants were “extremely bad.” And he disliked the way people were saddled with old debts sometimes passed down from generation to generation.45 Furthermore, he now proposes democracy for Tibet, featuring a written constitution, a representative assembly, and other democratic essentials.46

In 1996, the Dalai Lama issued a statement that must have had an unsettling effect on the exile community. It reads in part as follows:

Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. It is also concerned with the fate of the working classes-that is the majority—as well as with the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and Marxism cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons the system appeals to me, and it seems fair… I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.47

And more recently in 2001, while visiting California, he remarked that “Tibet, materially, is very, very backward. Spiritually it is quite rich. But spirituality can’t fill our stomachs.”48 Here is a message that should be heeded by the well-fed Buddhist proselytes in the West who wax nostalgic for Old Tibet.

What I have tried to challenge is the Tibet myth, the Paradise Lost image of a social order that actually was a retrograde theocracy of serfdom and poverty, where a favored few lived high and mighty off the blood, sweat, and tears of the many. It was a long way from Shangri-La”.


7 thoughts on “Michael Parenti: Friendly Feudalism

  1. Anonymous

    Although i have mixed feelings and lot of doubt about Melvyn’s motives, the source of his information,(in terms of reliability), especially when he turns his Tibet Myth into a fact based on the words of few local Tibetans who could be under close Chinese supervision, and after all how can the Chinese miss a White American doing a research in their backyard.

    One thing i want to point out here is that although the methods of punishment for the criminals in Tibet were over exaggerated , it was normal in that time and age everywhere for a criminal to loose his limbs for stealing or committing a crime. And since Tibet has been kept isolated, they have not developed/haven’t had the opportunity to set up a system of courts of laws, with prison sentences, fines, and all the so called humane or proper punishment by the western European standard.
    Since the monasteries had the authority over the land, it is not surprising to see a Lama acting as a judge. Who else, or how else should the criminals be charged? after all, a criminal is a criminal, and someone has to pay for the crime.

    Now this is not to support the theocratic system that existed in Tibet, but there were few practices that are common all over the world, and we don’t need Melvyn Goldstein to write a biased, over exaggerated history of Tibet. I wonder how much money he made from the Chinese on that Essay.

  2. Anonymous

    That’s right, Melvyn has to take money from Chinese to write an essay that has different views from yours.
    Have you asked how much money Dalai Lama and his followers have taken from CIA?

  3. Anon.

    The problem for most people with Parenti is that he packed a full punch with his ‘Friendly Feudalism’ essay. Parenti’s contribution should be viewed as an acceptable response to the propaganda from the “opposing team” that dominates the media.

  4. Dor Y

    Nonsense, Anon. He hasn’t packed any punch because he doesn’t have the knowledge to back it up. He is not an expert in Tibetan studies, doesn’t do Tibetan language in any shape or form, and relies on sources that are at least ultimately from Chinese. He disbelieves or ignores everything Tibetans ever said about themselves and their own situation. What he wrote is trash, and if people believe it they’re simply suckers. Nuff said.

  5. Cynthia Zullo

    Iam very ashamed that my own government would so eagerly accept the dali lama into our country. While much can be learned by these international studies,some protections should be offerd our citizens. Tibet has long been romantic in too many liberal hearts. Leave it to an Italian to set us straight.

  6. I’ve observed in the world today, video games are classified as the latest popularity with children of all ages. Many times it may be extremely hard to drag young kids away from the activities. If you want the very best of both worlds, there are various educational activities for kids. Great post.

  7. I am a bit late to this blog post, but as they say, “Better late than never!”

    I take exception to this lame argument:

    “Finally, it should be noted that the criticism posed herein is not intended as a personal attack on the Dalai Lama. Whatever his past associations with the CIA and various reactionaries, he speaks often of peace, love, and nonviolence. And he himself really cannot be blamed for the abuses of theancien régime, having been but 15 years old when he fled into exile. . .”

    If we are to take Tibetan Buddhism to its logical end or beginning as the case may be, the current Dalai Lama is a reincarnation of many Dalai Lama, no?

    So, even if he is not responsible for his current incarnation, what about ALL the other incarnations when supposedly he was the other Dalai Lamas?!?

    Shouldn’t we hold him accountable for his actions or lack thereof in ALL his previous incarnations???

    Either the current Dalai Lama is the current incarnation of ALL the previous Dalai Lama, according to Tibetan Buddhist teachings, OR Tibetan Buddhist teachings are full of SHIT.

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