The Dalai Lama’s Army
A right to self-defense is recognized by the Dalai Lama -- indeed, his predecessor tried to recruit an army.


An al Qaeda organization is attempting to assassinate the Dalai Lama. Lashkar-e-Toiba, al Qaeda’s South Asian affiliate, is acting consistently with Osama bin Laden’s April 2006 denunciation of “pagan Buddhists.”

This raises an interesting question: Can an ethical follower of Tibetan Buddhism kill someone in order to save the Dalai Lama? Or in order to fight religious totalitarianism in general?

Absolutely yes. Although some Westerners imagine that the Dalai Lama is an absolute pacifist, the teachings of the present Dalai Lama and of his predecessor, as well as the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, all legitimize the use of deadly force against killers and would-be tyrants.

This may come as news to certain anti-American pacifists in the United States and Europe who are guilty of “Shangri-La-ism” — of what Jane Ardley (in her book The Tibetan Independence Movement) describes as the “idealized, romantic vision of Tibet as a land of enlightened, non-violent, happy and exotic people.” She observes, “For those in the West who look to Tibetan Buddhism for all the answers to their insecurities, the image of ‘violent’ Buddhists is uncomfortable particularly where Buddhism itself can be offered as a justification for their actions.”

Warrior Monks

The tradition of forceful resistance to tyranny is very old in Tibet. For example, in the early centuries of the first millennium, ancient Tantric Buddhist texts gave “formulae for killing unjust kings” (Thomas Cleary, Classics of Buddhism and Zen, vol. 5).

Buddhist Tibet was a powerful warrior kingdom during the latter part of the first millennium. Later, during the thirteenth century, Tibet fell under Mongol control. The Mongols respected Buddhism, granted Tibet internal autonomy, provided military protection, and exempted Tibetans from military service.

Late in the 14th century, the Chinese overthrew the Mongols, and Tibet regained independence. Thereafter, China and Tibet engaged in many wars for control of eastern Tibet. The Chinese managed to conquer much of the provinces of Kham and Amdo, and merged them into Chinese provinces. The British dubbed this region “Inner Tibet.” The Buddhist Khampa tribes of Inner Tibet were battle-hardened warriors, described by a Chinese observer in 1666 as people who “delight in wars and conflicts, not hesitant to die.”

By the middle of the 19th century, the fierce Khampas had won themselves almost complete independence from the decrepit Chinese empire and from the Tibetan government in Lhasa. Nominally, they lived in Chinese territory which was claimed by Tibet. In practice, they ruled themselves.

Outer Tibet was also claimed by China, although Chinese influence there was very small.

In Outer Tibet during the nineteenth century, three large monasteries attained preeminent power over the government, and held that power until the Communist takeover in 1951. As of 1951, the three monasteries held about 22,000 monks; of them, about 10 to 15 percent were dobdobs, fighting monks. They carried knives and had access to the guns and ammunition stored in the monasteries. The dobdobs were stronger than the tiny Tibetan army and police, and so the monasteries enjoyed coercive power over the government, which had an army of only 5,000, plus a small police force in Lhasa only.

During the final years of the Manchu dynasty, the Chinese attempted to assert real control over Tibet and used military force. The Dalai Lama fled to India. When the Chinese Manchus were overthrown by the Chinese Nationalists in 1911-12, Tibet declared independence.

Outer Tibet’s independence was not seriously contested, but the Chinese eventually began to war for Inner Tibet. Tibetan troops and monks fought against the Chinese Nationalist government in Inner Tibet.

Violence in Practice
Today, the Dalai Lama is the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist religion. (“Dalai” means “oceanwide.”) The current Dalai Lama, Lhamo Thondup, is believed to be the thirteenth reincarnation of the original Dalai Lama, and a manifestation of Avalokitsehvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama is perhaps second only to the Roman Catholic Pope as a well-known and respected worldwide religious leader. Many Westerners are familiar with the non-violent teaching of the current Dalai Lama, such as “The basis of all moral teaching ought to be nonresponse to attacks.” But before Westerners take such sayings as categorical imperatives, it is essential to remember that, as the Dalai Lama emphasizes, Buddhism does not operate on the binary terms of Western thought.

During Tibet’s wars against the Chinese Nationalists, the Dalai Lama was Thupten Gyatso, who died in 1933. In 1935, Gyatso’s soul was reincarnated, according to Tibetan Buddhist belief, in the baby who grew up to be the current Dalai Lama. In 1932 Gyatso left a “Political Last Testament,” predicting:

“In the future, this system [Communism] will certainly be forced either from within or without on this land…If, in such an event, we fail to defend our land, the holy lamas…will be eliminated without a trace of their names remaining;…our political system…will be reduced to an empty name; my officials…will be subjugated like slaves to the enemy; and my people, subjected to fear and miseries, will be unable to endure day or night.”

“.…we should make every effort to safeguard ourselves against this impending disaster. Use peaceful means where they are appropriate; but where they are not appropriate, do not hesitate to resort to more forceful means” (emphasis added).

As the current Dalai Lama explains, Gyatso knew that independent Tibet could never overcome a huge nation like China. So he turned to Nepal and Bhutan and proposed, “A sort of common defense: raise an army, train it as best as possible. Just between us, this isn’t strictly practicing non-violence.” Gyatso proposed bringing young men from Kham to the capital of Lhasa. In Lhasa, they would receive “a complete military education. Politically, that was very farsighted. He was already advancing the idea that defense of a land has to be assured by the people who occupy it” (Dalai Lama with Jean-Claude Carrière, Violence and Compassion: Dialogues on Life Today).

Gyatso’s program was never implemented. Nepal and Bhutan ignored the proposal for mutual defense. Tibetan dignitaries refused to build up the army, because they were sure that the gods would protect Tibet.

Would Gyatso’s defense system have saved Tibet? “I’m convinced it would have,” said the current Lama.

In 1950, when the current Dalai Lama was only 15 years old, Mao Tse-Teng’s Red Army invaded Outer Tibet. In 1951, the Dalai Lama was forced under duress to sign a seventeen-point agreement with China declaring that all of Tibet is part of “the Motherland” of China. The agreement pretended that Outer Tibet retained its internal autonomy.