Coalition of Religion and Politics
(chos srid zung ’brel)

Samten G. Karmay

The Tibetans prided themselves on what they believed to be a unique tradition, the “coalition of religion and politics” (chos srid zung ’brel). The concept itself goes a long way back in Tibet’s history. However, many other countries still have similar traditions. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that countries like France began to have the legislation for the separation of Church and State that gave birth to the idea of practicing religion as a personal belief not regulated by the state. The process of secularization has been slow, but it is moving inexorably forward. This state secularism is the modern trend in many countries the world over.

It was startling to see a political meeting that took place in Dharamsala on May 3–4 2008 and broadcast on YouTube. It was attended by the heads of all the Tibetan religious sects and was presided over by the 14th Dalai Lama. The topic of the discussion was the tulku issue, the reincarnated lamas, but the outcome of the discussion has not been reported. Not a single layman took part in the gathering not to mention any women. One wondered what happened to the famous democratization of the exiled Tibetan community in India or of the gender balance.

The separation of the church and the state does not imply abandoning the practice of the established religion. Far from it, it secures freedom of religious exercise and therefore the right of personal choice whether one wishes to practice a religion or not. Furthermore it establishes the neutrality of the state as far as the religious denominations are concerned. In the case of Tibet there would be no preferential status whether it is the Bon, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu or Gelug traditions or even the Tibetan Moslems and Christians.

What the “separation” does imply, however, is the government and religious institutions being kept independent from one and another and not combined as in the Tibetan political tradition.

A secular state is therefore neutral when it deals with religion by not supporting or opposing any particular sect nor does it give any preferential treatment for a citizen who belongs to a particular religion.

Buddhism as a state religion

Buddhism became the state religion of Tibet in the reign of the emperor Khri Srong lde btsan (742–797) and it remained so till the end of the sPu rgyal Dynasty in 942 AD. During the imperial period the emperors were the supreme heads of the state and the emperors were entirely laymen. The fact that Buddhism was the state religion did not affect the personal choice of faith among its members and in the country. However, the imperial government did subsidize Buddhist establishments such as building temples and contributing to their maintenance and this was considered to be meritorious work.

There were other periods during which time a lay government was in power in Tibet, for example, during the regime of the Tsang sDe srid (c. 1600–1642) which was most remarkable in its attempt to revive the national glory of the lay government of the imperial period.

The beginning of theocracy

However, in 1642 the government of Tsang Desi was toppled by the combined forces of Tibetans and Mongols at the instigation of the Gelug sect which effectively empowered the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1685), as the head of state. He had been, until 1642, merely the abbot of Drepung Monastery. A new era of theocracy was ushered in with the total supremacy of the clergy and the subordination of laymen to it. At the time of the Sa sky a and Phag mo gru administrations from the 13th to the 15th centuries there were of course elements of theocratic development, but from 1642 the dGa’ ldan pho brang, the official seat of the government in Drepung Monastery came to symbolize the supreme power in both the theory and practice of a theocratic government. This was indeed a political triumph that Buddhism had never known in its history in Tibet.

Potala Palace

Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet, Potala (1938)
Photographer: Krause, Ernst / Licence CC-BY-SA 3.0
© Bundesarchiv: Bild 135-KA-07-002

The term ‘theocracy’ is normally defined as a form of government in which a ‘god’ or ‘deity’ is recognized as the supreme ruler. In Tibet’s case the Dalai Lamas are considered as the manifestation of the Buddhist deity of compassion. In this theocratic system the head of the state was not only the political leader of the people, but also their spiritual master. In other words, the whole population was subjected and put in the position of spiritual disciple to the master. Within the context of this essentially religious bond no devotee would ever dream of opposing the view of the master, because that would be tantamount to breaking the sacred relationship between the master and the disciple. How does this fit with the discussion of democracy among the Tibetans in exile for whom HH the Dalai Lama is the political leader, but who nonetheless bestows on them the Kalachakra initiation?

Since the head of the state was a ‘monk-king’ (sdom btsun rgyal po) the entire manner of raising children was immersed in religious education from a very young age without it ever being realized where this was going to lead. In such a system there was no personal choice of the religion that an individual wished to practice. One became aware of what one was subjected to only when one reached a mature age. In other words the faith was simply imposed by the state. The idea of the right of personal choice of faith was therefore totally unknown and in modern terms denied. Important and even enlightening as this religious education might be, it had the undesirable effect of barring the entire population from contact with any kind of progressive or modem education over the last three hundred years. It is no wonder that the outspoken French socialist Minister of Culture, Claude Allègre, once remarked that he had never come across a Tibetan who was a biologist, archeologist, mathematician or physicist.

An incarnate Lama as ruler

The head of the state in Tibet, however, was never meant to be a tulku, a reincarnate lama. This status was inherited incidentally through the Fifth Dalai Lama when he was ushered in as the leader of the country. The irony is that not only he himself was a reincarnate lama, but he also embarked on creating others, for example, the Panchen Lama Blo bzang ye shes (1663–1737), who was recognized as the tulku of Panchen Lama Blo bzang chos rgyan (1567–1662), in 1667, by the Fifth Dalai Lama. This initiated the rapid increase of the number of tulkus especially in the Gelug sect. Perhaps one does not need to raise the question as to whether this tulku system ever served the national interest of Tibet at all. It is high time for the Tibetans to learn lessons from the checkered history of the tulku system that has caused so much political instability and disunity for Tibet.

In the 20th century alone, national unity completely broke down when one lama was set against the other as the pawns of great powers such as the Manchus, British India, the Russian Empire, the Guomintang government and now the Communist Party of China. In general, throughout the history of Tibet the tulku institution has invariably been the cause of schism, political intrigue and sectarian squabbles. Because of the tulku tradition we have now two Panchen Lamas and two Karmapas. Are we going to have two Dalai Lamas?

Recently the Religious Affairs Department of the Chinese government implemented a new law called ‘Order no. 5’, containing 14 articles on “Management Measures for the Reincarnation of ‘Living Buddhas’ in Tibetan Buddhism”. The Chinese government’s strict control over tulku recognition further proves how politically vulnerable this system is and to what extent the tulku tradition can be exploited for political ends by an occupying power against the interests of the Tibetan people.

HH the 14th Dalai Lama has already announced that he will have no political role if “genuine autonomy” is established in Tibet. However, I believe that the Dalai Lama institution should be maintained at all costs if the majority of the Tibetan people agree upon it. Thus, in a future constitution this one should be the only incarnation in the country, and without any political prerogative. Ganden Monastery would be an ideal residence for the future Dalai Lamas if they wish to be a ‘simple monk’.

Unless the Tibetan people come to comprehend the need for the separation of religion and state they will never be able to create a healthy and unified state community under a truly democratically elected leader. They do not need to look far a field for a good example of this. In 2008 Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom, very successfully introduced a parliamentary democratic system. Although the Kagyu sect is the official religion of state as represented by the Zhung Datsang, it was left aside and did not play any role in the election. Its new constitution states “It shall be the responsibility of religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country while also ensuring that religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan. Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.” (article 3.3,

Of course it appears inconceivable or even sacrilegious to break the taboo on the separation of religion and state for the Tibetans, but we can no longer hide our heads in the sand.

Secularism, sectarianism

In a recent interview given in Tokyo HH the Dalai Lama stated that he favoured in fact ‘secularism’. The reason he gave was that ‘secularism’ has no room for ‘sectarianism’. It is also reported that he recently lauded India’s ‘secular values’. Indeed, Tibetan Buddhism has often been plagued by sectarian strife and this is still continuing in spite of HH the Dalai Lama’s strenuous efforts to discourage and condemn it. It is precisely because of sectarianism that he has himself abandoned the cult of the deity Shugden, as well as forbidding it in all religious institutions in the exiled community. The main reason for forsaking this cult is that it engenders a sense of the superiority on the part of the Gelug clergy and it acts as an anathema to the other sects. It is not only a question of spirit-worship as people tend to claim when explaining why the cult has been forbidden.

A secularization of the exiled community should contribute towards solving the unending sectarian problems and lead to true unity amongst the Tibetan people, without any further religious interference in the political domain.  ■

Samten Gyeltsen Karmay (Wylie: bsam gtan rgyal mtshan mkhar rme’u), one of Tibet’s foremost scholars, was born in Amdo Province in 1936 and attended a local Bonpo monastery from the ages of 8 to 14 before following the 3-year course of Dzogchen meditation at Kyangtshang Monastery. He obtained his Geshe degree in 1955 and travelled to Drepung for further studies. On the 1959 Uprising he and his family left Tibet to exile in India, where he met Tibetologist David Snellgrove, who, recognising his extensive knowledge of Tibetan texts arranged for a Rockefeller fellowship as a Visiting Scholar at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Doing research with Snellgrove and Rolf Stein, in 1964 he obtained the M.Phil degree for his thesis on Bon history and a Ph.D for his thesis on the origin and development of Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

In 1980 he moved to France, where he was appointed Chargé de Recherche at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Centre for Scientific Research) and a member of Paris University’s Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative, Nanterre, engaged in research on symbolism, mythology and ritual in Tibetan popular religion and the Gesar epic. Later he was promoted to Directeur de Recherche. During his time there, he was awarded with the CNRS Silver Medal for his contribution to Human Sciences. A festschrift, Tibetan Studies in Honor of Samten Karmay was published in the Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines in 2008 and another edition of the same volume was published in 2009 in India. Samten Karmay also held the post of the President of the International Association of Tibetan Studies between 1995 and 2000, being the first Tibetan to be elected to the post. In 2005 he was a visiting professor at the International Institute for Asian Studies under the sponsorship of Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (“Society for the Promotion of Buddhism”).

Dr Karmay’s best known published works in English are The Great Perfection, A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, Brill 1988 (reprint 2007), The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet, Kathmandu, Mandala Book Point, 1998 (reprint 2009) and his seminal translations of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s major spiritual and political autobiographies: Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Serindia Publications, London, 1988 (reprint 1998) and “The Illusive Play” (Serindia Publications, Chicago, 2014).

© Samten G. Karmay

This article, was published in The Arrow and the Spindle, Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet, Vol. III, Mandala Book Point, Kathmandu 1998 (reprint 2009), pp. 193-197.

Offered with kind permission from the author.