The Dalai Lama's Army

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


By Dave Kopel

National Review Online. April 5, 2007

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.”


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 weredobdobs, 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.


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, thebodhisattva 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.

Armed resistance to Communism began in 1952 with numerous uprisings in eastern Tibet. Although the Chinese at first proceeded cautiously in Outer Tibet, they regarded Inner Tibet as an ordinary part of China, and pushed Communist “reforms” (including genocide) in Inner Tibet with the same vigor with which the Communist program was enforced in ethnically Chinese lands ruled by Mao.

About 68,000 Tibetans joined with approximately 12,000 fighters from the defeated Chinese Nationalist army to war against their mutual enemy, the Communists. The revolt cooled down when the Chinese backed away from their program to impose serfdom in eastern Tibet (that is, farm collectivization in which the government would own and control the farms, and the farmers would be de facto slaves of the government).

More people joined the revolution in 1953. In 1954 the Chinese 18th Army suppressed a 25-day revolt of 40,000 farmers in Tibet. The resistance fighters were known as the “National Volunteer Army for the Defense of Buddhism” (Tensung Dhangland Magar).

The core of the resistance was the men of Kham and Amdo, the tribesmen of eastern Tibet. It was they whom the previous Dalai Lama had wanted to turn into the foundation of a strong Tibetan army. They thrived in the thin atmosphere of the mountains, while their Chinese adversaries gasped for breath.

Eastern Tibet’s Kanting Rebellion began in the winter of 1955-56. It was defeated by the end of 1956, and many of the rebels fled to Outer Tibet. Yet the Khampas began a new uprising in 1956-67, and Amdo rose up in 1958. More refugees and fighters from Inner Tibet fled to Outer Tibet. Many of them clustered around the capital, Lhasa, and the many, disparate tribes and clans began working to form a united fighting force.

The Lhasa Uprising began on March 10, 1959, in response to rumors that the Chinese were about to arrest the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama fled to India, and the Chinese appointed the Panchen Lama (the second-highest spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism) as their puppet. Participants in the Lhasa Uprising included Tibet’s little army of 3,000 men; about 10,000 Khampas who had fled to Lhasa; most of the 20,000 Buddhist monks in Lhasa; and thousands of members of the general public. The Chinese had to kill more than 87,000 people to suppress the Lhasa Uprising.

Unsurprisingly, in April 1959 the Chinese forbade the Tibetan male tradition of wearing swords.


How could Tibetan Buddhists engage in violence? Jampa Tenzin, a former guerilla and monk, explained,

“Generally, of course, non-violence is good, and killing is bad…But each and every thing is judged according to the circumstances of the situation, and, particularly in Buddhism, according to the motivations….In order to save a hundred people, killing one person may be acceptable…Individual, or self, motivation is obviously not allowed….

“…unless we did something sooner or later we couldn’t practice religion…Dharma [had to] prevail and remain…even by violent means.”

Protests and small revolts that began in 1987 culminated in March 1989 rioting against the Chinese colonists whom the Communist government had settled in Tibet, and who nowcomprise the majority of Tibet’s population.

China has perpetrated genocide in Tibet, and continues to do so, having killed approximately one million Tibetans directly or by starvation. What the Dalai Lama calls China’s “final solution” is the subjugation of the Tibetan people in the lands which they have inhabited from time immemorial, their human right of self-determination crushed by their Chinese colonialist masters.

Living in exile in India, the Dalai Lama professes his admiration of Mohandas Gandhi. Yet, like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama is not as inflexibly pacifist as some Westerners imagine. Indeed, the Lama defended what he calls India’s “right to nuclear weapons.” 

According to the Dalai Lama, “If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.” (Seattle Times, May 15, 2001). Elsewhere, the Dalai Lama said:

if the situation was such that there was only one learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would cause the whole of Tibet to lose all hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life, then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be justified for one or 10 enemies to be eliminated—if there was no other way. I could justify violence only in this extreme case, to save the last living knowledge of Buddhism itself.

The Dalai Lama has never supported armed resistance in Tibet. The non-violence of the Lama’s approach has won him widespread sympathy in the West, although thus far, there has been no progress in convincing the Chinese to relax their iron grip.

Sometimes the Dalai Lama states that non-violence is the most important thing. Sometimes he offers broad justifications for violence — such as national defense against Communist imperialism, or individual self-defense against deadly attack. Sometimes he allows only an extremely narrow justification for violence — namely, saving his own life. To puzzle over the contradictions is to miss the non-binary spirit of Tibetan Buddhism.

What is clear that the Dalai Lama has never sold arms to Israel, stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, sent military forces to fight for freedom in Afghanistan or Iraq, reconquered Spain from Islamic invasion, drawn cartoons mocking Islamic terrorists, dismantled the Ottoman Empire, or performed any of the other acts which the apologists for terrorism claim have “provoked” al Qaeda. Yet al Qaeda is still trying to kill him — as it trying to kill everyone who does not submit to it hideous totalitarian “religion.” 

To kill the terrorists who are trying to kill the Dalai Lama would be eminently just, and fully in accordance with the theory and practice Tibetan Buddhism. Westerners who attempt to enlist the Dalai Lama in their finger-wagging denunciations of self-defense against al Qaeda would do better to study the history of Tibet, and to ponder the farsighted teachings of the current Dalai Lama and “that defense of a land has to be assured by the people who occupy it.”

— Dave Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute. Citations for the material in this article, and further discussion of Buddhism, may be found in his working paper “Self-defense in Asian Religions.”

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