Buddhist Holy Warriors in Modern Tibet

While working on a book (Sacred Violence: Holy War in World History) for Hackett Publishing that considers holy war in a broader world history context (co-authored with my friend and senior historian Alfred J. Andrea), I have spent the last year considering considering the various modes and types of holy war that have taken place within different faith traditions. Professor Andrea, as the former head of the World History Association and a leading world historian, has been a wonderful guide in directing me to important readings in areas beyond my normal research focus (Christian and Islamic holy war).

Two books I have read recently that may appeal to some of you who are interested in the broader topic of holy war are Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun and Buddha’s Warriors: The Story of the CIA Backed Tibetan Freedom Fighters, the Chinese Invasion, and the Ultimate Fall of Tibet (both pictured above).

In the past, I have taught courses on holy war in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Those three faiths get a lot of attention on the topic in the West, but recently I have become interested in how holy war has been embraced in Eastern traditions. I first read Walter Skya’s book Japan’s Holy War: The Ideology of Radical Shintō Ultranationalism, which whet my appetite for the topic, and then moved on to Buddhism, specifically in the case of Tibet in the mid-twentieth century.

Mikel’s book Buddha’s Warriors highlights how destructive the communist Chinese invasion was to Buddhism in Tibet in the 1950s/60s, noting how 25% of the population were monks, and entire monasteries fought back against the invading Chinese seeing it as a defense of their faith and the Dalai Lama, whom they believed to be the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of mercy. As a result, 1.2 million died as a result of the invasion, and 95% of the Buddhist temples and monasteries were ultimately razed to the ground.

Ani Pachem, in her book Sorrow Mountain, details how she saw the conflict, noting how when she was studying to become a nun an elder told her that Tibetan Buddhism would be exterminated by the communists if they were successful in their invasion and Buddhist teachings would not survive. She replied:

“Survival of the teachings! A new sense of purpose came over me when I heard the words. Centuries of wisdom, innumerable sacred texts, all threatened. If I can contribute something to protecting the great teachings of Buddha, I thought, I will do whatever is asked. Even kill.” (p. 128)

Ani would later be captured by the Chinese and spend 21 years in prison. She said the only thing that kept he going was her hope of being reunited with the Dali Lama again one day in India, where he had taken refuge after the invasion.

Ani’s optimistic enthusiasm for her faith, expressed throughout her account, sets up a stunning contrast to her comment above that she would kill for it. Yet it makes sense. Her faith was the air she breathed, the focus of her life, and for her a source of moral goodness that taught her to otherwise act charitably, care for others, and show gratitude for what she had. The idea of atheist Chinese communists destroying her faith was an assault on her identity, no less, and her very cause of being. Thus, it is not surprising she saw her faith as something worth fighting to preserve when so brutally threatened.

This is a thread that runs through all defensive holy wars, wherever and whenever they were/are. Holy warriors, whether crusaders, jihadists, Shintoists, or others, have often framed their militant efforts as a defense of their faith against an unjust outside aggressor. This does not apply to all holy wars, but only a subset of them that Professor Andrea and I have categorized as “defensive holy wars,” as there are other types of holy wars beyond just defensive ones (as we will be laying out in our soon to be finished book, scheduled to be published in 2021).