Buddha’s Warriors
Mikel Dunham
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2004
434 pp.; $29.95 (cloth)

Tibet appears to most of the world as a docile, isolated country that succumbed meekly to the historical imperative of Chinese domination. The assumption is easy enough. Tibet is the most Buddhist of nations, one whose spiritual traditions go back thousands of years and whose leader, the Dalai Lama, espouses nonviolence with mirthful humility. But appearances do deceive, and in fact the Tibetan people fought the Chinese with a level of rage, tenacity, and violence that one can hardly associate with Buddha’s “middle way.”

In a gripping account that covers the period from the end of World War II to the present day, Buddha’s Warriors by Mikel Dunham describes Tibet’s slow descent into war as its people were first baited into infighting by China’s divide-and-conquer strategy and then, realizing China’s true intentions, discarded their ancient tribal loyalties to join together as a nation and resist. They mounted warhorses, stockpiled arms and money in Tibet’s once vast network of monasteries, and countered a Chinese slaughtering machine with their own.

Dunham spent seven years researching his book, basing his story on firsthand accounts by the Tibetan warriors who fought the Chinese as well as by the impassioned CIA operatives who believed so much in their cause. This is not a tale for the squeamish: Dunham describes in detail the widespread and systematic sadism of the Chinese invaders, and a Tibetan response to the barbarism that shatters the Shangri-la myth. They took no prisoners. What becomes abundantly clear in this story, is that even in the heart of Buddhism violence finds a home.

noprisoners_0Four key players drive this drama: Mao Tse-Tung, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Tibetan general Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, and the CIA. Mao echoed the ancient Han dynasty’s obsession with a united Motherland and simply couldn’t countenance an independent Tibet. He skillfully manipulated Nehru whose dream of leading a new Pan-Asian bloc made him blind to Mao’s machinations. Gompo Tashi led the Tibetan army (Chushi-Gangdruk) for years, using his charisma and wile to inspire his warriors and inflict frequent defeats on the People’s Liberation Army. A group of dedicated CIA case officers coordinated U.S. air drops and covert support for the Chushi-Gangdruk and, over time, became committed to the Tibetan nation and the heroic Tibetans they trained as covert agents.

Note that the Dalai Lama, who wrote the foreword to Buddha’s Warriors, is not on the list. Revered by his people then and now, the Dalai Lama faced a dilemma that runs as an interesting undercurrent throughout the book. Dunham, perhaps because it is a delicate subject, touches upon it only obliquely: committed to nonviolence in a place where only malevolence, revenge, and relentless brutality were the language, the Dalai Lama could only be a pawn in the much larger power game played between Mao, Nehru, the United States, and his own people. Reading one of the most poignant passages of the book, one can hear the despair in His Holiness’s voice, not only for what was happening to his country, but for his inability to do anything about it. “By then, I could not in honesty advise them to avoid violence. In order to fight, they had sacrificed their home and all the comforts and benefits of a peaceful life. Now they could see no alternative but to go on fighting, and I had none to offer.” Despite his pacifism, the Dalai Lama remained a unifying figure for the Tibetan resistance, and a passion for his safety fueled the fighting.

Dunham tells of the many monks who, inspired by the revered warrior-king Gesar who had waged war in the eleventh century to protect the dharma in Tibet, renounced their vows to join the fight. Dunham writes of the reasoning behind the monks’ decision that “violence was never a good thing, but an inevitable phenomenon along the savage journey to Enlightenment—war against the enemies of the dharma was a personal choice and not to be judged.” Ironically, the monks made excellent warriors with their austere lifestyle and dietary discipline, and the six-thousand-plus monastery network provided a “pony express” of sorts, allowing information and arms to flow surreptitiously throughout the country and support surprise victories against the unwary Chinese.

Nevertheless, Tibet was doomed, no matter how hard it fought. Two things worked against it: the high-level corruption, incompetence, and outright treason on the part of some key officials in the Tibetan government, and the multitudes of PLA forces, of which Mao had a seemingly unlimited supply. The Tibetans simply could not fend off the swarms of Chinese soldiers that filled their valleys.

In the end, the shifting alliances and national interests of China, India, and the United States, which were at times both poison and antidote to Tibet’s desire to be left alone, almost certainly ensured that it will never be its own country again.Buddha’s Warriors tells us how that happened.