Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2007

The Angry Monk

Filed under: Film,religion — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Update: another noteworthy review of “The Angry Monk”

For most people, including me, Tibetan politics consisted exclusively of two radically opposed camps.

On one hand, there is the traditional Buddhist leadership of the Dalai Lama that is highly visible in the West and that enjoys a reputation as spiritually enlightened and politically progressive. With celebrities like Richard Gere spreading the word and a Nobel Peace prize belt under his belt, the Dalai Lama is lionized everywhere he goes. There is occasional grumbling about his adherence to traditional Buddhist teachings that homosexuality is impure (but not for non-Buddhists, bless his heart) but nothing sufficient to drag him down to the level of ordinary mortals.

On the other hand, there is the perspective of the Chinese government, especially when it had some kind of leftwing credentials, that the Buddhist priests were a kind of a parasitical feudal growth that needed weeding. When the Red Army poured into Tibet in the early 1950s, this was interpreted by Maoist-leaning radicals as something like the Union army taking control of the South during Reconstruction.

It is to the enormous credit of Swiss director Luc Schaedler to reveal another player in Tibetan politics in “The Angry Monk,” his excellent documentary now available from First Run/Icarus Films. This is a portrait of Gendun Choephel (1903-1951), a legendary figure in Tibet, who was opposed to both the religious elite and to forced Chinese assimilation. The film not only sheds light on a most unique personality. It also is an excellent introduction to Tibetan culture and politics.


Gendun Choephel

Choephel began life as a Buddhist monk but evolved into a scholar of Tibetan history and a political activist during his extended visit to India in the 1930s, where he became inspired by Gandhi’s revolt. He decided to travel to India after coming into contact with Rahul Sankrityayan, an Indian researcher of ancient Buddhist texts in Tibet. Surprisingly, Sankrityayan was also a Marxist revolutionary who fought for Indian independence. (It should be mentioned that many of these texts were burned in huge bonfires during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a barbaric act that rivals the Taliban’s destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Afghanistan.)

When in India, Choephel not only politicized, he left behind the kind of Puritanism expressed in the Dalai Lama’s strictures against homosexuality. He was proud of his ability to sleep with 4 or 5 prostitutes in an evening and to get roaring drunk in the process, as Golok Jigme, a 85 old monk and former traveling companion of Choepel, reveals in an interview. In addition to writing the very first history of Tibet, Choepel translated the Kama Sutra into Tibetan! In the introduction to this classic work on sexual techniques, he wrote:

As for me — I have little shame I love women. Every man has a woman. Every woman has a man. Both in their mind desire sexual union. What chance is the for clean behaviour? If natural passions are openly banned, unnatural passions will grow in secrecy. No law of religion — no law of morality can supress the natural passion of mankind.

Choephel was the quintessential modernizer. Like Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal, he wanted to reduce the power of the clergy. In a 1946 poem, he wrote:

In Tibet, everything that is old
Is a work of Buddha
And everything that is new
Is a work of the Devil
This is the sad tradition of our country

In 1946 Gendun Choephel took up residence in Kalimpong, a town that sat on the India-Tibet border, where he joined the Tibetan Revolutionary Party, which was founded 7 years earlier. He designed (he was a gifted artist as well as a scholar) their logo: a sickle crossed by a sword.

The Tibetan Revolutionary Party sought to overthrow the tyrannical regime in Lhasa. When Gendun Choephels arrived in Lhasa, the capital city, he was arrested by the Tibetan government, which had learned about his activity from British operatives working out of India. He was accused of insurrection and thrown in jail for three years.

Two years after his release, the Red army overran Tibetan troops in eastern Tibet and took control of the country. A physically ailing and psychologically broken Gendun Choephel characterized the invasion in his characteristically blunt manner: “Now we’re fucked!”

“The Angry Monk” is also an excellent introduction to some of the more sophisticated thinkers in today’s Tibet, who are interviewed throughout the film. I especially appreciated the comments of journalist Jamyang Norbu, who derided the Western obsession with Tibetan spirituality. His remarks in a PBS Frontline documentary reveal his continuity with the Angry Monk:

Q: How does the West see Tibet?

A: I think, primarily the West sees Tibet, to some extent, as a fantasy land, as a Shangri La. Of course, this is a kind of stereotype that has existed in the Western kind of perception for a very long time, even before the movie “Lost Horizon,” the movie was made. Initially, the perception came from ideas of medieval Europe that they had of … … (inaudible), the Christian king who lived behind the mountains of Gog and Magog, and who would come maybe to make the whole of Asia a Christian country.

Because maybe people in medieval times heard of Tibet and a lot of liturgical practices in Tibet, religious rites and ceremonies, resembled the Roman Catholic ones.

Q: Tibet is suddenly very chic in America. Why is that?

A: There’s a kind of New Age perception of Tibet, which is fed to some extent quite deliberately by propagandists for Tibet, many New Age type Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists. And, also subscribed gradually by Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama and a lot of prominent Lamas. The idea that this even materialist west will be saved by the spiritualism of the Tibetan Buddhists. It’s total nonsense.

Tibetans are in no position to save anyone, least of all themselves in the first place.

But, this is the kind of idea that’s being subscribed by a lot of New Age type people. This is the problem that Tibetans face, because their issues and the tragedy of Tibet has not being taken seriously. Primarily, it’s very fuzzy; it’s sort of a feel good issue, rather than a stark, ugly reality.

You have the Palestinian problem. Now, whether you like the Palestinians–and I’m sure a lot people in the West don’t like them—- but you give them the respect that their condition is real.

A lot of people love Tibetans in the West, tremendous sympathy, but it’s a very fuzzy kind of sympathy, because it never touches on the reality. It doesn’t touch on the reality that the Tibetan people are disappearing, they’re being wiped out.

You look at even supportive friends of Tibet like Galen …. Have you seen his calendars? It just says everything is wonderful. Tibet is wonderful. The culture is wonderful. The land is wonderful. It does not touch on the tragedy that people are actually being wiped off the face of the earth and their culture is being wiped out. That is not touched; it’s considered in bad taste.

Official Angry Monk website

First Run/Icarus website


  1. i’m quite sure i read someplace that the dalai lama was on the payroll of the cia, to the tune of millions. but then, since it was no doubt justified by the fight against communism (chinese, in this case), i guess the end justifies the means, after all.

    Comment by steve heeren — February 28, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

  2. ” … … (inaudible), the Christian king who lived behind the mountains of Gog and Magog, and who would come maybe to make the whole of Asia a Christian country.”

    Prestor John?

    Comment by George — March 1, 2007 @ 5:54 am

  3. Thanks Louis – this movie was part of last year’s Auckland film festival but I couldn’t make it. There is tremendous interest in Tibet in the Western leftist activist milieu, and I think it might be worth posting this on sites like indymedia.

    Comment by Scott — March 1, 2007 @ 11:11 am

  4. Steve, fair point. But who don’t they give money to? The Unification Church(Moonies) & their joke of a newspaper, the Washington Times. I went to high school just outside D.C. and can’t believe that it breaks even financially. The Church of Scientology(their is some evidence that its founder, Hubbard, a Navy officer during WWII, had connections with Naval Intelligence, like Bob Woodward & Ben Bradlee). National Geographic, about the most bland and non-politically political magazine I’ve ever read. And I guess Mensa, the high IQ-people would also be on that list.

    Comment by m.c. — March 2, 2007 @ 6:56 pm

  5. “…traditional Buddhist teachings that homosexuality is impure”

    Are you kidding me? I can’t speak for Tibetan Buddhism, but have you ever been the SE Asia? The place is like the sex change and transvestite capital of the world.

    Comment by James — October 26, 2007 @ 3:29 am

  6. I just returned from Tibet. Actually, Xining, the gateway to Tibet. Its a strange place and there is no doubt that Tibetan Buddism is engraved in their live. Tibet has a long history of rug making and there are also Tibetan monks who handmake Tibetan rugs as a way to finance temselves.

    Comment by Chris — December 4, 2007 @ 12:12 am

  7. Gendun Choephel and the Dalai Lama express respectively the two sides–left hand and right hand–of the Tibetan tantric tradition. Asceticism and sensual excess as opposite paths to spiritual enlightenment reflects the profoundly dialectical approach taught by Nagarjuna, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism.

    The dark saying of Herakleitos “the path upward and the path downward are one and the same” may perhaps be not unrelated to this approach.

    Comment by Shane — March 18, 2008 @ 12:41 am

  8. Check out in the enceclopedia printed in 1930 you may find in your grandparents house.
    Compaire it with the rewritten history of the new enceclopedia.
    The monks in Tibet enslaved the people like no where in the world.
    If the slaves did steal his hand was cut.
    No one would cancel the olimpics for the American indian or for Palestine or for the fabricated war against Iraq.
    If the media can convince people to boycote the olympics that is ok because it will show the stagering hipocrisy.
    And I hope it will backfire and no more olympics for the next 100 years.
    Picture what you would read in the american press if the mexican prists would run over the border and create riots in California because the mexican culture gets lost.
    China has to feed 1.3 millions people and some smarte heads think they can separate Tibet from China like Kosovo from Serbia.
    The Chinese better watch out the best invasion route to liberate Tibet is trough Afganistan.
    And the american and europaen press is able to convince the nonthinking people to punish the Chinese.
    The high living standard in the USA and Europa was acheived by looting the natural ressources their former colonies.
    Thanks to this high standard of living the population supports their government most of the time even applauding fabricated wars.
    People in the USA are beliving that they live in the most moral nation on earth.

    But the day the western people can no more be fooled or bought,the so caled democracy will find the slogans to transform their countries into dictatures never seen on earth.

    The true Buddha was alevieting the suffering of the people, contrary the monks in Tibet they made themself a wonderful live by inslaving the people.

    Comment by Robert — March 20, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

  9. Robert, you might want to check your spelling and grammar before posting. It is a bit awkward to read.

    No offense is intended; just a friendly suggestion.

    Comment by Aris — March 21, 2008 @ 1:23 am

  10. 1. Padmasambhava was not the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, not Nagarjuna. 2. In terms of dialectics, if Marx had developed his method via an engagement with Nagarjuna’s (Madhyamika) system rather than Hegel’s, there would not be a “crisis of Marxism” today. 3. If the sword in the logo Gendun Choephel designed for the Tibetan Revolutionary Party was the Sword of Manjushri, the two-edged sword of prajna (associated with Nagarjuna’s particular dialectical system), he might very well have understood that. 4. It is well known that the most potent and undiluted versions of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy existed in Tibet prior to the Cultural Revolution and the eventual take-over by the now Capitalist Chinese. 5. For Western Marxists to cheerlead the Tibetan genocide, as quite a few do(think of Barrett Watten [Trotskyist], Jack Hirschman [Stalinist], Amiri Baraka [Maoist] in the poetry world–so much for the fabled differences between them), would be like burning the texts of Hegel before Marx had a chance to look at them! 6. The connection of “anger” and “monk” would be no surprise to an actual tantric Buddhist who would understand “anger without hatred” to be compassion. I’ve been considering The Angry Buddhist blog for years!

    Comment by Jim Hartz — March 21, 2008 @ 4:36 am

  11. Frank, I agree that the interest in tibetan culture in the west is due to misunderstanding rather than understanding. This is understandable looking at how the majority buy into whatever propaganda published by groups or individual with ulterior motive. Otherwise the world will be dull without war in Vietnam, Iraq, and soon Iran, Artic, and outer space.

    Comment by Frank Lau — March 21, 2008 @ 10:05 am

  12. thanx robert, your posting has some juice (aris, fuck your ‘friendly suggestion’).
    well, if HH Dalai Lama is on CIA payroll or not, if you find homosexuality ‘healthy’ or not, if ancient tibetian buddhism has been blundering their own people or not, if you vote for ‘100 years of no olympics’ or not, if you like the ‘yellows’ or if you support afghan invasion into tibet, as a matter of fact the dalai lama is certainly doing a better job than bush jr.. almost everybody seems to love the former and seems to hate the latter. and the news coming from his office sound much better than the ones from the oval office.

    Comment by richyrich — March 21, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

  13. My guess is that Robert @8 is not a native English speaker, considering that most English speakers don’t say “Europa”. In which case, his spelling and grammar should be let alone. After all, how many English speakers have the ability to write a comment in Robert’s language?

    Comment by Lex — March 22, 2008 @ 2:33 am

  14. Good attempt Aris, very sneaky, very subsersive. All your intention was to create an impression of Robert as an ignoramus so we will jump to the foregone conclusion that he is uttering rubbish. If you care so much about the English language go participate in linguistics/grammar blogs. Robert, you were crystal clear my friend. Your notes prompted further inquiry and look what I found… Thanks for opening my eye,


    Just any other religion, this is a religion that thrives on people’s minds, bodies and spirits. They need your western influence to go back to claim their serfs.

    Comment by Fellowearthling — March 22, 2008 @ 4:39 am

  15. The Dalai Lama is not quite the innocent that he pretends to be. And in any case, he’s being pushed aside by violent demagogues financed by the National Endowment for Democracy, a CIA front. Hence his threat to resign if they continued with their violence – he’s afraid that control of the movementis slipping from his hands. I don’t have space here to go into all the issues. I have a perspective on it that I don’t expect to be popular in the West, but if you’d like to look at some things I’ve written on Tibet go here: http://mike-servethepeople.blogspot.com and hit the Tibet link on the right hand side.

    Comment by mike-servethepeople — March 28, 2008 @ 6:04 am

  16. […] are actually being wiped off the face of the earth and their culture is being wiped out. (via louis proyect).  This haziness seems to have evaporated over the years; now, The National Post can carry […]

    Pingback by Tibet as Privileged Victim, or. Blame China! « The Anatomy Lesson — April 3, 2008 @ 6:41 am

  17. Im sorry, but for any of you to think that what China is doing is anything LESS than genocide, is not only ignorant, but ill deserving of life.
    The so called “PRC” are vile disgustin liars, who deserve nothing less than what they give.

    When does oppression, rape, muder of innocents, and genocide “Liberate” anyone?
    How United states of you, how…..sadaam hussein of you…….or maybe you prefer kim jung il…..

    When a country (communist none the less) invades your country, and not only kills MONKS AND NUNS, but forces children to kill their own parents, they deserve the same in return, no question.
    Its karma, and its a bitch, who will take everything you have and leave you brroken. Chinas in for a very rude mass of comunally collected karma for allowing this evil to thrive.

    Comment by Nyima — August 15, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

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