It is often said by people of other religions that belief in rebirth -the law of Karma- tends to make people accept inequalities of fortune - perhaps accept them too readily. This is only partly true. A poor Tibetan peasant was less inclined to envy his rich Tibetan landlord, because he knew that each of them was reaping the seed he had sown in his previous life. But on the other hand, there is nothing whatever in the law of Karma to discourage a man from trying to improve his own life in the present life. And of course our religion encourages every attempt to improve the lot of others. All true charity has a double benefit - to the receiver in his present life and to the giver in his present life or in his life to come. In this light, Tibetans accepted our social system without any question.
And feudal though the system was, it was different from any other feudal system, because at the apex of it was the incarnation of Chenresi [the Dalai Lama], a being whom all the people, for hundreds of years, had regarded with the highest reverence. The people felt that above all the petty officials of state, there was a final appeal to a source of justice which they could absolutely trust; and in fact, no ruler with the traditions and training and religious grace of a Dalai Lama could possibly become an unjust tyrant.
So we were happy. Desire brings discontent; happiness springs from a peaceful mind. For many Tibetans, material life was hard, but they were not the victims of desire; and in simplicity and poverty among our mountains, perhaps there was more peace of mind than there is in most of the cities of the world.
This excerpt comes from My Land and My People, the partial autobiography of the 14th Dalai Lama. In this chapter, he is describing Tibetan life before Communist China invaded Tibet in 1948. This passage struck me as surprising because it seems to be describing a type of theocracy, centered around Tibetan Buddhism, that generally worked as a form of government.
I do not want to make any assumptions about Buddhism. Debating the merits of religion is not my intention, but whether one believes in an afterlife or not, there is logic to this. It all centers around two key believes that are ingrained into a Tibetan Buddhist's life: the person of the Dalai Lama and the law of Karma.
How is the Dalai Lama different from other religious figures?
The position of the Dalai Lama is unique in the sense of how the next Dalai Lama is chosen. When the current one passes away, a search is made throughout the province for his reincarnation. Once a candidate is found, this person would have to pass a series of tests. If a candidate passed these tests, they would be inaugurated as the next Dalai Lama. The candidates were usually young boys no older than 7 or 8 years, who were often born in small towns to poorer families.
From then on, these young Dalai Lamas would receive rigorous training in a variety of subjects focusing mostly on the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism. At age 18, they would fully assume political control of the kingdom of Tibet.
What separates the Dalai Lama from his closest contemporary, the Pope, is what I've just described, the Dalai Lama's lowly upbringing and vigorous training. This, more often than not, can engender a genuine connection to the everyday person. The candidates for the Papacy, on the other hand, are chosen from a handful of older religious men who have spent a lifetime removed from the everyday person. This distinction is important.
How does the Law of Karma play into it?
The Law of Karma is inextricably linked to the idea of reincarnation. In extremely simple terms, there are several categories of life, and a Buddhist's goal is to achieve the highest category, Nirvana. This is done through living multiple lives in an effort to better oneself as well as better others. Good deeds result in good karma, which is then repaid to you in this life or the next.
Now, whether the idea of reincarnation is true or not is irrelevant. As a closely-held societal belief though, I can see the benefits. As the above passage says, peasants are less likely to envy the rich, because they know that they are reaping the rewards of a previous life. This Law of Karma encourages the betterment of one's own life, but also the betterment of others lives, which would in turn better one's own life. It's a twofold system that plays into humanity's inherently selfish nature and promotes peaceful outcome: less class warfare, less envy, and less worry.
In the end, you receive a general peace of mind, because whatever one's lot in life, you can always make it better in this life or the next. There's isn't just one shot at life.
A Viable Form of Government?
I'm not saying Tibetan life is perfect, the people of Tibet are perfect, or that this type of government could work in any other situation. It is interesting though that prior to 1948 Tibetans led a relatively peaceful life in isolation; with little unrest, an unwavering nationalistic pride in their culture, and a strong integral belief in religious tradition. This can be attributed this in part to what the Law of Karma and the role of the Dalai Lama.
Never the aggressor, the only conflicts that Tibetans seem to suffer from are caused by imperialist nations: first from Britain then from Communist China even still today. A deeply religious isolationist rural society is an antithesis of Communism, but that's for another discussion.