Alexander Studholme: The spirituality of Tibet is a lesson to China – and to us
Those in the confused majority should take note
But, then, Mao drew him closer.
Though apparently able to engage with the Dalai Lama as political leader of Tibet, it was as if Mao had completely ignored his role as spiritual leader of his people, finding it impossible to believe that his religious role could be anything other than a façade or convention.
This attitude towards religion – combining visceral hostility and blank incomprehension – still informs Chinese communist attitudes towards Tibet, and contributes to the poor relations between the two peoples.
The Tibetans' current grievances can be immediately linked to the experience of being overrun by recent waves of Han Chinese migrants, who are disproportionately the beneficiaries of government subsidies and jobs:
that they are genuinely happy to set aside a part of their income as an offering to the Buddha, that they enjoy dedicating their labour to building temples and monasteries, and that they still accept reincarnated lamas as figures of authority.
Everything in their communist DNA tells the Chinese that the experience of having better roads and houses should automatically lead to the realisation that such practices are "backward" or "superstitious" and will quickly be left behind.
In a series of lectures delivered in 1919, the Austrian philosopher and visionary Rudolf Steiner identified one of the dominant powers of the modern age as Ahriman, a Zoroastrian spirit, who is concerned only with an appreciation of the empirical world, the world of the five senses.
Nevertheless, Ahriman also has his good side: he is responsible for intellectual advancement and technological progress. No one can deny that the Chinese, in many respects, have been extraordinarily successful in developing their country.
Yet, albeit in a much less extreme way, they too have the obvious characteristics of disciples of Ahriman: the instinctive loathing of religion and the grim certainty of their materialist view of reality.
But, unable to relax the fixation of their point of view, they conclude erroneously that their theory is sufficient to describe and explain all the unfathomable complexity of life, that all aspects of religion are worthy only of their easy scorn.
A balance is required.
And Gorbachev's conversion may also be a sign that there might possibly be some in the Chinese leadership who are prepared to countenance the Dalai Lama's dream of autonomous government within China and a Buddhist renaissance in Tibet.
Since the eighth century, the Tibetans have been the custodians of the most complete version of the Buddhist canon, combining the psychological pragmatism of the teachings of the historical Buddha, the devotionalism, idealist philosophy and compassionate ethic of the Mahayana school and the esoteric practices of the Vajrayana, or tantric tradition.
Our own society appears desperately confused about religion. It is all too easy to be browbeaten by the "new atheists". But, there is surely nothing wrong with simply admitting that we are confused: such a position is refreshingly honest, open-minded and humorous.
On Easter Day, there is even, perhaps, room for that familiar, much maligned figure: the occasional churchgoer.
It is understandable to be reluctant to leave behind an innate sense (or hope) that the return of life brought by spring is a thing of joy and that it is good to celebrate these vague, inchoate feelings by exchanging chocolate eggs with our loved ones.