Captivated by a distorted mirror

Pilgrimage in Tibet - Prisoners of Shangri-La - Inner Revolution

August 28, 1998

Tibet, it would seem, is in. The West's fascination with all things Tibetan has manifested itself in a variety of ways, including that ultimate index of success, a Time magazine cover story, and two Hollywood feature films, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. The subtext, however, is always the same: Tibet has the solution to the troubling spiritual malaise that is gripping the West. Tibetan Buddhism, considered synonymous with Tibetan culture, is the object of particular attention, and enthusiasts eagerly pore over the words of the Dalai Lama, seeking an ancient wisdom that might assist them with their personal spiritual quests. These three books, considered together, offer an important series of reflections on the curious appeal of such a feudal, priestly culture to those who live in secular, industrialised societies.

Donald Lopez's Prisoners of Shangri-La is the most persuasive of the three. This is a timely and subtle work that takes a critical look at the hold of Tibet over the western imagination. Lopez describes Prisoners of Shangri-La as an examination of western fantasies about Tibet, but his purpose is not to subvert these fantasies by revealing the "true facts" about the country. Rather, he aims to probe the ideology of control that such imagery masks, and to ask difficult questions about why the West remains complicit in the circulation of various damaging myths. Lopez, professor of Tibetan studies at Michigan University, draws on a wealth of sources, both scholarly and popular, to substantiate his thesis, constructing a rich cultural history of the West's encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. Tibet, before the Chinese invasion of 1950, is generally represented in the West as a distinctive, utopian community of harmonious Buddhists (a view only reinforced by the recent movies). The Chinese occupation, and the atrocities committed against the Tibetan people, are therefore portrayed as barbaric violations of a pacifist nation that represented all that is true and noble. This "logic of opposites" has long dominated our view of Tibet, by turns portraying it as either a romantic Shangri-La or a degenerate theocracy. But Lopez wonders if we should not uncouple the utopian imagery from the struggle for Tibetan freedom, and try to move away from this rigidly dualistic perspective.

Although it does not pretend to be a comprehensive study of the topic, Prisoners of Shangri-La does tell a fascinating story, introducing us to the extraordinary array of strange events and characters that shaped the western study of Tibet and the darker, colonial politics that in some senses still remains with us today. To choose only one example, Lopez writes about how Tibetan Buddhism was dubbed "Lamaism", a pejorative term coined by westerners, to indicate that it was an impure brand of Buddhism. The scholars who developed the field of oriental studies tried to show that this "Lamaism" was completely different from the rationalistic Buddhism found in the sacred texts. Of course, the fact that the "true" Buddhism was contained in texts meant that the real Buddhism was under western control, located in the pristine libraries of Oxford and Cambridge rather than in the grubby exigencies of day-to-day life in Tibet. But the curious aspect of all this is that the rhetoric of authenticity developed by orientalist scholars crops up today in unexpected places. The Dalai Lama himself has stressed the absolute fidelity of Tibetan Buddhism to the Buddha's own teaching, minimising the contribution that Tibetans themselves have made to their central cultural traditions. While the Chinese government weighs in on the other side, arguing like the orientalists that Tibetan religion is mere empty ritual and superstition. "Lamaism" is still used as a subject heading in the Library of Congress.

Lopez's most important theme is that we should be wary of the idea, casually espoused by many today, that Tibet has what the West lacks, that if we were only to look there we would find the answers to our problems. Lopez's book shows that, on the contrary, when the West has looked at Tibet, all that it has seen is a distorted reflection of itself.

This is not a view that would find favour with Robert Thurman, one of the leading American exponents of Tibetan Buddhism, professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, and a friend of the Dalai Lama himself. Indeed, Thurman comes in for some criticism in Lopez's work, and upon reading Inner Revolution, it is easy to see why. Thurman's book represents precisely the sort of idealisation of Tibet that Lopez rejects. In fairness, it should be said that Inner Revolution is doing something different from Prisoners of Shangri-La. It is a lively, accessible introduction to Buddhist principles in the tradition of the great popularisers of eastern thought such as Alan Watts or D. T. Suzuki. The whole book is an attempt to rebut one of the central myths propagated about eastern cultures by the western orientalist legacy: the notion that the East, and Buddhism in particular, offers an other-worldly, mystical faith incapable of engaging with ethics or politics.

Inner Revolution is an attempt to articulate a Buddhist politics, demonstrating that practical concern for the individual is actually at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. In Thurman's view, Buddhism does not advocate renunciation of the world, or the dissolution of the individual amid heavenly bliss, but rather provides an ideal framework for moral and political action, particularly in the context of modern capitalist societies. This is because Thurman believes that the West has obtained what he calls "outer modernity", or material progress, at the expense of "inner modernity", the spiritual expertise developed in Asian cultures and which reached its most sophisticated form in Tibet. To obtain true fulfilment in the next century, he avers, we must attempt to marry these two modernities, and take on board the "cool revolution" initiated by the Buddha, which has gradually transformed the shape of societies all over Asia.

Thurman takes as given the fact that the West is suffering from a profound spiritual crisis, drawing heavily on the sociology of Weber, and argues that only Buddhism has the necessary continuities with our western "outer modernity" to reintroduce the sacred dimension to our lives. Buddhism is therefore pictured as a sort of educational programme, an "enlightenment movement", that "sought from the beginning to take power from the ruling bodies and return it to the individual".

But this is a highly contentious point of view, and one wonders whether Thurman is guilty of looking at Tibet only to see himself. Tibetan Buddhism is not the pseudo-liberalism that Thurman makes it out to be, concerned primarily with individualism and democracy. The West has consistently tried to see Buddhism as a variant of western humanism without attending to the vast cultural differences between the two. Thurman slips into the logic of opposites that Lopez so ably exposes, arguing that Tibet was once an idyllic society, the "secret dynamo that throughout this millennium has slowly turned the outer world toward enlightenment".

Once again, it seems, Tibet holds the answers to our problems. As it turns out, however, the political answers that Tibetan Buddhism offers are surprisingly similar to an assorted selection of left-wing policy nostrums, involving a welfare state, environmental protection and greater investment in education. These are not unreasonable ideas, although I remain to be convinced that we can avoid major international conflicts by creating elite special forces imbued with "Ninja-master individual prowess and technique".

Despite Thurman's laudable attempts to bring East and West together, there is a hollowness to his attempt at cross-cultural dialogue, given the absence of any religion apart from Buddhism in the ideal world that he describes. It seems clear that for Thurman only Buddhism is capable of meeting the challenges of modernity, since it is not really a religion anyway, and embodies all the values of the western Enlightenment. But this is to write out of the picture the religions of the bulk of the planet's population, and to be guilty of the sort of religious absolutism that eastern enthusiasts would deem utterly unacceptable in Christian evangelists. Thurman explains one perspective on Tibetan Buddhism very well, and has been a pioneering figure in Tibetan studies, but in the light of Lopez's work one cannot help but feel that he represents the past rather than the future of the discipline.

After these complex methodological debates, it is almost a relief to turn to some actual Tibetology, which is provided by the volume of essays, Pilgrimage in Tibet, edited by Alex McKay. This book is more for the specialist than the layperson, and consists of a series of articles that combine anthropological and historical approaches in order to shed some light on the ritual dimensions of Tibetan culture, focusing particularly on the central place of pilgrimage. It provides a valuable antidote to Thurman's attempt to picture Tibetan Buddhism as an educational movement rather than a religion, since it clearly illustrates the important rituals that are constitutive of Tibetan culture. The essays themselves are wide ranging and evocative. They successfully conjure up a sense of what it is like to participate in a pilgrimage (all of the writers have done so), although at times this empathy comes at the expense of analysis, and by the end of the book more questions have been raised than are answered. But it is clearly difficult to resolve major theoretical issues in such short articles, and the volume does introduce the reader to a broad spectrum of interesting questions.

The strength of the book's approach is that it focuses on pilgrimage both as an individual, sacred experience and as a social phenomenon, particularly highlighting its role as an instrument of political, economic and cultural expansion. For instance, Katia Buffetrille illustrates the process of "Buddhicisation" that took place during the diffusion of Buddhism to Tibet, showing that the pre-existing patterns of worship and pilgrimage were slowly absorbed into and altered by the larger Buddhist superstructure. Traditional sacred sites were transformed into places of Buddhist pilgrimage. Hanna Havnevik's contribution offers a further corrective to Thurman's liberal Buddhism, since it concentrates on the issue of gender, reconstructing the story of a female lama, Lochen Rinpoche, who participated in pilgrimages earlier this century. In theory, pilgrimages are open to everyone, and Lochen Rinpoche seems to have had some success as a spiritual adept. However, Havnevik stresses that this should not hide the formidable barriers to full female participation in Tibetan ritual life. Tibet was a patriarchal society, and women were considered to suffer from ritual impurities. Havnevik cites a telling quote from a male lama's visit to Lochen Rinpoche at one of her favourite sacred sites: "There are all these wonderful and splendid sites, but due to (all the) nuns staying there the area is not a suitable/happy place".

The final article in the book, by Peng Wenbin, brings us up to date by highlighting the modern conflict between economic and spiritual growth, since many Tibetans, out of economic necessity, now work in the tourist industry and have no time to go on pilgrimages. In the Chinese tourist brochures the primitivist rhetoric resurfaces, describing the "rich, yet simple" lifestyle of the Tibetan people. Such ideas are not so far away from some of the language deployed in our own culture, and remind us of Lopez's important attempt to break out of this lazy and unimaginative way of representing Tibet. We must hope that this more nuanced understanding will create a less distorted view of Tibet than the one that has so thoroughly entrenched itself in western culture, and that the struggle to liberate Tibet will be matched by a genuine struggle to understand it.

Ben Jackson is Herchel Smith Scholar, Harvard University.

Pilgrimage in Tibet

ISBN - 0 7007 0992 4
Publisher - Curzon
Price - £35.00
Pages - 228

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