Letters to the Editor

Occidentals on Orientalism

I respect and applaud Professor Lopez's exposure of Western Tibetist myths ("New Age Orientalism: The Case of Tibet," Vol. III, No. 3). To criticize his article for imbalance when it was clearly intended to redress an imbalance would be unfair. Nevertheless there are two points I would like to make. In about 1820, Korosi Csoma, the heroic Hungarian nationalist usually considered to be the founding patriarch of academic Tibetological disciplines, set out on his romantic quest for the lost tribes of Hungarians and ended up studying Tibetan literature in Ladakh. He was looking for something. Also in 1820, an Amdowa Tibetan named Btsan-po Nomonhan lodging in Peking published his geography of the world, in which he identifies Western Jews and Christians as "messianics" (borrowing the term rigs-ldan from the Kalacakra tantric system) and locates the legendary land of Shambhala in Europe. He also was looking for something. When we humans experience a lack of something, we look to others.

My second point: the choice of the photographs of bone-ornamented lama and stuffed animals together with shrunken heads was evidently made to convince us of the presence of a savage streak in Tibetan culture. Bypassing the many subtle arguments that might arise at this point, I would like to say that the labeling of these pictures as "Bon" is a curious extension of an internal Tibetan form of orientalism, often uncritically followed by otherwise critical Orientalists. Bone ornaments are worn by all the wrathful forms of Buddhas and are occasionally worn by tantric practitioners who are identifying with them in a ritual context. I have seen on Tibetan family and temple altars a famous picture of the young H.H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama dressed in these same ornaments. Even given the possibility, which I strongly doubt, that the photographed lama is a Bonpo, there is nothing specifically Bonpo about wearing bone aprons. The same goes for the stuffed animals and shrunken heads. These sorts of things (although I've never noticed actual, as distinguished from artistically rendered, shrunken heads) are standard furniture in the Protector Halls (Mgon-khang) of all Tibetan sects. They are terrifying and disgusting, of course, and that is just one effect they are supposed to have. There is nothing specifically Bonpo about them, either.

Finally, and even if a little bit beside the point, I hope Professor Lopez will further uncover the imperialist intellectual underpinnings of academic Tibetological disciplines. As I always like to say, "Self-criticism is close to Buddhahood." As the article stands, it looks more like an elitist attack on "popular" views of people who just might seriously need something Tibet indeed does have to offer, and less like the critique of elitist epistemological control envisioned, if not entirely accomplished, by Edward Said. We (Said not excluded) are Orientalists, and we won't escape the ambivalent legacies of our patriarchs by whiting out the word. Better if we could atone for the sins of the Fathers in our practice. Tibetan Buddhists, even with the skeletons in their own closets, may have some truly valuable pointers for us on how this might be done. We won't hear them if we reduce them to the role of a "construct" in our academic discourse.

Dan Martin
Cambridge, Massachusetts
[Dan Martin is the Visiting Lecturer in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Harvard University.]

 

It is good, as Professor Lopez does, to challenge a woozy romanticization of Tibet, a wandering off into what he calls "New Age Orientalism." Yet, given China's brutal and grotesque treatment of Tibet, it seems an arcane crusade.

In his effort to demythologize Tibet, to lodge it in history, Lopez first and correctly attacks a "logic of opposites" which casts Tibet as utterly benign, and China as utterly evil. But do most Tibetophiles believe this? Most Tibetans? Does the Dalai Lama? I don't think so.

Lopez writes that Tibet indeed had some men under arms, though he must concede that its utter failure to follow history's imperative by turning itself into a garrison state led directly to Tibet's easy defeat by all those invaders, who met and meet rigorous historical standards in this regard. (And if I read his implication correctly, he seems to believe that a self-proclaimed Buddhist country would necessarily be pacifistic in the classic Western sense. This seems another example of the "ideological control" he is otherwise set against.)

He says that Tibet was not the "ideal" society conjured up by its gullible champions because it had hierarchies and elites. He seems to assume that hierarchies and elites are incompatible with a "land free of strife...devoted to the dharma." He writes of "great inequalities," yet mentions no injustices or suffering caused by them. We needn't get sidetracked by a sizzling word like "ideal" to note that the idea that only a society without elites and hierarchies could qualify as "ideal" is an idea heavily flavored by—dare I say Western?—prejudice.

Tibet's liberation from the Chinese is the first priority for us all—realists, cynics, romantics, New Age Orientalists, scholars. Bur I agree with Professor Lopez that this liberation will be hastened by clear thinking. So I propose that it's massively important for us to thoughtfully investigate and not blithely dismiss the possibility that the old Tibet was something more than a fascinating yet somehow sterile culture, that it may have been—perhaps uniquely—a society in which "human nature" very commonly expressed itself in shockingly kind and delightful and deeply instructional ways.

Tom Cole
Santa Rosa, California

Tricycle Responds: Professor Lopez will respond in the Fall 1994 Issue. In response to Professor Martin's letter, Tricycle wishes to acknowledge responsibility for the choice of the artwork that accompanied Professor Lopez's article. -Ed.

 

Funny Bones

I truly loved Lawrence Shainberg's "Crawling toward Sitting" (Vol. III, No. 3). Its informal style and wit was very refreshing. However, for as much pleasure that I received from reading it, there was just as much pain.

I had a minor accident which resulted in what I thought to be a broken rib and went to the emergency room of the local hospital to have it checked out. Thinking ahead, I brought along my new issue of Tricycle, knowing there would be plenty of time to read while I waited. After I was brought into the examination room and while flat on my back on a stretcher, I began to read Mr. Shainberg's article. The opening sentence caught me just right (in my rib cage, to be exact), because I began to chuckle, and then to groan in pain. (Anyone who has ever injured a rib will understand this completely.) But I was hooked, and continued reading, laughing and moaning as I read along. I laughed even more, both at the article and also myself, thinking about what I was putting myself through, and the torture in my rib cage increased proportionately. Wondering what the person next to me (on the other side of a curtain), was thinking as he heard me trying to contain my hysterics while grunting in misery only increased the comedy of my situation and my agony!

Christopher Griese
Bridgehampton, New York

 

SC (Spiritually Correct)

Tricycle is a new magazine and as such it may undoubtedly experience the dukkha of certain growing pains, pains of finding its identity and pains of remaining economically viable. However, if its mission to convey the Buddha's message, sensualism and pornography which sell copy are inappropriate with a dignified transmission of the sacred dhamma, especially to those who desire an introduction to the truth or even to those who consider visiting certain developing countries where Buddhism is still a very real part of their cultures today.

Please reassess your position with respect to publishing words and pictures of intentional or unintentional eroticism, whether it be a picture of the Lord Buddha in his death posture reclining above a nude woman (Vol. III, No. 1) or of photos of topless young exploited women in Bangkok (Vol. III, No. 3). Such exhibitions are neither necessary nor are they "spiritually correct" in a new, growing magazine with such potential for spreading the four truths. Moreover, such expressions can potentially misinform and mislead others who through Tricycle are gaining their first impression of Buddhism. 

John Pigott
Norman, Oklahoma

 

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