‘Rethinking the Intellectual Context of Tibetan Studies’ (1985-1994)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

Thirty years ago, in 1992, Geoffrey Samuel presented a paper to the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (IATS): ‘Tibet and the Southeast Asian Highlands: Rethinking the Intellectual Context of Tibetan Studies.’ The paper was published in 1994.

Samuel noted at the time:

“Despite Barbara Aziz’s pointed remarks at the Fourth IATS conference at Munich, and the writings of a number of American feminist scholars of Tibetan Buddhism, such as Rita Gross, Anne K1ein, Janet Gyatso, and Jan Willis, Tibetanists have generally ignored the issues raised by feminist thought. It is not hard to guess why this might be so. Although Buddhism in Tibet has had a marginally better record than the world’s other major religious traditions, Tibetan monastic Buddhism in Tibet is thoroughly enmeshed with notions of male supremacy. Few Tibetanist scholars have either the desire or the courage to embark on a substantial feminist critique of the central institution most of us are studying. Yet without such an undertaking, the potential of the feminist critique to lead to a radical rethinking of Tibetan studies is blunted and defused.

This is not, I think, simply a question of blindness or cowardice. It is related to the awareness of many of us that Tibetan Buddhism at this point in history is deeply bound up with the political and human survival of the Tibetan people. To attack Buddhism is to run the risk of weakening the Tibetan struggle for autonomy and liberation.

This brings me to the anti-colonialist impulse, as typified by works such as Edward Said’s Orientalism. There are a number of perhaps obvious reasons why Tibetanists have failed to buy into this debate, and most of them are again connected with the continuing Chinese presence in Tibet. This presence means that Tibetan scholarship is by its very nature political, and in a way different from that characterizing the work of most Asianists.

Certainly, anyone who writes on pre-modern Tibetan society or on Tibetan history cannot avoid being aware of the possible interpretations or constructions placed upon what we say by parties in the dispute. Generally, too, Tibetanists have their own commitments in the Tibetan situation, and may be unwilling to acknowledge the fragmentary or conjectural nature of their interpretations for fear that this may weaken the polemical force of their arguments.

Such motives may help to explain why there has been little explicit reflection on the assumptions behind the discourse or discourses of modern Tibetan studies. Commitments to one side or another tend to be tacit and treated as not needing serious questioning, whether these commitments are to the Tibetan or Chinese sides of the political dispute, or to one or another Buddhist position within the Tibetan religious arena. The gravity of the political situation in which the Tibetans have been caught tends to force a relatively straightforward allegiance to one or the other side. One has only to look at Melvyn Goldstein’s attempts to steer some kind of a middle way through the political minefield, and at recent Tibetan refugee reactions to his writings, to realize that such a feat verges on the impossible.

My intention here is not to distribute blame in this situation, at least not among Tibetanists. I am as much caught up in it as many others. I would, however, like to note some of the respects in which these factors may have affected the nature of Tibetan studies today. It is, I think, easy to see some areas of concern.” (pp. 696-697)

Barbara Aziz’s “pointed remarks” were made almost ten years previously, during the 4th IATS conference in 1985. They were published as ‘Women in Tibetan Society and Tibetology’ (1988). Among other things, Aziz said at the time:

“In the present paper, my immediate aim is to examine the conditions responsible for the neglect I have pointed out, for the opportunities lost, and for misconceptions we may hold. I take this opportunity with the hope that by removing some of the obstacles and correcting misconceptions in this field, new research may move ahead all the more effectively.

To begin this self-examination, let us first cast our eyes across the members of our scholarly community. We note that our ranks have been swelled and our research bolstered by an ever increas- ingly number of Tibetan born scholars (and those born in Ladakh and India). We welcome these men; we need them; we enjoy their fellowship; and we benefit from their collaboration. However, note that with the exception of Ms. Chime Wongmo in Bhutan, all of them are men. As we praise their mastery of our traditions, as we applaud their achievements, as we accept their counsel, do we not wonder at this imbalance? Furthermore, it applies not only in the circle of scholars.

In the arts, in educational leadership, administration, political affairs, journalism and publishing, religious teaching and commentary, it is the same. In India and wherever Tibetans have migrated, almost all positions of influence and power are held by men. Moreover, among the most successful of them are monks (or ex-monks) whose accomplishments extend into the international arena. They have crossed cultural divides with apparent ease, overcoming differences which should pose no obstacles for women by comparison. Yet, in the international forum, while their brothers enjoy such success, Tibetan women are completely absent. What is blocking the entry of women into these ranks?

Before trying to answer this, let us continue our general pan across the landscape of Tibetology, looking at our most prolific area of concern: Tibetan Buddhism. Tibet’s religion is given a central place in our interpretation of its culture and history. We claim that religion and Buddhism in particular is responsible for all Tibetan values, that it underlies all cultural expression here. If this is valid, should we not be able to determine how Buddhism thereby shapes the lives of Tibetan women? Where have our countless studies in Buddhism led us on this issue?

Not very far, we have to admit. We know virtually nothing about nunneries and nuns, to begin with. Not only in the past, but today in India and Nepal. Many new monasteries house thousands of monks who also receive special training in advanced centres of learning. Yet how many nunneries have been constructed and how many Tibetan nuns are practicing today? We know of only two ani-gonpa in India. Then, of the hundreds of monks—young and old, erudite and servant—who regularly visit Europe and beyond for lecturing, touring or performing, is there one nun? I believe not.

Our thorough dismissal of the chos-ma traditions is further reflected in all our publications. It is most graphically evident in the captions under photographs of Tibetan women. It seems hardly worth a researcher’s time, so we suffice with the oft-repeated caption ‘Old nun spinning prayerwheel,’ or ‘Women with beads’. In the illustrated literature on Tibet, try to recall having ever seen a photograph of a Tibetan nunnery.

The disparity we see in our treatment of Tibetan men and women might be understandable if we believed that these women were suppressed, abused and denied basic rights, or if we knew no divine female forms. We do not however. Our impression of social values in regards to women here is highly favourable. We hear no stories about them being sold into slavery or abused like women in parts of China and India in former times. There are no reports from Tibet about female infanticide or widow sacrifice. So we felt right in concluding that here is a society where women enjoy liberty and equality with men, and we hasten to attribute this condition to Buddhist influences.

One brave author, Anne Klein, has been trying to assess this supposed co-relation between Buddhist egalitarian ideology and the conditions of women in Tibet. But until we have substantially more sociological data and a better grasp of what many more things mean in this culture, we persist with our ideals. And in the absence of alternative information we seek affirmation from the impressions we gather from afar: polyandric wife at the hub of the household; nomadic herder churning her butter and mounting her hill pony; lady pilgrim free to cross those daunting deserts; and the bejewelled and proud noblewoman. They all looked straight into our cameras, eyes laughing. When we met Tibetans in India, women seemed as approachable as men; some were literate; and in the new refugee schools, girls were enrolled in equal numbers to boys. When we watched couples interact we remarked at the open dialogue between a woman and her husband; we noted her willingness to share a drink and a ribald tale. Tibetan ladies, we agreed, were “fun at a party” (which Hindus were definitely not). Surely this was an indisputable sign of their egalitarian ethnic, and the merits of Buddhism.

Thus satisfied, we did not notice how regularly girls dropped out of those selrools at 10th class, how none were selected as tulkus, how none were sent to the elite schools in Mussoorie or abroad. Nuns never became teachers, and young women moved into nursing careers and carpet weaving. We did not expect them to paint tangkas or to receive appointments in government offices in Tokyo or New York.

Seeing these facts, we cannot deny that something is amiss. Moreover, the failure of oUr research efforts to test out our impressions and to correct misconceptions in order to bring things in line with reality exposes basic flaws in our methods and our use of Tibetology. These discrepancies call for serious rethought and a re-examination of the entire range of Tibetan traditions. We must redefine what constitute Tibetan culture and civilization and we are obliged to reconsider what being “traditional Tibetan” really means. We need to honestly evaluate the egalitarian claims of Tibetan Buddhism and ascertain to what degree this society is Buddhist (as Kline does, op.cit.). We can also benefit from an assessment of Tibetology by reflecting on its European foundation and its ‘orientalist’ derivations, using recent analyses of ‘orientalism’ and ‘colonialism’.” (pp. 26-27)

Samuel - Tibet and the Southeast Asian Highlands-Rethinking the Intellectual Context of Tibetan Studies (1994)

Aziz - Women in Tibetan Society and Tibetology (1988)


About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.