Sunday, June 6, 2010

Imagining Tibet

The website, Tibetan Buddhism Goes West...Problems of Adoption & Cross-Cultural Confusion, recently posted a piece by Tsering Shakya, Canadian Research Chair in Religion and Contemporary Society in Asia Institute for Asian Research University of British Columbia. Titled “The Myth of Shangri-la: Tibet and the Occident,” it raises a number of issues of interest to readers of this site.

There is the real Tibet, what I have called the geographical Tibet, and the imaginary Tibet, which has a potent force of its own. In the Western mind the distinction between the two has merged to form a particular Western perception of Tibet and Tibetanness. In the process of mythologising, the real or geographical Tibet is subservient to the imaginary Tibet. The confusion is caused by the failure to distinguish between an object and a thought about the object.

Tibet has been very useful to the West: it is a place which is being constantly discovered by the West. It has been unveiled and revealed for decades by travellers, explorers, missionaries, soldiers, scholars and colonial officers. Tibet has become a source of adventure and mystery in a world where there is little magic and mystery…. The public was satisfied by Madam Blavatsky's revelation of telepathic messages from the mystics meditating in caves in the majestic Himalayas.

In the Western mind, Tibet was mythogised precisely because it was never colonised and Tibetans were never subservient to European rule. Therefore, Tibet became Shangri-la in the Western mind…. The opening of Tibet to mass tourism in the 1980s meant that the West once again rediscovered Tibet…. Tibet has become a Disney World for the Western bourgeois. Tibet possesses all the thrills and adventure of a customised fantasy world: danger, romance, magic and cuddly natives.

The rest of the article can be read here. Although written some years ago, it surveys a wide range of concerns, better than recent books published on the subject. Only two examples need be noted. Martin Brauen’s Dreamworld Tibet: Western Illusions was initially published in German in 2000 for the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Ethnology at the University of Zurich, May 26, 2000 to June 4, 2001, and translated into English in 2004. With its hundreds of illustrations, it is a beautiful example of what the art of bookmaking is still capable of. Covering Western impressions of Tibet, the part about Blavatsky is written with the “of course she couldn’t possibly have been in Tibet” attitude and gives an account of the “strictly hierarchical system” of Masters that appears nowhere in her writings. Dibyesh Anand’s 2007 Geopolitical Exotica: Tibet in Western Imagination, published as part of the University of Minnesota’s political series, reads like a book-length version of Tsering Shakya’s essay above. The obligatory reference to Blavatsky, though brief, is much more nuanced, and shows the current shift in attitudes about her. Fact or fiction, she was one of the first to claim Tibet as a source of enduring spirituality.

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