Category Archives: Tibetology

Born Digital

For those of you who just can’t wait for the forthcoming three volume epic, nor for the Hollywood blockbuster, nor West End hit musical, here is a link you might find interesting from the Oxford Research Archive … well, mildly distracting for about five seconds… It even has its own QR code for all you clever iKids out there! 

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More on the Tibet situation

Briefly, here are two further perspectives on the sad trend of self immolation in Tibet, one by a Tibetan author, and the other by the Dalai Lama himself on the BBC.

 

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A Terrifying Trend: Self-immolations in Tibet

Finally the US has found some voice of protest concerning the current, horrifying, trend of self-immolations in Tibet over recent weeks. For more news on one such recent protest follow this link, and sadly there have been many such instances in the last few months.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the occasion of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to address the issue saying that the US was, “alarmed by recent incidents in Tibet of young people lighting themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest… We continue to call on China to embrace a different path.”

“We have consistently and directly raised with the Chinese government our concerns about Tibetan self-immolations, and we have repeatedly urged the Chinese government to address its counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions and that threaten the unique religious, cultural, linguistic identity of the Tibetan people. We’ve also repeatedly urged the Chinese government to allow access to all Tibetan areas of China for journalists, diplomats, and other observers so that we can get accurate information and so that you can get accurate information.

“And let me take this opportunity to again call on the Government of China to respect the rights of all of its citizens who peacefully express their desire for internationally recognized freedoms, and particularly the rights of Tibetans to resolve their underlying grievances with the Government of China.” These quotes come from the International Campaign for Tibet, and more can be found here.

I should declare my interest in this sorry situation; While I was an English teacher in the small monastery of Dip Tse Chok Ling in Dharamsala I lived in the former cell of Thupten Ngodup (pictured), the former cook and cow herder of the monastery.

It was in 1998 in Delhi that the Tibetan Youth Congress organised a ‘Hunger Strike unto Death’ to pressure the United Nations to implement the International Commission of Jurist recommendation of 1997 report on Tibet. The first batch of hunger strikers consisted of six members of TYC, but the demonstration was disrupted and broken up by the Indian police on their forty-ninth day of fasting. Thupten was part of the second batch of hunger strikers, and set himself alight on 29th April, 1998. Accounts of his death vary, but one, harrowing one, is based on filmed evidence, and can be found here (warning, its not comfortable reading):

“A video shot by Choyang Tharchin of the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR) shows Thupten making his way to the public toilet. He opened a plastic container of gasoline, which he must have hidden there earlier, and dowsed himself thoroughly. Then he struck a match or flicked a lighter. .. When he came out he was, quite literally, an inferno. The DIIR video makes that horrifyingly clear. We see him charging out to the area before the hunger-strikers tent, causing chaos in the ranks of the police as well as the Tibetans there. A very English female voice — off camera — screams’ “Oh my God” Oh My God” again and again. With that and other screams and shouts, it is impossible to hear what the burning man is saying. According to someone there he shouted “Bod Gyal lo” or “Victory to Tibet”. Others heard him crying “Bod Rangzen”, or “Independence for Tibet.” He also shouted “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. How on earth he managed to shout anything, much less run about as he did is a mystery to me. Every breath he took must have caused live flames to rush into his lungs and sear the air sacs and lining.

The burning man then appears to pause and hold up both hands together in the position of prayer. At this point the fire seems terribly intense and the cameraman later remarked that he could distinctly hear popping sounds as bits of flesh burst from Thupten Ngodup’s body. The cameraman was so shaken he found it difficult to hold his camera steady. Then policemen and Tibetans beat at the flames with rugs and sacks, and finally pushing Thupten Ngodup to the ground, stifled the blaze.” 

I moved into his small cell only a few months later in late 1998. People often ask me why I ended up studying Tibet; why something quite, so, well, pointless? I guess living in such a monastery and community had a profound effect on me, and planted a small seed that really has only begun to germinate. More important, and sad, is that the situation that lead Thupten to set himself alight is still prevailing.

While the international finger pointing goes on, with the Chinese news agencies bitterly criticising the Dalai Lama for not condemning the protests, and the Tibetan Government in Exile urging restraint and dialogue, one thing is for sure, I fear that this distressing and despairing trend will sadly continue.

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The devil is in the detail…

So, if you ever needed reminding why Tibetology, and the detailed analysis of Anglo-Tibetan relations, is important and relevant, here it is: The world’s two largest nations, accounting for about 1/3 of the global population, both armed to the high teeth with nuclear weapons and global ambitions, having an undignified and unfortunate scrap about Tibetan border areas, and the much disputed McMahon Line.

As the article points out, “China, India’s largest trading partner, claims sovereignty over parts of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh and calls it southern Tibet. It refuses to recognize the “imperialist” 1913 Shimla Convention under which Tibet ceded Tawang to India and regards its border with India – the McMahon line – as disputed.”

The McMahon Line is a line agreed to by Great Britain and Tibet as part of Shimla Accord, a treaty signed in 1914. Although its legal status is disputed by China, it is the effective boundary between China and India. The line is named after Sir Henry McMahon, foreign secretary of British India and the chief negotiator of the convention. It extends for 550 miles from Bhutan in the west to 160 miles east of the great bend of the Brahmaputra River in the east, largely along the crest of the Himalayas. The Shimla Convention was a disputed treaty concerning the status of Tibet negotiated by representatives of China, Tibet and Britain in 1914. The Simla Accord provided that “Outer Tibet” would “remain in the hands of the Tibetan Government at Lhasa.” This region, approximately the same as today’s Tibet Autonomous Region, would be under Chinese suzerainty, but China would not interfere in its administration. Not that it really matters, the Chinese delegation walked away, and never recognised or ratified the treaty. 

This spat is important as, while the article is written from an Indian perspective, national pride and tender toes are still evident in the region following a series of disastrous wars in the 1960’s between India and China over the border regions. I do like the reporting that the Chinese ambassador told the journalist to “Shut up!” … however I doubt those were his exact words!

 

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Paris ISYT Published today…

Great news! The proceedings of the 2009 Paris ISYT conference have today been published through the Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines (RET). Alice, Nicola, Kalsang and I have been working hard editing and reviewing the papers for the last year, and we are pleased that it has been finally published.

The RET is a twice-yearly scholarly and peer-reviewed journal published by CRCAO of the CNRS, Paris, under the direction of  Dr Jean-Luc Achard.

All contributions to the RET are peer-reviewed and to date twenty-one volumes are available as a free PDF downloads.

My article, Trinkets, Temples, and Treasures: Tibetan Material Culture and the 1904 British Mission to Tibet, can be found by following the link.

We are hoping to be able to publish a hard copy of the volume in India this winter, but those that can’t wait to read the rest of the articles, they can be found here. And dont forget that Kobe 2012 is now taking registrations for the next instalment of the International Seminar of Young Tibetologists!

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Dear Sir / Madam, I must apologise for my disgraceful behaviour last night…

Sorry, I have been neglecting you again. I have been a bit preoccupied this last week, and on Friday I got blindingly, stupidly, and probably intentionally, drunk. It was fun though. It wrote off Saturday, but has to be done on occasion. (Blab Blab, not condoning excessive drinking etc, taken in moderation, eat more lentils etc etc…) 

As I was drifting home on the bus I tried to catalogue all the apologetic emails and letters I have had to send over the years as a result of liver abuse and the spirited (usually gin based) belief that one last pint will not do anyone any harm. Few were poetic, most were pathetic. But its the ‘having written’ them, as well as the contrition aspect, that is important, not the linguistic gymnastics nor asking to be reminded of the young lady in question’s name. That is unless you lived in Central China in about 856 AD.

The draconian, but inventive local ‘Dunhuang Bureau of Etiquette’ (imagine a cross between your guilty conscience and the Debrett’s) insisted that local mandarins use an official letter template when sending apologies to offended dinner hosts. The guilty party would copy the template text, enter the dinner host’s name, sign the letter and then deliver with head bowed, usually before dashing off to the chemist for some 9th century Seltzers.

If you have never heard of the caves at Dunhuang, then you obviously have never met a Tibetologist. We tend to salivate and wax lyrical about this treasure trove of texts and manuscripts. The first caves were dug out 366 AD as places of Buddhist meditation and worship, but became a depository for all kinds of manuscripts and murals, in all the languages of the Silk Road until they were walled off sometime after the 11th century.

In the early 1900s, a Chinese monk named Wang appointed himself guardian of some of these temples. Wang discovered a walled up area behind one side of a corridor leading to a main cave. Behind the wall was a small cave stuffed with texts dating from 406 to 1002 AD. Wang sold the majority of the texts to Aurel Stein 1907 for £220 pounds, however unbeknownst to Stein he had purchased hundreds of copies of the same text, the Diamond Sutra, because he was unable to read any of the languages they were written in. The final laugh was with Stein (and do read the relevant bits in my thesis about looting, ‘collecting,’ and museum collections) however as one copy turned out to be the earliest known dated, printed text, that now lives in the British Library’s treasure rooms. Much of the collection is now being worked on by the International Dunhuang Project, based in part at the BL.

But, back to the etiquette letter. The following is a translation of the official letter. I suggest you make note of if… such things come in useful! 

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject, I realised what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.

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The Dalai Lama; to reincarnate, or not to reincarnate?

Over the years many of you have asked me my opinion on the Dalai Lama, reincarnation in general, and the process involved in finding a child reincarnation.

Its a difficult subject, and one that I confess I am not a specialist on, nor have strong opinions about. I have known many recognised reincarnations during my career as a Tibetologist, and also as an English teacher in India and Tibet, and I have to confess confusion over the whole subject. Of course to a rational, sensible, scientific mind (and I would never claim to have one!) it makes no logical sense whatsoever. To a romantic, orientalist, spiritually sensitive mind it is perfectly acceptable to believe that the soul / essence of a being can be reincarnated in another form. I am not a Buddhist expert, obviously, but from a political science or anthropological standpoint it is also a flawed process: Reincarnation necessitates a period when the child is located, educated, and brought to power, often known as a Regency. In Tibet the Regent was often the tutor of the young Dalai Lama or other high ranking monk, and they were often reluctant to yield power and authority once the young Dalai came to an age where he could assume power. Indeed there was a succession of Dalai Lamas from the VIIIth to the XIIIth who failed to gain majority, and who were either poisoned / died young for manifold reasons. That said, on meeting such people I have experienced what I can only describe as an immensely strange and unsettling sensation, and generally the more ‘powerful’ the reincarnation, the more ‘odd’ the experience has been. I am sure that like me you will draw your own conclusions, be they spiritual, psychological, delusional, or faithful. As Father Jack would say, “That would be an ecumenical matter!” 

I bring this up as last week the Dalai Lama released a statement on the website of the Tibetan Government in Exile entitled the “Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, on the Issue of His Reincarnation.” In it he presents and analyses the history, politics, theory, and practice of reincarnation, before going on to present his thoughts on what will happen once he passes on / leaves his current reincarnation. Its a long statement, and so I have linked it here as a downloadable PDF: Statement of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The final section is the most interesting to me. It is here for the first time that the Dalai Lama specifically sets out a defiant message to China, and the world, that there should be no political interference in this process, should it take place. After all it has not been beyond the Chinese Communist Party to issue directives and selections regarding reincarnation, and few should forget the plight of the current XIth Panchen Lama that the Dalai Lama recognised: Following the death of the Xth Panchen, the traditional search committee process involving monks in Tibet was disrupted when the Dalai Lama unilaterally announced his selection of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The leadership in China spirited Nyima away to prevent his being taken to India by the Dalai Lama’s supporters and reverted to the Qing Dynasty’s Golden Urn process to select Gyaincain Norbu, who currently fulfills the duties of the Panchen Lama in China. No one has seen Nyima since 1995, shortly after he recognised at only five years old, and the Chinese authorities hold him in an unknown location.

XIV Dalai Lama in 1939

The final section of the statement reads: “When I am about ninety I will consult the high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not. On that basis we will take a decision. If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognized, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust. They should consult the various heads of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the reliable oath-bound Dharma Protectors who are linked inseparably to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. They should seek advice and direction from these concerned beings and carry out the procedures of search and recognition in accordance with past tradition. I shall leave clear written instructions about this. Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China.

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