Category Archives: Tibetology

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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China’s ‘Liberation’ of Tibet: Rules of the Game

This is a really good article in the New York Review of Books on the recent ‘celebration’ of the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China.

Its written by Robbie Barnett, a friend of mine who is a lecturer in Tibetan from the States.

His political stance is well know, but few will not be shocked by what he recalls from the same ceremony in 2005: “what had not been visible on the television screen: hundreds of armed troops followed by armored personnel carriers, riot control vehicles, water-cannon trucks, barbed-wire laying machines, vehicles with gun turrets and other forms of military hardware.”

The footage of the ceremony is also well worth watching, but probably not the full 149 minutes of it! He draws attention to the selective nature of the ‘crowds’ of Tibetans that were there to take part in the event; broadcast live on Chinese TV. 

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Tibetan Lobsters

This is a genius article sent to me by a dear friend… its total nonsense of course, but a touching gesture! “Instead of plunging headfirst to their death in a pot of boiling water, 534 live lobsters escaped the dinner plate and belly flopped to freedom into the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean.” This sort of thing can only happen in the US surely? And l love the www. address… it ends with “usoddlyenough” … need I say more!

Follow this Lobsters link!

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Dalai Lama and Exile

Dalai Lama\’s exile challenge for Tibetans

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Dalai Lama renounces his political powers

This move raises more questions than it answers… but was perhaps inevitable.

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