Sunday, April 6, 2014

Red Robed Charlatans

I was browsing facebook one day, when I came across a link that had been posted or shared by someone on the news feed.  This person was asking others to help support her lama and his charitable projects a posted a link to Feed a Monk.  Well, generally my charitable efforts are aimed at the general populace, not specifically sangha, but I decided to check out the link because hey: feeding the hungry is feeding the hungry!

I spent a long time reading through, trying to figure out which monks were being supported, until I reached the final paragraphs (emphasis added by me):

"But in America, begging monks are often met by police interference.  Luckily, through the convenience of the internet and the safety of paypal, you can improve your Karma and lovingly support this monk by making a cash gift in the amount of your choosing. Your generosity supports my simple, spartan diet and helps me to be of service to others." 
Okay, so basically, it's a self fundraising page parading itself as 'supporting the sangha'. Far from a charitable venture.  I decided to check out more about this guy.  He claims to be a recognized reincarnation, he also acts as a weight loss guru (??)

In his video about prostrations, he proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has nothing beyond a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhism and obviously no respect for Tibetan culture: pointing the soles of his feet towards the shrine, disregarding all of the symbolism and importance of prostrations and calling them "fun tools to play with" despite them being a serious part of practice for many Tibetans.

But here's what it comes down to:  he is playing lama, claiming a role in a very serious and sacred religious and cultural institution. Not only is he doing this falsely, which is the biggest form of disrespect, but he's also bastardizing Tibetan traditions in order to make a buck and a name for himself!

Worst part yet: he's far from the only one.  There are dozens of "lamas" out there playing dress up, claiming (or bribing for) recognitions, bastardizing and disrespecting Tibetan culture and traditions all to make themselves famous or get some money!  Other examples include a woman who has changed her name multiple times and attempted to delete those histories, whose only "recognition" is from a lama only referred to on her own web page, and who charges $165 for a 6 hour web class, while claiming to be a teacher of a "rare lineage" of Buddhist yogis. Another is an entire so-called lineage of western "Rinpoches" who spend page after page defending their bizarre system and legitimacy without once showing actual, legitimate Tibetan lamas who support and recognize them. There are too many other examples to list here. All of them teach bastardized, offensive practices which cause anyone know actually knows about Tibetan culture and Buddhism to cringe in embarrassment.

Of course, if you call them out on this, they accuse you of being "racist against white people" (Hrmm, have we heard that one before?).  Completely putting aside how problematic the entire accusation of "reverse racism" is: No, that's not what's going on here.  It's appropriating Tibetan culture and sacred faith, completely bastardizing it, defending being offensive either by crying "racist" or by claiming it's a justified sacred practice.  It doesn't matter what your race is: if you are doing this, it's offensive.

You want to practice Buddhism? Fine. Whatever, it's your beliefs.  You want to be a highly respected lama?  Well then you sure as hell better work your butt off to deserve it.  Learn Tibetan, go to Shedra, live in monastery and deal with all the daily life difficulties without getting out of it because you're white, follow the rules and the vows, respect the religion and culture you're working within; and earn, let me say this again earn any title or respect you may reserve.  Don't think it's possible? Talk to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo.  Don't you dare think that you deserve it for some reason, or can claim it with no work, no legitimacy and no backing. That's just spitting on Tibetan culture.

And playing tulku?  Claiming to be recognized and a reincarnation?  Don't even get me started.  Yeah, I'm sure it all seems like fun and games: it's not. It's an actual, 900 year old theological system. And whether you think it's real or not, it is part of the religion and culture and don't you go trivializing it just because you want to play god!  Do you walk around claiming to be the pope, saying that you are the one truly ordained by God and that the election of the college of cardinals doesn't count? I don't think so.

This is straight up exploitation of Tibetan culture for the sake of money and fame.  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Like Us on Facebook!

We have a Facebook presence!  Check it out. It's a great way to interact, leave comments, post thoughts, and send us messages and ideas.  We look forward to seeing what you have to say!

March 10th: Missing the Point

There are lots of things I could say, but it's easier to let the Facebook poster who actually met this dude speak:

Let's have some fun with this jackass' photo.  First, love the bloody tears. Classy, man. I'm sure you, looking for your parties and using Tibetans for their sob stories, are truly shedding tears of blood.  Stay strong, white tourist, stay strong.

Does he have any idea what the protest is about?  I doubt it.  He made that pretty damn clear when he wanted to know about the party opportunities. (I also trust the original FB poster in that she talked to this guy and he had no clue what the uprising day is all about). So what is it for him? A chance to party, a chance to be noticed with his sign and face paint.  A chance to be the "socially conscious" white hero with a pretend bigger and grander agenda ("Globalize Empathy"?).

Gotta love the dirty looks he's getting from the Tibetans around him.

He's in it for the party and the attention.  And the media gave it to him.

Despite the fact that thousands of Tibetans were gathered there, AP and other news sources chose to concentrate on this guy, a white attention seeker with a sign that has nothing to do with the Tibetan issue, as the central image.  The Tibetans are background. They are the T&A.  As usual, the media would prefer to put a white face as the star. In a way, turning the white face into the image of the simultaneous "victim" and "savior" of the Tibetan struggle, the one here protesting with bloody tears.  I can't even put into words how wrong this is on so many levels.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Happy Losar (Except for you guys)

We from Overlooking Tibet would like to wish everyone a happy Losar.  We had a Losar post, but in Tibetan culture it's bad form to scold during the first 3 days of Losar, so we decided to wait.

Some of you may have noticed that last month, about one day off of Chinese New Year, many Khampa and Amdowa Tibetans posted about their Losar celebrations, as did Tibetan practitioners of the Karma Kagyu school.  Every year this causes a bit of confusion and discussion, especially among Tibetans residing in exile where (except for especially devout practitioners of the Karma Kagyu School and people from Kongpo) Losar is pretty standardized (and even in these two cases, they usually celebrate "standard/phuglug Losar" as well.)

But this year, I got to see this:

Followed not long after by this:

T is the only Tibetan anywhere in this conversation.  Everyone else, most importantly A, the original poster, is a westerner.

I started with annoyance, then moved to disgust at her move of publicly shaming Tibetans in Tibet for celebrating the new year on the timing it is celebrated in their region. I then moved on to rage when she went so far as to call them "collaborators".  For what? For celebrating Losar on a different date?  Then "Chinese Losar in Serta: Some Tibetans celebrated with Chinese army" (emphasis my own.)  Excuse me? Chinese Losar?

First: Brief lesson.  Losar is widely celebrated across different dates in Tibet. Many parts of Eastern Tibet, such as Minyak in Kham and several different areas of Amdo, have historically celebrated Losar one month early, nearly or exactly coinciding with the Chinese New Year.  Is it Chinese new year? No. It coincides.  There are a lot of overlaps between the Tibetan calendar and the Chinese one.  For example, it's the wood horse year all across Asia, not just Tibet. Not just China!  Mongolian new year also falls within a few days of Chinese new year, similar to the Amdo Tibetan new year.  Would she also like to argue that the Mongolians have lost their culture and are collaborators?

Another group that celebrates Losar on a slightly different calendar which usually falls within 2 days of Chinese new year are followers of the Tsurlug calendar.  Even the Official Website of the Tibetan Astrological And Medical Institute, founded in Dharamsala by the Dalai Lama acknowledges the validity of the Tsurlug calendar as one of the "two major traditions of Tibetan astrology." (The other is the more mainstream, and slightly newer Phuglug calendar, which coincides with the Chinese new year every other year anyway).

Kongpo Losar generally falls between October and Decembera nd is widely celebrated by Kongpo Tibetans in Tibet and exile. It is radically different from Phuglug Losar, but since it doesn't fall near Chinese new year ever, it is never a source of controversy.

Second and worst: Who does A think she is to publicly shame and condemn Tibetans?  She reports that last year Lobsang Sangay asked Tibetans not to celebrate Losar, who is she to condemn them for celebrating this year?  There has been no call from inside Tibet that I know of (or in exile for that matter) not to celebrate Losar!  Why should they have to give up their holiday and chance for enjoyment?  Worse yet, she makes herself out as the victim in this scenario "I feel devastated in my desire to help the preservation of Tibetan culture. Looks like they really do not mind."  What?  By celebrating their holiday according to their regional calendar she feels "devastated"?  Who does she think she is? The holder of Tibetan culture?

These photos, she acknowledges, were sent to her by friends on WeChat. I think it's a safe assumption, based on her own comments, that they were sent by Tibetan friends enjoying Losar and wanting to share their enjoyment of the new year with her.  I wonder how her "friends" would feel knowing that she is referring to them as "collaborators"? I wonder how they would react to her using their uncensored photos, sent in conversation of celebration, to publicly shame Tibetans?

Does she really think she's aiding the "unity" of Tibetans by accusing Tibetan celebrants of being collaborators?  By condemning the unique cultural practices that differ across Tibet?

But you know what? It's Losar. So on behalf of us at Overlooking Tibet, whether you celebrate Phuglug Losar now, Tsurlug, Amdo Losar or Tsagaan Sar a month ago, or Kongpo Losar in autumn, Happy Losar.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Holier Than Thy Autocorrect

This little number popped up in response to a photo of HHDL on facebook.  The first person was a Tibetan and the second person, white.  Let's call them "Tsering" and "Max" for the sake of ease.

When I saw this interaction, I was so shocked by how quickly and harshly Max jumped on Tsering that I had trouble identifying what was the shocking part.  It took me a while to realize that it was a combination of factors.

Let's be clear: was Tsering, when wishing Long Life to HHDL purposely mispelling lama? Not a chance.  I do, however, challenge any reader, Tibetan or not, to honestly tell me that they've NEVER had "lama" autocorrected to "Lana", "lame" or some other variant while using the ever-popular iphone.  I know I certainly have hit "send" before realizing that I've referenced the Lana visiting the local Buddhist center.  (Other favorites, asking my Tibetan friends what China they are wearing for Losar, instead of chuba, and referring to Hatches Rinpoche instead of Garchen Rinpoche.)

So, chances are Tsering, like the vast majority of Tibetans who want to have easy access to Tibetan language while texting, was using an iphone and it autocorrected Lama to lame.  An unfortunate autocorrect, but one that I hope most people would just get an embarrassed giggle out of.  But not in this case. In Max's effort to show his own holiness and how he is a better servant/representative/whatever of the Dalai Lama than Tsering, he attacks.

Not only that, but "the Precious One"?  I did a quick look at this guy's page. He generally refers to HHDL as "HH."  Yep.  Two letters.  But in this case, "the Precious One"? Really?  Sorry, that sounds a bit forced to me.

Then his charming comment about "write in your own language."  What on earth is that?  OK, good, he acknowledges that English is likely not Tsering's first language, but then denies Tsering the right to choose to comment in English, the primary language of this thread (and facebook in general)?  Let's make the assumption for the moment (and this is a total assumption, because we have no way to know) that Tsering is, like many Tibetans, not fluent in English.  And let's make a second assumption that the error was neither an autocorrect, nor a typo, but an actual spelling error based on difficulty with English. Who the hell does Max think he is to tell a Tibetan, who is clearly trying his best to use the language of the conversation in order to express his own devotion to the spiritual leader of his own people, that Tsering doesn't have the right to use English unless he can use it perfectly?

This is just as bad as when white supporters demand that Tibetans, in a Tibetan space, speak English.  But in this case, instead of acknowledging that learning a second (or, as is the case of most Tibetans, likely a third or fourth) language is difficult and the effort should be lauded and encouraged, he feels like he should flaunt his own supposed holy superiority and basically demand that 'if you can't speak English, go home.'

All this for what was probably a stupid autocorrect.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

White Saviour Slacktivism at its Finest

One Tibet Support Group (TSG) just hit 20,000 likes on their facebook page and posted this infographic to remind everyone of "how you really make a difference for Tibet."

First of all, this infographic is giving three big cheers to slacktivism.  You are at the "centre of freeing Tibet" just by sitting at a computer and clicking 'share'! Wow! And that is that is at the centre (their word, not mine.)

Do you know what's not at the center according to them?  Take a nice look at those teeny tiny figures up in the right hand corner.  That group of characters that could easily be fit 3 times into the "centre" circle of YOU at your laptop (capital letters their choice, not mine.)  What are those minuscule figures in the periphery?  "Tibetan protesters" and "Tibetans risk[ing] arrest and torture for sharing information".  Man, I'm sure glad to know that these guys feel that privileged folk sitting on facebook clicking 'like' and 'share' are the ones freeing Tibet, not the thousands of Tibetans risking their lives protesting, organizing grassroots boycott campaigns inside of Tibet, promoting Tibetan identity through Lhakar and risking (as the infographic acknowledges) torture and arrest to make sure Tibetan voices are heard.  I bet it makes all their facebook fans with the Free Tibet bumper stickers feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

And yes, I acknowledge the irony of ranting about this on a blog.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tibetan Studies Conference: Tibetans Not Welcome Here

Recently the blog Angry Tibetan Girl posted a guest rant about Symposiums on Tibet.  The article highlighted one of the many big issues in Tibetan academia (alright, let's be honest, any academia concentrating on a non-white area).  The heart of the article is really summarized in these paragraphs (although I encourage reading the whole thing):

Aren’t you tired of the double standard that comes with academics/intellectuals that are doing Tibet related stuff? I recently noticed a symposium on Tibet and realized only a few Tibetan names. Here’s the thing, for a Tibetan to be invited to these things, they need to
1. Have published several academic papers already
2. Weirdly, be of a certain age, and most likely, has to be a man.
For a westerner to be invited to these, only few things are required, they need to not be Tibetan, studying Tibet as a graduate school or working at a Tibet NGO
And yeah, that sounds about right.  Read the article, there isn't all that much I can add to it.  But I do want to try to expand based on my experience, and the experience of many of my friends, wandering through the labyrinth of academia.  This doesn't just happen at seminars.  Take a look at staff.  Of the Tibetan studies staff at the SOAS in London, out of ten, only one is Tibetan.  And he is a research associate.  At Columbia University, one of the few schools to have a modern Tibetan studies program, out of three, the only Tibetan is the Tibetan language instructor.  The director, as well as the lecturers on "Modern Tibetan history; Manchu Qing Empire frontiers; role of Tibetan Buddhism in Sino-Tibetan relations, Culture and politics; film and television in Inner Asia; nationality issues in China" are all non-Tibetans.  Where are the Tibetan lecturers on Modern Tibetan culture?  

Many academics make the excuse that, of course Tibetans would be biased! Well, if that's the case, let's remove every American from American history and American studies lectures, every European from European History and most philosophy lecture positions!  Do you see that happening? I certainly don't!  All I can think back to is what a professor said to me years ago, and which I posted about early on, this idea of knowing better than Tibetans, or being the "true" safeguards of Tibetan history.  

And it's sick.

But back to symposiums.  There are other issues at hand too: Tibetan studies symposiums often, in their structure, isolate or make it especially difficult for even the most qualified of Tibetan scholars to attend!  The best way to illustrate this is actually to look at two conferences that avoided some of those problems, because the measures they took help illustrate the institutionalized failure of academia to attempt to work with Tibetan scholars.  The two conferences I would like to look at are the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) 13th Seminar, hosted in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia in 2013, and the Third International Conference on Tibetan Language, hosted in New York, USA in 2012 (For short ICTL).  I was only able to attend one, but I heard back from many people who attended both.  

First of all, the IATS conference was located in Mongolia.  This served as a neutral location so Tibetans from India and from Tibet could attend.  It is also a less expensive location, which again serves to make it feasible to Tibetans on Chinese or Indian salaries.  Furthermore, the Mongolian government is very generous with visas.  In fact, the conference was largely, if not overwhelmingly, Tibetan and there should have been even more from Tibet! The biggest issue preventing scholars from Tibet from attending was none other than the Chinese government's refusal to issue passports or exit permits.  Apparently, some panels were missing half or more of their speakers, who last minute were denied exit from China.

ICTL was located in New York, much more expensive and far more difficult to get a Visa. I personally know one highly esteemed Tibetan writer who got all of his documents from the Chinese and was then denied a visa by the US consulate. To make matters worse, when he tried (through friends in America) to contact ICTL organizers to get an additional call or letter to support his claim that he was attending a conference, they were virtually impossible to reach.  I am sure this choice of location proved prohibitive to many.  

However, to ICTL's credit, they had spontaneous translation with radio headphones! All talks and the following question/answer sessions were simultaneously translated into English, Tibetan and Chinese.  As a result, no Tibetan scholars felt unwelcome due to language barriers. This is a huge issue in virtually every Tibetan studies conference, where speeches must be given in English or another European language, thereby prohibiting many of the most highly qualified Tibetan scholars from attending or speaking.  IATS, a far larger conference was also at a lower budget location. They did not have simultaneous radio translation, but speakers had the option to present in Tibetan, as well as English and a few other languages.  I was surprised that Chinese was not included, considering that many Tibetan scholars in Tibet learn to present in Chinese, in part to overcome dialectical barriers, and I feel this was a great failure on the part of IATS.  None the less, many panels were conducted in English and Tibetan and it was the responsibility of the non-Tibetan attendees to be sufficiently conversant in Tibetan.  There were several cases where Non-Tibetan attendees were asked to reiterate a point in Tibetan, and therefore had to re-state their conclusions in Tibetan!  During the opening speeches, translations were projected on a screen next to the speaker.

At both conferences, Tibetan scholars from Tibet, India, Nepal and residing across the world, were in attendance and formed a substantial portion, if not the majority of speakers.  A far cry from virtually every other symposium or conference!  What could possibly cause this difference? Well, both organizations have many Tibetans in decision making positions.  IATS even has a Tibetan scholar who was just elected as its president.

Is it this rare to have Tibetans as decision makers in Academia?  And as long as they aren't there, are conferences going to continue hosting the same few scholars in a sea of non-Tibetan faces?  Is this what academia is all about?

Of course it is.  It's about white scholars sitting in their offices telling everyone else that they know about the non-whites.  And until that changes, until academic colonialism is finished, until we stand up against it, there will not be a fair chance for Tibetans in scholarship.