Thursday, October 14, 2010

Helping people just like me

“I've been trying to get her to study dharma translation, so she could, you know, help people.”

I ran into a white American male, whom I'll call Chris, on a long bus ride in northern India. He recognized me through “Amy”, a friend of mine he knew and had seen me with, and he struck up the conversation with “You're Amy's friend, right?” I answered yes, and he went on to ask about our in-his-eyes-mutual friend, who's involved in many Tibet-related activities including language interpretation. I really hadn't been in contact with her much recently, and I found his interest rather uncomfortable, so after telling Chris she was busy organizing fundraisers for disaster relief (specifically the earthquake-devastated area of Jyekundo) in Tibet, I tried to steer the conversation in other directions.

Chris told me he's in India studying Tibetan to be a translator. When I asked what sort of translation he wanted to do, it was obvious that he didn't even think of the fact that there could be anything to translate except ancient texts; he responded as if I was asking whether he wanted to focus on translation or interpretation. I clarified, but he said he wasn't interested in “modern novels”. I really wasn't getting through to him that there could be things like newspapers, biographies, histories, blogs, political platforms, and so on written in Tibetan, but rather than push it, I left the issue alone. I let our conversation wander to other topics like language study, life in India, our hometowns – general small talk.

I can't remember how the following came up, but Chris had on-and-off been giving me the impression that he wanted to bring the topic of conversation back to my friend Amy. Eventually he mentioned something about her focus on modern issues and interpreting spoken Tibetan, responding to his own comments in disappointment: “I've been trying to get her to study dharma translation, so she could, you know, help people. It's such a shame.”

At this, I was shocked and furious. I couldn't believe he just said that. I tried to gather my thoughts for a few seconds before responding, but I just blurted out:

“Wait a minute. You mean, so she could help spoiled, privileged, pansy-ass white kids try to get enlightened?”

Had I thought about it a few seconds longer, I might have said, “Oh? Which people?” and made him do his own reasoning about how his comment was so problematic.

What made me furious was not his disparaging my friend, which is between the two of them and really none of my business. Rather, it was that pretty much everything I had said about Amy during our conversation was about her work for disaster relief, and Chris implied direct relief was worthless in comparison to expanding the volume of Tibetan religious texts accessible to an English-only audience. To me it felt like Chris's use of the word “people” was specifically excluding Tibetans and only including people like himself, whether that likeness was racial (white) or cultural (English-speaking Buddhists).

I really chewed him out, surely saying some problematic things myself in the process. I asked him if he had any idea what Tibetans had been doing in the earthquake zone, how all the monasteries had sent their monks as rescue and aid workers, and yelled at him to think about what practicing dharma means to them. I said something to the effect that outsiders who think they value Tibetan religion so much need to stop spending so much time studying books about it and watch how Tibetans practice. I asked him where the American dharma groups were during Hurricane Katrina (which, incidentally, affected non-white residents the most severely) to which he said he didn't know.

My emotional response went on for quite a while, expanding to my feeling that there are always outsiders wanting to get something out of Tibet for themselves and caring little for actual Tibetans. Chris didn't get openly hostile, and responded to most of my tirade not with arguments but with excuses and dismissals (derailment?). He “didn't realize how much” Amy was doing. “Both sides are important,” he stressed, referring to book-knowledge and action. He did listen, and I felt like I had some effect. He told me in his line of work, translation, it's easy to get caught up in thinking just about the people it's for. But he never apologized, and seemed to remain oblivious that he had actually done anything offensive. We parted as he got off the bus.

A couple days later I spoke with Amy. Chris had contacted her to complain about how “disrespectful” I'd been, and after calling him out again herself, she shared with me a lot of what he said. One thing I hadn't thought of when I accused Chris of ignoring Tibetans as “people” in his idea of “helping people” is that he might consider translating texts somehow helpful to Tibetans. He told Amy it was both preserving Tibetan Buddhist culture and drawing supporters to Tibet.

I'd welcome alternate opinions from readers, but as far as I can see, both of these claims are at best implausible, and rather oblivious to anything having to do with the real world.

Telling someone you're preserving Tibetan Buddhist culture by translating scriptures into English is a lot like telling someone you're preserving endangered species by putting animals in zoos. In a way both claims are true - if all animals in the wild were wiped out, or if Buddhism completely ceased to exist in Tibet, there would still be a few of the species left in zoos, and there would still be English translations of the scriptures on Western people's bookshelves. But in both cases, the “preservation” taking place is much more for the sake of somebody else who wants to observe and enjoy. And all too often, the atmosphere of scholarship and research on Tibet (as opposed to for Tibet) ends up manufacturing Western “experts” who get a lot more respect and recognition for their supposed knowledge of all things Tibetan than actual Tibetans with a lot more knowledge.

As for the idea that translating Tibetan scripture into English creates support for Tibet, it's just completely implausible. The sort of translation being done by Western scholars these days consists almost entirely of advanced texts, which would only be of interest to someone already familiar with Tibetan Buddhism. And there's a strong argument to be made that anyone who considers oneself to be at this level but who needs a translation for lack of Tibetan reading capability has their priorities backwards - but that's a topic for a completely different post.

There was one thing Chris said to Amy that made me feel like he'd at least gotten something out of our conversation: he said “I should think about benefiting Tibetans more.” But I still felt like he was more interested in justifying and exaggerating the importance of his work than pursuing any real benefit for Tibet.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dharma Wars: When Tibetans argue and White people cry "Victim!"

Recently, there has been a bit of a crisis within the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The location of the crisis is New York, and so it does effect the Western Buddhist sangha.

I won't go too deeply into the crisis, but according to popular belief (which may or may not be the actual cause) A Tibetan from aristocratic background and lifestyle got upset about his lawn not being mowed and fired a non-Tibetan manager. A Tibetan lama then resigned from his position at the monastery, one thing led to another and that lama was effectively banned from teaching at that monastery or any of its affiliated centers. A lot of people believe that the aristocrat's anger over the lawn mowing incident led to the banning of this Lama. This may be partially true, I don't know. But that is the general belief.

**IMPORTANT NOTE: After speaking with several people it came to light that, although the so-called "Lawnmower Incident" may have been a contributing factor, there were also theological reasons behind the decision at hand. I won't elaborate on them here since I don't know all the details, but trust me in saying that it's far more complex than most people will lead you to believe**

The response by many western people, including at least one popular and widely read Buddhist blogger have been accusing Tibetans of abusing the western Buddhist sangha. One particularly memorable quote read:

"thanks to the failure of Tibetans to accept Americans as their equals. It is as simple as that. We are peasants to them."

The first thing that struck me as odd was, aside from the initial manager who no one is talking about, the victim in this case is a TIBETAN Lama, and his aggressor is a FELLOW TIBETAN. In short, this is infighting. With "In" being a key component of that word. How is it that when the victim is a Tibetan, westerners are complaining about being the ones abused?

This is also, clearly, an unfair generalization of 6 million people based on the inappropriate actions of a few. It is a clear example of a minority figure's action representing the entire minority while a white person's action represents the individual.

Many are pinning this as a racist issue (Tibetans versus Americans) as compared to the class structure issue that it actually is. Does anyone really think it would be any different if it were a Tibetan who had not mown the lawn? For that matter, westerners in positions of respect who perceive disrespect tend to respond in the same way, yet we wouldn't generalize all westerners in such a manner. (I'm inclined to remember my private school headmistress who summarily fired or refused to renew contracts of teachers who disagreed with her... )

How is this that when one aristocratic family acts poorly and we can generalize all Tibetans, and yet when westerners in positions of power (school, religious authority, etc...) do the exact same thing, it is the act of the individual?

I chose to respond to the blogger, hoping that other readers would see this. I received one positive response, a blogger who wrote that the original writer should have been more careful with his words. But the original writer also responded.

"It can only be resolved by Tibetans, from the top down, the intervention of His Holiness himself leading his Tibetan disciples and representatives into the 21st century reality of the Karma Kagyu in this country.

This isn't Tibet.We're Americans. Treat us like KTD is, like a bunch of peasants, banning a beloved teacher for siding with a Western lay person over an Tibetan aristocrat is the straw that broke the camels back."

In one paragraph he states that it is a Tibetan issue, but in the very next one he again turns it into Tibetan vs American. Treating us like peasants, Western lay person versus Tibetan aristocrat.

The many people who are making this argument completely fail to discuss, or even look at, the theological or situational backing behind the decision to ban (very complex on both counts, as I later found out.) Not only are they mistaken about the cause, but they are making the problem worse. Instead of discussing the actual reasons and therefore being able to petition for change, they chose instead to cry "victim" and completely ignore the issues at hand.

I personally am upset about the ban, but I am about 100 times more upset at the idiotic and racist response by so many western Buddhists who have chosen to blame all of Tibetan culture and pretend to be the victims in this situation instead of try to learn the real cause behind the decision and help the Lama in question.

Finally, the congregation of this Buddhist center, although largely westerners also has many Chinese, Taiwanese, and of course, numerous Tibetans. All of them are being effected by this ban. The Tibetans may be effected even more so due to family connections and social pressures to completely shun this lama in accordance with the banning.

So, if this IS the result of the "Lawn Mowing Incident" as it is now being called, then this is a case of aristocrats treating EVERYONE below them like "peasants" as our writer says. Including numerous Tibetans. Yet, as we so commonly see, this writer and the many others feel as though it is us, the poor westerners, who are being so horribly abused by these terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Tibetans.

...and people wonder why I refuse to go to Buddhist centers in the west.