“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.
This land is my land - ལ་ཐོན་པོའི་ཙེ་ལ། ལྷ་སང་གཅིག་བཏང་ནས། དར་ཅོག་གཅིག་བརླངས་ནས། ལྷ་རྒྱ་སྦྱིན་མཁྱེན་པས། ལྷ་ཆོས་སྐྱོང་སྲུང་མས། འདི་ང་ལ་གསུངས་བྱུང་། ཕ་ཡུལ་འདི་ང་ཚོ་ཚང་མའི་རེད། Cho...
2 years ago