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.


  1. Unity. Why draw lines between those who have illusions of helping and those who "are" helping? A motivation to help, albeit occasionally an illusory one, is absolutely important. How are Tibetans to be helped the most effectively? This is a difficult question to answer! There is not one way.

    Do translations help? Do protests help? Does relief work help? Does building schools and hospitals help? I would say yes to all of these, but certainly not in the same manner.

  2. I think there's a big difference between a motivation to help others, and a motivation to validate one's own self-help by claiming that it helps others. Really it's none of my business if somebody wants to do the latter. What I've taken the most offense at comes out in the overly blunt question I shouted out at Chris: the masked (and likely unintentional) racism in dismissing concrete acts of compassion for Tibetans as worthless in comparison to scholarship whose beneficiaries are almost all white Western English-speaking people.

    Perhaps from a religious perspective, motivation is important. But from a social justice, anti-racist, anti-oppression perspective, motivation is pretty much irrelevant. Our behaviors all take place as part of a system of oppression that severely disadvantages Tibetans from achieving many of the trivial things we take for granted. One of my aims through this blog is to analyze and deconstruct the behaviors which maintain such a system.

  3. A valid point. I certainly see where you are coming from. I think to go as far as saying that motivation is irrelevant, though, is a bit extreme. Many of those who help empower Tibetan communities today (whether effectively or ineffectively!) do so precisely because Tibet (and Tibetan Buddhism) entered the mainstream by means of the Dharma and Dharma translations. To discount these kinds of contributions would be discounting the origins of much benefit to Tibetan culture. Now, whether or not forms of benefit should ultimately diverge from such sources, is not my point. However to isolate potential friends is not a beneficial practice when Tibet already has enough enemies.

  4. I hope people reading this blog can be mature enough not to take critical analysis of attitudes and behaviors as personal attacks and run off crying to their mommy (or more likely, their lama ;-).

    Joking aside, this is one of the issues we considered when starting this blog: lots of the problematic behaviors we want to address are behaviors of people who self-identify as supporters of Tibet and want to do something beneficial. Point 2 of the commenting guidelines was about addressing that in the comments, but a lot of discussion went on before we started the blog about how to deal with these issues in actual articles/blog posts too, and no easy answers popped out.

    Ultimately the goal is not to have people say "Those nasty Tibetans/Tibet supporters! They're always criticizing me and making me feel bad about everything I do, even though I sacrifice so much for Tibet! I'm just gonna go pout!" but instead take an introspective approach to criticism and say "Hey, that sounds like something I do. I didn't even realize it but I bet when I so such-and-such it's hurtful to so-and-so, makes them feel helpless or like I just don't get it or like I'm oblivious and self-centric, etc. I'm going to be conscious of this in the future to make myself more effective and useful." And I suspect we can agree, both you from a religious perspective and me from a social-justice perspective, that getting people to think like that is a worthwhile pursuit.

  5. Helping often means digging deeper. Doing something for someone capable of doing it for themselves is not helping but enabling.

    Regarding the translation issue why not obtain a teaching qualification (just because one speaks English doesn't qualify one to be a teacher), teach English to the monks, where that might be required (many speak English better than the foreigners who come to meet them tho) and then they can do their own translations. Lay people in the Tibetan community don't do translations. But a lot of foreign lay people somehow think they are qualified to interpret deep Tibetan Buddhist texts without having undertaken shedra or any other kind of advanced doctrinal study. Or why not undertake becoming a monk also as Matthieu Ricard has done or as Robert Thurman did. They are probably the most qualified foreign translators that I know of.

    Oh yes, that might require an actual commitment.

  6. Wow, Nella. So many things I hadn't considered! You bring up some amazing points. I actually asked a pretty high khenpo here his thoughts on it. He agreed that unless you have been to shedra at least (he is from a lineage that doesn't require monastic vows necessarily, so he felt it was not necessary to be a monk) then while you may be translating the accurate words, the meaning may still be inaccurate.

    As for the first part with teaching, first of all: YES! People need to get a teaching qualification.

    Second of all: again, YES. I think it comes down to a white savior thing. They NEED me. Instead of providing people with the tools to do it themselves and improve their own lives.

    Thank you for making me think about these things! Keep those comments rolling in.

  7. Great post! I'm an exile Tibetan who has had the good fortune of living for a while now in the West. And I've recently been mulling this lack of depth of commitment among many Western Tibetan `supporters' to helping alleviate the vicious oppression of Tibetans in Tibet, instead contentedly collecting cultural and religious knickknacks for their bemusement. Makes me more thankful for the genuine friends of Tibet. Bod Gyalo and keep up the great work!


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