Thursday, April 24, 2014

Holy Rollers

A friend of mine has an odd and amusing hobby of checking the back page of popular Western Buddhist magazines where all of the advertisements are.  He finds it pretty ironic to find a section of a Buddhist magazine solely devoted to "dharma" commercialism.  He recently told me about something he'd seen on the back page of one of the most popular (if not the most popular) Western Buddhist magazines: Prayer wheel stickers for your car.

I thought, he has got to be kidding. This is a joke! Well, I went home and googled "Hub cap Buddhism sticker".  First thing that popped up was the Hubcap Prayer Wheel, their slogan? "Burn Rubber, Burn Karma."

I can't make this stuff up, people.  The website advises you to "Leave yourself at least 15 minutes to apply Hubcap Prayer Wheel so you can do it mindfully and carefully."  Well, I am so glad they are being mindful of decal application, because they sure as hell aren't being mindful of offending the Tibetans from whom they have appropriated and bastardized this cultural practice!

Let's see: we are taking a sacred mantra, known by every Buddhist Tibetan from the time they can talk, which is held and revered as a center of Tibetan culture and they are putting it on a car wheel which will drive though mud and shit and roadkill.  This sacred script will be located low, specifically almost immediately below where people are seated and their feet are resting, so it's under both their butts and their feet (we've already talked about feet and butts in terms of respect).

Oh, and since a prayer wheel is supposed to go clockwise, I really hope these "mindful" and "careful" holier-than-thou drivers are never planning to shift into reverse, ever.

And for anyone who wants to say this is "honoring Tibetans"  I point you to this post about appropriating another culture's religious symbols.  If you think people just need "get over it" because it's cultural and your idea of Dharma is above that?  Take a closer read here and realize that ripping off a sacred cultural artifact and using it in a way that offends the people who created it is probably a really good reason to not do something. It's certainly isn't "mindful" or "careful."

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Trekking on a Road of Corpses

Only a few days ago, 16 everest mountain guides, popularly known as "Sherpas" died while helping foreign climbers summit Everest.

The guides were Nepalis, primarily of Nepali-Tibetan ethnic groups that live in the mountainous border between Tibet and Nepal and which has fluctuated between the two.  "Sherpa" itself is the name of one, specific, Nepali group of Tibetan descent, which was appropriated by mountain climbers who decided to call the entire occupation of being a low-paid, high risk, servant by the name of an ethnic group.  I have a lot to say about this, but I don't think right now is the time.

Although there were actual Sherpas among the dead, it was very hard to find this out, because almost no article in the international media actually listed the names of the sixteen victims who were killed in an avalanche while being underpaid to help wealthy foreigners "test their limits" or "find themselves" or "gain spiritual achievement" or just for fun.  I just found one international news source that has listed the names. Whenever a foreign climber dies, we see their name, hometown, photo and probably a list of survivorss.  But when, in a single day, 16 of the people who made it possible for every single foreign climber to reach the top of Everest, hardly a name is mentioned, much less their hometown, tribe, or family.  There could have been Sherpas, Tamangs, Tibetans, and Gurungs. There most definitely were fathers, brothers, sons and husbands, none of whom were named by most media outlets.  All of my Sherpa friends over the age of 40 have school mates who have died carting some other person's goods up everest.

Thanks to the (primarily western) thirst for conquering Everest, we have created an economy whereby it is possible, and even encouraged, to buy human lives.

The job of the "Sherpas" is to carry all the gear, go ahead of the climbers and prepare camp for them, prepare food, and clear the way. They take the hard work and the most dangerous job so that the foreign climbers can reach base camp in time for a hot meal and a cozy tent, and from there just climb to the top with no other responsibilities, take a photo at the summit, dump their trash on a sacred mountain, and declare that they and they alone, by their own power summited the highest mountain in the world. They can get their adrenaline high! But the real risk and effort came from many other people.

This article takes a close look at the value of a Sherpa life, working to survive, in comparison to that of the foreigners climbing for glory.

So to all of you foreign climbers on Everest, who donate to Sherpa schools along the way and give pens to little children, just remember: You are not a savior.  You are not a hero.  You, who probably sign petitions against human trafficking, are purchasing human lives. Because when you pay the pittance of a salary so that "Sherpa" servants will do all the hard work for you, you are paying for the right to risk their lives for your ego.  Their family will get roughly $11,000 for their death from insurance that they themselves must pay.  And you can go home and tell the story of how disappointed you were not to summit Everest.  

In Memory of Mingma Nuru Sherpa, Dorji Sherpa, Ang Tshiri Sherpa, Nima Sherpa, Phurba Ongyal Sherpa, Lakpa Tenjing Sherpa, Chhiring Ongchu Sherpa, Dorjee Khatri, Then Dorjee Sherpa, Phur Temba Sherpa, Pasang Karma Sherpa and Asman Tamang.  With great concern and hope for the missing: Tenzing Chottar Sherpa, Ankaji Sherpa, Pem Tenji Sherpa and Ash Bahadur Gurung.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Robbing the Gonpa

A disturbing phenomenon that I've seen all too often out here is the interaction (*cough*flirtation*cough*) between foreign women and monks.

Before I get into this and make a few people angry, let me explain a little bit about monastic vows.

All over the Buddhist world, monastic vows are not life long vows. They can be, but they don't have to be. Some places are more loose about this than others, but it's an issue of culture, not doctrine. For example, in Thailand, virtually all men will become monks for a short period of time to gain experience and create merit, and then stop being monks. They may resume being monks later in life. It is not considered shameful or embarrassing to be a monk for only a short period of time. A few people remain monks for life.

In Tibet being a monk tends to be more permanent, but this is culture, not doctrine. If a monk decides to no longer be a monk, he only needs to go to his teacher and return his vows. If there is no breaking of vows, there is no sin and no shame. There may be some cultural embarrassment.

Here's a key point, monks vows include no sex. And for those who are curious, this includes ANY orifice. ANY (Nasal sex? Not okay...but that's wrong on SO many different levels.)

I'm pretty sure that just about anyone who comes into Tibetan communities knows that monks are celibate. Westerners really don't have an excuse because monks and nuns in the Christian tradition are also celibate! And yet we still get fishing for monks.

In my experience, there is a disproportionately higher number of females volunteering in Tibetan communities than males, and actually more female converts to Tibetan Buddhists than males. I know this is especially true in the Kagyu school, but that's another discussion for another time.

It is very popular to volunteer as an English teacher to Tibetan monks, in fact it the number of volunteers in monastic institutions is (in my experience) disproportionately high, but again: another discussion for another time.. I have been invited on several times and have occasionally tutored Tibetan monks in English, although it's not most of what I do.

Young women who are aware of the monastic vows should try to respect them, keeping an appropriate distance when working with monks, both physically and emotionally. This can relate to clothing, how one leans over a desk in a classroom, how close you sit to a monk friend, or the topics you talk about. The biggest thing, I've found, is putting up the mental block that says "Monks are off limits." Women should think of monks like their brother. Good friend, fine. But the idea of a monk as a romantic partner should be as abhorrent as the idea of sleeping with your brother.  Would you flash your cleavage at your brother?  I'm not saying wear a black plastic bag over your body, but use common sense about respect in religious places.  You would expect the same sort of behavior when working with conservative Jews or Muslims or Catholic monks etc.

Now, I don't want to put all the responsibility on the ladies here, and good monks will also purposely try to keep their distance. But, the reason I put more responsibility on the women in this one is that many of these monks don't have any close contact with women at all, especially not western women. Rumors about western women abound. And some monks who are less firm in their vows, and the occasional "bad monk" might want to take advantage of this. Yes, that would be their fault, but ladies, let's not encourage!

The real issue isn't the unintentional signals, or cultural differences in ideas of modesty.  The real issue is the number of women who romanticize monks and look for a monk boyfriend. They view the monks as this image of Tibet; this fetishized image of perfect, serene compassion. And heck, who doesn't want a guy who has taken vows of compassion, kindness, and so on? And so they purposely go to work with monks and flirt with them, looking for one to take home. In some people's mind, the monk is the ultimate trophy husband.  I remember one woman telling me that I should find a monk (current, NOT ex-monk) because they make the best boyfriends. They don't consider the immense cultural taboo, or the sheer level of sin from a Buddhist standpoint.

This is one of the ultimate taboos in Tibetan Buddhism. One of the greatest sins is (for a monk) disrobing or (for the woman) causing a monk to disrobe via broken vows. It is causing a person to break a vow that was made to the three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, in the presence of one's lama. To break this sort of vow, or cause someone to, is pretty much the ultimate sin.

The taboo is so great that it can cause complete ostracization from the Tibetan community.

Some people would argue that it's about love or something like that. No, it's not. If two people fall in love, there are steps that can be taken for the relationship to be "kosher" so to speak. This is specifically about people (usually western women) targeting a completely off-limit demographic with no respect whatsoever for the cultural and religious boundaries and repercussions.

It's like a person who specifically follows and flirts only with married people, trying to make them cheat on their spouse. And to make matters worse ONLY flirts with married people BECAUSE they are married. Does that sound wrong? It does to most people.

Why? Because a person has made a vow to remain faithful and not cheat on their spouse and specifically targeting them and trying to get them to break this vow would be wrong.

Shouldn't the same logic apply to monks?

Why are these women going after monks? Do they think some of the holy is going to rub off on them?  They want to fulfill their Tibet fetish by literally sexually fetishizing the orientalist view of Tibetans equaling monks.

Now, let's be clear. What is the proper way of doing things?

First, if a woman is working in a monastery or in close proximity, she tries to keep an appropriate distance. The monks should do the same. Friendship is fine, romance is not.

However, sometimes romance happens. If it does, both members of the couple should consider the vows of the monk. The monk then has a choice; create distance, or if he believes he cannot maintain his vows, go to his teacher and return his vows.

After he has returned his vows, he is a lay person like any other and may pursue romantic relationships as such.

Choosing to return one's vows is part of the rights afforded to a monk. Although there may be cultural embarrassment, there is no shame or sin in this.

But robbing the Gonpa? Stop. Just stop. 

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.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sacrifices on the Altar of Academia

I am so pissed off about this that I'm having trouble even clarifying exactly what I'm angry about. It's just so encompassing.

While looking or some help on an independent research project that dealt with people inside of Tibet, I was given the name of a professor at my university. We'll call her Ms. R.  Ms. R. has worked frequently as a researcher in an occupied region that is frequently a war zone. Kidnappings, torture, bombings and shootings are very commonplace. Since I was specifically looking for someone who would understand the sensitivities of dealing with a place like Tibet and working with people inside of Tibet, she seemed like a good bet.

We talked for a while to discuss my goals and I brought up, at the very beginning, that I don't want to be a university professor. My goal is not in academia. (If you can't tell from the rest of this blog, we here at OT have some issues with how academia deals with Tibet.) As our conversation continued and she heard about my own political experiences in Tibet and Tibetan communities in exile, she kept putting pressure on me to publish a book based on my research and experiences.  I explained that:

  1. I had no interest in being in academia, as I had already told her several times
  2. If I published, I would very likely be preventing myself from going back to Tibet and doing any meaningful work in Tibet.
  3. (And by far the most important): Try as I might, I cannot guarantee the anonymity of my sources.
It's one thing to do a research project for a school on a non-political topic, it's another to publish research and experiences as part of a book dealing with Tibetan politics.

She kept putting the pressure on: how I needed to publicize the normalization of terror and fear in Tibet, the intimate aspects of life that the Chinese government were effecting, all of these issues which she felt I could write a good book about.  When I tried to explain that I was concerned for the safety of my friends in Tibet, her response floored me:

"By publishing this, you will get the word out and bring attention! It will do so much good!"

Really? Stop for a moment. How many people, outside of academia, read academic publications? Yeah, there are some, but not a heck of a lot. Is it going to make a difference? And even if it does, do I have the right to decide on behalf of the people I know in Tibet that their safety is an acceptable risk? Absolutely not.

But it really sickens me, the idea that when academics publish something, they are helping. Yeah, they are putting out information, which will generally be used in a self-affirming circle of more research and more publications by people sitting in nice, ergonomically designed chairs in offices in the ivory towers of universities. It's a paper to make your name look good on your CV.  Does it actually help anyone?  I'm pretty damn skeptical of that. If I, or anyone, has the ability to travel in Tibet and actually do meaningful work with communities to try and provide some benefit, should I throw this all away because "that would make a great paper"? And even more, does any academic have the right to decide on behalf of their sources that this publication is for the "greater good", and justifies the sources being sacrificed on the altar of academia?

She told me her stories of her time in her research location like a classic western explorer: glorifying all she saw and wrote, justifying it by peppering it with stories of drinking tea with families and how the community let her talk to them. This was then followed by harrowing tales of police kidnappings and tortures of local people, of of which she was able to escape after a few hours of questioning and a plane ride to a neutral country.  What about her "friends" who invited her over for tea? Did they escape that fate? Does she really think that this book that she has published, that is for sale through an academic press for more than a hundred dollars, is being ready by people who will actually do something?  Who will protect her contacts on the ground?