Occidentals on Orientalism

I respect and applaud Professor Lopez’s exposure of Western Tibetist myths (“New Age Orientalism: The Case of Tibet,” Vol. III, No. 3). To criticize his article for imbalance when it was clearly intended to redress an imbalance would be unfair. Nevertheless there are two points I would like to make. In about 1820, Korosi Csoma, the heroic Hungarian nationalist usually considered to be the founding patriarch of academic Tibetological disciplines, set out on his romantic quest for the lost tribes of Hungarians and ended up studying Tibetan literature in Ladakh. He was looking for something. Also in 1820, an Amdowa Tibetan named Btsan-po Nomonhan lodging in Peking published his geography of the world, in which he identifies Western Jews and Christians as “messianics” (borrowing the term rigs-ldan from the Kalacakra tantric system) and locates the legendary land of Shambhala in Europe. He also was looking for something. When we humans experience a lack of something, we look to others.

My second point: the choice of the photographs of bone-ornamented lama and stuffed animals together with shrunken heads was evidently made to convince us of the presence of a savage streak in Tibetan culture. Bypassing the many subtle arguments that might arise at this point, I would like to say that the labeling of these pictures as “Bon” is a curious extension of an internal Tibetan form of orientalism, often uncritically followed by otherwise critical Orientalists. Bone ornaments are worn by all the wrathful forms of Buddhas and are occasionally worn by tantric practitioners who are identifying with them in a ritual context. I have seen on Tibetan family and temple altars a famous picture of the young H.H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama dressed in these same ornaments. Even given the possibility, which I strongly doubt, that the photographed lama is a Bonpo, there is nothing specifically Bonpo about wearing bone aprons. The same goes for the stuffed animals and shrunken heads. These sorts of things (although I’ve never noticed actual, as distinguished from artistically rendered, shrunken heads) are standard furniture in the Protector Halls (Mgon-khang) of all Tibetan sects. They are terrifying and disgusting, of course, and that is just one effect they are supposed to have. There is nothing specifically Bonpo about them, either.

Finally, and even if a little bit beside the point, I hope Professor Lopez will further uncover the imperialist intellectual underpinnings of academic Tibetological disciplines. As I always like to say, “Self-criticism is close to Buddhahood.” As the article stands, it looks more like an elitist attack on “popular” views of people who just might seriously need something Tibet indeed does have to offer, and less like the critique of elitist epistemological control envisioned, if not entirely accomplished, by Edward Said. We (Said not excluded) are Orientalists, and we won’t escape the ambivalent legacies of our patriarchs by whiting out the word. Better if we could atone for the sins of the Fathers in our practice. Tibetan Buddhists, even with the skeletons in their own closets, may have some truly valuable pointers for us on how this might be done. We won’t hear them if we reduce them to the role of a “construct” in our academic discourse.

Dan Martin
Cambridge, Massachusetts
[Dan Martin is the Visiting Lecturer in Tibetan and Himalayan Studies at Harvard University.]

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