TIBET - the Creation of a Myth

In connection with the exhibition 'Wisdom and Compassion - 1000 years of Tibetan Buddhist Art', a symposium on Tibet was held at the 'Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle', Bonn in May. The symposium 'Mythos Tibet' was attended by several hundred participiants, among them some of the world`s foremost tibetologists. In the following article dominating tendencies in the perception of Tibet as presented at the symposium will be discussed. It was and is not an attempt to give a comprehensive historical review of the proces of mythmaking.

by Charlotte Mathiassen, Institute of Anthropology, Copenhagen University (June 1996)

'Cutting the veil of delusion...'

One day when strolling through the exhibition during a break between lectures, I found myself standing before an image of the boddhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri, who with his sword of analytic discrimination cuts through the veil of delusion. This seemed to me to be an apt symbol for a gathering whose main concern was to uncover myths in an attempt to find the 'real, unveiled' Tibet. In the primarily academic discussion, the long historic tradition and complexity of myth-making was revealed, and it became obvious that 'Mythos Tibet' is not only a thing of the West or the past but has become part of present Tibetan self representation as well.

Due to its geograhic inaccessibility and political isolation, Tibet might have been especially exposed to myth-making, but it isn`t a phenomenon, which is restricted to Tibet. All far away 'exotic' places have been and are interpreted in the light of the myths surrounding them.
Despite similarities between the myths of Tibet and other non-Western places - they are seen as 'the other', 'exotic', 'barbaric', 'noble' etc. - Tibet has its own myths.

Though the symposium covered a wide range of these myths, there was a certain focus on the historical, while present research was somewhat neglected.

The creation of 'Tibet'

Tibet first appeared in European sources in the works of Herodot, who in his writings about 'the outer countries of the world', mentioned a place, where huge ants could be seen digging gold. The story is known from contemporary Sanskrit and Tibetan sources as well. Ptolemeus (90 A.D.) writes about a country called Haibautu, a name which is likely to derive from the Sanskrit term for Tibet, 'bhotia'. He shows a certain knowledge of prevalent Tibetan myths.

Though Tibet was mentioned in several other sources in the Antiquity and Middle Ages, none of the early writers had actually been there. But in the 17.th century a portuquese, A. Andrade, went from Goa, where he lived, to Western Tibet in search of a hidden Christian brotherhood, which was generally believed to live behind the Himalayas. In his works, which were translated into several lanquages, Andrade described the Tibetan people with great sympathy as the 'unknown known', and Tibet as the 'promised land'. He saw many similarities between Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, for example in the use of rosaries and in the religious chants.

Later in the century the Italian Jesuit I.Desideri went to Tibet. His main concern was to convert Tibetans from their 'strange religion' to Christianity. He was the first European to learn the lanquage, discuss religion with Tibetan lamas and translate some Christian texts into Tibetan. Though written at the beginning of the 18.cent. his works, which marks the beginning of Western tibetology, were not published till 1875.

Another early tibetologist, the Hungarian Csoma de Koros, published a Tibetan dictionary and grammar (1834). His main concern, however was to search for his ancestors. Tibet was at the time often believed to be the 'cradle of mankind'.

Later tendencies in the discussion of Tibet were already obvious in the 18. cent. The idea of Tibet as 'hidingplace' for 'secret brotherhoods' or 'our origins' was still alive in the 1940`es, the parallels between Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism are sometimes evoked in present non-scholarly conversations, and Tibet is still in the imagination of many a 'mystic place'. But the most conspicious tendency was the almost exclusive concentration on the study of religion, which characterized tibetology well into the 20. century. Despite these 'trends', research on Tibet tends to reflect the ideological and religious orientations as well as the historical context of the individual researcher. As the Norwegian tibetologist P.Kvaerne pointed out in his discussion of the Tibet image among researchers, the main currents of the 19.cent., when scholarly interest in Tibet intensified, evolutionism, imperialism, romanticism and rationalism, became part of the interpretation of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism was no longer an ideal as in the picture painted by Andrade but was often criticized as a degraded, irrational branch of the 'pure, original' Theravada Buddhism of Ceylon. The folkreligion and Bon, which were both defined as pre-Buddhist, fit well into the current evolutionist approach.

The creation of the myth of Tibet was, however, not primarily the result of scholarly research but to a considerable extent the responsibility of travellers, missionaries, English government officials, fiction-writers, philosophers and film-makers. Many of them had never been to Tibet, and those who had, were not motivated by academic interest. Most of the early knowledge about Tibet came from travellers and officials who often showed a very generalized or personal picture of Tibet.

Also the end of the 19. and the beginning of the 20.century was greatly influenced by the 'great mystifiers', as D.Lopez from the University of Michigan, labelled the French traveller A. David-Neel, the German Buddhist monk Lama Govinda and several others. The theosophic movement, which originated at the end of the 19. century, has had a decisive influence on the perception of Tibet. It influenced for example W.Y.Ewans-Wentz, S.Suzuki and C.G.Jung who have had great impact on the interpretation of the East. The Danish anthropologist P.Pedersen described theosophy as a combination of evolutionist theory and the science of the soul, anti-Christian and pro-Asiatic. After the initial fascination with ancient Egypt as the land of wisdom, Madame Blavatsky, one of the leading figures in the theosophist movement, turned her attention - via India - towards Tibet. In her imagination rather than in reality she established contacts with and took orders from a secret Tibetan brotherhood (the Mahatmas), who claimed to be descendants of the mystic land of Atlantis.
Ever since the 17.cent. Tibet was mentioned, though often very briefly, in European literature and philosophy for example by Balsaz, Rousseau and Kant. The latter described Tibet as a dark and cruel theocracy, while Rousseau found the Tibetan government oppressive, incompetent and bizarre. At the end of the 19.century the British writer C.Doyle lets his famous Sherlock Holmes come back to life after having disappeared to Tibet disguised as a Norwegian adventurer.

But the literary work that left the most lasting impression was no doubt Hilton`s - later filmatized - 'Lost Horizons' (1933). Here Tibet is infused with the myth of Shangri La as a place outside time, where Westerners can go in search for the spiritual wisdom lost at home. The image of Western civilization as sick, and Eastern civilizations as healing powers was not Hilton`s invention. The theosophists made similar claims, and the French writer A.Artaud wrote to the Dalai Lama to ask for spiritual guidance for the ailing Western civilization.

Another very influential work was Lobsang Rampa`s, as it turned out, fictitious stories about Tibet. His first book "The Third Eye" (1956) depicts Tibet as the magical place, the title indicates. Lobsang Rampa, a British plumber who claimed to be a Tibetan lama, was declared a fraud by Tibetans as well as tibetologists, but he became quite popular, and his three books are still best-sellers. Despite Rampa`s obvious lack of knowledge about Tibet, his positive myth, had great impact on the popular image. One Tibetan participiant stated, that Lobsang Rampa had done more for the awareness of Tibet than most scholarly work, because there were so few books on Tibet in the 60`es, and one of the organizers of the symposium claimed, that Rampa had awakened his interest in Tibet.

It seems, that myths not only obscure the view on reality. They can also awaken a more serious interest in distant places like Tibet. A.David Neel, lama Govinda, W.Y.Ewans-Wentz, J.Hilton, Lobsang Rampa - just to mention a few - have certainly influenced the public opinion more than I.Desideri, G.Tucci and G.Samuels. In their eyes Tibet is a mystic place. The derogatory and colonialistic remarks of for instance L.A.Wadell are no more true for being put into a 'scientific' framework.

The Australian tibetologist P.Bishop calls Tibet "the imagined place". Scholars, frauds and others seem to have one thing in common. Tibet remains 'the other', and is more often than not seen in the light of the West. It remains a myth, not because research and popular culture is often intermingled, but because Tibet is seldom studied or described for its own sake - and until very recently - by its own people.

Until recent times the Western image of Tibet oscillated between a positive interpretation of Tibet as the land of wisdom and compassion and a negative of Tibet as dark, feudal, cruel, backward and depraved, an image which was revived in the pro-Chinese accounts of a.o. L.Strong and Han Suyin and reflects the Chinese image of Tibet, which T.Heberer from the University of Trier, discussed on the background of Chinese art and propaganda.

This ambivalence also seems to have dominated the Nazi perception of Tibet, which H.Himmler in the 30`es believed to be a refuge for arians. He supported several expeditions, who went to Tibet in search of the ancestors of the Nordic race and found remnants - though depraved by religion - of the nordic 'soul' in 'tough, manly and chivalrous' Tibetans, who were a far cry away from the despised 'womanly' Muslims and Hindus. In the 40`es, as the German army moved towards Asia, Tibet became a place, though still not demystified, on the political map. After the defeat of Germany in the East, Tibet was seen as a threat to the European civilization, and German theosophists and Buddhists were persecuted. The title page of a contemporary magazine shows a picture of a devilish Buddha sitting at the Eastern edge of the worldmap and looking threatingly towards the West.

Since the appearance of real Tibetans in the West and the opening of Tibetan Buddhist centers in the U.S. in the 1960`es, Tibet has become somewhat demystified, and the negative image has almost disappeared.

F.Korum from the Museum of International Art in Santa Fe stressed the decisive role Tibetan Buddhism has played in the formation of marginal religious communities in the U.S. Despite the fact that Tibet is now within reach for most people in the West, and Tibetan Buddhism is widely taught, Tibet is still primarily the 'mystical other' in a.o. the New Age Movement. Some Tibetans participate in the mystification themselves by joining all kinds of 'occult' gatherings. There is a lot of mystic in the Tibetan tradition, and though mystic events often have a psychological explanation, they do confirm the mysticism, which is often associated with Tibet. The issue is not, whether the mystical events as described by for example A.David-Neel have actually happened but the unlucky tendency to identify Tibet with its myths - a tendency which leaves very little space for more down to earth issues.

Tibetan self-representation and modern myth-making

In the second part of the symposium the attention was turned towards the present and the Tibetans` own myth-making.

Since the diaspora of the Tibetans and the appearance of the first Tibetan lamas in the West, Tibet has increasingly become a place of interest for scholars as well as religious seekers. For the first time in history it was possible to conduct field-research among real Tibetans - if not in Tibet itself then among the thousands of refugees who fled Tibet after the Chinese occupation in 1959, and who for the most part settled in India. Though religion was still a dominant area of interest, studies of history and of the social and political structure of Tibet became widespread, and Tibet is increasingly seen as a complex and political entity alongside the rest of the world. Though it is still difficult to do unbiased research in Tibet, and there`s a general lack of studies of for example the impact of Chinese occupation, some scholars have managed to do field-research and have contributed to a wider understanding.

The popular picture of Tibet has, however, not changed dramatically. Despite the destruction of much of its culture Tibet is still sold as Shangri La by travel agencies, IBM lets Tibetan Buddhist monks advertise their soft-ware, New Agers claim 'Astro-Tibet' to be more important than 'real Tibet', and scores of Western Buddhist seekers worship Tibetan lamas as the ultimate aim of their existence.

Though the Tibetans haven`t actually created most of the myths surrounding their country, some Tibetans participate in the propagation of myths.

The relationship between Tibet past and present is often represented in terms of 'unbroken continuity', as the New Zealand anthropologist T.Huber put it in his discussion of how Tibetans (t.i. primarily the Tibetan Exile Government) present themselves outwardly. The exile government has adopted modernistic issues like environmentalism, feminism and pacifism as part of their self-representation. Tibetan Buddhism is seen as closely connected with nationalism and the key to understanding of Tibetan identity. The re-interpretation of Buddhism in rationalistic and social terms isn`t entirely new, but has been strengthened in exile with the growing contact to a.o. other Buddhists who make similar claims.

Thus Tibetans themselves are part of what E.Said has labelled 'orientalism'. The identification between the Dalai Lama and pacifism is for example a very recent phenomenon. The term 'ahimsa' was not known in Tibet. The present Dalai Lama mentions in his autobiograhy the immense influence of the ideas of Gandhi, whose work (partly) was one of the first secular non-Tibetan works to be translated into Tibetan.

There`s a certain tendency to interprete Tibetan culture as a consequence of the Tibetan landscape and to depict 'traditional' Tibet with attributes which have many similarities with the Shangri La myth. Huber sees this as a conscious attempt to market a certain image of Tibet. Many publications are in English and clearly directed at a non Tibetan public. The Tibetans themselves generally know very little about the modernistic discourse, Tibetans now participate in. Though the Tibetans` own myth is positive in the sense, that it has positive ideals to live up to, it is still a myth.
A serious study of Tibetan history and culture shows that Tibetans were much less peaceful than the often given impression. There is an unlucky tendency to exclude certain historic facts like f.i. the story of Kham resistance, in order to fit the myth.

The official myth has in certain cases been attacked by Tibetans themselves, who like many women are disappointed when there`s a gap between reality and myth.

Loden Sherap Rinpoche from 'Zentralasiatisches Institut' Bonn warned against the danger of myth-making in the spread of Buddhism in the West. Despite obvious weaknesses many Tibetan lamas are worshipped by Westeners as living Buddhas, and some of them contribute to this dangerous development. Buddhism isn`t 'ancient wisdom' but living knowledge, which is transmitted from one generation to the next. It`s culturally neutral message and dharma can only be rightly understood, if the myth is shattered, and Tibetan lamas and Tibet are no longer at the center of attention.

Jamyang Norbu, leader of the cultural institute Amnye Machen in Dharamsala, which a.o. is engaged in the translation of foreign literature into Tibetan, mused upon the obvious change in the discourse of the exile community. In the beginning of exile many Tibetans felt a need to modernize, because their traditional institutions had failed them. They stressed rationality, science and simplicity. They had very little contact to the outside world - even Delhi being far away. As Western tourists began to flock to Dharamsala in the 70`es, some Tibetans took advantage of their obvious preference for the most traditional aspects of the community, and some actually seemed to believe in the Western projections. Many Westeners were desillusioned with democracy and science, and this was not without influence on the community. Jamyang Norbu warned, that the almost sole preoccupation with preservation of traditional Tibetan culture has led to a serious decline in creativity. Many old texts have been translated and preserved, but very few Tibetans have contributed to a living tradition of writing. Those who have, have had little encouragement, and have often chosen to write in a lanquage other than Tibetan in order to make a living, and also because written Tibetan hasn`t developed along with modern ideas.

The British Anthropologist G.Clarke stressed the importance of turning the focus towards the needs of present-day Tibet. There`s a tendency to linger too long on the destruction of Tibetan artworks and on discussions about statistics. But destruction hasn`t stopped in Tibet or for that matter in the ethnic Tibetan areas outside Tibet. Tibetologists should try to halt the destruction and to support modern creative elements in the Tibetan Society, who are given too little attention. Art is still being created, literature is still being written despite extreme adverse circumstances. It is often forgotten, that Tibetan culture is not a thing of the past.

The validity of contemporary Tibetan claims were discussed in the final plenum under the headlines of 'Tibetans - protagonists of an Ideal Ecological Lifestyle?' and 'A peaceful and tolerant people?'.

As already elaborated above, Tibetans haven`t always been as peaceful, as they now claim and are believed to be. It`s been a history tainted with cruelty, intriques and wars. The Tibetan Buddhist myths are often quite violent like for example in the tradition of the fierce protectors of dharma. But violence is almost always seen in the light of religion. The anti-buddhist king Langdarma was killed by a Buddhist monk, who argued, that it`s better to take the sin of killing someone upon oneself than to risk, that many others are killed, if evil is allowed to endure. The myth of Shambala contains similar elements. Violence in Tibetan tradition and history cannot be discussed at lenght here. In the process of 'unveiling myths' it`s important to remember, that Tibet isn`t and never was exclusively a land of peace and compassion nor the land of barbaric cruelty, some believe. There is, however, a certain truth in the image of Tibet as peaceful. As Jamyang Norbu pointed out, peace was the ideal even for the fierce and blood-feuding Khampas. Some of the holiest and most revered lamas came from the most warlike regions. There seems to be a certain contradiction in this, but people everywhere and at all times live in the tension between ideal and reality. This was certainly true for many Tibetans who were not willing to give up their independence and lifestyle to conform to distant and non-indigenous monastic regulations. On the other hand they had adopted Buddhism with it`s focus on non-violence, and this might be an explanation, that the most violent people are often described as the most religious.

E.Sperling from Indiana University pointed at the tendency to discuss historical figures and facts in the light of arguments relating to issues like human rights, democracy etc., which were generally not part of the intellectual atmosphere of the period at issue. Thus current ideas concerning non-violence associated with the present Dalai Lama are projected back onto previous Dalai Lamas, and non-violence is made one of the basic hallmarks of Tibetan Buddhism in general.

Environmentalism or rather 'Buddhism and ecology' is another issue, which is increasingly part of the official agenda. Traditional Tibet is often depicted as an ideal ecological society. It is not surprising, that Tibetans participate in one of the most urgent, global discourses of our time - they could not very well do otherwise. The danger of myth making lies in the uncritical depiction of pre-Chinese Tibet as a place of ecological awareness and lifestyle. It`s not until very recently, that some environmental research has been conducted inside Tibet. It shows that for example deforestation has been going on for hundreds of years or longer. In order to secure pastures for their herds pastoralists often had to clear-fell Southern slopes. This doesn`t weaken the argument, that the Chinese are exploiting Tibetan forest resources on a massive scale, but it does modify the image of 'old' Tibet. Hunting is another issue which is often omitted in this image, though - as T.Huber - pointed out, hunting has been an integral part of Tibetan life for many centuries especially in the Eastern regions. This might be an embarrasment to the present official Tibetan self-representation, but the reality of life in Tibet often didn`t let people the choice of living up to the Buddhist norms, and as everywhere many individuals sacrificed them for individual gains. Fear of consequences does however seem to have played a certain role. Not only the Buddhist ideas of compassion and karma stood in the way of ruthless killing but also the generally believed presence of mountain deities and other nature gods, who guarded their realms jealously and punished intruders. The Tibetans` relationship with the environment was very complex. Political and monastic interests played an often under-estimated role. And there were great regional and also historical variations, which are often forgotten in the timeless myths.

Loden Sherab Rinpoche rightly remarked, that the history of the myth of Tibet shows a distorted picture of the Western civilization. It`s understandable, that most of the Tibetans present at the symposium - though well aware of their own participation in the mythmaking - felt uncomfortable with what Jigme Norbu, the Dalai Lama`s elder brother, called 'the iconoclast eagerness to deconstruct'. Mythmaking is an universal phenomenon, and we shouldn`t forget, that the real issue is Tibet and not the fleeting academic perception of it. P.Kvaerne reminded the public, that we are all part of the myth, since we can only describe Tibet in the context of our own personal images. There was a general consensus that the uncritical adoption of simplisistic 'truths' about Tibet doesn`t serve tibetology nor - and this is by way more important - the Tibetans itself. 'Real Tibet' might not exist, and we might not be able to do research without contributing to some kind of myth, but as long as the issue is laid open and is discussed critically there`s nothing wrong with a 'good story' or rather a 'personal glimpse*. 'Tibet' is for the Western scholar part of an on-going process of self understanding and understanding 'the other'. It cannot be otherwise. H.Stoddard from Paris reminded us, that Tibet had a fantastic and out standing culture. An exclusive orientation towards deconstruction of myths might not be the way towards more constructive approaches.

In the end I would like to summarize a few critical points in the present discourse on Tibet. Tibetologists only have a limited influence on the popular perception of Tibet and on the way Tibet is used by for example the tourist industry, but we can try not to contribute to the myths. There`s still a certain tendency not to incorporate Tibet in the ongoing theoretical discourse, f.i. in anthropology. There`s a lack of research on present day life in Tibet, the impact of Chinese culture and Western style development etc., and there`s an unlucky tendency among certain academics to keep aloof from sensitive political questions often under the pretext of 'academic objectivity'. As P.Kvaerne warned, this 'objectivity' is but another myth. In a recent article G.Samuels, who wasn`t present at the symposium, discussed the problems of Tibetan studies. Despite the increasing and diversified research on Tibet, tibetologists tend to 'avoid self-conscious reflection on the social and political commitments implicit in their discourses'. Samuels explains this with Tibet`s political situation, which almost forces scholars to 'take sides'. There`s an unlucky tendency to isolate Tibet and avoid relating it to larger regional discourses. Areas of research which are marginal to monastic Buddhism have received little attention. Also the Gelugpa state of Lhasa is often interpreted as 'typical Tibetan'. G.Samuels proposes, that tibetologists should begin to reflect on Tibet in a wider Asian context and begin to ask the questions, which are being asked elsewhere. Tibet has increasingly become part of the world, and this should be kept in mind, needs it. The reflection on myth can give tibetologists the much needed incitement to look outward in their studies. If this happens, then the purpose of 'Mythos Tibet' has been fulfilled.

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