Monday, 16 September 2013

No such thing as Tibetan Buddhism?

From Buddhism beyond the nation state by Richard Payne  

"...Reflecting on the problematic organizational hierarchy of contemporary Buddhist studies, which employs regional categories based on the ‘area studies’ model subdivided further into national categories, David Gray (University of Santa Clara) questions the category Tibetan Buddhism. In his essay “How Tibetan is Tibetan Buddhism? On the Applicability of a National Designation for a Transnational Tradition,” he points out that today there is no Tibet to which this label can refer. Additionally, arguably the majority of practitioners of “Tibetan” Buddhism neither are ethnic Tibetans, nor do they speak or read Tibetan. More significantly, while Tibetans considered themselves Buddhists and had a sense of Tibet as a distinct geo-political category, “they simply did not conceive of their tradition in nationalistic terms.” Since there is no equivalent for “Tibetan Buddhism” in premodern Buddhist literature from Tibet, Gray suggests “Vajrayāna.” This is itself an emic category (rdo rje theg pa), and also identifies a form of Buddhism that stretches across many national boundaries. Thus, it allows for further designation as needed, but without precluding meaningful comparisons. For example Kūkai and Tshong Khapa can be juxtaposed as Vajrayāna teachers, rather than separated as Japanese and Tibetan respectively.

Anya Bernstein (University of Michigan) further examines the way in which Buddhist social identities can be both formed by and recognized in terms of lineage and reincarnation, rather than nationality or ethnicity. In her essay “Indigenous Cosmopolitans: Mobility, Authority and Cultural Politics in Buryat Buddhism,” she focuses on two ethnically Tibetan monks from the (new) Drepung Monastery, who are recognized by Buryat Mongolians as having Buryat “roots.” The first is a reincarnated Buryat lama who had gone to Tibet in the late 1920s and died while incarcerated by the Chinese. He reincarnated in a Tibetan expatriate family in Nepal, and is now a member of the Drepung monastery. The second was the disciple of a Buryat monk. Both lineage and reincarnation serve to establish connections with the Buryat Buddhist community on bases distinct from nationality or ethnicity...."

"...As organizing principles, lineage and reincarnation can work across ethnicity and nationality. “Tibetan Buddhism” is neither emic to premodern Tibet, nor does it identify a presently existing nation-state, nor were the forms of Buddhism called “Tibetan” ever delimited by either ethnic or national boundaries. The mythology of Buddhism as a peaceful bridge between India and China ignores the important roles played by other groups that were the links between the two. The Buddhist civilization that spread across Asia brought new crops and new technologies. The categories that have long served to organize Buddhist studies have been largely based on nation-states, giving us such familiar categories as Chinese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism. The recent work by these scholars and others reveal that such categories are problematic. While there may be particular research programs for which they are appropriate, they cannot simply be presumed and used by default..."

Read the full article


No comments: