Martine & Stephen


This unpublished paper was presented with slides at Architecture, Soul and the City: Toward an Interactive Psychology of Buildings, Places and People, an International Conference of the London Convivium for Archetypal Studies, which took place at Dartington Hall, Devon, England from June 15-18, 1995.


In October 1994, before returning to Lhasa after an eight year  absence, I spent a week in Kathmandu.  During this time I visited the old Tibetan teacher Urgyen Tulku in his monastery in the hills high above the smog-laden city for oral teachings on dzogchen (the “great completion”).  Part of the instruction in this practice consists in continually turning the mind inward on its own transparent, radiant and unimpeded nature.  To illustrate the significance of this, Urgyen Tulku asked us rhetorically whether it were not the case that the general habit of mind is to reach out for some external object as a distraction from contemplation.  As he spoke I was reminded of a passage from James Hillman’s essay Anima Mundi: The Return of the Soul to the World, which I had been reading in preparation for this lecture.  In it Hillman describes his response to the question, “how was the bus ride?”

“Miserable, terrible, desperate.”  But these words describe me, my feelings, my experience, not the bus ride which was bumpy, crowded, steamy, cramped, noxious, with long waits.  Even if I noticed the bus and the trip, my language transferred this attention to notions about myself. The “I” has swallowed the bus, and my knowledge of the external world has become a subjective report of my feelings.

While I may not attend to the transparent, luminous and unimpeded nature of mind as part of my habitual introspection, my problem as a modern Westerner is not the kind of naive extroversion that presumably characterised (perhaps still characterises) daily life on the Himalayan plateau.  As the lama asked the question, I was not distracted by birds or clouds passing outside the window or a thangka-painting hanging from the wall but by my inner doubts and anxieties about the validity of what he was saying.

So is the introspection the lama required universally and inherently necessary in order to gain insight and enlightenment, or is it merely a corrective to the kinds of psychic excesses and biases prevalent in such pre-modern cultures as Tibet?  Would a different set of excesses and biases (such as neurotic introversion and alienation from the natural world) require a commensurably different solution?  Such questions, however, would be unintelligible to a traditional Tibetan lama.  Even to pose them implies the kind of highly rational, self-reflective and individualised consciousness we call “modern.” 

As we bowed, exchanged katags and took leave of the lama, I told him of our imminent departure for Lhasa.  “Ah, you will visit Tibet,” he said wistfully.  “The corpse.”  


At some point during the first half of the seventh century, a Chinese princess called Wen Cheng made her way to Tibet to be married to King Songtsen Gampo, the powerful unifier of the plateau and founder of the Yarlung Empire, bearing as part of her dowry a statue of the Buddha.  As she entered the summer capital of Rasa her chariot became stuck. Her divinations revealed the contours of the valley to describe the supine form of a demoness. The country was no corpse but a vital anima loci, yet one that she perceived as evil and threatening to the Buddhist culture her husband was keen to establish throughout his land.  The Princess’s marriage was part of a symbolic-diplomatic pact that would formally mark the introduction of the universal culture of Buddhism and at the same time forge an importance alliance with the great power of T’ang China.

To subdue the demoness of Tibet, Wen Cheng advised the king to erect temples on prominent features of the body.  The lake in the centre of the city was the heart blood of the demoness.  This would be drained and on the site a Buddhist cathedral erected to house the Buddha image brought from Nepal by Princess Bhrikuti - another wife of the king.  The three hills rising from the valley floor were the two breasts and the pubic mound of the demoness.  They would likewise become sites of temples.  The king was so taken by this idea that he conceived a grand plan to subdue the land forever.  Spreading out from the demoness at the centre, he envisaged three concentric squares at the corners of which were temples.  In this way not only the capital but the surrounding provinces and regions would be included in the symbolic subjugation of Tibet. 

Rasa, the summer capital of the Yarlung Empire, was probably no more than a small town.  Its name literally meant “Place of the Goat,” the very animal, so legend tells us, that was co-opted to the work of draining the lake.  Upon completion, the cathedral erected on the site was called the Jokhang (“The House that Enshrines the Jowo (i.e. the Buddha)”) and the city renamed Lhasa, which means “Place of the Gods.”  A Tibetan etymology explains the word thus:  “The city is called the Place (sa) of the Gods (lha) because it is as though a lofty realm of the devas had fallen to earth (sa) through the richness of the Dharma.”

That Songtsen Gampo’s attempt to subdue the anima loci was not entirely successful is borne out by the need of his successor Trisong Detsen to invite, towards the end of the eighth century, the tantric siddha Padmasambhava to subdue the local Tibetan spirits who were obstructing the building of the country’s first Buddhist monastery of Samye.  Rather than binding the spirits to the ground and suppressing their sexuality with temples, Padmasambhava converted them to Buddhism and employed them as protectors of the Dharma. While this is still celebrated as the act that established Buddhism in Tibet, in less than fifty years the dynasty collapsed due to a resurgence of those in the court who were still sympathetic to the indigenous culture.  In 842 the empire fell apart. The Buddhist monks fled to the remote east and for the next two and a half centuries Tibet resumed its pre-Buddhist way of life.

Even after the reintroduction of Buddhism in the 11th century and the creation of Tibet as a Buddhist state in the 13th, it was not until the 17th that Lhasa resumed its role as capital.  It was then that the Gelug church under the leadership of the Fifth Dalai Lama, with the backing of a Mongol warlord, gained political ascendancy over the other orders.  The Potala Palace was built at this time on the Red Hill - one of the breasts of the demoness.  Most of what is now considered the “old city,” dates back to this period. 

In September 1951, the Communist Chinese army arrived in Lhasa to help in the “liberation” of the country.  After the failure of the popular uprising in March 1959, the Chinese assumed complete control and began the process of destruction and reform that has led to the emergence of the modern city of Lhasa.  As you walk through the wide, grid-like boulevards of the city today, you stumble across pockets of the 17th century city, within which are contained even tinier pockets of the 7th century city - in much the same way as you would in a modern European city.


It is tempting to compare the violation of the demoness in the name of Buddhism with the violation of the Buddhist culture of Tibet in the name of Chinese Communism some thirteen hundred years later.  In both instances an established culture was attacked by an ideology that perceived it as barbaric, backward and overly attached to regional identity.  Just as Princess Wen Cheng arrived from China to save Tibet from the evil influence of a demonic landscape, so did the PLA invade from China in 1949 to save Tibet from the demon of imperialism.  In both cases the primary visible effect of realising their respective visions was to transform the city of Lhasa. 

As the seat of the Dalai Lama and the historic centre of Tibetan religion and culture, Lhasa is regarded as a sacred place that has been (and is being) violated by a profane, materialistic power.  But how does a place become “sacred?” In respect to the particularity of this place - Lhasa, how is “sacredness” understood in terms of the Buddhist and pre-Buddhist cultures that flourished here?  A key to these questions lies, I believe, in a concept that connects in a deep way the present political crisis of Tibet with its traditional culture: namely, the idea of “independence.”

Writing in his autobiography in 1924, the Buryat-Mongol lama Agvan Dorzhiev, an advisor to the 13th Dalai Lama and lobbyist for the last Russian Tsar, recalls a crisis in the Tibetan government around the turn of the century:

At this time the great men of Tibet were of three opinions about the political situation.  Some said: since the kindness of the Manchu Emperor is so great, even now his compassion will not fail us.  So we must never separate ourselves from China.  Others said: If the Chinese government were to collapse in the near future, then it is certain that we would be defeated by the enemy nearby (i.e. Britain).  So it would be best to form close relations with the British.  And others said: Because Russia is so powerful, she will be able to ensure that we do not fall into the hands of the British, but because she is so far away she certainly will not be able to devour us.  So we should establish close relations with her.

What is striking about this passage is that no faction is reported as advocating political independence.  In 1992 a Chinese government white paper on the status of Tibet maintained that the very term “independence” was not used in a political sense until some years after the events Dorzhiev describes.  Tibet as a self-conscious state, at least during the Yuan and Manchu periods, followed a policy of interdependence rather than independence, called the “patron-priest” relationship.  Such a concept was conveniently ambiguous in that it allowed each party to believe that it held true power:  the religious Tibetans could see themselves as the spiritual mentors of the Emperor, while the secular Chinese government could see itself as the protector of its devout Tibetan subjects.  A similar interdependence also characterises the relationship between a Buddhist monastic community and its lay supporters.  At a deeper level interdependence reflects the Buddhist philosophy of “emptiness” (sunyata), which regards nothing whatsoever as having independent existence; instead, it sees everything emerging in relation to a multiplicity of conditions.

In Buddhist philosophy, however,  “independent existence” (rang gi mtshan nyid gyis grub pa) is one of the key terms used by the monks who governed Tibet to denote precisely what is to be overcome on the path to enlightenment.  Such monks would spend many years studying and debating the doctrine that at the root of all suffering is the attachment to the idea that the ego exists independently.  More than an intellectual belief, this is a deeply embedded, psycho-somatic feeling, a “tight little cell” (Hillman) at the centre of our subjectivity.  And it is not just self-centred egos that are experienced this way, but things as well.  Human beings are prone to experience their entire world as composed of independently existent things, that are in a deep way isolated and disconnected from one another.  Volumes of Tibetan writings are devoted entirely to undermining this attachment to independence.  For people steeped in this vision of the world, it is difficult if not impossible to see how they could positively value the concept of independence. For how can a political vision based on independence be compatible with a religious vision based on the eradication of independence?  The idea of an independent state would appear as nothing more than the selfish ego writ large.

To realise that independence is a fiction constructed to secure the ego’s hold on itself and its limited, opaque world is to realise the emptiness of things.  To see through the reified independence of ego and things reveals a self and world emerging out of endlessly dynamic relationships, where the resistant opacity of things dissolves to reveal an open radiancy.  Such a perspective shifts one from a substantialist to a relational world: one in which the defining norms of experience move from the male values of separation, autonomy and independence to the female ones of intimacy, relationship and interdependence.  Symbolically, the Tibetan Buddhist relational world is opened up through the wisdom of emptiness, personified in the goddess Prajnaparamita, known also as the “Great Mother.”  In the tantric tradition, this wisdom is represented as the energetic female dakinis.  The Tibetan state is likewise seen as protected by two goddesses: the pacific Green Tara and wrathful Pelden Lhamo. 

The tragedy of Tibet is that its relational, non-violent, feminised conception of homeland finds itself at odds with the substantialist, militarised, masculine conception of the nation state.  It is not surprising that a country which challenged the very idea that things could be separately defined in isolation did not even have a clear conception of its own borders.   Intuitively, in terms of “common sense,” it is obvious that Tibet is a distinct nation, which should have every right to self governance.  The language of geo-politics, however, is based not on intuition but on the demands of economic and military power.  In their struggle for independence, Tibetans are forced to speak a language, which is premised on the denial of those very values which are central to their identity as a culture.  They are required to justify the fiction of a unified state governed from Lhasa, when in reality such centralised control was a rare exception to the rule of a “galactic polity” (Samuel) in which far-flung regional communities co-existed in varying degrees of harmony with only a notional allegiance to a government in a capital city.  By campaigning for Tibetan independence is there not the danger that one is tacitly campaigning for Tibet’s inclusion as merely an equal player in the consumerist global economy?  In doing so, precisely what is distinctive and valuable about Tibetan culture might be lost.





A world of independently existent things is, in the language of Archetypal Psychology, a world without soul.  It is a world whose soul is denied in order that the destructive ambitions of an egocentric self or state can be realised.  It is a world in which beauty is banished in favour of functionality.  The classic image of an ensouled world in Tibetan Buddhist iconography is that of the dkyil.khor  (mandala), which literally means, “centre-surround.”  It is a vision in which an independent ego inhabiting a reified and threatening environment is replaced by a radiant and transparent god, who emerges into being simultaneously and mutually with a radiant and transparent environment.  The sheer diversity of mandalas and gods indicates a move from a monotheistic to a polytheistic viewpoint, where the autocracy of the ego or the state is replaced by an interrelated plurality of perspectives. 

In Buddhism this vision is most clearly articulated in the Flower Ornament Scripture (Avatamsaka Sutra). This Sanskrit Mahayana text gave rise in 6th century China to a philosophical school, whose central doctrine came to be known as the “mutual interpenetration and interfusion of all phenomena.”  The best-known image of this is the “Jewelled Net of Indra,” a vast web at each interstice of which is a radiant jewel that  reflects every other jewel in the net.  While this poetic extension of the doctrine of emptiness and dependent emergence celebrates each particular event in all its uniqueness, it recognises that such uniqueness is located not in an essence concealed deep inside the thing, but through its unique reflection of all other events.  The same is true of the individual person.  I am who I am not because of some peculiar self-substance tucked away inside me, but because of the unrepeatable matrix of relationships, choices, accidents that have culminated in my being at this particular place at this particular time. 

The metaphor of the Jewelled Net of Indra bears striking parallels to the notion of anima mundi, the soul of the world.  When James Hillman talks in his essay Anima Mundi of how “an object bears witness to itself in the image it offers, and its depth lies in the complexities of this image,” for a Buddhist this brings irresistibly to mind one of the radiant, reflective jewels in Indra’s Net.  Hillman’s phrase succinctly captures the tension between the appearance of the object and its “depth” - a term employed in Tibetan Buddhism to describe how all things are devoid of independent self existence and constituted entirely through their complex relations with the whole of reality.   Earlier in the same essay, however, Hillman suggests that we

imagine the anima mundi as that particular soul-spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form.  Then anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image...

Such language is more problematic.  However poetically evocative, expressions such as “particular soul-spark,... seminal image, ... a face bespeaking its interior image” suggest a hidden essence that illuminates the thing from within. The Flower Ornament Scripture, in contrast, shows that poetic celebration of the world can be entirely consistent with a non-essentialist language. 

The Tibetan language is again revealing here.  The doctrine of emptiness employs a range of synonyms to expose the fiction of independent existence. The key term for “independent existence” in Sanskrit is svabhava - literally: “own being.”  In Tibetan this is translated by two terms: ngowo ( and rangzhin (rang.bzhin.), both of which contain indigenous words for “face” (ngo and zhin).  To see through the fiction of an independent thing entails no longer being tricked by the radiant uniqueness of its face into assuming that it bespeaks some interior image.  To penetrate the animating soul of an object leads not to the discovery of a seminal image but to an infinite depth in which ultimately the object can neither be pinned down as something nor dismissed as nothing.  It is this “un-pin-downability” that allows the object the freedom to be the fluid, vital, mysterious, undefinable thing that it is. Its radiant, unique face reveals no secret essence - it simply displays the unrepeatable relational interactions reflected in its multifaceted textures at that moment. 

When the ego’s grip on the independent existence of things is loosened, what previously appeared flat and opaque assumes an intensity and radiance.  In psychological language, the grasping at independence is a repression and denial of soul.  To witness the effulgence of a thing is to witness the soul of the world shining through every fissure and pore of its being.  As reflected in each thing, the anima mundi   is the transparent, radiant and unimpeded presence of the relational dynamism that generates the world.  Like everything else, it has no independent existence of its own.


The old city of Lhasa is a sacred place because it reflects in every detail of its layout and architecture the soul of a culture that valued interdependence over independence, compassion over self-centredness, generosity over acquisitiveness. In the course of a thousand years it grew into a “centre-surround” (dkyil.khor.mandala), with the Jokhang enshrining Queen Wen Cheng’s Buddha at the centre, contained within a quadrangle of streets known as the “intermediate surround” (bar.khor.) and around the perimeter of the city a winding path known as the “regional surround” (ling.khor.).   As the ultimate focus of pilgrimage; as the historical, cultural and religious centre of the land, Lhasa stands for the anima tibeti - the soul of Tibet.

Today this organic design is being torn apart and replaced with rectilinear streets and functional buildings.  One of the most blatant acts of violation occurred in 1985 with the removal of a section of traditional town houses on the intermediate surround to make way for a plaza.  This forced opening exposed the Jokhang Cathedral, the traditional centre of the city, to the view of the sprawling modern Chinese town, dominated by a radio mast mounted on Chakpori (one of the breasts of the demoness). While the quadrangle of streets that constitute the intermediate surround remains intact, the houses that line these streets and the warren of alleys that lead off it are being sold to enterprising work-units, who are free to demolish and replace them with apartment buildings, which can then be privately sold. Within a matter of years, the ancient city could be reduced to a handful of buildings designated as monuments of historical and cultural importance (not to mention tourist attractions) swallowed up by an ugly, commercial Chinese frontier town.

In destroying the mandala of Lhasa, the Chinese-dominated regime is annihilating the soul of Tibet.  The outline of the mandala may still be visible in the intermediate surround, but only fragments of the regional surround can be seen today.  This old winding circumambulation path around the city has been overlaid with straight, intersecting boulevards.  With the relentless expansion of the modern town, it has long ceased to serve as a meaningful boundary.  And with the domination of the streets by daytime traffic, it can only be safely retraced in the dark of pre-dawn.

One day in October 1994 I set out at 5 a.m. to join a straggling procession of people from all over Tibet, bearing rosaries, prayer-wheels and flashlights, who maintain this act of devotion.  I was taken in hand by two elderly women from Lhasa, who still perform this two hour circumambulation of the old city every morning.  While most of the regional surround may be physically destroyed, it persists in the collective imagination of those who walk it.  Although a sacred site may now be part of a four-lane city street, they know where to stop, turn in the right direction, bow to the ground and offer prayers. Other sites may now be flagstoned pavements in front of shops, but the people continue to create a cairn of stones there and drape it with prayer-flags.  They still recognize those non-descript rocks with healing power and rub against them, both blackening and polishing their surface.  Through such acts they honour not only what is sacred to Buddhism but what is sacred to the land itself. As their forebears have done unselfconsciously for centuries, so they continue to carress the body of theanima loci, the syllables of their prayer like the gentle murmur of a lover.

The word in vernacular Tibetan that comes closest to the English “sacred” is tsachenpo  (rtsa.chen.po.), which literally means “great root.”  It is used in reference to mountains and lakes as well as religious sites and renowned lamas, thus encompassing both the animist and Buddhist cultures of the land.  It suggests that value penetrates deep in the ground, drawing nourishment from what is not apparent in order to sustain what flourishes on the surface.  When the outward structures of a culture are demolished, its soul is buried in the imagination of the old women who walk around an immaterial path, in the depressions resulting from violation and loss, in the dull glimmer of body-polished stone. 



Is Tibet, in the words of Urgyen Tulku from his exile in Nepal, a corpse - something utterly desouled?  Not yet.  A passion for the soul of Tibet is still in evidence even in the midst of the modern capital.  Go a few miles beyond the urban grid of Lhasa and the countryside is more or less as it has always been.  No amount of political and cultural subjugation can obliterate those mountains, valleys and lakes.  Move further still into the rural outback and the signs of Chinese occupation diminish to the point of vanishing.  (A shepherd to whom we gave a photo of the Dalai Lama wasn't even sure who the Dalai Lama was.)  Still, one should not underestimate the combined potential of secular education, the ethics of consumerism and an obsessive drive for progress to undermine the soul of a place.

It is insufficient, even naive, to blame all this on the military and economic ambitions of China.  Tibet's introversion in rarified spirituality led the ruling monastic lamas to view soul (sems) as subjectivity cut off from and of greater intrinsic worth than the world.  In so doing they became unconscious of their obligations to the land and failed to enter into relationships with the outside world that might have preserved their distinction as a nation.  Yes, "distinction" rather than "independence:" because for something to be in any way related with another entails its being distinct ( from the other, whereas independence implies no need for relationship at all.

James Hillman's critique of the excessive introversion of psychotherapy is equally applicable to Buddhism.  While this is currently being addressed by the movement known as "Engaged Buddhism," which seeks to swing the emphasis of Buddhist compassion back to the world, the movement needs to be on its guard against becoming just a spiritually correct form of social activism.  To recover a "middle way" between introversion and extraversion, Buddhists might well learn from Hillman's idea that "the human is set within the field of soul" rather than the other way round.  The Jewelled Net of Indra does not exist in our minds; our minds exist in it.  The immediate challenge is to imagine what this radical interdependence might mean.  Fortunately, as Hillman reminds us, "the soul is primarily an imagining activity."

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