Martine & Stephen


While living in Germany as the interpreter for a Tibetan geshe in 1980, I received a phone-call from a woman who had just read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and was interested in learning more about Tibetan Buddhism.  I arranged an appointment, she came to the center and explained to the geshe how inspired she had been by this wonderful book and wished to learn more.  He gave her some basic instructions and advice and encouraged her to come to his classes.  She then left.  As the door closed behind her, he turned to me as said: "What is this Tibetan Book of the Dead?"

We find this story amusing because it confounds expectations that are implicit in our Western perception of Tibet.  It illustrates the disjunction between the Tibet of a real, living Tibetan and the Tibet constructed  as an element of the Western imagination. As Don Lopez has described in Prisoners of Shangrila, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a relatively obscure mortuary text of the Nyingma school, which has assumed in the West a significance that does not correspond to  its role in actual Tibetan culture. 

Another example of this is found in the copiously cited prophecy: “When the iron bird flies/ And horses run on wheels/ The Dharma will come /To the land of the red faces.”  This is widely and uncritically assumed to mean that at the time of aeroplanes and motorized transport, Buddhism will make its triumphal entry to the West.  Although I have never seen the Tibetan original of the quote, I am familiar with the expression gdong  dmar gyi yul can, “land of the red faces” from other contexts. In the Bod rgya tshig mdzod chen mo, “Land of the Red Faces” refers to Tibet for the more prosaic reason of the Tibetans “having reddish rather than whitish (skya bo) complexions” and backs this up by citing a sutra which says:  “The sublime Dharma will spread to the land of those with red faces.”  Somewhere in the Blue Annals I also found a similar kind of prophecy about Buddhism coming to Tibet. According to Snellgrove and Richardson’s Cultural History of Tibet, the Tibetans were known in T'ang China as the “red faces” because of their custom of daubing their faces with red dye prior to engaging in battle.  Yet the appeal of this quote has less to do with its predicting Buddhism’s passage to the West, than with demonstrating the awesome capacity of Tibetans to foresee the advent of modern technology. It reinforces the notion of Tibetans as a spiritually advanced people who not only can guide the departed consciousness of the dead into the next rebirth but also can gaze into the future.

If Land of the Red Faces refers to Tibet, then to what do “iron birds” and “wheeled horses” refer?  “Iron Bird” is one of the years in the Sino-Tibetan 60 year cycle.  “When the iron bird flies” might simply mean: “In the year of the Iron Bird.”  In terms of the Dharma coming to Tibet, the Iron Bird year that falls in that period is 781.  All the sources I have in English agree that c. 779 is the date at which Samye was founded and Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava were in Tibet.  Perhaps it refers to this.  But in a modern Chinese history (Highlights of Tibetan History, New World Press, Beijing 1984), the authors Wang Furen and Suo Wenqing add a detail omitted by the other sources.  Having noted that Samye was completed in 779 under Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava, they say:  “Beginning in 781 the king invited monks from the Tang to preach on a two year rotation.”  This led to the conflict that would be resolved in c. 792 by the Samye debate.  Connect this with the Tang Chinese origin of “land of the Red Faces,” then perhaps the prophecy refers to the Dharma coming from China to Tibet.  What “horses on wheels” refer to is less clear - possibly chariots, and thereby some kind of armed invasion.  Chariots were the symbol of those in power, carrying the umbrella and banner of victory as signs of dominion.

Ever since Westerners have been aware of Tibet, they have been engaged in constructing an imaginary version of the country and its people, that while based on the observations and descriptions of travellers, missionaries, spies and scholars, has also been generated by other ambitions, longings, fears and fantasies.  This way of representing the kind of Tibet with which we are familiar today has its origins in the early 19th century and reflects the split in the Western psyche between reason and romance.

As a means of exerting their political will over the subject nations of Asia, the Imperial powers sought systematic, rational knowledge of those nations.  “Our familiarity,” wrote Lord Curzon in 1909, “not merely with the languages of the people of the East but with their customs, their feelings, their traditions, their history and religion, our capacity to understand what may be called the genius of the East, is the sole basis upon which we are likely to be able to maintain in the future the position we have won.”  Institutions such as the School of Oriental and African Studies in London were established precisely in order to achieve this goal.  Although we are now no longer colonialists in the old fashioned sense of Lord Curzon, the raison d’etre of our academic institutions still rests on our need to justify detached empirical observation and rationality as the preeminent means of knowledge. 

The Romantics, in contrast, believed that the Orient preserved the deepest sources of wisdom and spirituality that the West had abandoned in favour of material progress.  In his 1925 Letter to the Schools of the Buddha, the playwright Antonin Artaud pleads to the lamas, roshis and bhikkhus of his tormented imagination: “You who are disincarnate, who know at what point in its carnal trajectory, its insensitive coming and going, that the soul finds the absolute verb, the new speech, the interior ground; you who know how one returns to oneself in thought and how the spirit can save itself from itself; you who are interior to yourselves; you for whom the spirit is no longer on the carnal plane: here there are hands for whom taking is not everything, brains that see further than a forest of roofs, the blossoming of façades, cog-wheel people and the workings of fire and marble.  Advancing is this people of iron; advancing are words written with the speed of light; advancing towards each other with the force of bullets are the sexes: what will change in the avenues of the soul?  in the spasms of the heart?  in the despair of the spirit?” 

Tibet, as the last place to be mapped by the Colonial powers, and Lhasa, as the last major city to be penetrated by Westerners, came to symbolize, because of their very isolation, remoteness and inpenetrability, the quintessence of all that the West was not.  (Remember that Tibet’s fabled isolation, remoteness and inpenetrability were in large part a consequence of the Asian closed-door policy of the late 17th century, which was adopted as a means of protection against the threat of Western colonial expansion.  Desideri, however, writing in the early 18th century, still describes Lhasa as a bustling cosmopolitan, commercial center).  Both Theosophy in the 19th century and the whole New Age phenomenon of the 20th are continuing manifestations of this romantic longing.

In a recent novel, entitled England, England (hence the title of my paper), the British writer Julian Barnes satirically imagines the fate of Britain in about fifty years time.  An enterprising businessman has succeeded in purchasing the Isle of Wight and turning it into a theme park, where tourists can visit reproductions of all the most quintessentially English historic sites such as Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge, Stratford-on-Avon.   Moreover, each day typically English events are reenacted at set times: the changing of the guard, a dogfight from the Battle of Britain, a cricket match on a village green, the last night of the proms.  Actors are employed to play the parts of Dr Johnson, Nell Gwynne, Sherlock Holmes, Lady Godiva and other famous personalities.  Meanwhile, the “real” England falls into economic and political decline.  Scotland and Wales secede, the royal family accept a lucrative offer to play themselves in the theme park, the country closes its borders and becomes a kind of sleepy, low-tech Switzerland.

All goes well until one day the actors begin to assume the roles they are playing:  first the smugglers start smuggling and the country bumpkins insist on living in their leaking thatched cottages rather than the modern company apartments.  Then Dr Johnson starts being genuinely eccentric and objectionable to his fellow (tourist) diners at the “Cheshire Cheese,” and finally Robin Hood and his band of merrie men start rustling animals from the heritage parks and firing real arrows at the park officials who try to stop them.  Eventually, this rebellion is put down, the woman executive in charge is replaced by a hard-headed male boss and the show resumes.  Henceforth, any actors who get too much into character are immediately shipped to a psychiatric hospital in Dieppe and dosed with drugs until they are freed from their delusions.

In case you think this satire is too far fetched to apply to Tibet, a few years ago I was approached by a businessman in New York for advice on reconstructing the Potala Palace in a theme park in Florida.  It was to be financed in part by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, but the executives were baulking at the cost and wondered whether they could scale the building down to fit their budget.

Barnes’ novel, as with any satire, makes its point by means of grotesque exaggeration.  The reproduction of quintessential features of Englishness in a theme park illustrates how a culture’s identity can be extrapolated and eventually entirely divorced from the actual geographic, economic and social reality of the place it is meant to represent.  Since the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 (which in the theme park would be dramatically reenacted every evening at 7pm/with the 17th Karmapa’s flight featured on Tuesdays and Wednesdays), Tibetans have had to survive largely by their wits in an alien and often uncomprehending and unsympathetic world.  The preservation of their cultural identity has led them inevitably to collude with distorted mirror images of themselves and their country that exist in the minds of Westerners who, with the best of intentions, seek to offer them support.    (My Tibetan lama in Germany did not express his puzzlement about the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the woman but only, sotto voce, to his translator after she had departed.  And I’ve never heard a Tibetan query the “When the iron bird flies” prophecy.)

The recreation of Tibetan monasteries in refugee communities in South India, the building of exact replicas of Tibetan temples everywhere from the Scottish lowlands to Northern California and the reconstruction of Tibet by studio special-effects seamlessly spliced with footage from barren landscapes in Morocco and Argentina in Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet respectively, are all instances of the creation of a virtual Tibet that bears less and less resemblance to the actual situation in Tibet itself.  In Tibet itself the Potala is becoming a museum, the centerpiece of a newly created park.  It may not be long before Lhasa will resemble modern European cities, with the sacred sites remaining as isolated islands in the midst of offices and highrises.  The Lingkor now exists largely in the memory of the devout citizens who still walk round it each morning before dawn. 

The tragic nature of all diasporas lies in the need to preserve at all costs the memory of what the exiled culture seeks to recover rather than being free to respond creatively to the demands of a complex historical world in which they are vitally involved. It is notable that the Dalai Lama has recently met with Jewish leaders to discuss, among other things, how the Jews have managed to survive for so long and successfully as an exiled people.

On three visits to geographical Tibet (from 1985-94) I have made a point of speaking to ordinary Tibetans who live and work there.  In the rhetoric around Tibet, the Western media routinely report the views of the Tibetan exiles in India and the predictable and often risible statements of the Chinese occupiers, but rarely if ever do you hear the voice of Tibetans who live on the ground in Tibet.   One sentiment I have heard expressed on more than one occasion by educated young Tibetans in Lhasa is that while they do not like being under Chinese rule, they certainly have no desire to return to being governed by the exiled ancien regime.  Just because the Dalai Lama still functions as the preeminent symbol for their aspirations to self-determination, that does not mean that they wish for the government-in-exile in Dharamsala to return to power in Lhasa. 

I have also been told how Tibetans who did not flee the country in 1959 see themselves as the “true” Tibetans while the exiles are seen as having betrayed the country by departing.  It is striking how easy it is to recognize a group of exiled Tibetans returning on a visit to Tibet.  It is not the cut of their more expensive clothes that gives them away, but the very way they walk, gesture and move.  The experience of exile has shaped them in ways of which they seem unconscious, just as the experience of Chinese occupation must have unconsciously shaped the Tibetans who stayed.  So who are the “real” Tibetans?  Perhaps the shepherd who, while I was trying to reach Jonang Monastery on the south banks of the Brahmaputra, did not even recognize a photo of the Dalai Lama.  Our driver had to explain: bla ma yin na med na khong red.  “If it’s lamas you’re after, then he’s your man.”

Likewise, much well-meaning concern has been expressed in the West for the preservation of the Tibetan cultural heritage.  One well-known example of this is the move to stop the systematic destruction of the traditional Tibetan townhouses around the Barkor in the center of the old city of Lhasa and their replacement with modern concrete buildings.  Local people in this area whom I spoke to about this, however, failed to understand why anyone would think that a draughty, leaking old house would be preferable to a heated apartment with electricity and running water. Another example is the move to declare the Kumbum at Gyantse as a world heritage site protected by UNESCO.  I have heard art historians bemoan the “irreparable damage” to the 15th century artwork being caused by statues being coated with modern enamel paints by devout Tibetans.  To what extent is the West exerting a kind of cultural colonialism here?  How much are we concerned with preserving our image of Tibet rather than trying to understand the feelings and aspirations of the people who live and worship in Tibet today?   Is Tibet in very real danger of becoming a theme park?

One of the central tenets of Madhyamika philosophy as taught in Tibet is the insistence that nothing whatsoever exists by its own nature.  Everything arises contingently upon a complex of conditions, which includes causes, component parts as well as the linguistic-conceptual conventions of human cultures.  Hence, from this point of view, there is no essential Tibet, that exists apart from or independently of the myriad and changing conditions that generate it.   Like everything else, Tibet is “established by the power of what is well known in the world” (‘jig rten la grags pa’i dbang gis grub pa.)   Nowadays, however, Tibet is “well known” in at least five interlocking “worlds”:

1.  Old Tibet: i.e. the Tibet that existed historically until the 1950’s, as known through its own records and texts, paintings and sculptures, architecture, artefacts, photographs, and other first-hand accounts.

2.  Diaspora Tibet:  i.e. the Tibet of the exiled community that exists outside geographic Tibet in India and the rest of the world, whose aim is to preserve the traditional values, ethnic identity as well as the sense of territory and nationhood implicit in Old Tibet. 

3.  New Tibet:  i.e. the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of the People’s Republic of China as well as other regions still inhabited by ethnic Tibetans in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, Lahoul, Dolpo and other Himalayan border areas where Tibetan culture survives fall between the cracks that separate Old, Diaspora and New Tibet.

4.  Romantic Tibet:  i.e. the Tibet as represented by writers, artists and others who idealize Old Tibet as a place of supernatural spiritual accomplishment.  At one end of this spectrum is the fantastical Tibet of Theosophy, Nicholas Roerich, James Hilton and Lobsang Rampa, at the other the better informed but nonetheless idealized versions of Alexandra David-Neel, Lama Govinda and other latter-day apologists.

5.  Buddhist Tibet:  i.e. the Tibet inhabited by ethnic Tibetans who regard themselves as “Buddhists” and non-ethnic Tibetans who regard themselves as “Tibetan Buddhists.” This would include, for example, the Tibet of a Westerner identified as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama.   Non-ethnic Tibetan Buddhists might conceivably have no interest in Old Tibet, little concern for the fate of Diaspora Tibet, a keen dislike of New Tibet and a dismissive attitude to Romantic Tibet -- while at the same time performing Tibetan rituals, wearing Tibetan dress, studying Tibetan texts, and insisting on the supremacy of Tibetan forms of Buddhism over others.

This unpublished (and unfinished) paper was delivered at a symposium on Tibet at the University of Colorado in Boulder, 28 January, 2000.

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