cultural appropriation

Twentieth Century Appropriation of Tibetan Buddhist Thought to the West

Can understanding the political trauma of the past help to contextualize the present?

**This essay is adapted from a longer paper. Read it here.

This section seeks to draw a comparison between the historical case study of the formation of Tibetan bardo and the modern formation of westernized Buddhism. By looking at a historical case study, where the appropriation of Indian Buddhist ideas was a necessary phenomenon for the formation of Tibetan bardo, can this then change our current understanding or misconceptions regarding the concept of appropriation?

In Amy Lavine’s “Tibetan Buddhism in America: The Development of American Vajrayana, ” it is made clear the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism by Tibetan lamas to the U.S. began in earnest in the early 1970s. The primary instigator for this “missionary activity ” of the Tibetan religion was the threat of the Chinese communist invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1950. Simultaneously, Rupert Gethin, in The Foundations of Buddhism, articulates how the period since WWII has witnessed the greatest growth of Western interest in Buddhism, to the advantage of Tibetan Buddhists.

During the Chinese Communist occupation of Tibet beginning in the 1950s, the Chinese brutally killed half a million Tibetans, many of the ancient texts of Tibetan and Indian Buddhism were burned, and “Tibetan culture had been nearly eradicated,” according to Rick Fields in How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (276). To the Chinese communists, Buddhism and feudalism were synonymous and had to be destroyed.

However, this rebellion created a Tibetan diaspora community in India, Europe, and the U.S. Like Tibet for the Indians in the eleventh century, the U.S. was perceived to be the “next open frontier for the introduction and cultivation of the teachings of the Buddha as they had been taught for the previous thirteen hundred years in Tibet, ” notes Lavine (100).

At this time, the best hope for the survival of Tibetan Buddhism rested in the monasteries and nunneries built in India, and the groups of young, fascinated meditation students in the West. Since Tibetan Buddhists were thrust into confrontation with modernity due to the Chinese annexation, they developed an urgent desire both to maintain their traditional religion while also making it viable within a new context so that it could survive.

David L. McMahan, in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, describes how a niche created in the West for Tibetan Buddhism had been cultivated for over a century due to the romanticization of Tibet “as an isolated pocket of ancient wisdom untainted by modernity ” (247). This romanticization of eastern religions has been targeted by some scholars as a prime example of the negative side of appropriation, due to the suspicion that uninformed Western students fantasize that the Buddhist religion and the “mysterious East ” can save them from their Western, modern problems (214).

However, not all Western attempts to engage in Buddhism can be reduced to this. Furthermore, the Western fascination of Tibetan Buddhism served to aid the Tibetans and to create a place for Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S. that has allowed for the survival of a more traditional form of the religion.

There is a key distinction between the historical formation of bardo and the current formation of westernized Buddhism: we are living in an increasingly globalized and networked society in which the technological revolution makes possible worldwide movement of goods, people, and information.

In this modern, networked society, the question of authenticity regarding religious phenomena is frequently addressed: is the westernized version of Tibetan Buddhism still considered authentic Buddhism? Has the westernized understanding of Tibetan Buddhism come to change Tibetan Buddhism for Tibetans as well as Westerners? I will present a few examples addressing the romanticization of Tibetan bardo by Western students, and the potential negative side of the process of appropriation.

Regarding Tibetan bardo practices, an English translation of the Bardo T’odrol was published by Oxford University Press in 1927. It was edited, compiled, and renamed to Tibetan Book of the Dead by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who met the original translator of Bardo T’odrol and who acted as the “mouthpiece of a Tibetan sage ” for the U.S.

Donald S. Lopez, Jr., in Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and The West, explains how, from its first publication in English in 1927, this work has become known as “something of a timeless world spiritual classic ” (47). It has been made to serve various agendas that have “far more to do with the twentieth-century cultural fashions of Europe and America than with how the text has been used over the centuries of its history in Tibet. ”

This U.S. publication was the first tantric Buddhist text presented to the general public and had a lasting impact on a variety of American thinkers and those influential to American psychology. For instance, the publication affected Carl Jung greatly; he wrote in his 1935 “Psychological Commentary, ” that he owes his ideas, discoveries, and fundamental insights to the Bardo T’odrol.

Jung was most affected by “the clarity of the book’s psychology, the way it instructed the dead, as well as the living, to recognize all appearances and visions, whether beautiful or terrifying, as the reflections of consciousness, ” notes Fields (286-287). In ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’: A Biography, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. describes how Jung declared the Tibetan Book of the Dead to be psychological in outlook and discussed the three Tibetan terms, describing the stages of death and rebirth, in his work: the intermediate state of the moment of death (‘chi kha’i bar do), the intermediate state of reality (chos nyid bar do), and the intermediate state of existence (srid pa bar do).

Another example of the appropriation of Tibetan bardo in the U.S. is highlighted by the publication in August 1964 of The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. In Timothy Leary: A Biography, Robert Greenfield describes how all three coauthors took part in research investigating the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs like LSD and mescaline in the Zihuatanejo Project.

In The Psychedelic Experience, the authors describe the process of death and rebirth presented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a metaphor for ego death and depersonalization that is commonly experienced under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Thus, the authors meant for The Psychedelic Experience to be used as a guide for how to handle experiences of ego death, similar to how the Bardo T’odrol’s intended function was to be used as a guide for death and rebirth.

McMahan has argued that in this globalized context, America and Americans have more power; therefore, the process of appropriating Tibetan Buddhism to a Western context benefits the westerners but is damaging for the Tibetans. The psychoanalytic interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism (beginning with Jung’s prefaces to Evans-Wentz’s publication of the Tibetan Book of the Dead) has been essential for the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. However, making this form of the dharma acceptable to the modern, Western practitioner has “obscured the self-understanding of Tibetans themselves ” (56).

These products were then marketed to Americans and Europeans as therapeutic books, and then exported back to Asian colonials “as the best explanation of their own cultures ” notes Lopez (59). In this instance, the Western idea of Tibetan Buddhism has become dominant and the appropriator (i.e. Western culture) defines the religion for the appropriated (i.e. Tibetan Buddhists). This is a common, and perhaps inevitable, tension within the processes of modernization, globalization, and appropriation. Despite the potential negatives of appropriation within the modern, globalized world, not all instances of westerners appropriating Tibetan Buddhism are negative.

As a result of the Tibetan diaspora, a number of Tibetan lamas have translated the ideas and practices of their tradition to western audiences. Many Tibetans even view the success of their religion in America as fulfillment of Padmasambhava’s prophecy in the eighth century. Powers states: “When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth, and the dharma will come to the land of the red men ” (186).

Though previous examples have shown an integration of Tibetan Buddhism into the psychologized Western context, there are also many instances of collaboration between Tibetans and Westerners. For instance, Dr. Turrell Wylie, of the University of Washington Inner Asian Program, was looking for a Tibetan scholar who could collaborate with the university, and was introduced to Deshung Rinpoche, abbot of the Sakya Tharlam Monastery.

At the university, Deshung Rinpoche and a few other Sakya lamas worked with scholars — such as Dr. Wylie, Leon Hurvitz, Gene Smith, Edward Conze, and Agehananda Bharati, who was writing his book on The Tantric Tradition — taught Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy, and worked in collaboration on an English-Tibetan dictionary.

Another example of collaboration between Tibetan Buddhists and Westerners is shown in the relationship of Geshe Wangyal and three Harvard students: Christopher George, Jeffrey Hopkins, and Robert Thurman. Geshe Wangyal was a Kalmuk Mongolian who had studied at the great monastery of Drepung in Lhasa. Drepung was one of the major centers of the Gelugpas, which was founded in the fourteenth century by Tsongkhapa and is the most recently formed of the Tibetan schools. Though Geshe Wangyal was not, strictly speaking, Tibetan, he practiced as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the United States.

Geshe Wangyal had “always looked towards America as the best place to teach Buddhism, ” and eventually secured a visa and took with him four lamas from India: Geshe Sopa, Lama Kunga (a Sakya), and two young tulkus.

The Harvard students and Geshe Wangyal worked out a deal: Geshe-la (as he was affectionately called) and the other lamas would help teach the Harvard students the Tibetan language by translating and reading texts, while the Harvard students would help teach the four lamas English. Eventually, Robert Thurman decided he wanted to be ordained as a Tibetan monk; he travelled to India and the Dalai Lama ordained Thurman as the first American Tibetan Buddhist monk.

This essay has intended to put forth a more nuanced understanding of the process of appropriation by looking at a historical scenario that is not colloquially deemed ‘appropriation’ and comparing this instance with modern examples, both negative and positive, of Tibetan Buddhism as it has been appropriated to the West.

The history of Buddhism has spanned more than 2,500 years and, now, has spread across the globe. Though many Asian Buddhists and Western scholars continue to question the authenticity of newer versions of Buddhism, McMahan and this essay argue it might serve them better to recognize Buddhism as “a rich mixture of a number of different cultural and intellectual currents from Asia, Europe, and North America ” (18).

Furthermore, Buddhism has shown a remarkable adaptability, “taking on widely different forms in various geographical areas and transforming, absorbing, superseding, and accommodating local ideas and practices ” (19). Appropriation of cultural ideas is not purely a negative or positive phenomenon, even within the modern, globalized context of Western appropriation of Asian Buddhism; it is a complex struggle for ownership of culturally valuable ideas.

This essay argues that in the same fashion that the preexisting shamanic religion of Tibet morphed Indian Buddhism to suit its spiritual needs, the preexisting psychological framework of the West morphed Tibetan Buddhism to suit its psychological needs. Amy Lavine writes, in “Tibetan Buddhism in America: The Development of American Vajrayana ”:

There is much talk about ‘preserving’ Tibetan culture as lamas bring the Dharma to the West. It might be wiser, however, to consider the ways in which Tibetan culture and religion are able to reconstitute themselves in their new home. The nature of preserving something tends to produce a static picture of what once was a dynamic, constantly evolving tradition. In the process of remaking itself in a new world, Tibetan Buddhism may find that aspects of American culture and the American psyche will contribute perspectives that will ensure its survival well into the next millennium.

Lavine, “Tibetan Buddhism in America ”

Concluding Remarks

The success of Buddhism in Tibet culminated in new religious practices, most uniquely in the Tibetan practice and understanding of bardo. In the appropriation of religious thought, it is not always clear who the “victim ” is — or if there is one at all — since “appropriation is a matter of interpretation, ” notes Hahn (196). Utilizing this theoretical framework of appropriation has important implications for the more contemporary adaptation of Buddhism to the West and to the ways in which cultural ideas spread to new contexts in general.

Within this historical case study, were the Tibetans exploiting the Indian Buddhists’ religious thought, harming the culture of Indian Buddhism, or merely utilizing politics and religion to their advantage without severe damage to the Indians? Some Western scholars, academics, and Asian Buddhists are keen to blame the West for its “cultural appropriation ” of other places, but how is this modern-day, negatively-connotated phenomenon significantly different from the process by which Indian Buddhist religious thought transferred to Tibet, for instance?

The interrelationship of politics, economics, and religion, historically, is undeniable — and even more so in our increasingly globalized world; using the theoretical framework of appropriation presents the most accurate picture of the transfer of cultural thought as a process of ongoing constitution and negotiation.

While some scholars would argue the appropriation of religious thought to a new context harms and victimizes the original, presenting a diluted or simplified perspective, other scholars — and this essay — would argue that the assimilation of outside thought to a new context intermixes with the already complex culture, creating an entirely new cultural or religious phenomenon. Thus, the process or phenomenon of appropriation is not inherently negative (or positive). Old cultural ideas faced with new contexts creates new religious or cultural traditions and does not necessarily dilute the older, original religious practices.

This phenomenon can be seen throughout examples of religious appropriation; we see across the globe today a number of movements attempting to reappropriate tradition in the formation of interreligious hybrids. At what point is any religion so modernized, transformed, or appropriated that it can no longer be considered what it once was? David L. McMahan, in The Making of Buddhist Modernism, states:

If ‘true Buddhism’ is only one that is unalloyed by novel cultural elements, no forms of Buddhism existing today would qualify. To say that western Buddhisms must adhere rigidly to their Asian predecessors would still be arbitrary, since they, too, are hybrids embracing numerous cultural adaptations. Every extant form of Buddhism has been shaped and reconfigured by the great diversity of cultural and historical circumstances it has inhabited in its long and varied existence. Buddhist traditions (and, indeed, all traditions) have constantly re-created themselves in response to unique historical and cultural conditions, amalgamating elements of new cultures, jettisoning those no longer viable in a new context, and asking questions that previous incarnations of Buddhism could not possibly have asked.

David L. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism

This essay has intended to present a nuanced understanding of appropriation and to question the process of cultural negotiation. It is quite clear within this essay’s historical presentation of the appropriation of Indian Buddhism to Tibet that the formation of an entirely new religious practice (Tibetan bardo) had benefits for the Tibetan Buddhists and the Indian Buddhists, and would not have been possible without the appropriation of religious thought.

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