Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Elevated "Other"

What images does the name "Tibet" conger up in your mind? Dramatic Himalayan vistas? Colorful prayer flags? Chanting robed monks? The Dalai Lama's peaceful, smiling face?

Over the past two weeks we have discussed "othering" as the practice of negatively stereotyping and distancing groups of people we deem different. We also imagine and exaggerate differences we perceive to be positive and essential. Perhaps no group is so thoroughly "othered" in almost exclusively positive terms as Tibetans.

Throughout the 20th century, novels and films such as Lost Horizon and 7 Years in Tibet have helped to establish a "Shangri-La" image of Tibet as a pristine, quasi-mythical land where Westerners can escape and seek adventure, revitalization and enlightenment. In recent decades, the "Free Tibet" movement popularly promoted by Hollywood actors and famous musicians has provided opportunities for Americans to flaunt their cosmopolitan compassion and express passive aggressive opposition to Chinese expansion. Meanwhile, Multiculturalists have lamented the Chinese "endangerment" of the beautifully distinct Tibetan culture and made efforts to preserve it.

Many have argued that Americans' fascination with and support of Tibet has much more to do with our desires and needs than those of Tibetans.

Tibet, of course, is closely associated with Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a unique blend of ancient Tibetan folk religious traditions and the three major Buddhist "vehicles" or traditions--Theravada, the "foundational" or "orginal" vehicle, Mahāyāna, the largest and most diverse of the three, and Vajrayāna, or "Tantric Buddhism." If we tried to imagine a rough Christian equivalent, we might conceive of an African-American Episcopal church with Catholic liturgy, Protestant theology, Charismatic/Mystical practices, and African-American folk culture sensibilities.

Last week was "Tibet Week" at Emory University, an institution that actively promotes Tibetan Buddhism through institutional partnerships, campus events, research projects and course offerings. This intimate relationship is certainly a bit odd for a postmodern secular research university in the American South. However, it has drawn few serious critiques due to the widespread romantic, cultural, religious and political fascination with Tibet.

The "Emory-Tibet Partnership" brings honorary faculty member His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to campus every 18 months or so. Tibetan Buddhist Faculty member Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi teaches courses in Tibetan studies and nurtures the university's relationship with the Drepung Loseling monastery in Atlanta. Scholars from around the university are engaged in a massive neuroscience research project assessing the neurological nature and value of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Several scholarships make it possible for Tibetan Buddhist monks to study a variety of subjects (primarily sciences). On campus, the monks' ankle-length maroon robes signify their "otherness" to the rest of the Emory population, as does "Tibet Week" itself.

Although Emory's Tibetan Buddhist contingent participate actively in the "Tibet Week" festivities, 5 of the 6 meditation events were lead by Americans. This demonstrates how thoroughly Americans have appropriated Tibetan Buddhist practices and how fascination with Tibet facilitates their promotion and propagation.

One of these meditation sessions was lead by Dr. Tara Doyle, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Tibetan Studies Program. Dr. Doyle spends half of her life teaching Emory undergrads about the wonders of the many Buddhist traditions and communities scattered throughout the world in the classrooms of the Atlanta campus and the other half immersing them in the community of Tibetan Buddhist exiles in Dharamsala, India through a study abroad program associated with the wider Emory-Tibet partnership.

Dr. Doyle was one of the more serious, intelligent and dedicated among the thousands of hippies who went "East" in the '60s. Folks like Dr. Doyle found Eastern cultures (including Tibet, Nepal, India, etc.) a radical and welcome alternative to the rat-race of American consumer culture. She readily admits to being drawn by a over-romanticized image of the exotic East as young adult. Most of her fellow travelers eventually found there way back home and more or less fell back in line. Not Tara.

Last semester, I took a course on "Buddhism in America" with Dr. Doyle. I found that a significant portion of her students are not only intellectually intrigued by Buddhism, but spiritually inspired. Dr. Doyle struck an incredible balance between dispassionate (and often critical) social and historical analyses of Buddhist traditions and a transparent reverence reflecting her own Buddhist practice.

Many would view such bias as problematic. After all, Christian bias has been gradually and systematically eliminated from most of our colleges and universities; famously heralded by the changing of Harvard's motto from "Veritas Cristo et Ecclesiae” (“Truth for Christ and the Church”) to simply "Veritas" (Truth) in the late 19th century.

Dr. Doyle, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, is well aware of the double standard. While she is able to lead meditation exercises, similar Christian practices would not be welcome in Religion Department courses. They're hardly welcome in the Theology School classroom!

Dr. Doyle has actively encouraged me to bring my own Christian faith into her classroom and my scholarship in general. In her view, the diverse spectrum of personal religiosity and spirituality should be welcome in religious scholarship and college university. Personal piety provides us with a deeper, more textured appreciation and understanding of religious traditions. Certain forms should not be privileged or excluded based on the appeal of stereotypical images to Americans' romantic and aesthetic sensibilities.

Dr. Doyle actively seeks to debunk her students' romanticized, exotic images of Tibetan Buddhist culture specifically and Buddhism generally in favor of a more balanced view. In her view, such elevation of the "other" is almost as dehumanizing as the fearful demonization of Muslims discussed last week. Thus, it is important to counter images of Tibetans as essentially gentle and helpless with an appreciation of violence in Tibetan history, including opposition to the Chinese annexation.

Dr. Doyle illustrated the problematic nature of such positive "othering" through an anecdotal experience of one of her Tibetan Buddhist friends. After giving a speech to a receptive audience, the man was approached by a woman from the crowd. "I just love Tibetans," she exclaimed. "You're the dolphins of the human race."

This awkward and offensive attempt at a compliment illustrates the issue at hand. The man did not want to be a "dolphin of the human race." He would rather be treated like a human being, no more, no less.

What minorities or cultures do you characterize as having positive essential differences? Might these views be problematic? How can we admire and appreciate other cultures and their differences without imposing essential stereotypes on them in restrictive ways?

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