An attack on Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman in the name of Tibet?

The Tibetan exile social media world is a small one, and at times has a tendency to be self-congratulatory in terms of its overall impact and product. A recent blog post by an anonymous Tibetan blogger is a good example of this and of a growing trend among US-born or resident Tibetan-Americans who make a habit of blaming ‘white people’ for ‘Tibetan problems’.

This would be funny if it weren’t actually true. In ‘Tibetan Fundamentalism’ the blogger describes a having a conversation with her Tibetan uncle:

…..about a controversy that was brewing inside the Rubin Museum, a Himalayan art museum in NYC. My uncle works there. One young Tibetan employee was complaining about how removed the museum was from the political reality of Tibet and how underrepresented Tibetans were within the museum despite it extensively displaying Tibetan art. I told my uncle that I felt that she was justified in her critique and my uncle responded by saying that I, along with that person, were part of a generation that did nothing yet felt entitled to complain about everything. He said my ideas and my reasonings were eurocentric and that he was speaking from a Buddhist perspective. He claimed that he spoke as a Tibetan person while I spoke as an American. I said I did not recognize the profoundness of Buddhist philosophy in his dismissal of me as an under-accomplished person. He said I speak the way I do because I don’t know Buddhism. Inherent in his argument was an accusation that I was less Tibetan than him, and that my critique of the Rubin museum was the result of hubris granted to me by my Western education.

The author wants to make a serious point that Tibetan identity should not be homogenised as being solely Tibetan Buddhist. However, bizarrely, and tenuously, tries to make this point by targetting renowned Buddhist scholar/practitioner (and long-time friend of Tibet and HH the 14th Dalai Lama) Robert Thurman, glibly dismissing him as an ‘asshole’ (based on a second-hand anecdote) and as ‘White, privileged and with rudimentary knowledge of Tibetan experience’.

Such remarks coming from a Tibetan who has done ‘nothing’ other than ‘be ethnically Tibetan’  are not only rude and immature but also not even relevant to the topic at hand.

In addition, the way the author singles out Thurman as a ‘White person’, (with a capital letter W for White!!) is suggestive of a left-wing political or ideological agenda. There are many Tibetan Buddhist scholars (alive and dead) such as Gedun Chophel and Thubten Jinpa who are also held up as bastions of Tibetan cultural identity by Tibetans and non-Tibetans. So the author seems to have more of an issue with White people being considered scholars of, or experts, in Tibetan Buddhism or Tibetan culture, than providing people with constructive ideas of what could constitute Tibetan identity (one that is not merely based on Buddhism or ethnicity).

For example, if the Tibetan who wrote this grew up in North America, how would they be ‘more Tibetan’ (if there could be such a thing) than a White person who grew up going to TCV school, fluent in Tibetan, surrounded by Tibetans in exile and very few westerners?  The author seems to suggest in the article that ‘Tibetanness’ would be (and is) one predominantly based around ethnicity or parentage, which is something to be strongly resisted of course, as I have argued here.

The author wanted to show the world that their Tibetan Uncle was wrong and that they were not  ‘part of a generation that did nothing yet felt entitled to complain about everything’. Sadly, however, the piece was counter-productive and proved the Uncle right. Robert Thurman​’s global contribution to raising awareness and knowledge about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism is far more than the author could ever hope or claim to have done.

And, let’s not forget that the Uncle (who is also ethnically Tibetan) might take umbrage at having his voice taken away from him too.


The Gender and Racial Dimensions of Tibetan Exile Reproductive Policy

‘Any state or civil or moral interference in a women’s reproductive decision is a violation of her rights—be it China’s birth control policies in Tibet or exile government’s guidelines or any form of moral and social pressure on women to increase population in exile.’

– taken from Reproductive Governance in the Tibetan Community in Exile – Discrepancies and Digressions

It is good to see a Tibetan exile woman, Dhardon Sharling, taking up the subject of the gender dimension of Tibetan exile political policy and ideology on reproduction. I was the first to publicly write about this issue in March 2013, in Tibetan exile online publication Phayul. I prefer to take it as a compliment that its influence is such that Sharling is unwilling to credit my work, rather than conclude her research was not very thorough (or even worse, partly plagiarised). “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, as we say though (see UPDATE below).

Sharling is one of the few Tibetan exile women (along with Kunsang Dolma and Sang Mota) publicly writing and speaking about issues that challenge or criticise Tibetan exile policy and culture when it comes to gender. The vast majority of internationally recognised, first-class English-language scholarship on gender and women in Tibetan culture, history and Buddhism is still being produced by non-Tibetan women (such as Janet Gyatso, Sarah Jacoby, Rita Gross and others).

Unfortunately, Sharling’s article bypasses/glosses over the equally disturbing issue of nationalism via ideas of ‘racial purity’. Here is my original article on the subject (from Tibetan exile online publication, Is Breeding More Tibetan Children Really the Answer to Tibetan ‘Identity Challenge’? The Dangers of Ethnic Nationalism in which the possibility of ‘ethnic nationalism’ is not ruled out:

Lobsang Sangay appears to be straddling both a form of cultural nationalism (bound by ethnicity and culture) and political nationalism (shared political goals and citizenship). The continuing practice of arranged marriages organised by Tibetan families in exile, particularly with the pressure placed on young Tibetan women to participate, is a sign that ethnic nationalism is alive and kicking. However, given the current situation in exile and in Tibet, wouldn’t it beneficial to err on the side of shared political goals as opposed to shared ethnicity though, with the inevitable racism and intolerance it can breed? Or focus more on preserving the Tibetan identity by continuing to set up and support institutions that help keep it alive in other ways like TIPA, TCV schools and various monastic learning centres?

And as Sharling points out:

The exile Tibetan reproductive discourse infuses ethical and moral dimensions to the issue as women refusing to marry and failing to produce more children are seen as being un-nationalistic, and uncaring about Tibetan demographics. The social dictum for a women to reproduce now sounds moralizing and has become a condescending organizing principle in everyday exile discourse at all levels: individual, social and institutional.

Another surprising omission from Sharling’s article (which I mentioned in my Phayul article) are not only issues of global overpopulation but the excessively high levels of mother and child mortality in India, Nepal and Tibet.

A programme called “One H.E.A.R.T.” (Health Education and Research in Tibet) teaches caregivers and expectant mothers in Tibet proper prenatal care, as well as how to deliver babies safely.

According to Executive Director Arlene Samen :

The numbers are shocking: One in every 33 Tibetan women dies in childbirth. One in every 10 babies dies within the first month. But One H.E.A.R.T. says its program already is changing that.

As Gabriel Lafitte points out:

Why did it take a woman from Utah to organise Tibetan women to help each other? Now that she can no longer enter Tibet, is anyone replicating and building on her work? Organising work in Tibet has to be low key, almost invisible, since Chinese fears and suspicions of organised Tibetans are so strong, even if the sole purpose is to reduce death in childbirth. But this is at most only a partial explanation. Women in Tibet have long been told they are lesser births and must wait passively for the state, in its benevolence, to provide modern hospitals. Almost no-one has been encouraging women to believe in their own strengths. Emily Yeh, a Colorado anthropologist, has shown how much Tibetan men and women have come to believe China’s message that Tibetans are lazy. Yet it did not take much to turn this belief around, just basic community development skills, time and dedication.

Although it has been well-documented that the Chinese communist government denies women reproductive freedom in Tibet. It is also clear that adequate healthcare and education for mothers and children in Tibetan exile is still well below acceptable standards. In the Tibetan exile Planning Commission’s Official Report and Census (2010) on the exile community it stated that:

The infant mortality rate of the Tibetan population in exile was recorded as 15.44 per 1000 child-births and it has gone down to 60.3 percent in comparison to 1998. Household economic improvement and better health coverage of the population with essential child health services such as mother and child care programs have ensured continued declines in level of infant mortality.

While this is positive news (if true) it shows there is still more work to be done. The average across the 27 EU member states in 2010 was 4.2 deaths per 1 000 live births. Infant mortality rates tend to be higher than the EU average in central European countries, with the exceptions of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, both of which have had consistently lower rates. And where are the figures for mother mortality please?!

So, before men in suits (or chubas) dictate reproductive policy  and encourage women (in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘cultural purity’) to have even more children, shouldn’t they first focus on making sure pregnant women and their babies are able to survive (and do that without the need for ‘outside’ charitable assistance)?

UPDATE: Sharling claims she did not read my piece and was not aware of it. Which, considering that her article took NINE MONTHS to research is hard to believe. (My article, for the record, took only a couple of days to research and write). Anyone with a Google search and a few relevant keywords would have found the article easily. In addition, it was published in one of the leading Tibetan exile online publications, Phayul, and was one of the few dealing with an issue directly related to women in the Tibetan exile community. Either Sharling is lying; her research and knowledge in this area is not particularly thorough; or she has deliberately ignored it. Reality can often be stranger than fiction, folks.