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.


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