Buddhism Observed: Travelers, Exiles and Tibetan Dharma in Kathmandu

Buddhism Observed: Travelers, Exiles and Tibetan Dharma in Kathmandu

Buddhism Observed: Travelers, Exiles and Tibetan Dharma in Kathmandu

Buddhism Observed: Travelers, Exiles and Tibetan Dharma in Kathmandu


How do contemporary Westerners and Tibetans understand not only what it means to be 'Buddhist', but what it means to be hailed as one from 'the West' or from 'Tibet'?This anthropological study examines the encounter between Western travellers and Tibetan exiles in Bodhanath, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal and analyses the importance of Buddhism in discussions of political, cultural and religious identity.Based on extensive field research in Nepal, Buddhism Observedquestions traditional assumptions about Buddhism and examines the rarely considered phenomenon of Western conversions to a non-Western religion. Scholars of Anthropology, Religion and Cultural Studies will find here a refreshing insight into how to approach 'other' societies, religions and cultures.


Emanating bodies in the transnational terrain

Previously Tibetan religion, as we have seen, had been embedded in its landscape; consistently imagined as belonging to its place. By the middle of the twentieth century this position was almost completely reversed: it was not the landscape that provided Western fantasies of Tibet and its religion with coherence, but its esoteric religion that gave Tibet and its landscape imaginative difference and significance. Even Tibetan religion as a whole had ceased to be the object of fascination; now only the spiritual masters and their most advanced techniques excited Western fantasies.

(Bishop 1989:244)

Before embarking on a discussion of the monasteries, shops and inns of Bodhanath, Kathmandu, where Euro-American travelers and expatriates come face to face with three-dimensional Tibetans, here I examine aspects of the larger conditions and contexts that inform such encounters. This includes the condition of exile for Bodhanath Tibetans, with its attendant pressures to represent the nation and stabilize national-cultural essences so that Tibetan-ness might be reproduced outside the homeland. It also includes the translocal context in which representations of Tibet make their way across international boundaries to the homes of contemporary 'Western' readers, viewers, travelers-to-be.

In an attempt to draw out these broader theoretical features, I am concerned here with one of the most profoundly 'significant' - and esoteric - aspects of Tibetan religious, political and cultural life: the phenomena of 'reincarnate lamas, ' or 'emanation bodies' (Tib. sprul-sku, pronounced tulku) and their place in today's global landscape. Although the Tibetan term 'tulku' is more literally and properly translated as 'emanation body' - or 'emanation' as shorthand - in what follows I use the English designation 'reincarnate lama' as well since it has developed greater usage among Western commentators (including Buddhists). Samuel rightly discerns that the very term 'lama has developed a number of overlapping areas of meaning' (1993:280), but in general it refers to a spiritual adept or religious teacher. Therefore, the majority of monks are not lamas, many lamas are not recognized tulkus, and all tulkus are lamas, at least potentially. the tulku is the acme of Tibetan Buddhist social and religious roles, as well as a special order of being.

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