The Tibetans are often considered a people who have suffered under Chinese occupation and as exiles, but Tibetans have also been misrepresented by Western ideals that still consider them as “enlightened barbarians,” the recently-hired XIV Dalai Lama Chair of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies said Thursday evening.
Jose Cabezon spoke to a MultiCultural Center crowd Thursday and explained current theories relating to Tibetan studies in his inaugural lecture, titled “Tibetan Intelligent Agency.” He said certain myths about Tibetans still exist, such as the belief that all Tibetans are Buddhist and that the Dalai Lama represents all Tibetans.
This portrayal of Tibetans emerges from what Cabezon calls a “positivity” of perspective where Western scholars see the Tibetans as enlightened yet simple people who lived in a Utopia before Chinese occupation. Many scholars hold a romanticized view of Tibetans as people living in a society not tainted by the Western world. This view impedes the Western world’s understanding of Tibetan culture from different points of views, Cabezon said.
“Tibetans are often portrayed as powerless exiles unable to act on their own,” he said. “Positivity of perspective cannot bear the weight of analysis or history.”
On the opposite spectrum, Cabezon said some scholars see Tibetan culture negatively when confronted with the fact that “Tibetans are human like all others.” Where scholars might previously have viewed Tibetans as saintly people unconcerned with possessions, further study may change this view to one of people searching for easily attainable wealth.
Cabezon said he prefers a middle ground between theses two viewpoints, though he admitted that the romantic vision of Tibet was why he was first attracted to the study of Tibet. To present an accurate picture of Tibet for the UCSB program, scholars should use theoretical perspectives from other cultures instead of theories based on Western hegemonic thinking, he said.
To help with Tibetan studies, Cabezon explained the three principles of what he calls “Tibetan Intelligent Agency.” He said scholars should not assume that Tibet’s current political status leads to less agency or that Tibetans’ exile status means they have been forced to give up their religious dogma to adapt to a new culture. He also said that Tibetans are intelligent people who have not lost the ability to manipulate, challenge and undermine the way their society is viewed in the West.
“It’s simply not the case that Tibetans accept the wholesale appropriation of their culture by the West,” he said.
Cabezon was hired in July as one of the last steps to adopt a Tibetan studies program within the Religious Studies Dept. at UCSB. He had spent 10 years as a monk in the Tibetan tradition and has also served as a translator for the XIV Dalai Lama during his visits to the United States, India, Mexico and Spain.
A possible Tibetan studies program was first discussed in April 1991 when the XIV Dalai Lama visited and met with several faculty members within the department, Religious Studies Dept. Chair Wade Clark Roof said. Several donors gave $5,000 to establish the chair. The program is now the only one of its kind on the West Coast and one of only two programs within the United States, though Tibetan classes are offered at other universities, Roof said.
As chair, Cabezon is responsible for inviting lecturers to speak on subjects related to Tibet as well as teaching courses on that subject. He will also hold lectures in Santa Barbara to benefit the donors and the rest of the community, Roof said.
“Here’s a religion our chair will have to maintain history and knowledge about,” he said.
David Marshall, the dean of humanities and fine arts in the College of Letters and Science, said Tibetan studies will increase the interdisciplinary and comparative approach in a department that is already ranked one of the nation’s top 10 programs.
“Never more has the study of religion seemed so important,” he said.
The Religious Studies Dept. offers first-year and second-year Tibetan classes. Cabezon will be teaching Religious Studies 31 in Spring 2002, which will examine the different religions practiced in Tibet.