Whither, Indeed, the Tsampa Eaters?

Becoming good Buddhists may well be a matter of people becoming something they look as though they might have been but never actually were.

Chogyam Trungpa, the renowned guru, once suggested a definition of Tibetan 'insiders', which included the features that: they should speak some variant of the Tibetan language, follow the Buddhist faith, and eat tsampa. 'Tsampa-eaters' is an evocative designation for ethnic Tibetans, but it has certain limits; not all Tibetans eat tsampa (and many tsampa-eaters are, of course, not Tibetan). By the same token, not all Tibetans are Buddhist, and so, resorting to linguistic categories, the rather clumsy term 'Tibetan-speakers' is probably the least unsatisfactory term English has to designate the totality of ethnic Tibetans within and outside the frontiers of the modern Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

 Grossly, there are three main populations of Tibetan-speaking peoples. First, those in the TAR and neighbouring provinces under Communist rule. Second, the inhabitants of the High Himalaya, extending from Pakistan to Bhutan in a long band that blurs at the edges into less distinctly Tibetan cultures. And, lastly, the refugees, living primarily in Southasia. The cultural variations within each of these groups is almost legendary, but this triple division does represent three more-or-less distinct political climates and sets of cultural possibilities. While it would be a hopelessly rash undertaking to predict the future of the Tibetan-speaking peoples, it is worth at least considering some of the cultural possibilities by examining a few past and present trends.

Indigenous Bon

First, Tibet itself. Mourners for the culture of the old country sometimes speak as if Tibet were murdered in 1959 and the corpse burned in 1967. The relatively lenient 1980s saw the reconstrucion of monasteries and their re-population with small numbers of monks; prayer-flags were once more seen above village dwellings, and prayer-wheels began again to turn. Implacably embittered observers maintain that the resurgence is a rolang, a corpse rising in a vacuous show of life.

 A more accurate analogy might be the opposite of this; the revival is less a zombie than a ghost, a strong spirit without much body to speak of. Unsophisticated devotion to Buddhism is as fierce as ever it was. Interestingly, it also seems to he widespread among the youth. Adherence to Buddhism (or Bon) is generally regarded as being an integral element of Tibetan identity, although an exception is made for the Muslim minority. (The rather touching cliche that is commonly cited, apparently as a formula of acceptance, is that the Muslims "speak the best Tibetan", as if this linguistic excellence were satisfactory compensation for a religious deficiency.)

 The situation may be rephrased in the form of a hypothesis. Where the need to be Tibetan is greatest, adherence to Buddhism is strongest. Imagine for a moment the impossible, or at least highly unlikely: China decides it has had enough of its 'Western Barbarians' and gives up Tibet — that is the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Tibetan-speaking areas or Sichuan and Yunnan. Apart from the Balkanisation that would fragment the region within a year or two, what would happen to Buddhism in a modern world where, unlike now, Tibetan ethnicity did not have its back to the wall?

 There would, of course, be no return to the massive clerical machinery of the past. Present apologists for the theocracy would no doubt suddenly remember that life was not all beer and skittles in the good old days, as many Westerners seem to have persuaded themselves it was. For a start, monasteries — several thousand big ones — are expensive to maintain, and the government would be hard put to find volunteers to reconstitute a serfdom. (A brief word on the term 'serf', the use of which raises hackles as few other expressions manage to. The only entities entitled to receiving revenue in Central Tibet were the church, the nobility and the state. The ordinary peasantry in Central Tibet did not own the landholdings on which they worked, and they were not free to leave them. There, they were serfs. The use of the term implies neither a moral judgement on a political system, nor a justification for the brutal destruction of an extraordinary civilisation.)

 State Lamaism apart, what about Buddhism among the people? Would Buddhism, as one of the components of Tibetanness, find such a wide popular base in an environment where Tibetan ethnicity were not threatened? Ethnic identity is simitar to the Buddhist notion of the self, that is, rather like the hole in the doughnut that needs something around it in order even to pretend to exist at all. The remarkable conformity to this Tibetan identity that one encounters may just be proportional to the colossal scale of the encircling context, viz. several million Han. But what if the Han went away? (A rhetorical question, for the Han are not about to go away.) It is reported that Catholicism in Poland is showing signs of declining, especially among the younger generation, in the short time that has elapsed since the collapse of Communism …

 It is a possibility worth considering that the Buddhist component of the Tibetan identity may not be as indispensable as it is usually taken to be. There is some suggestion, in today's TAR, of a distinctly Tibetan culture that is neither Chinese nor the immediate heir to Lamaist civilisation. A trend is emerging among an educated minority in search of a nationalism independent of the theocratic heritage, and their hero is none of the usual eminent sages such as Padmasambhava, Atisa or Milarepa. Instead, it is Gesar of Ling, and the Tibetan epic is the canon.

 The Buddhist overtones of the Gesar story are regarded as a tarnish that has accrued around a truly indigenous myth, while Buddhism itself is seen as an unwelcome import from a foreign land. The trend further involves shepherding together all religious and cultural manifestations not of an obviously Buddhist character and labelling the collection 'Bon'. Properly, old Bon was not a shamanic religion, and did not include many of the pagan (in the true sense of the term, meaning 'village') beliefs and practices often attributed to it. But the word Bon, which may be cognate with the name 'Bod', meaning Tibet, is a convenient catch-all to designate the entirety of Tibetan religious beliefs not of Buddhist provenance.

 Tibetan scholars of a nationalistic bent take pains to point out that in the earliest recorded versions of the famous procreation myth (which is also respectably Darwinian, as it happens), the protagonist monkey and ogress are not associated with Avalokitesvara and Tara. They also emphasise that the oldest sources concerning the Yarlung dynasty do not identify the first king, NyatriTsenpo, as a Southasian refugee from the wars between the Kauravas and Pandavas, but as someone who came out of the Tibetan nam (sky); and they also mention that nam happens to be the name of a valley in Central Tibet that they would dearly love to excavate.

 How important this trend will be in shaping the identity of the next generation of Tibetans remains to be seen. Buddhism will undoubtedly survive, but, if the Lhasa intelligentsia is sufficiently persuasive, perhaps only as the little tradition of a culture dominated by a quasi-secular nationalist ideology.

Tibetan Borderlands

One of the idées reçues about the High Himalaya outside the TAR concerns the inevitable fate of the region's Tibetan culture. It runs roughly as follows. For centuries, the people had depended on Tibet as the fountainhead of the dutsi, the nectar of Buddhist teaching. The 'Liberation' of Tibet in 1959 effectively cut the borderlands off from that source. The destruction of the hives would soon begin, and, above all, the Queen Bee had flown to India. Severed from their traditional centre of gravity, Himalayan tsampa-eaters would be flung into a widening gyre of Hinduism and modemity that would absorb them and extinguish their culture.

 The significance of the 1959 landmark is something we will come back to in a moment. What is certain is that cultural changes in the cis-Tibetan borderlands have at least as much to do with political and demographic changes south of the Himalaya, both before and after this period, as they do with the Chinese annexation of Tibet. The people of Baltistan, for example, speakers of the most archaic form of Tibetan, have been followers of Islam for nearly five centuries. A particularly striking instance of democraphic change is Sikkim. A century ago, the population of that country consisted almost entirely of Tibetan-speaking Bhutias (or Lhori), Lepchas and some long-established Limbus. From about 1875 onward there came the first waves of Nepali immigrants, largely with British encouragement, and by 1890 these already outnumbered the indigenous people. By 1980, the proportion of the latter had been reduced to less than a quarter of the overall population.

 British land reforms, and later the end of the Sikkimese monarchy, effectively put an end to the privileged position occupied by the 12 dominant Bhutia clans. Marriages between the latter and the Nepali majority are still relatively uncommon; but the advantages of being a Tibetan-speaking Buddhist no longer lie in the traditional enjoyment of social ascendancy, but in the backhanded privilege of entitlement to benefits as a Scheduled Tribe — quite a different matter.

 The integration of Sikkim into the Indian Union in 1975 deprived the Sikkimese Bhutias of their sovereignty and thereby of the more drastic possibilities (still available to Bhutan) of shoring up an old eminence. The much-discussed Greater Nepal may be a political non-starter, but it is a strong cultural possibility, and the future of Sikkim's Bhutias depends to a great extent on whether the younger generalion is persuaded that its Scheduled identity is something to be proud of, or if prosperous Nepali role-models are a better bet.

 Being a second-class (or, more accurately, third-class) citizen is nothing new to the tsampa-eaters of Nepal. The unification of the kingdom brought around 15 enclaves of Tibetan-speakers under the rule of Kathmandu. In the Muluki Ain, the national code of 1854, Bhoteys were pigeonholed in the third of five vertically arranged slots, as Enslavable Alcohol Drinkers, together with Chepangs, Tharus and Kirantis, just above more disreputable groups such as Europeans.

 In a polity constructed along these lines, the elite are a restricted club and admission for the lowly is contingent on a reinvented past. Under the circumstances, a number of Bhotey groups did Hindu-ise with varying degrees of success, depending on whether the people who mattered were willing to be convinced by their conspicuous abandonment of giveaway Bhotey traits of beef, booze and Buddhism. Other groups managed to wring certain grudging concessions out of the lawgivers, suchas the right to be called Gurung (non-enslavable) rather than Bhhotey — somewhat to the bewilderment of the present generation of Tibetan-speakers, who know they are not Gurungs and wonder why their forefathers ever bothered to confuse matters. The odd thing is that these ethnic mutants quite often change back into being Bhoteys, and may even switch to and fro several times in the course of a walk from the plains to the plateau.

 Anthropologists tend to fall into two camps on the matter of Hinduisation: those who lament the loss of the Bhotey's Tibetan identity, and those who maintain that there is, under the Hindu cap, a secret self that is what the people really are. In point of fact, in most cases the groups in question are probably really whatever they happen to be at the time; deftness in this kind of ethnic legerdemain is a feature of the protean character of people who live on borders.

 The religious conversion of groups is often less to do with collective divine inspiration than with having an eye on the main chance. In more recent times, the main chance has increasingly come to lie not among the elite rulers of Nepal but in the international sphere. Real wealth no longer consists of gifts of land and customs contracts but in carpets, tourism and other murkier adventures in East and Southeast Asia. The international traders themselves return to their homes with more than mere profits.

 Much has been said about the potentially deletrious effects of tourism on the culture of the High Himalaya, but many of these claims are surely exaggerated. Tourism may certainly influence the economy of an area, but does it really make a significant impression on the culture? By and large, the host societies of the Himalaya take a benevolent view of tourists. They like the things they bring. But nobody seriously wants to be like the tourists. As the North English musician Jake Thackeray once sang about the droves of southern tourists who annually visited his native Yorkshire:

 We don't mind rippers and scouts and ramblers.

They can come and stand in the rain all day;

They give us money and beer and a right good belly-laugh.

Then they go away.

 The traders who spend long periods abroad in developed countries, where they find sleeker foreign models than the peel-nosed, parsimonious romantics in clumsy trekking boots, do not go away. After all, wherever they are, they are the people. The adults speak among themselves in their Tibetan dialects, but to their children, to whom they give Nepali names, in Nepali. The children are educated at boarding schools in Kathmandu or, better, in India, and one frequently hears parents proudly announcing that their offspring cannot speak their native tongue, or that English is their first language.

 The inescapable conclusion to be drawn is that the successful traders are not especially attached to their identity as Bhoteys of the Tibetan hinterland; and that if they do possess a "real" identity that endures beneath their changes or travellers' guises, there is little indication that they want to pass it on to their children. And if these polished, English-speaking children return to live in their parental villages at the close of their years of systematic depaysement, it is they who will be the cosmopolitan paradigms for the succeeding generation. Traditional caste-climbing may no longer exercise sections of Nepal's Bhotey population in the way it once did, but the trend may have been replaced by an aspiration to Nepaliness free of regional stigmata or, better yet, to a nondescript internationalism. However, in those areas of the borderlands where economic conditions permit, the future of Tibetan ethnicity may lie beyond the options of annihilation by acculturation to the neighbouring (Indian or Nepali) civilisation, or absorption into a conceptual West. The Tibetan-speakers of the Himalaya might become Tibetanised.

 A particularly vivid instance of the process of Tibetanisation is Bhutan, the only place in the world where the politically dominant community comprises adherents of Lamaist Buddhism and speaks the Tibetan language. (Tibetanisaton must of course be understood in a very loose sense, since the process has a distinctively Bhutanese flavour.) The policy originated in an effort to offset the consolidation of Nepali ethnicity in the south, but gained considerable impetus from the ascendancy of the Central Monk Body. The pursuit of the policy was resisted by the Nepalis who did not want to have their distinctiveness, or, more pertinently, their political agenda, snuffed out. A northern backlash precipitated a horrible slide into a Clausewitzian pursuit of policy by Other Means.

 What about the Tibetanisation in other areas? Aren't the Tibetan-speakers of the borderlands already Tibetan? As it happens, rather less than is often thought. 

Subtle Barbarism

Conventionally, there were two phases of Buddhist diffusion in Tibet. The first from around the seventh to the ninth centuries, and the second beginning a hundred years or so later and enduring until the Liberation. The Liberation of Tibet; the Integration of Sikkim; the Unification of Nepal. Liberation, Integration, Unification — these words all belong to the special vocabulary that the language of diplomacy reserves for gross political euphemisms, and no one who is not a propagandist for their perpetration can seriously utter them outside imaginary inverted commas. There is another word that might safely be listed in this special vocabulary. Diffusion. How is a religion diffused? Not like perfume through a room. It does so through conversion, and, unpretentiously, the literal meaning of the verb 'to convert' in Tibetan is 'to conquer' or 'subdue'.

 The history of Buddhist sectarianism in Tibet is very largely a history of conflict for patronage, the key expression being mchod-yon, Priest and Benefactor, a notion that designates equally the relationship between a wealthy householder and his private chaplain as it does the alliance between the Sakyapas and the Mongols in the 13th century, or the Gelugpas and the Mongols in the 17th century. Himalayan folklore abounds in stories of individual lamas who fought one another with magical bombs and spells over the matter of patronage from one village or another.

 Buddhism is a missionary religion, like Christianity or Islam but unlike, say, Judaism or most Hindu religions.The underhand destruction of the shamanic tradition in Mongolia by the Lamaist vanguard is a particularly well-documented instance of the way diffusion has occured. Much the same thing seems to have happened within Tibet itself. Buddhism did not enter a religious vacuum when it reached Tibet. There was already a well-established religion, although we do not know what it looked like. (It is not even certain what it was called, except that one group of its priests were known as the bon.)

 There was certainly a spirited resistance to the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. The First Diffusion was brought to an end by a king called Langdarma, who apparently decided that he'd had enough of the arrogance of a privileged sangha, and in particular of the absurd excesses of his own late elder brother, Repachen. Langdarma was murdered for his deeds, and still gets bad press about the whole business.

 And now there is the Third Diffusion, originating in the exile community. As Kesang Tseten has convincingly suggested in his recent article on the subject (Himal Mar/Apr 1993), the burgeoning international interest in the Tibetan cause has less to do with a sporting sympathy for the underdog than with a real appreciation of the universal relevance of Tibetan Buddhism. But the Third Spread is not limited to the first-world public undergoing a spiritual crisis. It is also reaching the Tibetan-speaking people of the Himalayan rimland. How?

 The common-enough scenario is that a businessman from, say, Japan, the United States or Taiwan becomes impassioned by the Tibetan cause and goes trekking in the Himalaya. Because he has Tibet on his mind, what he sees is a Tibetan culture apparently fallen into decline: a struggling language, illiterate monks, dilapidated temples, and a degenerate Lamaist tradition. With the blessing of his lama (who probably has never been to the place), he elects to help the area by building a local school emphasising traditional Tibetan studies, or perhaps even a monastery. No objection, naturally, from the locals, who have not to examine the gift horse too closely. To the outsider, at least, the generous act looks like the commendable resuscitation of a failing Buddhist heritage. The truth is, the border regions may never have been all that Lamaist in the first place. The conversion of Tibet was a half-done job at the edges, and even now there is abundant evidence of religious cults that were eliminated in Tibet centuries ago.

 In an environment where village ceremonies can be strangely syncretic affairs, with a priest eviscerating a sheep beside a lama intoning formulae about benefits to all sentient beings, the identity of Himalayan Tibetan-speakers is understandably indistinct. In terms of national sentiment, the people in question may unequivocally be, say, Nepalis; but no one in Nepal is merely Nepali; and if the tsampa-eaters are to be ethnically Bhotey, they might as well aspire to the perceived apotheosis of this designation, the sophisticated Buddhist who speaks the elegant dialect of Central Tibet. Especially if someone is paying them to do it.

 The conversion of the hinterland has been going on sporadically for a long time. In Sikkim, for example, the Lepchas have to a great extent gone over to Buddhism and the Limbu Tsong have abandoned their Mundhum in favour of the new faith. As for 1959, far from crippling Lamaism in the Himalaya, the Chinese annexation of Tibet may have fortified it. The passage of Tibetan refugees — some of them influential lamas apparently shocked by the paganism of the frontiers they passed in flight — gave Buddhism an additional boost, and the cults of autochthonous gods suffered as a consequence. Becoming good Buddhists is not necessarily a question of reversion to a glorious past state; it may equally be a matter of people becoming something they look as though they might have been but never actually were.

 The need for a clear identity sometimes leads people to resurrect symbols from the very archaic past, or from someone else's past, or even from a past that never was. Many of the rituals now being performed at the Pemayangtse monastery in West Sikkim have been hauled out of obscurity in recent years; others are entirely new inventions that merely look old. In Bhutan, the gho were never traditionally worn even by many of the Tibetan-speaking groups, and Dzongkha was spoken only in the west of the country. A great deal might also be said about the studied consolidation of folk culture in Ladakh. And so on.

 Ironically, the border Tibetans may prevent the annihilation of their identity by turning it into something else. Their real tradition has too much in it of subtle barbarism to be reducible to a few bold, preservable strokes. But that is what happens when people, anywhere, begin to think about who they are and where their collective future lies. The phenomenon has been remarked on by many commentators on traditionalism and the invention of traditions, but perhaps never so succinctly as by the 11lth century Arab philosopher Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali: "For those who have abandoned their traditional faith there is no hope of any return; because the perpetuation of tradition requires above all that one should be unaware of it."

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