Historiography of Buddhism

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Please go to the library and stay there

Earlier this semester, Lauran Hartley, Tibetan Studies Librarian at Columbia University, visited the University of Toronto to share news from her recent acquisition trip in China and the TAR. Lauran is part of a collaboration between Columbia University and the University of Toronto launched in 2013, where she provides acquisitions and reference services to students at both institutions. This fall we were able to meet her during one of her site visits, with a presentation including photographs from her trips, newly acquired Tibetan texts for the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, and a special research meeting with students accessing Tibetan materials, including a tour of the Tibetan Reading Room in the East Asian Studies library.

rig 'dzin rgod ldem dang btsan gnyis gling pa'i gter ma dpe tshan bdunrig ‘dzin rgod ldem dang btsan gnyis gling pa’i gter ma dpe tshan bdun, Seven books from the treasures of gter ston Rigzin Geothkyi Demtru (1337-1409) and Tennyi Lingpa (1480-1535) on meditative and ritual practices. 46 x 10 cm. Red and black ink, 20th century.

Thinking of the distribution of interests in our class, I’d like to devote some space to the issues of acquiring and distributing those texts, to the question of how and where they should be housed, and also to the specific resources that Lauran shared with us.

But first.

I love books so much that most of my debts, broken relationships, and embarrassing moments are related to books in one way or another. The way movies depict drug use or a lust for cash and power, those modes of being are my way of working with books. I don’t know if it’s reading them or looking at them, or saying I’ve read them, but whatever it is, my faults come out through books. I’ve been a book hoarder for most of my life, and when I moved to Canada, I wasn’t able to hoard books anymore, so I became a person who loads up double bags of books from the library and pouts at the circulation desk, waiting for special loans. But listening to Lauran’s talk made me appreciate books even more, because we saw the huge treks she makes in order to acquire them, looking for whatever texts might make our work more rich and powerful. She coordinates multiple vendors, locates the best bookshops and sources, knows how to compare the various shipping and logistical issues, and keeps track of which texts are likely to make it into our library’s collections through one program or another, which are available online and which ones need to be tracked down. She has asked us to send her any special requests and questions we have in our research.

I’m finding it worthwhile to pause, with whatever library book is closest, and consider all the causes and conditions necessary for that book to travel from its place(s) of origin and into my grubby hands. I started to look more closely at the printing locations and the numbers of editions when I entered information in my bibliographies. It made me appreciate our context at the university more, like we live near a gold mine and just have to walk in and work with the gold to make our scholarship.

Now for some tools:

Lauran’s information is online here (scroll down to Tibet Collection Library Staff): http://www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/tibetan-faculty.html

And this is University of Toronto’s Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library’s page for Tibetan Studies Resources: http://east.library.utoronto.ca/tibetan-studies-resources

A subset from that link, a list of databases and search resources for Tibetan Studies: https://east.library.utoronto.ca/content/search-books-0#

And here is the information for the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (If the book is particularly delicate or rare, it will be here. There are lockers for your materials so you can go in and handle materials with assistance.): http://fisher.library.utoronto.ca/

Columbia University’s Tibetan Studies page, including an Online Research Guide, is here: http://library.columbia.edu/locations/eastasian/tibetan.html

The key thing I learned from Lauran’s visit is that we should use the Tibetan Resource Room at the library and call on Lauran as a resource, early and often. I think this is especially important even if Tibetan studies is on the edge of your work; since so much work is left to be translated, if we even make the effort to include Tibetan materials more in studies that touch on the region and relevant topics, Lauran serves as a wonderful bridge for this work. This may be a leap, but I’d like to consider incorporating Tibetan language materials as though those materials were already translated, at least for reference, to note that they exist as we’re working. Are there any projects where you might use a Tibetan source for comparison, where it might be helpful to find out what else is available that’s not showing up in a basic search? It would make sense to contact Lauran about this. I’m writing this for myself, because I tend to shuffle my feet and freak out when I’m not sure what range of materials are available, but in this transitional time, it seems especially fruitful to take that step and ask about what else might be available, so that we start to make more of these connections.

Right now the Tibetan Reading Room is a quiet room set aside in the vast stacks of the 8th floor at Robarts. It’s there for us to use. At the end of our day together, Professor Garrett suggested that we go there and stay in the room to work, really spending more time around the books, which will influence us even if we have only beginning exposure to them. It can be tempting to keep working through online access to texts without going to seek them out physically, but we learned through this visit how much a range of approaches, and physically spending time with the books, can inform our practice as curious researchers.


Our Numata Reading Group with Annabella Pitkin centered on a 28-page draft: The Cup Runneth Over: Miraculous Materiality, Ethical Critique, and the Power of Superpowers in a Modern Tibetan Buddhist Biography. The text offers a rich view on miracle narratives in the recent 2004 namthar of Drikung Amgon Rinpoche (late 19th-mid-20th century) by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen, a Drikung Kagyu scholar living in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In this post I’ll be treating the conversation, rather than the writing, as our text, and applying the analysis methods from our Study of Rhetoric and Discipline reports. In particular, I’m focusing on outlining a few themes of our conversation, with attention to an excluded theme and the structure of our conversation, holding the conversation in tension with the text to consider what we talked about the most when given the opportunity.

The first theme I will turn to here is word choice, with an ongoing question about the use of ‘miracle’ as a term for Amgon Rinpoche’s food-based displays of extraordinary generosity in the namthar. In our reading group conversation, miracles were an important topic, but the conversation was much less about miracles themselves, although this was discussed, but more based in a dialogue about whether ‘miracle’ was the appropriate word for these narratives, where the text places itself when that word is used, and how it positions the events described in the namthar in relation to, for example, Christian notions of the miracle. Dr. Pitkin actually begins her text with two theoretical windows on the use of the word ‘miracle’, looking to both Rosenzweig and Fabio Rambelli, quoting Arjun Appadurai on Buddhist ritual. The question of whether and how, and by whom, the term ‘miracle’ should be legitimated may have run through about half of our conversation.

As a child of the 1980s in a Saturday Night Live watching, Roman Catholic family, I had Father Guido Sarducci lurking in the back of my head throughout our conversation. For Father Guido, a miracle is an extraordinary event, but one that is rather routine in the sense that they are just what saints do. They qualify a person for sainthood. This holiday season, when I tell my family that I went to a talk about miracles, someone will certainly quote Father Sarducci talking about Mother Teresa’s qualifications for sainthood: “She’s got three-four miracles.” In this sense, functionally in the qualification of saints, we grew up thinking of miracles as extraordinary but relatively frequent events, as part of access to divinity through a particular innocence or cultivation through prayer, something that is performed in demonstration of this access, with the purpose to help or display. The two dimensions I see in these early personal assessments of miracles are belief and qualification for sainthood.

Dr. Pitkin was clear in her intention to use the word ‘miracle’ as a way to frame the piece and push at many of these issues, but it was interesting to see how strongly many members of our group felt about whether or not the word choice was appropriate, or how much we wanted to point out different associations and theoretical frameworks for looking at miracles. One salient and related theme in our conversation, was the significance of food in the miracles of Amgon Rinpoche in particular, both in relation to Tibetan cultural identity and also in terms of other explorations of food in religious studies, for example in Dr. Garrett’s work, which emerged several times in the conversation. Because of Amgon Rinpoche’s generation of, for example, Lhasa momos, there is a conversation in the paper and in our talk about the significance of the material produced or transformed through the extraordinary event, particularly in the upheaval of mid-20th century Tibet. This miraculous production of food included the inversion of the sponsor/lama relationship, where Amgon Rinpoche would be expected to receive offerings and food from his visitors. Our conversation did turn to this inverted economy, which is also a theme present in Dr. Pitkin’s paper. There is also the question of authorship and inclusion of these miracles to the extent that they appear in the 2004 namthar, with the potential for carefully inflected communication with diaspora communities.

This aspect of communication with diaspora communities, of the miracle narratives serving a transnational function, did not figure as prominently in our conversation. Events which may help frame these transnational functions, which I wrote on earlier this semester for a different class but did not bring up in our reading group, would be the Hindu milk miracles of 1995, 2006, and 2010, when murtis in multiple temples began to take up the milk that was offered to them. There are some overlaps with our namthar’s miracle narratives in terms of the use of food (actually producing shifts in milk prices in parts of South Asia), and also some important differences, for example, the economy of offering staying intact and the extraordinary nature of the event residing in the murti rather than in the context of human conversation. In terms of transnational communication, the milk miracle included multiple locations of Hindu diaspora, and was, as many have pointed out, quickly mobilized by the BJP, occurring and particularly opportune times for elections. The general potential for a miracle narrative to produce an ostensibly apolitical break that, in a highly politicized way, closes off both religious and political analysis and interpretation is present in Dr. Pitkin’s paper, but in our conversation we did not pursue this thread as fully. This may be a sort of excluded theme in our conversation, or it may also represent where our emphasis on the terminology of ‘miracle’ led—in debating the usefulness of the term, we may have opened up certain pathways for analysis of the project, but also closed off some closer comparisons of miracles being mobilized in terms of political and cultural identity.

The reading group, as framed by our faculty at the University of Toronto and as Dr. Pitkin engaged it, took a structure that is helpful for our Study of Rhetoric and Discipline. This was a truly engaging experience, in the form of multiple questions and answers, where the group served as both audience and co-constructors of problems and solutions in thinking through the many potent topics that emerged from the essay. It helped me to see our work in writing as part of a larger, ongoing conversation.


As I was reading Clare E. Harris’s work The Museum on the Roof of the World: Art, Politics, and the Representation of Tibet, I noticed the term invention re-emerging in our texts. Wondering whether it would fall somewhere in our analysis of linguistic polarizations, or how and why it’s being used in different texts from our course, I started to reflect on its use in our earlier readings. The most memorable example for me, and most thoroughly explained within the text, was in Toni Huber’s use of the term in describing the re-invention of holy sites. Interestingly a quick search of Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La shows that ‘invention’ shows up in two main ways: as a way of describing an inventive-ness which westerners are assuming Tibetan artists do not have, and secondly, as a way of saying that Europeans make things up about Tibet.

When Clare Harris introduces ‘invention’, she does so in proposing the invention of contemporary art in Tibet, citing Hobsbawn & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. She introduces their work by noting that  “…a seemingly timeless facet of culture often originates in an exercise in selecting from the past, in capitalizing on precedent and remodeling it for novel purposes in the present. An invented tradition is therefore not to be taken as somehow false but rather as part of a process whereby culture is reproduced and revived through innovation.” While these introductions are used to frame the upcoming chapter about Tibetan contemporary art, they also come directly after a chapter that immerses us in the space of the Lhasa museum complex. I could not help wondering: What prevents us from applying this rationale to the workings of the state apparatus in turning Lhasa into a theme park? And what inspires us to frame histories in different ways? So much of Harris’s clarity and persuasiveness in portraying the Lhasa complex comes from her skilled selection of the language of propaganda, which applies notions of national unity to a time before nations. It would be possible to look at this type of language as an inventive move, re-inventing the history of Tibet. How does the term invention figure into our mapping of fact and fiction this semester?

In some cases our use of the term invention is valorized, actually pointing to one of the best things. In my family it’s common to come up with a quick idea of an invention and consider the royalties that would come from it, just like buying a lottery ticket. And on the other hand, sometimes when we say invention, it really just means lying. The phrase ‘pure invention’ captures some of this irony. There are other words that serve this dual purpose of scientific innovation and lying, like ‘concoction’. The idea is somewhat more elaborate than a lie, actually: the creator of an invented or concocted fiction really worked out the details or made up an intricate falsehood.

The other day I was describing a card game to a friend who had never encountered it before, an old favorite, B.S. The entire deck is dealt out, and you need to get rid of as many cards as possible, with the winner being the first person with an empty hand. You put your cards in the center, face-down, and state what they are: 3 Jacks, 2 Kings, and so forth. No one can see your cards unless someone really suspects that you’re lying; if they want to take the chance, they can call B.S. and force you to turn the cards over. At that point, you either told the truth, and the person who called you out has to take the deck, or you’re caught in a lie, and take the whole deck. In a sporting way, the game includes a teaching moment: there’s something at stake for lying.

Just as there is something accusatory in the sport of B.S., the idea of “invented tradition” is quote loaded. Going over the source cited in the introduction to Tibetan contemporary art, where the quote gives a rather pleasant or innovative turn on the phrase, I found more reference to empire and the effects of invented tradition in British colonial presence. In Hobsbawn & Ranger’s text, the analysis spans different moments in the British Empire, including exclusionary practices enacted through invented traditions in colonial Africa and India, with traditions invented by and for the colonizers and colonized. Considering how we use different language in discourse on Tibet, and with recent events in Toronto and the protests surrounding the extension of the museological consolidation of Tibetan identity in the theatrical production of “Glorious Tibet”, I found myself wondering how the burden of direct language takes shape in protest, where the word “lie” will show up quite frequently.

Another way I think of the word ‘invention’ is that there’s some issue, like the ketchup won’t come out of the bottle, and you find some simple turn to fix it. The idea of a change emergent from a problem, creativity brought on by circumstances and a wish to make things simpler, quicker, easier, or more humane.

Agent Cooper’s Dream

My friend’s mom would let us watch whatever we wanted from Blockbuster.

After she came home from work, she took a glass of wine upstairs and we took over the couch. Seven Years in Tibet. Brad Pitt! This was our introduction to Tibet.

We had all our warm clothes and nothing to worry about. We wanted to learn about Tibet too. How cold was it really? And wasn’t the Dalai Lama lucky at first to live in a place that’s so fancy, with everybody paying so much attention to him, or would he have been so cold in the hollow dark palace? And the end of the story was beyond our knowledge of history, somewhere in a hazy mixture of conflicts that fell to the side of the biggest wars in our imagination. We were responsible for knowing about those biggest wars, and the American Constitution. Our teacher asked us to clip out Earthweek articles from the newspaper, and we did this every week. I remember that she cried when she told us about Tiananmen Square. This was awkward at the time, crucial later.

Agent Cooper

Agent Cooper

But seven years before that movie came out in the theatres, maybe eight years before it made it to VHS, some time when I was really not supposed to be watching, my sister showed me the whole two-season run of Twin Peaks. This was partly to sponsor my upcoming education in cinema and detective work, and perhaps partly because the series was a little damaging when viewed in solitude. Near the top of the first season, I discovered years later, Agent Cooper had introduced me to the great land of Tibet, with an exercise in catching killers through meditative absorption and target practice, throwing rocks at bottles while reading off different prompts to narrow down the killer’s identity. Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer. Agent Cooper learned, through dreams and study, how to nourish and trust his intuition. I was too early in my career to notice the historical precariousness of his observations, or his conflation of other Mahayana schools with Zen. Because of the sincerity of his narration, I quote him at length here:

“Following a dream I had three years ago, I have become deeply moved by the plight of the Tibetan people, and have been filled with a desire to help them. I also awoke from the same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique, involving mind-body coordination operating hand-in-hand with the deepest level of intuition.”

Later in the series, our villain Windom Earle brings up stories about red-hats and yellow-hats, the mythical underpinnings of the Black and White Lodges, planting further echoes for aspiring Tibetologists of the 21st century. Life is one great hallucination.

But if I go back a little further, I remember the puzzles.

Grandma had a puzzle in the den. One side was the United States, and the other side was the world. Here’s a picture of this type of puzzle:

Vintage Milton Bradley World Map Puzzle

Vintage Milton Bradley World Map Puzzle

We may note that the Atlantic Ocean floats steamer ships and, surprisingly, sailboats. But from the Cape of Good Hope, one might observe a mermaid reclining on a stone in the middle of the ocean, and may wonder whether she is brave enough to stay at her post while the massive swimming yellow dragon approaches from Australia. The central region of North America, the United States, carries many detailed industrial and natural markers, while Canada carries considerably fewer lifestyle notations. Toronto, for example, lies between two large piles of logs. Looking further East, we see the Taj Mahal riding low into the Deccan Plateau, with a panda bear knocking at the door. On this map there are no diasporas. The color blocks make loose borders, but there are no lines at all. So many things are wrong with these, and I loved these puzzles. I’m sure that if I find this in Grandma’s basement over the holidays, I’ll want to put it together piece by piece.

So then I could flash forward to a party in the late 2000s. When my friend the foreign policy expert shook his head and asked me why I wanted to write my art history paper about Tibet. He looked at me skeptically, rubbing his forehead with dismay while I talked about my topic, until I started to talk about buffer states, and then we had a conversation.

I bought the Bardo Thödol and a book about the Kalacakra Mandala. I kept the Bardo Thödol alongside the Egyptian Book of the Dead and hoped to discover what a book of the dead would tell me, fundamentally and universally, that I could use as a lever in my future departure from the body. Today when I read books about the misconceptions people have, and the poor ways they categorize and exoticize, and the damage it does, I can see through my own arrangements that misunderstandings are like stepping stones to any understanding that does take shape. And that I need to make and break my own misconceptions sometimes. And that I’ll look back on my current intellectual certainties with laughter at best. Perhaps it comes to a question of motivation, and care.

The stories could keep going forward. If the language of Ewoks was actually inspired by Tibetan language, then many levels of analysis will be required to continue the process for me. I will find Tibet in every thread of my clothing at the age of five, and I’ll find it in every pleasant dream and in each nightmare, because this is what happens when we look for things from the present state.

I’d like to understand the dream of 2008, when he died and came back in a white tent. And the disappearing gift shop on St. Mark’s in 2005. But otherwise the accounts are really just like the little dot you make on a ruler with a felt tip marker, to keep the measure temporarily. Academic work has some kind of wrapper on it that’s supposed to keep it clean alongside the slippage of dreams. There is nothing really to illustrate.

I would like to note that, as a child, I thought that Weird Al Yankovic and Michael Jackson were brothers, and that Weird Al had permission to use Michael Jackson’s songs because of this closeness. I ground this misunderstanding in Bad / Fat, Beat It! / Eat It! and so forth. With these kinds of perceptions, I can only be grateful for the books I have.


In 1986, my grandmother and her two sisters took me in a small navy blue Chevette up across the Wisconsin border to the shrine of La Salette.

Or in 1985, my grandmother, her two sisters, and I, together with my brother, piled into my Uncle Stanley’s big brown sedan and drove up across the Wisconsin border to the shrine of La Salette.

Or it was 1987. Or we went twice.

La Salette Basilica, France

La Salette Basilica, France

In 1986, when we drove up past the northwest suburbs of Chicago, up the scenic way on the county roads instead of the highway, because it was more beautiful, because we felt safer going slower in the car, because it was off the toll road, we packed a big lunch. We put it in the trunk of the car, or in the hatchback, and brought it to our family friend who worked at the shrine. Or we went out for a big lunch together when we arrived there. Or he had food ready for us, but I don’t think that’s right. Or we did both, twice, once in 1986 and once in 1988.

When I think of La Salette, I remember an arrangement of figures like this:

Our Lady of La Salette

Our Lady of La Salette

We told the story in the car, maybe we had told it before, maybe we watched a film afterwards, or there was a book that explained it. There may have been a pamphlet at the site, and anyway my grandma would have repeated the story for me as many times as I asked for it. The children had seen an apparition, and the site of their vision became a source of refuge. I loved this story so much. I don’t remember if they told it at school.

When we arrived at Twin Lakes there was a hilltop, or it seemed like a hilltop, with a circle around it, or space to show that it was separate and precious, with the statue of three figures standing there, a woman and a girl, and a smaller boy. I had my own little statue, which I brought home with me and kept safe.This little statue was perfect, and eventually I remembered the big statue to be like this little one, colored in, shiny, pearly all the way around except the bottom, which was chalky white with a hole in the base, but I remembered the big statue all wrong. The big statue stayed grey and solid. I made a similar mistake with a Care Bear toy, thinking I had the big stuffed animal when I fell asleep, dreaming about my amazing bear, bigger than my head, waking up and remembering that it was the small plastic bear, smaller than my hand. Expectations were not so reasonable, but strong. So scale and texture were part of a mixed bag, and La Salette took on a luminous quality in memory.

There was a place where all of this had happened before, not in Wisconsin, back in France. But when they came to Wisconsin there was no way to go back to the old place, so now people could go to this new place in Twin Lakes to remember the old place that they couldn’t go to in France. There was blessing. The children were young shepherds who saw the apparition and recorded the prophecy. Their story stayed the same, and finally the leaders in the church believed them.

Miles away in Ware, Massachusetts, in a church I didn’t know, Our Lady of La Salette was sitting, crying.

Our Lady of La Salette

My brother and I could imagine ourselves as the boy and girl in the story. They were friends. The Virgin Mary appeared to the two children and told them to pray, and gave them a prophecy about the end of the world. It was the mid-19th century. She was crying because of the coming disasters, which she could see. She could give warning. She was dressed in shiny white clothes, with roses. I remember the statue silky and white, with the two children standing in front of her. There were roses carved around the statue, or they were real, in bushes, or on the ground.

The La Salette Shrine in Wisconsin looks like this from the side:

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, USA

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, USA

And from a satellite, it looks like this:

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, from above (Google Satellite)

La Salette Missionaries and Shrine, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, from above (Google Satellite)

And in France, where the first place named La Salette is sitting, the statue looks like this:

Notre Dame de La Salette, France

From a satellite, the area around La Salette looks like this:

Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

On the way to La Salette (Wisconsin), you have to be prepared to save enough space in the car, to stake your ground. But other than this issue of personal space, the ride is relatively easy on the body. La Salette in France has zig-zag lines on the map, and high peaks. It appears that many people use their cars to get most of the way up to see the site of the apparition. Here is a picture of some of their cars:

Cars near Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

Cars near Notre Dame de La Salette, France, Satellite view (Google Maps)

In both places, then, you would probably bring a car, unless you were walking for a very long distance on purpose to go see the site of the apparition. In Wisconsin, it’s more important to hear the story and imagine the site of the apparition, and in France you can say, “This. Happened. Here.”

The distance between 2 La Salette sites

The distance between 2 La Salette sites

Both places are beautiful. People who like mountains may say that the place in France is more beautiful. People who feel stuck in the city may find Wisconsin just as beautiful, by comparison, at the time they find it. There are two most-beautiful things to me about all of these pictures: the poignant gesture Mary makes in Massachusetts, with her hands to her face as she sits and cries—there are other statues like this, and really we can’t see the tears, but that’s exactly how I like to hold my hands to my face when I’m cryingand the zig-zag lines stitching down towards La Salette in France, from the upper left corner of the photo, edging off the hilltop into a nest of roads.

The continued life of Milarepa’s life story

Earlier this year, my sister and I presented a paper in Leeds about student-teacher relationships in medieval literature, where I spoke about Marpa and Milarepa. I found Andrew Quintman’s work particularly helpful for contextualizing the project. After presenting, we were walking back from a laundromat one evening when I had a brainstorm rant about Milarepa’s life story in relation to concerns in contemporary filmmaking. Reflecting on Quintman’s text brought these issues back to my thinking and has given me a chance to put this rant down more thoroughly in writing, and I hope it reflects the concerns of our course discussions as well. I’m organizing the below sections roughly according to these five points, and hope to make sense of them over time.

  • Quintman’s methodological approaches
  • Three less-explored topics in the text: Visual Materials, Material from the 15th century forward, Tears
  • Meditative Visualization, Cinematic imagery
  • Two films
  • What would further study on these aspects of Milarepa’s life story look like?


Milarepa, appearing in the upper left corner of a larger thangka depicting Lama Karma Lobsang (item no. 171) Tibet 1600 - 1699 Kagyu Lineage 90.17x68.58cm (35.50x27in) Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton Collection of Rubin Museum of Art (acc.# F1997.11.2)

Milarepa, appearing in the upper left corner of a larger thangka depicting Lama Karma Lobsang (item no. 171) Tibet 1600 – 1699, Kagyu Lineage, (35.50x27in), Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton, Collection of Rubin Museum of Art (acc.# F1997.11.2)

Quintman’s methodological approaches
In The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa, Andrew Quintman uses the body as a metaphor for unraveling and organizing the many versions of Milarepa’s story over time. Here we will look at how he approaches this project methodologically, at his pointing out the need for a study of the related visual materials, and begin to question how this visual corpus might incorporate recent developments in cinema. How would a study of visual and ritual aspects of the life story build on or depart from Quintman’s work, and how could it relate to the tradition of visualization that lies at the basis of many of the practices included in the tradition of Milarepa’s life and songs?

Quintman’s chapters run through the biographical corpus with reference to a body’s development: Birth, Skeleton, Flesh, a Life being brought to Life, and ending with “Mila is Alive!” for the epilogue (p. vii). In the final pages of this epilogue, Quintman summarizes the purpose of the book: to explore those texts that emerged before the standard 15th-century version of the life story, and also to pursue the question of why, for a yogi living in the 11th century, the writing of his 15th century biographer Tsangnyön Heruka (the madman of Quintman’s title) would become the definitive telling of the story, to understand “why a work so late could seem so early” (p. 185).

“What is unnatural about Tsangnyön’s biography is precisely that it appears so natural, so real. It seems so close to its subject, to the point of being its subject. Yet it is a work composed centuries after the subject’s death. What seems wrong, then, is that this late work, so mediated, could appear so immediate as to cast centuries of biographical traditions into obscurity” (p. 185). Quintman touches on many aspects of this curious question of “how a work so far removed from its subject could claim the place of origin” (p. 185). Milarepa’s life and songs had many non-textual oral iterations, but throughout the book Quintman demonstrates that the idea of a long oral tradition without a written companion is overstated. Other explanations for the immediacy of Heruka’s poetic narrative include his claim to have been a rebirth of Milarepa, as well as the understanding that in carrying out the lineage of meditation in his practice, in addition to having received the life story embedded in tantric instructions, he would have had direct access to the yogi through visions.

How does Quintman work with this material? In his Introduction, Quintman explicitly sets out his methodological approaches for life stories, with three goals helpful to quote here (p. 20):

“to move away from traditional attempts to distill ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in early biographical literature by acknowledging that such stories have value for understanding religious, social, and literary history even if they tell us less about the text’s purported subject than about its authors and readers.”


“to avoid conceiving of biography primarily as an inert mine of data—names, dates, lineage affiliations, and the like—to be excavated by scholars.”


to focus “on the formal literary qualities of a textual corpus while paying close attention to its production, dissemination, reception, and intertextual relationships.”

In his first and second goals, Quintman points to trends in recent hagiographical studies, and in the third he points to the work of medievalist Patrick Geary, with a lengthy exploration of this work (beginning p. 20).

Interestingly for our class discussions, Quintman demonstrates a willingness to set aside the separation of fact from fiction, with the value objects of understanding “religious, social, and literary history” hanging in the balance. It’s important for us to note, however, that the question of truth is actually disclaimed, so that we can assume from the outset that the subject is not represented as much as the other participants in the story’s development: we put aside fact and fiction in these stories “even if they tell us less about the text’s purported subject than about its authors and readers” (p. 20).

Three less-explored topics in the text: Visual materials, Material from the 15th century forward, Tears
Three excluded (or less included) and overlapping topics fell outside the focus of Quintman’s study, related to visual materials, time, and tears. When we consider these three, we can see ways that his study may be extended forward to consider visual material including cinema, and to explore more deeply reactions to and reinterpretations of the life story. In this post there is space really just to point them out and question how they are related, but I sense that they are fruitful for further study.

Selected from Quintman's 2013 paper: Milarepa on Mount Kailas, Tibet, c. fifteenth century, pigment and gold on cotton, 45.5 × 30 cm (1729/32 × 1113/16 in.). (Asian Purchase Campaign Endowment and Robert Ross Fund, 1995.277, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.)

Selected from Quintman’s 2013 paper. Milarepa on Mount Kailas, Tibet, c. fifteenth century, pigment and gold on cotton, 45.5 × 30 cm (1729/32 × 1113/16 in.). (Asian Purchase Campaign Endowment and Robert Ross Fund, 1995.277, The Art Institute of Chicago. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.)

First, Quintman mentions visual and ritual materials that are relevant to his project but cannot be included (p. 266, note 1). He offers brief reference to these throughout the text, and has produced scholarship on certain topics within this vast body of material already, for example, in his 2013 work on the shaped inscriptions that appearing on the back of thangka, and one thangka of Milarepa in particular.

Secondly, The Yogin and the Madman traces the story of Milarepa’s biographical corpus roughly from the time of the yogin’s passing through to the publication and dissemination of Tsangnyön Heruka’s popular compendium. The project therefore covers this development roughly from the 11th to the 15th centuries, with some addressing of subsequent translation, dissemination, and reception. This leaves me with questions about the story’s life after it took this widely popular form. What happened next? How do new media and politics relate to the use and production of new forms for the life story?

Thirdly, Quintman briefly mentions tears in relation to reading Milarepa’s life story: “[T]he tale was indeed powerful. A trope common in many Tibetan memoirs describes how reading Tsangnyön’s Life of Milarepa triggers moments of great emotion, often accompanied by tears, and profound spiritual awakening.” (p. 183) Earlier this year I had come across a reference much like the one Quintman describes, where Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes his early encounters with Milarepa’s life story:

When I was eight my tutor recommended that I use the life of Milarepa as part of my reading practice. I remember clearly the illuminated manuscript of Milarepa’s life that I used. Occasionally I would look at the illustrations and try to understand the contents. Reading this text not only improved my literacy, but aroused my feeling for the Kagyü tradition and my admiration of Milarepa’s life and his asceticism. I wept and laughed as my reading practice went on (The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume 5, p. 285).

Considering how readers or listeners react to the story opens up a new body of questions.

Meditative Visualization, Cinematic imagery
These topics seem key to understanding the life of Milarepa’s life story into the 21st century. First, the visual and ritual materials have general implications in terms of religion and material culture, but there is also the question of visualization itself and the intertwining relationships among text, image, oral instructions, and the kinesthetic aspects of meditation, the sitting and actual embodiment of the words. That is to say, Quintman’s method hinges on the unexplained freshness with which Tsangnyön Heruka appears to embody Milarepa’s story and songs, and one thing that Milarepa and Tsangnyön Heruka held in common was a long tradition of instructions to sit down and imagine various images in particular arrangements, and those images had material visual and textual correlates, but if we consider those traces outside of the practice of meditative practice, we may miss their integrative influence in shaping this idea of the continued presence of the yogin, or in understanding poetry as evidence and enactment of realization. Quintman refers to this question of embodiment in his 2013 article, saying that writings on the back of thangka paintings “embody a special form of biographical writing intended not to record—or be read as—a life through narrative, but to vivify the image, thereby maintaining the subject’s living presence within a community of viewers and worshipers” (Material Religion volume 9, issue 4, p. 270). If we consider the complex interrelations of text and image in this early material, how then can we understand the subsequent memoirs and responses, with reports of tears upon hearing or reading the story, and the process of this emotional integration in interpreting and re-telling a story over time?

Two Films
Given that we may be able to trace this story and its visual embodiments up to the present date, how can we consider the issues Quintman raises in relation to cinema?

In 1974, Liliana Cavani directed a film called Milarepa, “Liberamente ispirato a” Milarepa’s life story, in 108 minutes, with a surreal entry to Tibet via a Wizard-of-Oz-like scenario. Leo, a young Italian Tibetologist, identifies with Milarepa while translating his life story, and finds himself propelled into the story, and spiritual transformation, by an auto accident.

A 2006 film inspired by the life story of Milarepa, directed by Neten Chokling Rinpoche, generally follows Tsangnyön Heruka’s narrative. The filmmaker divided the work into two parts, with Part I beginning with Milarepa’s childhood and ending just before Milarepa meets Marpa. Part II was scheduled for 2009, but has not yet been released. Many critics expressed disappointment over the way the story translated to film. The splitting of the story into two parts also led some writers to view it primarily as a revenge fantasy. Future film projects are sure to expand on this foundation. The film does not refer extensively to the text format, or use some of the storybook conventions we might find in the graphics of other epic genres, and reproduces Milarepa’s hail-casting and meditation visions through special effects. This question of how to show extraordinary events and visions in hagiographic cinema forms opens many possibilities for questioning how conventional or more experimental forms can embody this material.

What would further study on these aspects of Milarepa’s life story look like?
How can Quintman’s methodological approaches for the literary corpus help us think through the way Milarepa’s life story takes shape in cinema and newer media? First we would need to consider the separation of fact from fiction, and how this plays out in cinema, which deals with its own set of expository modes and expectations for truth-telling. Secondly, we would need to consider this question of mining the text for data, for example, considering the film’s literal resemblance to the earlier texts, the accuracy of locations, our interest in knowing what a movie version looks like relative to a book version, and so forth. Third, we would need to carefully consider the contextual production and dissemination of these materials, and the education and funding of Tibetan filmmakers in the diaspora, and the use of Milarepa’s story as representative of a folk tradition in contemporary China. What does the continuing interest in reproducing and interpreting this story tell us about this notion of a corpus, about the body as a metaphor for tracing literary history, and about the way histories are written?

Reading Violence

in The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China, by Charlene E. Makley

As we read Charlene E. Makley’s The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China, our conversation seems to be picking up immediately where it left off, in the question of violence, both physical and interpretive. Makley shows how these twin concerns are inextricably linked.

Last week we ended our discussion of Sam Van Schaik’s Tibet: A History with a loose 2-column chart on the chalkboard: Fact as a heading on the left side, Fiction on the right. Loosely grouped around Fact, we included RATIONALITY, men, lettered, Agency, quan (quantitative), coordinates, and, notably crossed off with a big X, Plot. Grouped around Fiction, we wrote qual. (qualitative), past, women, legends, orally, Emotions, Hate, deception, 1644 (with a circle around it), Ambition, animals, Love as source of knowledge. Hovering somewhere between these two groupings, we had a few notes: This probably didn’t happen, terma, landscape. And at the bottom of the board, somewhat placed left and right but not seeming to correspond exactly to our groupings above, we have two phrases that emerged out of a discussion of hermeneutics, when we asked about what happens when we take our fact/fiction dichotomy as an unstated starting point. READING INTO or AS IS. Its partner at the other side of the board reads VIOLENCE TO TEXT.

With the phrase “doing violence to the text” ringing in my ears at the end of our conversation last week, I checked back on my notes and saw that I had scrawled the following lines during our discussion: fictive/accurate, FACTS – a list of dates, Is it the case that this is the dichotomy that’s … Violence to the text – projecting our own dichotomies onto the text. Be willing to be changed by it. Reflecting on our conversation, I tried to think of a time that I had really been willing to be changed by a text in an academic context. Even when questioning my own agendas and frameworks, I usually drop them right into place anyway, or, even with the best intentions, spot them a week after finishing a piece of writing. With this in mind, and Makley’s nuanced methodology and theoretical frameworks, I’m taking this post as a chance to think through these questions of violence to text, and to see how she explores the term violence in her book.

Makley begins her Introduction with this reference to state violence: “‘We young people sometimes can’t believe the stories; it’s like some sort of nightmare torture.’ That is how my good friend the young monk Akhu Konchok wincingly referred to the story an elderly monk had told me about state violence in Tibetan regions after the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949.” I hesitated to begin a comparison that places violence to a text in a classroom discussion of hermeneutics alongside physical violence in this context. But Makley’s project points out how layers of violence are intertwined, how the physical violence in the region could not have been enacted, sustained, and incorporated without its ideological and social frameworks. So to understand this more deeply I’d like to look through the book to point up different mentions of the violence of liberation, and to start to question how physical violence may correspond to damage through interpretive gestures. To do this I’m focusing on a few broader mentions of the “violence of liberation”, indexed with revealing headings, in the text.

Violence of liberation and socialist transformation (48-53):
In this section, “Fatherlands”, Makley introduces the “violence of liberation” from the perspective of Chinese state violence in the Labrang region, originally under Mao and later with the Dengist promotion of “civility” (48). Two themes in Makley’s text meet here, when “the Communist agendas and nationalist spatial frameworks of the Han work-team members sent to Labrang in the 1950s led them to grossly misapprehend the nature of Tibetan male power and legitimate violence in Labrang… bringing the Communist revolution to the frontier zone and “liberating” … Labrang was not at all a peaceful process.” (49) This ideological tension shows up memorably in a quote from first Part Secretary Huo Deyi’s memoirs: ““we would redistribute land to the peasants in the daytime, and by the nighttime they would return it as gifts [to the original owners]”. Through comparing perspectives and analyzing the ways these discourses were framed – old and new, religion and liberation from feudal superstition, and so forth – Makley helps us to understand how the current situation in Labrang evolved, and how it did so largely through how people talk about and interpret one another.

Violence of liberation, in mandalization (53-61):
Here we see how Makley’s meaning for the phrase “violence of liberation” is doubled: “the “violence of liberation” at the heart of Tibetan tantric Buddhist ritual agency… . lamas, as enlightened beings, asserted control over spaces by violently subjugating the earth and its associated enemy agencies… .” (53) This invented term mandalization, becomes a sort of short-hand for the network of power relations surrounding prominent tulkus, and the evolution and maintenance of those relations. The idea of a taming taking place, of there being a forced subjugation and therefore a network of power related to that taming, becomes prominent in how Makley analyzes the previously existing power relations in Labrang, and the way in which the power networks around monasteries are crucial sites for understanding Chinese state violence.

History as an aspect of the violence of liberation (83):
Makley takes on the construction and negotiation of history through the stories told (and through talking about the telling of stories) in Labrang: “…I rethink “history” as fundamentally a gendered “practice of time” (Mueggler 2001: 7), one that unfolds as situated persons work to remember within a variety of hierarchically arranged discourse genres, under the press of relations of power.” (83) She continues, in a thought that seems especially pertinent to our conversations in class: “If we start from the fundamentally metalinguistic nature of language and meaning production, then we cannot conceptualize “history” as an objective story abstracted from the contexts of the telling. Instead, we have to consider history making as a situated politics of memory. That is, memories are made into stories only through contemporary, context-specific selections or metalinguistic framings that foreground some things and repress others. …”

What does this mean for us as we consider forcing an interpretation onto a text and physical violence (and why does “violence to a text” apply here)? Makley makes the point throughout that Chinese state violence, in relation to existing hierarchies, strongly roots itself in intellectual understandings and speech acts, as with the frequently referenced Speaking Bitterness campaign. It is not only through physical violence, but through forced and reframed frameworks for the ways in which one tells and interprets one’s own histories that we see the violence of liberation taking shape in the region.

Makley makes the point about context-specificity in the telling of histories poignantly through her framing of Drolma’s story – we learn many of the stories in the text through Drolma’s eyes, with Makley increasingly highlighting Drolma’s intentional framing of the narratives. We see how important appearances are to Drolma, who married away from her home and maintained roles in a household with her husband in the city and nearby in the village as a daughter-in-law. Drolma is one of our most consistent resources for understanding gender relations in this setting, and she seems like a loving narrator who is very concerned for keeping her appearances appropriate in the storytelling. After developing a bond with Drolma as both a narrator and character in local histories, we learn toward the end of the book that she is personally suffering in the conditions she describes, as her husband’s problems with jealousy, anger, and alcohol descend into routine and brutal domestic violence. In one of the more cruelly intimate turns in the book, we see how a violence of interpretation, an increasingly narrowed view of appropriate behavior for women, bolstered by gossip and a reduction to dichotomies in women’s roles, finds its natural result in physical violence. It is perhaps with this parallel in state and domestic violence that Makley makes her point most strongly, because we can imagine how, for one person, the frameworks in which he can see his wife shape what appears to be true. Actual violence follows the orientation to dichotomies and a forced interpretation of women’s roles.

What lessons can we take from this about openness to a text, and a willingness to be changed? One way Makley interprets against the grain of the violence witnessed to her is through gestures of her own openness to interpretation, for example in her willingness to change her earrings and adapt her look to appear gendered as a woman, once she realized that her fashion and hair were reading too closely to local masculine nomad style. By putting her own questions of self-identification and interest in fitting into certain social groups at the center of early entry points to her research, Makley both positions herself as a researcher for the reader, and shows that her outside agenda could be changed by her surroundings. Makley’s adoption of a new style of gender-specific earrings parallels her understanding of the significance of interview techniques in the region, where asking locals to testify about their experiences in recorded interviews echoed the methods of Speaking Bitterness campaigns. Her willingness to look at her own methodology in light of the conditions she meets in research, and to reframe it accordingly, sets the stage for a reading of the stories she collects without a forced agenda. Most importantly, she actively cultivates friendship, and honors the stories she collects by framing them in a way that she carefully develops theoretically, as “contemporary, context-specific selections” in which we get to know the tellers of the stories, and learn to appreciate some of the tensions involved in any telling.

The Question of Motivation: Framing Buddhist Ethics

In Chapter 6 of Introducing Tibetan Buddhism, Geoffrey Samuel begins an analysis of Tibetan Buddhist ethics in relation to the everyday morality of Tibetan groups. Samuel looks at scholarship from the 1960s to begin his argument; anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf had claimed that people of Tibetan societies follow Buddhist ethics and behave altruistically as a result of this close adherence, based on his observations of the people of Khumbu in Nepal (1964). Samuel, citing separate studies from following years by Sherry Ortner, Barbara Aziz, and Nancy Levine, argues that it’s not possible to say that Tibetans all behave as model Buddhists, but that we should likewise not paint Tibetan societies as winner-take-all. Rather he suggests that while Buddhist ethical standards certainly make an impact on everyday morality, Tibetan societies also demonstrate other normative practices, with both individual and small group interests at play. These initial descriptions are brought to bear on such aspects of Tibetan life as the hanging of lungta (prayer-flags), explored further below.

Motivation. To what extent can we know another’s motivation? It forms the basis for so many great mysteries — Hercule Poirot’s detective work in Agatha Christie novels emerges through his discernment of a motive as much as through the organization of physical clues. It’s a natural tendency to try to root out motivations; data are only descriptive, but setting up the reasons behind the data allows us to interpret people’s lives and wishes and dreams. This is far more interesting.

Where does an analysis of motivation take shape? Throughout this book, Samuel presents a vast background on Tibetan Buddhism, with a knowledgeably respectful voice that balances out Buddhist teachings and history. I admit to a sort of blind spot in my reading of the book – Samuel offers a general knowledge here, seemingly from extensive study and from being embedded in social groups, in dharma practice settings, without citation, and I’m finding that in my responses to the text I’m drawing on my own general knowledge, and probably swapping out certain terms and mistaking certain aspects of the presentation Samuel offers when it differs with my own background. Samuel takes on the project of presenting teachings with some degree of detail and variety, serving as an interlocutor to World Religions students, with a firm foot in varied but broad presentation of Tibetan Buddhist teachings from different schools, and a steady gap kept between knowledge and practice. Somewhat to nurture this healthy gap, this space for the student as observer (I imagine the student as a visitor with a notebook hanging back to see what happens at a dharma center), Samuel examines the motivations of his actors throughout the book. Because of this examination of motivations, at some moments our author sets this project of great detective work into play, questioning who is really practicing the teachings described, and how, and why, and what do they hope to get for it? Our author implies these questions in various iterations, comparisons of what is taught and how it is practiced, of who practices and who doesn’t, of what we can see as the value objects (Latour, The Making of Law) held by people in different roles in Tibetan religion and society. What do various social actors hold in play while they participate in, for example, the hanging of lungta (prayer-flags) or the recitation of prayers?

Asking these questions may help provide an understanding of how Buddhist teachings may or may not be lived out by people of various standings. Samuel questions the motives of kings, lamas, and villagers in turn. But this project of carving out the true motivations of large groups of people, across a network of systems and examples (the position of a reincarnate lama, village life in several different locations and times, an off-handed remark regarding the donation of an anthropologists’ lamp, and so forth) leads to some odd conclusions in the text. If we take it as a given that full, consistent, and joyful compliance with Buddhist ethics would be an exceptional occurrence, we might still find that the conclusions drawn from the writings of the anthropologists selected by Samuel cannot incorporate some important reflections on motivation that emerge from Tibetan Buddhist teachings and literature; that is to say, the question of motivation and how lazy, conflicted, and devious one can be in practicing virtuous activity is already posed and answered in Buddhist practice and verse, and it would be worthwhile to look there alongside these other etic approaches.

Let’s first examine the prayer-flag example that Samuel offers on page 120: the text on the flags reads “‘[M]ay life-force (sok), bodily health (), power (wangtang), good fortune (lungta), life-duration (tshe), merit (sönam) and prosperity (paljor) increase!’” Samuel writes: “In invocations such as this, sönam or good karma is treated as simply one more positive quantity that can be increased by ritual action. This does not mean that the Buddhist teachings on the effects of karma are irrelevant in Tibet, but it points to a contextual and situational element in their deployment.” There are prayer-flags going up with some of this orientation toward virtue, but the other items on the list are worldly and we should note the proportions.

We would need to look a bit more closely at the qualities of Tibetan Buddhist ritual in order to see the problem with this conclusion. Our author highlights earlier in the book that practitioners commence a practice by going for refuge and engendering bodhicitta (p. 59). There is also, unmentioned in this text, the closing phase of practice, the dedication. Refuge with bodhicitta near the beginning of a practice, and dedication at the end, appear like bookends – one starts by going for refuge and setting the motivation to benefit all beings, and ends with the dedication of all the merit of any practice to the benefit of all beings. It would be unusual in a Tibetan Buddhist gathering to hear the closing of a practice of any sort without the full group reciting sönam di yi tamché zik pa nyi and so forth, the lines expressing this dedication. So the process our author highlights here, with the limited proportion of sönam in the list, would likely be followed by these four well-known lines, with the dedication of merit for the enlightenment of all beings, which at least formally characterizes the practice in terms of virtuous motivation. This is not to say that all practices ever performed in Tibetan groups will fit this example (Samuel offers a notable counter-example to emphasis on Buddhist practice in village life, p. 121), but this particular example of worldly gain seems out of context to me.

This regularity of the opening and closing recitations in practice underscores the importance of motivation in Buddhist ethics – the list that Samuel shares regarding the 10 non-virtuous actions is indeed widely taught, but is also often accompanied by nuanced descriptions of the conditions required for a negative action to ripen with full karmic consequences, the most crucial factor being one’s motivation or intention. Samuel does point out the question of motivation in ethics at the beginning of Chapter 6, but uses it to establish differences in the types of conventional ethical responsibilities for enlightened and ordinary beings. But this notion of motivation carries out broadly to offer nuance to the ethical consequences of the actions of any being: the person hanging prayer-flags may make wishes for these various forms of worldly prosperity, but with an aspiration to share such boons with all beings, he or she would be engendering a positive motivation. With a wish to use such benefits for the support of dharma practice (for example, for the support of stupa construction), likewise our imagined participant would be engaging with great generosity. If the person hanging the prayer flags does so with an understanding that the riches, their givers, and their recipients are without inherent essence, then he or she is engaging in all these actions with the flavor of wisdom. The list of potential motivations could go on. Or, on the other hand, the participant could be engaging thoughtlessly, or crafting a harmful plan against someone else, or thinking “I want all the merit for myself, for future riches.” How are we to know this? In an ethic based on inner motivations, how can we look at this question thoughtfully? These are some of the distinctions that can accompany teachings on Buddhist ethics, and a closer examination of these nuances would inform the analysis pursued in Chapter 6.

This is not so say that Samuel should not bring up these questions about the application of Buddhist ethics in everyday life, but rather to point out that questions of motivation, and noting contradictions among the content of teachings, what is actually understood to be correct, and what is practiced, are already extensively present in reflections by Tibetan Buddhist thinkers. Consider this example, 4 short selections from Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye’s text known as “Calling the Guru from Afar” (here translated from Tibetan to English by Rangjung Yeshe Translations and Publications in 1998):

 For the sake of food and clothing I abandon what has lasting value.
Although I have all that is needed, I crave for more and more.
When practicing the Dharma, I fall prey to dullness and sleep.
When involved in non-Dharma, my senses are clear and sharp.
Although it is said that buddhahood is accomplished by wanting to help others,
Though I engender bodhichitta, secretly my aims are selfish.
Although the law of karma is certainly true, I don’t discriminate correctly.
Although mindfulness is surely needed, I don’t apply it and am carried away by distraction.

 Here I am pointing to this one example as a well-known reflection on the human condition in the context of Buddhist devotional language, an appeal based on reflection on one’s shortcomings even when one has access to an ethical view. This is not to suggest that this text replaces the observations brought to light in Samuel’s book – a more extensive analysis of this prayer’s context would certainly be needed here to elaborate at all on this text in relation to the specific communities mentioned there – but to suggest that sources like this one may be read alongside any later reflections by Western scholars to give some basis for the nature of the comparisons being made, some context for questioning how ethics has looked in theory and practice.

Looking closely at how Samuel and the other scholars cited in his text write about Tibetan societies makes me reflect on my own limitations, my difficulties in understanding even my own motivations. How often have I taken actions thinking that they’re for a good purpose only to find that I was blinded by ambition or a wish to please others and fit in? When have I assumed that others were acting out of ill will towards me, when their motivations were nothing but kind? Surely we can allow this nuance, the changeability of intentions, this dimension of inner contemplation and reflection, whenever we write about any person’s inner world.

Voice and Viewpoint in Charlie’s Country


How can we connect our authors’ reflections on interpretation, narrative, voice, and viewpoint with some highlights gleaned from my obsessive film-viewing? Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, 2013) screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend. The film opens on warm, sharp footage of Charlie (David Gulpilil) sitting on the ground by his home, holding a tattered photo. Charlie moves slowly and confidently in the landscape, into the nearby town, giggling as he calls the police white bastards on the way. He goes hunting with his friend, shoots an enormous buffalo, and has to give up the animal and guns to the police, who confiscate them and let the bountiful food source rot at the station. Charlie is delighted that maggots will soon take over. Set in an aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory, the film takes the viewer along with Charlie throughout, sometimes in actual point-of-view shots, sometimes just holding him in close focus or walking alongside him on the road, continually telling the story from his viewpoint. His laughter peppers the soundtrack, whether things go well, or poorly, but especially when he plays tricks on the police. Throughout the film, Charlie reminds us, sometimes shouting and sometimes under his breath, that this is his land, that they stole it and built a police station on it, and then they took away his things. His viewpoint becomes our viewpoint; his voice is in our ears. When Charlie fell asleep onscreen, I even exited my filmgoer thinking for a moment and thought, “If he’s going to sleep, I’m going to sleep. I’ll wake up when he does.” 

One day the police confiscate a spear that Charlie has carved from a branch, and shortly after this humiliation he quietly steals a police car and loads it up with groceries, driving away from his home, determined to ‘go bush, go bush’. We know that Charlie has great talent as a dancer, coveted as a teacher by local kids, but he’s determined not to teach. Staying tucked away in the woods by himself, he becomes ill and worn down in the rain, sleeping in harsh conditions until he’s discovered and flown to a hospital in Darwin, the closest large city. When Charlie recovers and leaves the hospital, he meets a woman who asks him to buy her alcohol, and then stays with her group of friends in their home, a city park subject to frequent raids. When the police do come to tear apart the makeshift settlement, Charlie storms their car with a shovel, smashing the windshield, setting the final events of the film in motion. My reaction as Charlie rushed to the car was sadness, guessing the consequences and difficulty of response in a drunken state, but I also experienced a sort of clarity about Charlie’s right to do this, in this context— he had presented his perspective throughout the film: this is my home, they’re stealing things from me, that was my gun, they took my land and built a police station on it, and then they took my things. They steal everything. Such is the power of the point of view presented in the film that when I saw the police raid Charlie’s space in the park it resonated with me as though I were watching them drive directly into a family’s living room for no reason. 

Charlie’s Country is in some sense a very accurate film that tells its distinct truths — a reflection on the conditions of aboriginal life in that region, a specific part of the Australian landscape, a lens on the history of colonialism in Australia, a comment on the human condition. All these truths are fictive, in Megill’s terms, inasmuch as they they generalize or rely on categories. At the same time, in its singularity with Charlie’s life events, the film is a fiction, a realistic drama rather than a documentary or any other purportedly nonfiction genre, that carries us persuasively because of a stylistic believability as it follows a character through his daily life. We could turn to this film as a point of departure for all our texts, but here I will focus on Robert Berkhofer’s work considering voice and viewpoints in historical practice. 

In this film, or in any film following a main character closely throughout, it would be too simple to say that we hear the story through that character’s voice, from that character’s perspective. This would be an oversimplification, as even the camera is in dialogue with the subject at any given moment, and the musical score will sing back and forth with the expressions on a character’s face; even the most sparse compositions are polyvalent and polyvocal in film. For the sake of addressing certain of Berkhofer’s examples, however, we can think of Charlie as the person who is mainly telling the story, and from whose perspective the story emerges — in this sense, Charlie’s character is our visible and audible narrator. We know, for example, that women do not speak very much in this film — we hear from just a few women in the town interacting with Charlie, from the woman he lives with later in the film, and from his parole officer — and in fact the film would fail the famous Bechdel test. Director de Hoff’s close collaboration with actor David Gulpilil helps explain why, according to other audience members at the screening that day, it’s easy to forget that this is actually not a documentary, and moreover the authority for the story seems to issue from Charlie so strongly that the director as implied author of the work slips out of view from time to time. 

Turning to Berkhofer’s text to understand the emphasis on Charlie’s viewpoint, we find that he repeatedly points to the complexity of trying to represent multiple viewpoints, and he critiques one work in particular to demonstrate the problems that can arise. In his critique of historian Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, an attempt to integrate previously repressed voices and viewpoints into this history, Berkhofer, through numerous examples, expresses that Limerick points to the lightbulb but doesn’t turn on the light — she expresses a moral imperative for a methodology that supports multiple voices, a perspective that does not take any voices for granted, and yet her voice is in the background as the integrative authority in the text. Limerick uses the metaphor of a subway system: each station is its own center, its own node or hub, but one can imagine the viewpoint from any station and at the same time hold the whole system in mind. This metaphor describes her integrative approach to layering multiple viewpoints in the text. Without critiquing Limerick’s work further in any way, I would like to take the subway map as a starting point for thinking through this great rhizomatic incorporation project that Berkhofer problematizes.

Charlie’s Country would have me wondering, to what extent would I have joined Charlie, empathically, if his viewpoint had been one of these nodes, a stop on the subway system in a neat package with other social actors? Without immersing myself, for a  mere 100 minutes or so, in the voice and viewpoint of one character, would I have this experience of sitting in a theater, watching Charlie hit a windshield with a shovel, thinking “get out of Charlie’s home”? It seems that a work which moves to incorporate multiple voices could also allow them each to approach coherence. Perhaps our western academic problems with coherence (see Megill) are not enough reason to split voices with a prism. A historical writing aiming to decentralize the authorial voice, which includes multiple voices with the purpose of manifesting their integration into a western historiographical schema of hierarchy and comparison, basically uses these voices to legitimize the same system it is purporting to unravel or question. It ignores the fact that these voices which have been suppressed, ignored, or otherwise excluded, all have grounds for their own full narratives, with the potential for some of the problems that accompany coherence — there are all levels of worldview and self-reflection that belong to each of those voices. And when these histories are to be interpreted in a dominant language like English, a language which is bound up with the very hierarchies our authors describe, then rather than splitting narratives in any way that further obfuscates, the use of English language could be elegant and frame histories clearly given the efforts many make around the world, often under considerable pressures, to join in dialogue through this language. I would further imagine that any attempt to interpret and integrate previously suppressed voices should include contact that goes beyond textual engagement whenever possible; that is to say, one doesn’t have to guess as much about a cultural group’s context in the 19th century if one is engaging with living members in a fruitful way during the 21st century. It would mean that in our approach to history, we could consider it necessary, and a pleasure, to be in a real dialogue with each source, treating texts through the hermeneutic openness Gadamer describes, rather than cataloguing them for a methodological imperative on diversity, and genuinely considering the depth of thinking belonging to each voice. How could we approach this with openness and encourage rich histories from multiple perspectives, without falling into the traps Berkhofer points out?

Related works:
“Introduction” to Gadamer and Gadamer’s “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy” in After Philosophy: End or Transformation? ed. K. Bagnes, J. Bohman, T. McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pages 319-338

Megill, “Grand Narratives and the Discipline of History” and Berkhofer, “A Point of View of Viewpoints in Historical Practice” in A New Philosophy of History, ed. Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner, U. Chicago Press, 1995, pages 151-191