Why Decolonize Tibetan/Buddhist Studies?

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk for Humboldt University in Berlin on decolonizing Tibetan/Buddhist studies. I outlined how Indigenous knowledge was pathologized to racialize Indigenous peoples as primitive and in need of civilizing. How knowledge production on Indigenous peoples has historically developed as an imperial project to justify material dispossession, in settler states like the U.S. and Australia but also in places like Tibet. I drew on lit that links the racist ethnographic work on Tibetans to Chinese policy in Tibet, demonstrating how the discursive produces hierarchies of peoples and knowledges that result in very real material inequities.

I argued that our social and academic training colors our collective perceptions of how research with non-western/non-Christian religious traditions should be done, as well as the non-white scholars that study them. That it may be a struggle to recognize how structural racism is operating in the field or within ourselves. But we must interrogate the primitivist assumptions that narrowly determine who can make truth claims about non-western/non-Christian religious life as well as what kinds of truth claims can be made.

During the q and a, a scholar in attendance asked if colonizing powers should take back what has benefited the colonized, given these critiques. I didn’t address his comment and moved on to other questions. He later emailed me to say he was surprised that this kind of talk would take place since Tibetan studies had already abandoned orientalism as an approach. It no longer viewed Tibetan Buddhism as a degenerate form of Indian Buddhism or labelled it Lamaism. Maybe the imposition of Western views was more subtle then?

He then noted surprise that racism would still operate in cultural studies. How could 19th c. theories still function in mainstream anthropology? How can any serious researcher who wants to publish in an academic context operate with such a mindset? Surely, my talk was an intellectual provocation only. I replied. Remind me, are you the speaker that suggested that colonizing powers should take back what has benefitted the colonized? I’m curious how colonization has benefitted the colonized in your scholarly view.

He replied with an assertion that the world of Indigenous peoples has already passed and would be impossible to restore. Their culture was destroyed by Western civilization. A point that is beyond argument. As for the benefits, Western civilization brought vaccines for smallpox, coloring books for children and vegan ice creams. My first thought was it also brought smallpox. This and other diseases would decimate the Indigenous population in the Americas in the decades after European arrival, making their political conquest possible.

I share the words of this scholar to help us reconcile the protests against decolonial critique with an email I received from another attendee—a Tibetan PhD student who shares that they wrote a paper on how knowledge from Tibetan scholars is ignored in their field. Two reviewers not only rejected their paper but were offended at what they perceived to be an accusation of racism. They responded by accusing the student of nationalism, which the student notes will serve to silence Tibetans for good. The student has since remained quiet on the issue.

I ask the field at large to consider these two points as tethered expressions of suffering. One which protests critiques while asserting primitivist claims. And another who has been bullied into silence to progress productively in their program. How might we understand these protests against critique as a form of coercion driven by ignorance and fear? As the same exercise of power that revels in a fantasy of superiority. That cynically offers up coloring books and vegan ice cream as sufficient exchange for hundreds of thousands of lives and continued material dispossession.

May we instead consider the experiences of those actively silenced. Of those attempting to speak from the margins. Who must smile and remain silent in the face of dehumanization. Can the field acknowledge and understand that these two experiences, these “two truths” co-exist? Can it hear critiques of racism, not a personal or collective attack, but instead as an interrogation of a structural ideology that interpolates us all? That we must collectively attend to from our differing position points. And that when we do this, we can empower the voices of the most vulnerable among us in ways that may enrich us all.  

Buddhist Studies Manifesto – AAR

Natalie Avalos, Ph.D.

CU Boulder