Musings

Having presented a general outline of the cultural practices of both Tibetan Buddhism and the West, this last section of the paper ventures to integrate this information into contemporary Western practices and ponder on the observable ambiguities. To start these musings I turn to museum exhibitions of Tibetan ritual objects including human remains, and how researchers approach and handle such material. There is no public outcry of sacrilege over a museum exhibition of human remains, or of how researchers, such as me, may handle them.[31] Why? If the skull were Thomas à Becket’s or a close relative of mine, would I be treating their skull with the same apparent detachment I appear to be displaying to the Tibetan material? Perhaps the elevation and desire of Tibetan human bone objects as art objects ameliorates thoughts of sacrilege? Or perhaps time, cross-cultural circumstances or no personal attachment to the skeletal remains dampens the emotional input? Does ‘political correctness’ govern moral outrage? After all, the Tibetans carry no corresponding outrage. While I do not have answers to these questions, or the many others I could have asked, I will venture to appraise these questions in reference to the Tibetan example.

What attitude does the West have towards Tibet? Historically, Tibet has been an anomaly, Tibetans were not seen as ‘noble savages’ nor were they seen as cannibals, even though their religious imagery was full of partial corpses and skeletons, not to mention the human bone objects that would have been on the altar or seen in ritual dance.[32] Rather, the apparent worship of human bone paralleled the Catholic veneration of relics and the construction of reliquaries. Many early observers of Tibetan practices noted parallels with Catholicism, especially similarities in dress, ritual, ecclesiastical furnishing and the privileging of text. In 1661, the first European to reach and report on Lhasa, Father John Grueber, a Jesuit missionary, noted the strong similarities between Tibetan ritual and Catholicism. He suggested that Tibetan Buddhism must have begun as an early type of Christianity and that its development had since been corrupted by the Devil. He wrote that the Devil ‘hath had the malice to transfer and usurp all the other mysteries of our faith to his own worship’.[33] Earlier, Marco Polo had suggested the work of the Devil. In the 1200s, he observed Tibetans at the Great Khan’s court and he wrote that they were wise astrologers and great enchanters, who could change the weather at will. But they did this because they were in league with the Devil. The 1959 Polo translation reads, ‘[t]hey know more of diabolic arts and enchantments than any other men. They do what they do by the art of the Devil; but they make others believe that they do it with great holiness and by the work of God.’[34]

This ambiguous perception of the Tibetans as being either in the service of the Devil or their God, or of being either holy or enchanters, has continued, with many myths accepted into popular Western culture. For example, in 1930, the New York Times ran an article on an exhibition opening at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, titled ‘Made from Human Bones’.[35] What is interesting is that this article repeats a story first made popular in 1366, by John Mandeville: the practice of the Tibetan son drinking from his father’s skull-cup in ancestor worship.[36]

While scholars and the increasing numbers of Westerners practising Tibetan Buddhism are discrediting these recurring popular myths, there is another re-contextualisation of Tibetan Buddhism apparent today. The labelling and cataloguing of Tibet’s culture as art is effectively re-writing Tibetan Buddhist ritual objects as pieces to be valued for their colour, form, rarity and uniqueness; in short, for their aesthetic value. In 2003, there were three Tibetan ‘art blockbuster’ exhibitions circulating in the United States.[37] Each drew enthusiastic crowds wherever they went and each had a different agenda in their promotion of Tibetan art. All three exhibitions acknowledged that the objects were selected according to Western art aesthetics. The enthusiastic and generally uninitiated audience is given a de-contextualised version of Tibetan culture.

For example, an extract taken from a catalogue entry for Naro Dakini in the exhibition titled ‘Desire and Devotion: Art from India, Nepal, and Tibet,’ reads:

In this rather loosely painted thangka, Naro Dakini stands on a lotus in the militant pose (pratyālidha), trampling two personifications of obstacles. Of red complexion, she is naked except for her ornaments and garland of severed heads. While holding a chopper with her right hand, she tilts the skull cup with the left to drink the blood. Her magic staff rests horizontally across her shoulder. Surrounded by an oval, flame-fringed aureole, she stands against the six-cornered (shatkona) diagram (yantra) of two superimposed triangles, also flame fringed. Curiously, however, the goddess, with her lotus base, is placed slightly off centre.[38]

There is no mention of the intent or purpose of her drinking the blood, rather the reader is left with exotic orientalist notions such as ‘lotus’, ‘militant’, ‘red’, ‘naked’, ‘blood’, ‘magic’, ‘flame’, ‘goddess’. The catalogue entry goes on to emphasise the decorative elements of the thangka, and compares the illustrated thangka with similar thangkas previously exhibited—noting its rarity and potential link with a very important monastery in Tibet. Such textual processes alienate the objects from their religious and cultural associations by grounding them in an art history discourse and reducing their distinct cultural specificities into Western qualitative and quantitative measurements, which makes each piece comparable, a necessity for making judgments on value.

When museums exhibit Tibetan human bone they distance the cultural object from its cultural practices by deploying them in remote, sanitised, spotlighted museum cases, thereby effectively detaching a viewers’ emotional or social response to something that, in another situation, may be abhorrent to the viewer. The human bone object is re-contextualised into the Western art history paradigm, not as once being part of a human body, but as something created from artistic resources, such as, paints, canvas, metal, and clay.[39] Further, these ‘made’ objects are valued and hence, desired because of their uniqueness, rarity, age, workmanship and aesthetic qualities. For example, the skull-cup furnished with metal furnishings and semi precious gems, or carved with tantric figures, is more highly valued than an unadorned skull-cup. It is interesting to note, that, the unadorned skull-cup appears not to be considered exhibition worthy and, if museums have collected such pieces, they will languish in ethnographic and fine art museum basements—perhaps a silent acknowledgement that an unadorned skull is just too raw for public viewing. Further, it is rare for any major auction houses to offer human bone pieces. Recently, Christie’s offered ‘A Ritual Bone Apron’; there was no mention that the bone was human.[40]

Another aspect to these musings is the question of Tibetan agency. Tibet is two nations: the geographical Tibet, governed by The People’s Republic of China, and the virtual Tibet, dispersed across the globe, nominally coalesced under the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Both governments believe that they have the moral right to govern Tibet. The Tibetan government in-exile is enthusiastic about promoting ‘things’. It is apparent that ‘Tibetan Art’ is a popular vehicle by which the ‘Free Tibet’ message can be propagated. His Holiness has personally endorsed many ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions by attending openings or writing the foreward for glossy catalogues. The reality is that many people are intrigued by what they think Tibet is—a mystical isle, cut from civilisation by a sea of mountains and which was brutally awoken by the invasion of China. Truth and fiction about Tibet can be difficult to separate. Donald Lopez suggests that the promotion of Tibet in popular culture has attracted many to the cause of Tibet, but it has also imprisoned the Tibetans within a stereotyped world of exoticisms.[41] The Chinese government understands the political agency of Tibetan culture and, in response to other Tibetan art blockbusters, has recently hosted an exhibition at The Bowers Museum, just outside of San Francisco. The art treasures were drawn from the ancestral home of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Potala. The exhibition was a huge success, even though there were continuous public demonstrations by ‘Free Tibet’ protesters outside the event.[42]

Tibetan art exhibits, whether endorsed by the current Dalai Lama or not, are very attractive exhibitions. Gold, gems and mica glitter. The grime of butter lamps and incense smoke is generally cleaned away, as is the cultural dross of temples destroyed and objects stolen. The human bone objects have been cleaned, dried and adorned. There is neither visible blood nor pungent odours. But there are art exhibitions which record or display items, which are not so kind on the senses or the emotions. I remember watching a video at the Art Gallery of New South Wales some years ago, where a young Japanese female artist lay down on a cold stone sky burial platform in a Tibetan cemetery. The butchers laid out chunks of raw meat still dripping with blood onto her naked white flesh. The vultures circled above, uneasy, sensing it was not the usual offering. Those more daring finally came down to help themselves. My mind and emotions raced and swirled. I was both fascinated and fearful for the girl—wanting to look away but I kept watching, horrified and enthralled, at the same time. Another exhibition, for which I have only seen images, has caused an outcry wherever it has gone. Gunther von Hagens’ British exhibition of Body Worlds’ displayed 25 corpses along with 175 body parts. In the exhibition, most of the body parts are exhibited in conventional fluid filled jars. However, the corpses are real bodies, which have been treated with a ‘plastination’ process.[43] Von Hagens has meticulously arranged each for maximum effect. For example, a flayed male body crouches over a chessboard, while his brain can be seen through his split skull.[44] Von Hagen’s claim is that this type of ‘Anatomy Art’ will ‘democratise’ anatomy because it will educate the public about how their body looks on the inside. But what of the viewer? How do they feel? Did they have the same ambiguous feelings that I felt when I watched the sky burial installation? What if they were to find out that not all these bodies were willingly donated to Von Hagens’ institute for plastination?[45] Can the contemporary Western viewer accept a ‘real’ person, which is now dead and skinned as an object of contemporary art? On the other hand, is the public still entranced by the Barnum-style sensationalism? Between 1997 and 2001, six million people had paid to enter the Von Hagens exhibitions; another 50 000 walk through the turnstiles every week it is open.

In writing this, I am left in turmoil, frightened to feel what I feel. I ground myself in distancing myself with a pitiful cry, that I am not involved in any of this. I have not paid and would not pay to see Von Hagens’ exhibition, but I am not protesting over these types of displays. I remain silent. Perhaps I am trapped by the social and political ambiguities between appearing as a ‘rational being’ or as an ‘emotional woman’ unable to detach myself from my emotions and scientifically appraise what is before me.

I conclude by asking: Is the Western attitude to the sacredness of body checked by ambivalence towards the ‘us’ and ‘other’? What of the bodies dug up by archaeologists and property developers? What roles do time, science, art consumption or cherished memories play in negotiating the sacredness of the dead? Has the replacement of personal religious spirituality by a rational and depersonalised science constructed deep holes of irrelevance or forgetting that have no labels such as sacredness or sacrilege?