Further Reflections on “The Spell and the Stone”
Like Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism was one of the major forms of Buddhism that came to Europe and America in the latter half of the twentieth century. But why, exactly, do we say that a form of Buddhism is “Zen” or “Tibetan”? And what do we mean by the term “form” when referring to Buddhism? If Buddhism is something material, then how does it belong to a regional tradition or to a national community? Yet, if Buddhism is immaterial, is it separate from, or perhaps transcends the realm of the senses—to say it with a Buddhist technical term, the rūpa loka (“form realm”)—? Finally, do such terms all come from within the Buddhist tradition? Upon scrutiny, not all of them do.
While many know that zen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese chan, itself a phonetic rendering of the Sanskrit term dhyāna (“meditation”), nobody seems to know anything clear about the origins of the idea of Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, Tibetan Buddhism is not alone in this respect, for Indian Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, and more recently, even American Buddhism, all seem to share some sort of underlying assumption with respect to the national essence of a given form of Buddhism.
As for “Tibetan Buddhism,” in particular, the term seems to denote what we may think of as the form, or even the forms, of Buddhism that have taken root in Tibet, and which the Tibetans have appropriated in novel ways as a result of the transmission from India. One question that has preoccupied modern scholars seems to have been “how, and when, did the Buddhadharma become ‘Tibetan’?” Some posited its birth in the seventh century, soon after the great Indian adept Padmasambhava reached Tibet and the first monastery of Samye was built. Others have argued for a beginning in the eleventh century, with the coming of the erudite monk Atīśa, marking the end of Tibet’s Dark Age.
Indeed, as I discussed in a recent essay (“Tantrism, Modernity, History” published in the volume Sino-Tibetan Buddhism), the word seizō bukkyō 西藏佛教, meaning “Tibet’s Buddhism” in Japanese, began to be employed in East Asia only in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The sinograph for seizō bukkyō was later adopted in China as xizang fojiao to describe what, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese understood as the Buddhism that had become rooted in an emerging neighboring nation: Xizang 西藏, Republican China’s term for Tibet.
And so, clearly, the modern concept of Tibetan Buddhism does not come from Tibet. It is not native to the Tibetan tradition, Buddhist or otherwise. It therefore cannot be traced back to Tibet to the seventh or the eleventh century C.E. Even worse, the idea does not come from the Japanese, Chinese, or Mongolian traditions either. On the contrary, as I tell in “The Spell and the Stone,” the idea of Tibetan Buddhism first emerged in a colonial setting in early nineteenth-century Nepal.
Here, while reflecting on a stone inscription of the renowned oṃ maṇi padme hūm mantra, the British ornithologist Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-1894) compared Buddhist customs and practices in Tibet and Nepal by sketching differences across the Buddhist nations of modern Asia. He thought of difference in Buddhism, however, not as many of us still do as of today, in terms of national character, but in terms of the degree of fidelity that Asian translators deployed in the translation of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into the languages of the various Buddhist canons.
In the context of cross-cultural translation, then, fidelity may be one of the keywords which, if we tell the story of the colonial encounter in a different way, may best help us sketch the birth of Tibetan Buddhism in modernity.