Bringing Tibet Into Broader Focus

Janet Gyatso is the Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard Divinity School. Her most recent book is Women in Tibet, which she edited with Hanna Havnevik. Wendy McDowell spoke recently with Gyatso about the book, which was published by Columbia University Press, and about the field of Tibetan Buddhism in general.

Q: Why did you and your co-editor decide to do a book on women in Tibet?

A: It was my colleague's initial idea, and after starting the project she asked me to join her as co-editor. Hanna Havnevik is a Tibetologist who teaches at the University of Oslo in Norway. She had written an earlier book on Tibetan nuns. When she contacted me, she had gotten the contract with Hurst and Columbia already and had a number of the contributors lined up. I was glad to do it, though in some ways it's harder to edit a volume than to write one yourself. One has a big responsibility to one's contributors, in addition to the usual question of one's own expectations and wishes when writing a monograph.

Actually, I edited one volume before, on memory, and I vowed then that I would never again edit another volume. But now that it's done and out, I'm very glad we did it.

In your introduction, you talk about the complexities of the book's topic, and say that, with multiple contributors, the subject matter can be addressed from many different angles. Is that the advantage of an edited volume?

Exactly. You don't have to do all of the research yourself, so you can gather other people with their specific areas of expertise, and get them to write on a particular theme. The nice thing is that as editor you have the chance to pull these disparate pieces of research together and think through their implications as a whole in the introduction. On the other hand, sometimes contributors don't write things the way that you would want them to be written! Most of the scholars in this volume are Tibetologists with little training in feminist theory or interpretation and they were wary of offering much theorization. As editors, we were interested in feminist issues, but most of the scholars treated such issues very lightly.

I was interested in the decision to include articles from "old" and "new" Tibet. Was that because of the scholars themselves, or was that a conscious decision by the editors? What does that allow for the reader?

One of the things that inclusion of recent material from the new Tibet allows is anthropological research. One of the whole problems in studying Tibet is that our sources are very limited. You can't do anthropology of the past very well. Study of contemporary realities can also help us to imagine the larger social context of the past, at least in some cases.

One of the larger agendas of the book was to address the unfortunate imbalance in the fact that the study of Tibet is almost entirely about Tibetan religion, and from an almost exclusive perspective of normative Tibetan religious writing. I feel very strongly that in order to understand religion, you need to know about a wide range of practices as well as their social place. For Tibetan studies this is not only a problem of sources but also a problem of the kind of scholarship that's done about Tibet. In many cases, it's as if Tibet only exists for our interest in religion. While it's true, of course, that Tibetans had a very highly developed religion and there is a substantial amount of complex and subtle religious literature, it's a huge distortion to think that Tibet was an entirely religious society, as many sources in Tibetan studies still portray it.

Why is it a distortion?

The literary accounts of religion can be very idealistic as well as ideological, and it's often hard to get a sense of who people actually were. There are historical resources that can be revealing, however, and for this book we did get a couple of scholars to start combing through the literature looking for references to women. But the main place where you can get the nuts and bolts of women's situations, the nitty-gritty of real lives, is by looking at people living now. That's why it was so important to include contemporary sources. People have tried to write historical studies about the women of Tibet, but that is difficult to do well. What they came up with is still very general, because it's hard to find detailed material. This is true for the history and sociology of women in most other parts of the world too, of course.

You talk in the introduction about the difficulty of finding "genuine women's voices."

That's a very complicated problem. I often feel nervous about the very conception of a "genuine woman's voice." People sometimes assume that if something is authored by a woman, that's a genuine woman's voice, but that's a very problematic assumption. It's a kind of trap to start to think about it that way. Who is to say what is a genuine or typical woman's voice? I don't think anyone actually knows, or that it even exists. Women can write like men do without realizing they are doing that. Men can write works that are cast as the autobiographical work of women, or they can attempt to write devotional poetry in what they think of as a woman's voice. They do so for a variety of reasons.

Nonetheless, it is important to gather those works that are attributed to female authors, just to get a sense of how women did write and to assess the claims of authorship in each case. It is true that in traditional Tibet, far more biographies of men were published than of women. So, on the one hand, we do see a highly androcentric literary culture in Tibet. On the other hand, the more we look for it, the more we're starting to find manuscripts recounting various women's lives; some women's writing is there. It just didn't get as much attention in traditional Tibet, and didn't get much attention from modern scholars, either.

We are starting to find more and more. How far it will go is hard to know. I have one doctoral student here, Holly Gayley, who is doing research on a female religious leader who just died in Tibet, and there's another student I'm working with at the University of Virginia who is studying a famous woman visionary at the end of the nineteenth century. There is a fair bit of work being done now on particular historical women. So, more is coming to light as people start to pay attention to different kinds of archival sources.

In this volume there's an essay on the autobiography of Orgyan Chokyi [a Buddhist nun, 1675-1729, who composed the oldest known autobiography by a Tibetan woman].

That's right. The author, Kurtis Schaeffer, is a graduate of Harvard. I also encouraged him to publish a translation of the whole autobiography, which he's done recently, with Oxford University Press. I actually used it for a class this past semester. Hanna [Havnevik] herself did her doctoral dissertation on another exceptional Tibetan nun and leader of the twentieth century, Ani Lochen.

You say that there are a few studies that have been done on women in Tibet, but it sounds like there is a real dearth. Have there been any larger sociological or historical studies? What have studies about the female in Tibet tended to focus on?

There have been very few historical studies of women or images of women in Tibet. There is a fair bit of ethnography on nuns today, and the new ordination movement is a big topic for the present time. For the past, the studies have tended to focus on the ideal image of the feminine and certain theoretical passages on an imputed feminine nature, the so-called dakini figure. But that's not about real women, it's about an ideal, an exemplary model for what people think of as a kind of ideal feminine role. That ideal itself is actually questionable for its implications, that is, from a feminist perspective.

In any case, entire books that are devoted to women or anything female in Tibet are very few. In Tibetan studies there are five or six at the most and then a few other articles. Most of the work is addressed to a popular audience and is not historically or theoretically rigorous.

Can you talk a little more about the dakini? I know there's not much about it in this book, but I was interested in how you understand this female model.

The dakini is a complex and in many ways intriguing ideal of a type or style of being, a kind of trickster-cum-angel-type figure. She uses a kind of allusive, connotative way of talking in order to convey ideas that pertain to perceptions that are hard to put into conventional language. That's a special power, but it also would appear to limit the ideal female to a kind of communication that is not entirely public or recognizable. It is true that certain high-ranking Tibetan laywomen are characterized as dakinis; the label is one of the ways that Tibetans conceptualize what an enlightened female would be like. And even today, certain very highly regarded women in Tibetan religion will be called dakinis. It is an operating cultural value.

One problem is that while there are statements in the texts that say "all by women are by their very nature dakini," that doesn't describe day-to-day women's realities where they weren't treated like dakinis at all! They were just treated like women with all the problems and usual kinds of roles and forms of oppression and marginalization. It's a misreading and a gross exaggeration to think that Tibet was such an enlightened society since women were treated like dakinis. That's really not true.

That plays into what you were talking about earlier, which is the very pervasive idealization of Tibet.

Yes, the Shangri-La factor. It's not helpful to anyone, except, perhaps, tourist agencies.

A number of the essays and your introduction talk about alternative patterns for women, which suggest that gender roles do not always determine the lives of all women. In the introduction, you discuss yogic communities in that light, and also women who rely on the support of powerful people. How much of that insight came from the essays.

In writing the introduction, I was fortunate to receive detailed comments from my husband and fellow scholar, Charles Hallisey, who talked with me about it at length and helped me to conceptualize a number of issues more clearly. This is one of the points in the introduction that was actually his idea. There has been a tendency in the study of women to reduce everything to the fact of being a woman. But it is important to see that women are not only women. In other words, women participate in all kinds of activities and situations which don't necessarily have to do with their gender, or which intersect with other segments of society. In particular, it's very helpful to notice that problems such as marginality, reduced status, and so on that we attribute generically to being a woman, in fact, are not exclusive to women. One example that is illustrated in the essays by Dan Martin and Kurtis Schaeffer in the book is the very long-standing place in Tibetan culture for a subculture of yogis, who are marked as kinds of rebellious, maverick figures outside of normal society. Women were perhaps well-poised to tap into the status of that position because they were already outside of the center of conventional power and conventional institutions due to androcentrism and misogyny. But the important point is that this place was not reserved only for women, and many men made use of it as well, in fact more than women did. In other words, the yogic subculture is not essentially about gender. But it is something that women could make use of, and it was a way for them to get power and recognition that was not the standard route. It was more open and flexible than was normally the case in the more centralized and institutionalized foci of power in Tibetan society.

Can you talk about what was available to women historically in Tibet in terms of power?

There were some women in positions of secular rule. There was an old tradition of inherited status on the part of local rulers and kings and lords and nobles; women could sometimes take such status and use it to control regions or local political institutions. As for the huge structure of Buddhist monasteries and monastic institutions, this was almost completely dominated by men. There were some female convents and there were a few hierarchs who were women, but there weren't many. Monasticism in general in Buddhism came to be dominated by men, especially in northern Buddhist countries. But in secular life, there were queens, and as one article points out, there were probably more routes for female power outside of religion than there were inside of it, either through inheritance or their husband dying, or because women were especially strong in their characters and in charisma.

There is also an article in the book on female shamans and oracles, who make use of a different kind of power. There are women that are privy to certain types of communication with the spirits that men are thought not to have access to, for a variety of social and other reasons.

You say in the introduction that women's roles as shamans and oracles might have to do with a double-edged vision of women. What is sometimes considered a negative characteristic—that they can be in touch with the darker, "impure" sides of life—is a positive virtue in the case of shamans and oracles.

That's right. This is something that I think about a lot, and it is a problem for feminists. It is the case that because of women's disadvantages and the prejudices against women, they're consigned to certain levels of realms of society that, ironically, can sometimes become a source of strength for them. But to make this a strength still doesn't put them in the center of conventional power, though it can give them a different kind of status. It's something women can use. Whether that's ultimately good or not is a big question, because some people are uncomfortable with the fact that the only kind of power that women can have comes by virtue of operating beneath the radar screen and cultivating creative, nonstandard means of communication and exerting influence. That doesn't often get sufficient recognition, economically or otherwise.

Or status?

Well, status is a very complicated question. Who has status and who does not is sometimes not so easy to discern. On the other hand, one doesn't want to be an apologist and say that status doesn't matter. Some kinds of feminists do take this route. They say that we should pay attention and notice that women in fact have far more power than we recognize. And that's true, but that still doesn't help the fact that there are important realms to which women have great difficulty gaining access. On the other hand, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the places where women actually do dominate, and to notice them. Sometimes we don't have the words or labels for such a phenomenon, or we don't know to value it. That's a personal interest of mine, to recognize different types of agency.

The question of different kinds of agency also relates to an idea in some of the articles in this book that there are tricky and dangerous places with which women in some ways are more familiar than men.

It's complicated, because such a proposition can be read as an essentialist view of women, but that is far from what I would like to argue. For example, Robert Barnett's article talks of special ways that female nuns "perform" a message of political resistance, but it's not true that it's only been nuns that have been doing this; it's the monastic community more generally. One of the most interesting articles in this book is the one by Charlene Makley, who is developing a point about the gender of the monastic, which is a kind of interesting, in-between gender. Actually, she is not arguing that monasticism represents one single gender; rather, for her, male monastics have a different gender than female monastics, but nonetheless from a more general perspective, all monastics can be located in a kind of interim gender location. In Tibet at the moment, monastics are the ones who are leading the way in political resistance. They're the ones who've been standing up and they're the ones who've been going to prison and being tortured. That's true for both men and women.

But it is interesting that women have taken as much of a role as men in this. There's a fine film on this that I've shown in my class this past semester, Satya, about Tibetan nuns in particular. It's very moving. Nuns are going out to protest oppressive rule in Tibet with their brother monks. If we were to talk about a specific gender that's associated with monasticism, one that is neither fully male nor female, I believe that the gender of being a celibate cleric makes you more willing to take risks, and it also signifies a certain strength, an ability to resist torture and indoctrination. Tibetan nuns and monks also say very specifically that they have the special advantage of not having children, and therefore do not have the same responsibilities as other do. That means, for them, that they are more willing to risk being arrested or hurt.

You do make clear that these issues are complicated, yet also say that shying completely away from a feminist perspective can be a problem.

I definitely feel that I am looking at these questions with a feminist perspective, but that means, too, that I want to nuance what it means to be feminist. The label "feminist" is still up for grabs, still being negotiated in terms of what it means—and what it can mean. I've been talking with some of our colleagues here at HDS about this question. What does it mean to be a feminist? Does it mean to be pro-woman? I don't actually think so. I think one of the most important tasks of feminism is simply to draw attention to the complexity, but also the promise, of thinking through gender. The concept of gender in the postmodern era was developed due to issues of inequity relating to women, but in fact the study of gender, and feminism, and sexuality itself, are not only about women. I think these terms of analysis make a contribution to the study of culture and history on a very wide range of topics that we might not immediately associate with women or sex. That's not to say that we should stop worrying about the specific inequities and prejudice faced by women in the world. I'm not saying that at all. It's just that it's not so simple, and there is a troubling tendency for women to assume that all of their problems can be blamed on misogyny, androcentrism, and patriarchy. Personally, I don't feel caught in an identity as a woman. There are many contexts when sex and gender are hardly the overt issue at all. But on the other hand, the insights of feminism can be translated usefully in dealing with other kinds of bias, stereotyping, and prejudices.

I'd like to talk about your own research and interest in Tibetan medicine. The article in this book by Tashi Tsering suggests that medicine was another site where women have been able to have productive roles.

This article talks about female physicians in Tibet and in exile in the twentieth century. There have been some women who were physicians in Tibet in the past, but not very many, as far as I know. My own interests in medicine are not because women practice medicine, but because medicine describes the body and human beings in a way that more mainstream and scriptural Buddhist sources do not. Traditional Tibetan medicine is much more scientific and pragmatic about the physical body than classical Buddhist descriptions, and I find that a welcome addition to the more idealist versions of the body that Buddhism provides. Tibetan medicine is very influenced by Buddhist intellectual culture, so it's hard to distinguish them, but medicine really does attempt, in some important senses, to look empirically at bodies and talk about how they work from a physical perspective. And that's interesting to see happening in the highly religious culture of Tibet. One striking example of this is that Tibetan medicine is much more comfortable with inter-sexed people than is Buddhist doctrine. This is not in the book, but is coming out of my own research, which found that whereas monasticism saw anatomical deviance as anathema, medicine has long recognized that sexual identity is a spectrum, rather than there being only two ideal types. There is a wide range of possibilities in sexual identity, and medicine is not judgmental about them. This is true of Indian medicine as well.

Tibetan medicine also describes gynecology in much detail. Not all of it accords with modern science, but it is an attempt to be specific about women's bodies. Theorists of Tibetans medicine actually took a bold step by insisting that women's medicine had to be treated separately from that of men.

You're now working on a book on this topic, right?

Yes, it's on Tibetan medicine. One chapter will have to do with sex, gender, and women, but I haven't written that yet. I've been working on other parts of the book.

What is the focus?

It's about Tibetan medicine coming to terms with empirical evidence and empirical thinking. It's about the seventeenth century, when medicine in Tibet interestingly coincided with certain things that were happening in Europe. Tibetans didn't develop modern medicine in the way this happened in the West, but they did take a few moves in a similar direction. It was during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama that this tendency really came to the fore. I'm interested in that moment. Again, I'm trying to see more of Tibet than its religious side, to try to fill out the picture. And medicine happens to be a major place where Tibetan society developed in interesting ways, and there's a huge amount of literature on it that scholars have not studied. Medicine provides another angle to look at history and culture, and that sheds important light on Tibetan religion in the end.

We're just beginning to study Asian medical traditions from this perspective. All of them had some interest in empirical questions, but from what we can tell, Tibetans were especially adept in certain types of surgery. Some of that probably came from Arabic and certain Greek medical traditions that eventually found their way to Tibet. Tibet was a kind of melting pot of various medical traditions in the Asian world. It included Chinese and Indian medicine, as well as Greek and Arabic medical traditions, and a variety of other threads from Central Asia. Historians of Tibetan medicine, such as a doctoral student of mine, Yang Ga, who is here now from a medical college in Lhasa, are still trying to disentangle all the various threads that were there in the eighth century. I'm not doing that myself so much, but rather looking at medicine as a scholar of religion from a cultural and historical perspective. Part of this for me is an interest in the way that the practice of sex is figured. In Buddhism, sex is something harmful that we get attached to, while in medicine, sex is something that normal people do. Sex is good for you, it's a normal part of life. I'm curious about how they talk about that.

How does medical thought end up reflecting back on Buddhist thought? Can you see shifts?

That's a question that I'm really interested in. But to begin with, what do we really mean by "Buddhism"? That's a Western term. The Buddhist world is more expansive than we think it is. In this I am again drawing on some ideas that have been developed by my husband in an influential article he wrote with Frank Reynolds on the notion of "Buddhist civilization" for the Encyclopedia of Religion. I think the notion developed there about Buddhist civilization as a category of analysis is particularly useful to thinking about medicine and Buddhism, and I'm expecting that category to help me think through the larger issues of my book. Certainly a place like Tibet fostered many Buddhist institutions and traditions, but with the idea of Buddhist civilization we can learn to think about how those were part of a larger phenomenon that included what is often considered to be secular. The domain of medical knowledge and practice is one good example of that, I think. It is true that in Tibetan medical ethics we can see much influence of Buddhist ideas and practices. We see it in the way that teachers instruct disciples, in ideas about the nature of apprenticeship and the importance of direct experience, about compassion, and in notions about death. All of these were influenced by Buddhist educational practices, both in the monasteries and more unconventional settings, but it might well be the case that the burgeoning profession of medicine in Tibet also nudged Buddhist monastic culture in certain directions. In other words, there was a fruitful conversation in two directions, especially once medicine really began in some ways to separate itself from Buddhism. In medicine there was a lot more freedom to experiment and to question authority in ways that are not governed by doctrine, as the monastic curriculum was. That's where empirical evidence came in. If something that the physicians experienced in their practice or saw in a patient's body contradicts what the texts say, they were more likely to be willing to question the texts, and less beholden to doctrine than I see in monastic literary and educational cultures. But in the end, the monastic institutions appreciated the prestige of medical expertise, and it may even be the case that the entire approach to knowledge and conceptions of virtuosity in Tibetan Buddhism was influenced in turn by the development of Tibetan medical professions.

I think most Americans know very little about Tibet. We seem to get two impressions of Tibet, the Shangri-La vision, and the political occupation. As a scholar of Tibet who knows more, what do you think about what gets reported on Tibet, and how accurate do you find it?

It's very hard to assess, from what gets reported, what is really going on in Tibet. There are two big propaganda machines, one in the exile community in Dharamsala and one in Beijing; actually, both distort the facts. 

It is difficult to get reliable statistics and figures about Tibet, socioeconomically or politically. Even experts can't make general statements beyond what they've observed, because the census data from China is not reliable. Meanwhile, we are preoccupied with Tibet functioning as our symbol of an exotically enlightened society. Journalists are interested in realities to a certain extent, but it is hard for them to obtain information. But the majority of people are not interested in the reality of Tibet, they're interested in their fantasy of Tibet. And that's not only true of the West, it is true in Asia, too. The Chinese romanticize Tibet as much as we do, even while they're suppressing it. They think it is the source of powerful medicinal herbs and esoteric teachings.

All of this makes your role as a scholar of Tibet particularly interesting and important, and probably frustrating at times!

Talking about something that has so many fantasies attached to it is sometimes complicated, but it's also fun. I just taught my general course on Tibetan religion, and I'm always trying to wake students up to the strong expectations and preconceptions that we—all of us, not just students, but also scholars like myself—bring in studying Tibet. I encourage students to stop generalizing, and especially to stop thinking things like "All Tibetans are only interested in enlightenment," and just to realize that Tibetans are normal human beings, and that Tibetan society had politics and corruption and everything else. But that does not mean we must be entirely disenchanted. Traditional Tibet was an amazing place, with a fascinating educational system and a highly developed literature in what was a quite difficult climate. I don't want to write off its intrigue at all. One has to balance these perceptions.

How long have you been in this field?

I've been studying Tibet for a long time, since the early 1970s. I've been to Tibet five times, and I've been working with Tibetans in Northern India, Nepal, and the United States.

You note how important it is to study the Tibetan exiled communities, as well.

They are not represented well in this book. There are very few publications on women in exile, such as the Tibetan Women's Association in Dharmasala, India. Most research on Tibetan women outside China has been done by anthropologists and has focused on nuns.

Why is that? Is it that nuns are easier to study?

In some ways they are easier, because they're already on display. They are already acting as exemplary figures and they know they're in the public eye. I wouldn't walk down the streets of New York and walk up to some random woman and ask her about her life. A nun is already dedicated to helping others and is trained to be patient with people curious about what she is doing and why. That's part of what it means to be Buddhist cleric, male or female, in fact.

But as I was suggesting before, most foreign observers are not so interested in average Tibetan people. They're interested in "enlightened" people. Some anthropologists are working on Tibetan secular society today, both inside China and in exile, but it's hard to have the linguistic capacity to do that kind of work well. It is difficult to be fluent enough to understand the nuanced jokes and people's personal interactions, which are so intricately coded. That is at least one reason why we gravitate toward studying Buddhism more theoretically. Buddhists have texts, and that at least would appear to be a safer and more determinate thing to study than living communities. But I'm sure there will be more work on Tibetan lay life. There is a new generation of Tibetans accommodating themselves to the new realities in China, and they are being very creative in inventing new kinds of cultural practices that still make them feel Tibetan. I look forward to research on those groups, and already know a number of young Tibetan anthropologists who are studying the latest developments in Tibetan cyberspace inside China.