Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Are We Prisoners of Shangrila?
Georges Dreyfus, Williams College
JIATS, no. 1 (October 2005), THL #T1218, 21 pp
Section 3 of 6 (pp. 6-10)

The ShukdenShugs ldan Affair and Buddhist Modernism

To start with, I disagree with Lopez’s interpretation of the ShukdenShugs ldan affair as an opposition between clan-based and modernist interpretations of the tradition. First, as I have shown elsewhere,16 the propitiation of ShukdenShugs ldan as a GelukDge lugs protector is not an ancestral tradition, but a relatively recent invention of tradition associated with the revival movement within the GelukDge lugs spearheaded by PabongkhaPha bong kha (1878-1941). Second, in this dispute the Dalai Lama’s position does not stem from his Buddhist modernism and from a desire to develop a modern nationalism, but from his commitment to another protector, NechungGnas chung, who is said to resent ShukdenShugs ldan. Thus, this dispute is not between followers of a traditional popular cult and a modernist reformer who tries to discredit this cult by appealing to modern criteria of rationality. Rather, it is between two traditional or clan-based interpretations of the GelukDge lugs tradition, that of ShukdenShugs ldan’s followers who want to set the GelukDge lugs tradition apart from others, and the Dalai Lama’s more eclectic vision. The fact that the former may be more exclusivistic and that the latter may be more open does not entail that they can be interpreted adequately through the traditional/modern opposition.

The stance taken by the present Dalai Lama in the ShukdenShugs ldan affair is interesting for our purpose, for it throws some light on the role of Buddhist modernism in his thinking. To describe the Dalai Lama as a Buddhist modernist is in fact only partly true. This description captures neither the complexity of his positions nor the way in which his ideas have evolved. There is no doubt that the Dalai Lama has been strongly influenced by Buddhist modernism, but I would argue that he is himself, at least in the last twenty-five years (since the beginning of the ShukdenShugs ldan affair), not a typical Buddhist modernist. Very little has been written about his intellectual evolution. To understand him, one is reduced to looking at his writings, his [page 7] authorized autobiography, and the scraps of information that can be gathered from witnesses. When one does this, I believe that the following picture emerges.

As we all know, the present Dalai Lama was educated in a very traditional Buddhist fashion, mostly according to the curriculum of the great GelukDge lugs monastic universities. The Dalai Lama himself has remarked how this education was unbalanced and inappropriate to the modern world, particularly for a person who had to assume a leadership role.17 As a result of this education, the Dalai Lama was completely unprepared to face the modern world, which came crashing down on him in 1950. Confronted with this weighty responsibility, the Dalai Lama tried to cope with the situation, learning on the job, as it were, how to deal with the modern world. First, his dealings with the Chinese were obvious “occasions” for such learning. Particularly important was his trip to China in 1954-55. His encounter with Chairman Mao made a lasting impression on the young Dalai Lama, as did his visit to Chinese factories. The most formative encounters, however, took place in India, a country that the Dalai Lama visited extensively in 1956 before settling there more permanently in 1959.

All this is well known. What is perhaps less appreciated is the degree to which these early years spent in India were formative of the Dalai Lama’s stance toward modernity. There, the Dalai Lama encountered people he could identify with. Nehru made an obvious impression, but probably more important were other less famous figures (such as the then-President of India Rajendra Prasad, Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Tulsi, etc.), who barely figure in the authorized biography. I believe that these people were significant for the Dalai Lama’s formation, for they showed him through their own versions of modernism (Hindu or Jain) how one could be a religious person and yet a full participant in the modern world. It is in large part as a result of contact with these men that the Dalai Lama seems to have developed his own Buddhist modernism as a position adapted to modernity and yet in agreement with his traditional background.

What is worth noting here is that the role of Westerners in these formative years seems to have been minimal, mostly limited to practical matters. It is only with his meeting with Thomas Merton at the end of 1968 that the Dalai Lama began to be influenced directly by Western ideas. But by then, his particular form of Buddhist modernism was in large part already formed. Thus, it is quite mistaken to represent him as suddenly captured by Western fantasies, for his views were formed more through contact with Indian ideas than with Western ones.

Of course, these Indian ideas were themselves products of a complex interaction between Indian culture and the Western worldviews of colonialism. Even this interaction cannot be described, however, as a simple process of internalization of Western ideas by Indians. What must be factored into this process is the role that traditional Indian ideas played, and the ways in which Indians have been able to combine these ideas with modern views. Using the insights of Memmi, Fanon, Mannoni, Césaire, and other thinkers who have charted the psychology of [page 8] colonization and the difficulties of liberation, Ashis Nandy has described the process as a complex interaction that has evolved over time.18 In India, the process started during the nineteenth century with a high degree of internalization of colonial stereotypes, but gradually moved toward more hybrid products in which the colonized were able to develop an identity that was at the same time modern and yet profoundly Indian. For Nandy, Gandhi – who puts forth his own synthesis of traditional Indian attitudes and Western ideas – is the decisive figure who manages to undermine the colonizer’s authority.

For Nandy, Gandhi’s greatness consisted of his ability to deconstruct colonial stereotypes through which the colonizers had justified their rule. Instead of trying to beat the British on their own ground, Gandhi rejected the gender identification between the colonizer, masculinity, and its alleged virtues (strength, courage, maturity), and instead turned to saintliness as the ideal through which he was able to mobilize traditional notions of the connection between the feminine and power (Skt. ┼Ťakti). In this way, according to Nandy, Gandhi was able to overturn the disempowering colonial stereotypes and to provide a new stance for modern Indians. This stance was simultaneously in touch with traditional ideas – and hence was able to rally the still largely traditional Indian villagers – and yet was also profoundly modern. Whether or not we agree with all the details of Nandy’s analysis, the complexity of the process through which Gandhi’s Hindu modernism was formed is clear. Hindu modernism is not a simple internalization of orientalist fantasies, but a complex synthesis in which traditional Indian ideas interact with a variety of Western ideas such as orientalist understanding of Hinduism, Christian attitudes toward religion, modern Western political culture, etc.

It is these ideas that the Dalai Lama encountered in India in the first years of his exile. They apparently influenced him greatly, and still largely shape his interactions with modernity. They also led him to take fairly radical positions within the Tibetan community. For example, the Dalai Lama insisted that the community in exile adopt, despite the opposition of the majority of his own people, a constitution in which the Dalai Lama’s role was limited and could be submitted to democratic oversight. It is also these modernist ideas that led him to take unconventional positions within the Tibetan religious universe. Particularly important in this regard has been his avowed distrust of the institution of the reincarnated lama. It would be a mistake, however, to overemphasize the role of Buddhist modernism within the Dalai Lama’s overall intellectual trajectory.

The Dalai Lama’s encounter with modernity did not lead him to repudiate his traditional background. For example, the Dalai Lama never embraced the distrust of ritual, one of the hallmarks of Buddhist and Hindu modernisms. In many respects, he remained a person deeply imbued with traditional Tibetan values and attitudes. I also believe that the Dalai Lama underwent an evolution that has not been noticed by most observers. Living in Dharamsala in the 1970s and 1980s, I was able to observe some of the changes that he underwent. When I first met him at the [page 9] beginning of the seventies I was struck by his unconventional ideas, his willingness to relativize and even discard aspects of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This radical stance changed to a more traditional one, however, during that same decade. I believe that this change can be traced back to the winter of 1975-76, a time during which the Dalai Lama undertook an important retreat. The Dalai Lama has never explained what happened during this retreat, but my guess is that he had several experiences, visions, or dreams concerning the Fifth Dalai Lama’s visionary teachings, which he had received as a child in Tibet. In his authorized biography, the Dalai Lama makes only this cryptic comment:

Also, at around this time [1947, the time of the Reting affair] I received from Tathag Rinpoché the special teachings of the Fifth Dalai Lama, which is considered particular to the Dalai Lama himself. It was received by the Great Fifth...in a vision. In the following weeks, I had a number of unusual experiences, particularly in the form of dreams, which although they did not seem significant then, I now see as being very important.19

My own speculation is that the last sentence of this statement refers to the change of attitude toward the Great Fifth and his visionary teachings that took place during the winter of 1975-76. It was as the result of this, it seems to me, that the Dalai Lama came to reevaluate his relation to the Fifth Dalai Lama, to the institution of the Dalai Lama, and more generally to his tradition as a whole. It is also at that time that the Dalai Lama began his offensive against the practice of ShukdenShugs ldan by refusing the long-life offering that the government customarily makes after the new year.20 Thus, far from being an expression of his modernism, his opposition to ShukdenShugs ldan is motivated by his return to a more traditional stance in which this deity is seen as incompatible with the vision of the tradition (the “clan”) represented by the Fifth Dalai Lama.

This return to a more conservative stance did not entail a repudiation of Buddhist modernism, which remained his favored way of interacting with more strictly modern contexts, particularly with the West, which he started to visit seriously only at the end of the seventies when he was well over forty. During these later interactions, the Dalai Lama began to be interested in ecumenical exchanges and in environmentalism, concerns that were new to him at that time. These new interests brought very few changes to his overall orientation, which is expressed in the messages that he has delivered during his numerous tours.

As one can see from this brief account of the intellectual evolution of the Dalai Lama, his ideas are far from being simple appropriations of Western fantasies. Certainly, they have been influenced by the orientalist perceptions of Buddhism which had an important role in the emergence of Buddhist modernism. It is also clear, however, that his ideas and Buddhist modernism in general are not simply the reflections of orientalist discourse. They constitute an interpretation of the [page 10] Buddhist tradition which is certainly modern and hence new, but which is nevertheless well grounded in the tradition. After all, the ideas that Buddhism has a founder, a body of sacred scriptures, and a sophisticated philosophical tradition are all important elements of Buddhist tradition. Similarly, the idea that meditation is a central practice is not a complete innovation. Its extension to the laity and to the monastic population as a whole is certainly new, but its central normative role is not. Even the elements of Buddhist modernism that are least grounded in the tradition, such as its compatibility with scientific thinking, do tap into long-standing trends of the tradition. The Buddha’s recommendation that one should investigate the teachings before adopting them – like testing gold before one buys it – is not, after all, a modern creation!


[16] Georges Dreyfus, “The ShukdenShugs ldan Affair: History and Nature of a Quarrel,” Journal of International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 2 (1999): 227-70.
[17] The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile (New York: Harper, 1990), 25.
[18] Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).
[19] The Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile, 31. My brackets.
[20] For more details on this episode, see Dreyfus, “The ShukdenShugs ldan Affair.”

Note Citation for Page

Georges Dreyfus, “Are We Prisoners of Shangrila? Orientalism, Nationalism, and the Study of Tibet,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T1218 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Georges Dreyfus, “Are We Prisoners of Shangrila? Orientalism, Nationalism, and the Study of Tibet,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): 1-21, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T1218 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Dreyfus, Georges. “Are We Prisoners of Shangrila? Orientalism, Nationalism, and the Study of Tibet.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 1 (October 2005): 1-21. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T1218 (accessed ).