Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
The Space of Sera (Se ra’i khor yug)
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 3 of 6

Theoretical Postlude

Anthropologists use the term etic to refer to descriptions that are external to the worldview being described – descriptions that will usually not be accepted, and sometimes not even recognized, by the indigenous people being studied. An etic view of sacred space – and most anthropological discourse is etic – stresses the agency of human subjects or institutions in the creation of meaning.41 Sacredness is considered a human construct, and the job of scholars becomes one of describing the process of its construction, both synchronically and diachronically. Much of Huber’s (1999) masterful study of a pilgrimage mountain is written from such a perspective:

a meaningful, albeit visionary, architecture of landscape is generated and imposed on the natural environment ... [and] ritual and other forms of representation ensure that this subtle and naturally embodied architecture is regularly redefined at néri [mountain pilgrimage] sites.42

Huber’s goal is to show “that the néri cult appeared in connection with concerted Tibetan élite attempts to convert their culture thoroughly to a Buddhist one ... The néri tradition should be regarded as a complex product of the syncretism stimulated by the agency of so-called universal religions.43

By contrast to etic forms of discourse, anthropologists speak emic views. Emic discourse usually emerges from – and is recognizable to – the culture itself. In an etic analysis, the scholar is concerned with demonstrating how, for example, the imperatives of history (e.g., the desire to convert Tibet into a Buddhist country) lead to a certain Buddhist “reading” of the natural landscape (a mountain as a crystal stupa, a Buddhist image). From an etic perspective, history serves as an explanatory mechanism for elucidating human behaviors (the behavior of reading Buddhist meaning into the natural landscape). The emic perspective is precisely the reverse of this. Most indigenous theorists are concerned with explaining history (the flourishing of Buddhism, and more specifically the flourishing of certain Buddhist institutions in certain places).44 The historical fact that Tibet flourished as a Buddhist country, and that SeraSe ra flourished as a Buddhist monastery, is something that requires explanation. The sacredness of the space becomes the mechanism for explaining a historical fact (the flourishing of SeraSe ra as an institution). As mentioned before, the presupposition here is that good things don’t happen in bad places. Thus the logic goes something like this:

  • Why did SeraSe ra flourish at this particular site?
  • At least in part because the site is sacred.
  • How do we know the site is sacred?
  • Because of the extraordinary signs evident in its surrounding landscape.

But what mechanism is at work in creating these extraordinary attributes in SeraSe ra’s natural landscape? What precisely constitutes the sacredness of a site so that it comes to exhibit these unusual environmental features? This brings us to yet another series of metaphysical arguments that have to do with the concept of karma.

The principal argument has embedded within it a logic similar to what in the philosophy of religion is called “the argument from design.” There the claim is that nature exhibits an order that can only be explained by positing an intelligent creator (God). In the present context a similar form of reasoning is at work. In the indigenous Tibetan view, the order visible in the landscape of Tibet is seen as proof of the fact that there are extraordinary, sentient forces at work. Mountains that look like conches, parasols and lions don’t simply arise by accident. They must be explained in some way. Tibetan Buddhist philosophers explain the order evident in the natural landscape in metaphysical (even if not theistic) terms. The environmental features of a given place come about as the result of the karma of the beings that are (or will be) reborn in that place. When these features are auspicious – as they are in the case of SeraSe ra, LhasaLha sa and Tibet generally – then the karma that has created (and is sustaining) them must be good or virtuous; it must be a form of “merit” (sönambsod nams). Incidentally, the fact that Tibet has these extraordinary physical attributes as part of its natural landscape means that Tibetans are in some sense special, in so far as they possess the karma to create this place of auspiciousness. Thus, the sacredness of the land reflects, and is ultimately derived from, the sacredness of its people and their actions. More simply, good deeds cause good places to come about, and when the good people who created those good deeds are reborn in those good places, the places serve as the environment in which more good deeds can be created.

The fact that more good deeds can be created – to sustain, as it were, the auspiciousness of the natural landscape – does not, however, mean that they necessarily will be created.45 There is, after all, free will. If more good deeds are not created – if the bank account of merit is exhausted and not replenished – then the goodness of the place will cease, and the auspicious signs of its goodness, even in the natural landscape, will disappear.46 There are degrees, and an implicit order, to the exhaustion of merit (sönam dzokpabsod nams rdzogs pa). First good institutions cease. That causes good people to disappear, and this, in extreme cases, can even cause the physical landscape to change – from auspicious to inauspicious.47 The last things to go are the signs of auspiciousness as these are found in nature. And even these can actually disappear. This, in any case, is the emic view. But as long as such signs remain, Tibetans believe, there is hope, because it means that one’s merit has not been totally depleted, and that there remains a “ground” for the possibility of goodness. And so long as there exists the possibility of goodness, so long is there reason to hope that the results of goodness will once again emerge in their fullness.


[41] In the section on Architecture, you will see that my own discourse is predominantly etic.
[42] Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain, 31, my insertion and emphasis.
[43] Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain, 22, my emphasis.
[44] Or, in some instances, we can say that they are interested in legitimating their choice of site -– showing why a particular place can serve as the ground for religious activity, e.g., the success of a new institution that is about to be founded there. This seems to be the concern of Jamgön Kongtrül; see Ngawang Zangpo, Pilgrimage Guide, 181.
[45] A philosopher would put it this way: an auspicious place is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for goodness to flourish.
[46] See Huber, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain, 47, for other instances in which informants reported this to have taken place.
[47] An inauspicious environment or landscape is described in a variety of Buddhist textual sources, especially those that depict the lower realms of rebirth (ngendrongan ’gro).
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The Space of Sera (se ra'i khor yug), by José Ignacio Cabezón