Tuesday, 5 July 2016

IATS 2016 Keynote lecture

Dr Lama Jabb (Wolfson, Oxford)
was one of the 2 Keynote Speakers at the IATS conference in Bergen, Norway.

He delivered the below speech at the opening plenary session on
19 June 2016.

Knowing Tibet:

Centrality of Language & 

Silences of Knowledge

"Good afternoon and a warm welcome to you all.

I would like to start by thanking Professors Hanna Havnevik, Tsering Shakya and the organising committee for bestowing upon me the enormous honour of delivering this keynote speech at the 14th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. With this sense of immense honour I stand before you in gratitude, humility and with a thumping heart!

To my great surprise and delight I have been invited here to say something in particular about my recently published book and more generally on Tibetan studies. I am not qualified to say anything definitive or enlightening about the rapidly growing field of Tibetan studies. I will be, as Tibetans would say, teaching Lord Buddha ཀ་ཁ the alphabet if I dwell too long on the discipline of Tibetan studies. However, before this august gathering I will try to say a few things about my book. And in the process I will offer a few suggestions about the critical direction of Tibetan studies.

As we are all aware, thanks to the path-blazing endeavours and vision of many early and current scholars, both Tibetan and non-Tibetan, huge strides have been made in the intellectual exploration of Tibet. Tibetan studies is now a truly multi- and inter-disciplinary field offering a diversity of insights into Tibetan civilization. This multi-perspectival dimension was something envisioned by the founding members of the International Association for Tibetan Studies in 1979, whose activities have contributed much to the flourishing of Tibetan studies, as can be seen in this assembly of scholars here.

Whilst reaping the fruits of such intellectual labour with deep gratitude we must also avoid some of the pitfalls of the journey so far so as to make our own contributions to this worthy academic quest. For all the fine achievements there is also a need to avoid the beaten path, the sustained dominance of established yet debatable ideas, vocabulary and conclusions. As we ride on the shoulders of giants and other unsung persons endowed with knowledge it is vital to embrace new approaches and address sensitive or unexplored themes with a critical mind. We would do well to furnish ourselves with the critical edge observed in the intellectual by Edward Said.

For Edward Said “the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”

I believe our research would be “thickened” if we were prepared to unearth our own faults and those of others, hear out the marginalised and voice out many silences. In my book Oral and Literary Continuities in Modern Tibetan Literature: The Inescapable Nation I adopt a multidisciplinary approach reinforced by heightened cultural sensibility and historical consciousness so as to examine themes and issues less explored in Tibetan literary studies. Despite its limitations (some of which I will list today) it embraces a critical approach in its attempt to give voice to silences either caused or ignored by academic research and political authority.

As is the case with any people - the good, the bad, the ugly and the sublime - forge the Tibetans. However, there is a well-meaning yet questionable contemporary Tibetan intellectual belief that finding fault with ourselves might undermine the common interest and collective identity of Tibetans. The public acknowledgement of our collective shortcomings does not mean the obliteration of Tibetan identity – which is complex, multiple-layered and resilient. A Tibetan saying tells us:


“A great man is known by his nickname
And a great horse by its speed.” 

མཚང is translated here as nickname but it also means fault. Most often nicknames are made up by singling out the main perceived fault of a given person. Alongside its general truth (the fact that many great or lesser Tibetans are known by their nicknames) this proverb also tells us that our ability to acknowledge and face our flaws lie at the core of our identity. Therefore, on a collective level, one could say the willingness to own up to ugly truths and the audacity to right many social wrongs are and will be vital attributes of Tibetan identity.

Speaking as a Tibetan researcher our scholarly pursuits would be more rewarding if we confront our many social challenges head on such as gender inequality, tribal and sectarian disputes, rampant gambling and alcoholism, environmental degradation, corruption of the clergy, the power elite and intellectuals. I do not believe that the intellectual addressing of these social ills would lead to the erosion of Tibetan collective identity as some might fear.

In my book I attempt to tackle some of these problems and exploitive power relations by examining Tibetan literary and oral compositions loaded with social criticism. Some marginalised themes and issues such as Tibet’s critical tradition, the traumatic experience of the Tibetan nation and erotic poetry are dealt with more adequately than others. Although I touch on gender inequality and patriarchal injustices I am ashamed to confess that I have failed to address these issues in a systematic and rigorous manner. In the male dominated Tibetan literary culture women as creative author, reader, and imagined characters are totally marginalised. Literature as a potent means of expression, representation and creation has been usurped by Tibetan men for centuries. Had I paid fuller attention to this masculine literary tradition that subordinates female experiences and denies female artistic agency my book would have been a more worthwhile read.

Many piercing insights of feminist literary criticism make us pay attention not only to negative stereotypes of women in the Tibetan literary canon but also to the exclusion of women writers from it. They force us to revaluate Tibetan literary history with an acute consciousness of the ingrained gender inequality that has shaped socio-political and cultural forces underlying literary production.

In recent decades female writers have been making welcome inroads into the male domination of Tibetan literature and its critical judgement. In addition to yet-to-be discovered female traditional literary voices there is a huge corpus of academically uncharted contemporary women’s writing found in books, anthologies, journals and, of course, on social media. A common recurrence of themes makes this writing stand out and underlines the void within Tibet’s masculine literary tradition. Tibetan female poets and fiction writers tackle motherhood, including maternal love, childbirth and child rearing, the untimely loss or deprivation of youth, domestic violence, sexual assault, lack of education and employment opportunities for girls, male dishonesty, fickleness, the betrayal of love and dereliction of paternal obligations. To cite but two examples today,
firstly, from Kawa Lhamo’s free verse poem -
སྐལ་བཟང་སྒྲོལ་མའི་གཏམ་རྒྱུད། The Story of Kalsang Dolma - in which the namesake marries into her charming lover’s family ignoring the pleas of her parents. However, after a year of maltreatment:


Kalsang Dolma returned
Cuddling a naked infant in her chuba
Carrying a valley full of sad tales
Bearing wounds left by that drunkard husband

Kawa Lhamo and other female Tibetan writers are concerned with the often tragic fate of Tibetan brides who marry into their husband’s family, be it sometimes of their own free will. It is a subject that reflects an observable social pattern in Tibet where many brides or wives almost singlehandedly undertake childcare, household chores and agricultural work whilst suffering at the hands of their husbands and parents-in-law and an indifferent community at large.

In her poignant and lyrical short story ཁུ་སིམ་པའི་ས་སྲོད། Silent Dusk, with remarkable sensibility and tact Tsedon Kyi brings the female protagonist Metok Lhazi vividly to life. The story centres on her forced marriage to two brothers at the behest of her own parents. The younger brother is obnoxious and abusive while the older one is seemingly considerate. However, they are both equally neglectful. Tsedon Kyi portrays polyandry, violent sexual abuse, alcoholism, abandonment and a sense of unbearable loneliness in a patriarchal and technologized contemporary Tibetan rural setting. These themes with an emphasis on the transience of life and love are bracketed between two images: the fleeting crimson evening clouds that open the story and the terrifying gorge of the Lord of Death that ends it. Thus in Silent Dusk the female author gives powerful artistic voice to the silence of the subjugated, betrayed and sexually violated Tibetan woman. She articulates a recurring female experience that resembles a silent dusk before the darkness of night and death erases it all into total silence.

Tyrannical parental authority and unjust social customs are targets of criticism in traditional oral poetry such as ballads. However, in contemporary Tibetan women’s writing the critical
focus seems to shift from general stock characters and situations to particular individual experiences. There is marked attention to the minute aspects of everyday existence. Therefore, it would be of great benefit if students of Tibetan studies, myself included, pursue their respective research with a heightened awareness of diverse feminist criticisms, as some of you already do.

In spite of this regrettable shortcoming I hope my book does manage to at least draw scholarly attention to historical lacunas concerning the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. These tumultuous decades of bloodshed, famine and cultural destruction left an indelible traumatic mark upon the Tibetan psyche. When they are overlooked in studies on cultural revival, regional or tribal communities, territorial demarcations, anthropological and sociological investigations in contemporary Tibet and in Tibetan exile communities it leaves a gaping black hole in the background. Despite state imposed and self-censored silences the traumatic experiences of these decades continue to inform Tibetan creative writing and collective identity. My book demonstrates this point through the analysis of both fictional and poetic works informed by Tibetan oral poetry and storytelling. Just to cite one such example called ལོ་རྒྱུས་སྐད་ཆ། History Talk, a poem by Moksher:



རླུང་ཁ་ན་མེ་ལྕེ་བཞིན རྫ་ཁ་ན་དར་ལྕོག་བཞིན


རྔོན་པ་ཚོ   སྔར་བཞིན་རི་ན་ཡོད


As that herd of wild yaks were defeated like that
This mountain valley has emptied out like this

On either side of that process
The heavy anguish of mountains and rocks was sown into the sky
The wandering dirges of rain and rivers roamed in every direction
But even when darkness rained upon the earth
Deep within the lone black yakhair tent
Countless prayers and butterlamps were offered

Children who lost their mothers
Were like tongues of flame in the wind
Like prayer flags on the mountain pass

As that herd of wild yaks were defeated like that
This mountain valley has emptied out like this

On the night of a waning moon
I heard a talk
That talk was amidst the grass and plants
That talk was on the wind and breeze
“That footloose lot are still hunters
The hunters are still in the mountains as before”

As that herd of wild yaks were defeated like that
This mountain valley has emptied out like this

Pondering upon the death-defying quality of the poetic word, George Steiner notes: “Out of the gates of death man pours the living stream of words.” Silence did not prevail after the disappearance of wild yaks – that is the death of the old Tibetan generation in those terrifying decades. Their history was borne on the wind and dispersed by what Tibetans calls འཇག་མའི་ཤུགས་གླུ “the sighing songs of the long grass”, in the countryside long after their tragic deaths. The contemporary Tibetan poet picks up his or her tunes and stories from these oral songs and tales and carries them over to the realm of the written word. Thus the Tibetan poetic word gets wings and fights against time and forgetting.

One obvious feature of my book is that it focuses on oral and literary works produced in the Tibetan language. Even though I write in English, Tibetan language not only provides me with the raw material but also quickens my English prose with its peculiar flavour.

I cannot agree more with Elliot Sperling’s statement: “Without the ability to work in Tibetan there is no serious Tibetan studies.” Nor can we speak of Tibetan literature without a serious appreciation of Tibetan language. This is not to deny the value of important research undertaken by non-Tibetan speaking scholars on Tibet and in languages other than Tibetan. However, a fuller understanding of Tibetan history and culture cannot be attained without knowing the language that has shaped them. For Tibetans སྨྲ་ཤེས་དོན་གོ་བ་མིའི་མཚན་ཉིད – the mastery of language and faculty of reason define human beings. This does not differ much from the Western philosophical notion of being human: Man as a being of the word and reason. If speech makes one human then that particular speech for the majority of Tibetans is still in Tibetan.

As many of you know, far better than me, language is not just a mere mode of communication. It does not only covey thoughts, feelings and information but also affects the ability to think, feel and communicate in profound ways at both individual and social levels. George Orwell underscores this quality in 1984, in which the totalitarian state Oceania reduces the rich English vocabulary into Newspeak consisting of a tiny range of technical words. It is a state invented language for restricting free thinking and expression of nonconformist thought and alternative world-views. My research is driven by a strong conviction that without serious engagement with Tibetan language in all its expressive complexities our attempt to understand how Tibetans think, feel, dream, imagine, act and live will suffer.

As well as being mindful of the centrality of Tibetan language and specific academic idioms used for exploring Tibet, of course, it would be highly enriching to also deploy other languages. My book would have benefited enormously had I had the ability to use literary sources in both Chinese and Sanskrit. This would have made some of the silences that I voice - resonate with a multicultural ring.

Another vital feature latent in the overall presentation of my book and its themes is a concern with the relationship of power and knowledge. However, I failed to explicitly spell out the pervasive impact of knowledge production on Tibetan thought and conduct and on how Tibetans are represented. Power of knowledge as a pervasive, productive force capable of shaping what is considered as reality. This Foucauldian sense of knowledge as power makes us consider that as we attempt to know Tibet and things associated with Tibet we must be critical and self-reflective. We must ask difficult questions regarding power entailed in the production of knowledge. If I may, I would like to extrapolate the late British parliamentarian Tony Benn’s five democratic questions for those who wield political power and apply them to the power of knowledge.

Tony Benn asks: “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?”

As we explore Tibet we should also ask: first, what knowledge have we got? The answer entails a reassessment of what we actually know about Tibetan civilisation and the intricate nature of this knowledge including the language it uses. What kind of vocabulary prevails and does it prevent critical reflection and divergent thinking?

Secondly, where did we get our knowledge from? This involves reflection upon the originators of the knowledge and the specific socio-political and ideological conditions under which they produced it. There is also the need to think about the methods of acquiring our received knowledge that might have silenced and repressed certain forms and types of enquiry and knowledge originating from specific sections of society.

Thirdly, in whose interests do we use our knowledge? We need to ask searching questions as to whom it ultimately serves and what its social ramifications are.

Fourth, if our knowledge or elements of it turn out to be fundamentally wrong to whom are we accountable? That is to whom do we need to answer to for misrepresentation of and misinformation on Tibetan civilization? How do we right our wrongs especially when our distorted forms of knowledge are still in currency in intellectual and political circles?

And finally, how can we get rid of ourselves if all we know is at fault? That is if and when all
we produce is ossified ways of thinking, regurgitations and misleading conclusions through what mechanisms can we acknowledge this, and how can we find the exit door? As knowledge and power are woven into a single pervasive social fabric - when us knowledge seekers become obstacles in the way of intellectual discovery, innovation and hearing out silences there should be a way of removing ourselves.

These are difficult questions we need to grapple with individually as well as collectively. As we do so I believe it is vital to have that critical mind celebrated by Sakya Pandita:


Without subjection to critical enquiry
A scholar’s depth cannot be fathomed
Unless a drum is struck with a stick
It differs little from any other object

If we are to spur our intellectual life with dynamic intersubjective rhythm, then we must remember to beat ourselves with Sakya Pandita’s critical stick. We must shake off our intellectual complacency and orthodoxies by opening ourselves to rival perspectives in public exchange. In order to deepen and diversify our understanding of all things Tibetan it is necessary to embrace what Hannah Arendt calls “publicity” – “the testing that arises from contact with other people’s thinking.” It is clear that this openness to contestation in public debate is vital for the formulation of “a scholar’s depth’ as well as for the understanding of this depth by others.

Intellectual discourse should not merely be confined to debates among scholars themselves. The intellectual is someone with a critical public role who is prepared to listen to the silenced and give voice to many silences.

Our gathering here offers a global platform for critical discussion of all things Tibetan and Tibet related. I am very excited to be part of this conference and look forward to learning and sharing our ideas. I would like to wish you all an enjoyable and fruitful week ahead.

Thank you for your time and attention."


  1. Dear Charles,

    I wondered about this small point when I heard the talk already. I know that final -n and -ng in Tibetan causes difficulties for native speakers of Mongolian (and Russians who learn their Tibetan by way of Mongolian). They often regard the two endings as interchangeable. So I imagine there is a reason the author believes mtshan and mtshang to be alternative spellings of the same word. It doesn't make any sense in classical written Tibetan, however, where mtshan means 'name' and mtshang means 'fault' and one really cannot (ever?) be confounded with the other.

    With that small quibble out of the way, I have to say that I think the two speakers who spoke in the plenary session in the Aula were outstanding, articulate, and well, brilliant! They made me want to drop everything and go and read their books. Well, it's not as if I *can* drop everything, but you know what I mean.

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