An Interview with Donald Lopez: On the Resurgence of Interest in Buddhism, His Controversial Book on Tibet and the Future of Asian Studies at the U-MSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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J: Buddhism is such a presence in the media and the movie industry these days. Is there any kind of parallel to this phenomenon in university course enrollments?
Lopez: Here at Michigan our courses on Buddhism attract about 300 students every semester. In the winter of 1999, I taught a new course entitled "Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism." Although it had never been taught before, it drew 280 students. The strength of the other Buddhist Studies faculty, Luis Gómez and Robert Sharf, is certainly a major reason for the popularity of courses on Buddhism at Michigan. However, there also seems to be a cultural factor at work, a kind of resurgence of interest in Buddhism among undergraduates, akin to that in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Students often come to the courses knowing something about Zen and something about the Dalai Lama, along with an interest in Buddhism as an exotic and alternative worldview.
J: That figure for the undergraduate course in Tibetan Buddhism is stunning. What accounts for it?
Lopez: Tibetan Buddhism seems to have displaced Zen as the referent of the term "Buddhism" in the popular imagination. Part of this is certainly due to the visibility of the Dalai Lama. But Tibet also presents an almost irresistible mixture of the exotic, the spiritual and the political. Tibet's altitude and relative isolation have made it an object of European fantasy for centuries, often portraying it as a domain of lost wisdom. Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the flight of Dalai Lama into exile in 1959, many Tibetan teachers have come to the West, some of whom have written best-selling books, like The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Added to this is the political situation; Tibet has been a colony of the People's Republic of China for 50 years. The plight of Tibet has attracted wide support, making Students for a Free Tibet a very popular campus group, with chapters all over the country.
J: The students must come in with certain preconceptions and expectations, then. How do you deal with them?
Lopez: One of our goals in the courses on Buddhism is to disillusion students, in the literal sense of the term. We attempt to present Buddhism not as a universal therapy, but as a religion with its own history and cultural foundations, a religion with traditions of practice that are sometimes very different from what people imagine. For example, it is generally assumed that meditation is the primary form of Buddhist religious practice. Meditation is certainly presented in this way by contemporary teachers in the West, but historically the practice of meditation has most often been the vocation of a minority of monks and nuns, and was rarely practiced by laypeople. We also describe the history of Western interest in Buddhism, pointing out that the notion of a list of religions from which one may choose is itself a product of modernity.
J: This is in line with the theme of Prisoners of Shangri-La. Did you write the book out of a sense of annoyance with the way in which Tibet is romanticized?
Lopez: It is a book about the creation of Tibet in the European and American imaginations, and attempts to demonstrate how fantasies that go back a century or more have circulated in relatively unchanged form to the present day. In doing research for it, I came to the conclusion that the romance of Tibet is ultimately detrimental to the cause of Tibetan independence. In portraying Tibet as Shangri-La, as a utopia where everyone meditated, where there was no crime, no disease, Tibet becomes increasingly ethereal and nonexistent, disappearing as a real place on the globe. Yet Tibetans in Tibet are living at this very moment under very real political oppression. I fear that once people come to learn something about Tibetan history, they will be disappointed to find that Tibet was not a magical place, but was a domain of both saints and sinners. The case for Tibetan independence can be made without indulging in the romance of Tibet. Indeed, I think the case can be made all the more strongly by identifying the origins of the Shangri-La syndrome.
J: How does Robert Thurman fit into the discussion?
L: In the book I talk about Professor Thurman as someone who has written widely about Tibetan art, philosophy and religion. He is an eloquent author who has expressed this myth of Shangri-La very powerfully.
J: In the 50s, 60s and even 70s Zen was popular in the West. You said earlier that it's now been replaced by Tibetan Buddhism. What accounts for the change?
Lopez: For several decades Zen was the Buddhism of choice in North America, beginning with the Beats after WWII. Much of the interest in Zen during the late 1960s and 70s derived from the presence of Japanese teachers in the U.S., such as Suzuki Roshi in San Francisco and Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles. One of the reasons that popular interest in Zen may have declined is that in many cases these Japanese teachers have been succeeded by Americans of European descent—what one author has called "white Buddhists." Buddhism may lose a bit of its mystique for American devotees when the teacher looks just like they do. Tibetan Buddhism is different in this regard since there is still a large number of Tibetan teachers who come to America. Some of them have a large following in the Tibetan exile community, suggesting a direct link to the traditional culture. Zen has a longer history in America, becoming in many ways a form of American Buddhism with its own lineage and practices.
J: And this trend is also true in academia, it appears?
Lopez: As we discussed, Tibetan Buddhism has become popular in both undergraduate and graduate programs, although Zen studies is a very vibrant field, both here at Michigan and at other universities. But interest in Tibet continues to grow. In recent years the majority of the applicants to the Buddhist studies graduate program have wanted to focus on Tibetan Buddhism. When I was writing my dissertation in 1980, it was very difficult to find an academic position as a specialist in Tibetan Buddhism. You had to portray yourself as someone who specialized in Indian Buddhism and did Tibet on the side. Things have changed.
J: I wonder why there's not more interest in Theravada Buddhism, both on a popular level and an academic level. Southeast Asia, I would think, is the place where so much is happening in terms of numbers of participants and new movements.
Lopez: Southeast Asian Buddhism has tended to be the domain of anthropologists, with people assuming, wrongly, that all of the important texts had already been translated by the Orientalists of the 19th century. Theravada Buddhism has not had the kind of cultural impact in the West that Zen has had. In addition, there are no Theravada teachers comparable to the Dalai Lama to generate interest in the media.
J: Here at Michigan the Buddhist studies program is in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, which has gone through several reincarnations over the years. Can you say something about the department's current status?
Lopez: Over the past two years the department has done an extensive self-study and had an external review. As a result, we are now prepared to make a number of changes, both in terms of our structure and procedures as well as in our connections to the rest of the University. ALC is an area studies department that is in the process of adapting to what some regard as a post-area studies academic world. We are also one of the few departments in the nation that focuses on all of Asia, rather than only on East Asia or South Asia or Southeast Asia. This presents a great challenge as well as a great opportunity to do things that other departments elsewhere cannot. In the past, the structure of the department did not allow all the members of our excellent faculty to contribute fully to the curriculum. We are hopeful that the changes that we have instituted will allow us to build better links between ALC and the rest of the University, thereby further integrating Asia into the University's increasingly internationalized curriculum.
J: Many Asian languages attract relatively few students and therefore have difficulty gaining and maintaining institutional support. Is that the case here?
Lopez: The administration of LS&A and of the University recognize that Michigan is a national resource for language training. We teach 14 languages in the department, and most of these are what is known in the profession as LCTLs, Less Commonly Taught Languages (also known as LOTS, Languages Other Than Spanish). The University's strong support for these languages, despite low enrollments, has allowed us to continue to serve both the increasing number of heritage undergraduates as well as graduate students studying particular cultures in Asia. Despite what many have assumed, "internationalization" does not mean that the whole world will soon be speaking English. Instead, internationalization demands an even stronger commitment to the study of foreign languages.
J: There's the perception among some senior faculty and emeriti that Michigan has lost some of its eminence in the field of Asian studies. What does the future look like?
Lopez: Michigan has one of the longest traditions of Asian studies among American universities, both in terms of the study of Asia and the education of Asian students. Thirty years ago Michigan was the leading center for Asian studies in the country, certainly among public institutions. It typically ranked first or second in federal assessments year after year. Much of the scholarship done here during that period set the agenda for the entire field, and the University was seen as place that provided an essential service to the field of Asian studies nationally and internationally. For a variety of reasons, some international, some national, some local, the University has lost some of its prominence in Asian studies over the past two decades. Many great scholars have retired, and departments and programs have been reorganized. It would not be possible, nor in many cases would it be desirable, to go back and try to duplicate precisely what was here in the past. But Asia has never been more important to the University as we move to internationalize the curriculum. And Michigan has never had so many students from Asia and so many students of Asian descent. Faculty from schools, colleges and programs across the campus therefore feel that it is now time to make a special effort to restore the University of Michigan to its place of preeminence in the study of Asia.
Donald Lopez's recent book, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (U of Chicago Press, 1998), won the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion last year. It has provoked widespread discussion and sometimes heated debate among scholars. At the AAR's annual meeting in November, 1999, the book was the focus of a panel that included Professor Robert Thurman of Columbia University, a senior scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and one of the most visible figures in the Free Tibet movement. Thurman delivered a highly charged critique of the book. Excerpts from Thurman's comments and Lopez's response follow.
Thurman: Lopez's argument is simply another variant on the theme of blame the victim. He argues basically that the Tibetans are victims of their own supporters, not by their Chinese enemies. He argues that "Tibetophile" scholars and populizers have created a false Tibet, a romantic Shangri-La paradise, and have imprisoned themselves and the "real" Tibetans in it, making them unreal to the world and hence unworthy of protection from the Chinese genocide…..
In this way, Lopez joins other scholars, who cater to the currently dominant military-commercial world order and trumpet their invariant syllogism:…Tibet is a hopeless lost cause, irretrievably at the mercy of China;…therefore the best way to help Tibet is to not to help Tibet as represented by the Dalai Lama - if he loses all support, he will grow quiet, surrender to China's inevitable rule, go home, and help them try to reform his backward, Buddhist romanticizing, Shangrilizing, primitive-minded, idolatrous people.
Lopez: I do not recognize the work I wrote in Professor Thurman's comments. I have the impression that he did not read the book, or that he did not read it carefully….His statement that in Prisoners of Shangri-La I "blame the victim" of the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet makes little sense when so little of the book is about Tibetans, especially those living in Tibet.
Professor Thurman has clearly taken personal offense at the book…. But it was not my intention to offend anyone…. My purpose was not to praise him as the great white hope of the Tibetan independence movement or to accuse him of being the last great perpetuator of the Shangri-La syndrome. The more pertinent question is whether it is possible to be the one without being the other….
But Professor Thurman does raise one important question…. He seems to object not so much to the contents of the book, but to its very existence. He seems to argue that Prisoners of Shangri-La should not have been written, that, indeed, no book that is not devoted unequivocally to the promotion of Tibetan independence should be written until that independence is won. . . . As long as one follows the strategy of attempting to counter the big lie of the Chinese, with many small lies about how wonderful life in old Tibet must have been, then any historical research that complicates this picture… can only be read simplistically as saying "bad things about Tibetans," thus generating the kind of extreme hubris which claims that a book like Prisoners of Shangri-La helps the Chinese. . . . Of all the adjectives that have been used to describe Prisoners of Shangri-La, the one that has saddened me most is "courageous."
Donald Lopez, chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, and Carl W. Belser Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies, was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A member of the U-M faculty since 1989, Lopez earned his doctorate in Buddhist studies at the University of Virginia in 1982. He has written six books and edited 17 others on various aspects of the religions of Asia. Journal editor Bonnie Brereton interviewed Lopez at his office this summer.