The Newsletter 79 Spring 2018

Tibetan studies in Australia: anthropology

Christine Mathieu

At a recent gathering of Australia’s Tibetan studies researchers, held at La Trobe University on 13 June 2017, Geoffrey Samuel opened the discussion with an overview of the trajectory of Australian Tibetan studies since the mid-1960s and the days of Jan Willem De Jong and Joseph Kolmas at the Australian National University (ANU). The first official gathering of Tibetan studies in Australia took place at an anthropology conference in Newcastle in 1988, and was attended by David Templeman, Gabriel Laffite and Geoffrey Samuel. Since then, interest in Tibetan studies has grown exponentially, both domestically and abroad, and has expanded to include other Himalayan regions: Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Ladakh.

Early interest in Tibetan studies originated with what Samuel called the “theosophical fascination with ancient Himalayan sages”, and a perception of Tibet as a sort of “exotic spiritual museum”, insulated from the world. This ‘view up to the plateau’ has now evolved in to a ‘view from the plateau’ – not only has interest in Tibet broadened far beyond Buddhism, but Tibetan studies are no longer Western-directed, and are now also inclusive of Tibetan and other scholars. Samuel concluded by asking: “Are we a community at all, and do we have common interests to pursue?” To which he answered in the positive: “Australian scholars of Tibet and the Himalayas, although scattered across many disciplines, depend on each other to maintain the critical mass of expertise that is vital to the production of world-class scholarship”.

Exemplary of the broader, more interdisciplinary nature of ‘new’ Tibetan studies in Australia is the work of Catherine Schuetze. She has been a practicing veterinarian in the Himalayan region for fifteen years and turned to social sciences to develop a better understanding of human-animal relations in the Tibetan context. Schuetze is currently researching several facets of human-animal relations, and developing methods and concepts in veterinary anthropology. Her approach looks at animals through several lenses and narratives: the place of animals in Tibetan medicine; their place in the perspective of Tibetan herdsmen; the Buddhist commitment to kindness to all sentient beings; and the current state of veterinary practice in Tibet, which, though predominantly concerned with livestock, also has an emerging focus on companion animals. Schuertze is currently training Tibetan veterinarians in companion animal veterinary medicine, as well as training herdsmen in administering their own treatments to animals. Her work also involves recording rituals dedicated to the pacification of local deities and to keeping herds healthy, and other rituals involving animals. Finally, her work involves the compilation of a glossary and bibliography of Tibetan veterinary medicine.

Gillian Tan’s current research builds on her former work in socio-environmental change among nomadic pastoralists of the eastern Tibetan region of Kham, 1 See her book In the Circle of White Stones: Moving Through Seasons with the Nomads of Eastern Tibet,  examining how pastoralists perceived the rapid changes taking place in their traditional pastures under the influence of government policy, international development, and religion. In this work, Tan focused on change as processes of adaptation and transformation. Adaptation implicates variables that may shift and alter human-non-human relationships but where these relationships are still relatively intact. Transformation, on the other hand, signals a rupture that may or may not be reversible. With a focus on territorial deities, Tan’s current work builds on these insights to explore the interplay between ecology and religion on the Tibetan plateau. Drawing from Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind, she proposes that in the Tibetan pastoralist context, the terms ‘ecology’ and ‘religion’ inform each other, and may be regarded as inherently connected. At the heart of this analogy are the relationships that people have with the entities constituting both their ecological systems and their religious systems.

Yan Fang Liou’s ethnomusicological research focuses on the outer and inner performances involved in Tibetan Buddhist rituals. Her work is based on a case study of the Two-Arm Mahakala ritual of the Karma-Kagyu order, in which she considers the connections between outer performance, which includes musical behaviours (chanting and the playing instruments) and physical behaviours (displaying mudra), and inner performance (spiritual visualisation). Ritual performance and music connect and work together: the outer performance initiates the ritual, while the inner performance fulfils the ritual’s religious function. Liou works with emic concepts of music and notation to explore how ritual instruments are played. She draws from linguistics, musical semantics, and American folklore studies to develop the methodology and concepts to show how music produces both meaning and function for the community.

As for my part, following conversations at the IUAES-CASCA conference in Ottawa this year, I am now planning to revisit my doctoral work in the ethno-history of the South-western Sino-Tibetan borderland (Naxi and Mosuo people) in order to 1) make some of my findings more accessible to anthropologists working in the region, and 2) develop some of the implications of this research for anthropological theory. The structural and historical exploration of mythology, ritual and kinship revealed a web of inter-connections between traditional beliefs, folk behaviours, and politics, and allowed a reconstruction of the shaping of ‘Naxi’ and ‘Mosuo’ polities under Ming indirect rule. I have thus argued that the deliberate adjustment of mythology and ritual by local elites who were well-versed in local lore as well as Chinese and Tibetan civilizational modes, spurred and legitimated the transformation of the societies in this region from tribal to feudal. My analytical method made extensive use of the structuralist theories of Edmund Leach and Claude Lévi-Strauss, confirming these scholars’ enduring genius as well as calling for theoretical fine-tuning.

Christine Mathieu