Mindscaping Tibet—Dan Smyer Yü

Dan Smyer Yü (2015)

Mindscaping the Landscape of Tibet: Place, Memorability, Ecoaesthetics

Religion and Society, Vol.60, Walter de Gruyer, Berlin

Dan Smyer Yü is a Professor and Founding Director at the Centre for Trans-Himalayan Studies, Yunnan Minzu University, a core member of the Transregional Research Network at the University of Göttingen and a Research Group Leader at Max Planck Institute for Religious and Ethnic Diversity. A documentary filmmaker, his widely screened films include Embrace (50 min. Tibetan mountain culture and ecology, 2011) and Rainbow Rider (55 min. Tibetan Buddhism in China 2013). This film documents the renowned Tibetan Buddhist public intellectual in China, Khenpo Sodargye through his lectures and dialogues with social scientists on the topics of environmental health, human flourishing, the scientific understanding of the mind, and the Buddhist vision of world peace. It invites audiences to join the ongoing global discussions and debates on whether or not Buddhism is a science of its own.

Sambha Village, shown above, is the site of his research for his book on Mindscaping the Landscape of Tibet.

Mindscape

In this age of climate crisis and environmental anxiety, and the loss of faith in the modernist dream of endless progress through technology, more and more people are turning their attention to the modes of thinking that pervaded many pre-industrial cultures. The ethnic Tibetan cultural areas of modern China are rich with modes of pre-industrial ways of thinking and experiencing—mindscaping—the natural world and its lifeforms.

What is a mindscape? For Dan Smyer Yü it is the range of reflexes, intellectual reflections, emotional responses, memories, moving images and mental data storage of scents, colors, sounds, temperatures, and meteorological patterns, all of which originate from human lived experiences enveloped in the external physical environment, namely, landscape (p.20). Smyer Yü maintains that while the Chinese troops overpowered Tibetans with their tactical superiority, Tibetan natural and built environments profoundly overpowered many of them on a different scale—a delayed inner transformation (pp.40 and 72).

Mindscape is metaphorically the “inner landscape” from this experience, immersed in one’s depthless and shapeless thoughts, affections, feelings, fears, hopes and dreams. It is the remembered place that continues to speak to us. This understanding of mindscape draws on the work of Tim Ingold, Christopher Tilley and Barbara Bender who have developed intertextual relationships with geographers, philosophers, psychologists and critical theorists to create a rich stream of interdisciplinary study (p.21).

Dan Smyer Yü sees that landscape, as the lifeworld itself, environs us, invades and permeates our body and mindscape with its air, water, nutrients, and its solid surface supporting our bipedal locomotion—a world entering each of us through “a visionscape, a touchscape, a soundscape, a smellscape, and a tastescape” (Tilley 2011, 27-28).

Dan Smyer Yü’s research on the intersection of Tibetan landscape, culture and modernity, is explored through the following chapters of his book:

  1. Geopolitics of place, gods and people in Sambha
  2. Confessions of an Inner Liberation
  3. Memorability of place among anti-traditionalists
  4. Touching the skin of modern Tibet in the New Tibetan Cinema
  5. Ensouling the Mountains
  6. Drifting in the Mirages of the Tibetan Landscape
  7. Conclusion—Mindscaping Tibetophilia

Tibet as a Cultural Hotspot

Tibet stands as a hotspot to Chinese, Westerners and Tibetan writers, intellectuals and artists as well. Successful artists and filmmakers such as Garma Dorje Tserang, Pema Tseden and Sonthar Gyal are telling their stories of Tibet through painting and film. In their creative artworks, Tibet is again revealed as a place of inspiration and its immensely breathtaking landscape, Buddhist spirituality, kinship bonds and communal intimacy. The productions of these groups of Tibetans in Beijing are adding more heat and complexity to Tibet as a “hot” place and a power culture (p.15). Dan Smyer Yü draws on his collaboration with this loose group of Tibetan artists, known as “Tibet-drifters” and “Beijing-drifters” who live as freelance creatives working on a range of projects in film, arts and literary creativity, and living in shared housing-workspaces.

Smyer Yü identifies two approaches to representations of Tibet. One is the modern romanticised Chinese image of Tibet as a nation of Buddhism and a paradise on earth, represented by emerald summer grasslands, blue sky, idyllic villages and high mountains—excluding non-traditional elements as much as possible. The other is Tibetan creatives and intellectuals engaging with verisimilitude in their reproduction of contemporary Tibetan social life, religious practices and natural landscape, which seek to peel away the symbolic ‘overkill’ and portray the realities of contemporary Tibet, for example in Old Dog (2010) by Pema Tseden and Sun Beaten Path (2010) by Sonthar Gyal (p.31).

One of the dilemmas of the global economy of mass tourism is that places that become famous as sources of spiritual potency, identified through academic scholarship or media, are commoditised. For example, Smyer Yü quotes Chen Xiaodong, a freelance Buddhist writer based in Shanghai, sharing online his first experience of the Tibetan landscape:

I was sitting on a hilltop looking at the endlessly expanding horizon under the blue sky. . . . A bliss began to permeate my body and mind. I didn’t know that my eyes welled up with tears. I bent down to kiss this earth. This is a magic land, a sacred pureland… (Chen 2002:5)

As a result of such responses from modern Han Chinese, Smyer Yü notes that in this age of simultaneously occurring late-capitalism and late-socialism in China, the market economy, whether centralised or in a lassez faire state, is always keen on identifying popular desires, aspirations, and trends as potential and actual opportunities for profit. Once a popular desire is amassed around an object, this object, whether a brand name product or a geographic place or a charismatic person, is instantly given commercial value and thus is turned into a commodity” (p.36).

The search for a post-colonial mode of inquiry

Arguing for a post-colonialist appreciation of Tibet, Dan Smyu calls for a deeper view of locally expressed human universals in past and present conditions of human conflicts, one-sided curiosities and mutual interactions on a global scale, to take account of transnational migration and global visibility of human cultures, religions and intellectual thoughts in the twenty-first century (p.18). He argues that non-Western thought systems and religious practices are increasingly entering deeper into the core of Western cultural consciousness, particularly through the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and the growth of Han Chinese engagement with Tibetan Buddhism in modern China. For Dan Smyer Yü, the aesthetic potency of the Tibetan landscape resides in the crisscrossed lineages of humans and earthly deities embodied in mountains and lakes (p.26). He notes that the early Buddhist conversion of Tibetans that began in the eighth century was not only a mindwork of humans, but also a conversion process for the entire landscape of Tibet, which embodied/embodies indigenous earthly deities, re-cosmologised as Buddhist sacred places centred on the historical figure and the legend of Padmasambhava (p.55).

Insurrection of the Modern Worldview

This intrusion of non-western modes of thought involves an intellectual and epistemic insurrection in the idea of rigpa, as the unhindered vision of realisation revealed through Tibetan Buddhist practices, subverts or revolutionises existing world views based on sem, merely conceptual thinking (p.27). Western (modern) modes of thinking valorise conceptual thought, and discredit the possibility of another domain of awareness such as rigpa, or mythopoetic modes of awareness such as permeate pre-industrial cultures like Tibet and Aboriginal Australia.

The other insurrection, revealed by Smyer Yü’s fieldwork with Akhu Norbu, a yogi from Sambha Village in Qinghai province, is engagement with a culture where the landscape is alive with other beings, forming an integral part of their eco-spiritual world view and daily spiritual practices. Earth (sa) is animated with beings other than humans, and the world is seen as three realms: the celestial sphere above the earth (sabla), the surface of the earth (sadang) and the underworld (sa’og).  He notes that the potency of the earth is animated through demons, ghosts, gods and spirits in celestial, terrestrial and underworld realms, creating an “inter-dwelling mode of being”, the mutual saturation of landscape and mindscape, place and memory, and divinity and humanity (p.39). In modern culture demons, gods and spirits, and the different realms have all been subsumed within psychology as mental states, entirely divorced from landscape.  Thus demons are mental states of anxiety, fear and hatred.  Gods become mental states of euphoria, and spirits become the intuitive sense of aliveness within and around us.  The celestial ream is the hypothesised ‘heaven’ of religious belief, or perhaps for the atheist, the world of planets and stars in our solar system.  The underworld realm (sa’og), the world of the nagas, has become our unconscious mental states, home to all our hidden habitual patterns and stored but inaccessible memories.

Tibetan Cinema in China

In Chapter 5, Smyer Yü discusses the works of Tibetan filmmakers, beginning with the release of Pema Tseden’s The Silent Holy Stone in 2004, the first film scripted and directed by a Tibetan in the one hundred year cinematic history of China. He regards the essence of Pema Tseden’s style has been to create a reality on the screen through which the audience is empathetically moved into the lived experience of the Tibetan characters. The landscape is not background, but active, sustaining and saturating the film’s human characters’ inner landscape and their social acts. Drawing on Jungian psychology and notions of soul as anima (female) and animus (male), Smyer Yü regards this approach as enacting the anima of the landscape through a particular personified character, which clearly designates Buddhism as the anima of the Tibetan landscape (p.331).

Pema Tseden’s evolution as a filmmaker tracks the challenges facing ethnic Tibetan intellectuals and artists in modern China as they seek to find a voice that captures their strong sense of connection to land and traditional Buddhist culture, set against the dislocations and challenges of a rapidly modernising China. Pema Tseden’s later films, The Search and Old Dog, delve deeper into the social space of contemporary Tibet showing Buddhist values being challenged in modern terms, as the history and spirituality of Buddhism is enveloped in and challenged by the modern, secular, consumer world, whereby it is becoming susceptible to being marginalised, subverted and secularised (p.141). The messages in these later films point to increasing cultural and environmental stress among the Tibetans, with the films’ cinematic hapticity almost coercing his audience into the feelings of chaos and psychological displacement (p.144). Thus Pema Tseden’s cinematic hapticity is not the actual, subtle emotive skin surfaces of the characters of his narrative, but the “skin” of Tibet’s landscape and its people’s mental condition, social ethos, and people’s moral and kindred ties within their land (p.146).

Symer Yü suggests that the proliferation and affordability of digital video and cinema cameras and editing equipment is allowing increased visual articulation of numerous public discourses, so that we will soon witness the second and third generation of Tibetan filmmakers emerging in China.

This also signifies a cultural and cognitive trend that our perceptions of the phenomenal world, as well as our projections of future states of being, are increasingly shaped by our mediated visual encounters with both local, regional, national and global events, issues, and concerns through images transmitted through TV broadcasting, the Internet, Streaming services and cell phones. (pp.153-155).

The Mountain Gods

However Smyer Yü maintains that while Pema Tsden remains sceptical that the ability of China’s modern project will benefit Tibet and Tibetans, the power that sustains his cinematic restoration of traditional Tibet, his compatriot Tibetan filmmaker, Shogdon’s construction is of a new modern Tibet.  But both approaches stream in from the landscape which is the root of the total lifeworld of their home (p.151). Both filmmakers were born in Amdo in Qinghai Province, where one of Tibet’s most revered mountain gods, Amnye Machen, also regarded as a soul-place of King Gesar, the great mythic warrior spirit of East Tibet, dominates the landscape. It is also the site of modern gold mining operations over the last 10 years. Akhu Shampa explained to a friend of Pema Tseden that many now think their mountain god wants to move to a different place:

Miners have dug deeply into Amnye Machen, at least seventy kilometres from the mouth of the mine to the current depth… The mountain will perish like a person with his intestines, heart and lungs dug out. In recent years the vitality of the glacier of Amnye Machen looks feeble. Mining makes the snow mountain lose its vigour… Amnye Machen is a Tenth Stage Bodhisattva. He doesn’t have hatred of the miners but I feel it is unbearable and heart wrenching (p.168)… If we turn our back on our soul mountain, we will lose our soul. This is an inseverable relationship (p.171).

In a manner similar to how Australian Aboriginal people explain their connection to country and the laws of their Dreaming, Smyer Yü concludes from his conversations with Tenzin and his fellow Amdopas that for Tibetans the combined lifeworld of place, gods and humans is a “rhizomic world”, because their “roots”, in the senses of mythology, history and religion, are so entwined that the sphere of each intersects, overlaps, preconditions, and saturates the others.  Thus this lifeworld is an embodiment of both the histories of gods and humans. Amnye Machen, from a local perspective, is a living being who bridges the past and present in psychic, spiritual, emotional and haptic terms (p.173).  It is in this context that we can understand the Tibetan angst about the mining of such places, expressed mythopoetically as disturbing the nagas.