- Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self
“When the iron bird flies and carriages run on wheels, the dharma will come to the land of the red man”: this saying attributed to the semilegendary founder of Buddhism in Tibet, Padmasambhava, stands as an oft-cited marker for the sense that the meeting between Tibetan Buddhism and North American culture was somehow a [End Page 227] fated one, a confluence emergent from some karmic relationship or mythical dependent-arising. Karmic connection or historical product of the near-simultaneous exile of Tibetans from their homeland in 1959 and the burgeoning of Western interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, the encounter of these two mutually and exotically other traditions is, nearing the second Christian millennium, proceeding apace. Especially since the 1989 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetans—and now international pop icon—the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Western fascination for things Tibetan has exponentially increased, transforming what had been the preserve of scholars and eccentric spiritual seekers into a media sensation.
The reception of Tibetan Buddhism in the West has proceeded in stages and phases that overlap and mutually affect each other, from pop phantasms of Tibet as a mythical Shangri-La (as in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon) and theosophical hopes in Tibet as the domain of the Wise Mahatmas overseeing the spiritual evolution of humanity to the relatively recent development of Tibetan studies as an academic discipline centered on the translation of texts, as well as the growing population of westerners practicing Tibetan Buddhist religion under the guidance of exiled lamas. With these latter two groups—scholars and practitioners who often overlap memberships—the phenomenon of Tibetan Buddhism in the West has reached a point where critical self-reflection is now possible. Donald Lopez’ recent Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West is the first full-length critical examination of the cultural confluence I’ve been noticing thus far. Lopez represents a movement in the field of Tibetan studies from philological scholarship of texts, in which the scholarly effort consists largely of translation along with commentary that closely follows the commentarial literature of the Tibetan tradition being translated, to cultural criticism of the underlying dynamics in the encounter itself.
This critical self-consciousness in the field of Tibetan studies is likewise the motivating impetus behind Anne Klein’s recent work as represented by the book under review here. Klein, like Lopez, was a student of the dean of American Tibetan studies, Jeffrey Hopkins, at the University of Virginia. As such, her early work followed Hopkins in pursuing an essentially philological approach to Tibetan tradition with a focus on the philosophical scholasticism of the Gelukpa lineage. Klein’s three philological-philosophical books—Knowledge and Liberation; Knowing, Naming, and Negation; and Path to the Middle—are excellent examples of the genre of translation/commentary above mentioned, treating the Sautrantika and Madhyamika tenet systems in which the Gelukpa tradition systematized Indian Buddhist philosophy for the purposes of monastic study and debate. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen is something else entirely; in this work Klein blazes a trail out from recondite translation work toward cultural critique and psychosocial self-reflection in which the previously submerged subtext of the encounter between the Tibetan tradition and the Western psyche and society is allowed to surface and its issues probed and reflected upon.
Klein frames her work in terms of a dialogue between Buddhism (by which she mainly means meditation practices and some associated philosophy) and feminism (by which she means both academic feminist theory and her own autobiographical [End Page 228] experience as a Western woman personally experiencing the confluence of Western and Tibetan exigencies). Klein is a salient example of a scholar-practitioner, someone who occupies positions both in the academic field of Tibetan studies and in the population of students of Tibetan lamas in exile. As such, she is exactly situated to embark on such a project of cultural and psychological reflection. She knows...