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Spacious Minds

Spacious Minds: Trauma and Resilience in Tibetan Buddhism

Sara E. Lewis
Copyright Date: 2019
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 252
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  • Book Info
    Spacious Minds
    Book Description:

    Spacious Minds argues that resilience is not a mere absence of suffering. Sara E. Lewis's research reveals how those who cope most gracefully may indeed experience deep pain and loss. Looking at the Tibetan diaspora, she challenges perspectives that liken resilience to the hardiness of physical materials, suggesting people should "bounce back" from adversity. More broadly, this ethnography calls into question the tendency to use trauma as an organizing principle for all studies of conflict where suffering is understood as an individual problem rooted in psychiatric illness.

    Beyond simply articulating the ways that Tibetan categories of distress are different from biomedical ones,Spacious Minds shows how Tibetan Buddhism frames new possibilities for understanding resilience. Here, the social and religious landscape encourages those exposed to violence to see past events as impermanent and illusory, where debriefing, working-through, or processing past events only solidifies suffering and may even cause illness. Resilience in Dharamsala is understood assems pa chen po, a vast and spacious mind that does not fixate on individual problems, but rather uses suffering as an opportunity to generate compassion for others in the endless cycle ofsamsara. A big mind view helps to see suffering in life as ordinary. And yet, an intriguing paradox occurs. As Lewis deftly demonstrates, Tibetans in exile have learned that human rights campaigns are predicated on the creation and circulation of the trauma narrative; in this way, Tibetan activists utilize foreign trauma discourse, not for psychological healing, but as a political device and act of agency.

    eISBN: 978-1-5017-0956-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, History, Asian Studies, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    Sipping chai at a tea stall, Sonam Tashi, a fifty-five-year-old monk, recounts his experience in a Chinese prison after being arrested for posting photographs of the Dalai Lama around his monastery in Tibet. Knowing him as a staunch political activist and survivor of torture, I expect the interview to center around human rights. But he tells a more complex tale. “I had to stay as a prisoner,” he explains. “But I just thought of it as a retreat house. I was given food, and other than that, all I had to do was practice. Some said: ‘If we have tow...

  2. Chapter 1 Life in Exile
    (pp. 22-44)

    In premodern Tibet, there was a largely semibureaucratic governance marked by regional and religious alliances (Samuel 1993). Tibet’s exact geographic boundaries are contested and varied across historical maps, but most regional provinces fell under the rule of the Dalai Lama’s administration in Lhasa, beginning with the fifth and extending to the present— the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya), the lineage of the Dalai Lamas is associated with the Gelugpa tradition, which rose to power above other schools. Throughout Tibet’s history, the rise and fall of these various Buddhist...

  3. Chapter 2 Mind Training
    (pp. 45-85)

    Dr. Dawa, a practitioner of sowa rigpa (the science of healing), has lived in Dharamsala for nearly thirty years. There has been a growing interest in investigating sowa rigpa, or traditional Tibetan medicine, but she says, “although people want to know about the power of Tibetan medicine, foreign researchers do not understand the way the sems (heart-mind) works. In phyi lugs smen (foreign medicine, or biomedicine), they think you can just take pills, which will do all the work, paying no attention to the patient’s state of mind. But medicine becomes more effective if both the patient and the physician...

  4. Chapter 3 Resisting Chronicity
    (pp. 86-116)

    There is a Tibetan Buddhist concept known as shenpa, which the contemporary lama Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche (2013) translates as “the juice of self-centered emotions.” Shenpa is not a specific emotion but rather the energy behind emotions that lead to ego clinging and the suffering it produces. Teachings on shenpa explain that when a person feels wronged, negative emotions such as fear, anger, and resentment arise almost simultaneously, making it seem as though external forces cause suffering. Kongtrul Rinpoche argues: “Shenpa comes alive whenever there is a strong sense of self-importance. We think of everything in terms of what we want...

  5. Chapter 4 The Paradox of Testimony
    (pp. 117-152)

    “Are you writing this down?” asks Palden. “Is your tape recorder working?”

    “Yes, I have it,” I say. He continues speaking.

    As I told you already, my parents were farmers. My sisters and brothers are nomads today. I went to school for only two years because our livelihood depended on us working. In our county, women cannot have more than two children; if they have three or four children, then the children will not be given citizenship and they need to pay a fine of twenty thousand Chinese yuan. As for my family, two of my brothers were not given...

  6. Chapter 5 Open Sky of Mind
    (pp. 153-181)

    Now in her early twenties, Tashi Lhamo came to Dharamsala from eastern Tibet with her mother when she was sixteen years old. We walk up the steep, poorly paved road after buying vegetables at the Indian bazaar. Today we stop at a tea stall on the side of the road to rest and drink a small glass of peppery Indian chai. Tashi Lhamo zips up her purple hooded sweatshirt, the autumn weather sunny but chilly, and squints back at me. “These problems you always want to discuss,” she teased, holding my hand, “it’s better to ignore the problems in your...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 182-196)

    Dekyi and I walked the khora one afternoon in autumn, the sun finally peeking out behind the clouds after months of monsoon rain. Dekyi, the sixty-year-old mother of a tulku, had become a good friend and she seemed to like having a young person to look after. As we walked, she would often tell me stories of life back in Tibet or sometimes about topics she thought might be related to my research project. Often these stories were different versions of a similar story—a humble, noble person was wronged in some way and yet through deep Buddhist practice, they...