Ethno-Textuality: An Intersubjective Encounter in Bhutan


Ethno-Textuality: An Intersubjective Encounter

This essay is an attempt to explore in writing my conviction that reading and translating texts and practicing ethnography not only compliment each other, but that both are essential to the comprehensive processes of analysis and interpretation by which histories are made. This conviction is based on two years of research in Bhutan during which time I translated the fifteenth-century autobiography of the Tibetan saint, Drukpa Kunley (‘Brug pa Kun legs, 1455-1529), while simultaneously engaging in ethnographic research on contemporary stories and places associated with the saint.

In this essay, I use a phenomenological approach to suggest a model of academic scholarship that highlights intersubjective experience in the formation of histories. Intersubjective experience refers to a view that considers human experience to be included in and constituted by our engagement with the world in all its various manifestations. My hypothesis is that applying an expanded sense of ethnography as an “intersubjective practice” to studies of literature and history may enable scholars of the history and literature of religion to recognize the importance of their own participation in the relational dynamics between them and their objects of study. This expanded ethnography, therefore, takes into account our personal experience with objects—both discursive (oral tales, written texts, inscriptions) and material (images, structures, places, symbols)—as well as with places, as valuable material for critical thought.

As many of us in academia are aware, there can be a tendency to theorize away from reality as it is lived. This can be particularly problematic when we analyze and interpret pre-modern textual materials. Such materials appear reified and disassociated from life, even when attempts are made to contextualize their use, production, and distribution. As a result, practices of intellectualization applied to such texts may solidify the living human experiences they represent into theories and conceptual models that alienate us from the vital experiences we want to understand.

In my experience in Bhutan, intersubjectivity was implicated in every aspect of my work, from recording oral tales of Drukpa Kunley, to visiting sacred places associated with him, and to translating his fifteenth-century autobiography with my Bhutanese teacher, Lopen Chorten Tshering. To illustrate this approach as much as is possible in a written text, I will begin by telling a story about Drukpa Kunley that exists in the oral traditions that circulate freely in Bhutan today.

One night long ago in southern Tibet, the yogi, Drukpa Kunley, dreamt that a woman dressed in yellow and brandishing a flaming sword appeared to him. She instructed him to shoot an arrow into the country of Mon (as Bhutan was known then). Wherever the arrow landed, he should go. By doing this, he would fulfill a prophecy concerning the conversion of the people of Mon to Buddhism. Accordingly, upon awakening, Drukpa Kunley drew his bow and shot an arrow into Mon. Rushing through the air with the sound of a thousand thundering dragons, the arrow crossed the mountains and embedded itself in the wooden ladder of a house owned by a man named Toeb Tshewang and his wife, Pelzang Bhuti. Hearing the sound as the arrow struck the wood, Pelzang Bhuti ran outside, and seeing the arrow in the ladder, she removed it, wrapped it in silk, and placed it on the altar inside the house.

A few weeks later, following his arrow, Drukpa Kunley arrived at the house, in the place called Toeb Changdana. As soon as he saw Pelzang Bhuti, he was determined to make her his consort. He ordered Tshewang to leave the house so that he could enjoy his time with Pelzang Bhuti. In anger, Tshewang drew his sword, threatening his unwelcome guest. Drukpa Kunley seized the sword and tied it in a knot. Recognizing that Drukpa Kunley was no ordinary person, Tshewang prostrated himself and begged the Lama to take his wife. As a result of their union, Pelzang Bhuti bore a son to Drukpa Kunley named Tshewang Tendzin. This son begins a long lineage of famous descendants in Bhutan, including the fourth temporal ruler, Gyalse Tendzin Rabgye.

Having told this story about Drukpa Kunley and his relationship to a place, I now relate my personal experience of that place. I first visited the house at Toeb Changdana in November 2012. In my notes, I wrote:

“Behind the original house, a small temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley sits at the edge of the lawn surrounded by a garland of brilliant, blazing marigolds… Khandu, the caretaker, tells me that he and his elder sister, Zam, are the last in a long line of caretakers of the house and the temple. Khandu and Zam consider themselves direct descendants of the son of Drukpa Kunley and Pelzang Bhuti, but neither of them has married or produced any children. Although he has been encouraged to take a wife, Khandu says that he cannot bring himself to leave Changdana. Even when he travels to Thimphu to sell vegetables or to purchase supplies, the ladder and the statue of Drukpa Kunley on the main altar in the house haunt him and he feels compelled to return.

After speaking, Khandu shows us through the house. The main shrine room has a large altar, to the right of which we see the famous ladder. Until about five years ago, the ladder was out in the open for anyone to touch. But since so many pilgrims were coming and some were chipping away pieces of the ladder to take home with them, Khandu encased it in glass behind the altar. It is still visible, fashioned out of the same dark wood as the floors. Khandu next leads the way to the small temple.

Temporarily blinded by the transition from sunlight to temple darkness, I feel disoriented. The original temple is evident in its older style of construction and in the faded representations of Drukpa Kunley’s life painted on its crumbling walls. Appearing dimly from out of the temple’s innermost shadows, these murals speak to me from across time. The muted colors stand in juxtaposition to the large, brightly colored mural depicting Drukpa Kunley’s life that has just recently been painted on the interior wall of the newer part of the temple. It is as if the two visual representations of Drukpa Kunley’s life whisper to each other across the interior of the temple, like interlaced memories passing back and forth through the twilit space. I am suspended between two worlds in a timeless space in which the saint’s life history spins out its stories.”

Now, I want to return to the moment when Khandu sat, eyes closed, lips moving, as he recollected Drukpa Kunley’s story at Changdana. This story is also Khandu’s own story. It arises from the bits and pieces of the tale that lie scattered through his memories, told to him when he was a child by his grandmother. When I observed him that day, I noted how carefully he worked through those memories in his mind. When he finally spoke, he repeated patterns of speech and tropes embedded in Drukpa Kunley’s story. Bringing them back out into the open air, he re-forged them in the space my questions had opened up. In this way, he invited me to experience the tale within its own distinctive shape.

This “shape” is the form in which the story was made and is continuously remade. Each caretaker of the house and the temple understands the job as maintaining not only the sacred structures, but also the style, shape, and language of the story. This “shape” is malleable. It adjusts itself to each new context and time within which it is told. In the same way that Buddhist philosophy posits the continuation after a person’s death of some very subtle form of consciousness into the next life, the essence of Drukpa Kunley’s story moves in and through the mind of the caretaker. It was critical for Khandu to tell the story properly. Never mind that his audience already knew the tale; he still had to tell it formally, with great attention to the details that comprise the narrative.

I would now like to discuss my own experience with an object connected to the story of Drukpa Kunley at Changdana. In different places inside the temple, certain significant items were displayed, including a stone gaming board reportedly belonging to Drukpa Kunley. Upon seeing this board, I recalled an episode from the saint’s autobiography in which he represents the game of Mi Mangs (a game with characteristics similar to both Checkers and Chess) as an extended metaphor on how worldly activities, such as game playing, function as analogues to the Buddhist path.

This episode in the text proved difficult for me to translate for various reasons. It was written with the assumption that anyone who read it had played and understood the rules and telos of the game. Without my Bhutanese translation partner, Lopen Chorten, I could not have understood how the moves described in the game mapped onto the Buddhist path. Translating with Lopen Chorten provided me access to his memories, from which he drew liberally, to help form my understanding of what was, at first, a foreign place. Lopen’s thoughts and ideas, crafted from his memories of reading and hearing stories of Drukpa Kunley throughout his life, made available the treasure house of Drukpa Kunley’s memories as these are represented in the autobiography. Both for Lopen and for me, the autobiography served as a map, guiding us on a journey through Drukpa Kunley’s inner landscape of remembered events and impressions.

As a result of my experience translating this episode, when I saw the physical game board in Drukpa Kunley’s temple at Toeb Changdana, I felt a strong connection to the material object. I felt I had already “lived” an involvement in a game that I’ve never played. The board spoke to me on multiple registers, recalling all the associations I had to it. My memories of the episode were consolidated, affirmed, and expanded by the physical board itself—its shape, the intersecting lines carved into the stone to demarcate the playing spaces, and Khandu’s recounting of how it had come to the temple at Changdana. Placed together, these elements demonstrated the impotency of the passage of chronological time to dilute the message, most clearly encapsulated by the literary episode, that traveling the Buddhist path involves processes of strategic thought and practice.

My experience of the physical board, when brought together with the complexity of the literary language used to describe and enact the game in the autobiography, combined with Khandu’s stories and memories of how the board came to be housed in the temple and resulted in a matrix or inventory of items that I could gather together into ideas. To help explain this further, I want mention a theory of memory developed by medieval studies scholar, Mary Carruthers, in which she describes the practice of “the craft of thinking” (The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 3). Carruthers focuses on the techniques by which persons “make” or “craft” ideas, interpretations, or thoughts. Such techniques are dependent, in her view, on an expanded definition of memory as a “matrix of a reminiscing cogitation…a memory architecture and a library built up during one’s lifetime with the express intention that it be used inventively” (Ibid., p. 4). Memory is a storage-house for various kinds of “inventories.” This includes the idea that “memory work is also process, like a journey” requiring the need for “place,” because re-collecting includes the activity of “getting from one place to another” in the thinking mind (Ibid., p. 23).

This emphasis on “place” is central to the practice of ethnography writ large where, by entering into physical, imaginative, interpersonal, literary, or social spaces, and by traveling from one to another of these, researchers come face-to-face both with the materials that inform memories as well as with the mediums in which such memories are stored and from which they can be retrieved and creatively recombined by those who encounter them. Carruthers’ notion that knowledge depends on memories, which are held in images, items, and places and which can be gathered together by the thinking mind, echoes what anthropologist Michael Jackson describes as the central tenet of William James’ radical empiricism: that the field of empirical study includes the multiplicity of all experienced facts, regardless of how they are conceived and classified—conjunctive and disjunctive, fixed and fluid, social and personal, theoretical and practical, subjective and objective, mental and physical, real and illusory (William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1976, pp. 22-23; as quoted in Jackson, ed., Things as They Are: New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology. Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 7).

Thus, my re-membering of Drukpa Kunley’s story from my translation work with Lopen Chorten, combined with Khandu’s reciprocal re-membering of the oral stories of Drukpa Kunley, created a common field of memory that we all experienced and, in turn, remember. While it can be agentively complicated to assign subjectivity to material objects, items—such as the ladder into which the arrow was shot, the Mi Mangs gaming board, and Drukpa Kunley’s autobiography—all actively participated in the intersubjective exchange that took place between Khandu, Lopen Chorten, Drukpa Kunley, and myself. Together, we engaged in a creative process by which something new, that was simultaneously old, was brought into the world–something that was both deeply personal and also, socially and ethically meaningful.

In summary, I suggest that the sources for re-membering, for making histories, or herstories—or we may simply call them stories—exist in a variety of mediums and that it is important to be aware of and engage with their interdependence. These sources are literary, sensory, and material. They consist of texts and stories, places and objects, sounds and smells. Bringing these various elements together forms compositions, collages, or patterns of images from the past, gathered together in the present and available to be directed to the future. By acknowledging the intersubjective experiences that form a background for all our academic endeavors, researchers can experience the complexity of the living and vital relationships inhering between those people, places, and objects we consider to be of the past and of the present. Through accepting this complexity and seeking to find ways to represent it honestly, and by avoiding the tendency to ontologize the results of our interpretive activities, we may do justice to the power and vitality of these objects for how we live today.

Elizabeth Monson
Department of Religion
Harvard University

Image: Photograph by the author.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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