Justin Whitaker, religion scholar and author for Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith, recently submitted an article, Tibetan Language: More Than You Imagined. Before reading my excuse for a blog, his article is worth reading, if you are interested in the status of dying languages (and dialects of) in Tibet.
Whitaker’s article makes me wonder if I should learn how to speak, write, and read Tibetan. I’m almost 40. Do I have time?
Imagine the Tibetan language completely dying out in a century and the only speakers of the language live in Europe, India, Australia, the United States and other places beyond the Tibetan region. This will be sad, as the Chinese continue to create their culture to dominate the regions. The self-immolations in this region are, in my opinion, directly related to a “loss” of cultural power, sustainability, and language access. (A Navajo student of mine was beaten for speaking his native language in school. Now you know why Indians don’t trust the U.S. government and probably never will!) Every Tibetan who dies for a cause of justice also reduces one more person from knowing and spreading the language. I wish the self-immolations would stop, but I am not Tibetan.
I am partly Cherokee Indian or, as I like to call it, the remnant of that great civilization. We don’t self-immolate; we turn to alcohol! We once lived in cabins, by the way, and not a tipi. We were not nomadic like many Tibetans and other Indian civilizations across the Americas. But, we lived through a history that lost much of its culture, language, and religion. Many Cherokees in Oklahoma are Christian now; they have Christian hymns translated and sung on Cherokee language websites. “Amazing Grace” in Cherokee somehow disturbs me!
Makes me realize exactly what Thomas Jefferson, who believed that integrating with Indians would one day eliminate them, thought about my Cherokee and other Indian ancestors. Andrew Jackson’s the Trail of Tears became the last resort of the Cherokee language survival, but Cherokee still exists by some smart Indians deciding to create a Cherokee newspaper and a formal government in the so-called new Indian Territory (now Sequoyah County in Oklahoma). You can read the Cherokee Phoenix here and follow the news. I became somewhat aloof to the news once they legislated marriage between a man and a woman. So much of Indian and Cherokee communities used to be more open on these ideas. Read any fiction or watch talks by Sherman Alexie to understand sexuality and Indian culture. The film, Smoke Signals, may make an interesting connection to the self-immolation concept of our precious Tibetan people!
Tibetan Buddhism has their “newspaper” also: Vajrayana Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche and others saw the pending death of Indian Buddhism as the Mongols conquered India and later established Islam as the new nation-state. Luckily, a smart exchange happened between Tibet and India, as a written language based on India’s Sanskrit created a Tibetan script and language, even though the oral traditions thrived beyond any written language. Try learning the written language, and then go to Tibet. I doubt they’ll understand a word you say! It’s like speaking Shakespeare to me!
Sequoyah was the first to establish the Cherokee alphabet and language. You might call him the patron saint of the Cherokees. On a side note, one of my Cherokee Indian ancestors was also working on a Cherokee language, but he was beaten to the punch, so to speak. I could have been famous, which I never wish to be! (By the way, Sequoyah’s English name is George Guess. We Indians prefer to memorialize our ancestors with the Indian name. Take that as irony if you like.)
Likewise, Thonmi Sambhota is the Tibetan Sequoyah who first introduced an alphabet and new written system into the Tibetan regions, even though so many dialects existed there. The first to be written down becomes king or queen, similar to the establishment of English in the United Kingdom. Thus, the diminishment of all the other dialects that could have been the “official language.”
I don’t know how long Sequoyah’s language of Cherokee will last in the United States. Their newspaper can be read in English and Cherokee, but their latest website has focused mostly on the English translation. Did Sequoyah’s written language prolong the inevitable: the death of the past Cherokee culture? How many full-blooded Cherokees still resonate deep culture in their own language? How many pow-wow dances does it take to realize that these dances are not the original Cherokee culture but an amalgamation of Indians during the diaspora collecting what was left of the various cultures? To preserve, you share.
Nevertheless, Cherokees and Tibetans are survivalists! They both were not afraid of change or the concept of impermanence. The cultures will continue to thrive in one form or another, even if it means a diaspora community and hope for a Tibetan country for Tibetans or Bingo parlors and big money casinos for the Cherokees. (Unfortunately, they recently changed the Cherokee Casino’s name to the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel.) It all seems strange to me how smaller cultures survive in this samsaric realm of capitalistic delight.
Luckily, the Tibetans have something more than a language; they saved Indian Buddhism, so many thriving Mahayana teachings that once existed there. They received Tibetan Buddhism and have passed it along to the entire world as a precious gift. Also, the Bon tradition, through modern scholarship, has finally received its significant place in history, including its focus on Tibetan Buddhism, even though many lineages and books attack the Bon tradition for a kind of withcraft or shamanism. (Tibetan lamas I have read or heard usually define shamanism as participating in the sacrifice of animals, although that definition may not be an accurate one across cultures.) Luckily, Bon texts are beginning to be found to show great teachings like Dzogchen may have pre-dated Guru Rinpoche; we must wait and see the results of this great scholarship.
So, a Tibetan and Cherokee walk into a trap instead of a bar. I don’t have the punchline to this statement. I only know that both cultures have taken too many punches but still inspire me to know more about my future as a Cherokee (a card-carrying one, if you will) and a Protestant Vajrayana Buddhist.
May the languages continue to flourish in Tibet! May they flourish across the globe! May my Protestant Vajrayana Buddhist pride become second class to the first class languages in Tibet!