For Tibet scholars and film enthusiasts, Tibetan director Pema Tseden’s name will not be unfamiliar. Internationally recognized as the father of contemporary Tibetan Cinema, Pema Tseden’s film depicts the dynamics of contemporary Tibetan life from an inside point of view, presenting to international audiences a Tibetan society that is vivacious and plural in its culture. Especially, his film explores the interactions and influence between Tibetan science, Buddhism, and the Tibetan way of life. The essay will also draw on the history of Tibetan filmmaking, the disciplines and meanings of Tibetan sciences, Director Pema Tseden’s first-hand interviews, and other relevant documentaries and film work in the analysis of the connections between Tibetan science and the cultural significance of Pema Tseden’s cinema.
First, I would like to clarify that Tibetan or Buddhist “science” differs from the modern Western definition of “science” – that Tibetan Science incorporates fields that are not typically included in Western scientific disciplines. Within the five major sciences, there are four “outer” subjects – logic, grammar, medicine, and Buddhist art – and one “inner” (nang) subject, Buddhist philosophy. There are also five minor sciences that involve astrology, poetry, prosody, lexicography, and theatrical composition. Along with medicinal practices, subjects normally considered in the humanities terrain in the West are all required materials for a Tibetan science apprentice, typically monks. In such a way, Tibetan science no longer restricts itself to the pursuit of understanding the physical universe, but branches out to study the human, moral, and philosophical terrain. However, although Tibetan (Buddhist) Science is closely related to Buddhism, there exists a distinction between the religion and the science, as elucidated by the Dalai Lama: “Buddhism involves the concept of next life, Nirvana and Buddhahood, thus for the time being nothing to do with modern science…Buddhist science must deal with our emotions… quite precise recognition – what kind of emotion; then the very nature of these emotions, and its causes and conditions, and how to tackle these emotions” (“Science Curriculum for Tibetan Monks 4: Q&A with the Dalai Lama”, 2:43-4:00). The attention Tibetan Science pays to emotional and psychological training puts itself into a unique junction between cultural and scientific discussions, rendering it possible for Tibetan Science to hold a strong presence in the local cultural and artistic products such as drawings, theater, and in this essay’s context, film.
Redeemed by many Tibetans as the new voice of Tibet, Pema Tseden is recognized by some scholars as one of the more “Ethic Minority Film” directors inside the PRC, positioned against the dominating “Minority Nationality Films” in Chinese film productions for the past decades – instead of films that “are made primarily for Han majority audiences, often continuing to tell developmentalist stories of Han benevolence towards the backward minorities” and commodifies the ethnic identity, Pema Tseden’s story provides an insider narration that “attempts on determining their own social identity” (Berry, 91-92). But since Pema Tseden’s film shares a larger budget and tends to non-minority audiences within China, he is considered to be a “minority-nationality” filmmaker working in the system, but whose works do not quite fit in this genre (91-92). Although some scholars also voice against such categorizing methods, critique this national/ethic dichotomy for “reinforc[ing] the existing ethnicization and racialization of non-Han peoples in Chinese society. This scholarly trend is de facto Han Chinese-specific and thus often overlooks nuanced, diverse details of filmmakers of other ethnic origins and the complexity of their productions” (Yu, 127-128). In one way or the other, Pema Tseden’s unique position as a Tibetan filmmaker whose work intersects on both sides of the narrative is widely recognized and, therefore, his success is an especially intriguing subject among film and ethnography scholarly discussions.
During my research, I had the privilege of interviewing Pema Tseden about his experiences with Tibetan Science prior to his entrance into filmmaking. While completing his major in Tibetan Language and Literature during college life at Northwest University for Nationalities, Pema Tseden came into contact with many relevant courses in Tibetan Science. The topics include calculations, Tibetan medicine studies, language studies, and many psychological studies that focus on the human subconscious. To Pema Tseden, all subjects in Tibetan Science are internally connected to the Buddhist teaching that is buried in the Tibetan’s subconscious; when it comes to Tibetan philosophy in life, religion and science are inseparable. As opposed to Western narratives in which encoding traditions and cultures are posed to authenticate its “Tibetan-ness”, to Pema Tseden, “the Buddhist worldview and consciousness naturally permeate into Tibetan’s way of life. For a Tibetan film to be made, a Tibetan story to be told, these ideas have to be included as subjects”. Although I will focus on dissecting cultural meanings for the sake of academic research, we should be mindful to not reduce Pema Tseden’s films to a purely Tibetan matter or impose our own political standpoints upon watching his films. Just as in most Western (referring to Europe-American) films, Christianity and other social conventions are reduced to context for individual stories, Tibetan Science and Buddhist philosophy should be considered contextual rather than emblematic of its culture.
It is also agreed among scholars and Tibetan artists that Pema Tseden’s films are adept at telling individual-specific stories while retaining a distinctly Tibetan cultural stamp. Tibet is neither portrayed in hellish nor heavenly imagery, contrary to the “sacred place” exoticization in the West or the “barbarian backwoods” tropes made in early 20th-century Chinese state films (Ding). Although the Han films on Tibet transformed their attitude during the 1980s, they have not yet achieved neutrality: “The Reform Era led to what has been called a ‘Tibet Craze’ (Xizang re), which reversed, at least seemingly, the earlier vision of Tibet: Han had to learn from ‘pure’ and ‘spiritual’ Tibetans, and Tibet became a means to resuscitate the Han culture” (Vannessa, 14). Pema Tseden’s films, on the other hand, do not in any manner diminish or elevate the Tibetan experience. In picturing the day-to-day nuances of Tibetan encounters, Pema Tseden’s works demystify the Tibetan lore and grant a sense of mundanity in Tibetan life that sometimes feels secular – in Pema Tseden’s cinema, especially his more recent ones, his characters tend to deal with concerns and issues that contemporary and urban audiences can oftentimes identify and relate with. Birth controls, televisions, and Italian Opera intermingle with temples, scriptures, and pasturelands; mountains split way for trucks and motorcycles, while neighborhood dramas, family conflicts, and love affairs sprout in between villages. But Tibetans, having a strong tradition-based culture, are simultaneously charmed and challenged by the fast progressing modernity and commercialization it has brought forth in Pema Tseden’s films. Many of Pema
Tseden’s characters are ensnared in tradition and quickly become mired when confronted by the complexities of an already systemized and capitalistic outside world. The idea of modernization versus tradition, and globalization versus domesticity repeatedly appears as a motif across Pema Tseden’s filmography. Specifically, Tibetan Science plays a notable role in emblematizing Tibetan traditions and the time-honored way of life in separation from modernism and the cultural shock it has brought forth. Pema Tseden’s long-time confidante and collaborator, Tenzin Gelek, has also commented on Pema Tsden’s cultural influence on contemporary Chinese filmmaking during my interview with him: “After Pema Tseden, other Chinese directors have let it go, even if they are very accomplished artists. They have backed off from making Tibetan films and are letting Pema Tseden handle these subjects”. As Tenzin Gelek observed, Chinese cinema is experiencing a new dynamism as Pema Tseden’s films gain in popularity: as a Tibetan, Pema Tseden has for the first time established himself as a voice of authority with respect to cultural presentation.
The Silent Holy Stones
Pema Tseden’s debut, The Silent Holy Stones focuses on a young lama’s day-to-day life in a mountainous town. As a Buddhist novice living in a remote area, he has a quite simple life. His routines include studying scriptures, maintaining the temples, and serving the “little buddha” – a young boy who is redeemed to be a reincarnation of a previous Buddhist master. Before many mainland universities included Tibetan Studies courses as a part of their official curriculums, Tibetan Science practices were primarily, but by far not exclusively, taught in Tibetan monasteries, which oftentimes were the only places that could offer systematic and arranged teachings and give out degrees comparable to academic degrees. Curriculums often include the ten science subjects, which all are instructed by a monastic disciple, to train them with a goal to eventually become Pandita – enlightened scholars well-versed in all five major disciplines (Personal interview with Pema Tseden, 12 May 2022). The young lama in The Stones belongs to such Tibetan academia, receiving a monastic education under his master in the Guwa monastery. As the intersection of religious wisdom and academic learning, the monastic educational system not only represents a source of knowledge but also the highest form of cultural authority and respectability in Tibetan culture. However, as modernity swiftly enters the picture, it opens up an alternative path to knowledge and success. A good example of this dichotomy in the film is the scene where the little lama asks his brother to show him his textbooks. The siblings of the little lama go on a different educational path: they are going to schools, where Western Science and Mandarin Chinese are taught to them instead of traditional Sciences. When his brother gives little lama a mathematics textbook, he inquires: “What is this book with numbers on them?” The brother replies: “Math”. “This is different from the math in the monasteries. Our math is able to calculate and predict the movement of the stars,” replies the little lama. The brother then introduces him to a Mandarin textbook, and mentions that “You can go to big cities if you learn this well”. (The Stones, 00:35:00-32). The little brother has little interest in learning scriptures; he aspires to material success and live in the big city. He even promises to buy his older brother a television when he gets there, inferring that the big city will enable him to gain wealth and opportunities from his perspective. Pema Tseden explains this conversation also as indicative of “ the brother’s separate future and where they will end up. [The brother] is going to walk out of the mountains and his hometown, and one can only do so by receiving modern education”. He adds, “It is also just part of reality they face”. The contrast between the two education systems here is essentially the Tibetan dilemma during an era of modernism: while modern education is a prerequisite to integrating into urban China and its economy, Tibetan Science and its Buddhist core are counterposed to a life of traditions, religion, and asceticism.
Another relationship in this film more blatantly showcases this ideological conflict. The holy stones carver, an old man living in a tent by himself in the mountains, has a son who leaves his hometown for Lhasa to do business. The elderly seem not quite happy about his journeying son, and neither do others in the community. The little lama’s father comforts the elderly and says “There will be a day when he grows up and comes back home” (00:24:40-43). There exists a clear cultural expectation for domesticity in the community, and the son received unfavorable comments for heading against the rule. In spite of that, the youth, like the little lama’s brother, is finding his choice of bigger cities inspiring. As more young generations choose modern education, a big part of Tibetan identity and cultural pride constructed on its monastic schooling is inevitably getting contested. As remarked by Dan Smyer Yu, “Buddhism, in Pema Tseden’s recent films… is an instrument of identity-reclamation inherently linked with a felt sense of public marginality, nostalgia, and is contentious and yet entangled in the relationship between tradition and modernity among Tibetans situated in China’s modernizing landscape” (Yu, 129). The decreasing popularity of Tibetan Science and monastic life is a sociopolitical commentary on Tibetan tradition’s diminishing allure to younger generations who are more interested in modern and complex lifestyles broadcasted to them on television.
It is interesting to note the traditional Tibetan Opera Lhamo that appears as a communal space in The Stones. The play in the film is one of the most celebrated Tibetan Opera Drimé Kunden, a legendary account of a prince who selflessly gives away his children and his own eyes to those in need. The opera is a story of Buddhist altruism and is also a subject in Tibetan Science (theatrical composition). As a show put on during the Tibetan New Year, its cultural significance and influence are prominent. If the allure of television suggests the undercurrent of cultural change in Tibet, Drimé Kunden represents the quintessence of classical Tibetan art form that gathers Tibetan communities. Unlike television dramas, the theater is a participatory event. The younger siblings of the little lama are taking part in the show, rehearsing the show for the village’s New Year festivities. Through participating in rehearsals, the children become familiar with the lyrics and story and are able to internalize its values. Although, it seems as if the opera is mostly attracting the older generations, upon seeing the audience crowd. Since they are already very familiar with the story, the young lama and his brother do not feel too enthusiastic about watching the show. They eventually go to interrupt the show and ask their older brother, who plays Drime Kunden, for money to watch movies in a nearby screening room. However, the little lama’s fascination with television does not imply that he is fully accepting of modernization and westernized ideas. The young lama soon finds himself disliking the screening’s sexual and violent undertone, and he takes his siblings away quickly from films that he believes are against the Buddhist values he learned at monasteries. Despite pressure from youth to leave for larger cities under changing realities, adults and youths like the little lama in the village steadfastly hold on to their cultural identities by respecting traditions. Little lamas’ fixation with television largely stems from the television series Journey to the West, a story of a Chinese Buddhist monk, thus influenced by Han culture, but rooted in Buddhism and its values. A young lama with a Buddhist heart may perceive television as nothing more than a change in medium. It is just that technological progression now allows artists to visualize their faiths in cinematographic, enchanting narratives; the arrival of television is not a diversion from faith, but rather a re-affirmation of faith and culture. In this way, we can understand that television’s meaning to the young lama is just like that of Drime Kunden to the older crowds: it is a Buddhist theatrical composition adapted and hybridized for modern times, preserving Tibetan values and identity through entertainment in the midst of rapid Chinese modernization.
As one of Pema Tseden’s most recent works, The Balloon’s narrative evolves into an even more brazen dichotomy between modern and traditions, reality and perception, life and death. While preserving his celebrated ciné-vérité style of filmmaking, Pema Tseden blends in segments of fantasies and illusions in this film. The Balloon discourses the interplay among Tibetan Science, religion, and the secular lives of Tibet, creating, in the process, a film that is at once intimate and distant to objective reality. First, The Balloon is perhaps one of the first Tibetan-related films that touch on the topic of reproduction and sexual desires, a subject that, just upon handling, breaks the untouchable and sacrosanct Tibetan filter for many foreign audiences. The storyline is characteristically plain and uncomplicated, a trademark of Pema Tseden’s stories. A small family of shepherds with pastoral lifestyles is at the center of the story. The family is all average civilians except the younger sister, who leaves civilian life to become a nun after a seemingly traumatizing past relationship with her ex-boyfriend. The shepherds, unlike the little lama in The Stones, do not approach Tibetan Science in a systematic setting, nor do they seem to receive any formal education on such matters. With an absence of Tibetan academic-style education or environment in the film, Tibetan science is not presented as an academic discipline, but rather, it has transformed into a life philosophy deeply embedded in the everyday belief systems of Tibetans. Its significance is, according to Pema Tseden, “not intentionally presented, but rather, works as organic elements of daily life, such as air and water that are naturally a part of their existence and bloodstream” (Personal interview with Pema Tseden, 12 May 2022). The pursuit of Tibetan Science is different from Western Science in that, as opposed to the accumulation of knowledge as the ultimate goal, Tibetan Science is a discipline designed for self-cultivation in the Buddhist tradition, in which to pursue it also means to seek emotional well-being, cultivate inner moral values, and reach spiritual enlightenment. Instead of knowledge itself, Tibetan Science’s disciples pursue tranquility and morality that comes from such knowledge and skills. This being said, it is far easier for Tibetan Science’s ideology to trickle down to civilians, and transform the culture in subtle, emotive ways that Western Science cannot accomplish.
In The Balloon, the philosophical influence brought forth by Tibetan Science and Buddhism is one that both creates and resolves conflict. Dargye, the pastor patriarch, and Drolkar, the wife-at-home, live with their three children and Dargye’s old father in a farmhouse. The family herds goats and cows for a living, and the film’s main plot develops as Dargye borrows a goat for the breeding season from a friend. Being a virile and sexually active husband, Drolkar is concerned about the possibility to become pregnant from their frequent sex and goes into the local clinic to ask for birth control. However, Drolkar is dismayed to find out she is again pregnant, and the matter becomes one of religious and serious conflict when the grandfather dies around the same time, predicted to be reincarnated back to the family. The family is now stuck between spirituality and reality shaped by Chinese state policy and economic concerns: the family will be fined with the additional child from the population control policy and carries a heavy financial burden, but receiving an abortion will also mean possibly interfering into the grandfather’s reincarnation cycle. Despite the film’s apparent focus on family and childrearing, the Buddhist notion of karma and reincarnation serves as a countercurrent – that life and death are circular versus linear giving rise to the film’s conflict. Faced with the unsolvable paradox, Tibetan philosophy gives families a place to store their hopes for the future. Pema Tseden inserts magical-realist scenes in The Balloon with dream-like and illusion sequences. One of them appears right after the grandpa’s death when the family is in the truck to take his body away to monks at dawn. Dargye and his eldest son sat next to their deceased family member in the truck and fall asleep on their way. The film cuts to a dreamy scenery consisting of a blurred sky and a dark landscape; the frame moves in slow-motion, gradually revealing a dark silhouette of a boy, looking forward and shouting “Grandpa”. Water puddles reflect the skylights in the frame as it moves on and downwards – inside the reflection, a silhouette of an old man slowly walks forward. The camera moves up to the boy’s figure as he chases his reflection only to find himself alone in the vast landscape. This dream landscape can be understood as the juncture between the current world and the next world; the living family stands behind, while the deceased family carries on into the next life that is invisible to the still living. While the family may not have studied Tibetan Science, its view of reincarnation and continuation of life is buried deep in Tibetan unconsciousness and is, therefore, manifested in the form of dreams. Indeed, Pema Tseten’s films are “not directly related to transcendental religion, which actually may exemplify the Buddhist wisdom that enlightenment is not necessarily something extraordinary but is inherent in the mundane life of this world and can be expressed through worldly activities” (Lo, 155). It is this unique representation of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy in the subconscious and mundane, rather than a deliberate display, that makes Pema Tseden a forerunner of Tibetan representation today.
The Tibetan Science, together representing the people’s cultural identity and traditions, are confronted and threatened by modernity in Pema Tseden’s story. However, under the surface, Tibetan Science’s philosophy quietly permeates the subconscious of his films – the cinematography, mise-en-scenes, motifs – in the mundane struggles of Tibetan life. Pema Tseden’s films reconstruct Tibet’s image without relying upon intentional depictions of traditional practices, rendering the cultural essence the backdrop to the stories of the characters – in other words, his films are not only films about Tibet; more importantly, they are films that highlight individual stories and dynamics who live within the vast, culturally diverse land of Tibet.
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“Science Curriculum for Tibetan Monks 4: Q&A with the Dalai Lama” YouTube, uploaded by Emory University, October 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwMroixPpl4&ab_channel=EmoryUniversity.
Tseden, Pema. Balloon. 2019.
Tseden, Pema. The Silent Holy Stones. 2005.
Tseden, Pema. Personal interview. Translated from Mandarin. 12 May 2022.
Tenzin, Gelek. Personal interview. Translated from Mandarin. 29 April 2022.