A Reflection on the Phenomenology of Tibetan Space

By guest contributor Joshua S. Daugherty

Image 1

Milarepa, Tibet, 11th-14th century, Kagyu lineage, Taglung style. Ground pigment on cotton. 55.24×46.99cm (21.75×18.50in) HAR 65121. Rubin Museum of Art, accession no. C2002.24.5

Image 2

Milarepa, Tibet, 1600-1699, Kagyu lineage. Ground pigment on cotton, HAR 30508. Private collection. (https://www.himalayanart.org/items/30508)

While exploring the pictorial depth displayed in traditional Tibetan scroll paintings known as thangkas, a rather abstract concept continually resurfaced: the notion of space. Early paintings appear shallow or flat, yet, in later centuries, the surrounding environment was expanded to include landscape elements. Questioning whether this change is material evidence of a shifting zeitgeist, I have begun to trace a thread running throughout the Tibetan imagination, one that links topographical ideas with soteriological aspirations. By looking to theories of phenomenology, it is possible to begin unravelling the way space structures lived experience in the Tibetan context.

Numerous studies trace the impact of concepts such as love and hate (Hadreas 2007), evil (Hamblet 2014), perception (Merleau-Ponty 2002), and the sacred self (Csordas 1994); each of these dissect how concepts set up a matrix of presuppositions and expectations that govern lived experience. Prior to engaging with Tibetan ideas, it is useful to briefly consider the work of Western academics who have defined phenomenological methodologies. Henri Lefebvre theorized the “spatial body” in which the conception of reality is predicated on perceptions experienced through a human form (Lefebvre 1991:194-6). The body orients the mind within the environment, which organizes the development of understanding just as language gives structure to thoughts. Considering that thoughts are formed in words, they are therefore limited by vocabulary and syntax; likewise, the mind struggles to imagine a reality beyond the known environment. Just as it becomes impossible for the human mind to experience thoughts beyond the limitations of language, the use of the five sensory perceptions to navigate reality limits the mind’s understanding of that reality. An environment which does not contact the mind via these sense faculties is unfathomable.

Moreover, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty explained, “Our perception is entirely dominated by a logic which assigns each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest…” Consequently, once the facts of spatial perception are perceived by sense faculties, they are organized according to logical dualism: near and far, above and below, inside and out, etc. To propose that space is underpinned by a type of logic originating from the human body, one that demarcates zones of being based on practicalities of physical movement, and superimposes notions of the metaphysical, ontological, and soteriological dimensions derived from a sense of self, requires that space take on “an essential and necessary structural role” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:313). Consequently, both Lefebvre’s spatial body and Merleau-Ponty’s logical dualism allow us to glimpse the conceptual object of ‘space’ as a structure of consciousness. Yet, such a statement can be brutal in its hegemony.

Accepting space to be a fundamental structure of human consciousness risks totalizing all human experience under the yoke of a single paradigm. Gavin Flood provides an important counterpoint in his assessment of the limitations of phenomenology when applied to religion, that it “carries with it Husserlian assumptions about the transcendental ego and an overarching rationality… [and] smuggles into the phenomenology of religion a Husserlian philosophy of consciousness.” (Flood 1999:155) While both Lefebvre and Merleau-Ponty assert that space underlies perception—and certainly, parallels between Tibetan concepts of sacred geography and macro-microcosmic spiritual domains suggest an overarching thought-structure—Flood is wise to warn us against essentializing phenomenological structures as a fact of consciousness. In many ways, Tibetan concepts of space mirror the prevailing notions of South and Southeast Asia prior to vernacularization, a time when “Mount Meru and the Ganga were locatable everywhere” and as Sheldon Pollock explained, this is “nothing in the least mystical” but rather “a function of a different, plural, premodern logic of space” (Pollock 2006:16).

In the Tibetan language, there is an inherent connection between notions of location and materiality. The word sa means both “place” and “earth;” a concise twofold definition which poetically demonstrates the problem at hand. To stand on soil is to be somewhere, which may seem rather obvious, but in the case of Tibet, topographical features possess complicated layers of attributions. A single point in space can be the form comprising a deity, a vessel of sacred energy, the domicile of either divine or demonic beings, a site embedded with residual power left behind by spiritual adepts, or some combination thereof, which can change depending on the inhabitant’s religious affiliations. Moreover, beyond these immediate details pertaining to individual sites, all locations are subsumed within a cosmic system. Therefore, to stand on Tibetan earth is not simply to be somewhere in a cavalier sense, but rather a very specific place within a complicated network of locations and ontological stratifications.

In his assessment of Heidegger’s essay ‘Art and Space’ (1969), Paul Crowther wrote, “Place comes into being not only through the relation between things, but through the event of their coming together to define a certain location, and even more importantly, through their enduring together, and individually, through time” (Crowther 2013:70). Physical space can be described as a matter of distances and directions, but also exists as an omnipresent aspect of the cultural milieu. Areas defined in relation to an ‘object’ or localized essence, are termed “place” or gnas, as the site possesses a distinct identity. Conversely, locations like yul lha or mountain gods, where consciousness is believed to be active in the site, are identities which acquire a place and possess agency. Examples of sites expressing agency include Tsibri and Mount Potalaka. The former is a mountain in Tsang, Tibet believed to have relocated from Bodhgaya, India to conceal a poisonous lake while the latter is the home of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which also originated in India and supposedly moved to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet (Quintman 2008:367). As the conceptualization of locations as gnas or conscious yul lha endured through time, characterizing the culture of Tibet, they inspired the continued identification of newly recognized sacred places, leading to a proliferation of moveable spaces and single sites which simultaneously exist in multiple locations.

Therefore, in Tibetan civilization, geography is not uniformly fixed in place; rather, it is subject to change over time, resulting in an ongoing, shifting amalgamation of spaces. There are many examples of locations being transported to Tibet, like the eight charnel grounds utilized in tantric rites, or sites in India replicated elsewhere. The latter includes the Mahābodhi temple, the site of the original Buddha’s enlightenment, which has been replicated in Bagan, Burma and Patan, Nepal (Buffertrille 2015:135). Another Mahābodhi temple can be found at Lung Ngön monastery in the Golog area of Tibet, where Kusum Lingpa (1934-2009) carried out several building projects in the 1990s. Other duplicated sites included at this location are the Sarnath Stūpa, Samye monastery’s Tsuklakhang, and the Bodhnāth Stūpa (bya rung kha shor). Although these structures are apparently not organized according to a larger composition, they establish links with important sites from the historical Buddha’s life, significant masters of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and important figures active during the Tibetan empire period (Buffertrille 2015:138, 142). During her investigation, the scholar Katia Buffertrille was informed of Kusum Lingpa’s motivation, “When the pilgrim could not go to the pilgrimage, the pilgrimage was brought to the pilgrim” (Buffertrille 2015:144). While the reasons for these relocations are diverse, ranging from religious veneration to economic prosperity and legitimization of power, this quote demonstrates the visiting practitioner’s pragmatic reception of these events, which in other cultural perspectives would be nothing short of mystical.

Further, the replicated sites are considered to possess the same power believed to imbue the original location, so the circumambulations performed by pilgrims at the replica bestows a similar quality of spiritual merit. Buffertrille points to several incidents in which actions done at one site are equated with actions performed at another more prestigious location. She provided the example that thirteen circumambulations around Mount Tarab are considered equal to one circuit around a more culturally significant site, Mount Kailash. Also, a site’s ability to attract pilgrims has economic dimensions. This may partially motivate claims that some sites are as potent as—or even the combined embodiment of—other well-known locations, like Tsibri in the region of Tsang, which is considered a combination of three sites: Lapchi, Tsari, and Kailash (Buffetrille 2015:145).

Lastly, although the complexity of the subject extends well-beyond the scope of this reflection, mountains also contribute a cosmological template, which is outlined in the Abhidharmakośa and the Kālacakra Tantra. The cosmic mountain as axis mundi stands at the centre of a composition comprising a macrocosmic world system, which is analogous to a second mountain-based network visualized inside the body of the practitioner. Utilizing this macro-microcosmic duality, it is possible to conceptualize processes which hover on the brink of non-conceptual thought. The subtle body is a catalyst for reversing the supposedly confused perception that the universe causes the human form to come into being, and that this form creates the mind, which in turn creates consciousness. By reversing this conception of universal-to-internal space generation and discovering the primordial awareness believed to predate material reality, the three layers of topographical, microcosmic, and macrocosmic space are united as a single entity. By locating the individual’s notion of self within Buddhist cosmology, and simultaneously recognizing a microcosm within that self, pilgrimage sites—such as the twenty-four pīṭhas identified in the Chakrasamvara Tantra—act as physical spaces where it is possible to concurrently operate on all three levels of space.

As it exists in the Tibetan imagination, space can neither be considered an “ether” wherein “things float,” nor a common characteristic; rather, it should be considered “the universal power enabling them [phenomena] to be connected” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:284). From the immediate experience of an individual, space includes a perception of the self and external objects in a cohabitated environment. Material reality composed of self, objects, and landscape are all easily recognized from the vantagepoint of the individual. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy seeks to complicate or problematize this idea by deconstructing the dualism of microcosmic and macrocosmic spatial divisions, that is to say, the internal world of the self and the larger universe in which it is contained can merge. Dualistic distinctions of interior/exterior or self/other can be obliterated. The great yogi, Milarepa (1052-1135), once said, “Having meditated on gentleness and compassion, I have forgotten the difference between myself and others” (Odier 2003:104). Milarepa demonstrates that, from a Buddhist perspective, space not only encompasses perception, sacred geography, and micro-macrocosmic metaphysics, but is the medium through which soteriological aspirations are accomplished.  While there are many nuances regarding the conception of Tibetan space, it is clear they are not somehow affiliated with a super-consciousness. Rather, these conceptions form a thought-structure upon which cultural representations of reality have been projected throughout time and from which individuals derived a variety of interpretations that bear similar characteristics

Joshua S. Daugherty is a graduate fellow at the University of Washington pursuing a PhD in the history of Art. He has previously studied art history at the University of London, SOAS and Tibetan & Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.

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