What do Tibetan Buddhists and Christians have in common?

In 2006, Reader's Digest released a study on politeness. It had carried out tests in 35 cities around the world to determine which were the most and least courteous. I'll discuss their shocking findings later, but will begin by emphasizing how difficult it is to display politeness in a foreign environment. Traveling to a new…

In 2006, Reader's Digest released a study on politeness. It had carried out tests in 35 cities around the world to determine which were the most and least courteous. I'll discuss their shocking findings later, but will begin by emphasizing how difficult it is to display politeness in a foreign environment. Traveling to a new place always makes for some awkward moments. So, when I led a group of students on a study-abroad program in the remote Himalayan region of Tibet in June, I naturally was worried that we might offend the locals with behaviors that they considered rude.

Though I had traveled to and around Tibet many times in the past, it occurred to me during our group trip to the majestic Lake Namtso that I had never been inside a nomad tent. For more than a thousand years Tibetan nomadic herders have come to the pastures on the shore of this lake during the summer season, and their yak-hair tents look little different than they would have hundreds of years ago. So when our students' nylon North Face tents were pitched at the edge of the lake, it wasn’t merely an opportunity for me and my students to wonder about these nomads, it was also a time for the nomads to wander nearby and stare at their temporary neighbors. I asked one of the young nomads if it would be OK for some students to see the inside of her family’s tent. She consented, and I went with five students to their tent, which was only one or two hundred meters away from our own campsite.

The contents of the yak-hair tent, which looked to be about 10 meters wide, were rather sparse. It had a fire pit in the middle with some small rugs placed around it, and was ringed by numerous sacks containing all the family's clothes, food and supplies. No sooner had we entered the tent than the young woman began stoking the yak-dung fueled fire and putting a pot for tea on top. Oh! Why didn’t it occur to me that we’d be offered tea? I was actually pretty excited to get a cup of traditional Tibetan tea, but I was worried about my students. Tibetans add butter and salt to their tea, and most Americans find it quite ... well, revolting.

This experience had me thinking about the role that tea plays in much of the world as a sign of courtesy. (Think, for example, about Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea.) Had we not been offered tea, none of us would have noticed its absence or been offended. But to this Tibetan nomad, not providing tea for a guest would have been a sign of disrespect and an embarrassment for her family. I wonder how many things we did that would have been considered rude by these nomads.

Tibet is an Ideal Place for Reflection

Less than 24 hours after St. Thomas' May graduation ceremonies I departed from Minneapolis with a group of students on a four-week study-abroad program in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The students were taking part in my comparative ethics course, learning about both the foundational ethical theories of Western philosophy and core themes in Buddhist ethics. For the students it was an opportunity to fulfill the university's second core requirement in moral and philosophical reasoning, but to do so in a unique cultural setting that would bring to life the ethical principles learned in a standard ethics course. For me it was an opportunity to use my expertise in Tibetan philosophy and culture and to provide students with an educational experience that would broaden their perspectives of the world.

It's difficult to overestimate the value associated with experiencing a foreign culture. Immersing yourself in a different cultural setting not only broadens your understanding of the world, it can lead you to reflect on – and learn more about – your own beliefs and assumptions. In some cases, this sort of reflection leads to a reassessment of one's values, and in other cases, it can strengthen one's convictions. Specific geographic, religious and cultural features of Tibet make it an ideal place for this kind of reflection. Because it is situated on a plateau and surrounded by the highest mountains in the world, getting to Tibet has never been easy. Its harsh environment is one that made it an unwelcoming place for foreigners throughout history. As such, the external cultural influences on Tibet have been, until quite recently, comparatively minimal. In this way, Tibet possesses traditions and a way of life distinct from those found in other parts of the world – and, of course, distinct from those found in Minnesota.

The geographic features of Tibet also contribute to its unique religious heritage. Sandwiched between the (very different) Buddhist cultures of classical India and China, Tibet developed a form of Buddhism that borrowed from both these great traditions. Yet, owing to the geographic isolation of Tibet, the practices and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism are quite different from those found in other parts of Asia. But it is precisely these distinct Buddhist practices and traditions that make it a fertile subject of study. For, despite the seemingly unique practices of Tibetan Buddhism, at a deeper level many core ideas are shared by both Tibetan Buddhists and Christians. And in cases where there are substantial disagreements (such as on the question of whether humans have souls) learning more about Buddhist beliefs can lead to a deeper understanding of our own religious convictions.

Philosophically, many of the moral beliefs espoused by Tibetan Buddhists are in line with Anglo-European views of morality. Obviously, activities like lying, stealing and killing are all considered vices to be avoided. But even beyond these trifling similarities, the arguments traditionally given by Tibetan Buddhist scholars on practical ethics topics such as abortion and homosexuality are remarkably similar to those found in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Showing students the connections between these diverse philosophical traditions helps them grapple with their own values and beliefs, and enables them to recognize the universal scope of philosophical argumentation.

Of course, there are also many ways in which the moral perspectives of Tibetans differ from those of most Americans, and many respects in which moral beliefs differ from those reached by philosophical reasoning. One of the highlights in our course was a presentation on the blind and disabled in Tibet. Because of their Buddhist heritage – a heritage that places much weight on the role of karma – Tibetans traditionally view blindness as a punishment for transgressions committed in a prior life. As a result, little is done to help those who are born blind. The treatment that many blind people receive from their own families can be quite awful. Hearing lectures on practical ethics topics like this showcases the interactions between reasoned ethical argumentation on the one hand and actual moral practices on the other hand. Moreover, because critically assessing one’s own moral practices is incredibly difficult, examining practical ethics cases in a foreign culture like Tibet helps students develop their critical faculties in a way that fosters rational evaluation of their own deep-seated values.

Nevertheless, studying in a place like Tibet is tremendously challenging. The elevation of Tibet (the capital of Lhasa is in a valley about 12,000 feet above sea level) makes physical exertion difficult. Language differences make communication with the non-English speaking segments of the population impossible for students. Economically, the Tibet Autonomous Region is poor, so the sanitation and living conditions are difficult for many Americans to tolerate. Additionally, the current political situation in Tibet adds another layer of challenges. Restrictions by the regional government make it increasingly difficult for groups like ours to travel in Tibet. Transformations in Tibet pushed by the Chinese central government make it more and more difficult to experience traditional aspects of Tibetan life.

As an example of such a transformation, one of the more notable changes in the city of Lhasa when we arrived last summer was the absence of beggars and other "street people." While there are normally a sizable number of people seeking monetary handouts, last summer there were (relatively speaking) very few. Largely gone were the Tibetans with disabilities begging for money from locals and foreigners. Missing were the young and/or blind children playing musical instruments and singing for donations. Gone were the monks and nuns who used to sit on street corners collecting handouts while reciting prayers. It was clear that the government had done something to eliminate the presence of these beggars.

This was disappointing to me, because I had planned to draw students' attention to the ways in which local Tibetans interact with beggars. While in many cultures it is regarded as unseemly to give to beggars (for that would lead to more people begging, and do you really know what they do with the money they get?), in Tibet their views are just the opposite. Generosity is one of the six principal Buddhist virtues, and, thus, donating to beggars is considered meritorious. Giving money to a beggar is a particularly Tibetan manifestation of politeness.

Measuring Politeness

So what's the most polite city in the world? According to Reader's Digest, that honor goes to New York City. Yes, New York. Hong Kong, Seoul, Mumbai and many other Asian cities all ranked at the bottom of the survey. (See here.) Upon examination, it's not difficult to see why New York topped their study. Politeness was determined via three measures: (1) the likelihood of people holding a door open for those behind them, (2) the likelihood of others helping pick up dropped papers, and (3) the likelihood of sales clerks thanking their customers. The problem, of course, is that different cultures associate politeness with different activities. Politeness may be universally valued, but the activities that constitute it can vary from culture to culture.

The three criteria Reader's Digest employed are ones that Americans associate with politeness, and so it's not at all surprising that New York, the only American city in the study, came out on top. Asian cities, where being polite is no less valued, faredpoorly, because the ways they display courtesy were not measured by the study. There's no doubt that had the study examined, say, one's likelihood of being offered tea after entering another’s home, the results would have been very different. In my estimation, the authors of this study didn't really understand the true nature or essence of politeness. They identified some culturally specific expressions of courtesy without grasping the underlying essence of this virtue.

Programs like the one that St. Thomas offers in Tibet give students the opportunity to recognize the limitations of their own culturally bound impressions of humanity so as to arrive at a deeper understanding of the world and themselves.

Student Journal Entry Braille Without Borders in Tibet June 11, 2010, by Katie LaSee

Today, we visited a school run by the organization Braille Without Borders. Located in a back alley of Lhasa, the school is for blind children who need a place to live and be educated. With about 50 students, Braille Without Borders does everything in its ability to provide the necessities for these bright, upbeat and hopeful children.

While walking to the school … we witnessed a beautiful shock. As we entered the brightly colored building, we saw about 25 children eating lunch, laughing, chatting and having a great time. We sat in a side room and listened to the co-founder of the project, Paul Kronenberg. His partner, co-founder Sabriye Tenberken, was not present but is the person responsible for this hidden place of magic in Lhasa. We listened to several stories of these kids who have experienced lives of turmoil and heartache just because of their vision problems; something they obviously cannot control. We were told that in Tibetan culture, having a blind child is seen as the worst form of bad karma. They believe that in their previous life the blind person must have killed someone or committed some other hideous act. This viewpoint is completely unfair and unrealistic. Parents often do not want to take care of or be responsible for their child with disabilities and so they sometimes lock them away and ignore them.

After hearing the talk from Paul and his blind co-worker, Kyila, we went to visit the children. Some spoke English, and some were only partially blind. Regardless of their condition, they all were smiling, laughing and expressing tremendous joy that we were visiting. It brought me to tears when the children started to sing. It was then that I realized how fortunate I am to have my vision, clean water and access to an exceptional education. Braille Without Borders was, by far, the best outing we have done on this trip. It opened my eyes to the disadvantaged children of Tibet, and gave me a greater drive to help children across the world who cannot help themselves.

Read more from CAS Spotlight

Next in CAS Spotlight