Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper explores how protective claims to apoliticality allow a group of American Tibetan Nyingma Buddhists to move through heavily politicized contexts, narratives, and engage with political actors while remaining insulated from what these practitioners consider to be ‘worldly’ or ‘small-mind’ concerns. Guided by a Tulku who fled Tibet in the 1960s, this community in Berkeley, California works to print and distribute sacred Tibetan texts to Tibetan refugee monastics. Such an endeavor seems inherently political in its motivation and execution, for it demands engagement with a variety of state and non-state actors across multiple contexts in order to proliferate the material targeted in the Cultural Revolution. My interlocutors, however, repeatedly and emphatically insisted upon their apoliticality. In this paper I will explore the ways these claims are made and borne out: for example, in their refusal to publicly engage with news from inside Tibet, and a pronounced distancing from the Dalai Lama and his followers. I will show how they delineate a relative category for “the political” that differentiates them from other public Tibetan Buddhist groups, while still allowing space for active engagement. From a methodological standpoint, tracing the borders of this relative definition of politics requires serious engagement with earnest claims to apoliticality even in highly politicised contexts. Through their work, both active and rhetorical, these Berkeley practitioners recast the realm of politics as speculative, imaginary, and unproductive, while rendering a space outside the constraints of politics as invested with potential, a space where “real” work is accomplished.