Multicultural Issues on the TEI's Horizon: the Case of Tibetan Texts

  1. 1. Linda E. Patrik

    Union College

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Initially developed by scholars familiar with European and
American manuscripts, the TEI is now being pressed into
service for the encoding of non-western texts. Will the TEI
develop as a closed fraternity of western computer programmers
and editor/scholars, or will it emerge as an open, egalitarian
community of global scholars, who are interested in applying
digital technology to the world’s literature? On the one hand,
there are practical issues faced by encoders of non-western
texts, such as the lack of reliable Unicode for all language
scripts and the economic difficulties associated with training
non-western scholar/editors in TEI. On the other hand, there
are hermeneutic issues raised by TEI going global which are
prompted by the general understanding of texts as information
rather than as the materially embodied corpus of a culture. Some
of the specific issues raised by Tibetan texts in this regard will
be used to examine the theoretical tailoring of TEI without
presuming that non-western texts will wear TEI comfortably.
Tibetan texts present several challenges to the TEI. Among the
practical issues are these: as an endangered language, Tibetan
has no government support for its preservation or for its study
by the international community of digitally trained scholars.
As a minority language, Tibetan waits on a Unicode version
guaranteed to represent all of its scripts. Despite these practical
problems, because the Tibetan cultural heritage is text-based,
it is an obvious candidate for TEI. Even if TEI cannot restore
Tibetan texts to their original cultural function, the preservation
and encoding of Tibetan manuscripts and transcripts can at least
keep one of the most distinctive Asian cultural traditions on
'life support'.
There are, however, other problems raised by the modern
encoding of traditional Tibetan texts—problems that are
hermeneutic in nature, pertaining to our underlying
understanding of what a text is and what needs to be encoded
in a text. Informatics, as used by Haraway and Hayles, is a
theoretical and operational paradigm for treating a text as
abstract information that can be taken out of its material medium
and its cultural context. The TEI aims to describe a text so that
it can be searched, stored and circulated digitally without a loss
of its most meaningful features, and in doing so TEI favors the information in the text that can abandon its material medium
and perhaps even its cultural role. But information—i.e.,
'informing readers'—is not what many Tibetan texts were meant
to provide; the texts were meant to transform readers, helping
them become enlightened. It is not just that Tibetan texts are
sacred; they are practice texts that demand specific kinds of
mental preparation, specific kinds of bodily handling and
gestures linked to their materiality, as well as ongoing religious
commitment from the readers.
With regard to readers' mental preparation, traditional Tibetan
libraries contain many 'restricted' texts, which are not given
wide circulation because of the original esoteric meaning of
these texts. Certain advanced texts were 'classified', so to speak;
they were meant only for meditator/scholars who met certain
conditions: they had achieved the right qualifications for
understanding the meaning of the texts, had received permission
from their teacher to study or use the texts, and had made a
commitment to practice the meditation methods described in
the texts. These advanced Vajrayana texts are, to this day, not
made accessible by traditional Tibetan teachers to any reader
for the asking. (In some sense, this problem of Tibetan
esotericism is similar to the esotericism of the TEI itself: the
TEI tags are a hidden code, developed by, and meant for, a
fairly limited group of advanced practitioners of XML.) The
TEI, which is a digital publishing tool as much as it is a tool
for textual analysis, may make it easier to bring formerly
restricted Tibetan texts into public circulation. Although
encoding these texts would help Tibetan scholars and advanced
practitioners analyze the texts, encoding also makes it more
likely that unqualified readers will 'break into' some of the
advanced, restricted Tibetan texts. With Tibetan culture in
danger, will its textual resources be pillaged by unqualified,
spiritual treasure-seekers, and will TEI become a tool for such
digital plunder?
A second issue raised by traditional Tibetan texts concerns the
ritualistic manner of their reading. Because many of these texts
are practice texts, which lay out the particular steps that a
meditator would follow in his or her daily meditation practice,
the traditional method for reading these practice texts is a
training style. It is unlike the reading style used for most western
texts, because it requires precision of pronouncing each word
(at least in one’s head), accurate counting of the chants requiring
repetition, and accompanying visualizations of a detailed nature.
Within the Tibetan tradition, many manuscripts are not meant
to be read through once from start to finish, but are meant to
be scripts for daily meditation practices, involving ritualized
bodily and mental gymnastics.
To encode a Tibetan practice text as though it is to be read
straight through, in the way that most western texts are read,
would neglect its most important function, which is to train the
reader in meditation. The solution is not to trivialize Tibetan
meditation practices by encoding loops for repeated chants or
by encoding inserted graphical images for visualizations, for
this would not respect accomplishments expected of the
reader/practitioner. It is the reader/practitioners who must
contribute the repetition of chants or the visualization of a
meditation deity to their reading of the practice text, and a
software program that supplied these would sabotage the
training that the text instantiates.
Finally, a third issue concerns whether the TEI codes can
distinguish between different audiences for the encoded
manuscript: can TEI tags be designed to discriminate between
a reader who is practicing meditation with the text and a reader
who is reading the text for standard western research purposes?
A reader who has no interest in meditating or in Tibetan beliefs
may read the text as a work of literature, philosophy or history;
this reader would benefit from TEI codes that mark the structure
and bibliographic details of the text. The TEI tags would allow
this first kind of reader to read the text 'western style'. But a
second kind of reader, who is actively engaged in using the text
in the traditional Tibetan way as a meditation practice text, may
be looking for TEI encoding that will map out the most
important clues for how to succeed at the meditation practice.
Is this a reasonable project for TEI encoding?
The TEI’s application to multilingual, multicultural projects is
not a simple, uniform expansion but is a hermeneutic exercise
in acknowledging and facing its horizons. Textual practices
that are unproblematic within one’s own culture may be
problematic in another culture, because the farther one travels
from one’s own culture, one finds that texts function in radically
di+E2fferent ways. These multicultural horizons need not be
limitations on the TEI, but they should be kept within the broad,
panoramic view of what the TEI is trying to accomplish.
Anderson, Deborah. "Unicode and Historic Scripts." Ariadne
37 (2003). Accessed 2005-03-03. <http://www.ariadn>
Bia, Alejandro, and Manuel Sanchez-Quero. The Future of
Markup is Multilingual. . Accessed 2005-03-03. <http://
Dreyfus, Georges B.J. The Sound of Two Hands Clapping:
The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. Berkeley,
California: University of California Press, 2003.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How we became posthuman. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1999. Thurman, Robert A.F. Essential Tibetan Buddhism. San
Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Victoria

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

June 15, 2005 - June 18, 2005

139 works by 236 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double checked.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (25), ALLC/EADH (32), ACH/ALLC (17)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None