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From the Trenches: Roots of Tibetan Buddhism Volume 54 Number 3, May/June 2001
by Mark Aldenderfer

A U.S.-Chinese team hopes to clarify early Buddhist history in the high plateau of western Tibet.

Tibet has been closed to Western scholars until very recently, and the Chinese have worked only sporadically there, mostly near Lhasa, the capital, and in the far eastern regions. What archaeology has been done has examined Neolithic or pre-Buddhist cultures. Research on the Buddhist period has focused on architecture of standing structures or the iconography of wall painting, statuary, or other portable art. Most Chinese archaeologists consider the Buddhist epoch part of historical archaeology, and, as such, excavation is often little more than the attempt to demonstrate the veracity of documentary sources. When conflicts arise between the sources, archaeology tends to be ignored.

Because knowledge of ancient Tibetan Buddhism is so scant, I felt fortunate to collaborate with Huo Wei and Li Yongxian, archaeologists from the department of history at Sichuan Union University in Chengdu, in excavations at Piyang, an important Buddhist temple in western Tibet built late in the tenth century A.D. To my knowledge, it is the first such collaboration between Chinese and Western archaeologists in Tibet. My interests have focused on how Buddhist monastic and temple centers in the region were supported, and how secular power influenced them. I am also interested in learning more about the role of trade in the growth of these centers and in reconstructing daily monastic life.

One question that often arises in conversation with colleagues or those interested in Tibet is the matter of the Chinese presence there and the ways in which this has affected the development of archaeology in the region. Many Tibetans, of course, see this presence as an occupation of their formerly independent nation, and there are likely some who feel that Chinese-sponsored research is necessarily biased toward a pro-Beijing position. Not surprisingly, it is difficult to sample the opinions of Tibetans living there, although it is clear that those with whom I have had contact are pleased with the excavations taking place at Piyang and other sacred sites. They reason that the preservation of the tangible aspects of the Tibetan past is a worthy effort, and that any work toward that end is desirable, especially in the light of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, they seem especially pleased that a Westerner is part of the effort, because they are certain my presence will help to diffuse more widely an understanding of the Tibetan past.

Mark Aldenderfer is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America