John Vincent Bellezza
Inaugurating my newsletter
Welcome to my website (Tibetarchaeology.com) and newsletter, Flight of the Khyung! Friends and colleagues have been encouraging me for years to put a website together but there was always something else to do. Finally by old friend Pawan Tuladhar sat me down and said the time was now. I am grateful to him and his able staff at DharmaTechNet for this special opportunity to reach out to my family, friends, colleagues, and all those who are intrigued by the origins and history of Tibetan civilzation. In order to keep my website fresh and interesting, I intend to author a monthly newsletter. In this forum, I shall present reviews of my latest scholarly findings and updates about my whereabouts and activities. Please continue to join me for the tidbits of information and the insights I shall offer about Himalayan peoples and cultures. Feel free to send in your comments and observations; I am curious to know what my readers think. I thank you warmly for lending me your attention!
A little background on 2006
2006 has been a particularly eventful year. After my annual trip to America for the Holidays, I headed straight back to Tibet for a winter expedition. The Tibet Ice Lakes Expedition (TILE) was sponsored by the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council for which I am most grateful. When I approached them last year with the idea of visiting the islands located in the midst of the great lakes of Upper Tibet, the staff at NGS were at once enthusiastic and helpful. The Unicorn Foundation of Atlanta generously stood in to meet additional expenses incurred on the TILE. I am heartened by the way in which they came to my assistance and in short order. I am pleased to report that TILE was a great success! I had the unparalleled opportunity to survey six islands located in four different lakes. I could not visit the island of Serdo Khangchen, but in the severe winter conditions of Upper Tibet six out of seven is not a bad record. The islands of Semo do, Doser, Tshodo, etc. yielded outstanding archaeological sites and data. My findings confirmed the oral and textual traditions which speak of these islands as major centers of Upper Tibetan civilization in the pre-Buddhist epoch. The implications are nothing less than revolutionary. Over the next couple of years, I shall present what I have learned about the islands in various fora. I have begun this process by integrating some information in my current book project, Antiquities of High Tibet.
Antiquities of High Tibet: A Comprehensive Textual and Ethnoarchaeological Analysis of Pre-Buddhist Monuments and Rock Art in the Tibetan Upland is a huge undertaking but one I have been looking forward to for years. Finally, I have the opportunity to present a grand synthesis of my findings over the last 12 years. This book project keeps me busy all the time (except on Sundays, which is my elected day off; I used to work seven days a week but found that to be counterproductive in the long run).
Perhaps the most momentous personal news is that I have completed by comprehensive survey of pre-Buddhist sites in Upper Tibet, an undertaking that has consumed 12 years of my life (the setbacks and joys along the way are to many to name). The last expedition of this project was the Tibetan Highland Expedition (THE), which I completed this spring with the Tibetan Medical Foundation. Once again my indomitable friend Dr. Ashley McAllen was there to minister to the many health needs of the nomads. His commitment to the health of local communities in Tibet is nothing less than legion.
I doubt I shall embark on such a long and demanding project as the survey of pre-Buddhist sites again in this life but one never really knows. Work wise this has been a tremendous boon and one that should see me through my inquiries for years to come. It has not been easy to say the least. The logistics of combing hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in often road less areas year after year has been daunting. Chinese officialdom has become increasingly pliant but hitches along the way have been many. Some of my early adventures, as outlandish as they were, will have to be told but at a later date when they are at a more comfortable distance. Getting my crews to the far-flung corners of Upper Tibet has been an epic in itself. Crew insurrections were frequent and at times it didn’t look like anyone would walk away intact. There were many standoffs and scorching hot heated moments. Most problems were a matter of perspective and motivation (as they always are): I wanted to work without remittance no matter the weather and terrain while the Tibetans wanted to take a more slowly slowly approach. Time was of the essence and there were never guarantees that I could continue my work so I felt impelled to push on. I must say however, that each and every one of my many expeditions began and ended on a good note with all concerned feeling enriched by the novel and challenging experiences on the road. There was always something special to learn and I don’t mean about rocks and artifacts.
In June and July, I made a documentary film sponsored by Discovery Asia. Entitled Mysteries of Guge’s: Tibet’s Lost Kingdom, this one hour program shall present a rich and colorful view of the Buddhist kingdom of Guge. This golden period in the development of Tibetan Buddhism (Guge was the springboard for the second diffusion of Buddhism) began in the late tenth century CE, with a proliferation of exquisitely decorated temples and palaces. I am one of two presenters and the technical expert for the production. Having been mostly on the receiving end before, I have come to appreciate how much work really goes into making a documentary. I helped my colleague at the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, Tsering Gyelpo, to join the filming. He was a superb addition to the team, bringing a unique perspective to the telling of the story of the Guge kingdom. His profound knowledge of Guge culture and history lent the film the depth needed to make it stand above the rank and file documentaries made these days. Mysteries of Guge’s: Tibet’s Lost Kingdom should be released for Christmastime in France with airings in the rest of the world to follow.
At the moment I am in Kathmandu but soon to head back to the Indian Himalaya. After three expeditions in Upper Tibet, I am ready to remain stationary for awhile. My current book project looms large in my mind. At the end of August, I am to attend the triennial International Association of Tibetan Studies conference, which is held in Bonn this year. My trip to Europe has been supported by the Lumbini International Research Institute, an organization involved in cutting edge Buddhist studies. I intend to deliver a paper on the utterances made by the shamans of Upper Tibet whilst in trance. This unknown body of oral literature is proving a powerful instrument in my studies. The shamans or lhapa speak a great variety of things when they are possessed by the gods. Their utterances include Buddhist prayers, verses from the Gesar epic, Bon Chashen liturgies, and prophecies.
Using professional recording equipment to capture the words of the shamans posed its own technical problems, as these individuals are very active during the séances and there is much background noise. More challenging was transcribing these recordings, which I did with my friend and colleague Yundrung Tenzin. His knowledge of Tibetan is seldom matched by others in his generation. Yungdrung Tenzin, a scholar of rare ability, and I, then worked on the translations. The shamans speak in several different Tibetan dialects and an obscure cant known as the ‘language of the gods’. Moreover, they say things couched in old language and concepts requiring a considerable background in the culture of Upper Tibet. The results are excellent and should make for another monograph when I can get around to it.
After finishing Antiquities of High Tibet (early 2007?), I am committed to compiling an inventory of all the pre-Buddhist monuments surveyed to date for the Tibet Himalayan Digital Library (subject to funding). This inventory will be posted on the worldwide web for any interested party to access. There will be many photographs, write-ups, maps, etc. I suppose this project will consume another two years of my life. But why are we here anyway? If we can do something salutary (by walking lightly along the way) I think that is good and useful. Even one hundred years goes by quickly for those who have reached such a threshold. What can we do of lasting value in the meantime? I think this is the question worth asking again and again. For me, it is to systematically elucidate aspects of Tibetan civilization that would otherwise disappear with the titanic changes now underway. It may not be much but I offer it freely to whomever would want to receive it.