Space Buddha

Space Buddha
Supposed 1000-year-old iron staute of Vaishravana carved from meteorite.

As you may remember, the story of a Tibetan Buddhist statue carved out of a meteorite and found in Germany with connections to the Nazis made the rounds of Buddhist and mainstream media a month or so ago. And really, that’s not surprising. Nazis, Tibet, statues made from space rocks. It has all the makings of a great TV movie.

Via the Buddhist scholars network H-Buddhism, however, I found an article by a Tibetologist who makes a convincing argument that the statue is not, in fact, Tibetan but is likely an imitation. (Here’s a direct link to the PDF of the article.) The original scholarly article that brought this story to life was written by mineralogists and planetologist who explicitly asked for folks from other fields to weigh in on “cultural matters” related to the statue. Achim Bayer, in his article, has done so. In sum, he argues that the iconography of the statue is inconsistent with what one would expect of a statue made a thousand years ago in central Asia. Instead, he believes it was likely made in the twentieth century in Germany.

Bayer goes on to discuss the continued popularity of various myths surrounding Tibet and Shangri-la and suggests that there is a “myth of Tibetology” as well. He suggests that Tibetology as a field of study is a science with a “methodology just as rigid as any other.” While I’m not sure I want to grant any rigid methodology the label “science” just yet, I do agree that Tibetology, Buddhist Studies, and religious studies more generally do in fact have sophisticated methodologies and that, as a general rule, the humanities are not taken as seriously as the hard sciences. Which is a shame.

More importantly, to my mind, Bayer points out that there is often a distance between academics and popular discourses about our subject of study. In this case, journalists seemed to have all but ignored Tibetologists and Buddhist Studies scholars and assumed, uncritically, that “iron man” Buddha statue really is a thousand years old. It is the silence of professional scholars here that helps maintain these myths of Tibet, Tibetology, and Buddhist Studies.

This isn’t always true, of course. In my paper on media representations of Buddhism, I found that reporters did reach out to Buddhist Studies scholars quite frequently. Reporters’ motivations and how scholarly opinions are reported, of course, is another matter. Regardless, Bayer’s point is well taken. Buddhist Studies scholars tend not to be public intellectuals (with a few exceptions, of course); avoiding public discourse does no one any favors. It allows for our work to be considered unimportant or irrelevant to the everyday practice of religion or the social good, and it allows misperceptions about Buddhism and Buddhist scholars to persist unchecked.