Cultural Appropriation and the Five Tibetan Rites: Is it Right to do the Rites?

Cultural Appropriation and the Five Tibetan Rites: Is it Right to do the Rites?

Last week, I introduced the Five Tibetan Rites. It’s a set of five exercises that have reportedly been around for over 2,500 years. In that piece, I mostly wrote about how they are easy and effective exercises that you can do quickly every day and how to do them.

I was going to write about the physical and energetic benefits of doing these exercises, but there’s already many lists of the benefits written about online  which you can read here and here, and this site calling some of the claims into question here.

So rather than discussing their benefits, I want to go into their origin, how people who are not living in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries came to find out about them, and whether people who don’t practice Tibetan Buddhism should even be doing these exercises.

The Story of the Five Tibetan Rites

The story that I’ve seen most widely spread around for how this set of exercises became popular outside of Tibet seems a bit sketchy on the details.

The Five Tibetan Rites were first written about in English in 1939 in a booklet called The Eye of Revelation by a white guy named Peter Kelder. , Peter found out about the Rites in California (land of appropriating foreign mystical practices), from another white guy, known by the pseudonym “Colonel Bradford,” who was stationed in India as part of the British military.

So, while he was in India, Bradford reported that he met some traveling monks who told him about a certain monastery where old men were full of strength, vigor, and vitality. Once he retired, he traveled to Tibet and went to the monastery. He lived there for some time, and the monks taught him the Rites and about energy centers in the body.

Bradford told Kelder about the Five Tibetan Rites, and Kelder wrote the booklet describing them. They’ve been spreading around the English-speaking world and beyond since then.

Do Tibetan Buddhist Monks Actually Do These Exercises?

I wasn’t able to find any information on whether monks in Tibet actually practice the Five Tibetan Rites today. The information about the Rites says that they’ve been practiced over 2,500 years, but I haven’t personally ever seen anything mentioned about these exercises in reading about Tibetan Buddhist practices.

The closest thing seems to be the Tibetan ‘phrul ‘khor exercises that translate into English as “Vajra Body Magical Wheel Sun and Moon Union” (རྡོ་རྗེ་ལུས་ཀྱི་འཕྲུལ་འཁོར་ཉི་ཟླ་ཁ་སྦྱོར). But the origins are disputed.

It’s not clear if Tibetan Buddhist monks do these exercises in this exact way. But a contemporary lama who’s also a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism said that they were “a genuine form of yoga.” (But that’s from Wikipedia and the links to the source are broken, so who knows?!)

Cultural Appropriation and Approaching Practices

So, in going through all of this, I’m not really sure if doing these exercises is a form of cultural appropriation. My goal here is to share information so that you can approach it more consciously.

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There are a lot of articles coming out about yoga and cultural appropriation. It’s so important that as people who didn’t grow up within that cultural system to recognize its context and origins and examine how we engage with these practices.

There’s lots of people in the US and around the world who practice different exercises that are drawn from yoga without knowing or caring at all about the philosophy or culture that they’re rooted within. But I also personally know quite a few people who got into doing yoga exercises, and from that they became interested in the philosophy and now consider doing those practices to be among the most sacred parts of their life.

Ties to Tibet

Part of what’s difficult in trying to unpack this is that it’s difficult to find information about whether Tibetan people even do this now. The lack of information could be a result of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 and the massive cultural erasure that followed. But there does seem to be some historical evidence of exercises like this being practiced in Tibet in the past.

 

I feel like it might be relevant here as I’m sharing this practice that came from Tibet to provide some background on my personal connection to Tibetan culture.

Ten years ago, I took a class on Tibetan refugees living in India, and as part of the class I traveled to India to participate in cultural exchange with Tibetan refugees. That trip, and most of what I have learned about Tibetan culture has been through the Louisiana Himalaya Association (LHA).

LHA is based in New Orleans, Louisiana and Dharamsala, India. (It’s a pretty queer combination if I ever heard one, and it’s a beautiful organization.) LHA hosts events in New Orleans that bring Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns for events and lectures. LHA also provides many social services in India for Tibetan refugees, like medical care, meals and clean water.

When I first went to India, I honestly had no concern whatsoever for respecting other cultures. I made jokes about sacred objects, because I didn’t recognize the importance they held or why that mattered. I didn’t really have a sense of the importance of anything, because I had rejected the way that my culture had presented the sacred to me.

I first started doing yoga when I was in India, and at the time it didn’t mean much to me aside from it seemed like a thing to do in India. Since then, it’s become one of the most important parts of my life. Five years ago, I was taught the Five Tibetan Rites… in Thailand …by a Norwegian guy. Since then, it’s become one of my most regular practices

Since I’ve made these practices of my life, I feel it’s necessary to examine how I approach them. I don’t think that hanging out with Tibetan monks once in a while validates commodifying their culture. I don’t know if doing these exercises is commodifying their culture, maybe it could be if done in certain ways. It doesn’t seem to be prohibited outside of Tibetan Buddhism, but it’s for you to decide for yourself.

I’ve been doing these exercises for a few years. I know that they’ve been good for me. But maybe part of it is that having any set of exercises you do every day is good for you.

I can also understand if in thinking about all this, you feel more comfortable doing a set of exercises that isn’t attached to a particular cultural practice. Here’s a different set of five exercises that you can do in under 15 minutes that will give you a complete workout, from the American College of Sports Medicine.

Consider What You Consume

Consider the cultural origins of different things you do in your life, from the music you listen to, to the kinds of food you prepare, to the kinds of exercises you do. It’s easy when you’re part of a dominant culture to consume the products of other cultures without thinking much of it, but it takes more effort to understand cultural appropriation.

I’m still definitely working on it myself. As someone who has no culturally established connection to most of the practices I do, I’m working on learning how to bring what I do together in more respectful and appreciative ways.

I did some work with Tada Hozumi, who promotes healthy relating in social justice communities. The work I did with Tada led me through what different feelings feel like in the body when talking about internalized racism—and that when people feel shame and judgement, they go into old patterns of conditioning and shut down.

I can definitely relate to the incapacitating power of judgement. Honestly, I’ve been somewhat terrified to even write this (or anything ever, actually) because I knew it would bring up a lot of questions that relate to my deep self-judgement, of questioning whether what I’m doing and what I say is important to me is oppressive in some fundamental way.

But I believe it’s better to look at it and see what comes up than to pretend it’s not an issue. It feels uncomfortable to unlearn oppressive ways of being. It feels uncomfortable to unlearn oppressive ways of being. Feel into it. Listen to it. Learn from it.

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No one wants to admit that they’re being oppressive in their actions. Instead we come up with justifications for why it’s okay to take whatever we want. It’s cultural exchange. I’m free to do whatever I want. It’s not hurting anyone. Sometimes it can be okay, and sometimes it doesn’t hurt anyone. But sometimes it takes even more from people who have already been unbelievably beat down by oppressive systems.

Unpacking Mainstream Messages

In so many popular movies there’s someone like Tom Cruise (a white guy) who goes to Japan and somehow not only becomes a samurai, but the last samurai who is the biggest hero of all. I’ve grown up seeing so many images of white people going into different cultures, and so often that white person saves the day for a group of POC.

For many people living in mainstream American culture, movies and media provide the dominant cultural stories. The messages that are usually given in those stories are that if you’re white (and especially if you’re a man) then here ya go, this is all for you, all of the resources and all of the cultural wisdom.

Acknowledging and looking for forms of appropriation is basically the opposite of what most of us have been taught our whole lives. It’s a lot of reprogramming to reject the endless hunger of the American appetite for playing at what’s perceived to be exotic while tossing the reality aside.

Go to the Source

Aside from your internal sense of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, the clearest guidelines about appropriation come from what people in marginalized groups say about it themselves.

In response to the question “What is cultural appropriation?” the Kanawaha-Ke Youth Program said “It is the taking of intellectual property, knowledge, and cultural expressions from someone else’s culture without permission.”

Sometimes it’s very clearly laid out whether permission is given or not.

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In my work with Tada, one thing we talked about is the way that sincerity can transform appropriation into appreciation. But that’s not to say that anyone can enter into whatever sacred cultural practice they choose just because they feel sincere about it.

It means that in addition to checking in with yourself about your sincerity and respect for the cultural traditions that you may be pulling from, also do your research to understand how your actions affect the people of that culture.

Reflections on the Rites and What’s Right

So we started off talking about practices that reportedly came from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. According to the story, the monks shared these exercises with Bradford. He had their permission to do them. But it’s impossible to know whether the monks instructed him to never tell anyone else about the exercises or if the monks gave their permission to share the exercises.

It’s pretty fuzzy in this case, but in my research, I haven’t found any prohibitions against doing the Five Tibetan Rites, except in the case of certain health conditions (see: Special Caution).

I’ve gone through some of what my process has been in considering this, and it’s not finished yet. I’m just going to be very vulnerable and say that I’m not so confident about many of the statements I’ve made here. It brings up a lot of my own colonial mentality that makes me want to give excuses for why it’s okay for me to do whatever I want to do.

But I want to make it clear that I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. I just want to provide some additional space for reflection on these questions. If you’re physically able, it’s definitely a good idea to do some exercise every day. Whether you choose to do the Five Tibetan Ritesanother set of exercises, or whatever you choose to do, get into an kind of exercise practice that feels good, and that feels respectful of its source.

I hope to gain a deeper understanding of how I relate to the practices that I do, how to do them in more respectful ways or whether I should do them at all, and how I can do a better job of not bringing a colonial mindset to doing them.

I hope that this also provides another way for you to reflect on the choices you make and the impact that may have on others. As you do, watch for any judgement that may come up and how you relate to it. Try to find space for understanding why you’ve acted in ways that bring up that judgement. Be gentle with yourself, but also don’t hold back in examining how you can show up in ways that deeply respect other people.

I hope that that we all grow in ways that help each other to feel free.


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And if you feel like you want to do the emotional labor of critiquing or commenting on any of what I’ve said here, please send me a message. I really appreciate hearing from you about your thoughts on any of this or specifically on how I’ve approached this topic.