Research from the Trenches: Chris Helland on studying Virtual Tibet

6 am comes early when you are jetlagged. I had arrived in Dharamsala, India the afternoon of March 7 with the hope of attending a teaching on the Jataka Tales and an “empowerment ceremony” from the Dalai Lama on the morning of March 8. My goal was to experience the teaching and ritual first hand and then examine its online representations to assess the overall differences between the experiences. This combined with interviews of participants, monks, and the people responsible for the Dalai Lama’s website was some of the primary research for my current project “Virtual Tibet: Maintaining Identity through Computer Networks.”

I have really begun to enjoy researching the impact of the Internet and WWW on the Tibetan situation. For a diaspora community, Tibetans in Exile are at the forefront of utilizing this new communications medium to promote their cause and maintain their community. This is happening on several levels—with what can best be described as “multi-site networked approach.” With the use of the Internet, there has been a marked development that has shifted the usage of various forms of media away from “media spectacle”—that, historically, garnered attention to focus on the cause of the Tibetan situation—to shifting focus internally on connecting with the diaspora community. This is a multi-site network because it happens in 5 different “spheres” of Internet influence that are connected explicitly and implicitly throughout the World Wide Web. The website groupings are the Tibetan Government in Exile (; Tibetan News Websites (broadcast in English, Tibetan, and Mandarin around the globe—including “over” the Great Firewall of China); Cyber-sanghas and comprehensive community-based websites; social networking sites; and Monastic and Religious Websites (the primary example being

Another factor that makes the study of Internet usage within the Tibetan situation unique is that there is no demarcation or socially structured dualism between life “online” and life “off-line”. In fact, in 1996—when the WWW was still a relatively new creation—monks from the Namgyal Monastery performed a variation of the Kalachakara Tantra to create a blessing for cyberspace. (These are the monks that perform ritual ceremonies for the Dalai Lama and the current monastery where I was sitting in the dark and cold on the morning of March 8). Their view is that cyberspace is part of the space that makes up the universe and it was now a place that we moved through in a variety of different ways. Their prayers and blessings were focused upon the motivation of the Internet users and they believed that this would influence them to be more positive and that the benefits of using the Internet and WWW would also then be more beneficial to humanity. There is no “official” position or rules set up for regulating behavior online—because the rules set out for proper behaviour of the individual (whether they are a lay person or a religious specialist) apply to all the places a person goes and all the things the person does, whether they are online or not.

By 6:30 am I had staked out a pretty good place to sit and was trying to observe the people around me as much as possible. The Dalai Lama would be giving the teachings in Tibetan, and then they would be simultaneously translated into a variety of languages. English is broadcast on channel 92.8 but unfortunately some people from Russia had set up a giant FM antenna a few feet from me to snatch a little bit of bandwidth so they could broadcast their translation—this made reception a bit of a challenge. After a couple of hours waiting, the Dalai Lama entered the complex and began a series of rituals and blessing that would precede the teachings. Despite the cold (and my somewhat cramped legs)—it was an enjoyable experience. The Dalai Lama is charismatic and an exceptional teacher—the 80% or so of the translation I could hear over the occasional squelching of Russian was insightful and illuminating to say the least. The ritual component was dynamic. All the people present were given the opportunity to undertake the Chenrezig Initiation as monks handed out red blindfolds and small red strings. I happily participated—being a Buddhist within the Mahayana tradition, and saw this as a most auspicious experience. However, again due to my limits in understanding Tibetan and the difficulty with translation reception on my radio, I missed several phrases of the ritual. Despite that issue, when everything was concluded I felt deeply honoured (and lucky) to be able to have received the initiation from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Drawing upon the framework developed at the University of Heidelberg for assessing the transfer of rituals to the online environment (see Miczek 2008), the next step is to conduct interviews and contrast the experiences –my own included. To view the teachings and ritual online see: