Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Monastery

Download Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Monastery

Post on 11-Feb-2018




0 download

Embed Size (px)


  • 7/23/2019 Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Monastery


    Tibetan Buddhism beyond the Monastery: Revelation and Identity in rNying ma Communities

    of Present-day Kham

    The economic and political scenarios that haveappeared in post-Mao China have allowed

    Tibetan areas a more overt expression of religious belief and practice. In the past three decades

    Tibetans seem to have gradually regained access to many popular practices forbidden in thepast, such as pilgrimages, offerings to monasteries, erection of private shrines at home, and local

    ceremonies and festivals. However, the Chinese governments political strategies as applied to

    Tibetan areas in the context of the large-scale economic development of the country have at the

    same time continued to weaken crucial religious authority from monastic institutions. Particularly

    targeted by political control, the historical role of monasteries as guarantors of religious authority,

    scholastic legitimacy, and institutional centers of traditional instruction has drastically decreased.

    Nevertheless, the Tibetans spirit of adaptation and their struggle for the preservation of their reli-

    gious and cultural identity have resulted in a revitalization of alternative forms of religious control

    such as visionary activities andTreasure (gter ma) revelation; unconventional religious communi-

    ties (chos sgar) have emergedas alternative centers of practice and cultural production.

    Le bouddhisme tibtain par del le monastre : rvlation et identit dans les communauts

    rNying ma au Kham actuel

    Les scnarios conomique et politique qui sont apparus dans la Chine post-maoste ont permis

    aux regions tibtaines une plus grande expression de leurs croyances et des pratiques religieuses.

    Durant les t rois dernires dcennies, les Tibtains semblent avoir retrouv laccs de nombreuses

    pratiques populaires qui taient interdites par le pass, telles que les plerinages, les offrandes aux

    monastres, la construction dautels domestiques privs, ainsi que des crmonies et des ftes lo-

    cales. Toutefois, la stratgie politique du gouvernement chinois envers les regions tibtaines dans

    le contexte dun dveloppement conomique du pays grande chelle a, conjointement, continu

    affaiblir lautorit religieuse dterminante des institutions monastiques. Particulirement vis par

    le contrle politique, le rle historique des monastres en tant que garant de lautorit religieuse, dela lgimit scolastique et de centres institutionnels denseignement traditionnel sest considrable-

    ment amoindrie. Nanmoins, la facult dadaptation des Tibtains et leur combat pour prserver

    leur identit religieuse et culturelle a redynamis des formes alternatives de contrle religieux tel-

    les que des activits visionnaires et la rvlation de Trsors (gter ma) ; des communauts religieu-

    ses non conventionnelles (chos sgar) sont apparues comme de nouveaux centres de pratique et de

    production culturelle.

  • 7/23/2019 Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Monastery




    Antonio TERRONE

    Religious practice, like other forms of cultural systems, is never completelyseparated from its social, political, and historical contexts.1 Once Tibet2became part of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1949-1951, Tibe-

    tans faced a series of economic and political scenarios that dramatically affectedtheir sociocultural life and jeopardized their unique sense of identity. Thehard-lineanti-Tibet policy promoted by Mao Zedong between 1959 and 1978 put Tibetansthrough two decades of severe hardships. In the post-Mao era,3 Deng Xiaoping

    (1904-1997) launched an overall reform of the political and economic system of thecountry, but with the intention of leaving the state apparatus intact.4 These Chineseeconomic reforms, or reform and opening (Ch. gaige kaifang), becameknown associalism with Chinese characteristics, and although their scope was basically ori-

    1 I would like to express my gratitude to Matthew Pistono and Sarah Jacoby for theirprecious assistance in the preparation of this article and for their insights provided duringlong conversations on Tibetan culture and religion. I would also like to thank Gray Tuttle forhis useful comments, insights, and critical incisiveness. To them goes also my sincere grati-tude for proofreading and editing early versions of this essay. 2 The term Tibet in this article refers to the ethnic, cultural, and geographical areas

    today assimilated within the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), and politically and adminis-tratively limited to the Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan, and TAR provinces of the PRC.See Elliot Sperling, The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics, Policy Studies 7(Washington: East-West Center, 2004): 1-48, here 32-33, on-line version at http://www.east-

    westcenter.org/fileadmin/stored/pdfs/PS007.pdf. 3 With the term post-Mao era I intend here the years following the death of MaoZedong in 1976. This period covers not only the end of the Cultural Revolution and of aharsh and hard-line religious and cultural policy towards ethnic groups in the PRC, but alsothe beginning of a period of economic reforms and of a leniency by Beijing leaders towardsethnic minorities under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping. A strategy of dialogue was estab-lished with the community in Tibet and in exile, and a certain degree of relaxation concededto revive the peoples sense of cultural and religious identity. 4 Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) exposed his vision of economic reforms to the Third

    Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) inDecember 1978.

    Images of Tibet in the 19 th and 20 th CenturiesParis, EFEO, coll. tudes thmatiques (22.2), 2008, p. 747-779

  • 7/23/2019 Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Monastery


    748 Antonio Terrone

    ented towards the creation of a market economy and a stronger domestic economy,theyalso addressed issues of social control such as control of unemployment, infla-tion, and the improvement of Chinese citizens living conditions.

    Ironically, in the effortto facilitate the economic development and support thecountrys transition to the market economy, a key side effectwas that the centralgovernment had to soften its stance on the ideological control of its people andadopt a more tolerant attitude towards peoples social lives. In Tibetan areas thisstrategy translated into a more indulgent position towards cultural and religiousactivities. Thuswhile the government has insisted on an overall modernization ofthe education system in Tibet, penalizing the traditionally central role of monasticreligious instruction, it has concurrently allowed popular forms of religious practice

    and activities to reemerge. On the one hand, Tibetans have gradually gained accessto many of their centuries-old popular practices that were strictly forbidden in thepast: ritual pilgrimages to sacred sites, the setting upof home shrines and altars,and raising of prayer flags on their houses, and so on. On the other hand, the manypolitical gestures and socioeconomic policies instituted by Chinese Communistleaders over the past four decades have caused major crises within the Tibetancommunity in the PRC. First targeted by a hard-line and intolerant approach andthen by a more moderate line, the socioreligious situation in Tibet has undergonedramatic dynamics, altering muchof the character of the central role of religion in

    Tibetan social and political life before 1959.In the contemporary Hu Jintao era,5 ethnic minorities (shaoshu minzu) in China

    are among the top issues in the political agenda of the government.6 The allevia-tion of ethnic poverty, the improvement of the quality of life, and the progress ofeconomic development are clear objectives of Chinas political leaders. However, thegovernments stance is still very cautious concerning religious freedom. The govern-ment considers religion one of the propelling energies behind social movements andtherefore a root cause of social unrest.

    The hard-line struggle against separatist activities (Ch.fenlie huodong) continuesa nightmare for the Communist authorities concerned about the ongoing pres-

    5 Hu Jintao (born 1942) was elected president of the Peoples Republic of China on March15, 2003, at the First Session of the Tenth National Peoples Congress, the top legislature ofthe country. In 1985, 44-year-old Hu Jintao was appointed, successively, secretary of the CPCGuizhou Provincial Committee and of the CPC Tibet Autonomous Regional Committeein 1988. He was in Lhasa during the 1989 Tibetan pro-independence uprising to which hereacted with a strong political crackdown resulting in the death of several Tibetan activists. 6 Beside the Han Chinese, which constitute the ethnic majority, the largest and dominantethnic group in the country, China recognizes fifty-five nationalities (minzu) or ethnic minorities(shaoshu minzu) accounting for roughly 8 per cent of the whole population (see http://www.china.org.cn/features/ethnicgroups/node_1126822.htm). There are at least fifteen more ethnic groups in thePRC that are being scrutinized and considered for nationality recognition including the Sherpas andChinese Jews. See Dru C. Gladney, Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004): 9. For minorities issues see also Morris Rossabi(ed.), Governing Chinas Multiethnic Frontiers (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press,

    2004): 7. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the Tibetans are among the most active ethnic groups in thePRC, claiming independence for their countries.

  • 7/23/2019 Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Monastery


    Tibetan Buddhism beyond the Monastery 749

    ence of resistance forces among ethnic minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.7In the Tibetan regions, besides historical claims in support of Tibetan territorialindependence, the situation has been exacerbated by various factors associated withthe development of the western regions, such as market reforms, Chinese settlers,the tourism industry, and the influx of economic migrants.

    The history of Tibet in the twentieth century is a complex one. The so-calledPeaceful Liberation of Tibet (1949), the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), and theCultural Revolution (1966-1976) spread confusion and destruction not only inChina proper, but also across Tibet, the land of snows. The convulsions of MaoZedongs radical utopias and his Great Leap Forward in the late fifties (which stillneed to be satisfactorily analyzed) caused many thousands of deaths from faminein Tibet.8 The liberalization period resulting from the economic reforms advancedby Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s eventually provided a basis, although still anunstable one, for a renaissance of Tibetan culture and what Chinese propagandacalls the Great Development of the West (xifang da kaifa).9 Currently the centralgovernment seeks the development of Tibet, the well-being of its population, andthe winning of their loyalties by means of massive investments, political reforms,and economic development.

    One of the most effective strategies applied by Beijing in its campaign of econo-mic reforms in Tibet was the remodeling of Tibetan life along more modernlines that emphasize a secular rather than religious idea of a nation. Education (and

    therefore language and culture) has been aprimary target of Chinese reforms in allTibetan ethnic and cultural areas.10 For example, in addition to a curtailing of theextent to which Buddhist monasteries traditionally dominated access to Tibetaneducation, Beijing has introduced a modern education system, shifting schooling toa secular modern setting.

    Buddhism remains, however, the fulcrum of the Tibetan sense of identity andtherefore it is perceived as a potential threat to the authority of the state and to theunity of the PRC. As a consequence monasteries, which in Tibet were the traditionalcenters of religious authority and literary production, have been particularly targeted

    7 Since the last dynastic era (Qing dynasty 1644-1912), and the nationalist (guomin) peri-od, Chinese leaders and policy makers have prioritized the attempt to provide a high degreeof national unity (tongjie) for China. As Gray Tuttle suggests in his Tibetan Buddhists in the

    Making of Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), control over religionin the early nationalistic period, and in the specific Tibetan case control over Buddhism, wasseen by many Chinese policy makers as a means to acquire a significant opportunity to gainethnic minorities loyalties and provide national unity for the country. 8 For an overview of Mao Zedongs policies in the late fifties see Jasper Becker, HungryGhosts: Maos Secret Famine (New York: The Free Press, 1997). 9 The Great Development of the West was initiated in 1999 by Jiang Zemin (b. 1926),then President of the PRC. This period represented an acceleration of the policies concern-ing ethnic minorities formulated over the fifty years of Communist Party rule. See ChinasGreat Leap West(London: Tibet Information Network, 2000).


    Catriona Bass, Education in Tibet: Policy and Practice since 1950 (London: Tibet Infor-mation Network, 1998): 10.

  • 7/23/2019 Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Monastery


    750 Antonio Terrone

    by Communist propaganda because of the central role they played in pre-1959 eco-nomic and sociopolitical life in Tibet, as well as the large number of monastics thatthey housed. Accused by Marxist-Leninist theorists of being exploitative of the com-mon people and a hindrance to local economic progress and cultural development,monasteries came under constant and increased inspection by governmental authori-ties and were eventually deprived of their central sociopolitical role.

    However, the Tibetans sense of adaptation and cultural identity, inextricably con-nected with religion, predominantly Buddhist, has resulted in the growth of renewedforms of control and maintenance of their religious legacy. As Beijing allowed moreovert types of expressions of religious faith and practice in their attempt to win loyal-ties and pursue economic reforms and development, other forms of religious legiti-macy emerged. In some areas of eastern Tibet, namely Kham and especially mGolog (today classified and Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces of the PRC) some forms ofreligious practice such as visionary activities, Treasure revelation (gter ma), charis-matic leadership, and the formation of less conventional and quasi-monastic religiouscommunities as centers of practice and cultural production have come to characterizecurrent religious trends in contemporary Tibetan communities.

    Most present-day religious encampments and mountain retreat hermitages areassociated with the rNying ma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Among the mainschools of Buddhism in Tibet, the rNying ma order is well-known in Tibetan reli-gious and Buddhist history for its extensive use of unconventional Tantric material

    (from the point of view of orthodox...