Tibetan Religions: History of Study

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Until the 1980s, scholars took a threefold approach to the study of Tibetan religions. First, they used Tibetan materials to supplement Indian and Chinese materials; second, Western scholars were drawn by a fascination with Tibetan Buddhism itself; and third, they studied the numerous Tibetan texts completed since the 1970s by Tibetans who were living either in exile or in Tibet and China. Events and developments of momentous importance for research into the religious life of Tibet occurred during the twentieth century. These events drove some Tibetans into a Western-oriented study of their own religion, brought Western scholars into close contact with learned lamas, and drew scholarly attention to a very early period of Bon and Buddhism in Tibet, while almost simultaneously revealing contemporary practices with a precision and on a scale previously impossible for various political or geographical reasons.

The first event was the discovery in 1905 of Tibetan texts from the eighth to eleventh centuries in a cave along the Silk Road at Dunhuang, China. For the next several years, British, French, Russian, and Japanese scholars were able to study manuscript materials that were much older than those previously known and that were contemporary to the events they described. These materials revolutionized the study of Bon and Buddhism in Tibet, as well as the study of the religious currents flowing through the Tibetan empire from the East and the West. The development of the study of the Dunhuang manuscripts has been of paramount importance in the understanding of Tibetan religions, which for decades had been studied only from a Buddhist perspective, and historically only from a relatively late perspective. Following the studies of Gustave Charles Toussaint and Marcelle Lalou in Paris, one of the most innovative books in this field was Études Tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou (1971), which contained articles by Ariane Macdonald, Rolf A. Stein, and others, and which presented a truly new perspective on the religions of Tibet. The work begun with this volume was later completed by the publication of selections of the Pelliot Choix de documents tibétains conservés à la bibliothèque nationale (19782001) by Ariane Macdonald, Yoshiro Imaeda, and T. Takeuchi.

The second event was the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s. Numerous lamas took up residence thereafter in Nepal, northern India, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. These exiles took some of their vast literature and physical culture with them, and made it accessible to Western scholars. In the late 1980s, Tibetans in China also started to publish a great number of texts through state-owned publishing houses, and later privately. Some of these texts had been previously unknown to many scholars, and they added to the corpus of materials already available.

A third important development occurred in the early 1980s with the relative opening of Tibetan areas, which, along with inexpensive air travel, allowed many researchers to travel and do fieldwork in Tibet. A fourth major development was the advent of the Internet and the digitalization of many Tibetan texts beginning at the end of the twentieth century.

Since the mid-1980s, therefore, there has been no dearth of publications about the religion of Tibet. There has been, however, a shift from a purely philological approach to a more interdisciplinary approach that incorporates history, anthropology, and even art history (numerous exhibitions of Tibetan art have been accompanied by expert catalogues). This shift was certainly the result of scholars being able to travel to Tibet and adjacent areas, and it was also a reflection of the monastic background of some writers. Moreover, the role of women in Tibetan Buddhism, which was all but ignored in earlier writings, became prominent, along with the study of the Bon tradition and Tibetan popular religion, including local cults that are not necessarily Buddhist or have become "buddhicized." These trends in scholarship have profoundly transformed the study of Tibetan religions.

One of the first major contributions to the advancement of the field was the United States Library of Congress project initiated in the 1970s in New Delhi by Gene E. Smith. This program encouraged Tibetans to publish previously unknown texts and disseminate them to academic institutions in the West. Smith added further to the study of the field by establishing the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which promotes research and scholarship in Tibetan Buddhism through digital text and image preservation. Similar projects include the Tsadra Foundation, sponsored by the Trace Foundation, which publishes Tibetan texts and translations. The Trace Foundation has also established the online Latse Contemporary Tibetan Cultural Library, which offers texts and other research materials and sponsors programs for people interested in Tibetan culture. The Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library, sponsored by the University of Virginia, publishes multilingual and multimedia texts and resources, as well as creative works concerned with the culture and history of Tibet and the Himalayas. Digital versions of the Dunhuang Tibetan documents are available at Old Tibetan Documents Online, a website established by a group of Japanese scholars. Other useful websites include Digital Himalaya, sponsored by Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University and the Anthropology Department at Cornell University, and Tibet Visual History Online, sponsored by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Such websites are popular with researchers because they include old and previously unavailable footage and photographs, and they constitute a good base for religious studies from an anthropological approach. In 2002, the Tibetology team of the French National Center for Scientific Research inaugurated the first digital academic journal on Tibetan studies: Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines. In addition, the major Tibetan religious traditions and lamas have their own websites, where one can find texts, teachings, and photos, as well as polemical writings. In 2003, in Oxford, Tibetologists from all over the world who had gathered for the International Association of Tibetan Studies seminar decided to launch the digital Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (JIATS).

The use of the Internet is truly a revolution for a field as previously obscure as the study of Tibetan religions; the Internet allows information to flow even to remote areas of the Tibetan world. The great Western pioneer student of Tibet's religious culture was the Hungarian traveler Alexander Csoma de Körös (c. 17841842), some of whose work is still valuable, while that of many of his near-contemporaries is completely outdated. His work parallels that of the founders of Buddhist studies in Europe, who worked from Indian sources. His Notices on the Life of Shakya, Extracted from the Tibetan Authorities (1838) is an early work in the field, as is F. Anton von Schiefner's "Eine tibetische Lebensbeschreibung Cakyamuni's, des Begründers des Buddhatums" (Mémoires de l'academie impériale des sciences de Saint Pétersbourg 6, 1851).

The best of the early monographs is Emil Schlagintweit's Buddhism in Tibet, Illustrated by Literary Documents and Objects of Religious Worship (1863), which deals comprehensively with the Buddhist world in Tibet from its basis in Indian Mahāyāna theory to local customs. Equally rich in data is L. Austine Waddell's The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism, with its Mystic Cults, Symbolism, and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism (1895). Giuseppe Tucci's Die Religionen Tibets (1970; translated as Religions of Tibet, [1980]) is enhanced by Tucci's abundant use of Tibetan sources and his high level of knowledge about the philosophical and historical background of Tibetan religions. One of the most important newer books in the field is Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan Successors by David L. Snellgrove (1987). The publication of Gene E. Smith's previously scattered articles and introductionsAmong Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau (2001)has also reinforced the study of Buddhist transmissions in Tibet.

Tibetan scholars have written many works on the introduction and spread of Buddhism in their country and on its origins in India. Studies by European scholars of three such works are particularly important: Schiefner's Târanâthas Geschichte des Buddhismus in Indien (1869), a translation of Tāranātha's 1608 Tibetan-Language History of Buddhism in India, has sufficient interpretations and explanations by the translator to make it useful for the student of Tibetan Buddhism; and Eugene Obermiller's History of Buddhism (19311932), a translation of Bu ston's Chos 'byung, contains information on Tibet, but Indian subjects predominate. The great achievement in scholarship in this area is George N. Roerich's The Blue Annals (19491953), a translation of 'Gos Lo tsa ba Gzon nu dpal's Deb ther snon po ; this classic text describes major developments in Tibet up to the 1470s. Roerich's diligence as a scholar, combined with the various indexes to the text, have made this translation an invaluable reference work.

Another important work is The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History (1991, 2d ed., 2002), a translation of Dudjom Rinpoche by Matthew Kapstein and Gyurme Dorje. Enriched with maps and several indexes, this work is an excellent resource for the history of Buddhism in Tibet, and more particularly for the Rnying ma (Nyingma) school. Austrian, German, and Japanese scholars still lead the field in philological works on the Indian Buddhist texts used by Tibetans, as well as on the Tibetan canons.

A number of works attempting synthetic interpretations of major events or trends in Tibetan religious history appeared in the twentieth century. In particular, Charles Bell's The Religion of Tibet (1931) analyzes the history of Buddhism until the early twentieth century, including Tibet's influence on Mongolian Buddhism and the political dimensions of the rule of the Dalai Lamas. In the guise of a description of a series of Tibetan paintings, Tucci's Tibetan Painted Scrolls (1949) contains much (well-indexed) material on topics ranging from mythology to iconography that concerns the history of Tibetan religions and sectarian developments.

Eva Dargyay's The Rise of Esoteric Buddhism in Tibet (2d ed., 1979) provides data on the Rnying ma pa religious tradition; this work discusses Rnying ma pa's "discovered Treasure" literature and its history. The study of the "discovered" religious writings is now a subfield by itself as a result of access to Tibetan masters and a better knowledge of the transmission lineages. One of the pioneers was Anne-Marie Blondeau, who wrote several articles. Janet Gyatso also published a series of articles on the Treasure movement. Also noteworthy is the Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa (2003) by Sarah Harding and Ganteng Tulku.

The basis of all Buddhist practice is yoga and meditation, and studies of Tibetan versions of such practices with commentaries by learned lamas are appearing in great numbers. Among older established studies that are still frequently consulted, the following are notable either for their lucidity of presentation or their accompanying commentary. Herbert Guenther's translation of Sgam po pa's twelfth-century account of Tibetan religious practice, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation (1971), and Guenther's The Life and Teaching of Nāropa (1963) on an eleventh-century yogin, are characterized by a sophisticated analysis of the psychology of Buddhist practice. A clear exposition is made by Tenzin Gyatso (Bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho, the fourteenth Dalai Lama) in The Opening of the Wisdom Eye and the History of the Advancement of Buddhadharma in Tibet (1966). An analysis of philosophical positions, meditation, and ritual is found in Ferdinand D. Lessing and Alex Wayman's Mkhas grub rje's Fundamentals of the Buddhist Tantras (1968), a translation of a fifteenth-century work. Rdzogs chen, a meditative and philosophical teaching common to both the Rnying ma pa and Bon traditions, is explained by Samten Karmay in The Great Perfection: A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching in Tibetan Buddhism (1988).

Traditional Buddhist biographies (rnam thar ) are being used more and more as sources to put meat on the bones of doctrinal studies, but they are also translated into English to cater to an interested audience. Perhaps the best of the earlier efforts is Jacques Bacot's La vie de Marpa le "traducteur" (1937). Also worthy of recommendation is Rolf A. Stein's Vie et chants de 'Brug-pa Kun-legs le yogin (1972), and of course the different translations of the great saint and poet Mi la ras pa's biography and mystic songs. A more recent study of autobiographical writing in Tibet, especially by visionary yogis, is Janet Gyatso's Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary (1998).

An excellent work intended as a manual for students is Religions of Tibet in Practice, edited by Donald Lopez (1997). In addition, Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, edited by José Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson (1996), covers mainly religious literature.

Westerners who went through Tibetan scholastic education as monks in the 1970s, including Robert Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins, have published numerous books that provide insight on religious studies in a traditional context. Such works include Georges Dreyfus's The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (2003). Each of these authors holds a chair in religious studies in an American university. Matthieu Ricard, an active monk, contributed to the field with his translation of The Life of Shabkar: An Autiobiography of a Tibetan Yogin (1994), as well as his own books and the archiving of the teachings and writings of his lama, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (19101991).

In the 1980s, with the importance given to feminist studies in the West, there was a sudden interest in the role that female figures played in Tibetan religions as nuns or partners of lamas, or by themselves. Among the pioneers in translation of women's biographies was Keith Dowman with Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel (1984), and Tsultrim Allione with Women of Wisdom (1984). Later, Hanna Havnevik published her dissertation on Tibetan Buddhist nuns, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Buddhist Monastic Ethics for Women (1996), and Janice Willis edited Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (1995). In Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd (1996) Jérôme Edou studied the extraordinary life of this eleventh-century yoginī, whose teachings are still practiced today; this work was followed by The Lives and Liberation of Princess Mandarava, translated by Lama Chonam and Sangye Khandro (1998)

The Bon religion has been much less studied than Buddhism. Its literature and teachers were not accessible, and some Tibetan Buddhists succeeded in giving early Western visitors a highly inaccurate view of its origins and practices. This trend is now reversed, and by the end of the twentieth century there was great interest in Bon studies, often linked to the Western Tibetan region of Zhang zhung. The field is now flourishing under the impetus of pioneers like Per Kvaerne in Norway and Samten Karmay in France. Bon studies has become linked to the publications program initiated in 2000 by Yasuhiko Nagano at the Ethnological Museum of Osaka; published works include New Horizons in Bon Studies (2000), A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya (2003), and The Call of the Blue Cuckoo: An Anthology of Nine Bonpo Texts on Myths and Rituals (2002), all edited by Nagano and Karmay. One of the first valuable contributions to the study of Bon mythology and a veritable catalog of the Bon pantheon was A. H. Francke's gZer mig: A Book of the Tibetan Bonpos, a translation that was published in five volumes between 1924 and 1949.

Where are the origins of Bon to be soughtbeyond Tibet or within? What is its relationship to Buddhism and other religions, in particular to those of Iran? How did Bon evolve? What can be called Bon? These questions are still debated by scholars. Studies on Bon that were particularly valuable include a lengthy essay in Giuseppe Tucci's Die Religionen Tibets ; Samten Karmay's "A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon" in Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko 33 (1975): 171218; as well as Karmay's Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon (1972). An extensive doctrinal text was presented by David L. Snellgrove in The Nine Ways of Bon: Excerpts from the gZi-brjid (1967). An important study and the first work on Bon yoga is Per Kvaerne's "Bonpo Studies: The A Khrid System of Meditation," in Kailash 1 (1973): 1950 and 247332, as well as his important work, The Bon Religion of Tibet: The Iconography of a Living Tradition (1995). Dan Martin's Unearthing Bon Treasures: Life and Contested Legacy of a Tibetan Scripture Revealer (2001) deals with a Tibetan "text discoverer" and includes a general bibliography of Bon. Martin updated this bibliography in "Bon Bibliography: An Annotated List of Recent Publications," in Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines 4 (2003): 6177, which demonstrates the contemporary strength of Bon studies. Martin joined forces with Per Kvaerne and Yasuhiko Nagano to edit A Catalogue of the Bon Kanjur (2003). In addition, Karmay and Nagano edited A Catalogue of the New Collection of Bonpo Katen Texts (2001). In France, Jean-Luc Achard is researching the Dzogchen tradition of the Bon and Rnying ma schools. Achard has published several articles in the Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines, as well as the book L'Essence perlée du secret: Recherches philologiques et historiques sur l'origine de la Grande Perfection dans la tradition rNying ma pa (1999).

The literature and adherents of the normative Buddhism and Bon traditions were the first elements to strike Alexander Csoma de Körös and his successors, and they remain today the center of focus in Tibetology. However, popular religion and its numerous cultic manifestations have increasingly become the topic of studies, especially in Europe since the late 1980s. One such study is Françoise Pommaret's Les revenants de l'au-delà dans le monde Tibétain : Sources littéraires et traditions vivantes (1989).

Of course, the interest in Tibet's epic hero, King Gesar, an important figure in popular Tibetan literature and religion, dates back to the eighteenth century when Mongolian-language texts of the epic became known to Western travelers. A comprehensive analysis of the religious and ethnographic data in these materials certainly lies far in the future, but two works may be cited here that analyze different versions of Gesar's life and deeds and thus give an idea of the variety of information available: A. H. Francke's Der Frühlings- und Wintermythus der Kesarsage: Beiträge zur Kenntnis der vorbuddhistishchen Religion Tibets und Ladakhs (1902) and Rolf A. Stein's Recherches sur l'épopée et le barde au Tibet (1959). The former study shows the influence of the "nature mythology" school of religious studies, while the latter includes sections dealing with Buddhist, Bon, and popular religious influences and motifs. Gesar studies are a subfield in themselves, with Chinese scholars taking a keen interest in the matter.

Among early general studies on popular religion in Tibet, an extensive analysis of the iconography and hierarchical ordering of Tibet's spirits and deities in ritual and literature was René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz's Oracles and Demons of Tibet (1956; 2d rev. ed., 1975). Rolf A. Stein 's Tibetan Civilization (1972) also dwelt on popular religion.

Many anthropologists have studied what is sometimes called shamanist practices in Tibet and the Tibetan areas. Geoffrey Samuel's Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (1993) is a challenging and innovative work on the links between Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism. Anthropologists with the opportunity to do fieldwork started studying local deities more or less integrated into Buddhism, as well as different cults and other religious manifestations. These were important in understanding the daily religious life of the people and their relation to their territory. Among different publications, four collections should be noted: Mandala and Landscape, edited by A. W. Macdonald (1997); Reflections of the Mountain: Essays on the History and Social Meaning of the Mountain Cult in Tibet and the Himalayas, edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau and Ernst Steinkellner (1996); Tibetan Mountain Deities: Their Cults and Representations, edited by Blondeau (1998); and Territory and Identity in Tibet and the Himalayas, Tibetan Studies in Honour of Anne-Marie Blondeau, edited by Katia Buffetrille and Hildegard Diemberger (2002).

Alex McKay's edition of Pilgrimage in Tibet (1998) was another important contribution to the study of religion as practiced by the common people. The history of Tibetan religions must also take into account the numerous publications and translations done in Tibetan Buddhist centers in the West, as well as the biographies of lamas written directly in Western languages. In most cases, such works were not produced as contributions to the field of study, but rather as a means of propagating Buddhist thought. Still, the material they present is often new and interesting for the researcher, while appealing to a wider audience. Two such works that were successful worldwide were The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche (1998) and especially The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche (2002). Also noteworthy is Philippe Cornu's handy and informative Dictionnaire encyclopédique du Bouddhisme (2001).

Religious studies scholars and followers of Tibetan religious traditions have begun engaging in fruitful exchange and interface, although both are often still wary of each other. The academics tend to scorn the disciples' lack of critical approach, and the disciples tend to condescend towards the scholars' lack of "inner understanding" of the religious traditions. A promising development is that Tibetan and Chinese scholars from different research institutes and universities in China have begun to show interest in religious studies, mostly in the Gesar epic and in popular religion. The Tibetan and Chinese scholars concentrate mostly on historical, ethnographic, and sociological subjects. Working as researchers in different academies and institutes, they have good opportunities to publish their studies. They also participate in the seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS), which is held every four years and where they exchange ideas with their Western and Japanese colleagues.

Since the 1980s the amount of written literature and the number of learned informants from all traditions has increased dramatically. Tibetans for the most part feel a great urge to accommodate Western research into their traditions, and many are now working in research institutions in Europe, Japan, and North America. Indeed, Tibetan studies are now awash in resources, and scholars have begun to call into question many of the most important positions that were only recently thought to be firmly established. There is also a new interest in Buddhism as practiced today in Tibet, as evidenced by Melvyn G. Goldstein and Matthew T. Kapstein's Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity (1998), which demonstrates that the study of religions of Tibet needs to be envisaged in a cultural and political context.


An appreciation of the status of modern scholarship can perhaps best be gained by perusing volumes of the Proceedings of the Csoma de Körös Memorial Symposium, as well as the Proceedings of the International Seminar on Tibetan Studies, which are being published regularly. Along with university presses, several private publishing houses, including Wisdom Publications in Boston, Serindia Publications in Chicago, Shambhala Publications in Boston, Snow Lion Publications in Ithaca, N.Y, Padma Publishing in Junction City, California, Prajna Press in Boulder, Colorado, the Tsadra Foundation in New York City, and Dharma Publications in Berkeley, California, as well as the Padma karpo Translation committee in Denmark, are continually releasing books on different aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.


Digital Himalaya: http://www.digitalhimalaya.com.

Latse Contemporary Tibetan Cultural Library: http://www.latse.org.

Old Tibetan Documents Online: http://www.aa.tufs.ac.jp/~hoshi/OTDO_web/index.html.

Padma karpo translation committee: http://www.tibet.dk/pktc/onlinepubs.htm.

Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines : http://www.digitalhimalaya.com/col-lections/journals/ret.

Tibet Visual History Online: http://visualtibet.org.

Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library: http://iris.lib.virginia.edu/tibet.

Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center: http://www.tbrc.org.

Tsadra Foundation: http://www.tsadra.org.

Michael L. Walter (1987)

FranÇoise Pommaret (2005)