Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text

Review of Tibetan Ritual,
edited by José Ignacio Cabezón

JIATS, no. 5 (December 2009), THL #T5705, 12 pp.

© 2009 by Christopher Bell, IATS, and THL

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José Ignacio Cabezón, ed. Tibetan Ritual. Oxford: Oxford Unity Press, 2010, xii, 320 pp. $99.00 hard; $29.95 paper.

Tibetan Ritual, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón, is a collection of essays originally presented at a conference held at the University of California, Santa Barbara in May 2007 entitled, “The Practice and Theory of Tibetan Ritual.” Beyond the seemingly simple title on the front cover there lies a series of articles that form a rich organic whole, despite the different approaches and topics represented. This volume is the first to focus solely on the burgeoning field of Tibetan ritual studies, and it has put its best foot forward. Each of the eleven chapters that make up this work is groundbreaking in its own right, applying methods found within a broad range of disciplines – anthropology, ethnography, history, philology, and textual analysis – to problematize and explore the multifaceted phenomena associated with Tibetan ritual.

José Cabezón’s introduction is itself an excellent and engaging essay that discusses the intricacies and issues inherent in the study of ritual in Tibetan religions; it concisely articulates the concerns underlying the ritual typology he produced three years ago in an unpublished essay entitled, “Typology of Tibetan Ritual.” Moreover, Cabezón highlights many of the methodological and categorical problems encountered in most of the chapters. He is especially interested in the utility and limitations of many of the popular dichotomous paradigms used to structure various approaches to ritual. These include etic versus emic, private versus public, local versus translocal, and elite versus popular. These themes run through most of the chapters in the volume even if the authors do not explicitly discuss them. Another theme that Cabezón does not expressly mention, but which is an undercurrent in many of the chapters, is the processes by which Buddhism is indigenized in Tibetan (and Mongolian) religious milieus. A number of the rituals examined in these chapters illustrate the various methods that Buddhists have used to co-opt indigenous practices and narrative structures in order to propagate their [page 2] religion in new cultural environments, and even sublimate local practices. For comparative reference, a similar mechanism is discussed by Isabelle Robinet in Taoism: Growth of a Religion (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, 62-65), whereby local practices of divination, spirit possession, and exorcism are co-opted by Daoists as legitimate enterprises and treated as superior to their non-Daoist forms. In Tibet, as illustrated in Tibetan Ritual, this process does not indicate a simple unilateral relationship, but a dialogue where certain elements are often absorbed, replaced, or reinforced in order to assert the boundaries of a communal or religious identity. This is as ostensible with regards to BönBon religious identity (Chapters Two and Eight) as it is with Nepalese (Chapter One), Mongolian (Chapters Nine and Ten), and Bhutanese (Chapter Eleven) Buddhist identities.

Despite these broader intersections, each chapter presents a unique approach to Tibetan ritual. In Chapter One (“Written Texts at the Juncture of the Local and the Global: Some Anthropological Considerations on a Local Corpus of Tantric Ritual Manuals [Lower Mustang, Nepal]”), Nicolas Sihlé explores the relationships between local and translocal understandings of Buddhist ritual. Using an anthropological approach, he observes directly the exchange that takes place between the normative understanding of a ritual corpus within the broader tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and its indexical expressions in Baragaon, northern Nepal. He recognizes the greater complexity inherent in such exchange and discusses three specific elements tied to how the larger ritual cycle is practiced: (1) the emergent structure of the cycle as it has been locally constructed; (2) the social economy of the cycle’s transmission as its ownership is transferred generation after generation; and (3) the domestication of more global ritual genres, such as the “prayers to the masters” (lagyübla rgyud). Each of these elements vividly illustrates how Buddhism does not simply dominate the culture in which it is disseminated, but is changed by it through local expressions.

Samten Karmay uses a much more textual approach to the study of ritual in Chapter Two (“Tibetan Indigenous Myths and Rituals with Reference to the Ancient Bön Text: The Nyenbum [Gnyan ’bum]”). Here he briefly discusses a previously unexplored collection of BönBon texts entitled The Nyen Collection (NyenbumGnyan ’bum), which concerns a Tibetan spirit type called plague spirit (nyenGnyan). He also notes the existence of The Earth Lord Collection (Sadak BumSa bdag ’bum) and The Tö Collection (TöbumGtod ’bum) in the BönBon tradition, both of which concern other Tibetan spirit types. Karmay’s discussion of the The Nyen Collection is followed by a summary translation of Chapter Sixteen from this collection entitled, “The Medium Length of the Opening of the Padlock of the Nyen.” This is in turn followed by a reproduction of the original Tibetan text, written (as with most BönBon texts) in cursive headless script (umédbu med). Here Karmay provides valuable illumination on an unexamined collection, offering fruitful insight into BönBon ritual practices and the Tibetan religious landscape more broadly. He also touches on themes encountered elsewhere in this volume, notably the ubiquity and importance of myth as a preface to the ritual programs found in Tibetan ritual texts.

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Such “charter myths” are the central focus of Chapter Three (“Continuity and Change in Tibetan Mahāyoga Ritual: Some Evidence from the Tabzhag [Thabs zhags] Manuscript and Other Dunhuang Texts”). In this chapter, Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer examine specific Mahāyoga rituals contained in the Lasso of Method (TapzhagThabs zhags) manuscript, and other related texts tied to the Dagger (PurbaPhur ba, Kīla) tantric cycles, uncovered at Dunhuang. Their goal is to determine to what extent there is continuity of structure and congruity of practice with regard to these rituals today. Based on the texts they have explored, they make five broad observations on textual continuity and change: (1) Tibetan tradition has been typically conservative over time; (2) some Dunhuang materials are comparable to their later tradition; (3) Mahāyoga traditions that appear at Dunhuang have been expanded and codified over time; (4) elements strongly emphasized at Dunhuang can be deemphasized in the later tradition; and (5) some Dunhuang Mahāyoga materials indicate a small degree of indigenous influence, many of which have continued into the later traditions. After exploring Dunhuang Dagger materials, indigenizing strategies found in liturgical text PT 307, and the Lasso of Method manuscript itself, Cantwell and Mayer’s overall assessment is that there has been a surprising degree of uniformity within such texts over the last millennium. In their estimation, this “seems to represent a well-developed and complex Mahāyoga tradition, that does not appear particularly primitive or only partially developed, when compared with the modern…tradition” (72). These texts further illustrate the indigenous employment of Buddhist charter myths as a means to adapt Buddhist elements to Tibetan narrative forms, a process noted above.

Chapter Four (“The Convergence of Theoretical and Practical Concerns in a Single Verse of the Guhyasamāja Tantra”), by Yael Bentor, is a dense essay rich in its implications. In it, Bentor discusses an ancient, yet ambiguous four-line verse from the Guhyasamāja Tantra and the evolving translations and interpretations of this verse that exist in Tibetan Buddhist philosophical exegesis. Bentor first examines the initial role of this verse in the practice of the Guhyasamāja itself, specifically its application to meditation on emptiness in the creation stage of tantric yoga. She then explains how these four lines are equated to the four possibilities of Nāgārjuna’s tetralemma, as explicated by Candrakīrti in his Pradīpoddyotana, a commentary on the Guhyasamāja. She clarifies, however, that this is simply the literal level of interpretation – one of the four tsülzhitshul bzhi (“four ways”). When examined in full, the four lines appear to be similar to the fourfold meditation scheme common in Yogācāra writings. Bentor illustrates how one of the Tibetan translations of the Pradīpoddyotana uses words like “essence” (ngowo nyingo bo nyid), which are not exact translations of the original Sanskrit terms. This and other slight shifts in meaning bring the philosophical significance of this verse in line with a more standard Mādhyamika view. Finally, Bentor explains how Tibetan commentators on the Guhyasamāja, such as Butön Rinchen DrupBu ston rin chen grub (1290-1364) and Tsongkhapa Lozang DrakpaTsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa (1357-1419), interpret this verse along specific scholastic fault lines. ButönBu ston saw it as advocating Yogācāra, while TsongkhapaTsong kha pa spun it to align with the Prāsaṇgika Mādhyamika position. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s disciple KhedrupjéMkhas grub rje (1385-1438) followed his teacher, reinforcing this position within the Ge [page 4] lukDge [page 4] lugs sect. Bentor lucidly illustrates how this single verse of four lines shifted in its philosophical orientation from typical Yogācāra to “orthodox” Prāsaṇgika Mādhyamika over centuries of Tibetan scholastic engagement. She sees this philosophical shift taking place within two transformations, the first being the Tibetan translations of the original Sanskrit verse, and the second being the interpretations of the verse in Tibetan commentaries.

Shifting dramatically from philosophy to apotropaic practices, Irmgard Mengele explores rituals for deceiving death in Chapter Five (“Chilu [’Chi bslu]: Rituals for ‘Deceiving Death’”). These rituals are popular in Tibet but have Indian precedents. This is another arena of ritual hybridization where the Indian mṛtyu vañcana and Tibetan chiwa luwa’chi ba bslu ba, or chilu’chi bslu (deceiving death), have been conflated in order to give such practices an authentic pedigree (with, for example, the use of mantras [ngaksngags] and deity meditation), yet they reaffirm pre-Buddhist ritual forms (for example, substitute effigies [glud] and thread-crosses [mdos]) and spirit types (for example, earth lords [sadaksa bdag, savdag], sovereign spirits [gyelporgyal po], hindering spirits [bdud], and oath-breaking spirits [damsidam sri]). Mengele begins her essay with an exploration of the terminology and history of the practice, relying heavily on texts found in the TengyurBstan ’gyur. She explains that there are four major types of death-deceiving practices, as enumerated by Vāgīśvarakīrti (Ngakgi Wangchuk DrakpaNgag gi dbang phyug grags pa) in his Mṛtyuvañcanopadeśa (Chiwa Luwa Menngak’Chi ba blu ba’i man ngag): (1) prolonging life through virtuous deeds, (2) touching jewels, (3) reciting mantras, and (4) practicing alchemy and ingesting medicinal substances. Mengele briefly discusses another TengyurBstan ’gyur text by Tathāgatarakṣita, which recommends practices like the visualization of Tārā (DrölmaSgrol ma) and the recitation of her mantras, followed by related ritual activities. These explorations preface a multivalent discussion on death deceiving rites and the incorporation of Tibetan innovations, such as substitute effigy rituals and indigenous spirits. This discussion includes the types of rituals associated with death deceiving rites, the causes of death, the soteriological import of such rites, and the signs indicating death; it concludes with a detailed description of various Tibetan death deceiving rituals.

In Chapter Six (“Representations of Efficacy: The Ritual Expulsion of Mongol Armies in the Consolidation and Expansion of the Tsang [Gtsang] Dynasty”), James Gentry offers an excellent history and analysis of the late sixteenth-, early seventeenth-century NyingmapaRnying ma pa figure Sokdokpa Lodrö GyentsenSog bzlog pa blo gros rgyal mtshan (1552-1624). SokdokpaSog bzlog pa was a ritual specialist famed for his ritual performances and activities that (as his name suggests) turned back or defeated invading Mongol troops. In his autobiography, SokdokpaSog bzlog pa even explains how his activities helped to consolidate the expansion of the TsangGtsang hegemony in the early seventeenth century. It is through his own authoritative interpretation of dreams, signs, and prophecies that SokdokpaSog bzlog pa is able to profess such claims. Through this case study, Gentry offers not only an excellent example of how rituals are used for geopolitical endeavors, but also how the private act of recounting and interpreting such ritual events is a way of instantiating these events within the public sphere [page 5] of textual discourse. This is at the heart of what Gentry calls the “blurred genre of ritual memoir” (133).

Moving two centuries forward, Bryan Cuevas examines in Chapter Seven (“The ‘Calf’s Nipple’ [Be’u bum] of Ju Mipam [’Ju Mi pham]: A Handbook of Tibetan Ritual Magic”) a handbook of Tibetan practical magic compiled by the famed NyingmaRnying ma scholar Ju Mipam Namgyal’Ju mi pham rnam rgyal (1846-1912). This essay sheds light on the more mundane and apotropaic concerns of a figure mostly renowned for his scholastic endeavors. These concerns involve the use of ritual techniques found in a genre of collected texts called BeubumBe’u bum, described by Cuevas as “compilations of useful material… selectively assembled from an array of sources to be quickly accessible and readily on hand for the purpose of educating and inspiring, or for performing operations that can either help or harm” (166). In this case, the latter operations are the primary focus of MipamMi pham’s BeubumBe’u bum. At the conclusion of his analysis, Cuevas provides a detailed index of MipamMi pham’s collection based on three editions. The magical goals of the rituals in this collection range from protective aims (for example, protecting sheep and one’s wealth, or guarding against demons) and enriching activities (for example, enhancing pleasure, achieving goals, or causing rain), to controlling and subjugating (for example, coercing beautiful women, binding thieves, and turning away enemies). As intriguing as these practices are, Cuevas’s analysis is mostly concerned with the problematic associations of etic categories of magic and sorcery with the related emic categories of correspondent action (lejorlas sbyor), manifest action (ngönchömngon spyod, abhicāra), and four actions (lepzhilas bzhi). Cuevas is aware that these terms do not map perfectly onto one another, but he offers ways in which they might be interrelated through examining their underlying logic, especially that of sympathy.

The last four chapters bring the reader into the modern period and combine contemporary ethnography with historical analysis. In Chapter Eight (“Rites of the Deity Tamdrin [Rta mgrin] in Contemporary Bön: Transforming Poison and Eliminating Noxious Spirits with Burning Stones”), the subject of BönBon ritual is revisited as Marc des Jardins outlines a dramatic “burning stone” rite that he observed in April 2004 at the Yeshé Monastery (Yeshé GönYe shes dgon) in NyakrongNyag rong. The essay begins with an evocative description of the rite, whereby red-hot stones were placed one by one into the hand of a senior monk of the monastery, who then waved the stones over the heads of the participants while reciting certain mantras. This rite was performed as an exorcism for des Jardins’ well-being. The tutelary deity invoked during the ritual was TamdrinRta mgrin (Hayagrīva), who is generally thought to be a Buddhist deity. This naturally leads des Jardins into a discussion of TamdrinRta mgrin’s character and place in BönBon scripture and history. In the BönBon tradition, the core text on TamdrinRta mgrin is entitled The Lore of King Tamdrin from the Sūtra on the Teachings of Bön [Extracted] from the Concise [Teachings] in Terms of the Five Categories of Asuras Versus the Great Magic of the Gods (Lha Tuchen dang Lhamayin Denga Wangdudü né Böntenpé Dolé Tamdrin Gyelpö ZungLha mthu chen dang lha ma yin sde lnga dbang du bsdus nas bon bstan pa’i mdo las rta mgrin rgyal po’i gzungs). This text is available in both the BönBon TengyurBstan ’gyur and the twelve-volume hagiography of Tönpa ShenrabSton pa gshen rab entitled Precious Compendium: [page 6] The Blazing Sūtra Immaculate and Glorious (Drimé ZijiDri med gzi brjid). The Lore of King Tamdrin explains how Tönpa ShenrabSton pa gshen rab recited the wrathful mantra of TamdrinRta mgrin on many occasions in order to conquer violent spirits too powerful for peaceful restraint. This is followed by a brief history of TamdrinRta mgrin’s textual lineage in BönBon, as well as an exploration of the eighteen texts that comprise the ritual corpus used for the “burning stone” rite. This ritual cycle also involves two other important deities, Chakna DorjéPhyag na rdo rje (Vajrapāni) and KhyungKhyung (Garuḍa), who are placed in a triad with TamdrinRta mgrin. After a brief excursus into related protectors and the “burning stone” exorcism itself, des Jardins concludes with a short but important discussion on the practical concerns behind the performance of this ritual, such as patronage, popularity, and its connection to Buddhism. Des Jardins recognizes both the Buddhist influence on BönBon practice – especially given the centrality of TamdrinRta mgrin in this rite – as well as BönBon agency in defining such practices. In the end, des Jardins concludes, it is the BönpoBon pos themselves who should “decide what their practices and religion are” (203).

Vesna Wallace, in Chapter Nine (“Texts as Deities: Mongols’ Rituals of Worshipping Sūtras and Rituals of Accomplishing Various Goals by Means of Sūtras”), argues convincingly for the treatment of texts as deities in Mongolian Buddhism. A number of significant Buddhist sūtras and tantras – such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra, the Survarṇaprabhāsottama, the Vajracchedikā, and the Guhyasamāja Tantra – are treated like tutelary deities by monastic and lay patrons alike. They bestow blessings (just as deities do) if they are venerated and given offerings, as well as when they are copied and recited. Most significant, Wallace shows that a semantic understanding of the text is not always necessary, as texts produce benefits so long as they are venerated. When copied and recited, the texts are even believed to construct a maṇḍala. Moreover, there are numerous tales of “ordinary individuals who gained desired benefits from reciting the sūtra in a nonregulated manner when faced with the immediate dangers of demons, enemies, hell, and so on, or from handling it in a respectful manner, whether fully aware of it or not” (215). Being a non-normative local practice, the veneration of texts as deities is reminiscent of Sihlé’s chapter, as there is a complex relationship between how these texts are perceived within the larger Buddhist worldview, and how they are actually approached in the local communities of Mongolia. Finally, Wallace illustrates how the same text may have multiple functions depending on its ritual context. For instance, the Survarṇaprabhāsottama must be recited when a sheep becomes diseased or if certain omens require recitation of the text when examining a sick man. To ensure the health and prosperity of livestock, nomadic families will carry this text while circumambulating three times around the shelter of their herds. This text is also recited if certain divinatory rites call for it (for example, scapulimancy).

Continuing with Mongolian Buddhist ritual, Jared Lindahl explores Mongolian mountain worship in Chapter Ten (“The Ritual Veneration of Mongolia’s Mountains”). While Wallace’s chapter concerns deities as texts, Lindahl’s chapter concerns deities as landscape. In his examination of Mongolian sacred geography, [page 7] Lindahl first discusses previous scholarship on Mongolian rituals and critiques the excessive usage of the term “shamanism” to describe indigenous Mongolian practices in contrast to Buddhism. He then discusses common ritual practices conducted at ritual cairns, which act simultaneously as territorial markers and ritual altars. Lindahl relies heavily on ethnographic accounts of Inner Mongolia written by social anthropologist Caroline Humphrey, which explore Mongolian cosmology and ritual practice. He echoes Humphrey’s disaffection with the term “shamanism,” noting that there are actually several kinds of ritual specialists found alongside shamans in Mongolian society. Nonetheless, Lindahl relies on another dichotomy developed by Humphrey, which is between “chiefly” and “shamanic” modes of ritual interaction with local deities. The “chiefly” mode refers to clan chiefs or elder ritual specialists who propitiate the local mountain spirit or “master of the area.” The “shaman” mode refers to those individuals who interact directly with their apotheosized predecessors, or ongon. Lindahl demonstrates that there exists a fascinating relationship between the two, however, since shamans are given two burials, the second of which allows their soul to metamorphose into a local spirit. As such, shamans could have control over both their particular ongon and the local deities. Like the essays by Karmay and Mayer and Cantwell, Lindahl notes the importance of Buddhist narratives to appropriate and reorient local sacred sites within Buddhist space and time. He shows how Buddhism has standardized mountain rituals in order to reduce the variety of indigenous practices. Yet, again, this is not a simple top-down relationship, as compromising efforts to simplify tantric practice were also undertaken by some Buddhists to successfully and quickly propagate the religion in Mongolia.

In Chapter Eleven (“Encounter with a Dream: Bhutanese Pilgrims in Tibet – Performing a Ritual?”), Françoise Pommaret asks the reader to consider pilgrimage as a ritual act. She argues that pilgrimage (at least in the case of Bhutanese pilgrimage to Tibet) can be classified as a ritual because “it is a religious action performed with a religious guide for defined aims with a right attitude and in a well-defined spatio-temporal dimension” (253). Pommaret describes her participation in a pilgrimage to Tibet organized in 2007 by a group of Bhutanese Buddhist pilgrims. She observes six features usually present in Buddhist pilgrimage and frames them in a fashion similar to the ritual programs outlined elsewhere in this volume and first popularized by Stephan Beyer (The Cult of Tārā [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978]) and Yael Bentor (Consecration of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism [Leiden: Brill, 1996]). These features are (1) material arrangements, (2) a religious guide, (3) right attitude, (4) correct performance, (5) offerings, and (6) sharing the blessed objects. All these elements have clear parallels to many ritual goals, such as renewing faith, asking for protection, and accruing merit. Pommaret concludes her essay with entertaining anecdotes about the various impressions the Bhutanese pilgrims had during their time in Tibet. For instance, the pilgrims did not appreciate the crowded masses filling the BarkorBar bskor circuit in LhasaLha sa and so preferred to perform their circumambulations at night when there were fewer people. They were also confused by the entrance fees required nowadays at many famous holy sites in Tibet. [page 8] Although the details that Pommaret provides in her article are engaging, more information on what other – perhaps more mundane – activities occurred during the pilgrimage, and what specific activities framed the ritually-oriented events, would have given her ethnographic account greater weight in line with Geertzian thick description.

One of the most important aspects of Tibetan Ritual is that many of its authors ask questions. Understandably, this volume does not provide definitive solutions to the broader issues of Tibetan ritual explored in the introduction, but it does offer useful methods to approach these issues in greater detail and in multiple contexts. The essays in this volume each provide the reader with helpful guidelines and suggest various tools that can be implemented in future studies. Tibetan Ritual is a powerful and rich introduction to a subject greatly in need of examination and attention. Considering the high quality of the research contained within this book, readers have every reason to expect even more engaging and promising work in the near future.

Note Citation for Page

Christopher Bell, “Review of Tibetan Ritual, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 5 (December 2009): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5705 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Review

Christopher Bell, “Review of Tibetan Ritual, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 5 (December 2009): 1-12, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5705 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Bell, Christopher. “Review of Tibetan Ritual, edited by José Ignacio Cabezón.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 5 (December 2009): 1-12. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5705 (accessed ).