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Review of Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet, by Michael Walter

JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5723, pp. 467-471.

© 2011 by Sam van Schaik, IATS, and THL

[page 467]

Michael Walter. Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet. Leiden: Brill, 2009, 311 pp. $182 hard.

There is no doubt that in Buddhism and Empire Michael Walter has given us an important and groundbreaking work, approaching the study of early Tibetan culture with an incisive ability to pinpoint which issues are at stake and what might be required to resolve them. Though it is not easy to summarize the wide-ranging and at times labyrinthine argument of Buddhism and Empire, we might say that in general, Walter is engaged in questioning our use of our earliest written Tibetan sources to reconstruct a pre-Tibetan religion. Walter points out that many terms and concepts that have been employed in this reconstruction only appear in documents post-dating the influence of Buddhism in Tibet. He prefers to see terms like tsuklakgtsug lag and concepts like the mountain cult as emerging from a confluence of the political interests of the tsenpobtsan pos and the Buddhist ideology of the Tibetan sangha.1

Often Walter points to philological approaches; for example, in his brief discussion of the meaning of the term bönbon Walter identifies this as a problem of philology, correctly stating that “no comprehensive survey of the term bönbon and words perhaps related to it in the Dunhuang documents has been undertaken” (192). Walter makes a similarly trenchant point about the fundamental word chöchos, correctly pointing out that it did not always refer to Buddhism, but rather signified “a broad variety of religious acts” (73, n. 84). Elsewhere, he characterises both bönbon and chöchos as ritual activities or methods (211, n. 43).

Throughout Buddhism and Empire, Walter repeatedly challenges previous scholarship on early Tibetan history and religion, arguing that often the meaning of a term is frozen at an early stage of scholarship by an arbitrary translation [page 468] convention (for example, “soul” for labla). This is an important point, and though readers may not agree with Walter’s new analysis of such terms, he succeeds in opening them up for discussion. Walter is also right to point out that much previous work on the Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts, though undertaken by some of the finest scholars in the field, has been marred by an incorrect assumption: that these are sources from the period of the Tibetan Empire, or at least from between the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang (for which the best date is 786), and the loss of Dunhuang to the Chinese Return to Allegiance army in 748. Since the work of Geza Uray, Tsuguhito Takeuchi and others, we have begun to realize that many, perhaps the majority of manuscripts from the Dunhuang cave date from after the end of the empire, and that many in fact date to the decades immediately before the cave’s closure in the early eleventh century.2

Now that we know that the Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang date from the mid-eighth century through to the end of the tenth, we are much in need of criteria which would allow us to assign the individual manuscripts (few of which are dated) to more specific periods. Walter recognizes that, as in other fields, palaeography, though an inexact science, will probably provide the best means of achieving this.3 However, Walter does not attempt a palaeographical analysis, beyond mentioning the orthographic features of older documents, like the dadrakda drag. Instead, he provides a list of themes that characterise Old Tibetan documents, such as “any text or motif which shows the btsan-pos in a subservient position to any religious leader” (xxiv-xxv). Though his list seems reasonably accurate based on what we know at the moment, one feels somewhat uneasy about it. Surely if this kind of thematic list were used to decide whether a manuscript is Old Tibetan or not, it would lead to circular argument, where a limited number of Old Tibetan documents are used to justify a set of criteria that are in turn used to determine whether these are genuinely Old Tibetan sources.

Walter’s statement that only those manuscripts that can be proven to come from the Tibetan imperial period should be taken as evidence for the culture of that period, though perhaps too restrictive, should lead to a new focus on the [page 469] demonstrably early manuscripts. Thus it is problematic that Walter has chosen to ignore the manuscripts from the Tibetan forts of Miran and Mazar Tagh, a vast corpus of largely imperial-period evidence. He writes: “We omit from this survey the numerous fragments of documents found at Miran, etc., many of which are almost certainly Imperial-period, but from which little useful data about the beliefs of the time can be recovered” (xxvi).4 In fact, there are some fascinating insights into early Tibetan religious practice to be found in this material, and bracketing these sources out of his study has effect of skewing some of Walter’s conclusions. For example, his argument that literacy in Tibetan may be “the most enduring evidence of the early, intimate connection between Buddhism and imperial power in Tibet” (3), might appear a sensible conclusion based on the Dunhuang manuscripts, but the military documents from Miran and Mazar Tagh show widespread literacy in a clearly non-monastic context, as a necessity for communication among the Tibetan soldiery.5

On nearly every page in Buddhism and Empire one finds material for thought, discussion and, often, disagreement. This is no bad thing, but it makes a summary of the value of the whole work rather difficult. Therefore I will look briefly at one of Walter’s arguments – on the role of monks in the military. When Walter states that “monks serving in the military must have been common practice, not an exceptional occurrence” (5), he makes a very interesting argument, but we should take care to examine the sources on which this statement is based.

At the centre of Walter’s argument for monks serving in the military is a single manuscript now found in three parts: IOL Tib J 1360(A) and IOL Tib J 1360(B), and Pelliot tibétain 2218. Walter relies on Uray’s discussion of the term gondgon in this manuscript, especially his statement that all monks were ranked as gondgon. But in the article Walter cites, Uray actually cast doubt on F. W. Thomas’s belief that gondgon had a specific military significance. Furthermore, while Walter states that Uray and Thomas agreed on the other rank in the document, pong’phongs, which Thomas thought meant “archer,” Uray in fact disputed Thomas’s theory, suggesting instead the role of a keeper of stores and tender of campfires.6 Thus the evidence of this single manuscript does not inevitably lead us to assume that everybody ranked as gondgon (including monks) was required to perform military service. Similarly, Walter’s reference to an administrative unit called bendé tsenban de tshan in another manuscript probably does not support his case, as the tsentshan was an administrative [page 470] unit with a variety of functions, and did not necessarily imply military service for all those included within it.7

Another aspect of the monk’s service to the Tibetan imperium cited by Walter is in the production of hundreds of copies of the Prajñāpāramitā and Aparamitāyurnāma sūtras. Yet a close analysis of the scribal colophons to these manuscripts and the administrative documents concerning their production suggests that, to the contrary, it was not monks but ordinary lay people (and in Dunhuang, mostly Chinese lay people) who were conscripted to copy out these sūtras. In fact, this was probably one of the major factors in increasing literacy in written Tibetan outside of the monasteries.

Here a potentially interesting point is argued in an unsatisfactory way that casts doubt on the conclusion that Walter reaches, even when this conclusion may in itself be interesting and valid. In this case, Walter wants to argue that the Tibetan Buddhist sangha existed to serve the interest of the tsenpobtsan po and the nobility. Having argued that Buddhist monks served in the Tibetan army, Walter then moves on to medieval Europe:

That the Sangha in the Imperium existed at the behest of, and mostly to serve, the btsan-pos and the nobility shows much in common with the early history of monasticism in early medieval Europe. Nobility dominated them as well, and for the same reason: they were useful to political authority, and preserving the power of the nobility for the maintenance of a broader social order had great value. The monasteries of the Benedectine Order, Europe’s earliest, were begun by local nobles as places where they would pray, and where people would pray for the nobility (6).

The tendency, here and elsewhere in Buddhism and Empire, to move swiftly from analysing the use of a particular Old Tibetan term in a single manuscript to sweeping statements about other cultures can be disconcerting. While it often throws a new and interesting light upon the Tibetan material, there is an unresolved imbalance throughout the book between Walter’s own incisive philological analysis of Old Tibetan cultural motifs and an inevitably less critical incorporation of the work of scholars outside of his field.

Yet these comparisons undoubtedly open up new areas for investigation and discussion. Ultimately, the value of Buddhism and Empire – and it is certainly a valuable work – is that it provokes discussion about the religious and political aspects of early Tibetan history. It is a book that challenges, and thereby enlivens, the field, and the points of disagreement expressed in this review should be considered in this spirit – as a conversation, one among the many that this book will no doubt engender over the years to come.


[1] As R. A. Stein before him, Walter also points to non-Buddhist religious influences on early Tibetan culture (see for example 235-36, on “Hindu” influences).
[2] The warning of Louis de la Vallée Poussin, who studied the manuscripts in London during the First World War, might have been better heeded:

To sum up, I am certainly not tempted to overestimate the importance and antiquity of the present collection. It was natural that the discoveries in Central Asia should have been greeted with enthusiasm, and their linguistic and archaeological interest is in fact enormous; but there is no reason why everything from Central Asia should be very interesting (Louis de la Vallée Poussin, Catalogue of the Tibetan Manuscripts from Tun-Huang in the India Office Library [London: Oxford University Press, 1962], xvii-xviii).

One recent general study of early Tibetan history that does incorporate this new understanding of the manuscripts’ chronology is Matthew Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[3] Walter cites Jacob Dalton, Tom Davis, and Sam van Schaik, “Beyond Anonymity: Paleographic Analyses of the Dunhuang Manuscripts,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 3 (December 2007): 1-23, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T3106. See also my forthcoming study “Towards a Tibetan Paleography: A Preliminary Typology of Writing Styles in Early Tibet,” in Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field, ed. Jörg Quenzer and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch (Berlin: de Gruyter, forthcoming).
[4] In spite of this statement, Walter does use some of these documents in his arguments later in the book, but only insofar as they are embedded in the work of previous scholars.
[5] These manuscripts have been most closely studied by Tsuguhito Takeuchi. His discussion of Tibetan military organization based on these sources is in “The Tibetan Military System and Its Activities from Khotan to Lop-Nor,” in The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith, ed. Susan Whitfield (London: The British Libray, 2004), 50-56.
[6] See Geza Uray, “Notes on a Tibetan Military Document from Tun-Huang,” Acta Orientalia 12, nos. 1-3 (1961): 223-30. Walter’s discussion of göndgon and pong’phongs is on 228. See also F. W. Thomas, Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents Concern Chinese Turkestan, Part II: Documents (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1951), 67-71.
[7] On this manuscript, see Tsuguhito Takeuchi, Old Tibetan Manuscripts from East Turkestan in the Stein Collection of the British Library, vol. 2 (London: The British Library, 1998), no. 152.

Note Citation for Page

Sam van Schaik, “Review of Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet, by Michael Walter,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5723 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Review

Sam van Schaik, “Review of Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet, by Michael Walter,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 467-471, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5723 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

van Schaik, Sam. “Review of Buddhism and Empire: The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet, by Michael Walter.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 467-471. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5723 (accessed ).

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