Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity

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In his forward to this volume, Orville Schell quotes Mao Zedong on contradictions and the unity of opposites, thereby introducing two important points made in this significant book; contemporary Buddhist practice in Tibet can only be understood in relation to policies promulgated in Beijing, and this relationship is complex, creating paradoxes and conundrums for Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese policymakers alike. This book is remarkably accessible to the interested lay reader and yet informative and vital for specialists in religion, Tibet, Buddhism, and China. By including ethnographic examples of Geluk, Nyingma and Kagyu Buddhist practice in Sichuan and Quinghai provinces, as well as the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the editors demonstrate the dangers of making generalizations about contemporary Tibetan Buddhist practice, but also manage to adduce overarching trends and dynamics that help one to understand local situations.

Matthew Goldstein's ethnographic case is Drepung, the world's largest monastery at the time of Chinese invasion, which he describes as an example (before 1950) of "mass monasticism," in which "scholar monks" were a minority, and where even illiterates and "punk monks" (ldab-ldob) had their places. Goldstein's detailed analysis of transformations in Drepung's financial resources reveal the difficulties of ever restoring this institution to anything like its former size. More compelling is his discussion of the choices that face those monks inducted into the new scholar-oriented Drepung, many of whom feel they must choose between agitating for the political liberation of Tibet or the preservation of Tibetan Buddhist institutions. The Chinese government, on the other hand, also supports Drepung as part of their newly embraced multinational conception of China's cultural patrimony and display of religious tolerance, but recognize that monasteries can also foster organized insurrection, and thus prevent Drepung's return to its former glory.

David Germano's chapter focuses on Khenpo Jikphun, a charismatic Nyingma lama and Terton, or "treasure finder," who has revitalized the tradition that scriptures ("treasures," or Ter) "have been concealed, physically and mystically in Tibetans' bodies and the body of Tibet herself for the sake of future generations." Jikphun's movement has negotiated Chinese policies in creative ways that sidestep many of the problems encountered at Drepung, "surreptitiously assert[ing] Tibetan national identity and symbolic community while simultaneously engaging in institutional renewal without Chinese prohibition."

Melvyn Kapstein examines the revival of a pilgrimage, where, as at Drepung, participants articulated the need to repress political agitation for the independence of Tibet for the sake of Tibetan cultural revival. Kapstein attempts to account for the "relative coherence of Tibetan culture" in the face of the highly localized particularities that typify Tibetan religious observances, proposing that the answer lies in the "fractal" nature of localization itself rather than the nature of the Tibetan state.

Finally, Lawrence Epstein and Peng Wenbin examine a folk festival in Qinghai in which the successful resolution of a ninth century border struggle between Tibet and China is commemorated. Here contradictions of a different sort emerge when the concerns of young and old participants are compared: the youth finding satisfaction in ritually asserting their ethic identity but resisting ritual elements that Chinese policy identifies as "backward."

In his conclusion, Kapstein reminds us that Tibetan nationalism (as distinct from national identity) is a relatively new phenomenon, and that many of the contradictions that both Chinese policymakers and Tibetan Buddhists face entail creative negotiations between preserving cultural identity and exacerbating political repression. This fascinating volume shows that these negotiations result in transformations of religious practices even as they are revived.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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