2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 163

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Memory, Narrative, Community: Reinventing the Past in Tibetan Art and Text

Organizer: Carl S. Yamamoto, Towson University, USA

Chair: Frances Garrett, University of Toronto, Canada

This cross-disciplinary panel will focus on the multiplicity of ways Tibetan communities and individuals have made sense of the present, competed for legitimacy, forged bonds of solidarity, and renegotiated identity by cultivating a relationship to the past. Tibetan narratives—both visual and literary—connect personages and events of the present to authoritative or charismatic counterparts from a shared past, enlivening that past and continually reinventing it for the present. By drawing upon textual and visual materials dating from the tenth to the twentieth century from five different sites across the span of the Tibetan plateau, the panel addresses a variety of ways in which memory and tradition are dispersed and transmitted in the Tibetan cultural realm. The individual papers look at the bonds created by Tibetan religious communities through lineage stories and biographical narratives; the deployment of miraculous events to legitimate authority; the manner in which literate elites have tied themselves to the prestige of canonical Buddhist texts and images; strategies used to reimagine historical narratives for the present; and ways individual agents have negotiated complex issues of religious identity through the mediations of historical memory. The panel will follow a creative format that encourages a lively dialogue among participants and with the audience. To this end, papers will be precirculated among panelists and posted online so that they can be read in advance by panel attendees. For the presentation, panelists will briefly summarize their main points, leaving the remainder of the time for discussion between panelists and audience.

An Ordinary Life? Zhuchen's Autobiography and the Dilemmas of Emulating the Buddha
Nancy G. Lin, Vanderbilt University, USA

While it may be said that all Tibetan Buddhist auto/biographies are to some extent modeled after the Buddha’s life stories, the actual dynamics of adapting such paradigmatic narratives have scarcely been explored. In this paper I analyze the autobiography of Zhuchen Tsültrim Rinchen (1697-1774), scholar-monk of Dergé, an eastern Tibetan principality in present-day Sichuan. Zhuchen was by no means average—he was chaplain to the Dergé court, an editor of the Buddhist canon, and an accomplished polymath—but nevertheless professes in his autobiography to be an “ordinary” person. At the same time, his autobiography is structurally modeled on the life of the Buddha, and he draws significant comparisons between the lives of buddhas and bodhisattvas and the circumstances of his own. Focusing on his birth, family, and early life, I explore the dialectic of ordinariness and extraordinariness in Zhuchen’s writing. I argue that Zhuchen invokes by turns doubt and humility, as well as confidence and assertions of scriptural learning, in grappling with the weight of the past and with the challenges of emulating the Buddha in personal terms. In doing so, Zhuchen engages with collective memories of paradigmatic Buddhist lives to make sense of his particular place within the Dergé court and among the religious and cultural elite of eighteenth-century Tibet.

Displaying Cosmopolitanism: Painting the Former Lives of the Buddha in 14th century Tibet
Sarah A. Richardson, University of Toronto, Canada

The set of mural paintings of the former lives of the Buddha (Jataka) at the Monastery of Shalu in the Tsang region represent both an imagined past and open a rare window into the visual world of 14th century Tibet. These painted and inscribed narratives showing the Bodhisattva’s former lives as kings, merchants, a dancer and a monkey create a rich space for displaying the known and idealized world. Throughout the paintings "otherness" is purposefully and usefully represented through costumes, architecture and painting styles that reveal real knowledge and experience of peoples and places across central, south and east Asia. What did it mean to display this visual panoply of difference in the paintings? Does this merely reflect the knowledge and origins of the artists working at Shalu or can we also see this as part of an active strategy of display? Arguing that these paintings of an ancient past were made actively “present” through visual and material terms, I will discuss ways that visual tropes of “otherness” enabled the conspicuous display of a pan-Asian cosmopolitanism in style and content. These elements, I will argue, were being not only displayed but re-combined, linking the authority of the temple to a sense of a current cosmopolitan elite culture. This display strengthened the authority and authenticity of the rulers of Shalu, who used the space opened up by narrative art depicting the imagined past to celebrate and advertise their close ties and direct patronage from the Mongol Yuan rulers of China.

Reimagining Tibetan Historiography on Gongpa Rabsal
Nicole Willock, Old Dominion University, USA

Although Gongpa Rabsal is revered as one of the great Tibetan Buddhist luminaries, his dates remain one of the unsolved mysteries in Tibetology. Gongpa Rabsal is widely believed to have “rekindled the Dharma from the ashes” by preserving the Mūlasarvāstivādin tradition of monastic discipline (Skt. vinaya). Buddhism had been persecuted in Central Tibet in the mid-late 9th century forcing the Three Great Scholars to flee to the remote mountain of Dentik (now located in far eastern Qinghai Province of the People’s Republic of China) bringing with them texts and the Mūlasarvāstivādin ordination lineage. The Three Great Scholars then ordained Gongpa Rabsal, who in turn initiated others, most notably Lumé effectively reviving Buddhism in Tibet in the 11th century. Despite widespread agreement on this course of events, the large gap in chronology has sparked debates on what really happened when. As opposed to asserting the realness of any one historical narrative, this paper argues that the disjointed biographical transmissions open up the possibility of reimagining how the past was dispersed and transmitted for the purpose of community building in the present. Narratives endeavoring to date and position Gongpa Rabsal in historical time are found in 19th and 20th century Tibetan-language histories from eastern Tibet, in particular A Religious History of Domé (Tib. Mdo smad chos ‘byung) and A Catalogue to Dentik Monastery (Tib. Dan tig dkar chag). This paper questions the effect these biographical narratives had in shaping community identity in the new and changing reality of eastern Tibet from 1850 to 1950.

"This Is the Lineage of Blessings": Lama Zhang and the Charismatic Articulation of Tradition
Carl S. Yamamoto, Towson University, USA

Buddhist communities have long used the biological trope of "lineage" as a way of linking themselves to an authoritative past—as a way of creating a "tradition"—but the notion has played an especially important role in the formation of sectarian traditions in Tibet. This paper looks at the manner in which one key religious/political figure from the "Tibetan Renaissance"—Lama Zhang, founder of the Tselpa Kagyüpa religious order—forged an influential model of tradition-building based, not on the continuity of texts or doctrines, but on the charismatic mastery of the tantric lama. Under this model, the lama was seen as the powerful figure who, through his charismatic mastery of space, time, and discourse, was capable of pulling together dispersed lineages into unified traditions that bound sectarian groups to a meaningful past. I will argue that this was especially significant in the twelfth century—a time of acute crisis, when Central Tibet was emerging from a "time of fragmentation" (sil bu'i dus). Zhang's model of charismatic tradition-building offered a workable way of healing the social, political, and religious divisions of the period, and not only enabled the Tselpa Kagyüpas to rule successfully over Central Tibet for a century and a half, but also put into play a new political-religious synthesis that would provide a template for future religious rulers of Lhasa—not the least of whom being the future Dalai Lamas.

The Memory of the Miraculous: Yogic Power in the Religious Biography of Drupwang Amgon Rinpoche
Annabella C. Pitkin, Barnard College, Columbia University, USA

This paper examines accounts of miracles in the recent (2004) religious biography of the influential mid-twentieth century Drikung Kagyu meditation master, Drupwang Amgon Rinpoche. I explore these episodes as examples of a narrative technique that balances the attractiveness of (potentially disruptive) individual charisma against the tradition’s concerns with continuity. Miracle narratives in this biography highlight Amgon Rinpoche’s distinctiveness and add to his importance. Miracles here also address soteriological concerns concerning religious efficacy on the part of individual practitioners and for the lineage more generally. Amgon Rinpoche’s miracles moreover assimilate him onto the model of great yogis of the lineage, and in this sense help to make him a human link between past and recent present. Nevertheless, miracle displays in general form an ambiguous category of Buddhist behavior, apparently repudiated by many authorities including the Buddha, and raising problematic questions of power, self-aggrandizement and manipulation. Miracles in this sense may disturb the continuity of the lineage even as they potentially add to its luster. Such tensions are complicated here by the ambiguities of present day Tibetan circumstances, circumstances that form the backdrop to this biography. This backdrop, though often only implied, renders depiction of miracles in this text of particular interest. Amgon Rinpoche’s biography articulates a contemporary Drikung Kagyu communal identity, and often does so by linking the present day with the celebrated Kagyu past, precisely through the disruptive persistence of miracle-doing yogis.