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Workshop: Indigenous Elements in Tibetan Religions, February 15, 2014

Workshop: Indigenous Elements in Tibetan Religions, February 15, 2014

Martin Lavicka10 Jan 2014Leave a comment


Date: February 15, 2014 (Saturday) 

Venue: Palacký University, Olomouc, Department of Asian Studies, Třída Svobody 26, Room: 3.40

Registration: here

Registration deadline: February 10, 2014

For practical information regarding transportation and the exact location of the Department of Asian Studies please visit here.

Detailed Program can be downloaded here.


Tibetans are currently one of the significant minorities within the People’s Republic of China. Tibetan societies are well-known for their specific characteristics including their strong religiosity. The religious ideas of Tibetans are generally considered to be permeated by Mahayana Buddhism. This is combined with tantric elements (so called vajrayana).

Though such first glance this observation remains valid, a number of scholars have pointed out that in addition to the Indians, the Tibetans were not immune to influences from the other neighbouring countries of Central Asia and China. There are also elements of their religiosity which could be seen as autochthonous. Though observable, such constituents of Tibetan religiosity are extremely difficult to discern and analyze as such.

Tibetan societies were under the strong dominance of the Buddhist clergy. This highest strata of Tibetan society saw Indian Buddhism as a primary source of their religion. India became the subject of veneration and was worshiped as a “holy land” (Tib. ‘phags yul). It led to ascribing the origin of number of non-Indian elements of Tibetan religions to India by Buddhist monks. Buddhist clergy also enjoyed almost an exclusive position in production of written texts.

For some critical scholars, however, this does not correspond to reality.  Such non-Indian features are still strongly present in the Tibetan society on a variety of levels. This might concern the various disciplines included under the label of Buddhism as medical science, astrology, tantric rituals, etc. Many indigenous elements can be also discerned among the rather silent religious ideas of commoners. The term “nameless religion” was  coined by Rolf Stein for them.

Of particular interest is the Bon religion of Tibet. Although it had been frequently labelled as the “animist” and “shamanistic” religion of Tibet in the past, starting with the middle of the 20th century, it was sufficiently proved that such a statement does not coincide with reality. The origin of the Bon religion is still the subject of research and scholarly debates. The monastic tradition of Bon (so-called “eternal Bon”, Tib. g.yung drung bon), which represents the Bon religion nowadays, became organized as religious system probably only from the 10th century onward. The Buddhist monks often ascribe almost all the non-Indian elements to Bon. Yet, on the one hand, monastic Bon evidently represents another sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Its main doctrinal concepts, its rituals and genres of literature are for the most part parallel to those of other Buddhist sects in Tibet. On the other hand, the fact that followers of Bon see the origin of their religion not exclusively in India and connect it with the mythical founder Shenrab Miwo (dated by its believers long before the live of Buddha Shakyamuni), makes them an important source for research of indigenous religious ideas. Among the rich textual and ritual tradition of Bon, certain ancient features of Tibetan religiosity can be  discerned.


Detailed Program

The workshop Indigenous Elements in Tibetan Religions will be an opportunity to discuss recent research within the above mentioned fields. Besides Daniel Berounsky and geshe Nyima Woser Choekhortshang of Charles University of Prague, it attempts to bring together a small group of leading foreign scholars within the studies of Bon religion and related topics.

  • 9.50 – 10.00

Welcome speech

Morning session chairman: Charles Ramble

  • 10.00 – 10.30 

Gnyan po g.yu rtse, an untameable Mgo log mountain? by Katia Buffetrille (École pratique des hautes études, CRCAO, Paris)

Until now, all research on important sacred mountains has shown that they have undergone a more or less strong process of Buddhicization. This is the case for A myes rma chen mountain, Kha ba dkar po, Rtsib ri, Tsa ri, etc. In contrast Gnyan po g.yu rtse appears as an exception since the indigenous concept of yul lha gzhi bdag appears to be the only one that can be applied to this particular case. This paper will discuss the status of this mountain among the Mgo log and how it is currently integrated within the framework of the Chinese tourism industry.

  • 10.30 – 11.00

Does lde’u mean “riddle” in the list of sgrung lde’u and bon? by Nyima Woser Choekhortshang (Charles University, Prague)

It is well-known that number of Buddhist chronicles mention that until the reign of Srongtsen Gampo the governance in Tibet was maintained through sgrung lde’u and bon. The lde’u was usually translated as “riddle”, but in my paper I would like to suggest different understanding of this term.

  • 11.00 – 11.30

 Coffee Break

  • 11.30 – 12.00

Gold Drink and Breath Bags: Non-Indic and Indigenous, But Not Just Indigenous by Dan Martin (University of Jerusalem, Israel)

In this presentation we are supposed to discuss certain items and rites of Tibetan religious culture, starting from the position that they are in fact non-Indic in their origins (not an easy assessment).  Starting from there, we would go on to consider if they might be part of some wider, primarily Central Asian (Turko-Mongolic), areal phenomenon.  I hope we will arrive at some conclusions.  Can something be both indigenous and shared with neighbouring cultures?

  • 12.00 – 12.30 

Notes on the evolution of g.yang ’gugs (“summoning of well-being”) ritual by Daniel Berounský (Charles University, Prague)

References on g.yang apear already in Dunhuang documents. There are also several surviving Bonpo ritual texts containing origination myths on it, in which the ritual tools used in the ritual are produced from the body of a miraculous deer. Not many rituals in their later Buddhist adaptations retain the importance of the “exposition myth”, but this is the case of g.yang ‘gugs ritual. This paper will introduce number of such remade mythical narrations on the origins of the ritual with hope that some more general features on the process of incorporation of the indigenous elements can resurface.

  • 12.30 – 14.00

Lunch Break

Afternoon session chairman: Dan Martin

  • 14.00 – 14.30

Indigenous Tibetan Ritual as a Legal Process by Charles Ramble (EPHE Paris, Oxford University)

The fragmentary information available to us about Tibetan law suggests that the aim of the legal process was primarily to achieve resolution through mediation. The efficacy of the process was dependent on two factors: the invocation of precedent, and the skill of the mediator in situating the dispute at hand in the context of previous successful resolutions. To this extent, the operation of the legal process is reminiscent of the principles of the indigenous form of Tibetan ritual known as gto. An essential component in this type of the ritual is the charter myth, called smrang, which the priest recites. The smrang recounts the archetypal case (but more often, a list of cases) of the successful performance of this ritual, and aligns the here-and-now situation with this mythic record of achievement. A comparison of the structure and content of a number of recently-discovered legal and ritual manuscripts, as well as the evolving figure of gShen rab mi bo, underscores the role of the priest as mediator, charged with the essential task of resolving conflict.

  • 14.30 – 15.00

Some Perspectives on Indigenous Elements in rNying ma and Bon by Robert Mayer (Oxford University)

Discussions of indigenous elements within rNying ma often focus on specific items and particular texts, and I shall mention some of these in passing, using materials from the Gnag rabs text from Dga’-thang bum-pa. However, there might even be grounds for arguing that the entire mythical structuring of the rNying ma tradition as a whole is itself profoundly shaped by indigenous thinking. Most of my presentation will focus on the latter topic.

  • 15.00 – 15.30

Coffee Break

  • 15.30 – 16.00 

“Indigenous” vis-à-vis “foreign” in the genesis of Tibet’s ancestral culture  by Roberto Vitali (LTWA Dharamsala)

Rather than concentrating on a specific ritual or a religious formulation to establish whether or not it has indigenous traits, in this presentation I attempt a macro historical analysis of the pale traces preserved in the literature concerning the people behind the creation of Tibet’s early culture, whose features remain widely unknown, and the process engendered at the time.

  • 16.00 – 16.30

Discussion 

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