Week 11

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Week 11: Avalokiteśvara & Deity Cults


Deities are central to Tibetan Religion, whether the transcendental Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the mundane cast of spirits and demons that pervaded the Tibetan plateau, or the hybrid Dharma protectors. No deity was more important in the history of Tibet than Avalokiteśvara spyan ras gzigs), the Bodhisattva of compassion who was probably the most important Buddhist deity all across Asia. While Avalokiteśvara was an Indian deity, he was deeply assimilated in Tibet in almost every way. Avalokiteśvara came to be inscribed into the very fabric of Tibet first as the Bodhisattva responsible for the "snowy lands" as his special "training field" ('dul ba'i zhing), and whom emanated as a monkey who spawned the Tibetan clans in the beginning of the Tibetan people, as the first great emperor of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, who created the Tibetan polity, as a long list of famous Lamas who fashioned Tibetan religion, and as the Dalai Lama incarnational line presiding over the later day Ganden Palace state. In this context, a rich body of narratives - mythic and historic - developed around the figure of Avalokiteśvara. Thus the imaginal formation of Tibet in the Renaissance period, including the romantic cult of the Empire, was inextricably tied to the evolving cult of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. We will thus focus on the romantic cult of the Tibetan emperors, and issues pertaining to the integration of religious and political power during this time period - Maṇḍalas, authority and tantric polity. In this context, we will deepen our inquiry into the nature of authority in Tibet and its relationship to tantric ideology; these two obviously merge at a much later date when the Dalai Lama becomes the figurehead for religio-political control in Central Tibet as an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara , a combination already prefigured in the mythos of the Tibetan emperors as incarnations of the same deity. In addition, Avalokiteśvara was the center of a much broader deity cult with distinctive rituals, contemplative pratices, philosophical texts, temples, and much else. Thus we will also look at just what a deity cult is in all its facets.

Required Readings

The Blue Annals Fragment #14: A Section Concerning Mahākarunika (sic?) (i.e. Avalokiteśvara) and such traditions as the Vajravalai (sic?); Dum bu #14 (1173-1233): thugs rje chen po'i skor dang, rdo rje phreng ba sogs kyi skabs

Secondary scholarship

Required reading

Kapstein, Matthew (2000). The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jackson, Roger (1997). external link: “A Fasting Ritual”. In Religions of Tibet in Practice (editor Donald Lopez), pp. 271-292 ; Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Requested for Toolkit E-reserve this semester.

Gyatso, Janet (1997). external link: “An Avalokitesvara Sadhana”. In Religions of Tibet in Practice (editor Donald Lopez), pp. 266-270 ; Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Requested for Toolkit E-reserve this semester.

external link: The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies: This is Sorenson’s translation of the Selwé Melong (gsal-ba'i me-long; Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies) which includes the translator's introduction (pp. 1-37), two short chapters (pp. 111-124), and the later section on Songtsen Gampo, the two Princesses, and the formation of the two temples in Lhasa. The two short chapters are about how Avalokitesvara brought Tibetans onto the Buddhist path, and how he transformed himself into the "King of Horses" and benefitted beings. It has extensive footnotes relating the Selwé Melong to the earlier Mani bka'-'bum and its redactors. It's a bit later (14th), but it's good because it shows how quickly the Padmasambhava mythos is starting to crystallize, and the triumverate of Songtsen Gampo (as well as Trisong Detsen), Padmasambhava, and the mani…

Alexander Studholme's external link: Origins of Om Manipadme Hum. intro and first chapter.

Optional: Toni Huber's review of Sorenson.

Additional Bibliographical Resources

  1. Additional Bibliography - Tibetan/Buddhist studies Week 11
  2. Additional Bibliography - Theoretical Week 11

Weekly Student Generated Content

Discussion Questions