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The Return of a Noble Young Lady, 71 5. Proper Tibetan spellings are given according to the Wylie transcription Wylie in the notes, in the bibliography, and in the list of Tibetan spellings of names and terms. This page intentionally left blank Travels in the Netherworld This page intentionally left blank 1 To Hell and Back Though warned by the divine messengers, Full many are the negligent, And people may sorrow long indeed Once gone down to the lower world.

But when by the divine messengers Good people here in this life are warned, They do not dwell in ignorance But practise well the noble Dhamma. So she sat by the Sacred Way reading prayers, and pious pilgrims gave her alms. Tibetans always respect a miracle, though they are not unduly surprised by it. What was the nature and circumstances of their experience? What category of 4 travels in the netherworld person in Tibetan society was inspired or motivated to have such an experience?

Download Travels In The Netherworld Buddhist Popular Narratives Of Death And The Afterlife In Tibet

Were there notable distinctions between levels of social status or between the experiences of monks and those of the laity? And what can we learn about popular religion in Tibetan society from the details of their experiences? Throughout this book I will consider these questions and offer a few possible responses. Still, we may ask whether such prohibitions have anything to do with gender distinctions or discrimination?

And what do descriptions of the return-from-death experience in the Tibetan literature reveal about popular perceptions of death and the afterlife? The literature, moreover, offers little or no evidence of how these possibly shaman-like individuals were perceived by the society in which they all lived. They are, moreover, less interested in the achievement of Buddhist enlightenment professed in monastic textbooks as the only true goal of religious endeavor.

They are, however, rich in detail about everyday anxieties surrounding death and about common beliefs concerning the world beyond. The present study is meant to provide fresh perspectives on Tibetan religious culture more broadly in hope that these insights may help to encourage even more nuanced approaches to the study of Buddhism in Tibetan society. Tibetan Popular Religion It is my general contention that much scholarly work in Tibetan studies has tended to rely on neatly formulated conceptual paradigms and static twodimensional models of Tibetan religion that fail to communicate the multiplicity of Tibetan religious life.

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For it is only by widening our focus in this way that we can begin to shed better light on the multi-tiered landscape of premodern Tibetan Buddhist society. Moreover, in revising accepted models for understanding Tibetan Buddhism to include not only the professionally and the extraordinarily religious but also the to hell and back 7 ordinary practitioners as well, we may also begin to recognize certain common suppositions shared by all Tibetan religious groups, lay and celibate, learned and illiterate, female and male.

In almost every case, such endeavors were aimed at better health, increased wealth, and future happiness, whether in this or the next life. Some scholars, inspired in part by the early work of Melford Spiro, have attempted to resolve the polarity dilemma created by the two-tiered approach by focusing on the different orientations motivating religious practice. The ethical goal is concerned with virtuous action and karmic merit, and is associated also with the activities of the monks.

The pragmatic goal, the pursuit of health, wealth, 8 travels in the netherworld and future happiness, is characterized broadly as the sole concern of ordinary laypersons.

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Although on a formal doctrinal and structural level this three-tiered model works well to highlight certain theoretical distinctions in Buddhism and a few of the possible psychological motivations of religious practice, it ultimately fails to resolve the polarity dilemma. If in the case of Tibetan monks, for example, we clearly discern in their daily religious observances primarily a pragmatic orientation, do we really learn anything about the religious life of monks by forcing them into the soteriological or ethical category?

Likewise, we gain little insight into the religious life of Tibetan laypeople if we also insist on assigning their motivations to such rigid categories. In this way, we may be better able to remain attentive to the complexities of Tibetan social-religious structures without unnecessarily restricting religious attitudes and activities to any one social group. First and foremost, not all monks were celibate.


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Tibetan society, profoundly embedded as it was within a tantric framework, recognized many types of professional, noncelibate Buddhist clerics. The majority of these religious professionals are referred to by the term lama, loosely akin to guru in Indian tantric traditions. The same must be said of the Tibetan monastery dgon-pa , which is best understood broadly as a type of Buddhist institution that could and frequently did shelter not only celibate monks but also an assortment of lay and noncelibate religious professionals.

Indeed, there were as many illiterate monks in Tibet as there were unschooled village peasants, and in turn there were more than a few unlettered villagers who rose to prominence as the best of scholars. My suggestion, then, is not that we do away with binary distinctions altogether as if we could , but that if we insist on using them to express something about Tibetan Buddhism and society, we do so based on categories that we have some evidence for in history and that the culture itself has recognized or would recognize e. Ideas and perceptions are ambiguous and variable, often logically inconsistent with one another, and not always quite what the books say they should be.

This results in discrepancies, and, very often, tensions, between the ideals of the tradition and its practical reality. In the context of distinctions between gradations of religious literacy, for instance, we will assume here that the learned among religious practitioners, regardless of their status as monks or laypeople, would have had more direct access to the formal doctrines of the tradition through written sources and thus were more likely to assimilate many of the details of those formal written doctrines into their own expressions about this world and the world beyond.

We have to keep in mind, however, that when viewed alongside the textbooks, their ideas might still appear to us a bit blurry. Likewise, we must assume that the conceptions of the unlettered religious practitioners, ideas picked up along the way from the teachings of lamas and conversations at home and in village circles, would have been, of course, even less formal but probably still conforming generally to the basic principles and values of the received tradition. One cannot argue effectively for the presence of two separate and distinct cultures in Tibet, one clerical and the other popular, because there really was no disjunction between popular belief and monastic culture in premodern Tibetan society.

The point, then, is really not to set off against one another two distinct cultures, the elite and the popular, privileging one over the other. At every turn, it is crucial that we remain critically attentive to contrasts and shades of disparity, to the conceptual textures, contradictions, and so forth. The overall tone is realistic and unaffected, the voices autobiographical. There is in these narratives an emotional frankness, an intimacy of expression and a real sense of human frailty that in substance and style bears little resemblance to hagiographical literature.

Download Travels In The Netherworld Buddhist Popular Narratives Of Death And The Afterlife In Tibet

To be sure, we need only to observe a consistent stylistic peculiarity of these texts. The overwhelming frequency of homophonic errors in spelling, for example, points to the likelihood that the original writers responsible for recording the stories transcribed the written words by means of the ear rather than the eye. In most cases, the protagonist of the story, who may be a monk or a layperson, male or female, is struck unexpectedly by an illness that leads to a quick death.

The individual is not immediately aware that he or she has died and is confused when relatives and friends are seen performing the memorial services or going about their normal business. Confusion turns to anger as the deceased perceives that the group is ignoring his or her attempts to communicate with them. In truth, as we know from the doctrinal literature, the living cannot see or hear the dead.

My examination of the common ideas and values about death and the afterlife expressed in the biographies of these typically polarized individuals will demonstrate some of the inadequacies of the conventional two-tiered approach and should better illustrate not only some of the unities but also the diversities within certain categories of Tibetan Buddhist life. In the process, I attempt to provide some answers to the questions raised at the beginning of this chapter. Other readers, suspecting that the texts do not describe actual experiences, might instead be inclined to read these colorful narratives as purely imaginative or rhetorical.

The crucial point is that the narratives of those experiences, even if purely imaginative, do in fact tell us something about certain Tibetan beliefs about death, the afterlife, karmic retribution, and so on. Furthermore, to read those beliefs as merely rhetorical, to treat them all as nothing more than conventionalized tropes, as somehow referring to phenomena less than real, is a tactic I have also tried to avoid in this study. More important, these ideas and experiences had moral force for Tibetans precisely because they believed them.

I feel it necessary also to respond outright to what seems to be a fairly natural impulse in us all, namely, the desire to compare. My general opinion is that comparative analyses of Tibetan Buddhism, though potentially insightful, are also risky and can unnecessarily smooth over the textures of history and localized tradition. I leave it to readers to discover for themselves what fruitful connections may be found among the varied samplings of this distinctive literary genre across cultures.

The Texts This critical study of the range of popular Buddhist ideas about death and the afterlife revealed in Tibetan accounts of otherworld journeys has required close reading of a wide variety of Tibetan and Buddhist literary sources, including canonical works, medical treatises, yogic manuals, and ritual texts.

Shayne Legassie,

All translations of these and other related sources are my own unless otherwise noted. An incomplete cursive manuscript reprinted in with no proper title page or colophon.


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A high 4. She was born in the seventeenth century in southern Tibet and there are a number of versions of her story from different regions. Biography of Karma Wangzin K1. Biography of Karma Wangzin K2. A manuscript from western Tibet reprinted in Biography of Karma Wangzin K3. A third manuscript with the same simple title reprinted in from the private library of Lhakang Lama. This is a modern typeset edition from Bhutan printed in in standard western book format.

go here In my discussions throughout the following chapters, I have chosen to mirror the narrative tone of these stories and to quote, sometimes at great length, direct passages from the texts themselves. My reason for doing this is to convey a sense of the directness, intimacy, and vividness of description found in these stories.

Their tribal group was likely small and made up of several separate households or encampments sgar. No member of her immediate family was professionally religious or formally belonged to a monastery as monk or nun. She relates that after sixteen days of battling this sickness taking medicines and having numerous healing rites performed, she attempted to discover its cause by divination mo and by examining her horoscope rtsis.