Secular Morality, Village Law, and Buddhism in Tibetan Societies

By Pirie, Fernanda | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Secular Morality, Village Law, and Buddhism in Tibetan Societies


Pirie, Fernanda, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Many anthropological studies of Tibetan (1) communities place the practices and principles of Buddhism at the heart of their analyses of social forms. This is entirely consistent with the idea which is promoted by Tibetan elites and accepted by most of the laity that religious principles are of universal and encompassing significance. Such principles include moral schemes, most notably the 'three poisons' of anger, jealousy, and ignorance said to underlie all immoral behaviour. In this article I describe a Ladakhi community in which the people are strong adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and have unequivocally accepted the idea of karma but who do not regard their religion as a source of moral guidance. Moral judgements, including the condemnation of anger and antagonism, are frequently heard in the village and underlie its political and judicial organization. These are not, however, regarded as being based upon the dictates of Buddhism. The villagers do not understand Buddhism in an ethical way.

During the course of its development in Tibet, Buddhism has assimilated a multitude of local deities and rituals (Kapstein 2000; Snellgrove & Richardson 1968; Stein 1972 [1962]; Tucci 1980), and the Ladakhi villagers regard the spirits of their locality as being responsible for their fortunes--even more directly than are the deities of the Buddhist pantheon. Nevertheless, their condemnation of violence is not based on any idea that conflict disturbs the cosmos and its inhabitants. They regard anger as neither contravening the moral principles of Buddhism nor offending the inhabitants of the spirit world. Such findings cast doubt on the uncritical assumptions, apparent in many writings on the Tibetan region, that religious principles are relevant to the analysis of social forms. Nor can cosmological concerns unquestioningly be assumed to provide a foundation for social practices. My suggestion, in this article, is that these two issues are related.

Buddhism in Tibet

Buddhism was initially introduced into Tibet through the political patronage of the emperors Songsten Gampo and Trisong Detsen in the seventh and eighth centuries. It was imported from India as an already developed set of religious ideas and texts (Kapstein 2000; Lopez 1997: 10). Buddhism introduced a new theory of morality, based on the notion of virtues and vices (Macdonald 1971: 369, 387). This supplanted earlier Tibetan myths, which suggested an anthropomorphic connection between the cosmos and the order of the world through the mediation of the kings. It did not entirely eliminate such ideas, however (Macdonald 1971: 295, 354).

The collapse of the early Tibetan empire in the ninth century was followed by a period of political fragmentation, during which religious establishments and practitioners engaged in a succession of political rivalries and struggles. These culminated in the dominance of the Gelukpa sect and supremacy of the Dalai Lamas' regime over central Tibet in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries (Kapstein 2000). The doctrine of harmony between politics and religion (chos srid zung 'brel) was of fundamental importance to the legitimacy of this regime. (2) Dreyfus suggests that this principle provided 'a social framework that makes sense of some of the most particular characteristics of Tibetan culture', such as the political dominance of religious groups (1995: 118). Legal documents refer to the respective religious and civil duties of monks and peasants (chos dang srid kyi khrims) (Schuh 1984a: 227), and the legal codes used in Lhasa until the mid-twentieth century, the zhal lce bcu drug/bcu gsum, claimed to be based upon the 'sixteen pure human rules' (mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug) (the mi chos) (Schuh 1984b; Sorensen 1994: 35). These moral rules were attributed to Songsten Gampo, although they were almost certainly developed later by Tibetan leaders seeking religious legitimation for their rule (Kapstein 2000: 56-8; Uray 1972: 59). …

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Secular Morality, Village Law, and Buddhism in Tibetan Societies
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