The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism

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The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. By Jacob P. Dalton. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, x + 311 pages, ISBN 978-0-300-18796-0 (paper), $27.50; ISBN 978-0-300-15392-7 (cloth), $40.00.

The last several years have seen an increased interest in and publication on the topic of Buddhism and violence. Jacob P. Dalton's The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism provides great insight into the topic of ritual and violence in Tibetan Buddhism, largely because it brings to light new materials on violent ritual and its role throughout Tibetan history. Dalton's research is based on manuscripts from the Dunhuang library cave, thus offering details from previously un-translated texts. The Taming of the Demons offers the reader a balanced and nuanced examination of an ethically complex topic. As Dalton notes in his acknowledgments, "The subject of violence, and perhaps even more so religious violence, can elicit strong reactions" (ix). In The Taming of the Demons Dalton has undertaken a massive project, an investigation of the history of violent ritual and themes of violence in Tibetan Buddhism. What results is a comprehensive study that incorporates textual analysis and historical research that spans religious traditions and centuries of religious development.

The Taming of the Demons comprises an introduction, seven chapters, three appendices, and a glossary of Tibetan titles and terms. Chapter One presents the history of compassionate violence in Buddhism beginning with early Buddhist conceptions, particularly interpretations within Abhidharma and Vinaya literature, then moves to a discussion of the range of Mahayana perspectives. Dalton offers textual support for the various opinions on violence from a variety of Buddhist literature, including the Jatakas, the Upayakausalya Sutra, and the Bodhisattvabhumi. By highlighting the various pre-tantric positions regarding violence, Chapter One recognizes that "... the necessary doctrinal pieces were in place" (29). Pre-tantric literature included numerous examples of moral and immoral violence, often focusing upon the intention behind the violent act. The subtle distinction between moral and immoral violence is discussed in relationship to the Rudra myth, the central text for Dalton's overall argument. Dalton argues, "These two kinds of violence--one wise and compassionate and the other ignorant and demonic--are difficult to distinguish, and yet if the Rudra myth tells us anything, their differentiation is crucial to the tantric Buddhist path" (11).

Chapter Two offers a glimpse into the so-called "dark age" of Tibet. Traditional Tibetan history depicts this period of fragmentation, the period from the mid-ninth to the late tenth century, as an era in which Buddhism was persecuted and no longer thrived in Tibet. Recent scholarship has questioned these traditional accounts and based on new materials from Dunhuang, this period of fragmentation seems to have been one in which there was "a wide range of creative changes and developments" and nonmonastic Buddhism continued to thrive (46). Dalton argues convincingly that, "The forms Buddhism took during these 'dark' years may have been distortions in the view of later Tibetans, but these same corruptions were fundamental in shaping Tibetan Buddhism" (46). A major assertion of the book is the importance of ritual violence, sorcery, and demonology in the Tibetan view of history (48). These themes are cemented during the period of fragmentation as the nonmonastic tantric traditions gain traction in Tibet and are evidenced in the Dunhuang texts (59).

Chapter Three introduces the reader to Dunhuang textual material that includes a "liberation rite" (sgrol ba). Dalton provides a translation and description of the rite followed by a comparative textual analysis with the Kalika Purana's "Blood Chapter". Dalton highlights the pan-Indian development of tantra and the shared characteristics of Hindu and Buddhist practices, concluding that the liberation rite from the Dunhuang manuscript "may represent an example of such intersectarian sharing . …