Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, Money, Enlightenment

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, Money, Enlightenment

Article excerpt

The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China: Charisma, Money, Enlightenment. By Dan Smyer Yu. London: Routledge, 2012, xi + 222 pages, ISBN 978-0-415-57532-4 (cloth), $138.00.

According to Dan Smyer Yu's informative new book, the "marketing era" of Tibetan Buddhism has begun (4). Charismatic Tibetan lamas and urban intellectuals, in concert with upper-class Chinese devotees and Western enthusiasts, are working to revitalize Tibetan religion and culture in contemporary socialist China, against the backdrop of economic globalization and religious commercialization. While Western observers typically lament the irrevocable loss of traditional Tibetan cultural institutions under the weight of modern Chinese economic expansion, both Tibetan Buddhists and Han Chinese converts are taking full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the growing market economy to recast Tibetan Buddhism as antidote to the "spiritual crisis" of post-Maoist China. This is the story told in Smyer Yu's The Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in China, which focuses on the revivalist efforts of Chinese and Tibetan adepts of the Tibetan Buddhist Nyingma sect in and around the Kham and Amdo regions of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, respectively. Based on extensive fieldwork in these regions as well as in several urban Chinese centers, Smyer Yu examines the new forms of Tibetan Buddhism that have developed through and within the growing counter-culture of Sino-Tibetan cyberspace. Smyer Yu illustrates how this Tibetan Buddhist revival is "trans-cultural, cross-regional, tech-savvy, conversant with modern science and familiar with the economic system" (5). And on this last count especially, he emphasizes how global market dynamics have both contributed to the growth of Tibetan Buddhism in China and led to the commodification and thus corruption of Tibetan Buddhist charisma.

After an introductory chapter that sets this mise-en-scene of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism, Chapters two and three focus largely on the Weberian concept of "charisma" and how it is complicated by the case studies that Smyer Yu examines. In Weber's classic formulation, charismatic authority derives from the unique force of personality displayed by individual leaders, both religious and secular, which draws crowds of followers and forms the basis for the development of traditions and institutions. With the rise of these institutions, then, the personal charisma of their long-departed founders becomes "routinized"--calcified into laws and dogmas that lead to the predominance of "traditional" and "legal" forms of authority. Smyer Yu argues that in several respects the case of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism contradicts these classic Weberian theories. In Chapter two, "Tulkus, genuine charisma, and its transmissible interiority in Kham and Amdo," Smyer Yu emphasizes how Tibetan charisma functions as a "collective religio-spiritual phenomenon" (30). For one, given that the spiritual power of tulkus (reincarnate lamas) derives not from their individual personalities but from their claimed lines of reincarnation, Smyer Yu argues that Weber's charisma needs modification to account for the trans-personal, karmic trajectory of tulku authority. Secondly, integrating an avowedly Durkheimian perspective, Smyer Yu describes Tibetan charisma as a "collective representation" of the "totemic bond" between lamas and their followers (36). In other words, a lama's charismatic persona is (in part) created and reinforced by his community of followers, as exemplified in the case of Sangye Tsering Rinpoche, an eminent Nyingma tulku of the Smyoshil Monastery in eastern Kham. This fact, Smyer Yu maintains, gives cause to re-evaluate Weber's model of "routinization" as a degradation of pure charisma into petrified institutional structures. Instead, these very structures often "guarantee the renewal of genuine Buddhist charisma," as "charismatic education in the Tibetan case is a rejuvenation rather than a process of demise" (38). …

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