Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau

By Gayley, Holly | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau

Gayley, Holly, Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Vow-Taking on the Tibetan Plateau

In Tibetan areas of the PRC, a new movement to assert Buddhist ethics is gaining momentum. Today Tibetans are taking vows en masse to stop engaging in activities like selling yaks for slaughter, fighting with knives or guns, and wearing tiger, leopard, or otter pelts as trim on their clothing. These vows are based on a newly formulated set of "ten virtues" (dge bcu) with prohibitions against hunting, wearing fur, stealing, visiting prostitutes, drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, selling livestock for slaughter, fighting with weapons, and trading in arms. Whole villages and towns are committing to these ten virtues (or some portion of them) at the behest of their local lamas and clan leaders. This movement is brand new, and it is happening now.

This reformulation of lay Buddhist ethics is novel in several ways. First of all, it does not follow the traditional division of Buddhist virtues into the categories of body, speech, and mind, proscribing the physical acts of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct alongside unwholesome ways of speaking and thinking, such as lying, slander, covetousness, and malice. (2) Instead, the new ten virtues focus on observable vices that affect social life in Tibetan areas. Each virtue prohibits a specific activity and is easily translatable into a vow to be taken by the laity. By adapting Buddhist ethics to address concrete social problems, Buddhist leaders are shifting the purport of moral choices from individual self-cultivation and the soteriological goal of a favorable rebirth to a concern for Tibetans as a collective in this life. The modernist emphasis on this-worldly social issues further distinguishes the new ten virtues from their traditional Buddhist counterpart.

Moreover, the manner of disseminating the new ten virtues through communal vow-taking is novel. The movement began in ad hoc fashion in the 1980s and 1990s with individual Buddhist teachers asking their lay followers to raise their hands in order to forsake specific vices, like drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes or hunting. More recently, this has evolved into more systematic efforts by monasteries and lay associations to promote vow-taking, based on the ten virtues or a local variant of them, household by household among whole communities and later tracking their performance.

The epicenter of this movement lies on the border of Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces in the county of Serta (Ch: Seda), (3) emanating from Larung Buddhist Academy, one of the largest and most influential Buddhist institutions in Tibetan areas of the PRC. Certified in 1987 as an ecumenical institute, Larung Buddhist Academy is a leading advocate of ethical reform and the locus of an emergent Buddhist modernism, (4) spearheaded by its charismatic founder Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok (Mkhan po 'Jigs med phun tshogs, 1933-2004) and his successors. (5) The influence of Larung Buddhist Academy is keenly felt across the Tibetan plateau not only because of the prominence of its founder and its scale as an institution--with more than ten thousand monks and nuns--but also because many of the monastics who study there return to their home monasteries, bringing with them attitudes shaped by leading voices at Larung. This means that ethical reform has fanned out to areas surrounding Serta, such as Dzamthang, Drango, Ngawa, and Nyagrong, and also leapfrogged to places further away like Yushu.

In what follows, I examine the ideological underpinnings of this movement to rearticulate Buddhist ethics into a platform for social reform. Specifically, I examine how seminal works of advice to the laity by Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and one of his principal successors, Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro (Mkhan po Tshul khrims blo gros), have helped to shape this nascent ethical reform movement on the Tibetan plateau. In respective works of advice, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok provides the broad ideological backdrop for the movement in his influential Heart Advice to Tibetans for the 21st Century (composed in 1995), (6) and Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro formulates this into a coherent series of action points in a later work, Timely Advice: A Mirror that Illuminates the Two Systems (2004). …

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