Vajra Brother, Vajra Sister: Renunciation, Individualism and the Household in Tibetan Buddhist Monasticism

By Mills, Martin A. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Vajra Brother, Vajra Sister: Renunciation, Individualism and the Household in Tibetan Buddhist Monasticism


Mills, Martin A., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


This article challenges two connected notions in the study of Tibetan Buddhism: that Buddhist monasticism is characterized by a pronounced move towards individualism, systematically detaching monks from relational social life; and that Tibetan Buddhist doctrines of karma represent an alternative mode of identity to those constructed within household life. By comparing the ritual practices and inheritance patterns associated with household groups in Ladakh with tantric ritual forms in local Buddhist (Gelukpa) monasteries, it is argued that they demonstrate pronounced structural similarities, centred on the shared symbolic construct of the household/temple as the source of socialized agency. An analysis of the meditative disciplines of Gelukpa monasticism is used to show how such training serves not to renounce kinship and household values, but to transform them into modes of religious authority, essential to the social position of monks (trapa) and incarnate lamas (tulku) in Tibetan Buddhism.

Regardless of how long we spend living together,

Good friends and relations must some day depart.

Our wealth and possessions collected with effort

Are left behind at the end of our life.

Our mind, but a guest in our body's great house,

Must vacate one day and travel beyond --

Cast away thoughts that concern but this lifetime --

The Sons of the Buddhas all practice this way.

In Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the training of monks almost invariably involves discourses such as the one above (from Thogme Zangpo's Thirty-seven practices of all the Buddha's sons, a key monastic text; H. H. Dalai Lama 1993). Religious critiques of particularistic household kin relations are a familiar theme in Buddhist studies, structured as they are in terms of the doctrines of karma and the impermanence of secular identities: a well-known oral teaching tells of a woman doting upon her newborn child whilst feeding a fish to the household cat; the teaching then outlines how the child is the rebirth of the woman's greatest enemy, whilst the fish she is feeding to her cat is the rebirth of her own father, and the cat the rebirth of her mother.

In the third chapter of her widely read monograph on the Tibetan Buddhist communities of the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal, Sherpas through their rituals, Ortner tackles the complex ideological relationship between the 'ascetic ideal' of Buddhist monasticism that produces this kind of moral teaching, and the social realities of householder existence. Explicit in her solution is the notion that lay social life is opposed, at least in spirit, to the solitary and celibate ideals of asceticism (1978: 33). For Ortner, Buddhist ideology in Sherpa regions was characterized by a pronounced 'anti-relational' ideology: 'the religion in its highest ideals proposes one and only one solution to the problems of human experience: to break all social bonds, to refuse to form new ones, and to concentrate all one's energies on seeking enlightenment' (1978: 52). In Buddhist asceticism, Ortner argues that 'the individual is the locus of this idealised autonomy' (1978: 38), a tendency towards autonomy which culminates in the attainment of Buddhahood. [1]

In the two decades that have followed the publication of Sherpas, this mode of sociological analysis has received wide critical acceptance. Goldstein and Tsarong's analysis (1985: 21, emphasis added) of monastic life in Kyilung Monastery in Ladakh, for example, asserts:

By structurally excising monks from the intimate web of kinship ties and obligations and deflecting them from the development of functionally equivalent intimate groups and relationships in the monastery, the monastery produces and reproduces an atomistic structure based on solitary social isolates. In doing this it allows each monk to pursue his own spiritual and personal development without thought of the needs of others, i. …

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