SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Locating Culture, Religion and the Self

Lay tantric practitioners (sngags pa) are a common figure throughout Tibetan Buddhist histories. They are members of a non-monastic Buddhist tradition and practice Tibetan tantra. Some trace their origins to Padmasambhava, the Indian yogin who contributed to the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet during the eighth century. Lay tantric practitioners are not obliged to lead a celibate life though they are bound by some fundamental vows. The status of these practitioners is often hereditary and imbues considerable religious prestige in lay society.

Rebkong is situated in east Tibet, about 200 kilometres southwest of Xining, the regional capital of Qinghai province. It is an important political centre in north-eastern Tibet, in Amdo province. The lay tantric practitioner community from Rebkong acquired fame during the eighteenth century. Its members included famous Buddhist teachers such as Shabkar Tsogdru Rangdol (1781–1851), Pema Rangdol (d.1837) and Dzogchen Choying Tobden Dorje (1785–1848). Founded by Rigzin Palden Tashi (1688–1743), the community became known as the Reb kong phur thogs stong dang dgu brgya (The One Thousand Nine Hundred Ritual Dagger Holders from Rebkong), a figure based on the assembled tantric practitioners present at a ritual ceremony at Khyungon monastery.

The project aims to outline the history of the Rebkong tantric community. In order to identify the various socio-religious forces that propelled the birth and ascendancy of that community, we shall consult a range of texts produced by the Rebkong masters. Much of the initial research will derive from the life of the hermit-scholar Nyang Nangse Dorje (1798–1874?). His autobiography serves as a case study and highlight issues of (re)incarnation, collective memory and history in the context of the current revival process of the tantric community.

Second, we explore the tension between the Gelug scholars and the Nyingmapa (old school of Tibetan Buddhism) tantric masters. Rebkong has been a Gelugpa stronghold since the fourteenth century. The rise of the Nyingma-orientated practitioners and their influence over the lay community presented a considerable threat to the authority and power of the Gelug clergy. By claiming an alternative form of religious power and therefore providing another form of access to the divine, the tantric practitioners were not compatible with the Gelug.

Third, we plan to investigate the rules of the lay tantric community; how standards were set for and by the community, what conduct was approved and what was rejected.

Finally, the project assesses the social role of the members, many of whom resided within ordinary lay communities and were trained in much valued skills such as divination, astrology, and medicine. Lamas with a high profile played a significant role throughout the period under study as mediators between rivalling villages, tribes and ethnic groups.