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Buddhism: Tibet: Topics

Last Updated: Sep 2, 2020 10:47 AM

On this page you can find the best resources for exploring scholarly perspectives on various topics in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. Each book listed below is linked to WorldCat, where you can discover library holdings for that item in your region. Resources within the gallery box are arranged from the newest to the oldest publications, left to right. The area below the gallery highlights a few recent or especially notable works selected from the gallery above.

"Closing" the mandala

Above: During a ceremony at Tharlam Tibetan Monastery at Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal, His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya draws a line with a vajra – a scepter-like ritual object meant to evoke both a diamond and a thunderbolt – on a mandala, a sand figure central to the ritual of the Hevajra Tantra, thus "closing the deity palace."
 
Image source: Flickr. Image author: Wonderlane. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
 

Tibet and the West

The imperialist ambitions of China – which invaded Tibet in the late 1940s – have sparked the spectacular spread of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide, and especially in western countries. This work is a study on the malleability of a particular Buddhist tradition, analysing the nature of the Tibetan Buddhism in the Diaspora and examining how the re-signification of Tibetan Buddhist practices and organizational structures in the present refers back to the dismantlement of the Tibetan state headed by the Dalai Lama and the fragmentation of Tibetan Buddhist religious organizations in general. It includes extensive multi-sited fieldwork conducted in the United States, Brazil, Europe, and Asia and a detailed analysis of contemporary documents relating to the global spread of Tibetan Buddhism. The author demonstrates that there is a "de-institutionalized" and "de-territorialized" project of political power and religious organization, which, among several other consequences, engenders the gradual "autonomization" of lamas and lineages inside the religious field of Tibetan Buddhism. Thus, a spectre of these previous institutions continues to exist outside their original contexts, and they are continually activated in ever-new settings.

Mansfield Modern Physics cover artTibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward a Union of Love and Knowledge by Vic Mansfield. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008.

This book addresses the complex issues of dialogue and collaboration between Buddhism and science, revealing connections and differences between the two. While assuming no technical background in Buddhism or physics, this book strongly responds to the Dalai Lama’s “heartfelt plea” for genuine collaboration between science and Buddhism. In a clear and engaging way, this book shows how the principle of emptiness, the philosophic heart of Tibetan Buddhism, connects intimately to quantum nonlocality and other foundational features of quantum mechanics. Detailed connections between emptiness, modern relativity, and the nature of time are also explored. For Tibetan Buddhists, the profound interconnectedness implied by emptiness demands the practice of universal compassion. Because of the powerful connections between emptiness and modern physics, the book argues that the interconnected worldview of modern physics also encourages universal compassion. Along with these harmonies, the book explores a significant conflict between quantum mechanics and Tibetan Buddhism concerning the role of causality. Despite differences and questions raised, the book's central message is that there is a solid basis for uniting these worldviews. From this basis, the message of universal compassion can accompany the spread of the scientific worldview, stimulating compassionate action in the light of deep understanding—a true union of love and knowledge.

Paine Re-Enchantment cover art Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West by Jeffrey Paine. New York: Norton, 2004.

In a single generation, Tibetan Buddhism developed from the faith of a remote mountain people, associated with bizarre, almost medieval, superstitions, to perhaps the most rapidly growing and celebrity-studded religion in the West. Disaffected with other religious traditions yet searching for meaning, huge numbers of Americans have found their way to the wisdom of Tibetan lamas in exile. Earthy, humorous, commonsensical, and eccentric, these flamboyant teachers ― larger-than-life characters like Lama Yeshe and Chogyam Trungpa ― proved to be charismatic and gifted ambassadors for their ancient religion. So did two Western women, born in Brooklyn and London's East End, whose homegrown religious intuitions turned out to be identical with the most sophisticated Tibetan teachings, revealing them to be reincarnated lamas. With great flair for both the sublime and the human, Jeffrey Paine narrates in page-turning, richly informative fashion how Tibetan Buddhism―rarefied and sensual, mystical and commonsensical―became the ideal religion for a "post-religious" age.

Lopez Prisoners cover artPrisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

To the Western imagination, Tibet evokes exoticism, mysticism, and wonder: a fabled land removed from the grinding onslaught of modernity, spiritually endowed with all that the West has lost. Originally published in 1998, this book provided the first cultural history of the strange encounter between Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Donald Lopez reveals here fanciful misconceptions of Tibetan life and religion. He examines, among much else, the politics of the term “Lamaism,” a pejorative synonym for Tibetan Buddhism; the various theosophical, psychedelic, and New Age purposes served by the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead; and the unexpected history of the most famous of all Tibetan mantras, om mani padme hum. More than pop-culture anomalies, these versions of Tibet are often embedded in scholarly sources, constituting an odd union of the popular and the academic, of fancy and fact. Upon its original publication, the book sent shockwaves through the field of Tibetan studies—hailed as a timely, provocative, and courageous critique. Twenty years hence, the situation in Tibet has only grown more troubled and complex—with the unrest of 2008, the demolition of the dwellings of thousands of monks and nuns at Larung Gar in 2016, and the scores of self-immolations committed by Tibetans to protest the Dalai Lama’s exile. In his new preface to this anniversary edition, Lopez returns to the metaphors of prison and paradise to illuminate the state of Tibetan Buddhism—both in exile and in Tibet—as monks and nuns still seek to find a way home. Prisoners of Shangri-La remains a timely and vital inquiry into Western fantasies of Tibet.

Tibet and China

This book tells the story of how the People's Republic of China employs propaganda to define Tibetan Buddhist belief and sway opinion within the country and abroad. The narrative they create is at odds with historical facts and deliberately misleading but, John Powers argues, it is widely believed by Han Chinese. Most of China's leaders appear to deeply believe the official line regarding Tibet, which resonates with Han notions of themselves as China's most advanced nationality and as a benevolent race that liberates and culturally uplifts minority peoples. This in turn profoundly affects how the leadership interacts with their counterparts in other countries. Powers's study focuses in particular on the government's "patriotic education" campaign-an initiative that forces monks and nuns to participate in propaganda sessions and repeat official dogma. Powers contextualizes this within a larger campaign to transform China's religions into "patriotic" systems that endorse Communist Party policies. This book offers a powerful, comprehensive examination of this ongoing phenomenon, how it works and how Tibetans resist it.

McGranahan Arrested Histories cover artArrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA and Memories of a Forgotten War by Carole McGranahan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

In the 1950s, thousands of ordinary Tibetans rose up to defend their country and religion against Chinese troops. Their citizen army fought through 1974 with covert support from the Tibetan exile government and the governments of India, Nepal, and the United States. Decades later, the story of this resistance is only beginning to be told and has not yet entered the annals of Tibetan national history. In Arrested Histories, the anthropologist and historian Carole McGranahan shows how and why histories of this resistance army are “arrested” and explains the ensuing repercussions for the Tibetan refugee community. Drawing on rich ethnographic and historical research, McGranahan tells the story of the Tibetan resistance and the social processes through which this history is made and unmade, and lived and forgotten in the present. Fulfillment of veterans’ desire for recognition hinges on the Dalai Lama and "historical arrest," a practice in which the telling of certain pasts is suspended until an undetermined time in the future. In this analysis, struggles over history emerge as a profound pain of belonging. Tibetan cultural politics, regional identities, and religious commitments cannot be disentangled from imperial histories, contemporary geopolitics, and romanticized representations of Tibet. This book provides powerful insights into the stakes of political engagement and the cultural contradictions of everyday life.

Kapstein Buddhism Between cover artBuddhism Between Tibet and China, edited by Matthew Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2009.

Exploring the long history of cultural exchange between 'the Roof of the World' and 'the Middle Kingdom,' this book features a collection of noteworthy essays that probe the nature of their relationship, spanning from the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE) to the present day. Annotated and contextualized by noted scholar Matthew Kapstein and others, the historical accounts that comprise this volume display the rich dialogue between Tibet and China in the areas of scholarship, the fine arts, politics, philosophy, and religion. This thoughtful book provides insight into the surprisingly complex history behind the relationship from a variety of geographical regions. Includes contributions from Rob Linrothe, Karl Debreczeny, Elliot Sperling, Paul Nietupski, Carmen Meinert, Gray Tuttle, Zhihua Yao, Ester Bianchi, Fabienne Jagou, Abraham Zablocki, and Matthew Kapstein.

Blondeau and Buffetrille cover artAuthenticating Tibet: Answers to China's 100 Questions edited by Anne-Marie Blondeau & Katia Buffetrille. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

The land of Tibet—its people, culture, and religion—has long been both an object of contention and a source of fascination. Since 1959, Tibet has also been at the center of controversy when China's "peaceful liberation" of the land of snows led to the Lhasa uprising and the Dalai Lama's escape to India. This work offers clear and unbiased responses to a booklet published by the Chinese government in 1989, which sought to counter the criticism generated by the Dalai Lama and his followers and offer the PRC's "truth" about Tibet and Tibetans. In this book, international Tibet scholars provide historically accurate answers to 100 Questions and deal evenhandedly with both China's "truth" about Tibet and that of the Dalai Lama and his followers. Designed for use by a general audience, the book is an accessible reference, free of the polemics that commonly surround the Tibet question. Although these experts refute many of the points asserted by China, they do not offer blanket endorsements for the claims made by the pro-Tibet movement. Instead, they provide an accurate, historically based assessment of Tibet's past and its troubled present.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Dharma student studying in Tharlam Monastery, Kathmandu, Nepal

Above: A dharma student studies during a class break at Tharlam Tibetan Monastery, Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal.
 
Image source: Flickr. Image author: Wonderlane. Image license: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
 

Rebirth/Reincarnation

In 1995, the People’s Republic of China resurrected a Qing-era law mandating that the reincarnations of prominent Tibetan Buddhist monks be identified by drawing lots from a golden urn. The Chinese Communist Party hoped to limit the ability of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile to independently identify reincarnations. In so doing, they elevated a long-forgotten ceremony into a controversial symbol of Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. In this book, Max Oidtmann ventures into the polyglot world of the Qing empire in search of the origins of the golden urn tradition. He seeks to understand the relationship between the Qing state and its most powerful partner in Inner Asia―the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. Why did the Qianlong emperor invent the golden urn lottery in 1792? What ability did the Qing state have to alter Tibetan religious and political traditions? What did this law mean to Qing rulers, their advisors, and Tibetan Buddhists? Working with both the Manchu-language archives of the empire’s colonial bureaucracy and the chronicles of Tibetan elites, Oidtmann traces how a Chinese bureaucratic technology―a lottery for assigning administrative posts―was exported to the Tibetan regions of the empire and transformed into a ritual for authenticating reincarnations.

Zivkovic Death Reincarnation cover artDeath and Reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism: In-Between Bodies by Tanya Zivkovic. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Contextualising the seemingly esoteric and exotic aspects of Tibetan Buddhist culture within the everyday, embodied and sensual sphere of religious praxis, this book centres on the social and religious lives of deceased Tibetan Buddhist lamas. It explores how posterior forms – corpses, relics, reincarnations and hagiographical representations – extend a lama’s trajectory of lives and manipulate biological imperatives of birth and death. The book looks closely at previously unexamined figures whose history is relevant to a better understanding of how Tibetan culture navigates its own understanding of reincarnation, the veneration of relics and different social roles of different types of practitioners. It analyses both the minutiae of everyday interrelations between lamas and their devotees, specifically noted in ritual performances and the enactment of lived tradition, and the sacred hagiographical conventions that underpin local knowledge. A phenomenology of Tibetan Buddhist life, the book provides an ethnography of the everyday embodiment of Tibetan Buddhism. This unusual approach offers a valuable and a genuine new perspective on Tibetan Buddhist culture and is of interest to researchers in the fields of social/cultural anthropology and religious, Buddhist and Tibetan studies.

The Karmapas

This book examines how the third Karmapa hierarch, Rangjung Dorjé (1284-1339) transformed reincarnation from a belief into a lasting Tibetan institution. Born the son of an itinerant, low-caste potter, Rangjung Dorjé went on to become a foundational figure in Tibetan Buddhism and a teacher of the last Mongolian emperor. He became renowned for his contributions to Buddhist philosophy, literature, astrology, medicine, architecture, sacred geography and manuscript production. But, as Ruth Gamble demonstrates, his most important legacy was the transformation of the Karmapa reincarnation lineage to ensure that, after his death, subsequent Karmapas were able to assume power in the religious institutions he had led. The inheritance model of reincarnation instituted by Rangjung Dorjé changed the Tibetan Plateau's power relations, which until that time had been based on family associations, and created a precedent for later reincarnate institutions, including that of the Dalai Lamas. Drawing on Rangjung Dorjé's hitherto un-translated autobiographies and autobiographical songs, this book shows that his reinvention of reincarnation was a self-conscious and multi-faceted project, made possible by Rangjung Dorjé's cultural, social, and political standing and specific historical and geographical circumstances. Exploring this combination of agency and historical coincidence, this is the first full-length study of the development of the reincarnation institution.

Kunsang et al History of Karmapas cover artHistory of the Karmapas: The Odyssey of the Tibetan Masters with the Black Crown by Lama Kunsang, Lama Pemo, & Marie Aubèle, edited by Maureen Lander, trans. Jonathan C. Bell & Lama Pemo. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2012.

Masters of esoteric knowledge and miraculous practices, the lineage of the Karmapas is the earliest of all the recognized incarnate lineages and is said to descend from the great Indian tantric master Tilopa through a chain that includes Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa. The Karmapas are distinguished by their black crowns, said to have been woven by dakinis and symbolizing the activity of the buddhas. Unlike other Tibetan Buddhist lineage heads, each Karmapa has specific knowledge of his next reincarnation and leaves behind a "Last Testament," a letter to his disciples describing the place and circumstances of their future rebirth, the name of their parents, and so on. At a young age, each successive incarnation is often able to recognize himself as the Karmapa. In their recounting of the histories of the seventeen Karmapas, the authors reveal the marvelous concealed in the everyday.

Karmapa Luminous Heart cover artLuminous Heart: The Third Karmapa on Consciousness, Wisdom, and Buddha Nature by His Holiness the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, edited by Karl Brunnhölzl. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2009.

This superb collection of writings on buddha nature by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339) focuses on the transition from ordinary deluded consciousness to enlightened wisdom, the characteristics of buddhahood, and a buddha's enlightened activity. Most of these materials have never been translated comprehensively. The Third Karmapa's unique and well-balanced view synthesizes Yogacara Madhyamaka and the classical teachings on buddha nature. Rangjung Dorje not only shows that these teachings do not contradict each other but also that they supplement each other and share the same essential points in terms of the ultimate nature of mind and all phenomena. His fusion is remarkable because it clearly builds on Indian predecessors and precedes the later often highly charged debates in Tibet about the views of Rangtong ("self-empty") and Shentong ("other-empty"). Although Rangjung Dorje is widely regarded as one of the major proponents of the Tibetan Shentong tradition (some even consider him its founder), this book shows how his views differ from the Shentong tradition as understood by Dolpopa Taranatha and the First Jamgon Kongtrul. The Third Karmapa's view is more accurately described as one in which the two categories of rangtong and shentong are not regarded as mutually exclusive but are combined in a creative synthesis. For those practicing the sutrayana and the vajrayana in the Kagyu tradition, what these texts describe can be transformed into living experience.

Thinley History of Karmapas cover artThe History of the Sixteen Karmapas of Tibet by Karma Thinley. Boulder, CO: Prajña Press, 2001.

The Karmapa is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The present Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, is the sixteenth of the line which began with Dusum Khyenpa, the first Karmapa, in the twelfth century. Karma Thinley presents the biographies of all the Karmapas, based on his translations from numerous Tibetan sources. These biographies are not only histories of the training and teaching of these great teachers; they are also inspirational texts used to cultivate devotion in the practitioner. Accompanying the text are sixteen line drawings, based on the thangka paintings of the Karmapas at Rumtek monastery, the seat of the present Karmapa.

Tibetan Medicine

Only fifty years ago, Tibetan medicine, now seen in China as a vibrant aspect of Tibetan culture, was considered a feudal vestige to be eliminated through government-led social transformation. This book examines medical revivalism on the geographic and sociopolitical margins both of China and of Tibet's medical establishment in Lhasa, exploring the work of medical practitioners, or amchi, and of Medical Houses in the west-central region of Tsang. Due to difficult research access and the power of state institutions in the writing of history, the perspectives of more marginal amchi have been absent from most accounts of Tibetan medicine. Theresia Hofer breaks new ground both theoretically and ethnographically, in ways that would be impossible in today's more restrictive political climate that severely limits access for researchers. She illuminates how medical practitioners safeguarded their heritage through great adversity.

 

Craig Healing Elements cover artHealing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine by Sienna R. Craig. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012.

Tibetan medicine has come to represent multiple and sometimes conflicting agendas. On the one hand it must retain a sense of cultural authenticity and a connection to Tibetan Buddhism; on the other it must prove efficacious and safe according to biomedical standards. Recently, Tibetan medicine has found a place within the multibillion-dollar market for complementary, traditional, and herbal medicines as people around the world seek alternative paths to wellness. This book explores how Tibetan medicine circulates through diverse settings in Nepal, China, and beyond as commercial goods and gifts, and as target therapies and panacea for biophysical and psychosocial ills. Through an exploration of efficacy – what does it mean to say Tibetan medicine "works"? – this book illustrates a bio-politics of traditional medicine and the meaningful, if contested, translations of healing that occur across distinct social ecologies.

 

Dhonden Healing from Source cover artHealing from the Source: The Science and Lore of Tibetan Medicine by Yeshi Dhonden, translated by Alan B. Wallace. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2000.

In this remarkable presentation of the theory and practice of Tibetan medicine, Dr. Yeshi Dhonden, twenty years the personal physician of H. H. the Dalai Lama, draws from over fifty years of practicing and teaching this ancient tradition of healing. This volume presents a series of lectures Dr. Dhonden gave before a group of health care professionals at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. This lecture series was presented during the planning stages of a research project at the University of California San Francisco to test Dr. Dhonden's medical treatment for metastatic breast cancer. Dr. Dhonden elucidates the holistic Tibetan medical view of health and disease, referring to traditional Tibetan medical sources as well as his own experiences as a doctor practicing in Tibet, India, and numerous countries throughout Europe and America. His presentation is delightfully complemented by many anecdotes.

Tibetan Monasticism

This book discusses the position of the monasteries in pre-1950s Tibetan Buddhist societies and how that position was informed by the far-reaching relationship of monastic Buddhism with Tibetan society, economy, law, and culture. Jansen focuses her study on monastic guidelines, or bca’ yig. The first study of its kind to examine the genre in detail, the book contains an exploration of its parallels in other Buddhist cultures, its connection to the Vinaya, and its value as socio-historical source-material. The guidelines are witness to certain socio-economic changes, while also containing rules that aim to change the monastery in order to preserve it. Jansen argues that the monastic institutions’ influence on society was maintained not merely due to prevailing power-relations, but also because of certain deep-rooted Buddhist beliefs.

The Dalai Lama has represented Buddhism as a religion of non-violence, compassion, and world peace, but this does not reflect how monks learn their vocation. This book shows how monasteries use harsh methods to make monks of men, and how this tradition is changing as modernist reformers like the Dalai Lama adopt liberal and democratic ideals, such as natural rights and individual autonomy. In the first in-depth account of disciplinary practices at a Tibetan monastery in India, Lempert looks closely at everyday education rites, from debate to reprimand and corporal punishment. His analysis explores how the idioms of violence inscribed in these socialization rites help produce educated, moral persons but in ways that trouble Tibetans who aspire to modernity.

Tibetan Symbols

View of Chemre Monastery in Ladakh, India

Above: A view of Chemrey Monastery in Ladakh, northern India. The monastery was built in 1664 and hosts the Chemrey Angchok festival of sacred dances annually.