The Legacy of the Eight Teachings: Revelation, Ritual, and Enlightened Violence in Classical Tibet - ( 06)
In summation, I am generally attracted to interpretive approaches that understand meaning-making in terms of agency-defining practice. Rather than locating meaning in subscription to conceptions of ideal orders, approaches rooted in existentialism, phenomenology, and pragmatism look to agentive engagements – those of ritual practice, as well as those of daily life – by which subjects define themselves intersubjectively and in light of self-experience.328 From this perspective, we can attend to the ways in which these rituals offered opportunities for subjects to define themselves in conscilliance with broader ontological conceptions and
historicized identities. Our narratological interpretation of these texts, and an embrace of the subjunctive theory of ritual practice, accomplishes this interrogation of Kabgyé ritualism as one element of a broader complex of engagements aimed at subject-constitution and identityarticulation. This is not to suggest that the harms to be mitigated through apotropaic rites were not regarded as “real”. And, we would be justified in harboring suspicions about interpretive approaches that totally privilege the perspective of the scholar over the reality-claims of the
practitioner. It is also not to suggest that these ritual practices were indeed not “models of, and models for” social life, as Geertz would have it. But in attending to the engagements afforded by the presentation of rich imaginal worlds, implicit meta-narratives, and opportunities for agentive action, we can detect the appeal of these practices and their textuality in the broader context of the Kabgyé’s place within Nyingma religiosity.
328 Michael D. Jackson’s “existential anthropology” pursues an ethnographic practice that is rooted in attention to agency-constituting engagements with lived realities: “At the core of phenomenology, existentialism, critical theory, and pragmatism lies the methodological question as to how thought may be anchored in, rather than abstracted from, human lifeworlds, and how it may begin in media res, with the processes rather than the products of intersubjective life...In fact, the truth of any human subject can never be entirely encompassed by the discursive subjects with which we conventionally identify and construe ourselves and others…” Michael D. Jackson, Lifeworlds: Essays In Existential Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, 236.
Applying the subjunctive interpretation of ritual to the tor-dok rites from the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa, we see how the phantasmagoric world of Tibetan demons and wrathful divine forces offers a rich setting to enact agency, confirm identity, and advance self-cultivational goals. From this perspective, we can afford to be less concerned with determining the “reality” of the kinds of agents described in these texts than we might be with the kind of “imaginaire” that these
texts invoke, and in which they invite participation. We might take interest in how these ritual texts, much like the tantras and foundational myths of the cycle, supplied a coherent imaginal world in which certain kinds of activities and relationships – including violent ones – are justified in efforts to secure the agency of Buddhist subjects. This is essential practice for participation in a tradition that hinged on the confluence of harm-aversion and Buddhist
soteriology. In characterizing the overarching influence of the Kabgyé cycle, we might look to the ways that it conjoined narrative, doctrine, and practice to open up a set of engagements by which people could author collective identities, experience subjective agencies, and participate in coherent lifeworlds.
The confluence of narrative, doctrine, and practice – a confluence which can be articulated over the breadth of an entire cycle, or present in any single text – is undergirded by a coherent “imaginaire”. In the case of the Kabgyé, it is the imaginaire of sacred violence and the reclaimed demonic that provides the basic material for the expression of religiosity that the Kabgyé cycle historically facilitated. It is to this imaginaire, and its power in undergirding a full suite of tantric religiosity, that we finally turn as we wrap up our exploration of the world of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa.
To conclude our exploration of the Kabgyé tradition, we now turn to a more robust interpretation of the “Kabgyé imaginaire”: the coherent field of iconographic, narrative, and ritual imageries contextualized by, and in the service of, overarching discourses of identity and religious subjectivity that are carried out in the Kabgyé’s unique confluence of narrative, doctrine, and ritual practice. Some space will be devoted to describing the operations of the imaginaire in a general sense, followed by an exploration of the Kabgyé’s specific iteration. To contextualize this interpretation, let us first revisit the main arguments I have articulated out of my textual and historical research.
In the foregoing, I have suggested that the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa was a vital element of the Nyingmapa’s distinctive iteration of Tantric Buddhism. The Kabgyé supplied a collation of materials that were important to Early Translation Buddhists as they worked to articulate denominational identities in contexts of contestation. It gained resonance by hybridizing elements of Indian tantric tradition with Tibet’s indigenous ritual culture, and in how it enfolded the soteriological and apotropaic dimensions of tantric practice. It also participated in a broader
vision for the history and status of Buddhism in Tibet, which entailed an elevation of the Early Translation community, and the celebration of the harm-averting ritual adept as the paradigmatic Buddhist master. Additionally, in its ritual-centric focus, the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa provided the basic material for an ongoing development of practice regimes that were important in the institutionalization of Nyingma religiosity. These programs were connected to the efforts of Nyingma institutions and masters to carry out a specific vision for Nyingma identity, often in response to inter-institutional and socio-political pressures.
Between its mythologies, buddhologies, and ritual programs, the Kabgyé entailed a coherence which rendered it particularly relevant for Nyingmapas as they sought resources out of which to articulate unique, responsive, and agentive identities. As we have seen, the mythohistorical narratives of the Kabgyé’s origin in primordial, visionary, and worldly domains; its embrace of the idioms of “taming and liberation” in both the cosmogonic mythologies and ritual protocols; and its incorporation of the soteriological and apotropaic dimensions of tantric practice in a distinctive vision for Buddhist mastery: these elements gain articulation across every aspect of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa’s textual terrain, and have come to inform the development of Nyingma tradition in its historiography, its doctrinal development, its institutional practice, and in its organization of religious knowledge. In sum, the impact of the Kabgyé in the history of the Nyingma denomination cannot be overstated. The connective tissue of the Kabgyé’s narrative, doctrinal, and praxical world is its distinctive imaginaire.
I use “imaginaire” much in the sense that Stephen Collins has used it in reference to the imaginal worlds emerging from, and informing, South Asian engagements with Pali literature. For Collins, the “Pali imaginaire” refers to the narratives, images, metaphors, and ideas that were communicated in scriptural texts, and which had material implications in terms of establishing the parameters of discourse, experience, and material exchange for South Asian Buddhists. The world ‘imaginaire’ can have various meanings, broad and narrow, and
sometimes seems to be used to mean more or less the same thing as ‘culture’. My usage is in particular influenced by the work of the historian Jacques Le Goff, where it has the slightly more precise sense of a nonmaterial, imaginative world constituted by texts, especially works of art and literature. Such worlds are by definition not the same as the material world, but in so far as the material world is thought and experienced in part through them, they are not imaginary in the sense of being false,
entirely made up. This usage has Durkheimian ancestry: Hubert and Mauss spoke of la sphère imaginaire de la religion, insisting that this sphere exits: ‘Religious ideas exist, because they are believed; they exist objectively, as social facts.’.329
Collins also goes to some length to defend his use of “imaginaire” (preserved in French, unitalicized), as opposed to terms such as “the social imaginary” or “the imaginary”: It seems to me preferable to retain the French, as the word cannot really be translated. Both the French imaginaire and English ‘imaginary’ as adjectives mean fictive, unreal … Used as a noun, imaginaire can refer to
objects of the imagination, the ensemble of what is imagined, without implying falsity; it can also refer to specific imaginal worlds, and so can be used in this sense in the plural. English ‘imagination’ primarily refers to a faculty or activity of the mind; while it can also refer to the objects of that faculty, the domain of the imagined, it is not usually used of specific imagined worlds, and cannot be used thus in the plural … Some writers
have begun to use ‘imaginary’ as an English noun in this sense, but this is incomprehensible unless one already knows what it is translating. I prefer to use the word as an unitalicized Anglicization like ‘Renaissance’ or ‘genre’. Burke (1990) uses ‘social imagination’, which does contain a helpful implicit reference to related notions such as social memory (Fentress and Wickham 1992).330
Collins, after Jim Egge, also emphasizes the imaginaire’s textual basis, and, especially, its coherence: “we might take it to mean precisely those things about which the whole body of Pali texts, or at least most of them, do, in fact, agree.”331 In the case of South Asians’ engagement with Pali literature, iterations of a “Pali imaginaire” were useful for lending coherence to a vast and, in some regards, idiosyncratic body of literature.332 The sense of coherence established by an imaginaire is also pertinent to our exploration of the “Kabgyé imaginaire’s” capacity to 329 Steven Collins, Nirvana: concept, imagery, narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 4.
Despite the material implications of the imaginaire’s capacity to undergird discourse and social relations, Collins emphasizes its “subjunctive” locus (to use our terminology): The world of an imaginaire inside any text is necessarily ou-topia, ‘Noplace’, in relation to the real places of the material-historical world in which it exists as an artefact; but this imaginary No-place nonetheless exists, in a different sense, in the historical world, and one can write histories of it.333
This observation is significant for our analysis of Kabgyé textuality, specifically in regards to our narratological interpretations, which suggest that the subjunctivity of liturgical settings provides a potent site for subject-constitution and identity-confirmation via narrative engagements. As I will suggest, it is through the unique topoi and imagescapes communicated in narrative, doctrinal, and ritual texts that the Kabgyé imaginaire is given voice, and it is out of the nexus of these loci that specific religious subjectivities, agencies, and identities are forged.
I might add to Collins’ rather circumlocutionary definition by loosely equating the imaginaire with Foucault’s épistémè: “the condition of discourse’s possibility”.334 Foucault’s épistémè refers to the most general bases for specific discourses, as he seeks to describe broad epistemological fields that govern the possibilities of knowledge, power, and society over the course of human history. Unlike the épistémè, specific imaginaires are rooted in particular communities and their artistic and literary productions. However, like the épistémè, an 333 Collins 2010, 8.
334 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. London: Routledge, 2002, p xxiii-xxiv: “What I am attempting to bring to light is the epistemological field, the épistémè in which knowledge, envisaged apart from all criteria having reference to its rational value or to its objective forms, grounds its positivity and thereby manifests a history which is not that of its growing perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility; in this account, what should appear are those configurations within the space of knowledge which have given rise to the diverse forms of empirical science. Such an enterprise is not so much a history, in the traditional meaning of that word, as an ‘archaeology’.”
imaginaire underwrites discourses of knowledge and power, establishing a horizon of the accepted and the possible. The imaginaire is thus a hermeneutical arena: it sets the horizon of what is accepted and possible, mediated in iconographies, narrative tropes, doctrinal expressions, visionary experiences, dreams, artwork, and ritual imagescapes. It is the complex of meaningful images activated in mythology, doctrine, ritual, and historical lore that provides a medium for subject-constituting engagements. As Collins puts it: “it is the ensemble of what is imagined
without implying falsity”.335 The imaginaire is the catalyst for the articulation of agentive identities through pervasive images and narrative tropes that may be activated in ritualization. Of course, the fields of images that underwrite subject-producing practices are not sui generis. Images – especially as they are constellated and contextualized into imaginaires – are inseparable from the knowledge and power regimes out of which they are produced, and which they, in turn, inflect. In other words, the imaginaire is always embedded in the social. The sociological term “the imaginary” (as in “the social imaginary”) reflects the mediation of social
expectations via collated referential conceptions. As Manfred Steger and Paul James write: Imaginaries are patterned convocations of the social whole. These deepseated modes of understanding provide largely pre-reflexive parameters
within which people imagine their social existence— expressed, for example, in conceptions of “the global,” “the national,” “the moral order of our time. Ontologies are patterned ways-of-being-in-the-world that are lived and experienced as the grounding conditions of the social—for example, linear time, territorial space, and individualized embodiment.336
My use of imaginaire incorporates both the “social imaginary” and the “ontological” as defined by Steger and James. The imaginaire convocates imageries in a way that establishes “prereflexive parameters”, resulting in “patterned ways of being-in-the-world that are lived and 335 Collins 1998, 73.
experienced as grounding conditions of the social”. Terms from hermeneutics and phenomenology such as habitus, or “lifeworld” (Lebenswelt) are also analogous to my use of imaginaire. However, in using imaginaire rather than other well-known interpretive terms, I wish to direct attention to the role of imagery, and also the imagination, in underwriting subjectivityconstituting and identity-confirming engagements.
An imaginaire is not strictly doctrinal in the sense of being announced as something to subscribe to. Rather, it is communicated in historiographic and cosmological narratives, in ritual imagescapes and protocols, in lore about the visionary exploits of an adept, and even in doxographies of doctrine and text. It arises intertextually and in the context of surrounding mythologies and ritual cultures. It is signified in denotations, but, more so, in connotation. In the case of the Kabgyé, the undergirding imaginaire is built from unique narratives, histories, ritual idioms, and doxographies of knowledge, and consists of arresting imageries of sexuality,
violence, and subjugation. Indigenous characters from Tibetan lore are implicated in this imaginal structure, conscripted as both signifiers of disorder, and as agents of its forceful management. Thus, the texts communicate an overarching imaginal world of threat and response, while interacting with a broader context of Tibetan mythos; this is a world that calls for intervention and agency, and suggests avenues for a Buddhist mastery resonant with uniquely Tibetan expectations. Such agency can be achieved in the kinetic engagements of ritual practice, through which practitioners may enact ideal identities, and react to potential lifeworlds as communicated in underlying narratives and imagescapes.
The imaginaire is broader than the imaginal world of any particular text. We have seen how the Kabgyé tantras, auto-histories, and ritual texts proffer imaginal settings with which a reader/practitioner may immediately engage. The imaginal worlds of each of these texts are at
once unique, but also intertextually connected. We see that the specific characters, imageries, metaphors, and topoi present in any one text may be different from those of another from within the cycle. At the same time, they are united under an overarching, often implicit, imaginal world: one with a broad ethos, a specific mythos, and a replicable logos. I call this broader imaginal world connecting the imagescapes of each text, the imaginaire. In the case of the Kabgyé, the imaginaire entails conceptions about the utility of violence, the meaning of demonic imagery, the
nature of unseen agents, and the qualifications of Buddhist mastery. Sometimes these conceptions are made explicit in the doctrines, historical narratives, and tantric rituals of the cycle. Sometimes they are merely implied. But the Kabgyé gains force as its situation within broader narratives and discourses – which are, themselves, embedded in overarching conceptions about Buddhist history and the nature of religious practice – are activated in engagements with deep mythological and praxical dimensions.
My general approach is indebted to Geertzian symbolic anthropology, especially as I attend to the ways that imageries, metaphors, and narrative topoi (a “system of symbols” as Geertz would have it) underwrite the doctrines and practices out of which people build intelligible worlds and possibilities for subjectivity. However, I do not suggest that the operations of the Kabgyé imaginaire unfold in a manner entirely divorced from the dynamics of social power. In the context of the Kabgyé, Nyangrel Nyima Özer and the custodians of
Nyingma tradition advanced specific doctrinal, praxical, and historiographical conceptions in a competitive context within which institutions and individuals vied for influence. Within the denomination itself, ritualization of the Kabgyé cycle was in support of an institutionalized Buddhism that inculcated roles and relations of power within institutions, between institutions, and also between institutions and their supporting communities. Even within the immediate inner
circle of a tantric master, the bestowal and propagation of a tantric cycle involves a recapitulation of steeply hierarchical relationships sanctioned in the narratives and iconography of the tantric practice tradition. Plus, from an emic Tibetan perspective, the Kabgyé offers many means for regulating relations with non-human subjects, and the apotropaic ritualism at the heart of the cycle can be understood as a technique for the reclamation of power and a forging of reciprocal economies with agents considered by Tibetans to be entirely real. Thus, the Kabgyé tradition’s distinctive doctrinal and praxical features were incorporated into broader discourses of identity that were inseparable from the negotiation of power on institutional, regional, local, communal, and autochthonous levels.
In terms of Tibetan Buddhist literature altogether, the tantric wrathful imaginaire was not monolithic, and certainly not owned by the Kabgyé tradition. There have been many iterations across specific doctrinal, self-cultivational, and ritual traditions centering on the iconography of fierce buddhas, re-assigned demons, and violent ritual prescriptions. These iterations flourished in India and Tibet, embedded in Hindu and Buddhist tantric lineages. As mentioned, the siddhainflected tantrism of the New Translation movement amplified some of the horrific aspects of
tantric iconography and practice beyond what was evidenced in the Indian Yoga and Mahāyoga materials long-propagated by the Early Translation practitioners. Sorcery and war magic were practiced by ritual masters from all denominations, and unique lore about protective divinities and tempestuous spirits persists everywhere in Tibet, incubated in highly local contexts. Within all this, the Kabgyé has long been a primary vehicle for religiosity in the Early Translation communities, as it amplified, systematized, and deployed this kind of imaginaire in a coherent (and massive) complex of doctrine, narrative, and ritual. In this, the Kabgyé imaginaire has drawn upon, and assimilated, broader imaginaires: that of wrathful Indian tantra, that of the
Mahāyoga tradition and its doctrino-ritual complex, that of Tibetan ritual culture with its geomantic orientation, as well as numerous other imaginal worlds, both trans-civilizational and local. Nyangrel (or whoever else was responsible for the development of the Kabgyé) curated these into a unique, and uniquely potent, vehicle for subjectivity, agency, and identity. Despite the imgainaire’s capacity to communicate coherence, it is impossible to cleanly delineate the
boundaries of the mutually constitutive and embedded contexts underlying a scriptural work of such stature. Nonetheless, there is a way in which the Kabgyé collated these influences into something coherent which could serve practitioners in their attempts to forge religious identities. Without such coherence, a cycle like the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa could not have risen to such prominence as a prime resource for the articulation of denominational identities and religious subjectivities.
More specifically described, the “Kabgyé imaginaire” is built out of the iconography of ultra-wrathful Buddhist divinities, Tibetan gods and demons to be tamed and liberated, a mythhistory connecting the cycle to imagined origins in cremation ground gatherings of legendary tantric masters, an immense bibliography of scriptures with patently violent titles and contents, narratives of evocative discourse and intercourse between primordial buddhas in demonic forms,
ritual imagescapes communicating surreal expressions of social and natural disorder, and protocols for the violent destruction of chaotic forces through sorcery, effigy, and propitiatory ritual magic. As I have suggested throughout this dissertation, the Kabgyé imaginaire coalesces most strongly around the picture of the harm-averting ritual adept as the paradigmatic Tantric Buddhist master. These themes are consistently advanced throughout the Kabgyé’s narrative, doctrinal, and ritual materials. It is a comprehensive world undergirded by historiographical
models, epistemological structures, and narratives of origins, and which could be activated in subjectivity-constituting ritual practices. While this set of narrative and imaginal elements takes diverse expression across the Deshek Dupa’s textual terrain, its unifying theme is violence. The management of disordered forces is the core concern of the Kabgyé’s mythology, iconography, and ritual formats. The imagery associated with the Kabgyé’s thaumaturgical program is always subjugative, and
sometimes overtly violent. Other important topoi within the Kabgyé imaginaire such as eroticism, bibliographia, and the overarching value of pristine gnosis are sublimated to the management of violence and the soteriological significance of “wrath” (khro bo, or drag po) as communicated in the narratives, iconographies, and ritual protocols of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa. Of course, the degree of violence articulated in the Kabgyé tradition was presumably beyond that of most peoples’ lived experience. While we cannot know for sure how dangerous life actually
was in the highlands of Tibet, the terrifying demonism of the Kabgyé icons and their murderous ritual violence may have had little to do with people’s daily experience.337 We must entertain the possibility, then, that these terrifying imagescapes (and their crystallization into a coherent imaginaire), resonated by force of their very difference. Again, I turn to both the subjunctive theory of ritual, and Wedemeyer’s use of connotative semiotics, to interpret the function of violent imageries in the context of the Kabgyé. Recall the subjunctive theory of ritual which
suggests that ritual practices unfold in a domain entirely disconnected from lived reality. Our 337 As a counterpoint, it is worth considering the dangerous character of life on the Tibetan plateau. Alpine weather, geological instability, wild animals, animal butchery, roving bandits, warlords, vengeful villagers, and many other such dangers have long confronted inhabitants of the Himalayas and Tibetan highlands. It is possible that violence in one form or another was a regular feature of life in twelfth-century Lhodrak, and that the expression of violence in
religious iconography and narrative literature was in no way taken to be antinomian. From this perspective, the Kabgyé’s preoccupation with violent imagery would have been consonant with people’s expectations, and resonant with their experiences. Nonetheless, the imgaries present in the Kabgyé’s tantras and ritual texts communicate a phantasmagoric world of demonic and overtly threatening imagery. The Kabgyé, in its scale and coherence, amplified fierce idioms in what was certainly a strategy for advancing a distinctive vision for Buddhist mastery.
narratological interpretation of ritual hinged on this understanding of the subjunctive character of narrative worlds and ritual imagescapes. It is in this subjunctive, or “as-if” setting – one bridged to the real world via the dual objective/subjective nature of the ritual object (“transitional objects” as Winnicott has it) – that new agencies can be experienced, and new identities
confirmed. And recall the connotative semiological interpretation of tantric antinomianism, which suggests that imageries of sexuality, violence, and taboo consumption in tantric literature were meant to connote a semiotic field by way of which a practitioner could establish a set of self-significations in the service of new subjective modes. I think these perspectives help us to understand the presence of violence in the Kabgyé imaginaire, and I suggest that we can detect how images of violence operated as we appraise the role of these imageries as they coalesced
into imaginaires that undergirded the nexus of Kabgyé narrative, doctrine, and practice. Religious Subjectivity in the Confluence of Narrative, Doctrine, and Ritual Practice Religiosity – the productive or transformative, sustained engagement with religious ideas, practices, and modes of expression – is tempered in the confluence of doctrine, narrative, and ritual practice. These venues for religious engagement mutually support each other to yield a comprehensive arena for the articulation of identity and the construction of subjectivity.
Religious doctrines proffer conceptions about absolute orders and human potential, along with attendant ontological, epistemological, and ethical formulations. Narratives activate such conceptions in the advancement of imaginal worlds, often presented in historical terms, into which subjects can read themselves to underwrite new identities and agencies. Ritualized practices realize relationships and agencies sanctioned in high-order doctrinal commitments and communicated in narrative conceits. Taken together, these engagements constitute a comprehensive lifeworld by which people understand the universe and by which they may author
subjectivity with enhanced agency and confirmed identity. To gain the coherence necessary for this nexus of doctrine, narrative, and practice to be coordinated in the service of subjectivity, the nexus must be adhered through overarching topoi, idioms, imageries, and metaphors. The adhesive element required in such world-making and identity-authoring pursuits is the imaginaire.
The imaginaire is not just a collation of recurrent imageries. The imaginaire is an epistemic field built from related narratives and imageries as they are constellated and contextualized by broader concerns, including historiographical conceptions, discourses of power, and metaphysical presuppositions. Thus, the Kabgyé imaginaire is not just a collection of wrathful buddha images and violent imagescapes. The Kabgyé imaginaire is a broader ground of
connected imageries and narratives destined to communicate what the world is, who we are, and what we could become. The imaginaire also facilitates, through ritualization, soteriological and social transformations in conformity with such conceptions. Buddhological doctrines, a priori conceptions about social and natural orders, historiographical conceits, and paradigms of religious mastery are all inculcated in the imaginaire; they are given voice through the
iconographic, visionary, and narrative imageries out of which the Kabgyé cosmos is articulated. Specifically, the Kabgyé imaginaire communicates a world of threat and response, and imagines mastery in terms of the capability to navigate between the domains of order and disorder to dispatch harms. It also suggests that violence, sexuality, and other resources of lived experience, are commensurate with the ground of pristine gnosis.
While my description of the Kabgyé imaginaire has focused on its capacity to coherently underwrite doctrinal, narrative, and ritual engagements, it is also important to keep in mind the inevitable discontinuities evident in the history of any religious tradition. Consultation of the
literary-historical record typically reveals blatant discrepancies between doctrinal dictates and the actual character of practices as they were carried out by adherents. Such discontinuities are actually highly productive. As religious traditions seek to maintain relevance in ever-shifting social and discursive contexts, ruptures between normative expectations and the actualities of practice may drive a tradition towards responsive innovation. While religion is often understood to function like an overarching model for intelligible experience (a logos, a system of symbols, or a structure of intelligibility), it is also the case that individuals often find meaning in the
disruption of doctrinal or sectarian identities. Indeed, autobiographical literature often reveals that the discontinuous, the unexpected, and the unwanted are the catalysts for transformation and the sites of self-cultivation. All of this is to acknowledge that, despite the coherence activated in the constellation of a specific imaginaire, incoherence, discontinuity, and rupture may be as catalytic to religious subjectivity as are the forces of coherence and normalization. Nonetheless, there is no question that the Kabgyé persisted as a resource for the articulation of Nyingma
identity through supplying a consistent set of imaginal opportunities built around specific notions of history, tantric doctrine, and conceptions for mastery. Let us therefore look more specifically at Kabgyé doctrines, narratives, and ritualism in the context of the Kabgyé imaginaire to appraise how this nexus of factors fostered religious subjectivity, or, as Kant might put it, the “conditions of possibility” (Bedingungen der Möglichkeit). The aim here is not to fully document the myriad doctrinal propositions, narrative conceits, and varieties of ritual practice included in the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa. Rather, I wish to elucidate the interwoven quality of doctrine, narrative, and ritual practice, and to show how the confluence of these aspects undergirds the articulation of identity and the construction of agentive subjectivities for tantric practitioners.
While this dissertation has not attended to the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa’s exegetical traditions in any detail (a project which would be immensely profitable for understanding the Tibetan reception of Mahāyoga), we may document some of the doctrinal undercurrents articulated in texts such as The King of Root Tantras, The Arising auto-history, and in the Kabgyé’s ritual liturgies. Some analyses of the Kabgyé’s specific buddhological formulations
and rhetorical positions have already been traced in Chapter Four. Here, I endeavor to document some of the more general orientations of the core tantric materials towards articulating the character and operations of the Kabgyé imaginaire. Specifically, we will see how conceptions regarding the utility of violence, the value of apotropaic mastery, and the soteriology of bliss are articulated in the Kabgyé cycle. These doctrinal orientations define the contours of the Kabgyé world, and provide a foundation from which Kabgyé narratives and ritual practices gain transformative impact.
Simply put, religious doctrines function to communicate a vision for what the world is, and what is possible for human beings within it. Ontology, epistemology, ethics, and selfcultivational models are all advanced through doctrinal formulations, which may be overtly stated as philosophical propositions, or tacitly communicated through narratives and ritual texts. The Kabgyé root tantras, the cycle’s historical and supplementary materials, and the various
ritual texts that fill out the Deshek Dupa corpus all entail “doctrinal” dimensions in as much as they communicate – sometimes explicitly, sometimes tacitly – propositions about the nature of the world and peoples’ capacity for transformation within it. The articulation of ontological, epistemological, and ethical formulations is an essential feature of religion in any context, and the Kabgyé literature constitutes a specific iteration of such formulations to distinguish itself as a unique, and legitimate, Mahāyoga Tantric Buddhist tradition.
Tantric scriptures in general proffer a world in which violence and sexuality are primary actants: they are natural forces which can disrupt socio-natural orders, or which can be wielded to achieve soteriological mastery. Mahāyoga is partially defined by the inclusion of sexual congress (“union”, sbyor ba), and sacrificial violence (“liberation”, sgrol ba), in its narratives and ritual programs. The Kabgyé entails both of these elements in its framing narratives, although its rituals are almost exclusively concerned with subjugative violence and the aversion
of demonic harms. The Kabgyé was one iteration of tantra’s agentive reclamation of the demonic and the violent, and its coordination with other literary topoi – for example, the emergent vision of the harm-averting ritual adept as the paradigmatic Buddhist master – resulted in a set of interlocking imaginaires which would inform not just Nyingma tradition, but, to some degree, the intellectual topography of Tibetan Buddhism altogether. In this, the wrathful tantrism of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa positions violence at the center of a constellation of Mahāyoga concepts, tying violence to the nature of reality in both its gnosical and manifest dimensions, and
positioning its management as a primary activity for self-cultivational actors. In this doctrinal terrain, violence stands for a broader tantric attitude towards the utility of all conventionally “negative” impulses: desire, aggression, pride, envy, and ignorance.
Within the Kabgyé materials, much effort is devoted to demonstrating the commensurability of violence with the buddhology of pristine cognition. We have seen how the origin-narrative of the cycle’s articulation through the “three lineages” of “Mind”, “Sign”, and “Word” functions to sanction the wrathful iconography of the Kabgyé mandalas, and to justify the revelation of new scriptures by associating these elements with the deepest strata of reality. Specifically, the story of the Kabgyé’s auto-percolation from primordial reality (chos nyid, Skt. dharmatā) via the Lineage of the Conqueror’s Mind-State (rgyal ba’i dgongs pa brgyud),
through the Lineage of Mystic Signs (rig ‘dzin brda brgyud), and into the Aural Lineage of Humans (gang zag snyan brgyud), functions to explain how, and why, a new cycle – and one explicitly embracive of destructive impulses – might appear in the world. Likewise, the introductory narratives for each of the cycle’s root tantras always return to the buddhological connection between the iconography of the wrathful mandala and the primordial substrate of
pristine cognition. And while the ritual violence evident in Kabgyé ritual texts suggests little affiliation with normative Buddhist goals, terminological cues are regularly supplied to link apotropaic ritual practice with the general parameters of Buddhist praxis. Thus, tantric doctrinal commitments are evidenced within every kind of Kabgyé text, even though, as paradigmatic of the ritual-centric Accomplishment Class of Mahāyoga, very limited overt doctrinal didacticism is present in these sources. When explicitly doctrinal statements do appear in the tantras’ framing
narratives – for example, in the articulation of the connection between wrathful imagery and pristine cognition – we see an enduring concern that the cycle justify its existence vis-à-vis philosophical commitments consistent with orthodox tantric buddhology. Alongside attention to violence as a primary element of both mundane and enlightened realities, the Kabgyé defines human potential around violence’s management. The Kabgyé logos circulates around a dialectic of danger and order, and the most important characters within the
Kabgyé imaginal world are those who can traverse, and facilitate transition between, threatening forces and ordered realities. This apotropaic logos is “doctrinal” in as much as the Kabgyé communicates a “model of” (and, in its ritual orientation, a “model for”) reality in which the world consists of forces that are at once dangerous, and also powerfully conducive to the reclamation of mastery. This dialectical reality of harm and order is unequivocally communicated in the imagery of the Kabgyé mandalas, which are populated by mundane gods
and demons, as well as re-assigned demon-buddhas at the center. These gods and demons – the Drekpa of the Eight Classes, and so forth – are at once the entities to be subdued by the Kabgyé master, and also the entities who, once socialized into the apotropaic mandala, facilitate the master’s control over apparent reality. Thus, the transversal of the registers of danger and order, and the double-affiliation of a tantric master with the domain of enlightened agency and the
worldly society of autochthonous entities, yields ultimate authority in a distinctive vision for human potential that hinges on the reclamation of tempestuous (and sometimes patently “dark”) forces. If doctrine functions to articulate the ontological contours of the world, and to communicate the self-cultivational potential of human beings, we can see how the Kabgyé scriptures articulate a cosmos in which violence and its embracive management are fundamental tropes. According to this, power is to be gained in the reclamation of threatening forces, a reclamation that hinges on the recognition of the true value of violence as a natural, spontaneous, and even compassionate expression of primordial gnosis. This embrace of dangerous,
transitional, and conventionally unmanageable phenomena is at the doctrinal core of tantra altogether, and the Kabgyé’s unique buddhology, demonology, and vision for apotropaic mastery advances the vajrayana’s broad commitment to immediate soteriology.
In addition to its distinctive orientation to violence and its management, the Kabgyé also communicates the tantric soteriology of bliss, emblematized in overtly sexual idioms and erotically evocative narrative episodes. The introductions to the Kabgyé tantras describe the discourse and intercourse between Kuntu Zangpo and Kuntu Zangmo, and the subsequent gynogenesis of the Kabgyé mandalas. Sexual tension and liberative proliferation are evoked in these passages, such as this from the King of Root Tantras:
light rays of bodhisattvas [[[emerging]]] from the space of the lady, by inconceivable wrathful emanations proliferating in all ten directions, Lord Chemchok annihilated, liberated, and tamed all the worldly arrogant ones, the twenty-one great gods and so forth.338
According to Mahāyoga exegesis in general, these narratives of intercourse and mandalic genesis are interpretable as descriptions of the primordial ground’s (gzhi) auto-expressive nature, and of the ontological subtrate’s qualitative dimensions. Like violence, bliss is implicated both as a primary quality of phenomena, and as a basis for self-cultivation. The recurring generation of the Kabgyé mandalas out of the copulation of primordial Buddhas articulates the capacity of the primordial ground (chos nyid, “reality itself”) to continually manifest myriad phenomena which can be experienced in either gnosical or deluded ways (or, from a deeply tantric perspective, as at once gnosical and deluded).
We have no further need to unpack the subtle aspects of this kind of buddhology here. Rather, I hope it is clear that basic tantric doctrines are given voice through the Kabgyé’s textual materials, even in lieu of overtly philosophical didacticism. These doctrinal ideas will inform the Kabgyé imaginaire as it underwrites possibilities for subjectivity and identity in narrative and ritual engagements. We now return to Kabgyé narrativity to see how the Kabgyé’s undergirding doctrines are given voice and incorporated into the Deshek Dupa’s imaginal world.
The Kabgyé narrative world provides the imaginal settings and mytho-historical frames within which the ontological, epistemological, and ethical formulations of the Kabgyé’s tantric doctrines are communicated. Narratives activate doctrinal conceptions in the advancement of imaginal worlds, often presented in historical terms, into which subjects can implicate 338 The King of Root Tantras, 306: yab chem chog gis yum khro mo gnam zhal ma la dgyes pa chen po’i mdangs gyis gzigs te/ yum gyi sku la dgyes pa’i mchod pa phul bas/ yum gyi mkha’ las byang chub kyi sems kyi ‘od zer las sprul pa’i khro bo bsam gyis mi khyab pa phyogs bcu thams cad du ‘phros pas/ ‘jig rten gyi dregs pa can/ lha chen po nyi shu rtsa gcig la tsogs pa thams cad bsgral te bdul zhing tshar bcad/
themselves to underwrite new identities and agencies. That is, the framing mythological narratives of the Kabgyé tantras and ritual texts open an alternative imaginal space within which readers may confirm specific ontological realities, and participate in ongoing identityconstituting dramas.339 The Kabgyé mythologies’ setting in Kuntu Zangpo’s primordial domain, and in the visionary mandalic realm of the “Sign lineage” (brda brgyud), are quintessential subjunctive spaces: they are settings that stand apart from, but also undergird, mundane reality. Also, in resonating on both synchronic and diachronic registers, these narratives at once
communicate the character of ontological reality, while instantiating a temporal narrative with which readers can participate. Thus, the tantric narratives edify readers on multiple levels: they operate subjunctively, they communicate ontological commitments, and they inscribe readers into ongoing narrative dramas which can be enacted in ritualized practice.
We have seen Kabgyé narrativity unfold in three textual venues: in the mytho-historical expositions contextualizing the Kabgyé cycles (i.e., The Arising auto-history along with the Clear Lamp narrative bibliography)340, in the framing mythologies (the gleng gzhi, or
339 By “readers” I generally refer to adherents who engage the tantric narrative world, either as readers of texts, as hearers in ritualized settings, or as adherents otherwise immersed in the narrative and iconographic imagescapes of these tantras. Engagement with tantric sources would rarely be casual. Access to these texts is generally regulated by initiatory protocols, the standards for engagement dictated by pedagogical tradition. One might find oneself studying
these tantras in the context of reception of the esoteric self-cultivational tradition, in the context of scholasticism, in the context of communal ritual practice (e.g., during mass initiation rituals (dbang skur) wherein lineal histories are read aloud), or simply in the immersion in the broader Kabgyé imaginaire wherein iconographies and narrative episodes are depicted on temple walls, through ‘cham dance performances, or by way of other aesthetic productions that constitute life in and around Tibetan Buddhist temples.
340 Supplementary historical literature should also be considered part of an overall Kabgyé narrativity. Lore about the provenance of the Kabgyé, and the career of Nyangrel and his lineal descendants, figure prominently in any emic historical interpretation of the cycle. The lineal biographies and historical exegeses included in most Kabgyé Deshek Dupa editions should also be considered important narrative features of the broader Kabgyé tradition. However, for the sake of simplicity, I restrict my appraisal here to “auto-historical” literature: i.e., historical narratives about the
Kabgyé’s origins from within the Kabgyé cycle. Biographical and supplementary historical literature incorporates layers of intertextuality, rhetoric and polemics, and intersects with other discursive contexts. It is through these materials that the Kabgyé is bridged with broader historiographical and denominational identities. Detailed analysis of the role of such supplementary historical literature is certainly worthwhile, but beyond the purview of this present study. Again, I direct the reader to Daniel Hirshberg’s scholarship on Nyangrel’s biographical literature for a deeper exploration of these issues.
“introductions”) of the tantras (specifically, those found within the King of Root Tantras and its chapters); and in the micro-narratives of different ritual texts, as explored in Chapter Six.341 These narrative venues overlap in the inclusion of specific characters, common narrative settings, and shared idioms. Thus, they are coordinated in a coherent narrativity that gives expression to the Kabgyé imaginaire. Each of these narrative venues also entails synchronic and diachronic
dimensions. That is, the narratives can be interpreted synchronically as articulations of doctrinal principles, or diachronically as historical stories about the origin and trajectory of things. Both the synchronic and diachronic dimensions of these narratives are important, as they work together to effectuate self-understanding in both absolute-ontological, and temporallycontextualized terms. I will suggest that both kinds of self-conceptions – ontological and historical – are crucially implicated in the capacity of the doctrine-narrative-ritual complex to constitute identity and anchor religious subjectivity.
In general, the synchronic aspect of Mahāyoga mythology functions to communicate fundamental tantric ideas, particularly the commensurability of manifest phenomena with the noumenal substrate, or ground (kun gzhi). That is, the narratives of mandala-producing intercourse between primordial buddhas, and the tale of tantra’s auto-emanation and redaction through the lineages of Mind, Sign, and Word, communicate how myriad phenomena can manifest out of an unconditioned, but qualitatively endowed, substrate. These cosmogonic
mythologies also validate the emergence of new teachings and religious iconographies in accounting for the disclosure of phenomena, and gnosis, out of the auto-expressive compassion 341 Each ritual liturgy advances its own micro-narrative, proffering an imaginal setting populated with specific kinds of agents, and calling for specific kinds of interventions. However, as constituent elements of the Kabgyé imaginaire, it is important to observe how the imaginal worlds of these discrete ritual texts cohere in a broader metanarrative, or aggregate imagescape. In other words, there is a broader Kabgyé ritual narrativity that assumes a given range of characters, forces, agencies, and goals.
of the primordial Buddha. As explored in the above discussion of the Kabgyé’s doctrinalism, tantric soteriology hinges on the commensurability of all phenomena with the substrate of pristine gnosis. In Mahāyoga tantras, this logos is given voice in portrayals of the discourse and intercourse between primordial agents, and the cosmogonic proliferation of visionary and
material worlds. Whereas “Tantra Class” scriptures such as the Secret Nucleus tend to explicitly decode tantric mythologies by providing basic doctrinal interpretations of the narrative action, the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa’s root tantras generally forego much propositional doctrinalism as they quickly proceed between narrative episodes wherein the generation of mandalas is described. The Kabgyé’s root tantras stick to a narrative format, providing little interpretive guidance regarding the doctrinal meaning of the framing mythologies.
We may speculate as to why mythological narratives are employed to communicate the philosophical commitments at the basis of tantra. That is, why are complex philosophical issues explored through narrative media, rather than as overtly philosophical propositions and formal arguments? For one, tantra’s core philosophical concern – the commensurability of variegated manifest phenomena with a unitary substratic reality – is difficult to propositionally articulate. Early/Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric traditions have all made efforts to argue distinctive
solutions to this buddhological problem. It may be that these concepts are more effectively communicated through stories in which philosophical principles are personified as actants, and the potential of subjects to realize soteriological conclusions is inculcated. However, I suggest that it is also crucial to understand how tantric buddhology is meant to undergird, or reflect, transformational experience. Tantra is, first and foremost, a mode of praxis, and its doctrinal commitments are best given voice in a narrativity that can readily intersect with practice regimes
at the heart of the tantric project. In other words, as tantra is fully oriented to effectuating transformational experience – it is, quite explicitly, a “method” (thabs, Skt. upāya) – its constituent elements must be coordinated in the service of subjectivity-generating practices. As I have been arguing, this coordination happens by way of a coherent imaginaire, given voice in iconographies, mythologies, and liturgical narratives. In this, doctrine is aestheticized to communicate ontological principles and suggest directions for cultivation. By communicating
foundational doctrines through resonant imageries and idioms, a setting is provided for actionable praxis through which soteriological principles may be realized. Rituals depend on the imaginal vocabularies of narratives communicating essential doctrinal formulations. The framing narratives thus bridge the doctrinal and the praxical by establishing a subjunctive imaginal space. The elements of this space – the images, idioms, and narrative action – must resonate with
readers and provide an overarching arena within which subject-constituting practices can unfold. The narrativization of profound buddhology dealing with the trans-conceptual substrate of reality thus opens an access point by which a narrative setting, through ritualization, may become a lifeworld: an arena with which subjects engage to constitute a field of intelligible intersubjective engagements. However, for this complex of doctrine, narrative, and praxis to prove truly catalytic, it must also resonate diachronically, projecting historicized trajectories into which adherents can read themselves, and gain identity in the recapitulation of recurrent dramas.
The Kabgyé’s framing narratives describe the origin of visionary realms – the Kabgyé mandalas – out of the auto-expressive compassion of the primordial ground. Despite the obvious synchronic, or phenomenological, register of these myths, there is no reason to believe that these cosmogonic stories were not also interpreted as actual accounts of the origin of things. While we do not know how “belief” figured in the devotional lives of medieval Tantric Buddhists,
Mahāyoga mythologies explicitly functioned as stories about the origins of phenomena in visionary and manifest dimensions. Whether or not they were interpreted literally, their selfpresentation as historical accounts is critical to tantric mythology’s capacity to catalyze specific religious identities. As temporalized narratives, these cosmogonic mythologies project an openended trajectory: one which implicates a reader, and which informs the activation of identity
through ritualized practices derived from the foundational narratives’ idioms and events. The mytho-historical narratives of the Kabgyé’s origins in primordial, visionary, and manifest realities establish a narrative trajectory into which the Kabgyé practitioner is inscribed by virtue of immersion in the Kabgyé imaginal world with its regimes of practice. As the Kabgyé
mandalas, according to these framing narratives, derive from the activity of theogenic figures, practices situated in the Kabgyé’s mandalic imaginal realm become venues for the articulation of specific identities in confirmation of broader understandings of the sacred origins and nature of things. For the Kabgyé practitioner, the cosmogonic deeds told in the tantric narratives put into motion forces that continually resound, and the demon-control articulated in its ritualism is
replicated in practice programs circulating around Kabgyé idioms and figures. Kabgyé rites replicate the originary deeds of cosmic figures, and the Kabgyé narratives, in their diachronic dimension, open a venue for the affiliative confirmation of specific identities. Thus, the “mythohistorical” character of the Kabgyé’s framing narratives undergirds the identity-confirming
potential of the doctrine-narrative-ritual complex. The capacity of Kabgyé narrativity to communicate ontological conceptions while inscribing adherents in ongoing dramas expressing the history and vision for a specific kind of mastery is an essential force in the overall constitution of agency, identity, and religious subjectivity at the heart of Nyingma religiosity. Narrativity provides the medium for the activation of doctrinal commitments and the execution of practices out of which a Kabgyé practitioner defines himself. However, it is ultimately through ritual practice that a subject is cast into the unique lifeworld articulated in the overarching narrativity of this tradition.
The efficacy of ritualized practice is best understood as a function of its interface with undergirding doctrines and the imaginal settings of mytho-historical narratives. Religious doctrines articulate ontological, epistemological, and ethical conceptions, while mythologies deploy imaginal settings and diachronic plots informing the activation of new identities. Ritualized practices then realize the agencies and relationships sanctioned in high-order doctrinal commitments and communicated in narrative settings. It is thus through the confluence of
doctrine, narrative, and ritual that transformed subjectivities may emerge. In the case of the Kabgyé, framing mythologies and liturgical narratives lay out the imaginal field within which tantric ideas about the value of violence and other negativities, and the potential of certain kinds of mastery, are communicated, and within which actionable practices may be carried out. In concert with undergirding doctrines and an overarching narrativity, the execution of selfcultivational and supplementary ritual forges transformed subjectivities as practitioners experience themselves as participants in sacred recursive dramas sanctioned in sacred ontologies
and cultivational visions, and contextualized by broader historiographical conceptions. Ritualized modes of self-cultivation, such as sgrub thabs or las byang (Skt. sādhana), are expressly transformative, as a practitioner employs imaginative techniques to inhabit a visualized, or subjunctive, sacred domain whereby transformation of the perceptuo-cognitive apparatus is effectuated. The cultivational domain – the mandala of the Kabgyé heruka – is at
once imagined, and “real”, as the framing narratives have described the proliferation of such visionary realms from the compassionate activity of primordial agents. Supplementary ritual programs, such as the apotropaic rites for which the Deshek Dupa is known, are also catalytic of agency, identity, and religious subjectivity in as much as these practice programs draw on narrative templates, idioms, and constellated images to effectuate the self-experience of
practitioners as actants in ongoing dramas tied to the origins of Buddhism and the Nyingma community. The execution of the Kabgyé Drupchen, for example, re-enacts the demon-taming exploits of Tibet’s original tantric master, Padmasambhava, who, himself, gained his abilities through the practice of the Kabgyé mandalas, which are themselves expressive of the compassion of Kuntu Zangpo. Kabgyé ritualism, then, is embedded in, and made intelligible by, interlocking narrative frames. The execution of these rites recalls the conditions for Buddhism’s
Self-cultivational and apotropaic ritual practices gain transformative potential in the activation of ontologies and identities communicated in the narrative and doctrinal materials, and expressed through the Kabgyé imaginaire. As the imagination is the operative tool in this type of praxis, the imaginaire is the critical element behind the intelligibility of these ritual practices and their settings. The Kabgyé imaginaire facilitates the transformative capacity of ritualized practice in activating the ontologies and identities communicated in foundational stories.
Of course, ritual is also a site for the negotiation of relations, both in its inculcation of knowledge regimes, and in its regulative kinetic dimensions (for example, in its spatial arrangements and the choreography of bodies). Thus, ritual is always nested in discursive and social contexts, and its practice amounts to far more than the mere execution of prescribed actions in isolated settings. As ritual practice, despite its subjunctive character, is situated within broader social and discursive contexts, I use the term “ritualism” to refer to ritual’s
contextualization in a web of forces and conceptions that surround and give meaning to ritualized activity, and which render ritual effective towards personal, communal, and doctrinally-defined goals. When such webs of signification and action are regularized to render ritual performance a significant driver of subjectivity – when ritual, embedded in a broader network of cultural factors, becomes a repeatable technique of communal and individual identity – we can talk about “ritualism” as a field of discourse and practice contextualizing specific ritual acts. “Kabgyé
ritualism” refers not only to the regularized performance of specific rites, but to the overall suite of protocols, narrativities, institutional and historiographical packaging, and also modes of material exchange, which contextualize Kabgyé practice. Kabgyé ritualism is made intelligible,
and is connected to the domains of doctrine and myth, through the Kabgyé imaginaire: the coherent field of images and narrative topoi which act as the medium for ritual’s transformative potential. It is a potential catalyzed in the nexus of ideas about reality, stories about cosmic origins, and in protocols for enacting transformed agencies.
All of this is to recognize the mutually-constitutive relationship between the domains of doctrine, narrative, and ritualized practice, and the situated character of this nexus within broader fields of discourse and social practice. My contention is that this confluence of forces is cohered through a specific imaginal world which deploys regularized sets of idioms, imageries, and hermeneutical conditions to undergird the effectuation of specific subjectivities, agencies, and
identities. In the case of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa, I have attempted to account for the enduring relevance of this scripture in terms of its capacity to supply an imaginaire that continually resonated for Nyingma adherents. It is through the Kabgyé imaginaire, and its activation in ritual practices, that a collection of ideas, stories, and rites becomes a lifeworld: a field of engagement in which ontologies, agentive possibilities, hermeneutical expectations, and conditions for exchange are mediated by constellated images, imaginal worlds, and narrative topoi.342 The
Kabgyé lifeworld is one in which Buddhists experience themselves as participants in an ongoing story of Buddhism’s maintenance in an inhospitable natural and social environment, as subjects capable of self-cultivational accomplishment through the reclamation of demonic forces, as members of a community tied to the very origins and structure of esoteric knowledge, and as agents capable of managing disorder in expression of a distinctive vision of religious mastery . 342 While Husserlian phenomenology initially advanced the term lebenswelt to refer to “the realm of original selfevidences... the world of straightforward intersubjective experience”, sociological appropriations of the term, such as by Schütz and Habermas, attend to the broad fields of shared meaning that also configure the inhabitation of personal and collective lifeworlds. I venture further in my appropriation of the term to include the semiotic or imaginal fields - collective and individual - that contribute to the configuration of immediate experience. See Husserl 1970, 127–128, 133; Habermas 1987, vol. 2, 113-153; also, Schütz 1973.
The Kabgyé lifeworld is intersubjective, as it hinges on the interface with agents of all kinds – most often, dangerous ones – and claims subjectivity in the dialogue between the forces of danger and order. Of course, this particular lifeworld is situated within other habiti, both in harmony and in competition. It is thus crucial to understand the ways in which ideas about reality, stories about the origins of things, and regimes of praxis are intertwined, and rendered intelligible by a coherent imaginal world with great power in determining the conditions of transformation, identity, and being.
My exploration of the Kabgyé tradition has been stimulated by an insight gained early on in my research. As I initially set out to learn what the Kabgyé “meant” in terms of its unique doctrines and ritual programs, I quickly came to detect that more important perspectives might circulate around the question of what the Kabgyé “meant to Nyingmapas” in specific contexts. That is, as a historian of Tibetan Buddhism, and as a religionist, my attention has been drawn to how the Kabgyé contributed to the efforts of its individual practitioners, and those of the
institutions responsible for its custody, to articulate responsive identities and forge agentive Buddhist subjectivities in specific historical contexts. As my research unfolded, particularly in Tibetan settings, I was encouraged in this direction by observing the Kabgyé’s great rhetorical and imagological value: a value which seemed to stand in contrast to the apparent obscurity of the Eight Teachings as a self-cultivational tantric system. The ubiquity of Kabgyé iconography on temple walls, the centrality of Kabgyé templates in organizing scriptural materials, the
influence of Kabgyé mytho-historical narratives, and the rhetoric about the importance of the Kabgyé’s divinities seemed to contrast with the relative invisibility of Kabgyé practice and study in Nyingma settings, both in Tibet and in exile. Perhaps this obscurity is attributable to the Kabgyé’s deep esoterism and, even by Tibetan standards, arresting content; or, perhaps it is related to the complexity of its practice protocols, now superseded by abbreviated ritual formats currently popular with Nyingmapa adherents. However, the prevalence of Kabgyé imagery,
rhetoric, and narratives signals the Eight Teachings’ deep legacy and its pervasive influence over how the Nyingmapas have come to imagine themselves. This is confirmed in the Kabgyé’s reception and publication history, as we see adepts and institutions turn to the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa again and again in their efforts to articulate collective identities, and to reform their
tradition in times of inter-institutional pressures. In examining the contents of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa corpora, and in observing its use in temple life, I have observed that the Kabgyé is bestregarded as a ritual tradition: one of great value in securing Nyingma communities and practitioners. The Eight Teachings proffered a format for the kind of ritual intercession continually mandated by the omnipresent threat of tempestuous entities and contestive social forces on the Tibetan plateau. The recurring subjugation of these threats is a vital element of
Tibetan Buddhist religiosity, particularly for the lay-ritualist Nyingmapas, and one which has been under-appreciated in scholarly descriptions of Tibetan Buddhism. As I have attempted to show in my interpretation of Kabgyé literature, it was a cycle that forwarded a conception of religious mastery hinging on idioms of harm-aversion, demon-control, and thaumaturgical prowess. Such idioms were particularly empowering for the Nyingmapa, the Tibetan denomination most known for its embrace of non-monastic ritual professionalism. The Kabgyé’s coordination with Nyingma historiography makes clear how this cycle undergirded a specific denominational identity, and provided a venue for the articulation of Buddhist identities
commensurate with a vision for tantric mastery long resonant for Tibetans. In sum, the Kabgyé is best-described as a vital resource for Nyingmapas as they authored their distinctive denominational identity and effectuated tantric subjectivities in a shifting cultural terrain. In addition to providing ritual programs for self-cultivation and the management of socio-natural dangers, the Kabgyé supplied imaginal resources out of which Nyingmapas could author
themselves. I have thus directed my attention to the Kabgyé imaginaire, attempting to describe the Kabgyé’s imaginal world as an overarching matrix for the development of subjectivitygenerating and identity-confirming religiosities. Indeed, the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa is especially rich in how it signifies the origins of sacred knowledge, how it signifies a distinctive kind of
religious experience and mode of mastery, and how it signifies the domestication of Buddhism and the achievement possible by a Buddhist master capable of navigating a terrain of violence and its management. The Kabgyé advanced a daring vision for the embrace of demonic forces; it sanctified violence and other negativities in a distinctive Mahāyoga buddhology; it undergirded the identity of Tibetan Buddhism’s founding figures and their apotropaic deeds; it incorporated
the gods, demons, and magical lore of Tibetan tradition; and it was paradigmatic of a type of tantric literature entailing mythologies, narratives, and ritual regimes uniquely resonant for Tibetans. The importance of the Eight Teachings far exceeds the impact of its specific doctrinal propositions and its doxographic position within a diverse array of sub-traditions. The Kabgyé’s influence lies in how it has contributed to the very definition of the Nyingma – and the Tibetan Buddhist – world, offering an arena within which identities, subjectivities and agencies may continually be worked out.
My study of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa cycle marks an initial attempt to introduce this essential tradition to Buddhist scholarship. My intention has been to offer an informative background, trace a general history, and carry out a preliminary literary analysis of this tantric cycle, while observing its contextualization in the social history and the buddhological imagination of Tibetans in specific historical frames. This initial – and admittedly superficial –
exploration of the Eight Teachings opens many further directions for scholarship focusing on this tradition, on the development of the Nyingma denomination in general, and on the matrix of imaginal engagements out of which Tibetan Buddhists authored their identities. Some avenues for further exploration include a more thorough reading of the core tantric materials and of the commentarial tradition to elucidate the Kabgyé’s unique take on Mahāyoga tantrism. Charting continuities and divergences with transmitted tantric systems may reveal much about the
attempts of Tibetans to make tantric Buddhism their own in the post-fragmentation period. A careful documentation of the Kabgyé’s doctrinal architecture might also shed light on the dialogue of ideas and doxographical conceptions in a critical period for the development of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, my reception and publication history of the Deshek Dupa has been cursory, meant to illuminate some general patterns in the history of this cycle in classical Tibet. A more careful documentation of the Kabgyé’s transit through specific lineages, and its
treatment at the hands of specific luminaries, is necessary to truly determine the influence of this cycle within the broader suite of Nyingma sub-traditions. My work has also neglected the other major Kabgyé cycles, such as those of Guru Chowang and Rigzin Godem. Daniel Hirshberg is currently researching the literary and rhetorical connection between the three principal Kabgyé cycles, and his work promises to contribute much to our understanding of how the Kabgyé inflected the development of the Nyingma tradition as it was curated by these founding figures. The development of Nyingma institutions in Eastern Tibet is also an especially rich arena for
exploring issues of institutional authority and the expectations for religious mastery in a contentious socio-political context. While recent and forthcoming work is advancing our knowledge about the history of specific institutions in this period, attention to the treatment of particular cycles and ritual traditions would be an excellent way to document emergent ideas about the role of Buddhist institutions and masters, and the purpose of religious practice in the context of Tibet’s pre-modern period. Jacob Dalton’s documentation of the exegetical and ritual treatment of The Gathering of Intentions Sutra is a good example of such an approach to
describing Tibetan religious history through the life-story of a particular scriptural corpus. Likewise, in the realm of textual study, a more careful documentation of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa’s publication and circulation in Eastern Tibet, U-Tsang, and Bhutan may reveal networks
of influence between regions and institutions. Cathy Cantwell’s current project documenting iterations of the Kabgyé’s phur ba ‘dus pa tantra is one example of a text-critical approach to these materials that will yield historical insight about the evolution of this tradition. In addition to textual study, ethnographic documentation of Kabgyé practice would be of enormous benefit in advancing some of the lines of inquiry initiated in this dissertation. Specifically, a complete documentation of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa Drupchen as it is currently carried out at Nyingma
temples would do much to refine my insights about ritual practice as a crucible for the articulation of identity, agency, and subjectivity. My research is lacking in this regard, and I still aspire to carefully document the execution of the Kabgyé Drupchen at Katok, Dzogchen, Shechen, or Rebkong in the hopes of refining my interpretive model of tantric ritualism. Finally, a more robust interpretation of the concept of the imaginaire and of its Kabgyé’s iteration is
certainly in order. Making use of phenomenological and sociological perspectives, such as those of Schütz and Habermas, promises a rich exploration of the complex of influences behind the inhabitation of religious lifeworlds. Plus, a sustained engagement with the narratology of Paul Ricoeur may add nuance to my theorization of the subject-constituting force of religious narrativity.
In conclusion, my scholarship seeks to decompartmentalize the constituent factors of religiosity, showing how doctrinal propositions, narrative imagination, and the kinetics of ritualized practice intersect to direct the transformation of subjectivity for adherents. The nexus of doctrine, narrative, and praxis resonates with contextual discourses and social forms, gaining intelligibility through situation within overarching knowledge regimes, networks of power, modes of exchange, and interpretive habiti. Such a holistic approach to understanding the meaning-making and world-constituting capacity of religion is essential to properly appreciate
the role of images, stories, rituals, and collective identities that propel the subjectivity of adherents. While there is much to gain by elucidating Tibetan Buddhism’s scintillating philosophical doctrines, by tracing its narrative traditions, and by documenting its many selfcultivational and intercessionary ritual techniques, I aver that it is in an intersectional, comprehensive, and historically contextualized perspective that we can best understand how
Buddhism was a force for articulating identity, agency, and subjectivity for the people of Tibet. Philosophical ideas, iconographies, mythoi, praxes, socio-cultural expectations for authority, expressions of power, conditions of material exchange, conceptions of history, the concerns of realpolitik, expectations for mastery, natural environmental conditions, and many other such discourses and contextual forces converge in the execution of religious engagements which circulate through imaginaires with tremendous impact in determining the horizon of the accepted
and the possible. The study of the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa provides us with a splendid venue for exploring Tibetan Buddhist religiosity in this intersectional perspective, supplying as it did a wealth of imaginal resources and actionable practices for advancing Buddhist experience in the context of many intersecting influences. While my research has but scratched the surface of the vast trove of knowledge and lore that lies within the Kabgyé Deshek Dupa’s thirteen volumes, I hope that this work may inspire further explorations into the Kabgyé’s many doctrinal, narrative, and ritual dimensions, as well as encouraging an embrace of broader interpretive perspectives honoring the powerfully interconnected suite of factors that configure the imagination and effectuate self-experience within religious lifeworlds.
(In order of significance) <poem> Chos kyi 'od zer, Myang ston bsod nams seng ge, and Mi 'gyur rdo rje. “Sprul sku mnga' bdag chen po'i skyes rabs rnam thar dri ma med pa'i bka' rgya can la ldeb (The Stainless Proclamations)”, in Bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa'i chos skor, vol. 1, 1-163. Gangtok: Lama Sonam Tobgay Kazi, 1978.
Myang ston rig 'dzin lhun grub 'od zer. “Bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa'i gter ston myang sprul sku nyi ma 'od zer gyi rnam thar gsal ba'i me long (The Clear Mirror)”, in Bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa'i chos skor, vol. 2, 199-381. Paro: Lama Ngödrup, 1979. Gu ru bkra shis, Bstan-pa'i snying-po gsang-chen snga-'gyur nges-don zab-mo'i chos-kyi byung-ba gsal-bar byed-pa'i legs-bshad mkhas-pa dga'-byed ngo-mtshar gtam-gyi rol-mtsho. Ed. Rdo-rje-rgyal-po. Beijing: Krung-go'i bod-kyi shes-rig dpe-skrun-khang. 1990, 379-83
So ston and Dpon yes. “Sras mnga' bdag chos rje 'gro ba'i dgon po'i rnam thar yid bzhin nor bu'i phreng ba” in Bka' brgyad bde gshegs bsdus pa'i chos skor. Dalhousie: Damchoe Sangpo, 1977, vol. 1, pp. 13-85.
Dudjom Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje. “Nyangrel Nyima Ozer”, in The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. trans.Matthew T. Kapstein and Gyurme Dorje Boston: Wisdom Publications. 1991, 755-59.
Kong sprul blo gros mtha' yas. “Zab mo'i gter dang gter ston grub thob ji ltar byon pa'i lo rgyus mdor bsdus bskod pa rin chen baiḍūrya'i phreng ba.” In Rin chen gter mdzod chen mo, vol. 1, 291-645. Paro: Ngödrup and Sherab Drimay, 1976-80. Mnga' bdag bla ma brgyud pa'i rnam thar: The Biographies of the Early Masters in the Transmission Lineage of the Bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa Teachings Revealed by Mnga' bdag myang ral nyi ma 'od zer. Mandi: Sherab Gyaltsen Lama, 1985. Mnga’ bdag bla ma’i rnam thar, Rewalsar: Zigar Drukpa Kagyud Institute, 1985.
6) The Demon-Taming Secret-Most Eight Teachings (bka' brgyad yang gsang dregs 'dul), revealed by Bsam gtan gling pa, stag sham nus ldan rdo rje, 1655-1708; renewed by 'Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse'i dbang po, 1820-1892.
Appendix 3: bka’ brgyad ritual compendia for the Nyingma Mother Temples* Smin grol gling: The Minling System of the Sugata-Assembly of Eight Teachings (Bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa smin gling lugs):
Zhe chen: The Sunlight Illuminating the Practice of the Sugata-Assembly of the Eight Teachings Great Accomplishment (sgrub chen bka’ brgyad bde gshegs ‘dus pa’i lag len gsal byed nyin mor byed pa’i ‘od snang
Rdzogs chen dgon: The Great Accomplishment Liturgies of the SUgata-Assembly of the Eight Techings in the Long Traditions of the Early Translation Dzogchen Masters (snga ‘gyur grub dbang rdzogs chen pa’i ring lugs ltar bka’ brgyad bde gshegs ‘dus pa’i sgrub chen ‘don chog) Rdzogs chen, 2007.
Appendix 4: Eight Herukas Image Gallery
Chos kyi ‘od zer, Myang ston bsod nams seng ge, and Mi ‘gyur rdo rje. Sprul sku mnga’ bdag chen po’i skyes rabs rnam thar dri mad med pa’i bka’ rgya can la ldeb [“The Stainless Proclamations”]. In Bka’ brgyad bde gshegs ‘dus pa’i chos skor [“Katok”]. Gangtok: Sonam Tobgay Kazi, 1978
Gnubs chen sangs rgyas ye shes. Sde brgyad gser skyems. In bka’ brgyud pa’i zhal ‘don phyogs bsgrigs. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 1997, 70-72. TBRC W20423 Gu ru bkra shis. Bstan-pa'i snying-po gsang-chen snga-'gyur nges-don zab-mo'i chos-kyi byung-ba gsal-bar byed-pa'i legs-bshad mkhas-pa dga'-byed ngo-mtshar gtam-gyi rol-mtsho. Edited by Rdo-rje-rgyal-po. Beijing: Krung-go'i bod-kyi shes-rig 330 dpe-skrun-khang, 1990. ‘Gyur med rdo rje (gter bdag gling pa), Bka’ brgyad bde gshegs ‘dus pa’i brgyud ‘debs. In‘Gyur med rdo rje gsung ‘bum. vol. 9, 5-6. Dehra Dun: Khochhen Trulku, 1998. TBRC W22096 ―. ed. Bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa smin gling lugs. Dehra Dun: Khochhen Trulku, 1977. TBRC W1KG5152 ―. Gzhan phan rdo rje’i rnam thar. In ‘Gyur med rdo rje gsung ‘bum. vol. 3, 90. Dehra Dun: Khochhen Trulku, 1998. TBRC W22096 ‘Gyur med tshe dbang mchog grub (Getse Mahapandita) Bka’ brgyad bka’ ma‘i bskyed rim gyi ‘phrin las chog khrigs. 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