Tibetan Monastic Revival in Amdo


A review of Seeing Beyond the State? The Negotiation of Moral Boundaries in the Revival and Development of Tibetan Buddhist Monasticism in Contemporary China, by Jane Caple.

In this dissertation Jane Caple explores the revival of Tibetan monasticism in contemporary China with a particular focus on ways in which monasteries dealt and deal with the socio-economic changes that have taken place since the 1980s. Whereas previous studies that concentrate on the contemporary Tibetan monastic tradition regularly aim to understand the relationship between religious practitioners and the national political arena, Caple’s primary goal is to find out whether it is possible to “see beyond the state.” This is explained as taking those people involved in the development of Tibetan monasteries as a point of departure and exploring and analyzing their experiences along with the accompanying moral dimensions. This is not to say that the state is ignored in this study: the monasteries’ interaction with state policy and regulations are regularly addressed, but this is done only when directly relevant to the topic of the moral aspects of monastic development in Amdo.

This study explores monastic economic development and how this is conceived by monks in Tibetan monasteries—a topic that has long been under-appreciated, but a crucial one to understanding monasticism in Tibetan areas. From conversations the author had with monks from the Amdo region it emerged that they were continuously evaluating their monastic economic policies. For these monks these policies were not simply in line with the developments that had been taking place in the communities surrounding their monasteries; rather, they were based first and foremost on moral issues.

In the introduction, in addition to giving a general outline of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism and the development of Gelug monasticism, Caple presents and comments on the existing scholarship regarding the relationship between Tibetan Buddhists—and monastics in particular—and the Chinese government. She notes that these accounts have “either been directly concerned with state-society relations and the negotiation of religious space by elites or have emphasised the political dimensions of monastic revival” (p. 14). Both approaches depict the agency of Tibetans only in their relation to the state. While not refuting the political dimensions of the dynamics between organized religion and the state, Caple questions the extent to which this has impacted monastic development.

Rather than viewing economic concerns and the spiritual goals as dichotomies that need to be somehow consolidated, this study proposes that the laity and the monkhood, whose values are largely shared, can be seen to be a “monastic moral community” (p. 22). This implies that monastic economy is firmly embedded within the religious or soteriological goals of monks and monastic Buddhism in general.

Chapter 2 details the methodological approaches taken and describes the extensive fieldwork (in 2008 and 2009) carried out by the author in Tibetan areas in Qinghai. While the main sources are the semi-structured interviews conducted during fieldwork, surveys as well as works and ideas from other disciplines have been integrated into this dissertation. This chapter further briefly describes the monasteries that feature prominently in this research. In contrast to previously existing studies that focus on large monastic centers, this dissertation explores a number of regional monasteries and smaller institutions belonging to the Gelug school. The main sites in Rebkong were Rongwo (Rong po dgon chen bde chen chos ’khor gling), Tashikhyil Monastery (sGrub pa’i gnas mchog bkra shis ’khyil), Yershong Monastery (g.Yer gshong dgon bsam gtan chos ’phel gling), Dowadrok Monastery (mDo ba ’brog), Gartse Monastery (mGar rtse), a number of Rongwo’s branch monasteries and three practice centers (sgrub sde). In Bayan County, the author conducted fieldwork at Ditsa Monastery (Dhi tsha bkra shis chos sdings dgon pa), the new monastery of Tashitse (bKra shis rtse) founded by former Ditsa monks, and Shachung Monastery (Bya khyung).

In Chapter 3, Caple gives an overview of the revival of the monasteries and of Tibetan Buddhism more broadly that took place after 1980. Particularly in the early days of monastic revival, re-housing and re-robing the monks, re-populating the monasteries and re-enacting previously existing patronage relationships were of primary importance. Throughout this chapter the author notes the features of the monasteries that are said to have remained the same as prior to 1958 as well as what could be considered breaks with the past, particularly in terms of their economic practices.

The fourth chapter zooms in on the monasteries that form Caple’s field sites. The individual monasteries’ shifting economic policies and the moral arguments behind these policies are elaborated upon, providing an unprecedented view into Tibetan monks’ business matters. Continuing on from the monastic economic issues, Chapter 5 focuses on the development of tourism and “heritage” funding in and around monastic sites in Amdo, bringing state power, control, and resistance back into the discussion. The author notes that, for Rebkong, tourism is now one of the “five pillars” of local economic development plans into which monasteries are assigned a vital role (p. 156). The chapter speaks of the ramifications of tourism in some monasteries (such as Kumbum) and the subsequent reluctance for or ambivalence about state-sponsored tourism expressed by monks from other monasteries not yet on the (Chinese) tourists’ map. It is argued that, first of all, tourism has not been particularly crucial to the revival of most monasteries and, secondly, that monastic attitudes toward tourism are not merely contingent on political dimensions but also on local perceptions and broader Buddhist ethical notions.

Narratives of monastic moral decline—one of the themes that emerged from Caple’s fieldwork—feature in Chapter 6. The chapter explores these narratives within a broader framework, focusing on monastic education, discipline, rituals, Gelug ideals or ethics, Tibetan identities, and social change. It is important to note that “change”— more specifically change for the worse—is something many of Caple’s interlocutor-monks felt strongly about, mostly because the differences between monastic life before the 1950s and that of today are great…in reality, but perhaps even more so in the imagination. Contemporary monks consider the level of morality of their predecessors to be superior and they see this lack of morality as a threat to the continuity of Tibetan monasticism. Caple cites a senior monk who emphasizes how an increase in wealth and a decline in discipline are considered to be linked (p. 202). However, this chapter also shows that narratives of moral decline do not necessarily do away with the need or even the drive to innovate and improve conditions for monks.

Chapters 7 and 8 deal with methods in monastic recruitment and the perceived decline in monastic populations, which raises the issue of the sustainability of mass monasticism. Here, certain state policies are indeed seen to be restricting monastic growth, but Caple also names other issues at play in the waning of the monk population, such as changing mentalities, population growth and the fact that there are now alternative career choices. It is noted that mentalities regarding what the future of Tibetan monasticism should look like are steadily changing. Previously common notions, such a preference for having very young boys become monks and choosing quantity over quality when it came to monks, are losing ground both among monastics and younger lay-people.

The concluding chapter revisits the earlier broached “moral dimensions” of monastic economy and development. It is argued that all the challenges monks in Amdo face—be they political, economic, or social—are negotiated in terms of monastic values or morality, while the society as a whole is also taken into account. This also demonstrates that rather than simply reacting to state politics or colonialism monks “are situated agents who have drawn upon the socio-economic, cultural and moral resources available to them in pursuit of their own projects” (p. 290). Crucially, understanding contemporary Tibetan monks in this way reveals the great extent of their agency.

This excellent, transparent, and extremely thorough anthropological work does not only employ the relatively scarce historical materials in a sensible and sensitive way; it is also accompanied by a plethora of informative and illustrative photos, maps, and tables. This study makes an important contribution toward our understanding and appreciation of Tibetan monasticism, and—as the two are intertwined—Tibetan society more broadly, in the face of development, modernity, politics, and changing mentalities.

Berthe Jansen
Leiden Institute for Area Studies
Leiden University

Primary Sources

Fieldwork in Amdo
Interviews with monks and lay-people, conducted either in Chinese by the author or in Tibetan by a field-assistant.
Written surveys and questionnaires in Chinese and Tibetan.
Various Tibetan and Chinese written sources.

Dissertation Information

University of Leeds. 2011. Vol. 1, 290 pp. Vol. 2, 61 pp. Primary advisors: Flemming Christiansen and Tim Wright.

Image: Photograph by Jane Caple (2009).

Leave a Reply