A Tibetan Ritual Master’s Objects of Power

TibetanHimalayan_James Duncan Gentry

A review of Substance and Sense: Objects of Power in the Life, Writings, and Legacy of the Tibetan Ritual Master Sog bzlog pa Blo gros rgyal mtshan, by James Duncan Gentry.

In his dissertation, James Gentry uses the work and legacy of the late sixteenth-century Tibetan ritualist Sog bzlog pa (1552-1624) as a case study that provides a much-needed examination of Tibetan material culture. As he explains, his work is “the first monograph-length study to address the role of power objects in Tibetan religion, society, and polity” (pp. 21-22). Beyond Tibetan Studies, this work contributes to the contemporary field of object theories as well. In terms of structure, the dissertation offers an introduction followed by five chapters spread over three major parts. A final consideration is included in Part III.

James Gentry begins his dissertation by immediately laying out his main thesis, which is to “explicate what [an object-power] discourse reveals about how sensory and material objects deemed to be particularly powerful operate within Sog bzlog pa’s ritual world, how these objects and their discourse of power relate to one another and to broader domains of human action, language, and cognition, and what these relationships between objects and persons illustrate about power, agency, and identity formation—on the levels of person, community, and state—in Tibetan Buddhist cultural spheres” (p. 1). Gentry then sets the theoretical stage for his research: citing and responding to the major scholars in the field, such as Jane Bennett (Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell (eds. Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. London and New York: Routledge, 2007), Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), Daniel Miller (ed. Materiality. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005), and Birgit Meyer (ed. Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), he presents a robust summary of the field of object studies, and the ‘material turn’ in religious studies more broadly.

For his own theoretical approach, Gentry draws from and expands on the works of Bruno Latour (Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) and his actor-network-theory. This theory develops the notion of “actants,” which extends the agency of actors to objects that act, as well as to “linguistic and cognitive forms that might seem to ‘mean,’ ‘symbolize,’ or ‘represent’ as part of the way they ‘act’” (p. 15). Gentry’s goal is thus to use Sog bzlog pa’s object-power discourse as a case study that contributes to Latour’s theory, where persons and objects are equal “actants” in their interconnected actions and effects. For the bulk of his study, Gentry applies Latour to Sog bzlog pa on two levels—the level of his texts and how they negotiate relationships between human and non-human assemblages, and the level of his discourse’s relation to external persons, communities, and institutions. The thrust of his thesis then is to illustrate the world-making capacities of Sog bzlog pa’s object-power discourse (p. 18). He is ultimately concerned with the relationship between people and power objects without giving pride of place to either.

Gentry then turns his extensive theoretical attention to influential works on the material turn in Buddhist Studies (Stanley Tambiah. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984; Kevin Trainor. Relics, Ritual and Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997; Elizabeth Horton Sharf and Robert Sharf. Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001; and John Strong. Relics of the Buddha. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) and in the Tibetan context in particular (Yael Bentor. Consecration of Images and Stupas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996; Dan Martin. “Pearls from Bones: Relics, Chortens, Tertons and the Signs of Saintly Death in Tibet,” Numen, Vol. 41 (1994): 273-324; Dan Martin. “Crystals and Images from Bodies, Hearts and Tongues from Fire: Points of Relic Controversy from Tibetan History,” in Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Narita 1989, eds. Shōren Ihara and Zuihō Yamaguchi, 2 vols. Narita: Naritasan Shinshoji, 1992). He credits Dan Martin in particular for bringing the material turn to Tibetan Studies. Gentry spends the remainder of his introduction defining the ritual range and significance of the power objects encountered in Sog bzlog pa’s life and work, which have the capacity to transform beings and their surroundings. He discusses the major types of these objects and their abilities, especially their binding qualities, which embody tantric samaya oaths (pp. 25-29). He ends the introduction with a detailed summary of the dissertation’s chapters.

In Part I, Gentry examines Sog bzlog pa’s historical context and biography, as well as other specialists important to his teachings and practice. Through this exploration, he shows that power objects connect often disparate elements and domains and can become animated. The first chapter provides the historical context in which Sog bzlog pa flourished and which he epitomized. Sog bzlog pa was a ritual specialist, scholar-adept, physician, and master of the Great Perfection (Tib. Rdzogs chen) at the turn of the seventeen century. As a ritualist, Sog bzlog pa was famous for repelling Mongol armies through wrathful sorcery. His very title, Sog bzlog pa, means ‘Mongol Repeller.’ As a scholar, his copious philosophical writings were concerned with defending the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and the various ritual activities and objects it promoted. As a physician, Sog bzlog pa ministered to influential aristocrats and religious masters in Central Tibet. And as a Great Perfection master, he communed with deities, lineage holders, and enlightened beings through visionary experiences. These endeavors all intersect at protection, specifically Sog bzlog pa’s “concern with protecting borders—bodily, sectarian, territorial—against threats of external attack” (p. 41).

Sog bzlog pa’s ritual prowess was considered especially efficacious to the Tsang government at the time, and the object-oriented rites he performed gave him leverage within the evolving political landscape of sixteenth-century Tibet (p. 54). That which legitimated the object-oriented rituals of Sog bzlog pa and other Tibetan masters, Gentry explains, was the very materiality of the Tibetan Treasure texts and substances used in the rituals. Such objects ultimately embody the enduring and enlightened presence of the eighth-century tantric exorcist Padmasambhava in Tibet. Being immersed in the Treasure literature of his time allowed Sog bzlog pa to play a crucial role as a religious specialist patronized by the Tsang hegemony.

In the same way that power objects tied together the distant past with the present, they could also bind together political, religious, and familial institutions. The remainder of Chapter One examines episodes revealing this function of sacred and ritual objects. The episodes themselves come from the biographies of other Tibetan masters who were important to Sog bzlog pa’s growth and career, such as Zhig po gling pa (pp. 68-87), a famed treasure-revealer and Sog bzlog pa’s spiritual predecessor. The chapter as a whole ends with a reflection on how power objects act in various ways as tangible connections between charismatic ritual specialists, seemingly disparate Tibetan institutions, and the contextual activities that bring them together.

Chapter Two focuses on Sog bzlog pa’s religious career and writings. Gentry focuses on the interplay between personal and material power throughout this examination (p. 105). He crafts a compelling narrative of Sog bzlog pa’s life while being mindful of the rhetorical and reflexive intentions of the authors of the yogin’s (auto)biography. Despite his humble origins, Sog bzlog pa made a name for himself as a talented physician in his homeland north of Shigatse. This early life as a healer not only introduced Sog bzlog pa to the Rinpung aristocracy but also to the materiality of the body and those items that restore it. Sog bzlog pa became fully ordained as a monk sometime during his adult life, after which he met his spiritual mentor Zhig po gling pa. Shortly after this Sog bzlog pa visited Bhutan for a period of time, but his story does not pick up again for another seven years when he was called to care for an ailing Zhig po gling pa. It is at this time that the mentor passes on crucial teachings—especially those pertaining to repelling Mongol armies—to his reluctant disciple. Zhig po gling pa eventually passes away and Sog bzlog pa begins his Mongol-repelling ritual activities four years later. Gentry then expounds on Sog bzlog pa’s growing ritual and compositional activity at the end of the sixteenth century in Tsang. Sog bzlog pa continued his Mongol-repelling activities well into the start of the seventeenth century, though, not without a few setbacks.

The second section of Chapter Two focuses on Sog bzlog pa’s writings. Gentry begins with the current accessibility and publication state of Sog bzlog pa’s writings in the Tibetan cultural sphere, which are mostly found in Bhutan and Sikkim. Having explored this literature in depth, Gentry notes that the major focus of Sog bzlog pa’s literary output was ritual activity and its physical and material effects. Gentry provides a detailed outline of Sog bzlog pa’s catalogue of Collected Writings and a summary of his major texts. Despite the catalogue’s own ambiguous structuring, Gentry provides his own categorization scheme to better understand Sog bzlog pa’s writings: 1) Apologia and theoretical texts, 2) Narratives, 3) Ritual and liturgical texts, and 4) Great Perfection. The remainder of this section and much of the dissertation concentrates on the content and significance of the first three categories. It is apologetic writings in particular that make up the bulk of Sog bzlog pa’s work, and they in turn focus greatly on object-oriented ritual theory (pp. 167-68). Yet material media are prominent in all of the categories. Gentry ends this part on a discussion of how intertwined Sog bzlog pa’s status as a Great Perfection master is with his ritual activities and the sacred substances that form their foundation.

The third and final part of Chapter Two concerns Sog bzlog pa’s public persona and his use of rhetoric to establish his authority within his autobiography. Part of Sog bzlog pa’s rhetorical efforts were concerned with countering claims against his character and presenting himself instead as a patriotic protector of Tibet and a powerful tantric ritualist. Gentry includes in this section an excellent discussion of prophecy and its use in the Tibetan cultural sphere (pp. 174-177), prefacing a more contextual examination of Sog bzlog pa’s use of prophecy. Through several anecdotes illustrating Sog bzlog pa’s ritual skill and persuasiveness, this section represents a vivid portrayal of how personal faith and geopolitical aspirations can mutually support one another. Overall, Sog bzlog pa curates his reputation as both a reluctant servant of Tibet and as a violent ritual specialist powerful enough to repel Mongol armies (p. 191). Gentry ends the chapter by offering a dichotomous framework of friction that will continue to surface in his continued exploration of Sog bzlog pa’s work, one that falls along the familiar Madhyamika contrast between conventional (quotidian) and ultimate (sacred) orientations.

In Part II, Chapter Three of his dissertation, Gentry examines Sog bzlog pa’s coordination of Buddhist theory, ritual objects, and sensory experiences. Gentry prefaces this chapter with a brief excursus into Talal Asad’s theoretical understanding of the concept of ritual, by both defining and critiquing it (pp. 202-208). Rather than perceiving a historical dichotomy between instrumental and symbolic types of ritual action, as Asad does, Gentry problematizes this divide by understanding Sog bzlog pa’s theoretical engagement with ritual as a dialectic or synthesis of potentially opposing modalities. Through an examination of Sog bzlog pa’s earliest work, Gentry explicates on the Tibetan master’s ‘logic of materiality,’ the interplay between potent ritual objects, their relationship to him as an authority, and the charisma cultivated by both. The chapter continues by exploring the different forms of sensory objects and texts that were controversially believed to confer liberation, or at least bring the practitioner closer to it, without the need for meditation, as well as Sog bzlog pa’s response to them. Successively, Gentry explores the criticisms toward visionary experiences, sacred speech, powerful amulets, and edible pills, as well as Sog bzlog pa’s responses, in what is the most extensive and wonderfully rich section of the dissertation, complete with discussions on Buddhist logic, epistemology, and ontology that showcase the ritualist’s complex understanding of the “theoretical, ontological foundations for the efficacy of potent material and sensory objects as a whole” (p. 245). This chapter paints a picture of Sog bzlog pa as a skilled and erudite theoretician, who uses his vast knowledge of both Nyingma and Sarma tantras to negotiate ambiguous boundaries and create alchemical spaces between worldly sacred materials and transcendent spiritual realities. In this endeavor, Gentry uses Melford Spiro’s theoretical framework to explain quite comprehensively how Sog bzlog pa’s work bridges pragmatic, karmic, and soteriological concerns (pp. 283, 322). Overall, Sog bzlog pa advances the importance of liberative sensory objects in contrast to mainstream Buddhist concerns for personal karma, intentionality, and meditative cultivation. Such arguments highlight the importance of ritual specialists and material sacra, which ultimately validate and reinforce Sog bzlog pa’s authority. Gentry concludes the chapter by correlating the evolution of Sog bzlog pa’s theoretical position with his biography, showing significant connections between the trajectory of the ritual specialist’s work and his religio-political status.

In Chapter Four, Gentry turns to Sog bzlog pa’s ritual corpus. Specifically, the chapter examines the ritual actions Sog bzlog pa wrote about and the sacred objects with which they were concerned. Here Gentry interprets the ritualist as motivated by a “ritual ethos” concerned with maintaining a liminal “third space” that blurs the material and immaterial, thus allowing for a “controlled fluidity of power between human and non-human elements” (p. 334). Gentry explores several of Sog bzlog pa’s ritual texts and commentaries to explain how he imbued sacred objects with sacrality. For his part, Sog bzlog pa’s appreciation of sacred objects is ambivalent; he oscillates between emphasizing their intrinsic power and highlighting their symbolic significance. According to Gentry, most ritual objects make up a third category, one that straddles this binary, and he spends the bulk of the chapter discussing these three designations. He begins first with innately powerful objects, then material sacra that are innately and symbolically powerful, and finally symbolically powerful objects. In terms of innately powerful substances, the discussion of each object begins with a detailed layout of its ingredients and their mythic origins or associations, followed by the complex ritual ministrations meant to further imbue the substance with power. Once again, Sog bzlog pa straddles the line between emphasizing the inherent power of sacred substances, like the seven-times born Brahmin flesh pills (first introduced in Chapter One) or medicinal “ambrosia,” and the ritual expediency that “accomplishes” or realizes their power. These materials simultaneously embody the infinite compassion of past buddhas and bodhisattvas and the actualizing power of ritual specialists like Sog bzlog pa. Materials such as the flesh pills also act within a circular loop of power, acting as objects to ritual practitioners during accomplishment rites, while equally being subjective agents that transform the ritualist, the intended consumers, and the sacred locations they represent (p. 365). Alfred Gell’s theoretical concepts of “distributed personhood” and “captivation” are utilized fruitfully in this chapter, given how such sacred substances embody the parts and powers of enlightened beings and masters from the past, as well as the ritual acumen of contemporary specialists like Sog bzlog pa.

In terms of the second designation, material sacra that are both innately and symbolically powerful, Gentry discusses Sog bzlog pa’s expertise with such items related to the violent and repelling rites for which he was renowned. These objects take the form of offensive, defensive, or surrogate structures that reinforce the blessings they confer on contact and focus on mimetic associations with enemy forces and locales situated at great distances. These materials include burnt offerings, cairns, effigies, and thread crosses, and once again Gentry lays out the ritual ministrations in which they are involved. These discussions illustrate the exquisite details, orthopractic considerations, and signs of success that Sog bzlog pa focuses on in his ritual activities, as well as the lineage of past lamas with which he is identified, in order to promote himself as an effective and powerful ritual specialist.

Gentry’s third and final designation of sacred objects are those that are symbolically or discursively powerful, which are usually found in initiation rituals and act as representations of underlying meaning. In such instances, Sog bzlog pa emphasizes the significance of such objects as cognitive tools over any potentially innate power they possess, without necessarily discarding the latter aspect entirely (p. 416). Gentry spends the bulk of this subsection examining in great detail the contents and structure of Sog bzlog pa’s initiation rites, including those that relate to the nine-vehicle doxographical system central to Nyingma doctrine. Gentry further elaborates on the ambiguous semiotic significance of such objects in relation to the iconic and discursive elements they signify. His ultimate observation is that power objects, power-discursive objects, and discursive objects are not categorically distinct but instead reside on a spectrum, sharing ambivalent qualities to varying degrees of emphasis (p. 435). In the end, Sog bzlog pa promotes and maintains a “third space” between the porous boundaries of powerful persons, objects, non-human entities, and settings through a “ritual ethos” that enforces his role as a powerful and efficacious ritual specialist that greatly influenced religious and political affairs in sixteenth-century Tibet. Gentry presents in this chapter a robust and accurate characterization of human, non-human, and object associations based on contextual relationships within diverse socio-cultural circumstances that avoid simplistic dualities.

In his fifth and final chapter, beginning the third part of his dissertation, Gentry looks to the next century and to reactions to Sog bzlog pa’s reputation and legacy by the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) and the founders of Sikkim. Less than twenty years after his death, Sog bzlog pa’s main patrons, the Tsangpa royalty and their supporters, were conquered by the Mongol general Gushri Khan, paving the way for the Fifth Dalai Lama’s rule situated in Lhasa. In response to this hegemonic shift, Tsang loyalists escaped to Sikkim to establish their own Tibetan Buddhist polity. The primary founders of this new country were religious masters tied to Sog bzlog pa’s lineage, the textual and ritual tradition of which continues to be promoted by the state’s architects and their incarnations today. By contrast, the Fifth Dalai Lama was disdainful of Sog bzlog pa and his lineage, banning teachings and practices associated with the Mongol Repeller and his ilk. Much of this animosity was tied to the Great Fifth’s efforts to secure his own hegemonic authority and legitimation over and against previous opponents, like the Tsangpa and those who supported them. Gentry explores state formation under the Fifth Dalai Lama’s burgeoning administration as well as in Sikkim before contracting his focus to powerful objects involved in this process within these distinct milieus. In both cases Sog bzlog pa’s object-power discourse is utilized, either by the Great Fifth who vilifies the ritual master while nonetheless adopting his approach, or by the new Sikkimese government that proudly incorporates his ritual heritage into their institutional identity (p. 445). As such, Sog bzlog pa was influential in the construction of two distinct Tibetan Buddhist polities. Gentry continues the chapter by exploring the Fifth Dalai Lama’s writings on Sog bzlog pa, as well as his master Zhig po gling pa and disciple Gong ra gZhan phan rdo rje. In his portrayal, the Great Fifth depicts these three figures as false treasure revealers, ineffective ritualists, and shoddy scholars. Despite the passing of these figures by the mid-seventeenth century, the object-oriented treasures and rites promoted by their lineage continued to hold cultural capital in the region, and their association with anti-Gelukpa activity in the very recent past made them a matter of national security for a young Geluk government attempting to consolidate power. In demonizing Sog bzlog pa’s lineage, the Great Fifth simultaneously valorizes the Nyingma Northern Treasure tradition, as well as its object-oriented rites and practices, to which he was intimately linked (pp. 461-462).

In the next subsection, Gentry explores Sog bzlog pa’s legacy in the Nyingma tradition at large. In this case, the ambivalence and growing schism between the Northern Treasure tradition and Sog bzlog pa’s lineage, exacerbated as it was by the Fifth Dalai Lama’s contentions, became a focal point for solidifying Nyingma identity in the seventeenth century and beyond by reconciling these estranged lines of transmission. Much of this reconciliation was conducted through the efforts of the famed treasure revealer Gter bdag gling pa (1646-1714), the Great Fifth’s own Nyingma grandmaster.

In the final subsection of the chapter, Gentry examines the impact Sog bzlog pa and the teachings of his lineage had on Sikkim, since the early founders and powerbrokers of the nascent state used Sog bzlog pa’s teachings and lineage as a central feature of its identity. Gentry follows this with a detailed discussion of the object-oriented Vase Water ceremony and the Black King Kang Yamāntaka Effigy Burial Rite in Sikkim, both of which are still performed today. Gentry draws on direct experience with the Black King Kang rite, having observed it in situ during his fieldwork. In both instances, the New Year-related rites are concerned with the protection and salvation of the community, with the Black King Kang rite cleansing past misdeeds and the Water Vase rite predicting future fortune (p. 497). Gentry ends his final chapter on a brief history and assessment of contemporary scholarship in and about Sikkim and its significance to Sog bzlog pa’s lineage. He ultimately argues that power objects encourage porous boundaries between persons, places, objects, and deities that bind and intersect material and discursive terrains, which are social, political, religious, economic, and/or aesthetic in character (p. 504).

For his concluding thoughts, Gentry provides a cogent summary, from multiple angles, of the observations he has made on Tibetan power objects by examining Sog bzlog pa’s writings, hermeneutic, and object-oriented rites. This work draws on and critiques Bruno Latour’s approach to objects and acts as a much-needed and novel theoretical study of material culture in Tibet. Gentry concludes his summary, and his dissertation, with fortifying ruminations on materiality through the lens of Sog bzlog pa’s object-power discourse, wherein language itself is an object and such discursive exercises act on the world just as materials do. While this dissertation provides a vivid and groundbreaking model for applying material studies to Buddhism broadly and Tibetan Buddhism particularly, it also contributes to a growing corpus of highly focused and sophisticated monographs centered around specific Tibetan religious figures and the century of religious and political development they personify (e.g., Marina Illich, “Selections from the life of a Tibetan Buddhist polymath: Chankya Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje), 1717-1786,” PhD diss., Columbia University, 2006; Carl S. Yamamoto, Vision and Violence: Lama Zhang and the Politics of Charisma in Twelfth-Century Tibet, Leiden: Brill, 2012; and Andrew Quintman, The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014). Tibetan Studies has become a much more richly textured field thanks to such detailed person-focused studies, and Gentry’s contribution has added further to it.

Christopher Bell
Department of Religious Studies
Stetson University

Primary Sources

Sog bzlog pa Blo gros rgyal mtshan. Collected Writings of Sogbzlog-pa Blo-gros-rgyal-mtshan, 2 vols. Delhi: Sanji Dorje, 1975.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2014. 552 pp. Primary Advisor: Janet Gyatso.

Image: photo by author

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