19th-Century Tibetan Buddhist Spiritual Advice


A review of Patrul Rinpoche on Self-Cultivation: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Tibetan Buddhist Spiritual Advice, by Joshua D. Schapiro.

Joshua D. Schapiro’s dissertation, Patrul Rinpoche on Self-Cultivation: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Tibetan Buddhist Spiritual Advice, explores the rhetorical and performative dimensions of four works of ethical advice (zhal gdams) by Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887): The Discourse Good in the Beginning, Middle, and End (Thog mtha’ bar gsum du dge ba’i gtam), The Discourse of the Outcast Sage (Gdol pa’i drang srong gi gtam), The Explanation of Water, Boats, and Bodies (Chu gru lus kyi rnam bshad), and The Six Condensed Points of Profound Essential Advice (Gdams zab gnad kyi mdo ’gags drug). One of the most celebrated spiritual teachers of nineteenth-century Tibet, Patrul Rinpoche is perhaps best known for his accessible introduction to the preliminary practices of the Longchen Nyingtik teachings (Klong chen snying thig), The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Kun bzang bla ma’i zhal lung). Here, Schapiro affords us with an astute and eloquently conveyed analysis of four lesser-known but nonetheless important works by Patrul Rinpoche, in a discussion that bridges the fields and subfields of Buddhist studies, Tibetan studies, performance studies, reader-response theory, theoretical reflections on authorship, and the rhetorical analysis of religious speech.

To this day, Patrul Rinpoche is remembered by Tibetan Buddhist communities as a model spiritual teacher, brilliant orator, and an individual who lived by the words that he preached. Known for his ability to reach and move wide audiences ranging from the ruling Dergé elite and the scholar-monks of monastic colleges to the nomads and farmers of rural Kham, Patrul Rinpoche’s ethical life advice represents an ideal set of primary materials on which to base a study of rhetoric in Tibetan Buddhist contexts. In his dissertation, Joshua Schapiro draws from a formidable array of contemporary scholarship from both within and without Tibetan and Buddhist studies, including: rhetorical analyses of religious speech by Gary Selby, Mark Jordan, and Susan Harding (pp. 4-7); the critical theory of Dominick LaCapra and Martha Nussbaum (pp. 3, 10-11); studies in Buddhist rhetoric and pedagogy by Charles Hallisey, Anne Hansen, Anne Monius, Alan Cole, Bernard Faure, John Keenan, Justin McDaniel, and Anne Blackburn (pp. 7-9); the performance studies scholarship of Richard Bauman, Barbara Babcock, and Judith Butler; theoretical reflections on the nature of authorship by Michel Foucault and Umberto Eco (pp. 24-25); and Wolfgang Iser’s work on reader-response theory (p. 26).

Chapter 1 is entitled “Patrul Rinpoche and Advice.” Here, Schapiro outlines the historical dimensions of Patrul Rinpoche and his oeuvre. Rather than providing a comprehensive narrative of Patrul Rinpoche’s life story, he offers an “analytical reading” of the various sources on Patrul’s life, focusing particularly on the various lifestyle possibilities that were available to him (p. 37). This chapter also includes a comprehensive survey of Patrul Rinpoche’s collected works, and situates his more than forty texts of life advice (zhal gdams) within both Indian and Tibetan Buddhist literary traditions. Following a detailed discussion of genre labels such as “life advice” (zhal gdams) and related terms, Schapiro concludes with a detailed analysis of how the theme of singularity appears throughout Patrul Rinpoche’s works of advice – especially with regards to “essential points” (gnad) and “heart drop” instructions (snying thig) (pp. 71-87).

Chapter 2, “The Maṇi – Patrul and Pathos,” departs from a historical discussion of Patrul Rinpoche and his works, and provides a rhetorical analysis of The Discourse Good in the Beginning, Middle, and End. Treating the text as an agent in-and-of-itself, Schapiro isolates its persuasive elements, with particular attention to the implied audience’s emotional response. Analysis of the text’s structure reveals that it uses the rhetorical strategy of pathos to spur the audience into the “singularly potent practice” of chanting the “maṇi” mantra (pp. 93-94). Schapiro also offers an incisive analysis of how the text attempts to gain the trust of the audience in its model author through both a “totalizing logic,” and the tone of its authorial voice (pp. 114, 117-118). By reading the Discourse using modern literary tools of analysis, Schapiro illuminates how this classic example of Tibetan Buddhist life advice functions on a rhetorical level.

Chapter 3, “The Singular — Reflexivity of Form & Content,” is an analysis of The Discourse of the Outcast Sage. The central argument of the chapter is that the Outcast Sage represents a reflexive text in three ways: (1) its form mirrors its content; (2) its content is reflected in how it operates on its audience; and (3) it calls attention to itself as a performance by Patrul Rinpoche the spiritual teacher. In this chapter, Schapiro outlines the mechanisms of Patrul Rinpoche’s condensation strategy in detail (pp. 123-151), providing a compelling model of how one might go about engaging in a rhetorical analysis of other Buddhist texts.

In Chapter 4, “Confident Eloquence — Reflexivity of Teacher & Text,” Schapiro further probes the topic of reflexivity in Patrul Rinpoche’s advice writings, this time focusing on the playful work, The Explanation of Water, Boats, and Bodies. The text consists of an allegorical story, where a group of young men explicate an idiomatic expression common in Dergé to a group of old men. At one point, Patrul Rinpoche inserts himself into the allegorical story. Schapiro uses this critical moment as a springboard into a discussion on Patrul Rinpoche’s performativity, reflexivity, and self-conception as a spiritual teacher. Situating his discussion within Dzogchen discourse, the literary-religious context of the Lotus Sūtra, and Wolfgang Iser’s theorization of fiction, Schapiro concludes that the text “is a reflexive work in that it is a skillful discourse about skillful discourse” and “works to build Patrul’s persona as gifted teacher” (pp. 199, 207).

In Chapter 5, “Patrul’s Person — From Authorial Voice to Historical Author,” Schapiro links his discussion of Patrul Rinpoche as a historical figure (chap.1) to the idea of Patrul Rinpoche as model author (chap. 2-4). After demonstrating how Patrul Rinpoche’s disciple-biographer Kunzang Palden used Patrul Rinpoche’s Six Condensed Points of Profound Essential Advice as a means to understand his teacher’s motivations behind renouncing his monastic inheritance (p. 216), Schapiro proposes a different way of interpreting Patrul Rinpoche’s works of life advice vis-à-vis Patrul Rinpoche the historical figure. He suggests that we consider the act of writing life advice as a form of self-development and self-constitution for Patrul Rinpoche (pp. 26, 217). This interpretation builds upon Judith Butler’s argument that “performances are not created by pre-formed performers, but rather constitute the performers” (p. 220). The chapter concludes with a re-interpretation of Water, Boats, and Bodies in light of this way of reading Patrul Rinpoche’s life advice (pp. 221-227).

This dissertation also includes a series of appendices invaluable to both Tibetologists and Buddhist studies scholars alike. The appendices contain: translations of The Explanation of Water, Boats, and Bodies and The Discourse of the Outcast Sage; a list of works in the genres of good conduct and governance (nītiśāstra) and epistles (lekha) in the Tibetan Tanjur; Mipham’s overview of Patrul’s collected works; and the spiritual path structure delineated in The Discourse Good in the Beginning, Middle, and End.

At one point in the introduction, Schapiro takes note of the “growing fascination” in Tibetan studies with studying Tibetan writing as “literature” in recent years (p. 15). His dissertation represents a groundbreaking contribution to this growing trend, which future generations of scholars may label in retrospect as the “literary turn” in Tibetan studies. Whereas previous scholarship on Tibetan Buddhist writing has focused almost exclusively on the content conveyed by the texts, Schapiro’s work is devoted to the literary mechanisms by which the content is conveyed. Moreover, in this dissertation, Schapiro has engaged Tibetan studies in dialogue with contemporary developments in critical theory in a way that is intellectually invigorating for the field. His perceptive analysis of the literary, pedagogical, and persuasive dimensions of Patrul Rinpoche’s works of life advice illuminates facets of these texts that have remained underappreciated thus far. I anticipate that the sophisticated tools of analysis that he has developed for reading Tibetan texts will become standard practice for other scholars interested in the literary dimensions of Tibetan texts. Equally adept in his handling of both primary sources and critical theory, the work of this promising young scholar will surely make a significant contribution to discussions of Tibetan Buddhist “literature” in the field and beyond.

Rachel H. Pang
The Department for the Study of Religion
University of Toronto

Primary Sources

Four works of “life advice” (zhal gdams) by Dpal sprul Rin po che:

The Discourse Good in the Beginning, Middle, and End (Thog mtha’ bar gsum du dge ba’i gtam)
The Discourse of the Outcast Sage (Gdol pa’i drang srong gi gtam)
The Explanation of Water, Boats, and Bodies (Chu gru lus kyi rnam bshad)
The Six Condensed Points of Profound Essential Advice (Gdams zab gnad kyi mdo ’gags drug)

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 282 pp. Primary Advisor: Janet Gyatso.


Image: Photo by Joshua Schapiro.