Death, Gender & Tradition in Nepal & Tibet

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A review of Death, Gender and Extraordinary Knowing: The Delog (’das log) Tradition in Nepal and Eastern Tibet, by Mary Alyson Prude.

In this engaging and thought-provoking study, Alyson Prude greatly advances our knowledge of the fascinating Tibetan and Himalayan practice of delog (Tib. ’das log). A delog is a person, frequently a woman, who undergoes a death experience and then returns to life, after which s/he typically reports on the post-death experiences, hell-realms, and fates of the recently deceased, and may also function as a preacher of core Buddhist doctrines of karma and ethics. Prude’s important new treatment raises compelling questions about Tibetan Buddhist theories of death, meditative experience, and the scholarly categorization of religious practice.

Part of the excitement of this work is Prude’s admirably nuanced approach to the “polysemic” term delog, which she explores as a “flexible category encompassing literary-historical figures, elite Buddhist yogis and shamanic practitioners” (p. viii). Because Tibetan literary narratives of the lives and deaths of delogs tend to homogenize them into a single ideal type, as Prude astutely describes, one great gift of this dissertation is the way in which Prude presents a contemporary ethnographic perspective, as well as historical and literary ones. Her study brings textual and ethnographic materials into revealing dialogue, allowing her to address significant new questions from both emic and etic standpoints, such as the nature of the death experience delogs undergo, as well as the relationship not only between delog practice and what is often called shamanism, but also between delogs and elite yogic practitioners, especially those from the Dzogchen tradition.

The work begins with a series of gripping ethnographic vignettes including horseback journeys and encounters with rats and wild dogs. Prude uses the introduction to present in lively detail her own geographically and sociologically sweeping ethnographic research with delogs themselves, as well as with their communities, across multiple Himalayan areas ranging from Eastern Tibet to Nepal. She describes how her methodology evolved into a multi-sited approach by necessity; yet as the work itself reveals, the broad geographic range of the resulting investigation allows Prude to make genuinely comparative observations across widely differing parts of the Himalayan region. To her great credit she does so while also thoughtfully considering subtle dynamics such as the status of Tibetan culture and influence in places outside ethnic Tibet. This comparative perspective is one tremendous contribution of her work. At the same time, Prude carefully situates her study in the context of earlier scholarship, in particular that of Lawrence Epstein, Bryan Cuevas, and Françoise Pommaret, and she demonstrates an admirable grasp of the issues raised in earlier studies.

In particular, Prude engages the groundbreaking work of Francoise Pommaret (1989 Les revenants de l’au-delà dans le monde tibétain, Editions du CNRS, Paris; 1997 “Returning from hell”, Religions of Tibet in Practice, D. Lopez (ed), Princeton University Press, 499-510); Lawrence Epstein (1982 “On the History and Psychology of the ‘Das log.” The Tibet Journal 7(4): 20-85; 1990 “A Comparative View of Western and Tibetan Near Death Experiences.” In Reflections on Tibetan Culture, ed. Lawrence Epstein and Richard Sherburne, 315-350. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press); and Bryan Cuevas (2007 “The Death and Return of Lady Wangzin: Visions of the Afterlife in Tibetan Buddhist Popular Literature.” In The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations, ed. Bryan Cuevas and Jackie Stone, 360-399. Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press; 2008 Travels in the Netherworld. New York: Oxford University Press).

Prude’s first two chapters delve into her rich ethnographic material to pose provocative questions about fundamental aspects of delog as a category, beginning with an investigation of who or what a delog is, and the nature of the death the delog is said to die. Prude draws on the analytic perspectives of elite Tibetan Buddhist scholars, local delog patrons and critics, skeptics, and accounts offered by delogs themselves. As Prude describes, elite Buddhist scholar-practitioners frame delog experiences with reference to textual Buddhist sources on the death process. While delogs are described by many of Prude’s sources, both elite and non-elite, as dying and returning to life, Prude’s work digs deeper to reveal complex answers to the question of “what exactly is meant by death from a Tibetan Buddhist point of view?” (p. 71).

By analyzing Tibetan Buddhist textual and oral presentations of the relation between consciousness and the body, the post-death bardo states, and states of lucid dreaming and meditative experience, Prude is able in her third and fourth chapters to tease out a range of scholarly and popular understandings of what happens to a delog, as well as the ways that different people understand a delog’s legitimacy and place within other religious understandings. Thus for instance, according to certain scholarly Buddhist analyses, even when appearing clinically dead delogs have not completed the death process at the most subtle level of Buddhist psycho-physical analysis; their inner breathing has not entirely ceased, and from the perspective of these elite scholars, delog activity should thus not be understood as contradicting the Buddhist teaching that once death is fully complete, it is not possible to return.

Prude compares this point of view to a range of other elite and popular perspectives she encounters in various regions, which range from assertions that delog experience is a form of dream or meditative vision, to claims that delog are completely (and in general involuntarily) dead, that they cycle through the post-death bardo states, and that delogs then return from the post-death state to bear witness or bring messages. In thinking through popular understandings of death and revival, Prude also considers other categories of revenants, including fearsome types such as zombies, as well as general Tibetan and Himalayan ideas about death and funerals. She draws on both seminal Indic Buddhist sources that underpin Tibetan understandings, as well as crucial pre-Buddhist Tibetan ideas — such as the notion of srog, or life-force — to build up a rich and three-dimensional picture of the historical and cultural context of delog practice.

These explorations allow Prude to move on in her fifth and sixth chapters to consideration of the complex interrelationships between textual and popular conceptions of death, meditative states, and dream states. This section of the work illuminates ways in which a single individual may have multiple perspectives on the same phenomenon, a key observation that helps Prude’s work to disrupt tidy categories of elite and popular religious practice. Consideration of delogs as a certain type of visionary practitioner, or as practitioners who travel in a state of lucid dreaming, both help to bridge apparent incompatibilities between local Tibetan practices and classical Indian Buddhist textual sources, as well as suggest that at least in some contexts, delogs can be understood as a type of specially gifted Buddhist virtuoso.

Prude builds on this aspect of her analysis to draw out the continuities between delogs and shamanic practitioners on the one hand, and elite yogic practitioners — in particular practitioners of Dzogchen — on the other. Culture heroes such as Gesar, the protagonist of the Tibetan epic, as well as heroic bodhisattva figures known in many branches of Buddhism (for instance, Maudgalyāyana, the wonder-working disciple of Buddha Śākyamuni), are portrayed as journeying to hell and back. Prude considers them as well as other famous delog and delog-like figures of Tibetan narrative, and compares these instances to the delogs of her field research. She brings to bear recent scholarship discussing the relevance of the category “shamanism” to the Himalayan setting, and places delogs in the context of other kinds of Himalayan practice, include oracle-mediums, inspired bards of the Gesar epic, and shamanic healers. Perhaps most intriguingly, Prude examines resonances between advanced stages of Dzogchen practice and delog activity — in the process further highlighting the instability of analytic categories such as elite and popular — and allowing consideration of fascinating (and perhaps new) developments in delog practice, such as the intentional cultivation of delog abilities by nuns under the direction of the lama who leads their religious community.

In her final chapter, Prude examines the role of gender in delog practice, and the predominance of women delogs. Without ignoring the role of institutional or popular misogyny among Tibetan Buddhists, Prude describes ways in which the liminal status of delog practice, situated outside the institutions of monastic Buddhism, may offer a hospitable avenue to at least a degree of religious authority and status for some women, though the extent and nature of that status depends on region, religious lineage, and context (and Prude offers sometimes surprising taxonomies of these differences based on her interviews). Widespread Tibetan Buddhist ideas about differences in the subtle psycho-physical bodies of men and women — in particular notions of female bodies as more responsive to certain yogic experiences — also emerge as important in gender dynamics of delog practice. Here Prude’s work admirably complements the recent work of Diemberger on female Tibetan oracles, among others (Hildegaard Diemberger, “Female Oracles in Modern Tibet,” in Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik, eds. Women in Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 113-168).

When published in book form, Alyson Prude’s groundbreaking study will command the attention not only of scholars of the Tibetan Buddhist world, but also of anthropologists, scholars of religion, and social historians. This work contributes in exciting ways to multiple contemporary academic debates in its attention not only to Himalayan delog practice and theory, but also to issues of gender, patterns of religious authority, as well as to processes of social change such as modernization, globalization, and the introduction of new technologies that affect delog practice and by extension many other traditional forms of religious activity in the Himalayan region and beyond.

Annabella Pitkin
Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures Department
Barnard College, Columbia University
apitkin@barnard.edu

Primary Sources

Ethnographic: Oral histories and interviews recorded by the dissertation’s author.
Textual: Tibetan language (auto)biographies of contemporary and historical delogs, including individuals interviewed by the author.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Santa Barbara. 2011. 368 pp. Primary Advisor: José Cabezón.

 

Image: Photograph by Alyson Prude.

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