Religious Geography of Tibetan Monasteries

A review of Creating Sacred Space: The Religious Geography of Sa skya, Tibet’s Medieval Capital, by Federica Venturi.

Federica Venturi’s dissertation on Sa skya Monastery sits comfortably at the disciplinary crossroads of comparative religion, history of religions, and literary history. The focus of the work is the history of the monastery of Sa skya in Central Tibet and the religious literature used to create and maintain its sanctity. Scholars interested in sacred space in other regions of the world and other religious traditions will also find this work of interest.

The work’s central argument is that so-called “guidebooks” to sacred sites in Tibet and even those guidebooks found in other religious traditions and cultures are not actually guidebooks to be carried and used by pilgrims to these sites. Venturi, who acknowledges a theoretical debt to a recent article by Rachel McCleary and Leonard van der Kuijp (“The Market Approach to the Rise of the Geluk School, 1419-1642.” The Journal of Asian Studies 69, no. 1, Feb. 2010: 149-80), instead argues that such guidebooks were composed and used primarily as a means to construct, maintain, and promote sacred space and thereby attract patronage and acquire power.

The work consists of four chapters, not including the introduction, as well as two appendices, one of which is an annotated translation of the Guide to the Temple of Sa skya (Sa skya dkar chag), one of Venturi’s principal sources and objects of study. In the first chapter she presents past theoretical approaches to the study of sacred space, attempting to encompass all of their strengths while avoiding their pitfalls (p. 30). The latter sections of the chapter provide concrete and paradigmatic examples of sacred space from each of the major world religions as well as from the Buddhist traditions of India, China, and Japan. Her interest is in explaining how sacred sites become sacred, as the reasons she identifies (e.g. saintly and other historical and mythical individuals convey an aura of sacredness to sites) are directly relevant to the sanctification of Sa skya Monastery.

The second chapter introduces the reader to the various genres of literature that exist around the world that describe sacred sites. Venturi compares and contrasts Tibetan dkar chag guidebooks with literature from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as relevant Buddhist literature composed in India, China and Japan. She argues that many of these genres, like dkar chag, were not “guidebooks” intended for pilgrims to take with them on their sojourns. Wide-spread illiteracy and the exorbitant cost of copying manuscripts or making prints effectively precluded the possibility that this literature was actually employed in the same way that today’s travelers whip out their borrowed copies of the Lonely Planet or Fodor’s.

The most interesting part of this chapter is Venturi’s summary and critique of previous scholarship on Tibetan dkar chag as well as her sketch of the historical development of the genre. She directly assesses and dismisses the typology of Tibetan guidebooks presented by Andrei Ivanovich Vostrikov (1994 [1962]) and further promoted by Turrell Wylie (1965), arguing that it is imprecise and even misleading (see especially pp. 143, 148). In addition, she contends that dkar chag, or at least an analogous sub-genre of Tibetan guidebooks, date back to the eighth century and not the thirteenth century as other scholars have previously suggested (pp. 150-51).

Chapter 3 provides a lucid overview of the historical figures most associated with the “golden age” of Sa skya Monastery, from the founding of the monastery to the thirteenth century. She examines the myths associated with the founding of the monastery and, most importantly, the relics and temples located at the monastery. The relics, such as the black flying leather mask of the protector deity Ye shes kyi mgon po (a form of Mahākāla)—and the temples they are housed in—provide the monastery with its most salient features. This chapter also initiates the difficult process of reconstructing the historical Sa skya Monastery based on accounts found in the two principal sources used in this study, the fifteenth-century Genealogy of Sa skya (Sa skya gdung rabs) and the late sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century Guide to the Temple of Sa skya (Sa skya dkar chag). She meticulously documents the temples and relics established by each of the early patriarchs of the monastery.

In Chapter 4, Venturi discusses the origins and contents of the aforementioned Genealogy of Sa skya and Guide to the Temple of Sa skya. In the first section of the chapter, she draws the reader’s attention to some important stylistic and substantive differences between the older Genealogy and the later Guide: the former is more “matter-of-fact and unadorned” (p. 244). “This is a drastically different illustration” than the one found in the Guide to the Temple of Sa skya, she explains, “where the image conveyed is that of a place dedicated only to religious study, practice and meditation, exclusively inhabited by exceptionally saintly figures, full to the brim with wondrous objects and a variety of precious materials” (pp. 244-45).

Venturi also proposes a compelling explanation for the motivation behind the composition of the Guide: the renaissance of building at Sa skya in the mid-sixteenth century by the monastery’s abbot was deserving of memorialization (p. 261). In addition, she makes an important contribution to the question for the authorship of the Guide (pp. 254-58). Finally, the overview of the layout and contents of Sa skya Monastery presented in this chapter as well as the meticulous, annotated translation of the Guide (Appendix I) even allow her to make a tentative visual reconstruction of the layout of the monastery (Map 3), a remarkable and no doubt dizzying feat.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking contribution of Venturi’s dissertation is her attention to the details of the temples, buildings, and sacra of an important monastic institution from Tibet’s past. As Venturi notes, “Tibetan dkar chag and similar literature from other cultures allow the researcher to combine the aims of archaeology, that ‘studies sacred sites to establish the history of art’ with those of religious historians, who study sacred sites as institutions” (p. 115). Whereas previous scholars have often bemoaned and overlooked the “boring lists” of sacred sites and objects found in dkar chag (p. 160), Venturi points out these litanies of nouns prefaced by bombastic adjectives of praise are precisely the source of a monastery’s power, both its worldly and other-worldly varieties. The future publication of her translation, not to mention her own original composition, will provide the scholarly community with a terrific resource for understanding the material history of Tibet and for attempting the overdue task of documenting and analyzing the development of religious institutions in Tibetan history.

Brenton Sullivan
Department of Asian Studies and the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium
University of British Columbia
brentonchina@gmail.com, brenton.sullivan@ubc.ca
http://ubc.academia.edu/BrentonSullivan

Primary Sources

Mus srad pa rdo rje rgyal mtshan (1424-1498), Genealogy of Sa skya (Sa skya gdung rabs)
Two exemplars of Kun dga’ rin chen (1587-1584), A Guide to the Temple of Sa skya, the Glorious Great See, and Its Three Supports (Gdan sa chen po dpal ldan sa skya’i gtsug lag khang dang rten gsum gyi dkar chag)

Dissertation Information

Indiana University. 2013. 706 pp. Primary Advisor: Elliot Sperling.

 

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