Tibetan Buddhism in North America

A review of Revelations of a Modern Mystic: The Life and Legacy of Kun bzang bde chen gling pa 1928-2006, by Amelia Hall.

Amelia Hall’s dissertation, Revelations of a Modern Mystic: The Life and Legacy of Kun bzang bde chen gling pa 1928-2006, translates and reflects upon the life story of the Tibetan Buddhist visionary Kunzang Dechen Lingpa in light of questions Hall poses about the assimilation of Tibetan Buddhism in contemporary North America. Hall engages Kunzang Dechen Lingpa’s biography and legacy to consider how Tibetan Buddhist traditions are being adapted to meet the particular interests, sensitivities, and cultural expectations of Westerners. In the process, Hall’s research attends to questions of “lineage, transmission and authority” in the history of Vajrayana Buddhism’s migration across various cultural landscapes and pays groundbreaking attention to its contact with today’s global culture and technological innovations (p. 9).

Hall’s work contributes valuable material to recent work on Tibetan gter ma or “treasure” revelation, as well adding to the growing field of interest in Tibetan rnam thar, which encompasses biography, hagiography and autobiography. Hall aims to “provide an academic contextualization for this Tibetan Buddhist biography” and further to “provide insight into the possible future of a Tibetan Buddhist tradition” (p. 35). In the process, Hall bridges the divide between academic studies of Buddhism and studies intended for Buddhist practitioners. Hall explicitly orients her work in relation to the research of David Germano (“Re-membering the Disembodied Body of Tibet: Contemporary Tibetan Visionary Movements in the People’s Republic of China.” In M. Goldstein and M. Kapstein, eds.,Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 53-95); Antonio Terrone (“Householders and Monks: A Study of the Treasure Revealers and Their role in Religious Revival in Contemporary Eastern Tibet.” In: S. Jacoby and A. Terrone, eds., Buddhism Beyond the Monastery. Leiden: Brill, 2009, 73-111); Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer (“Authorship, Originality and Innovation in Tibetan Scriptural Revelations: a Case Study from the Dudjom Corpus” n.p., 2011); and Jill Sudbury (“Tracing the Sacred Thread: Restoring the Bo dong pa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.” In H.Diemberger and K. Phuntsho, eds., Ancient Treasures, New Discoveries. P.I.A.T.S. International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2009). Hall also contributes to the growing field of interest in Tibetan life writing, here most notably responding to the work of Janet Gyatso (Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

The dissertation is divided into two main parts. In Part 1, Hall summarizes and provides a partial translation of the life story of Kunzang Dechen Lingpa, which was composed partly as an autobiography and partly as a biography/hagiography by his disciples. Throughout, Hall employs remarkable photographs of major locations and key figures associated with the life story. In an apt expression of the intersections of Buddhist history and changing technology, Hall explains (in Part 2) that the photographs were culled from online sources, mainly “The Tibet Album”, from The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and were not associated with her primary source. Hall mentions how delighted her subject’s relatives and students were with the addition of these photographs (pp. 167-168). By integrating material found in digital collections, Hall’s academic work notably adds to the life story through the use of contemporary media.

More specifically, Part 1 follows the three chapters of Kunzang Dechen Lingpa’s life story. These are entitled: 1. Childhood 2. The Wandering Beggar and 3. Dharma Activities. Hall intersperses translated excepts from the life story with related research on the historical context in which this story takes place in Tibet, India and North America respectively. Some of the most interesting historical details and analysis occur in the footnotes and for the most part Hall reserves the body of this part of the work for partial translation and summary of the biography.

Chapter 1 of Part One addresses the history of the Nyingma tradition to which Kunzang Dechen Lingpa belonged, with particular attention to the ongoing controversies and tensions around the Tibetan tradition of gter ma discovery. Here Hall begins to address the theme of “authenticity” in conversation with progress and change, a tension that lies close to the core of the entire project (pp. 18-30). Chapter 2 gives an introduction to the genre of life writing in Tibetan literature and sketches some of its characteristics and conventions as well as remarking on its fluidity and overlap with other “hybrid” genres (p. 12). It also covers early life experiences including Kunzang Dechen Lingpa’s meeting with his root lama Dudjom Rinpoche, and his early visionary experiences (pp. 31-57). In Chapter 3 Hall describes the lama’s meditation retreats and travels (pp. 58-76). Chapter 4 provides an overview of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and explains how it impacted Kunzang Dechen Lingpa by forcing him into exile in India, where he went on to establish centers in Assam and Arunchal Pradesh (pp. 77-95). Chapters 5 and 6 present interviews with Kunzang Dechen Lingpa’s disciples, patrons and family members in India, Europe and North America, up until the time of his passing in 2006 (pp. 96-116).

Part Two examines the spread of Buddhism to North America and introduces the reader to the legacy of the Kunzang Dechen Lingpa, with a focus on his teaching and gter ma related activities in North America. It then tracks the continuation of his approach to teaching in the West by his son Rigzin Dorje and examines “major fault lines shaping the development and practice of new hybrid forms of Vajrayana Buddhism” (p. 12) for instance the all-important teacher-disciple relationship (p. 127). In particular, Chapter 7 provides an overview of the establishment of Tibetan Buddhism in North America and addresses some of what Hall identifies as the tensions between American cultural values, such as ideals of the “democratic self” and Buddhist doctrines of selflessness and non-attachment. Hall highlights the themes of “democratization, adaptation, psychologisation, commercialization, gender and the advancements of digital technology” (p. 118). Chapter 8 focuses on Kunzang Dechen Lingpa’s “Healing Chö” practice, which Hall describes as a popular ceremony developed by Kunzang Dechen Lingpa and conducted by his son and disciples for six months a year in the US, Europe, and Central America since the time of the lama’s death (pp. 148-160). Hall’s presentation of this ritual in light of historical patterns between Buddhist masters and their patrons provides one of the most thought provoking aspects of the work. Focusing on the social phenomenon of associating Tibetan Buddhism with healing and purity, Hall explains that in the Healing Chö practice, it is deemed unimportant whether the Western and other unordained participants understand the content of the ritual (p. 158). Rather, the unordained are instructed to lie down and enjoy the experience while the ritual experts do their work. Chapter 9 reflects on what Hall terms “global Vajrayana: ultimate, relative and virtual reality” (p. 161). Chapter 10 considers the possibility of future developments in the realm of gter ma in the West and describes Kunzang Dechen Lingpa’s gter ma activities in the West as establishing “a visceral link to Tibet’s past” and bringing “products of that link into a present hyper-modern society, implying that gter ma is not culturally, temporally or geographically bound” (p. 198).

Hall’s work raises fascinating questions about the similarities and differences between the way Vajrayana Buddhism is assimilating in the West, and how it took root in previous cultural landscapes. What will the changing face of social media and other digital technologies mean for the future of Buddhism in the West? How will Buddhism in the West deal with institutions and practices such as reincarnation, teacher-student relations, gter ma, and rnam thar? These are some of the principal questions Hall raises. Rather than make predictions, Hall prudently and reservedly posits that the future lies in the actions and reactions of Buddhist teachers, visionaries, and other practitioners.

Dominique Townsend
Heyman Center for the Humanities
Columbia University
dt80@columbia.edu
Primary Sources

Lho brag gter ston Kun bzang bde chen gling pa’i rnam thar skal ldan dad pa’i nor bu zhes bya ba bzhugs so (The Jewel of the Fortunate Faithful Ones: The Complete Liberation of the Lho brag gter ston Kun bzang bde chen gling pa)
Kun bzang zla ba’i zil char (The Ever-Excellent Brilliant Aspect of the Moon)
Audio/visual recordings of Kunzang Dechen Lingpa telling his life story during teachings and interviews conducted between 2001 and 2005
Interviews with Kunzang Dechen Lingpa’s wife gSang yum bKra shis sgrol ma

Dissertation Information

University of Oxford. 2012. 242 pp. Primary Advisor: Charles Ramble.

Image: Photograph by Amelia Hall, 2012.

Leave a Reply