Aesthetics & Cosmopolitanism at a Buddhist Monastery


A review of Materials of Buddhist Culture: Aesthetics and Cosmopolitanism at Mindroling Monastery, by Dominique Townsend.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there remains a persistent willingness of a few to believe that Himalayan Buddhist monasteries are, and have been, cloistered societies focused primarily on meditative practice. Dominique Townsend’s dissertation offers compelling evidence as to how one Tibetan monastery defied this perception.

Through her meticulous use of textual sources and compelling cross-cultural analysis, Townsend demonstrates how Mindroling (Smin grol gling) monastery served as a key cultural force, drawing concurrently on Tibet’s Imperial Era past and a vibrant, dynamic present to impart substantive change in the political and social realms in equal measure to its impact on religious practice and doctrine.

Townsend’s work situates Mindroling as the leading learning establishment in early modern Tibet, beginning with its founding in 1676 under the authority of Terdak Lingpa (Gter bdag gling pa, 1646-1714), when it began drawing into itself not only a large population of monastics, but also a small cadre of elite lay students, often drawn from the most powerful families of the time. Though the presence of well-heeled yet secular students might seem at odds with the goals of a Buddhist monastic institution, this is but one of the many paradoxes found at Mindroling that Townsend methodically addresses through the course of her work.

In particular, she highlights key correspondence between Mindroling’s founder Terdak Lingpa and the then-head of the newly centralized government in Lhasa, the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682), exchanges that delineate the variety of roles and modes in which the two masters engaged with each other interpersonally as well as in the realms of politics and religion. Further, Townsend’s work explores the role of identity and lineage in the founding and perpetuation of Mindroling as a legitimate and necessary educational fixture, one in which Mindroling functioned as the prime training ground for those elites who would go on to govern surrounding geographic areas and regional institutions. She also builds upon the rapidly growing body of material focused on the roles of women throughout Tibetan history by elucidating the presence of numerous well-educated female students and disciples, both within Mindroling as an institution of learning as well as within Terdak Lingpa’s family lines.

Yet it is the curriculum as much as the personalities involved that mark Mindroling as a progressive and dynamic establishment. Citing the monastery’s inventories and records of its curriculum, Townsend elucidates the ways in which Mindroling served as a repository of material goods as well as cultural currency, providing models beyond physical art objects by emphasizing unique ritual practices, Buddhist ethics, logic, erudition, and aesthetics. The ability to recognize, appreciate and appropriately respond to all of these was considered necessary knowledge for Tibetan elites of the time, and for nearly three centuries, Mindroling served as the primary clearinghouse for that training. One of the many notable contributions of Townsend’s dissertation is her stated desire and intent to make Tibetan source material accessible and understandable for those embedded in Western traditions. Toward this aim, she effectively employs Western analytical models and cross-cultural comparisons between Mindroling and non-Tibetan institutions.

In the introductory chapter, entitled “A Buddhist Sense of Beauty,” Townsend presents the primary personalities involved in Mindroling’s founding — Terdak Lingpa, the Fifth Dalai Lama, and their closest advisers. She then delves into the specific ways in which Mindroling, and the education received there, offered the students avenues through which they could later exert authority in matters both spiritual and temporal, and could do so in ways that reflected a deeply refined way of looking at and understanding the world. Much of this chapter is dedicated to clarifying the context and meaning of specific terms employed throughout the work (such as aesthetics, high culture, and cosmopolitanism), and presenting the main questions undergirding the research, including: how would a Buddhist education be useful in the (ostensibly secular) post-graduate world? How did the patrons and donors at Mindroling forge definitions of cultural aesthetics and taste? What is the place of beauty in Buddhist material culture? Is there even room for beauty in the Buddhist orientation toward non-attachment, especially in what is primarily a renunciant community? Further, how can the education at Mindroling reconcile the needs of a monastic population with that of a comparatively small yet powerful cadre of lay elites? Moreover, how did Mindroling contribute to nation- and identity-building activities under the Fifth Dalai Lama, and how might we better understand this process and the forces that shaped it?

In answer, Townsend provides brief sketches of the larger analysis that follows in subsequent chapters. Mindroling, she affirms, saw itself as revitalizing ancient traditions that had been corrupted, a place that sought to manifest an ideal field of Buddhist learning and practice within the early modern Tibetan environment (pp. 45-47). Under the charismatic and often unconventional personality of Terdak Lingpa, who was himself a treasure revealer (gter ston) in the Nyingma tradition, students were encouraged to engage with Indic models of language and composition, artistic production, and ritual performance among other subjects, thereby inculcating them with a particular aesthetic sense and cultural understanding. This environment was possible due to the authority invested in Terdak Lingpa as an acknowledged reincarnation of past Buddhist masters, and further enforced by his place in the prestigious Nyo (Smyos) family lineage on his father’s side, and from his mother’s with familial ties to the Tibetan imperial period. As Townsend clearly traces, the prestige of Terdak Lingpa can also be attributed to the support and patronage of the Fifth Dalai Lama, with whom Terdak Lingpa had a somewhat symbiotic and multi-faceted relationship. Because of the Dalai Lama’s patronage of Mindroling, students were immersed in an intensive learning environment that enabled them to then as graduates work effectively in Geluk-dominated government institutions, and formed a powerful network of alumni dedicated to Buddhist modes of leadership and high levels of cultural awareness. This network, Townsend notes, enabled Mindroling to act as the “mother monastery” that served as the source for scores of satellite institutions, each of which drew upon the core curriculum that served to continually re-focus power on Mindroling as well as on its primary supporter, the Fifth Dalai Lama.

Regarding material culture, Townsend provides a useful reminder that Tibet did not exist in a vacuum; in addition to shaping philosophies and practices, contacts with foreign cultures fueled innovations in its arts as well (p. 12). By drawing upon Nelson Goodman’s definition of art (pp. 14-17) and discussing whether Buddhist art may be deemed art at all, she reiterates that while the iconographic correctness and ritual efficacy of an image are crucial components, concerns regarding its beauty are equally relevant. Works of particular beauty might lead to a more substantive practical experience when viewed and utilized by an appreciative initiate. Further, given that art was created to be given as a gift, offered as a donation, and serve as physical reminders of appreciation for a particular person or teaching (pp. 18-19), Mindroling’s material culture offers insight into the aesthetics that drove artistic production over a span of centuries.

Yet no art can be created without the sufficient authority and resources to produce it. In Chapter 2, Townsend presents a portrait of Terdak Lingpa, and employs monastic catalogs, biographies, and genealogical texts to clearly define the sources of his authority and further, how he asserted his authority during his lifetime. His Nyo family heritage (pp. 74-76) connected him with the crucial period of the second dissemination, when Nyo Lotsawa Yonten Drak (Gnyos lo tsa wa Yon tan grags, eleventh century) brought to Tibet the advanced Buddhist practices he had experienced in India (p. 66). These teachings gave the Nyo family a marked power and notoriety that endured for centuries, and a lineage that spawned numerous reincarnations, treasure revealers and highly realized practitioners. Thus, when the Dalai Lama was in the process of consolidating his Geluk-centered authority, his bringing a member of the influential Nyo into his circle was a logical choice, as was providing Mindroling land and institutional resources; by dint of its cosmopolitan, comparatively inclusive approach, Mindroling was what “bridged” Buddhism and culture despite conflicts and strife between the often-competing Geluk and Nyingma traditions (p. 56).

In fact, as this chapter elucidates, neither the history of Mindroling as an institution nor the investitures of authority in Terdak Lingpa and the Fifth Dalai Lama can be properly appreciated without a nuanced understanding of each of the key actors. Townsend delineates the many ways in which Terdak Lingpa and the Fifth Dalai Lama invested each other with authority, and how their individual institutions embodied distinct spheres of authority; specifically, Mindroling provided intellectual, artistic, and cultural authority while Lhasa-based institutions offered political authority (p. 63). This echoed a long-standing aim: a functioning chos srid system in which temporal and religious authorities worked together so as to contribute to the larger whole of society (p. 68). For his part, Terdak Lingpa provided an essentially nonsectarian, “radically nondiscriminatory” environment (p. 85), specifically, a dynamic mix of lay and monastic, men and women, that brought increasing numbers of supporters and patrons, yet one that operated at the margins of centralized Geluk authority. The Fifth Dalai Lama thus saw Mindroling as recreating the imperial past, with its patterns of reincarnations, marriage alliances, and political power that perpetuated an elite group who acted as patrons (p. 93), thus fueling the Dalai Lama’s vision of Mindroling serving the “greater Tibet (bod chen)” (p. 98) that he was in the process of creating.

To manifest his vision, the Dalai Lama had to balance his activities in order to avoid upsetting the stricter members of the Geluk tradition, such as not participating in Terdak Lingpa’s enthronement at Mindroling (pp. 135-140). These choices were relayed in a series of “letters” (chab shog) between the Fifth Dalai Lama and Terdak Lingpa, correspondence that is a focal point of Chapter 3. Townsend rightfully argues that in many ways, surviving written exchanges strongly reflect the personalities involved: the unconventional Terdak Lingpa’s style was often less formal and more practical, yet showed his awareness of and dexterity with other traditions, whether he was writing to the Dalai Lama or one of his female students (pp. 124, 160).

In contrast, the Dalai Lama’s more structured writings seem to be aware of outside readers beyond his recipient (p. 126), and more oriented toward sustaining the perceived value and importance of those institutions most in line with his longer-term vision. Prime among these institutions was Mindroling, which he wanted to be seen as a vital center of the Tibetan cultural universe (p. 128). Further, the specific language used by the Dalai Lama is usefully and cogently analyzed by Townsend to reveal what messages, implicit and direct, he is employing to reinforce Terdak Lingpa’s identity and role. Beyond the letters’ formal characteristics, Townsend also uses this chapter to illustrate the ways in which Terdak Lingpa’s writings reflect how he embodied key Buddhist principles, specifically as a holder of two extremes, one who was able to operate on a high philosophical level while concurrently balancing the everyday realities of society, politics and ethics. Terdak Lingpa authored correspondence that highlights his code-switching ability, moving from a spontaneous and straightforward style of writing to a loftier, more philosophically oriented discourse, skills that mirror his reputation as somewhat of a paradox, and presenting him as a foil of sorts to the comparatively staid Dalai Lama (pp. 153-157).

Yet Terdak Lingpa was not constrained to the teachings of the Nyingma tradition to which he primarily belonged. Chapter 4 focuses on the wider curriculum of Mindroling; specifically, how was the Nyingma curriculum there unique, and how did it address other traditions? In particular, how was Mindroling able to negotiate its space as a Nyingma institution headed by a treasure-revealing founder while also providing education to the elite officials of tomorrow, graduates who would more often than not serve the central, Geluk government? Townsend points out that while elites were certainly trained in what was often contradictory content, overall the students were taught to address matters practical as well as philosophical, i.e., to be made into good Buddhist leaders, thoroughly grounded in the shared principles of the overall tradition, rather than strictly adherent to any one view (pp. 177-178). This educational process for the elites stood in marked contrast from what young Geluk monks were learning at the time—more specifically, what they were not learning, as monks in and around Lhasa during this time were actively discouraged from learning to read and write, primarily in the hopes of curbing potential criticism of the nascent central government (p. 190). Townsend clarifies that all in all, the rules for behavior of all Mindroling enrollees was quite strict (p. 204), structure that was necessary in order to inspire the confidence of donors as well as that of the local and regional governments (p. 200). The result of this organized approach was a large body of alumni fully capable of understanding and using language, in appreciating the arts, being comfortable continuing necessary rituals, and fully versed in the Buddhist ethics that made a person a legitimate, authoritative figure in society. In turn, the graduates provided material support to Mindroling and its satellite institutions, creating a self-sustaining cycle of education and leadership, and by extension, in the process perpetuating their shared definitions of beauty and aesthetics. As Townsend states, the “students at Mindroling were literally endowed with the authority of being cultured” (p. 215).

The destruction of Mindroling and its aftermath are the focus of Chapter 5. After Terdak Lingpa’s death in 1714, and the murder of his brother and his son Pema Gyurmé Gyatso (Pad+ma ’gyur med rgya mtsho, 1686-1718) during the devastating 1717 invasion of Mindroling by Dzungar Mongols, Terdak Lingpa’s daughter Mingyur Paldron (Mi ’gyur dpal sgron, 1699-1769) and remaining son Rinchen Namgyal (Rin chen rnam rgyal, 1694-1758) would rebuild and restore Mindroling. Mingyur Paldron, like so many women in Terdak Lingpa’s lineage, was a highly educated person and dedicated Buddhist nun, so much so that she was reticent to conduct wrathful rituals on behalf of a patron (p. 231). Townsend situates her as the mark of the “second wave” of Mindroling (p. 230), responsible and authoritative not due to the charisma of her father, but rather due to her ability to lead Mindroling by dint of her intense adherence to proper Buddhist practice (p. 234). The role of women in the Nyo lineage is but one of the many promising paths of future research Townsend outlines, each of which is thought provoking and exciting.

In summary, this dissertation presents Mindroling as an educational institution that simultaneously embodied key — yet often seemingly incongruous — Buddhist principles. A small, powerful group of elite lay scholars were educated there, surrounded by a large population of renunciant monks. Yet due in large part to the inclusive, charismatic personality of its founder Terdak Lingpa and the substantial material support of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Mindroling was able to cultivate both communities simultaneously, as evidenced not only by extant written correspondence between these two teachers and their students, but also by the large body of material culture produced at and for Mindroling. At a time of nation building, Mindroling served as a clearinghouse for highly educated people who would continue to staff key positions in the nascent centralized government, and as the power of the alumni grew, the shared sense of aesthetics and good governance they were imbued with at Mindroling was perpetuated exponentially. Townsend’s thoughtful use of a wide range of materials and cross-cultural, interdisciplinary comparisons provide the reader with a much fuller appreciation of Mindroling and its cultural legacy, not to mention great anticipation for her future avenues of research.

Ariana Maki
Associate Curator of Asian Art
CU Art Museum
University of Colorado at Boulder

Primary Sources

Collected Religious Instructions and Letters of Terdak Lingpa
Terdak Lingpa’s outer biography
Letters to various notables of China, Tibet, and Mongolia written by the Fifth Dalai Lama
The Collected Works of the Fifth Dalai Lama
Mindroling’s Catalogue: A Mirror of Recollections (’Og min O rgyan smin grol gling gi dkar chag dran pa’i me long)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 265 pp. Primary Advisor: Gray Tuttle.

Image: “Teacher (Lama) – Gyurme Dorje,” Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.

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