Life & Work of Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851)


A review of Dissipating Boundaries: The Life, Song-Poems, and Non-Sectarian Paradigm of Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851), by Rachel Hua-Wei Pang.

Rachel H. Pang’s Dissipating Boundaries: The Life, Song-Poems, and Non-Sectarian Paradigm of Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851) sets for itself the monumental challenge of providing an historically informed, literary treatment of one of Tibet’s great long-form compositions: the massive, 830-folio autobiography of Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol.  In so doing, it attends to the blurry bounds between the life of a religious figure and the writing of such a figure’s life, as well as to the overlap between the scriptural status of the work as a whole and the literary aspirations of the poems that appear therein.  The dissertation succeeds admirably in these diverse analytic tasks, yielding a confident yet patient, thorough and insightful study.

Shabkar, whose appellation means “white feet,” was a peripatetic Tibetan Buddhist master of the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, whose training and subsequent teachings evidence a life spent practicing within a host of different sectarian lineages.  His autobiography — which Pang refers to as Shabkar’s Life (short for “life story of complete liberation”) (pp. 25-26) — narrates his experiences traveling around Tibet (and Nepal) and is filled with song-poems: poetic greetings, farewells, instructions, remembrances, and a variety of other forms composed in verse.  Pang brings the perspective of modern literary studies to bear on this great work and its poems, while addressing the traditional functions of the text, its non-sectarian message, and its implicit argument about the geographic unity of Buddhist Tibet.  She offers detailed analyses of the content, form, and literary quality of the song-poems, all the while situating them within the long history of Indian and Tibetan composition.   Pang further provides well-earned insights into the religious function of these poems, and the work at large.  Without reducing her reading to a facile repetition of Shabkar’s stated aims, she takes seriously Shabkar’s claim to be telling his story for the benefit of all beings.

Chapter 1, “Shabkar’s Life: Embodying the Words of the Buddha,” investigates the Life’s ambiguous relationship to Buddhist scripture, specifically its similarities to the Pāḷi Nikāyas, Mahāyāna Sūtras, and Buddhist Tantras (p. 22).  Pang argues that Shabkar’s Life resembles such scriptures in its application of passages that introduce the scene of a teaching (Sanskrit: nidāna, Tibetan: gleng gzhi) (pp. 32-39), in its conceit of orality (pp. 39-42), and in its delivery of philosophical and religious content within the context of social exchanges (pp. 23).  Unlike Buddhist scriptures, however, Shabkar’s Life benefits from the intimacy caused by the fact that it is unmediated by a narrator (p. 41).  It is, after all, an auto-biography.  Still, Pang argues, Shabkar’s own statements about the enlightened state of past Tibetan teachers tacitly suggest that the life writings of masters approach the status of scripture (p. 31), further implying that Shabkar’s own Life should be read as the activity of an enlightened figure.  In Pang’s reading, the dynamic status of the Life — as both scripture and non-scripture — serves Shabkar well in accomplishing his pedagogical goals.  Specifically, the Life shows its audience how a veritable human being (Shabkar himself), traveling to recognizable locations and encountering everyday situations, embodies the path to liberation that one can find described in scriptures (p. 63).  Shabkar’s Life “provides vital links between a human being desiring liberation and an embodied Buddha who has been liberated” (p. 40).

Chapter 2, “Musical-Poetic Agency: The Song-Poems in Shabkar’s Life,” finds Pang exploring the “song-poem” form in admirable detail.  Her familiarity and facility with both the Life and its relevant antecedents (such as Apabraṃśa dohā and Tibetan mgur) is particularly well-pronounced in this chapter.  She charts the thematic content of Shabkar’s song-poems, discusses their meter, and identifies the traditional figures that the poems employ (including varieties of similes, word repetition, parallelisms, and refrain; the restriction of vowels within a stanza to a single sound; the embedding of the author’s name into poem; the use of numerical sequences, alphabetical motifs, vocal interjections, and so on).  Pang ultimately argues that song-poems were an effective way for Shabkar, both in his life and in the Life, to reach Tibetans from all strata of society (p. 84).  The poems show Shabkar embedded in the realities of the ordinary world, and yet communicate transcendent messages to the unenlightened (p. 89).  They thus link enlightenment to everyday, non-enlightened experience and encourage people to embody Buddhist teachings in their own, mundane lives (pp. 86, 134).

Chapter 3, “Shabkar’s Literary-Religious Heritage,” turns to Tibetan influences on Shabkar’s Life.  Pang explores similarities and differences between Shabkar’s Life and Tsangnyön Heruka’s fifteenth-century life-story of Milarepa, the famed Mi la rnam thar.  She also scrutinizes the connection between Shabkar’s song poems and those of Kalden Gyatso (1606-1677), one of his spiritual heroes.  In this chapter, Pang introduces the argument that Shabkar’s Life is especially notable, in contrast to these other works, for its emphasis on the Tibetan region of Amdo (pp. 149, 152-154). Chapter 4, “Place, Poetry, and Literature in Shabkar’s Life,” builds on the analysis of Chapter 3 to argue for the significance of Shabkar’s Amdo focus.  The Life, she argues, renders Amdo as an ancient and integral part of Buddhist Tibet (p. 172) and a center of Buddhist activity (p. 196).  It does so, in part, by emphasizing the unity of sacred locales throughout Tibet.  Pang’s argument grows out of her astute observations about Shabkar’s literary descriptions of the sites that he visits.  Shabkar creates the impression of a universally Buddhist Tibet, for example, by comparing the places that he visits to other Buddhist holy sites (such as Padmasambhava’s copper-colored mountain, the land of Oḍḍiyāna, and pure lands).  He does not, by way of contrast, provide interpretations of the actual physical attributes of the visited locales (p. 177).  Pang further explores Shabkar’s travels through the lens of pilgrimage.  She reads his nickname, Shabkar (zhabs dkar, “white feet”), as a metaphor for Shabkar’s travels, where “white” signifies Buddhism and “feet” the activity of pilgrimage (p. 185). 

Pang’s final chapter, “Dissipating Sectarian Boundaries: the Non-Sectarian Paradigm in Shabkar’s Life,” pursues the theme of non-sectarianism from a number of perspectives.  Non-sectarianism, as a translation of the Tibetan term ris med, means, in Pang’s words, an “attitude of respect and lack of bias to different religious sects” (p. 209).  It is also, as she remarks, a term used by Euro-American scholars to refer to a nineteenth-century movement in Eastern Tibet.  Pang identifies various non-sectarian themes in Shabkar’s Life, then determines that his non-sectarianism constitutes a mode of communication entirely different from that preferred by the nineteenth-century figures usually associated with the ris med movement (p. 207).  Here, she deepens a claim made in chapter 2 that song-poems are well-suited to a non-sectarian agenda, seeing as they give Shabkar the formal freedom to juxtapose teachings from different lineages (p. 217).  Pang ultimately argues that non-sectarianism in the Life is best thought of as a paradigm, rather than the marker of a social movement (p. 251).  In Shabkar’s case, non-sectarianism is a model of behavior that is consistent with traditional Buddhism, not a revolution against it (p. 208).

In Dissipating Boundaries, Pang does a great service to the burgeoning field of Tibetan literary studies.  She models an historically informed yet theoretically engaged study of a literary work.  Beyond her intimate familiarity with the relevant Tibetan source materials, Tibetan and western-language scholarship on Tibetan literature and biography, and biography studies at large, she also capitalizes on her own fieldwork in Amdo.  Her research abroad helps her to situate the role of songs in Tibetan life worlds, for example.  Pang’s dense and edifying dissertation could be easily transformed into any number of articles geared towards Tibetan specialists and historians.  Upon revision and publication as a monograph, however, it is sure to be welcomed as a significant contribution to Tibetan Studies as well as to the study of religion and literature in Asia more broadly.

Joshua D. Schapiro
Theology Department
Fordham University

Primary Sources

Zhabs dkar tshogs drug rang grol rnam thar (Full title: Snyigs dus ’gro ba yongs kyi skyabs mgon zhabs dkar rdo rje ’chang chen po’i rnam par thar pa rgyas par bshad pa skal bzang gdul bya thar ’dod rnams kyi re ba skong ba’i yid bzhin gyi nor bu bsam ’phel dbang gi rgyal po)

Dissertation Information

University of Virginia. 2011. 299 pp. Primary Advisor: David Germano.


Image: Photograph taken by Rachel Pang.

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