The Ritual History of a Tibetan Buddhist Protector Deity


A review of Nechung: The Ritual History and Institutionalization of a Tibetan Buddhist Protector Deity, by Christopher Paul Bell.

In his introduction, Bell begins by providing some historical context for his examination of the history of the Tibetan protector deity Pehar, leader of the Five Sovereign Spirits, and of the deity’s relationship with the Dalai Lamas, particularly the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682 CE), who came to power in 1642 with the help of Güshri Khan (1582-1654) and his Mongol army (p. 1). During the reign of the Fifth, the rituals, texts, and sites associated with Pehar were dramatically expanded upon, and he quickly rose to a new level of prominence in the Tibetan pantheon, particularly as a dispenser of advice to the rulers of Tibet through the Nechung oracle and as a protector deity of the new, Dalai Lama-run government, the capital, and Tibet as a whole. Bell argues that this focusing on Pehar by Tibet’s rulers was an integral part of the legitimization of their nascent administration and their rule over Tibet (p. 2), which was now unified for the first time since the imperial period (7th-9th centuries CE), and that it was a key component of their establishment of “ritual hegemony over the capital city of Lhasa and Tibet as a whole” (p. 3).

Bell then describes the various means of propitiating Tibetan deities as “a complex of mythic narratives, divine iconographies, liturgical collections, ritual objects, devotional performances, and sacred sites that are created, coordinated, and consistently engaged by religious practitioners for the purposes of venerating or entreating a specific divinity or group of divinities” (p. 4), and he provides a detailed examination of the hierarchy of the numerous “gods and spirits” of Tibet that helps to situate Pehar and his divine entourage in the Tibetan “spiritual landscape” (pp. 7-15). He also outlines his methodological orientation, which draws from existing work on Chinese religions, particularly E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks’s accretion theory, which seeks to explain how seemingly monolithic works are often developed over long periods of time (Bruce E. Brooks and Taeko A. Brooks. The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and His Successors. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998), and on Max Weber’s (On Charisma and Institution Building: Selected Papers, edited by S.N. Eisenstadt, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1968) routinized charisma (pp. 22-26).

In Chapter 1, Bell explores in detail Pehar’s rich and at times contradictory mythological roots, arguing that the Fifth Dalai Lama selected from this mythic corpus in such as way as to portray the deity as simultaneously indigenously Tibetan and Buddhist in his codification of the deity’s mythic narrative (pp. 29-30). Bell explains these variations in narrative and their ability to coexist from two perspectives: first, through the use of Paul R. Katz’s etic concepts of superscription (cultural symbols are built up over time, acting as sources of both continuity and transformation), cogeneration (variations of myths are built up over time by different peoples who may be unaware of changes made by others), and reverberation (cultures change as they are passed from person to person) (pp. 67-68). Second, he directs the reader to three emic explanations of these variations and contradictions in Pehar’s mythic background: skillful means (variations in teachings, stories, and so forth appear to suit each situation); the citation of Buddhist scripture to justify the worship of dharma protectors by the Fifth Dalai Lama; and the use of the two truths doctrine of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy to present the ontological status of Pehar and the four other members of the Five Sovereign Spirits as ultimately that of the five buddha families, while in conventional narratives they may be portrayed as unenlightened worldly deities (pp. 69-70). Bell argues that this ultimate/conventional dichotomy enabled the Fifth Dalai Lama to craft an ambiguous place for Pehar and his divine retinue in the Tibetan pantheon in which they were simultaneously transcendent buddhas and mundane protectors, allowing them a freedom of action in both narrative and ritual unavailable to beings firmly classified in one of those categories (pp. 82-84).

Chapter 2 begins with an examination of the rituals used to invoke dharma protectors at Nechung monastery, the residence of the state oracle and a central site of the propitiation of Pehar and the other members of the Five Sovereign Spirits during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. The role of the mediums, their relationships with the deities they channel (pp. 110-112), and the supernatural qualities they exhibit as signs of their possession (p. 113) are also explored here in some detail. Bell observes that the primary reason for the propitiation rituals and particularly the trances of the mediums is to bring the deities into the presence of those in attendance, where they are able to be beseeched directly for advice, protection for the monastery and government, and so forth (p. 118).

Following this, Bell presents a detailed exploration of the ritual calendar and the ways in which this calendar connects Nechung Monastery to an “intricate network of rituals” most densely concentrated around the capital of Lhasa, but also spread across Tibet. He then discusses the contents of the ritual texts used to propitiate the Five Sovereign Spirits, the Nechung Liturgy, noting that more than half of the collection was written by a Dalai Lama (the Fifth having written 10 himself), and that the composition of seventeen of the forty-two texts was requested by the Nechung Oracle, which leads Bell to write that “the bodhisattva and the god molded the Nechung Liturgy, revealing their constant presence in the evolution of Nechung Monastery’s fundamental ritual programs” (p. 145). He then proceeds to analyze the contents of the Nechung Liturgy, noting how emendation of rituals can combine the worship of various deities, how these texts are open to change over time, and the gradual process by which these deities were appropriated into the pantheon of the Dalai Lama’s Gelug sect by the sixteenth century (pp. 150-151). He notes that while Pehar was central to the activities at Nechung Monastery during the seventeenth century, his position was usurped by Dorjé Drakden by the early eighteenth century (pp. 154-157).  Bell closes this chapter employing Bruce and Brooks’ theory of ritual accretion to argue that the texts he has examined here demonstrate that rituals evolve through the gradual accumulation of texts and practices over time (p. 158).

Bell opens Chapter 3 with an description of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s expanding power in matters of both religion and politics following the establishment of his rule in 1642. Here he notes the symbolic power of Pehar being taken from his previous abode at Samyé Monastery, the first monastery built in Tibet by the king Trisong Detsun (pp. 742-796), to the Gelugpa Drepung Monastery (of which Nechung Monastery is a part). This move, along with listing figures from that earlier time period as among the former lives of the Fifth and of others in his administration, helped to tie the Dalai Lamas to the lost glory of the Imperial Period (7th-9th centuries), thus providing powerful legitimization for the newfound government (p. 175).

He then describes in great detail the interior of Nechung Monastery as it currently stands, noting how the iconography of the monastery has changed since the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, perhaps most notably in the replacement of Pehar with Dorjé Drakden as the central deity there (pp. 186-187). He then explores the relationships between Nechung and other monasteries, noting that as the Gelug sect took over monasteries, they began replacing the iconographies there with their own, including that of the Five Sovereign Spirits, who were then propitiated at these sites in order to protect the Dalai Lama’s government and to defeat those who resisted them (p. 225). Through their seizure of these monasteries and the founding of others, they created a network of connected monasteries located at religiously significant sites that were subordinate to Nechung, thus expanding their religious hegemony throughout the landscape (pp. 249-250).

In his conclusion, Bell seeks to explain why Pehar in particular took on such a prominent role in the governmental and religious institutions of Tibet under the Fifth Dalai Lama and his last regent, Sangyé Gyatso (1653-1705). He notes that the Fifth had a number of personal connections to Pehar: his familial ancestry; the numerous transmissions of Pehar’s practices he had received; his line of previous lives (in particular the Second Dalai Lama, who wrote a number of texts related to Pehar); and, and the deity’s already existing institutional ties to the Gelugpa sect and Drepung Monastery, where the Fifth lived as a child (p. 316). Bell also notes that Pehar’s mythology also tied him to the Mongols, which helped secure his ties with Güshri Khan (p. 327).

Bell’s dissertation builds on the existing work on the rise of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his Gelugpa sect, such as Kurtis Schaeffer (“Ritual, Festival and Authority under the Fifth Dalai Lama,” in Power, Politics and the Reinvention of Tradition: Tibet in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, edited by Bryan Cuevas and Kurtis Schaeffer. 187-202. Leiden: Brill, 2003), Martin Mills (Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), Anne Chayet (“The Potala, Symbol of the Power of the Dalai Lamas,” in Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century, edited by Françoise Pommaret, 39-52. Boston: Brill, 2003), Samten Karmay (“The Fifth Dalai Lama and His Reunification of Tibet,” in Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas, edited by Françoise Pommaret, pp.81-98. Leiden: Brill, 2003), and Amy Heller (“The Great Protector Deities of the Dalai Lamas,” in Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas, edited by Françoise Pommaret, pp.81-98. Leiden: Brill). It also contributes to the literature on deities, ritual, and religious practice in Tibet, particularly during this period, e.g. René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz (Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities. New Delhi: Paljor Publications, [1956] 1998), Samten Karmay (The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, 1998), and José Ignacio Cabezón (Tibetan Ritual. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

This work contains an extraordinary amount of historical, textual, and architectural detail within it. Of particular benefit for those researching Tibetan ritual or protector deities is the ample appendices, which contain both his transitions and original texts of many of the works that are central to the dissertation, including an outline of The Nechung Liturgy, three of the central rituals performed at Nechung, and the Nechung Register.

Andrew Erlich
Department for the Study of Religion
University of Toronto

Primary Sources
Bskal bzang rin chen (19th cent.). 1969. The Collected Liturgical Texts of Gnas-chung Rdo-rje-sgra-dbyangs-gling, the Residence of the State Oracle of Tibet (Sa gsum na mngon par mtho ba rdo rje sgra dbyangs gling gi zhal ’don bskang gso’i rim pa phyogs gcig tu bsgrigs pa’i ngo mtshar nor bu’i ’phreng ba skal bzang gzhon nu’i mgul rgyan). Gangtok: Sonam Topgay Kazi.

Lobzang Tondan, ed. 1983. The Collected Works of Liturgy of the Gnas-chuṅ Rdo-rje-sgra- dbyaṅs-gliṅ Monastery, 3 vols. Delhi: Lobzang Tondan.

Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (1617-1682) and Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653-1705). Nechung Register (Gnas chung dkar chag).

Nyangrel Nyima Özer (1124-1192). 1983. Ten-Chapter Sādhana: A Supplication Offering to the Five Great Sovereign Spirits and their Retinues (Rgyal po chen po sku lnga’i gsol mchod ’phrin las don bcu ma). Delhi: Lobzang Tondan

Dissertation Information
University of Virginia, Charlottesville. 2013. 659 pp. Primary Advisor: David Germano.

Image: Representation of Pehar Gyalpo at Nechung Monastery Assembly Hall, in Tibet, Wikimedia Commons.

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