restricted access Self-Theorizing Shabkar’s Life: Differing Concepts of Book, Text, and Self-Referential Life Writing in Tibetan Buddhist Autobiography
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Self-Theorizing Shabkar’s Life:
Differing Concepts of Book, Text, and Self-Referential Life Writing in Tibetan Buddhist Autobiography

This essay examines Shabkar’s Life (1781–1851) using Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s methodology of self-theorization. Drawing from the work of autobiography studies scholars who have engaged with self-referential life writing from different cultures and historical periods, this essay makes the argument that how we read life writing from different cultural contexts is just as important as what we learn from doing so. [End Page 374]


In the past two decades, scholars in autobiography studies have pushed towards the inclusivity of increasingly heterogeneous varieties of self-referential life writing as their subject of study. This has resulted in the documentation and analysis of a great diversity of life writing across space, time, and varying cultural and geopolitical terrains. As our understanding of self-referential life writing becomes progressively diverse, the question of how we should read, interpret, and engage with these texts increasingly comes to the forefront. In Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson discuss the idea that autobiographical texts across geographical and geopolitical terrains have the ability to “self-theorize,” in that they “foreground differences in language, culture, tradition, and history” (224). This essay will examine the Tibetan Buddhist autobiography of Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781–1851), a piece of autobiographical writing far removed from modern Euro-American cultural contexts, using Smith and Watson’s idea of self-theorization.

Despite that Shabkar did indeed write his own life story, the great challenge of reading Shabkar’s Life as autobiography is that it is not exactly autobiography as we understand it in contemporary Euro-American discourse. In her work on medieval women’s self-referential life writing, Kate Greenspan has warned against labeling her objects of study as “spiritual autobiography,” arguing that the term “has raised expectations that the texts cannot fulfill without serious distortion of their goals, structure and meaning” (“Auto-hagiographical” 157). Along these lines, this essay aims to include Shabkar’s Life in the larger academic conversation on life writing across religious, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, while avoiding the pitfall of distorting its original cultural context, significance, and uses. Through its exploration of ideas of “self-theorization,” this essay demonstrates that the very concepts of book, text, and self-referential life writing as presented in Shabkar’s Life prove to be radically different from our modern western conceptions of these three things. Shabkar’s Life exists within a very defined religious and cultural milieu: it presents itself as a text written out of altruistic [End Page 375] compassion for others, and with the intended functions of engendering faith in readers and providing them with a paradigmatic model of spiritual behavior to be emulated. Shabkar portrays the physical book as his substitute and emissary, which in turn reflects the rich cultural understanding of the book in traditional Tibetan life. “Self-theorizing” as a methodology is particularly useful in this context because it allows Shabkar’s Life to present itself to us unclouded by our theoretical assumptions.

Surprisingly, though Tibetan Buddhist autobiography has an eight-hundred-year-old history and a rich store of religious, cultural, and historical information, very little scholarly attention has been paid to the genre. With luck, as more of these works become available in translation, both academics and general readers will be able to encounter these texts for themselves. This essay on Shabkar’s Life is a small but earnest contribution to what I hope may become a flourishing sub-field of study within autobiography studies, Tibetan studies, and Buddhist studies. With more scholarship in this area, scholars will be able to greatly enrich their understanding of the sheer possibilities of life writing across cultural, religious, and linguistic terrains through an examination of varieties of life writing in Tibet.

Shabkar’s Life and Tibetan Buddhist Namtar1

Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781–1851) was one of the most famous and prolific composers and performers of songs of spiritual realization (Tib. mgur) in Tibetan Buddhist history. An itinerant Tibetan Buddhist meditative adept, Shabkar is also known for having composed one of the...