- Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a type of teaching called a dmar khrid, a "red instruction," wherein the lama brings students through a teaching as a physician might dissect a corpse, pointing out and explaining the various parts and organs and their places and functions. In Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism, Martin Mills has done very much the same thing, with the exception that the body he examines is still very much alive, and emerges, to my eyes at least, as a new and wholly vital entity. Mills exposes the subcutaneous and sanguine body of Tibetan Buddhism, the bones and muscles that make up its structure, the blood that flows through it, and the organs that keep it alive, in "a plain and open manner," just as in a dmar khrid.1 The value of such a presentation truly cannot be overstated. An attempt to catalog the contents of each chapter would be both impossible and counterproductive, as the wealth of theoretical material and ethnographic detail is a large part of what makes this book so powerful. Instead, I will identify several topics, several of the vital organs alluded to, that are either not commonly noticed in the academic study of Buddhism, or that are given fresh perspective by Mills's anthropological and sociological methodology, and that are so crucial to understanding how it is that Buddhism lives in a typical Himalayan village. The latter portion of this review explains why I place such high value on this book and its potential place in Buddhist-Christian studies.
Identity, Ritual and State is an ethnography of Kumbum Monastery in Lingshed, Ladakh (the eastern half of the Kashmir valley, located in Jammu and Kashmir, India), but its concerns are much more far-reaching than a single remote Himalayan village. The central question of the work is "how we are to understand the nature of religious authority in Tibetan Buddhist monasticism" (p. xiii), although it might more properly be the religious authority of Tibetan [End Page 187] Buddhist monastics. This answer is worked out in three overlapping areas of analysis: local ritual activity, ecclesiastical structure of the monastery, and the ritual foundations of Tibetan political thought (p. xvii).
Mills convincingly asserts that there is a framework within which Buddhism happens in the Himalayas. The starting point of this framework is birth itself, which establishes the embodied person. The very physicality of personhood has several implications. First, the body is embedded in a very specific local space and place, and personhood is thus not only embodied, but also chthonic—intimately bound up with the earth or soil onto which it is born. At birth, persons are injected into a complex matrix of relations between people and various spirits, such as household gods and protectors, nāga, and itinerant demons. For example, Lingshed is divided into seven subterritories, each under the jurisdiction of a local deity whose physical abode and reign are well known to all in the village.2 These deities are associated with features of the local geography, and they regulate and influence local agricultural and social production, so birth in one area or another signifies a relation with the deity presiding over it. The land itself is imbued with a notion of personhood and agency. The human body is also the repository for pollution (sgrib), which comes about as a result of violating the established hierarchy of space and place and from bringing about changes to the local matrix of embodied persons. Both bodily pollution concerns and the need for proper relations with local spirit numina mandate definite, ongoing ritual attention. Rituals are occasioned in response to births, deaths, spirit possession, unintentional pollution of places or household objects, and movements within the monastic ecclesiastical structure, or happen regularly according to an astrologically and agriculturally influenced calendar.
Rituals are performed by monks not only because they are trained specialists, but because...