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Reviewed by:
  • Tibetan Ritual
  • Claire Villarreal

Tibetan ritual, Mongolian Buddhism, pre-Buddhism, India, magic, myth

José Ignacio Cabezón , ed. Tibetan Ritual. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 304.

In this edited volume, Cabezón brings together eleven chapters by specialists in Tibetan culture and ritual expression. This book began as a collection of papers presented at the 2007 conference "The Practice and Theory of Tibetan Ritual," which drew scholars from various countries and from various subgenres of the field of Tibetan studies (p. 29). The volume manages to reflect a diversity of viewpoints and methodologies without feeling scattered. Two of the eleven chapters are by anthropologists working in Tibetan communities, [End Page 127] and the rest explore topics ranging from a ritual for averting death to the repeated recontextualization of a verse from a Sanskrit Guhyasamāja practice text.

Cabezón's introduction, however, may be the most valuable resource in the book for the reader unfamiliar with the world of Tibetan ritual studies and should certainly be read before the chapters. At thirty-four pages (including footnotes), it provides a readable and concise overview of the progression of the field of Tibetology from a nearly exclusively textual and "high tradition"-based enterprise to its current period of diversification, in which scholars also address a growing body of sociological data about Tibetan and Himalayan societies as well as the more pragmatic orientations that characterize some of the rituals described in this book.

Cabezón also highlights some of the challenges peculiar to the study of Tibetan ritual. As Buddhism came to Tibet, it encountered a land already teeming with spirits that had well-established cults of their own; as these indigenous deities were incorporated into the new cosmos, many found themselves merged with similar Indian deities or added to the retinue of a foreign Buddha. Thus, rituals propitiating deities will often pull heavily from pre-Buddhist sources (e.g., some deities prefer to consume sacrificial blood or flesh, an offering that Buddhists mitigated into cakes representing animals) while at the same time fitting the practices into a Buddhist framework by emphasizing, for instance, the benefit that will accrue to beings if the ritual is effective. This reframing can obscure a practice's origins and muddle clear distinctions between rituals designed to harm and those designed to heal.

Another issue peculiar to the study of magic and ritual in a Tibetan context is the close ties between "magic" and normative practices (a distinction perhaps more important to scholars of comparative magic than to Tibetanists). For instance, in order to expel a harmful spirit from a village, a tantric practitioner might undertake intensive practices that would imaginally transform him or her into a wrathful, blood-drinking deity who could subdue or destroy the offending spirit by the use of mantras and energetically charged substances (such as pills designed to be flung into the air to destroy threatening spirits). The process of transformation and subduing, however, would be understood not as magic but as a wrathful act of compassion on behalf of the inhabitants of the village, with the slain spirit's mind being transferred into a pure land where it could attain liberation. There are, however, practices considered magical or dangerous even by permissive Tibetan standards, and this volume includes an overview of one by a prestigious master of the nineteenth century: "The 'Calf's Nipple' (Be'u bum) of Ju Mipam ('Ju Mi pham)" by Bryan Cuevas. [End Page 128]

The chapters themselves, however, generally avoid getting entangled in the problematics of terminology and present, clearly enough for nonspecialists, studies from the greater Tibetan cultural area. Chapter 1, by Nicholas Sihlé, covers the local transformations of tantric practice in a small community in Lower Mustang, Nepal. He explores the adaptation of tantric texts (probably of Indian origin) to local needs by the semiliterate lay priests of the region; in terms of theory, this chapter critiques models of religious communities that recognize only "elite" and "popular" levels of understanding, using the lay priests as examples of a local elite who would nonetheless be seen as ignorant by members of highly specialized monastic or tantric institutions. Chapter 2, by Samten...


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