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  • The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism by Jacob P. Dalton
  • Matthew T. Kapstein
The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism BY Jacob P. Dalton. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Pp. x + 311. $40.00.

In The Taming of the Demons, Jacob Dalton offers an innovative and provocative investigation of what he terms a "history of violence" in Tibet (or, more accurately, in Tibetan Buddhism). Dalton qualifies this project, noting that it "traces just one narrative line through a myriad of possibilities. The resulting story is a construction, and in places probably an arbitrary one determined largely by the present author's own interests" (pp. 18-19). All histories, however, are constructions, and Dalton's interests, arbitrary or not, touch upon troubling issues of considerable importance for our understanding of Tibetan religions.

As suggested by the title of his book, Dalton's foremost interest is in the ubiquitous Tibetan theme of demon taming and its elaboration in ritual, narrative, history, and law. It is a leitmotif in the tales of [End Page 177] Buddhism's implantation and development in Tibet, of the activities of saints and wonderworkers down through the ages, of the founding of temples and pilgrimage sites, and of much more. In essence, Dalton's questions are: what accounts for the prominent emphasis on the violent quelling of demons in the Mahayana culture of Tibet—a culture that represents itself as fundamentally "compassionate"? And what lends coherence to its innumerable iterations of religiously sanctioned violence?

In constructing his response, Dalton has chosen to privilege a selection of key texts, traditions, and historical moments. Of central concern to his account is the myth of the demon Rudra (Chapter 1, "Evil and Ignorance in Tantric Buddhism"), which originated in Indian Buddhist tantric tales of the Buddha's subjugation of the Hindu divinity Siva (usually called Mahesvara or Rudra in this context) and was enormously expanded in a scripture entitled the Mdo dgongs pa 'dus pa, probably a Tibetan apocryphon of the late first millennium. (Its lengthy retelling of the story of Rudra is translated in Appendix A.) The unbridled struggle of the gods and buddhas to defeat the monstrous Rudra provides a founding myth for Buddhist tantrism. This narrative is explicitly invoked, or at least plausibly presupposed, in a broad range of Tibetan tantric rituals, especially those seeking to control demonic forces.

Parts of Dalton's account, as developed in Chapter 2 ("Demons in the Dark") in particular, depend upon material gleaned from his previous collaboration with Sam van Schaik at the British Library.1 One of the important conclusions of their work is that, despite the tendency of earlier scholarship to assign Dunhuang Tibetan manuscripts to the period of Tibetan imperial rule in Dunhuang (ca. 781-848), most of the tantric materials more likely dated from the post-imperial "age of fragmentation" (ca. 850-1000). (It may be remarked in passing that this corresponds with a more general trend in Tibetan Dunhuang studies to reassess the dating of the manuscripts, pushing a large proportion of them to post-imperial times.) In the present context, this provides Dalton with plausible evidence through which he argues that [End Page 178] tantric demon taming, as evidenced in the Dunhuang texts, becomes prominent only in post-imperial sources. Such materials subsequently gave rise to the well-known legendary accounts that were retrojected by later Tibetan historians to the imperial age. It is precisely the turbulence of the age of fragmentation, in tandem with the waxing hegemonic presence of the ritual technologies of the tantras, that generates the polarities upon which the myths of demonic subjugation depend.

Dalton's argument in this respect reinforces a broad reappraisal within recent Tibetan studies of the relationship between the history of the Tibetan empire and its later mythology. But what is new and exciting in his contribution is his use of the Dunhuang texts, many of them previously unstudied, to clarify developments during the obscure "dark age" of the late ninth and tenth centuries. Indeed, illuminating the darkness is a key metaphor here, both for some of the sources Dalton considers and for Dalton himself. Tibet...


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