The Life of a Bönpo Luminary: Sainthood, Partisanship, and Literary Representation in a 20th Century Tibetan Biography

Gorvine, William M., Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Germano, David, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This project examines how Tibetan literature reflects and shapes images of sanctity within the cultural dynamics of religious partisanship in twentieth century Bön religion. Bön is a vital minority tradition rooted in indigenous Tibetan culture yet profoundly influenced by dialogue with Buddhist lineages, and the period in question marks the culmination of a highly influential period of religious ecumenicism. The dissertation explores a distinctive instance of religious life-writing within this milieu by focusing on the life-story of Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen, who stands as not only the most prominent and influential figure in the Tibetan Bön religion in the twentieth century, but also at the center of a controversy within his own lineage. While his supporters revered him as an enlightened teacher whose non-sectarian sensibilities were perfectly suited to the times, his critics accused of him of championing an unorthodox movement that transgressed sectarian boundaries and mixed Bön with Buddhism. My dissertation explores the social and religious grounds for these contrasting perspectives as well as a disciple’s literary attempt to reconcile them. To that end, this project offers a detailed study of Shardza’s religious biographies or namtar (rnam thar) , composed in two versions by his disciple, Kelzang Tenpé Gyaltsen. Culminating in a translation and critical edition of a previously unavailable work, this study considers how a Tibetan author, writing for a diverse and potentially divided audience, has utilized both a saintly typology and an historiographical chronology to render an image of the remarkable life and career of his teacher. Weaving together textual research, oral interviews and translation, this work explores the nature of this disciple's hagiographical portrait, revealing it as a composite sketch embodying religious ideals representing different segments of the author’s imagined audience. In the process, it considers important distinguishing features of Bön ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heterodoxy’ as well as the way in which tradition and religious authority are represented within a rich local environment.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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