Transplanting the Dharma: The Transmission, Territorialization, and Localization of Tibetan Buddhism in Modern Taiwan

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Yonnetti, Eben, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Germano, David, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia
Heller, Natasha, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia
Braun, Erik, AS-Religious Studies (RELI), University of Virginia
Shepherd, John, AS-Anthropology (ANTH), University of Virginia
Yeh, Emily, Department of Geography, University of Colorado Boulder

This dissertation examines how multi-directional economic, political, and religious factors engendered and shaped the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism into Taiwan during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Over the last fifty years, Tibetan Buddhism has grown enormously in Taiwan, transforming from a foreign and virtually unknown religion to the largest non-Chinese Buddhist tradition in Taiwan today. Based on fifteen months of in-depth ethnographic research between 2021 and 2023 among Buddhist communities primarily in metropolitan Taipei, this work explores both the historical situation of Tibetan Buddhism during Taiwan’s martial law and the subsequent emergence of a major Tibetan Buddhist religious movement in Taiwan over the last forty years. Examining the transmission, territorialization, and localization of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan, this dissertation addresses broader questions about how religions transform as they move across time and place, including: 1) How does the exchange of spiritual and financial capital facilitate the transmission of religious traditions into new locales?; 2) How do teachers and practitioners carry religious practices, narratives, rituals, and cosmologies and help them take root within new religious landscapes?; and 3) How does the pursuit of diverse strategies of localization contribute to the successful transplantation of a religion in a non-heritage context?

Employing a telescoping approach, this dissertation begins with an overview of the history of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan and progressively focuses in, first on the city of Taipei, and then on individual Tibetan Buddhist communities, teachers, and practitioners. Chapter one explores the development of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan from its introduction in 1949 through its mass popularization by the turn of the millennium. I argue that Tibetan Buddhist teachers in Taiwan continued a trend of transmitting Tibetan Buddhism to Han disciples that had begun earlier on the Chinese mainland and that the post-1980 popularization of Tibetan Buddhism was due to a unique set of circumstances both in Taiwan and among Buddhist teachers in the global Tibetan diaspora. Chapter two focuses on Taipei as the capital of Tibetan Buddhist life in Taiwan and provides the first focused study of the most important features that connect the diverse network of Tibetan Buddhist institutions across Taipei. Chapter three argues that flows of financial and spiritual capital between Tibetan Buddhist institutions in South Asia and Taiwan created a model of reciprocal exchange critical to the development of Tibetan Buddhism in both locales. Chapter four examines Tibetan Buddhist teachers’ and communities’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in Taiwan. It introduces the concepts of spiritual de- and reterritorialization to describe how Buddhist divinities are carried across geographies and their spheres of agentive influence are extended into new locales. Finally, chapter five considers recent efforts by the Taiwan International Tibetan Buddhism Study Institute to organize and help Tibetan Buddhist grow deeper roots in Taiwan through the pursuit of several strategies of religious localization.

This dissertation contributes a new narrative to the extant body of literature documenting the global odysseys of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism. It tells a story that has, until now, not been included in most lexicons of contemporary Buddhism(s) or Taiwanese religions. As such, this dissertation marks an important contribution to scholarship on contemporary Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, as well as religious life in Taiwan.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Buddhism, Tibet, Taiwan, Transmission, Territorialization, Spiritual Capital, Localization
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