Nechung: The Ritual History and Institutionalization of a Tibetan Buddhist Protector Deity

Bell, Christopher, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Germano, David, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Schaeffer, Kurtis, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

The following monograph is a detailed historical study of the cult of the Tibetan Buddhist protector deity named Pehar (Tib. Pe har) as it grew to prominence at Nechung Monastery (Tib. Gnas chung dgon) in seventeenth-century Lhasa under the auspices of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s burgeoning government. This study explores Pehar’s mythic and iconographic characteristics, liturgical development, and monastic and institutional deployment at this crucial juncture in Tibetan history. Deity cults are ubiquitous in world religions, but the precise form that they take in Tibetan Buddhism and the dynamics driving the changing popularity of specific deities over the centuries has been inadequately studied. Given his centrality in Tibetan religious history, a sustained examination of Pehar’s cult at Nechung Monastery and its influence in later centuries will act as a case study that will significantly enhance our understanding of deity cults within Buddhism and within religious traditions more broadly.

A central dynamic of Tibetan Buddhism is its extensive pantheon of supernatural beings, which collectively function as key players in religious practices across time, space, institutional histories, and sectarian intersections. Perhaps the most fascinating type of such beings is the hybrid figure of the Tibetan Dharma protector (Tib. chos skyong), each of which has complex histories, profoundly local associations, and yet resolutely Buddhist characteristics. Pehar is one of the most significant of such Dharma protectors; he possesses multiple forms and is venerated within all major Tibetan Buddhist sects. According to popular legend, Pehar was subjugated by the great Indian tantric exorcist Padmasambhava in the eighth century and assigned as a protector deity of Samyé Monastery (Tib. Bsam yas dgon pa), Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery. Pehar’s significance increased dramatically during the seventeenth century, when he became intimately linked with the Fifth Dalai Lama and his administration.

The central argument of this study is that the cult of Pehar at Nechung Monastery experienced a meteoric rise in popularity in the seventeenth century primarily through the deliberate efforts of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his regent Sangyé Gyatso in reliance upon multiple mythic, ritual, and institutional devices. Pehar was given greater attention than other deities because of his numerous connections to the Fifth Dalai Lama, which included ancestral, transmissional, institutional, and geopolitical ties. These connections made the deity an ideal choice for inclusion within the larger ritual management of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s government.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tibetan Ritual, Deity Cults, Protector Deities, Pehar, rgyal-po sku-lnga, Fifth Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism, Nechung
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