The Taming of the King: Nyingma Ethical Revitalization and the Gesar Epic in Non-Sectarian Tibet

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

This dissertation examines in its historical and doctrinal context the final literary episode of the Tibetan Gesar epic—entitled The Great Perfecting of Hell (Dmyal gling rdzogs pa chen po)—to argue for the importance of epic literature in religious discourse. Previously untranslated, the author provides an introduction to the work detailing King Gesar’s promotion to teacher of Great Perfection practices, descent into hell to save his mother, and subsequent glorious death as a Buddhist master. Situating The Great Perfecting of Hell’s production in a Non-Sectarian historical background, this dissertation examines the text’s reflection of contemporary doctrinal and regional concerns within the Nyingma (rnying ma) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Based on the text's portrayal of King Gesar as a failed tantric figure, this dissertation reveals the The Perfecting of Hell's simultaneous promotion of traditional Buddhist ethics based on karma using the model of Preliminary Meditation (sngon ‘gro) text and of the aesthetically non-violent Great Perfection practices. While perhaps unexpected, the linking of these two doctrinal aspects speaks to larger concerns within the eastern Tibetan religious milieu and demonstrates the use of epic literature to promote contemporary religious argument. Through exploring the deaths of King Gesar and his heroes as Buddhist masters, this dissertation also makes an argument for how epic produces religious change, introducing the idea of a “performative text” to examine how literature like epic moves between (oral or literary) text and social enactment. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the social role of “epic,” arguing for its potential use as a broad-ranging analytical concept to understand the relationship between Buddhist narrative, history, and society. Additionally, this dissertation features a detailed appendix with select translations of songs from the text.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Gesar Epic, Ngondro, Great Perfection (Dzogchen), Nyingma, Epic Literature, Non-Sectarian (Rimé), Eastern Tibet
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