Epistolary Buddhism: Letter Writing and the Growth of Geluk Buddhism in Early Modern Asia

Kilby, Christina, 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

At the very time that correspondence knit together an intellectual Republic of Letters across Enlightenment Europe, letters also flourished across early modern Asia in the making of a different kind of enlightened community: the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. This thesis argues that a distinctively Buddhist letter-writing culture shaped the elite networks among lamas, rulers, and patrons that enabled Geluk Buddhism to spread across vast geopolitical distances and to increasingly influence local social environments.

Examining the rise of Geluk letter-writing manuals and letter collections during the High Qing period, I identify a Tibetan Buddhist movement toward epistolary standardization. This movement was based in Amdo, a region at the crossroads of Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian cultures. By theologizing the role of official letters in Buddhist history and by prescribing the formatting and stylistic features of such letters, monastic scholars in Amdo sought to hone a key tool of religious network formation. Their epistolary manuals regulated an economy of correspondence in which lamas identified and promoted new candidates for leadership, religious scholars debated ideas and shared texts, monastic peers exchanged poetic affections, and rulers negotiated the financial, military, and ritual stakes of their support for Buddhist institutions.

Through a diligent literary study with implications for social and political history, I aim to offer a new cultural analysis of Geluk Buddhism during the Qing period. This study contributes a social network theory approach to the study of early modern Tibetan Buddhism and sheds a uniquely literary light on the forging of one of Asia's most powerful empires.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tibet, Buddhism, dge lugs, letters, letter-writing manuals, Qing, early modern
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