Money and butter: On participation in optional rituals

In his study of the rituals of Newar Buddhism, although he privileges others categories for his analysis, David Gellner points out that “[t]he first and most important distinction for Newar Buddhists is that between obligatory and optional practices”.1 It has always struck me that this distinction seems much less prominent in Tibetan discourses; however, it is in no way absent. But what about the analytical purchase of this distinction? Is, say, the optional character of certain rituals something “good to think with”?

In what follows I would like to examine a major type of (typically annual) collective ritual carried out in many parts of Amdo [A-mdo]2 (northeast Tibet). Although one could point to a few somewhat similar gatherings in Tibetan monastic contexts,3 the specialists considered here are tantrists (Buddhist or Bönpo non-monastic, householder religious specialists, most commonly called ngakpa [sngags-pa] in Tibetan, and most often xön [dpon] in Amdo). These rituals are supra-local (i.e., not small-scale, village community-based) gatherings of religious specialists, who assemble for several days of tantric ritual practice. Significantly, apart from a small number of holders of ritual functions (the vajra-master, the chant master, one or several disciplinarians…), participation in these events is optional.

I would like to look here at an issue that seems to be only very rarely addressed: participation in these rituals being optional, according to what concerns do the religious specialists choose to participate or not? And what do these elements tell us about these specialists and for instance the possible constraints and tensions within which they operate?

The type of response I will be giving is, as current academic trends go, rather uncommon too – maybe because, far (or so one might think) from the existential profundity or symbolic sophistication of things “religious” and “spiritual”, or from the seemingly inherent “relevance” of (gender, postcolonial or other) political or power-centered analyses of religion, it may appear desperately unattractive. Or maybe because it may just seem so “obvious”, and thus not warranting deeper inquiry. I will argue that, quite often, a major factor in the participation, for these religious specialists, is the prospect of receiving a share at the distributions of food and gifts/offerings (gye [’gyed]) that occur at most of these rituals – in other words, yes, a material, economic motivation. I recently told a young Amdo intellectual the theme of the present work I was engaged in, and (I admit this with relief) his immediate reaction was an acknowledgement of relevance: “I see. Not religion according to its theological principles (chö tsennyipa [chos mtshan-nyid-pa]), but what goes on under the name of religion (chö takpawa [chos btag-pa-ba]). [This is probably as close as it gets, in Tibetan, to Leach’s distinction between “philosophical religion” and “practical religion”4] For us [Tibetans], he continued, one cannot write about this, but it’s quite true, this going to rituals in order to get a share (ka len [skal len]).” So let us examine the place of this getting a share.

The (approximately maybe two thousand) tantrists of the Repkong [Reb-kong, Reb-gong] county in Amdo belong primarily, and in roughly comparable numbers, to one or the other of three ritual traditions: two Buddhist, more precisely Nyingma [rNying-ma] ones, and one Bönpo [Bon-po]. The Bönpo tantrists are located in villages scattered throughout various parts of Repkong; as for the two Nyingma traditions, they are present mainly each on one side of the main valley: communities practicing mostly the Minling [sMin-gling] tradition on the (roughly eastern) “shady side” (sip [srib]), and communities associated with the Nyingtik [sNying-thig] tradition on the opposite, western, “sunny side” (nyin [nyin]). Tantrists participate almost exclusively in rituals of their own traditions of training and initiation; thus practice is largely segregated.

Khyung-gön temple during the large Mani ritual, February 2011 (click to enlarge)

There are approximately a dozen supra-local annual ritual gatherings of tantrists in Repkong. Two of the largest rituals of the Buddhist tantrists are held in Khyung-gön [Khyung-dgon] temple and Gönlakha [dGon-la-kha] monastery, on the “shady” and “sunny” sides respectively; similar but smaller events are held in smaller areas, within the “shady” side for instance. Finally, one more recent, also very large collective ritual, known as the Shitro [Zhi-khro], based on a very widely practiced ritual tradition, the Karling [Kar-gling] Shitro, brings together tantrists from both sides of the valley. Here, the location varies from year to year, following a five-year cycle of rotation within a fivefold territorial subdivision of Repkong. As for the (religiously more unified) Bönpo tantrists, their own four major annual ritual gatherings are organized along a similar pattern of rotation.5 All these rituals last typically four or five days, sometimes up to seven. Although they may contain some more spectacular elements like masked dances, processions and so forth, they are primarily of a liturgical character.

What do these ritual gatherings mean for the tantrists? The rituals do not aim in any central way at achieving worldly benefits; they are preeminent occasions of tantric practice centered on a given high tutelary deity: Avalokiteśvara in the major Khyung-gön ritual, Phurwa [Phur-pa] in Gönlakha, etc. The size of the gatherings, their annual character, the prestigious locations, in some cases the presence of a master (lama [bla-ma]), all these factors contribute to make them some of the most, if not often the most, important ritual events of the year for the participants. In particular for strongly religious-minded practitioners, there are clearly (sometimes powerful) religious motivations at play here.

Participation however is also influenced by a whole range of other factors, and in particular by economic considerations. Tantrists, as householders, are most often key income providers for their households, and their engaging (sometimes repeatedly throughout the year) in several-days-long collective rituals has implications for the domestic economy.

For most Repkong households, a yearly activity of crucial economic importance is the caterpillar-fungus (ophiocordyceps sinensis) harvest. The date of the great Shitro ritual was modified in recent years in order to accommodate this activity. Other economic schedules, agricultural or other, may also conflict with fixed annual rituals. For instance, a number of tantrists visit their lay patrons in neighboring areas in order to provide them with ritual services on a roughly annual basis – with slight shifts in timing depending on other factors. In some cases these trips may take up to one or even several months. These commitments, more lucrative and religiously less valued (if not ethically quite problematic – I’ll return to this point in a later post) than the participation in collective rituals, may however remain the priority for many of those tantrists who find themselves faced with this choice.

Preparing the shares of butter (kitchen of Khyung-gön, 2011)

In the absence of such major conflicts in the organization of one’s activities, such as in periods of low-intensity economic activity or even relative inactivity, tantrists may still weigh their participation in a supra-local ritual gathering in part according to its economic cost or benefit, in particular if the ritual is held at some distance from their own village. With the development of paved roads and motor transportation in recent decades, travel to the ritual venue has become quicker, but, for all those who cannot use the typical household’s only motorbike on such an occasion, and have to rely on taxis and the like, it comes with a new cost. A major factor in such calculations is the expectation (for most of those rituals) of a distribution among all participants, during the event, of daily lumps of butter (called marka [mar-skal], “share of butter”) and, most importantly, a certain amount of offerings (gye), primarily in the form of money (sometimes along with bricks of tea for instance). At a given supra-local ritualDepending on the supra-local ritual considered, the total money offered as gye (depending on the case, by one or several patrons) can range from modest amounts like twenty or so yuan (approx. 2 euros) per officiant – a common figure at the major Khyung-gön ritual – to considerably larger sums, reaching for instance up to 700-800 yuan (approx. 80 euros) at some occurrences of the two largest Bönpo rituals (figures all the more remarkable that these latter rituals are typically very large gatherings, with often several hundred persons receiving a share).

In Tibetan religious culture, and in particular in the ritual practice, large figures have their importance; the size of an event is typically correlated with the religious benefits that it produces. Thus the attendance figures at the tantrists’ large supra-local rituals definitely matter for them. In discussions about participation numbers and current trends in such matters, tantrists often spontaneously identify “money and butter” or, more precisely, the usual level of monetary offerings at a given ritual as a key factor in potential participants’ motivations – at least for a substantial proportion of the tantrists. Many tantrists in their thirties and above mention with a smile that, in their youth, it was the prospect of “getting a share” that drew them to the rituals.

Conversely, the strikingly dwindling numbers of participants in the major Khyung-gön ritual over the last twenty years or so (from five hundred in its heyday of the 1980s to a mere fifty or so actively officiating tantrists in the ritual in 2011) reflect in large part, according to many of my informants, the stagnation of the level of gye offerings in a general context of increasing cost of living. Today, twenty or so yuan does not even adequately cover the cost of transportation for those tantrists coming from the more distant villages of the northern, lower part of Repkong; and thus no-one is really surprised to see that the Mapa [sMad-pa] and Langgya [Gling-rgyal] groups of villages, although known for their substantial numbers of tantrists, are much less represented nowadays at the Khyung-gön event.

A more minor, but commonly acknowledged factor in the interpretation of recent trends like the decline of participation in Khyung-gön, is less economic in nature; like the preceding comments, however, it contributes to providing a decidedly more earthly, or (to use Trainor’s term) “rematerialized”, picture of (Tibetan) Buddhist practice.6 Following strong recommendations regarding the abstention from, or reduction of, meat consumption by the Dalai Lama in 2006, a number of religious centers throughout Amdo and other Tibetan areas abolished the consumption of meat during religious assemblies. The tantrists assembled in Khyung-gön debated the issue and decided to follow suit… but today, in hindsight, it seems clear to a number of my interlocutors that the absence of meat from the great ritual gathering, which takes place in the first month of the Amdo Tibetan year (a period otherwise marked by much feasting, which is virtually synonymous with the enjoyment of meat), has definitely reduced the attractiveness of the ritual for many tantrists, thus most probably contributing also to the decline in participation.

While I think that these elements provide a welcome corrective or balance to certain current trends in academic (and other) discourses on Tibetan religion, as well as contribute to a more accurate view of the complex dynamics of optional collective rituals, I must emphasize again that I am not in any way reducing religious activity to its economic or material dimensions. A last point may serve to place these dynamics of participation in yet another, this time more sociological, light.

The question of whether boys still at their very early stages of learning the religious tradition of the tantrists, or even yet younger, should be allowed to take place with their elders at the major rituals (or to run and romp around in the temples during these events) has recently been discussed, both in Buddhist and Bönpo circles. In 2010, Alak [A-lags] Khyung-gön, the master associated with the important temple of the same name, decided to impose more rigorous practice conditions, and to forbid the children from entering the temple during the ritual. A highly respected elderly tantrist from Gyawo Gang [rGyal-po sGang] village is said to have voiced his strong regrets about this decision. He himself had first come to Khyung-gön “on the back of his father” (meaning, at a very young age). By coming there repeatedly, year after year, it had become part of him, like a smell that impregnates something; he had grown to like the moment when it was time to go to the Khyung-gön ritual. He also had arguments on religious grounds: all beings entering the great Khyung-gön temple are entering into the presence of Avalokiteśvara (a widespread notion in Repkong); thus the children should not be shooed out, even when they are noisy. Finally, using religious imagery to convey the sociological point underlying his objections, he added that this decision meant the “loss of the accomplishments (ngödrup [dngos-grub])” of the ritual. In effect, the ritual is centered on the production of empowered pills (Mani rilbu [Ma-ni ril-bu]), which are the “accomplishments” (ngödrup) of the ritual. The banning of the children, for this old tantrist, severed the link with the upcoming generation, and therefore boded ill for future participation and, thus, for the future of the great ritual itself. The decision was going to impact an important process of socialization of the young tantrists into ritual practice – a process which had (along with other factors, as we have seen) contributed for many generations to make optional, long liturgical rituals in a cold temple, attractive to young minds.

  1. Gellner, D.N., 1992, Monk, householder, and Tantric priest : Newar Buddhism and its hierarchy of ritual, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York (1992: 135; see also figures 14 and 15 on pp. 136-137). []
  2. In order to make the reading of Tibetan terms easier for non-Tibetanists, I provide here simple, relatively standard phonetic transcriptions according to central Tibetan pronunciations, with standard transliteration in square brackets at the first occurrence. For toponyms or Amdo terms not used in central Tibetan, I provide a transcription closer to the Amdo pronunciation. []
  3. See for instance Günchö [dGun-chos] or “Winter dharma session” gatherings, such as here. []
  4. Leach, E.R. 1968, Introduction, in Dialectic in Practical Religion, E.R. Leach (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-6 (p. 1). []
  5. Thar, T., 2008, Bonpo Tantrics in Kokonor Area, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, 15, pp. 533-552 (p. 543-544). []
  6. Trainor, K., 1997, Relics, ritual, and representation in Buddhism : Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravāda tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York. []

Nicolas Sihlé

Nicolas Sihlé, a sociocultural anthropologist, is researcher at the Center for Himalayan Studies, a research unit of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) based in Villejuif (France). He specializes on Tibetan religion and society, and is the author of Rituels bouddhiques de pouvoir et de violence : La figure du tantriste tibétain [Buddhist rituals of power and violence : The figure of the Tibetan tantrist] (Brepols, 2013). His current work focuses on post-Mao socioreligious transitions in and around the famous communities of non-monastic specialists of tantric Buddhism in northeast Tibet (Amdo), and more generally on the comparative anthropology of Buddhism.

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10 Responses

  1. Giovanni da Col says:

    Thanks Nicolas for the interesting article.
    Money and butter are an interesting complementary couple among Tibetans, both being related to notions of vitality. Also the butter-making process is usually employed to explain an important notion of vitality I’m studying in its everyday life conceptualisations: bcud.

  2. Sonam Dorjee says:

    སྤྱིར་སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་མའི་སྐོར་ལ་དཔྱད་ཞིབ་བྱེད་མཁན་ཤིན་ཏུ་ནས་མང་མོད། འདི་ལྟར་ཆོས་ཐོགས་དང་དེ་འབྲེལ་གྱི་གནས་བབ་གང་ཅིའི་ཐད་ཞིབ་ཚགས་པོའི་སྒོ་ནས་རྩོམ་བྲིས་གནངས་པ་མཐོང་དཀོན་པས། རྩོམ་ཡིག་འདི་འབྲི་བ་བོ་ནི་ཁོ་ལ་མཆོག་གིས་དངོས་ཐོག་བདེན་འཚོལ་གྱིས་ཞིབ་འཇུག་གནངས་འདུག་པར་ཡིད་སྨོན་སྐྱེས་སོང་།
    [Generally speaking, there are large numbers of people examining the Nyingma tradition; however, one rarely sees this kind of detailed writings about the ritual gatherings and all sorts of related elements. Nicolas, the author of this post, has carried out his research with a concern for the actual reality; this is inspiring.]

  3. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Thank you for your generous words, Sodor. In all fairness, I should add that whatever quality has been achieved here owes a lot also to the highly qualified helpers (like you) who have accompanied me so far in my exploration of the Repkong religious sphere.

  4. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Many thanks for the stimulating comment, Giovanni. I can sense a sound anthropological critical reminder making its way towards this post: when, alluding to the distributions of money and butter, I write “in other words, yes, a material, economic motivation”, of course we need to ask ourselves what symbolic, social, moral or other layers of meaning and practice are present in these distributions. Is money here just a means of exchange, and butter just a consumable commodity?
    Well, for one thing, there is strikingly little ceremonial in these distributions. They proceed most often in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, starting of course from the top of a seating row (where older tantrists are seated) downwards. Besides vitality, as you mention, butter of course has very strong associations with auspiciousness (involving sometimes the careful crafting of symbolically significant shapes), but it is also a key, highly valued foodstuff, and the distribution of the rather shapeless marka lumps is not accompanied by gestures that would seem to point towards a particular association with auspiciousness in this context.
    I think that promising avenues for examining these distributions beyond (but necessarily in connection with) their material dimensions would be here to look at:
    1. the social and moral dynamics of the gift: e.g., when the actual donor is a lama, what particular socioreligious relations are remodeled through the giving?
    2. the social (and even, in some contexts, the power) relations underlying the socio-economic organization of these distributions: e.g., how do the lamas who are committed to support these rituals organize the provision of the gift?
    I will be coming back to these questions in later posts.

  5. Giovanni da Col says:

    Hi Nicolas

    my two cents.

    All distributions imply a cosmological division, all transactions are determinations of value. The symbolic does not have to be explicit or cerimonial in order to function: as you notice, the act of distribution predicates on the existence of a form of hierarchy and spatial organization (the most common example being the honorific line (drel) of seating in hospitality or wedding) acting as ‘model of’ and ‘model for’ the social group in question (to quote what is perhaps the only decent Geertzian concept). Rank already exists yet it is also generated during the distribution. The question of random ‘lumps’ of butter is interesting since it may show that there is not ‘value’ (no auspiciousness or – as I call it – no ‘economy of fortune’) – embedded in the distributed item that matters but the generation of a form (weak or strong) of agency and hierarchical value in the recipient by participating through the distribution ITSELF and the bonds (dam) between donor and recipient established in the process. However, random lumps of butter are coupled with a quantified form of value – that is money. It appears you are dealing with two registers of value: butter (lumps, random, index of a generative hierarchical organization hence affecting the status and recognition of the recipient) and money (quantified, determining the agency of the donor).

  6. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Thank you, Giovanni, for bringing in the useful vocabulary of value. One of your points is not totally clear to me: when you talk of “the generation of a form (…) of agency and hierarchical value in the recipient”, are you suggesting that we see agency on the side of the recipient in the distribution?
    One thing you emphasize in your comments is the hierarchy (of age), manifested and reproduced in the seating arrangement, and even in the distribution. Actually, I would suggest that hierarchy is clearly visible in the seating arrangements, but if here we want to focus on the analysis of the distributions per se, what is the most striking is perhaps their egalitarianism: with the possible exception of the lama and the major ritual functionaries (such as the chant master), all participants, from the youngest beginner to the oldest, most experienced and most powerful practitioner, receive exactly the same amount of butter (see the careful weighing on the second picture above) and the same amounts of money. More remarkably still, in some contexts, such as in the large Bönpo ritual gatherings, even young, completely untrained sons of tantrists, received (until just a few years ago) the same amounts as the adult practitioners, as long as they were sitting in the row.
    A final word on the butter: in some contexts at least (such as the monastic distributions mentioned here), the amounts were not random, but precisely quantified. So the elements provided here suggest that the two “registers of value” you mention are maybe somewhat less contrasted, and may actually share important features. But I’ll ponder further the distinction you suggest, and definitely keep in mind the notion of value you have brought into the discussion. Thanks again.

  7. Giovanni da Col says:

    Hi Nicolas

    I was just drawing on your ethnography here.

    A major factor in such calculations is the expectation (for most of those rituals) of a distribution among all participants, during the event, of daily lumps of butter (called marka [mar-skal], “share of butter”) and, most importantly, a certain amount of offerings (gye), primarily in the form of money (sometimes along with bricks of tea for instance). At a given supra-local ritual, the total money offered as gye (depending on the case, by one or several patrons) can range from modest amounts like twenty or so yuan (approx. 2 euros) per officiant – a common figure at the major Khyung-gön ritual – to considerably larger sums, reaching for instance up to 700-800 yuan (approx. 80 euros) at some occurrences of the two largest Bönpo rituals (figures all the more remarkable that these latter rituals are typically very large gatherings, with often several hundred persons receiving a share).

    So here I read that monetary offerings range from twenty to 700-800 yuan.

    Re: the recipient. You confirm there is spatial hierarchy even if the distribution concerns equal amounts, so is the action of the distribution itself (who is served first) which constitute the value of the recipient, hence his agency, in negative sense (i.e. ‘I am receiving the same amount first hence I am of higher value’). Also have a look at the general literature on meat distribution in egalitarian society, especially in (Woodburn classic article of course but also Hamayon, Willerslev and others). There might be a connection between Tibetan ‘butter’ and hunters ‘meat’.

    As you notice, the same item could be deployed according to different registers of value and in another context butter may be quantified (similarly, meat distribution may assume different forms of value in relation to which part is distributed – see classic article by Macdonal on Creative dismemberment but there’s also more interesting ethnography on Siberian hunters.) So you may have to deal with different spheres of exchange (cf. Bohannan 1968) not just registers of value.

    There’s also a paper by Strathern titled Qualified Value, in Humphrey and Hugh Jones’ collection on Barter, Exchange and Value which focuses on the issue of enumerating value. Finally, an interesting comparison between money and butter: a particularity of money as concept is that it’s infinitely divisible. Butter may operate according to a similar register. There is more to say on the relation between multiplicity and unity of money or money-like items. For example see Holbraad’s ‘Expending Multiplicity’ in JRAI

    I think I’ll stop here. I am just addicted to anything which concerns the relation between cosmology and economics, a theme I named ‘Cosmoeconomics’. Good luck with the work.

  8. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Dear Giovanni, many thanks again for all this input. I realize that one of my formulations (in the passage you quote here) may have been slightly misleading. The variation in the level of gye offerings is not between different recipients, but between different ritual gatherings: often twenty or so yuan per person at the Khyung-gön ritual, but often much, much more at the two largest Bönpo gatherings. In each case however, the principle of gye offerings is egalitarian: all officiants at one given event receive the same amounts. I’ll rephrase the misleading element at the beginning of the sentence.
    Many warm thanks again for the suggestions of relevant literature, and for engaging in some moments of academic worktime cosmoeconomics with me! All best.

  9. kunchog Tseten says:

    This kind of research can build a bridge to different cultures. He did such wonderful field research to convey the ancient ,mysterious, non-monastic education systems which are transmitted from generation to generation. His great work will be translated into Tibetan one day, because of our young generation is not focusing on collecting and researching our unique life styles . May his work be completed. Tashidelek.

  10. Nicolas Sihlé says:

    Thank you for your kind words, dear Kunchok. I should add that whatever modest results this research has been able to obtain, I owe a debt of gratitude to the people like you that I had the good fortune to meet along the way.

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