New book: Buddhist Rituals of Power and Violence
Sihlé, Nicolas. 2013. Rituels bouddhiques de pouvoir et de violence : La figure du tantriste tibétain [Buddhist Rituals of Power and Violence: The Figure of the Tibetan Tantrist]. Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Études – Sciences religieuses 152. Turnhout: Brepols. (405 pp.)
Available from Brepols Publishers, Turnhout (Belgium):
Violence occupies a paradoxical place in Tibetan tantric Buddhism. Although the ethical imperative of not harming beings is absolutely central, there is also a darker face to tantric ritual activity, a face of power and violence: the repelling and destruction of harmful agents. An entire ritual machinery is deployed to ward off or kill hostile demons, or sometimes “enemies” of indeterminate nature — agressive magic is not absent. Wrathful protective deities are summoned to kill, to beat, to reduce to pieces… How can we understand that this violent modality can occupy quite an important place in certain Buddhist contexts?
The question is all the more intriguing that there exists a type of Tibetan religious specialist that is strongly associated with this ethically problematic side of ritual activity: the ngakpa (sngags-pa), or tantrist. As opposed to the monk, this specialist of tantric rituals does not take monastic vows, and lives as a householder. Tantrists typically constitute patrilineal family lineages, with descent, not renunciation, as a key structuring feature of their socioreligious universe. How are we to understand that a Buddhist religious specialist is associated with a specialization in violent rituals? In order to answer this question, this book takes us to a village community of tantrists situated in the Himalayan borderlands of the Tibetan cultural area, in a high valley of northern Nepal. The anthropological examination of these specialists and their society, of their rituals and their moral dilemmas, and of the contrasts between tantrists and their monastic counterparts, enables to identify elements of larger (social, religious, moral) coherence underlying the association of tantrists with rituals of violence. This substantial contribution to the anthropology of Tibetan Buddhism brings new insights to our thinking on ritual violence and exorcism. Through the analysis of the duality of the monk and the tantrist, and of the associated polarity of moral purity vs. ritual power, it also contributes to the anthropology of complex religious fields marked by the coexistence of different forms of religious specialization. Finally, it also engages in a sustained reflection on a properly anthropological approach to the textual component (such as the ritual manuals) of this local religious sphere.