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.
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- See for instance Günchö [dGun-chos] or “Winter dharma session” gatherings, such as here.
- Leach, E.R. 1968, Introduction, in Dialectic in Practical Religion, E.R. Leach (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-6 (p. 1).
- Thar, T., 2008, Bonpo Tantrics in Kokonor Area, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, 15, pp. 533-552 (p. 543-544).
- Trainor, K., 1997, Relics, ritual, and representation in Buddhism : Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravāda tradition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York.