Envisioning a Tibetan Luminary
The Life of a Modern Bönpo Saint
- ISBN: 9780199362356
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: November 2018
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen is among the most important Bön figures of the 19th and 20th centuries. Controversial during his life, Shardza has since been recognized as a touchstone figure within Bön, as well as the most prominent Bön participant in the so-called rimé, or non-sectarian movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In accordance with his prominent position, Shardza and his works have been studied by several prominent academics, including Gene Smith, Samten Karmay, Tsering Thar, and Jean-Luc Achard. To this list we can now add William M. Gorvine’s excellent Envisioning a Tibetan Luminary: The Life of a Modern Bönpo Saint, which is, to my knowledge, the first book length study to really wrestle with the place occupied by Shardza (and his subsequent memory) in the broader religious context of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Envisioning a Tibetan Luminary: The Life of a Modern Bönpo Saint is based on Gorvine’s 2006 dissertation at the University of Virginia. This dissertation was an important source for my own research, and I would be remiss if I did not mention it here. But as strong as the dissertation is, the present book refines and distills its analysis into a more refined and more manageable form. It is structured in two parts: an analysis of Shardza’s life and a full translation of the shorter of Shardza’s two main namtar, or religious biographies. Gorvine’s translation work in the second part is strong, and this alone would make this book worth reading. But in the rest of this review I will focus on part 1, in which Gorvine situates Shardza and his namtar in time and place.
Part 1 of Envisioning a Tibetan Luminary consists of five chapters, with a general introduction to Bön followed by four chapters which proceed sequentially through Shardza’s life. Throughout, Gorvine takes care to not only discuss the details of Shardza’s life, but to reflect on how those details connect with broader trends in Tibetan religious history. Of particular importance is Shardza’s place in debates between “Old Bön” and “New Bön,” with Old Bön representing the received tradition as consolidated at Menri monastery and New Bön reflecting the influence of newer terma, or treasure revelations (29). Shardza himself was involved with the revelation of treasures, and Gorvine demonstrates how the authors of Shardza’s namtar biographies skillfully maneuvered around this aspect of Shardza’s religious career in order to speak to both the new and old camps.
A second important theme throughout these chapters is Shardza’s relationship with the Buddhist community around him. Gorvine particularly focusses on the rimé movement, and Shardza’s often surprisingly cordial relationship with Buddhist members of this movement. I say surprisingly, because the Bön tradition was not always treated kindly by Buddhists, as illustrated by a 1902 incident in which Shardza’s home monastery of Tengchen was razed by a gang of “young Buddhists” from down the valley (102). Clearly, not all Buddhists were happy to coexist with Bön, and Gorvine reveals how this tension both shaped Shardza’s life, and was in turn shaped by Shardza’s own interactions with Buddhist teachers and communities.
But Gorvine’s analysis is not limited to analyzing Shardza himself; he is also focused on the motivations behind and impact of Shardza’s two namtar biographies. Here, Gorvine articulates how the authors of these texts used their work to shape Shardza’s image. In particular, he discusses how these authors created a vision of Shardza that is appealing both to Shardza’s direct students and heirs as well as the representatives of Old Bön. These latter had at times been hesitant to embrace Shardza because of his connections with terma treasures and New Bön, so the authors of the namtar sought to frame Shardza’s life in a way that would be palatable for the old guard as well as the new. The results is that Shardza is now revered throughout the Bön tradition, a fact which would not necessarily have come to pass without the work done by the authors of his namtar. By exploring how the specific choices made by these authors influenced Shardza’s later reputation, Gorvine expands the audience for his work beyond those interested simply in Bön to anyone interested in Tibetan religious biographies. Some of this analysis was present in Gorvine’s dissertation as well, and it was certainly influential in my own understanding of this genre. Those ideas that were present in his dissertation are now more mature and better integrated, and I, for one, continue to find them illuminating.
As the preceding review should suggest, I found Envisioning a Tibetan Luminary to be an excellent work, well worth a read for pretty much anyone interested in Tibetan religious history or literature. In particular, it is virtually required for those interested in recent Bön history, and those interested in namtar as a genre. But there is another audience for whom this book feels particularly important: scholars of Tibetan religion who have not previously engaged fully with Bön. Bön has not exactly been neglected within the academy, but it does often feel like Bön is on the fringe of many discussions of Tibetan religiosity. But as Gorvine’s work demonstrates, Bön (and Shardza in particular) are important elements in Tibetan religious history. Those of us who focus on Buddhism would do well to remember this, and to incorporate Bön more fully into our histories. Envisioning a Tibetan Luminary is a great place to start that process.
Geoffrey Barstow is an associate professor of religious studies at Oregon State University.Geoffrey BarstowDate Of Review:October 20, 2021