Gongga Laoren (1903-1997)
Her Role in the Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan
Series: Studies on East Asian Religions
- ISBN: 9789004466289
- Published By: BRILL
- Published: July 2021
With several hundred dharma centers in the greater Taipei area alone and well over 1,000 monastics coming to teach annually, Tibetan Buddhism has grown over the past forty years to become a vibrant part of modern Taiwanese religious life. Nevertheless, studies of key figures and institutions critical to the introduction and early development of this tradition in Taiwan remain scarce. In Gongga Laoren (1903–1997): Her Role in the Spread of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan, Fabienne Jagou offers a groundbreaking assessment of the life, contributions, and legacy of Shen Shuwen, more commonly known by her students as Gongga Laoren or Venerable Gongga, marking a significant milestone towards filling this knowledge gap. Jagou’s riveting narrative of this remarkable individual’s life and balanced assessment of her efforts to build her own legitimacy and Tibetan Buddhist institutions in Taiwan make this work both important and highly enjoyable reading for all interested in contemporary Taiwanese society and Sino-Tibetan religions.
Jagou bases her work upon diverse methodologies that include a critical reading of hagiographic narrations of Gongga Laoren’s life, often read against other accounts, such as biographies of her Tibetan teacher the 5th Bo Gangkar Rinpoché (Tibetan 'bo gangs dkar rin po che; 1893–1957), as well as oral accounts and private notes kept by Gongga Laoren’s students. Furthermore, Jagou draws deeply upon dozens of community publications and articles from a range of contemporary Taiwanese news media.
The book is divided into four chronological chapters that follow Gongga Laoren’s youth and Tibetan Buddhist training (1903–1958), early years teaching and institution building in Taiwan (1958–1980), eventual integration into global Tibetan Buddhist networks (1980–1997), and finally her passing and legacy (1997 to the present). Throughout, Jagou draws upon Weberian concepts of legitimacy, charisma, tradition, and domination, arguing that Weber’s insights into charismatic legitimacy especially help to illuminate why Gongga Laoren made some of the choices she did, as well as how she was able to successfully establish and grow some of Taiwan’s earliest Tibetan Buddhist communities.
In the first chapter, Jagou describes Gongga Laoren’s aversion to marriage and budding interest in religion during her youth, her Tibetan Buddhist training and retreat practice at Bo Gangkar Monastery in Minyak in contemporary western Sichuan Province, and her first public Buddhist teachings and eventual flight to Taiwan. In doing so, Jagou paints a rich picture of Sino-Tibetan Buddhist exchange in China’s Republican Era, as well as Gongga Laoren’s navigation of and success within heavily male-dominated religious spaces.
Arguably the most narratively and theoretically compelling, the book’s second chapter follows Gongga Laoren’s “rags to riches” story as she arrived literally empty-handed in Taipei in 1958 and went on to found and grow three of Taiwan’s earliest Tibetan Buddhist communities over the following decades. Drawing on the previous chapter, Jagou suggests that although the factuality of early hagiographic descriptions of Gongga Laoren’s retreat from 1942–1945 and Bo Gangkar Rinpoché’s reported validation of her spiritual attainments leave much room for doubt, these narrations were nevertheless critical in establishing the extraordinary qualities that formed the foundation of Gongga Laoren’s charismatic legitimacy as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. Additionally, Jagou argues that the secrecy surrounding Gongga Laoren’s esoteric teachings were both a political necessity in Taiwan under martial law and a strategy to further strengthen her charismatic legitimacy by establishing Gongga Laoren’s domination in a religious hierarchy.
The third chapter traces a shift in Gongga Laoren’s legitimacy in Weberian terms from charismatic to traditional as she became integrated into global Tibetan Buddhist communities following her ordination under the 16th Karmapa. Additionally, Jagou makes a compelling case for the critical role Gongga Laoren and the institutions she founded played in the impressive growth of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan after 1980. This occurred, Jagou argues, primarily through their arranging of invitations to numerous Tibetan Buddhist masters to teach in Taiwan, introducing the Taiwanese public to global Tibetan Buddhist teachers via their Chinese-language publications and events at their temples, and providing financial support to Tibetan Buddhist communities in Taiwan and abroad.
In the latter sections of this chapter, Jagou offers a general discussion of the impressive growth of Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s based largely on the work of several Taiwanese scholars and newspaper articles. While highly informative, this section at times seems to lose its focus. Connections to Gongga Laoren or her communities are less obvious, for example, in Jagou’s descriptions of the 14th Dalai Lama’s visits to Taiwan, entanglements between Taiwanese and Tibetan politics, and the growth of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. More directly addressing how changes in Taiwan’s religious and social environment, such as the pluralization of Tibetan Buddhism or Taiwan’s liberalization and democratization, directly affected Gongga Laoren and her communities during these decades would have added much to Jagou’s discussion.
In the final chapter, Jagou describes Gongga Laoren’s death, succession, and lingering questions around the future viability of the communities she founded. Continuing her engagement with Weber, Jagou argues that prayers and efforts dedicated to locating Gongga Laoren’s reincarnation mark a further transition toward traditional legitimacy as her individual charisma became routinized within a broader Tibetan religious power idiom. Nevertheless, Jagou notes that some elements of charismatic authority continue in Gongga Laoren’s communities even today, such as the prominent presence of her mummy and relics and a religious hierarchy still based on proximity to Gongga Laoren.
Overall, Gongga Laoren (1903–1997) offers a groundbreaking study of this remarkable figure whose life spanned from the late Qing Dynasty to post-martial law Taiwan and who played a crucial role in initiating the development of Tibetan Buddhism there. This volume will be of great interest to all students of modern Chinese and Tibetan religious life. Additionally, those interested in religion and gender, sociology of religion, or transnational studies more broadly will also find much of value in this volume.
Eben Yonnetti is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.Eben YonnettiDate Of Review:November 28, 2022