The Monastery Rules

Buddhist Monastic Organization in Pre-Modern Tibet

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Berthe Jansen
South Asia Across the Disciplines
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , October
     309 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How did premodern monastic Buddhism affect Tibetan societies? How did Tibetan monks enact their views about the rights and responsibilities of individuals and institutions? What primary sources best elucidate the details of Tibetan social life and experience before 1959? Answers to these groundbreaking questions promise to fill gaps in scholarly accounts of Tibetan history, addressing the lacuna between the more usual scholarly foci of Tibetan religious doctrine, on the one hand, and politics, on the other. 

In The Monastery Rules: Buddhist Monastic Organization in Pre-Modern Tibet, Berthe Jansen scours a broad selection of written Tibetan monastic guidelines, called chayik (Tibetan: bca’ yig), to pursue these valuable lines of inquiry. Relatively succinct, the book covers a lot of ground. The author engages with chayik texts from the 12th through 20th centuries (with the preponderance of texts coming from the 17th to 18th centuries) from across Tibetan Buddhist traditions. As sources, chayik can appear quotidian and repetitive, yet Jansen extracts abundant data and puts it to good interpretive use. The chapters are well organized, addressing a set of interrelated questions about Tibetan Buddhist social history in a style that is compelling and fast paced, with a steady dose of illustrative examples.

Throughout this study, Jansen engages with emic perspectives while maintaining a sharply critical scholarly analysis, allowing for fresh and relevant insights. In addition to chayik, Jansen interviewed contemporary Tibetan Buddhist monastics in North India and Ladakh to contextualize the historical content. The author’s extraordinary facility with Tibetan language is evident in the treatment of texts and oral accounts alike.

The introduction sets the boundaries of what the author means by “monk” (someone who wears robes and is celibate) and “monastery” (an institution that demands celibacy from its members), terms that, in the Tibetan Buddhist context, are not as obvious as they might appear (8). Chapter 1 gives a useful overview of the chayik genre of monastic guidelines as a valuable but underused category of Tibetan literature. Chapter 2 provides historical context for monastic organization in Tibet. Chapter 3 lays out the criteria for entering a monastery with a focus on who was excluded and what the ramifications of such exclusion entailed, namely a lack of social mobility. Chapter 4 considers how authority was distributed and executed in monastic hierarchies and argues that monasteries were two-tiered systems in which managerial and symbolic powers were kept separate and where individuals were more likely than communities to be blamed for wrongdoing.

Here and elsewhere Jansen occasionally hints at “reprehensible” or “unjust” actions that certain monastic figures might have engaged in, but does not always provide examples, leaving the reader to wonder. Throughout the book, Jansen’s treatment of karma as an implicit concern in the monastic guidelines calls for further development and clarification. The author mentions karma in multiple chapters, but the overall assessment appears somewhat inconsistent.

The richest sections are found in chapters 5 and 6, which look at economics and interactions with the laity, respectively. Jansen remarks on the dearth of sources for economic history available to researchers. Nevertheless, using chayik, the author makes a valuable intervention in the discourse around Tibetan monasteries’ role in premodern society, observing that monasteries were often better options for lay people in need of loans than the alternatives of feuding aristocrats and the decentralized government (112). Chapter 6 looks at the material relations between monastics and laity with a focus on how to avoid “annoying” the lay community, shedding valuable light on the mutually dependent relationship between these groups.

Chapter 7 asks how justice functioned within monasteries, and looks into the role monasteries played in the rule of law more broadly. Jansen makes it clear that monastic law always adhered to the “law of the land” and demonstrates how interconnected monasteries were with lay society. Chapter 8 asks how the fact that Buddhist monasteries and monastics are understood to be essential to the existence of Buddhism shaped monasteries’ place in Tibetan society.

The author makes several valuable contributions to the study of Tibetan Buddhism and history. I will highlight just a few here. Significantly, the book sheds light on the troubled question of social justice in Buddhist contexts (38, 175, 182). On this subject, Jansen considers the Buddhist claim that attaining enlightenment is the only genuine way to help others on a structural level and argues that this idea has encouraged Tibetans to downplay the importance of working for social changes such as improved socioeconomic conditions or a more equitable society (43, 177). Jansen also demonstrates the social and institutional impact of the concept of pollution (53) and highlights the need to negotiate with “supernatural but worldly” deities as central to the function of monasteries (56, 138, 162). Other key themes include the idea that the monastic community is essential to Buddhism’s longevity, and the Buddhist rhetoric of the “age of decline” (Sanskrit: kaliyuga). Jansen argues that these pervasive concepts historically have led Tibetan monastic communities to maintain the status quo rather than favor change. 

This book is most suitable for a specialist audience. Graduate students and scholars of Tibet, Buddhist studies, and religious studies will find it indispensible in considering the full picture of Tibetan Buddhist societies. Although the author focuses on Tibetan history prior to 1959, the book can shed light on contemporary monasticism as well, particularly due to the author’s focus on continuity rather than change in Tibetan monastic history. Jansen makes it clear that a similar methodological approach could be applied effectively to analyze the role of contemporary monasteries in relation to Tibetan societies.

In this excellent study, the author undoes the myth that Tibetan monks and monasteries were ever completely separated from lay society, highlighting the complex social role that monasteries negotiated in premodern Tibet. The stated goal is to examine monastic attitudes to society and the result is a rich resource on Tibetan Buddhist history, law, economics, and more. Jansen persuasively argues: “In the context of pre-modern Tibetan society, it appears that the point where ‘philosophy touches social policy’ can be found in the monastic guidelines” (30).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dominique Townsend is Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies at Bard College.


Date of Review: 
March 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Berthe Jansen is Professor of Tibetan Studies at the Institut für Indologie und Zentralasienwissenschaften, Leipzig University.



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