Morality and Monastic Revival in Post-Mao Tibet

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Jane E. Caple
Contemporary Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , March
     2019.
     232 pages.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780824869847.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Morality and Monastic Revival in Post-Mao Tibet charts the journey of, in the words of the author, “one of the most remarkable stories of religious resurgence in contemporary China” (165). In this fascinating book, Jane Caple delves deeply into the intricacies of Buddhist (specifically Geluk) growth and development in the Tibetan Plateau since the 1980s, following the Chinese Communist Party’s relaxation of rules on religion (4). Drawing on detailed multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork taking place over a seven-year period, Caple examines the recent trajectories of sixteen Buddhist monastic communities, particularly in the ways they use built space, their engagement with local communities, and the new models of economic sustainability and development they are employing. The latter issue is her central concern, and she charts how these varied communities have begun to move beyond a traditional model of alms-giving, and instead have developed alternative means of economic survival, including creatively engaging with tourism, retail environments and medical provision, and the moral implications of these decisions.

Across seven data analysis chapters, Caple sets this monastic revival in historical context, looking specifically at the relationships between the Chinese state and Buddhist monastic institutions. By thinking through ideas of historical change, Caple challenges a model of monastic development that is conceived only in terms of state power (chapter 1). Through this revised lens, she explores monastic space, tourism, development and economic change (chapters 2 and 3), and—in chapter 4—the role of the monastery in “morally troubled times” (94). She examines monastic recruitment alongside competing and contradictory narratives of moral decline and moral preserve, balanced with an analysis of concerns that people don’t want to commit to a monastic lifestyle because “the conditions are poor and the life hard” (129). In chapters 6 and 7, Caple looks to the future of monasticism in this context, thinking through the implications of change beyond the binary of state power and subcultural resistance (155). Her conclusion is particularly attentive to “boundaries” (155), and this is ultimately what her book is about – the boundaries and borders of politics, economics, society, religion, and morality in the contemporary world.

Throughout the book, Caple raises important questions about the contemporary function of Buddhist monastic communities, including why mass monasticism came about in the post-Mao Zedong period, what it looks like, and how it is positioned and experienced. She is concerned with the recent past, but also the impact of economic decision-making for the future, not least because in the time that she was in the field, she witnessed dramatic social and political changes in the region, including a significant increase in economic and political vulnerabilities. The book is, at its heart, about contemporary monastic economics – but not in a dry and tedious sense. The use of this lens allows an innovative examination of community development and an engaging glimpse into contemporary religious morality and virtue ethics. Although the larger themes she raises are critical, what is particularly fascinating are the ethnographic details – for example, what is sold in some monastic shops (flasks, stationary, clocks, mops, religious artifacts); and through this work you are given a glimpse into the lived experiences of economic and religious life in place.

Caple moves deftly between thick description and analysis, and one of the principal aims of the book is to challenge any reductive approach to Tibetan monastic resurgence. What is most exciting is the analytical challenge that Caple offers to any binary understanding of People’s Republic of China/monastic relationships. She urges us to see these as more than simply “an axis of domination and resistance” (5). Instead, the purpose of this book is to highlight the complicated dance between individuals, communities, and state representatives—the picture of which is never monolithic or simplistic.

Throughout the book, Caple weaves Buddhist ideas into the analysis, particularly ideas about merit. There are soteriological benefits in building monastic spaces and contributing to their upkeep, an idea that has been foundational to the establishment of Buddhism across the globe (p. 81). There were times when I wanted the author to push at this concept in more detail, specifically to ask whether there were any different understandings of merit and karma held by her interlocutors and wider community members. In addition, although this is very much a book about men (which Caple concedes from the start), I wondered often about women’s perspectives. Caple highlights how difficult it was to gather women’s views – not least because there are fewer nunneries and that a book that balanced men’s and women’s experiences would have been a much larger tome (11).

Yet, I wanted to know more, not just about separate female monastic economies, but also the laywomen who are engaged in support of the different monasteries that were the focus of this research. Their voices seem to be missing from the book, and more comparative work would be welcome. Although I am wary of adding more scope to an already complex multi-sited ethnography, I did also wonder about the ways in which these monasteries and monastic traditions related to the transnational flows of Buddhist traditions. Although in some ways geographically isolated in the Tibetan regions, complex international geo-political webs no doubt have some impact, and I wondered about the relationships between specific Tibetan Buddhist practice and global Buddhist networks, particularly networks of capital.

Overall, though, I welcomed the focused attention on the local and individual rather than the global, and this book provides a very realistic interpretation of what it means to be a Buddhist monastic in a complex web of social, economic and political agendas. I would urge non-area specialist readers to look beyond this book as a text about Tibet, but instead to see it as a core work about religious morality, revival, decline, and change. This is a well-written and accessible book, which provides a rare glimpse into the intricacies of a world that continues to spark academic and popular imagination.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caroline Starkey is Associate Professor in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jane E. Caple is a Marie-Skłodowska Curie Research Fellow at the University of Copenhagen.

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