Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau

Holly Gayley
University of Colorado, Boulder

This article examines the ideological underpinnings of ethical reform currently underway in Tibetan areas of the PRC, based on a newly reconfigured set of ten Buddhist virtues and consolidated into vows taken en masse by the laity. I focus on texts of advice to the laity by cleric-scholars from Larung Buddhist Academy, one of the largest Buddhist institutions on the Tibetan plateau and an important source for an emergent Buddhist modernism. In analyzing texts of advice, I am interested in how lead-ing Buddhist voices articulate a “path forward” for Tibetans as a people, calling simultaneously for ethical reform and cultural preservation. Specifically, I trace the tensions and ironies that emerge in their attempts to synthesize, on the one hand, a Buddhist emphasis on individual moral action and its soteriological ramifications and, on the other hand, a secular concern for the social welfare of the Tibetan population and the preservation of its civilizational inheritance. In doing so, I view ethical reform as part of a broader Buddhist response to China’s civilizing mission vis-à-vis Tibetans and new market forces encouraged by the post-Mao state.

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One thought on “Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau”

  1. This is an excellent, well-written review of the situation in the grassland areas of the northern Tibetan Plateau, and I personally would like to thank Holly Gayley most warmly for her valuable research. It would be interesting to compare the ethical stance of the Amdo monks with that of monasteries elsewhere on the plateau. I would just like to add a few points from personal experience, as my in-laws are nomads who live not far from Serdar.

    The first is that the end to Yak slaughter is not absolute, as the herders are still allowed to slaughter for personal consumption under vow #1, which makes retaining a small herd logical. Secondly, the abandonment of the income from sale for slaughter is underpinned by the sale of medicinal plants harvested from the grassland and normally sold as Chinese medicine, which has created a large alternative source of income for the proprietors of the grassland. This has led to an extraordinary building boom in that part of the Tibetan plateau, directed particularly towards the construction of religious buildings. I saw more cranes at work in mGolog when I was there recently than are at work in Beijing (where I live) these days.

    Thirdly, I would not underestimate the rise in Tibetan-language literacy which is taking place. Many rural Primary and Middle schools offer extensive Tibetan-language teaching programmes, and my guess is that literacy in Tibetan is far higher among the under-25 year old sector of the Tibetan population than among the over-25s, and is rising significantly in numerical terms if not as a percentage of the population. There has recently been a significant rise in the use of Tibetan as the language of popular songs, shop signs, on road signs and even in bank ATMs which may be significant for the spread of the message outlined in the article.

    Fourthly, the moral revival seen within Tibetan Buddhism may have some influence on the rest of China, which is unfortunately subject to recurring corruption scandals. One possible sign that this may take place is the increasing popularity of Buddhism amongst the Chinese population, partly as the result of discreet missionary activity by Tibetan monks (especially in Taiwan). The widespread rumour that our new leader Xi Jinping is a Buddhist may be significant.

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