Kingship and Religion in Tibet

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Memories of Kings: Kingship in the Religious Imaginings of Asia
22-23 May 2015
IBZ, Munich

The Kingship and Religion in Tibet Research Group at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München is bringing together scholars specializing in diverse cultures across Asia to share their research on the ways in which kingship is articulated, rearticulated, and transformed by religious memory. The goal is to explore commonalities and differences among various Asian religious cultures in the use and articulation of memory with respect to kingship. This will serve to complement the third and final phase of the Kingship and Religion in Tibet Program, which is currently exploring the transformation of Tibetan kingship in the religious memories of post-imperial (9th to 13th century) Tibet.

For a pdf flyer showing the names of our participants, click here.

For a schedule, click here.

For abstracts, click here.

For photographs of the conference, click here.

Monk, King, Tantrika: Negotiating Power in Tibet

23 November 2014
Tibetan and Himalayan Religions Group, American Academy of Religion, San Diego California

The monk, the king, and the tantrika are dynamic, shape-shifting figures in the landscape of temporal and spiritual power in Tibet. During the Tibetan Empire (608–866), the king was the source of order and well-being, and tantra was viewed with ambivalence as a potentially unwieldy and polluting element. During the late empire and after its collapse, statues, temples, the Buddhadharma, and its representatives displaced the king as the palladia of Tibet. In a near-perfect inversion of the classical model, Buddhist leaders from the eleventh century onward wielded the memory of the great kings, either through visions, prophecies, or the emerging topos of incarnation, to empower themselves as spiritual and secular leaders. At the same time, they maintained a distance from the polluting aspects of kingship, and offered advice to kings on proper Buddhist conduct. In this panel we examine such dynamics through case studies from key moments in Tibetan history.

Please click here for the presenters and the titles of their papers.

Ritual + Narrative + Kingship ÷ Tibet + Surrounding Cultural Area
17–19 July 2014
IBZ, Munich

Rituals and narratives are two of the most important elements that underwrite sacred and political power. In the case of kingship, one can point to the coronation rite, the royal wedding, and the royal funeral as central rites of state during which ritual is deployed to performatively instantiate the monarch’s legitimacy and augment his status. The monarch often takes a central part as well in state ceremonials attached to annual rites of the New Year or of harvest. Narrative, too, plays a key role in legitimizing a monarch. Praise poetry and epic are perhaps the best examples, but prophecy, res gestae, genealogy, and chronicle also play key roles. These sorts of representations, alongside iconography, architecture, and festival, express and impress the ideology of kingship. They construct a center that is both symbolic and real, and a sovereign who is simultaneously the embodiment of an ancestral ideal and an incumbent king with a specific agenda. This is a process in which narrative, ritual, and kingship interact to create productive synergies, but also occasional dissonances.

Examining the relationship between kingship, ritual, and narrative in a Tibetan context, these and other issues are pertinent from the imperial period (7th – 9th centuries CE) through the regimes of the Dalai Lamas and up to the present. Throughout its history, Tibet has been open to the flow of rituals, stories, objects, and ideas from every direction. Eurasian motifs are found in Tibetan art, literature, and mythology. Tibetans also assimilated – to various degrees – Chinese models of historiography, administration, law, and astrology. Indian and Central Eurasian Buddhist traditions ranging from a centralized Ashokan model of kingship to tantric models born of more fractious polities each informed various Tibetan formulations of rulership during the course of its history. By placing Tibetan kingship in its (appropriately) wide areal context, and examining the interactions of ritual, power, and narrative, this conference aims to examine various case studies based on focused research into specific historical moments, and also to draw connections between these in order to articulate a sound and pragmatic theoretical orientation to the roles of ritual and narrative in the expression and the performance of both sacred and secular power.

A list of participants and a link to download of the conference programme is here.


Kingship and Religion in Tibet Panel
13th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies
Ulaanbaatar, 21-27 July 2013

This panel brought together the disciplines of philology, history, anthropology, and the study of religion in order to examine the relationship between kingship and religion throughout Tibetan history and culture. Kingship recommends itself as an ideal heuristic device for approaching some of the larger themes in Tibetan culture, such as the relationship between spiritual and temporal power, chiefly because of its long and varied history as a topic of academic enquiry. For anthropologists such as A.M. Hocart and Lucien Scubla, and for theorists like James Frazer, Sigmund Freud, and René Girard, kingship lies at the root of humanity’s social origins and its first religious beliefs. Kingship is also a repository in which complexes of ideas and practices are constellated. One finds its imagery in local religions, as in the case of the symbolism of the dmu cord and its use by Magar ritual specialists in northern Nepal, and also in world religions, as in the symbolism of tantric initiation. Among the issues that we addressed in this panel were the relationship between royal and popular ritual/performative traditions, the king’s role as a patron of religion and often as arbiter of doctrinal disputes, and the dynamic between a tolerant or “ecumenical” royal harnessing of religion and one that is more exclusive.

Please click here to see the schedule for the event

Merkmals and Mirages
A Conference on Dating (Old) Tibetan Writing
25th to 26th of June, 2012
IBZ, Munich  

Research into early Tibetan language, history, and culture has gained momentum in recent decades. Unfortunately, most of our sources float in time, and this presents difficulties for historical research, be it into representations of Tibetan kingship, into the chronology of Buddhist tantra or bon, and any number of other topics. This conference focused on codicological, text-critical, lexicographical, linguistic, paleographic, and codological methods for dating Tibetan writing. The bias was towards early writing, particularly from Dunhuang, but the discussions were relevant to later writing and to later documents. Similarly, we borrowed methods gleaned from the study of writing and the study of documents from many other traditions (e.g., medieval European, near-Eastern), and our own ongoing research has relevance beyond the fields of Tibetan studies and Dunhuang studies. In this spirit, we were pleased to have had as a participant and as a respondent an expert in Kharoṣṭhī, Dr. Stefan Baums, who helped to place our work within a larger context.

To see some of the preliminary results that our group presented at this conference, see our Describing Tibetan Writing pages.

Please click these links to see the Schedule and Abstracts and some Photographs from the event