Buddhism on the Border: The Formation of Religious Tradition on the Frontier of Tibet and Nepal

Frontiers are often thought of as the margins of things. This book reconsiders the Himalayan frontier as its own center, examining the development of a “borderland Buddhism” on the frontier of Tibet and Nepal by focusing on the acclaimed monastic and retreat center known as White Rock Horse Tooth (Brag dkar rta so) in the premodern and early modern periods.

Studies of Tibetan religious systems, institutional histories, and doctrinal traditions have tended to focus on the region’s geo-political center, that is Lhasa and the surrounding province of the modern-day Tibetan Autonomous Region of the PRC. For this reason, the history of Buddhism in Tibet—at least after the mid-seventeenth century—has largely been understood in relation to the figure of the Dalai Lamas as Central Tibet’s religious and political ruler, together with the major monastic institutions aligned with his hegemonic Geluk sect. More recently, scholars have begun to explore Buddhist traditions along Tibet’s eastern periphery, acknowledging the prominent role of religious institutions and figures far from the political center, in this case situated in the regions of Kham and Amdo (modern Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan Provinces) along the traditional Sino-Tibetan border. This project turns instead to Tibet’s southern border with Nepal, which has remained almost entirely absent from discussions of Buddhist history and religious culture. In particular, it focuses on the Mangyul Gungtang corridor, a valley transecting the Himalayan range from the Tibetan plateau to the low lying southern slope of Nepal. The valley’s proximity to the principal trade route between Tibet and South Asia permitted a high degree of economic and religious mobility, for merchants and pilgrims alike. And situated far from the power center of Lhasa, the valley gave rise to a constellation of autonomous monasteries, retreat centers, and printing houses.

Buddhism on the Border demonstrates that a provincial region on the Himalayan margins was the site of significant religious preservation, innovation, and transmission in the early modern period, and exercised a widespread and enduring influence on the traditions of Himalayan Buddhism. I argue that it did so not despite its location at the outer limits of Central Tibetan authority, but precisely due to its presence in a frontier zone of contact with Nepal. At the project’s core is a largely unstudied collection of historical, biographical, and doctrinal literature by the eighteenth-century Buddhist monk, abbot, and reincarnate master Chökyi Wangchuk (1775-1837), whose monastic seat known as White Rock Horse Tooth (Brag dkar rta so) came to dominate Mangyul Gungtang’s religious landscape. It did so for three interrelated reasons. Situated far from Lhasa, the monastery served as a refuge for consolidating and revitalizing doctrinal traditions marginalized by the Tibetan state. The monastery’s proximity to natural resources such as paper and wood allowed for an expanded program of xylographic printing of that literature. And its location along the primary economic and pilgrimage route between Tibet and South Asia supported the circulation of those texts and traditions along both sides of the Himalayan slope. White Rock Horse Tooth thus formed the nexus of a trans-Himalayan network of religious exchange during the critical moment just before Tibet’s first major encounters with the modern world.

Buddhism on the Border does not simply record the life and works of a pivotal Tibetan exegete, or document one of the region’s most active religious centers, although these are two of its goals. It further answers two underlying questions that have heretofore remained unaddressed in the study of Himalayan religious traditions: To what degree might a remote monastic seat, far removed from the grand institutions of Lhasa, be understood as its own powerful center, a “center on the periphery?” And from that vantage point, how might we understand the religious systems stemming from it as a unique or local form of Buddhism—a borderland Buddhism? The book thus underscores the need for recognizing the emplacement of religion. It contributes a new vantage point for considering the impact of place on the formation of religious expression and the role religion plays in the creation and recreation of place. It attends to the ways in which the borderland can serve as a powerful place for the transformation of religious identity, and how inhabitants of the borderland “bring place into being.”

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