About

This seminar seeks to shift focus from literature conceived of as an inert container to literature as an active process that is itself conceptually rich. We will collectively engage in new research on the forms, structures, and styles of Tibetan literature and their effects on religious discourse and practice. In so doing we will bring into high relief the very question of how the category of “literature” is heuristically productive for the future of the study of Tibetan religion. We will address this central question from two directions: from the perspective of contemporary discussions of what constitutes literature, and also from that of traditional Tibetan theoretical work, which itself has explored how some kinds of writing may be distinguished from others in terms of their style, level of self-consciousness, and intentional impact on the religious life of the reader.

Seminar Scope

For the five years of the seminar we will read, analyze and discuss key passages in selected examples of Tibetan religious literature. We will follow a general historical framework from the eleventh to twentieth centuries, in which each of five meetings will cover approximately two centuries. The chronological framework will encourage us to pay attention to broad transformations in literature over time.

For the purposes of the seminar we constrain our notion of “the literary” to narrative and poetry, for it is in these two areas that explicit discussions of literary aesthetics are found in Tibetan works. Such a narrow definition of “the literary” will allow us to circumscribe the nearly inexhaustible body of source materials while challenging us to complicate and perhaps reevaluate our understanding of the forms of writing that constitute Tibetan religious narrative and poetry.

Seminar Activities

  • Each year two participants will pre-circulate a new translation of an important passage in a work of Tibetan literature that illustrates significant literary innovations of the period under consideration.
  • Additionally, each year, one or more participants will also assemble and pre-circulate a bibliography of relevant and historically related Tibetan materials, in addition to pertinent theoretical literature from wider academics fields that touch upon religion and literature.
  • Two and a half hour seminar sessions will include brief introductions to the translated texts by their translators, brief close readings and analysis by seminar participants, and open public discussion about the texts and their implications for refining our understanding of religion and the literary in Tibet.
  • To the extent possible, during the year, seminar participants will make use of open-forum digital resources to collaborate and share work in progress.

Seminar Rationale

The contemporary academic study of Tibetan religions has typically approached religious literature as a source to be mined for data about religion. In so doing the field frequently uses the term “literature” to refer to something that contains information, but has no significance in its own terms.

This seminar seeks to shift focus from literature conceived of as an inert container to literature as an active process that is itself conceptually rich. We will collectively engage in new research on the forms, structures, and styles of Tibetan literature and their effects on religious discourse and practice. In so doing we will bring into high relief the very question of how the category of “literature” is heuristically productive for the future of the study of Tibetan religion.

We will address this central question from two directions: from the perspective of contemporary discussions of what constitutes literature, and also from that of traditional Tibetan theoretical work, which itself has explored how some kinds of writing may be distinguished from others in terms of their style, level of self-consciousness, and intentional impact on the religious life of the reader.

We hope that the seminar will, with hard work and good fortune, result in the publication of an edited volume of essays on the forms and functions of Tibetan religious writing. This, it is proposed, will reflect a more nuanced understanding of indigenous literary production and criticism, and the ways in which Tibetan authors have self-consciously developed forms and approaches to writing that have religious meaning, than has previously been possible. It will also set forth a broader and more comprehensive history of Tibetan religious writing – and what might count as “literature” within that history – than has yet been attempted.

Scholarly Background

Scholars of Tibetan religion have long concentrated on philological approaches to written materials, a legacy of Indian and Sanskrit Studies out of which their own field emerged. An interest in the broader category of Tibetan literature, and its relationship to various forms of religious expression, is a more recent concern. Early-twentieth-century writers praised certain Tibetan works, most notably The Life of Milarepa, as exemplifying the somewhat ambiguous category of “world literature.” For the most part, however, they ignored any sense of what might constitute a literary tradition, either for traditional Tibetan writers themselves or for modern critics.

Compilers of the early Tibetan-English dictionaries in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries displayed a broad knowledge of Tibetan writing, incorporating citations from a wide selection of core doctrinal and narrative texts. One early comprehensive survey of Tibetan writing, first published in 1962 by the Russian linguist A. I. Vostrikov, focused exclusively on historical documents, although it also identified narrative and biographical works as important objects for historical analysis. At about the same time, Tibetan Studies pioneer E. Gene Smith began introducing a new generation of scholars to little-known or unexplored literary subjects, genres, and styles through a decades-long program to publish the very large number of tibetan blockprints and manuscripts carried into exile by Tibetan refugees.

It is only in the last two decades that scholars have begun to address Tibetan literature as a discrete field of inquiry, first in a volume of essays published as Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre (1996) and more recently in a survey of contemporary works titled Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change (2008). The former presented, for the first time, an extended examination of Tibetan literary genres according to traditional categories of writing. The latter further expands our understanding of contemporary Tibetan letters, but largely ignores traditional religious works; indeed it suggests that “Tibetan literature” as a category itself may be a modern and largely secular invention. There have also been discrete studies of particular genres of Tibetan literature: Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary (1998) explored the history of autobiographical writing in Tibet and studied an exemplary case of an account of a visionary’s religious experience that was artistically crafted to take advantage of the potentialities of writing in order to convey the vagaries of experience and how that impacts on the self. The literary strategies of this work have no precedent in either Indian or Chinese religious writing.

It is now known that not only did Tibetan authors frequently explore ways to develop literary genres that brought attention to the religiously communicative dimensions of the act of writing itself – be they narratives of the self, mythic narratives of the formation of the Tibetan Buddhist state, poetic expressions of experience, political satire, or evocative renderings of the ideals of religious ethics and the moral life. They also developed an indigenous tradition of literary criticism, in part modeled after early Indian writers such as Daṇḍin (seventh century) and his seminal treatise the Mirror of Poetics (Kāvyādarśa). Dandin’s concise outline of the formal features of Sanskrit poetry, as well as his theory of aesthetic response, have been crucial to Tibetan literary theory since the thirteenth century, and Tibetan scholars wrote poetry and poetic treatises in the style of Daṇḍin for centuries to come.

Literary critical reflection is also found in the prefaces and conclusions of larger narrative works, often biographies and autobiographies. Such works highlight the expectations of both content and form, and the relationships between literary style and the reception of religious works. One question currently being raised in academic work is the degree to which another facet of Tibetan literary reflection might be recognized that is less indebted to Indian literary aesthetics but rather can be traced to early oral traditions in Tibetan bardic and other practices. There is no question that much work remains if we are to advance our understanding of traditional Tibetan notions of literary genre, style, voice, reception, and even “literature” itself. We have only begun to explore the ways in which Tibetan authors actually deployed new kinds of genre, style and voice in the ongoing life of the religions of Tibet.