Individual Studies

Tibetan Buddhist Lineage Networks in Sichuan: Continuity and Change in Tibetan Representations of Buddhist Identity

Annabella Pitkin

Recent Sino-Tibetan intellectual history and Buddhist studies scholarship explores interactions between Tibetan and Han Buddhists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Tuttle 2005).

During this period of tremendous social change, rural and urban Chinese and Tibetan communities underwent dramatic technological and economic shifts. Resulting changes included new networks of trade and circulation of goods, and new forms of media circulation, such as early Tibetan newspapers (Willock 2016).

During this politically eventful time, Buddhist leaders and networks played significant roles in mediating (or fuelling) conflict, and Buddhist identity sometimes functioned as a resource for narrating accounts of unity and belonging, either to a particular ethnic group, or to a multi-ethnic Chinese nation state (Tuttle 2005, Gardner 2005).

During this period, influential Tibetan Buddhist lineages based in ethnically Tibetan areas of what is now Sichuan province expanded geographically, some lineages eventually establishing connections in the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.

New proximities to Han Buddhists with differing ritual practices, new forms of mobility (like travel to culturally Chinese urban areas like Chengdu), and new contexts for missionizing among non-Tibetan ethnic groups, Han Chinese in particular, all emerged as powerful factors affecting Tibetan religious networks, with consequences for Tibetan representations of identity and relationship within these networks. Yet the form and effects of these shifts are not well understood.  This research project addresses that gap.

The project I propose here examines religious diversity, social change, and Tibetan Buddhist self-representations during the period from 1890 to 1945, among specific Tibetan Buddhist lineages from the Dege area that continue to maintain a presence in Chengdu in the present day.

By asking what understandings of modernity, urban-ness, ethnicity and Buddhist affiliation were mobilized and represented by Tibetans in Chengdu in the early twentieth century, and how these representations varied depending on location and context, this project offers insight into present day religious diversity in urban Sichuan, and the complex multi-ethnic dynamics of many contemporary Sichuan Buddhist networks.

I will focus on one form of Tibetan Buddhist religious network, namely lineages of teacher-student connection, called transmission lineages. Transmission lineages provide structures of relationship and authority within Tibetan Buddhist communities (Holmes-Tagchungdarpa 2014; Diemberger 2014; Quintman 2014; Pitkin 2009, 2011).

Tibetan Buddhist lineage networks link practitioners to peers, lineage ancestors, and future lineage members, geographically across space and chronologically through time. Lineage systems are central to Tibetan (and more generally Buddhist) claims about authority, authenticity, and continuity with a valorized past. All of these dimensions of lineage may be affected by the kinds of cultural change that occurred in the early 20th century.

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