By Keith Downman
The Sacred Life of Tibet
Thorsons: London, 1997
324 pp., $21.95 (paper)
The life of a people is largely determined by the environment they inhabit: life and landscape are intimately related. This is especially evident in Tibet, where severe geography and extreme climate clearly influence the perspectives and behavior of the people who live there. In The Sacred Life of Tibet, Keith Dowman explores the relationship between the religious life of Tibetans and their material environment by focusing on the Tibetan understanding of sacred time and space and on how religious outlook transforms and is transformed by the varied landscape of Tibet—its mountains and lakes, valleys and caves, monasteries and temples. Dowman pursues this investigation in five parts: a description of Tibetan sacred cosmology from the distinct but related perspectives of shaman and buddha (“Visionary Tibet”); a brief historical synopsis of the major religious traditions of Tibet ; a discussion of the central motifs of Tibetan sacred art and iconography; an overview of the stages of Tibetan devotional practice (“The Yoga of Pilgrimage”); and an elaborate guide to Tibet’s vital pilgrimage sites (“Power Places”).
One of the great virtues of Dowman’s book is in his informative introduction to several essential components of Tibetan religion that have not received much attention in popular Western literature on Tibet. Dowman describes the complex of Tibetan views on cosmology and the structure of the universe in relation both to the geographical contours of Tibet and to the human body engaged in yogic practice. And he offers a colorful overview of the main features of a shamanic substratum of demonology that includes short retellings of the myths of the conversion of indigenous demonic forces to Buddhism. One such story is the legend of Padmasambhava’s taming of the great mountain god Nyenchen Thanglha. Dowman’s inclusion of these topics communicates to a wider audience the valuable insights of a classic fifty-year-old study by anthropologist Renï¿½ de Nebesky-Wojkowitz on Tibet’s protective deities. Moreover, Dowman’s comments on the history of Tibetan artistic culture shed light on an area often neglected in surveys of Tibetan Buddhist art and iconography. He highlights the intimate meeting of doctrine and practice in the form of painted and sculpted images, demonstrating that Tibetan art is primarily, as he puts it, “designed to support religious practice by presenting to the mind an image or symbol of the Buddhist tradition.”
The most impressive feature, and the real heart of Dowman’s book, is his extensive account of pilgrimage in Tibet, including his detailed descriptions of the country’s most important “power places.” Indeed, more than half of The Sacred Life of Tibet is devoted to the sacred landscape and the pilgrims’ journey. Dowman emphasizes the role of the laity in giving meaning to Tibet’s sacred space. In one of the book’s many refreshing and perceptive passages, Dowman writes about the motivations and concerns of the ordinary lay practitioner and convinces the reader that although the sophisticated and demanding goals of Buddhism are held in high esteem by the average Buddhist pilgrim, the mundane interests in health and happiness here and now take precedence. The average Tibetan practitioner, he explains, is by necessity more interested in achieving personal and financial success through devotion than in attaining Buddhahood through rigorous training. Elsewhere, his elaborate descriptions of individual features of the major Tibetan power centers—such as the great sacred mountains Kang Rimpoche, Tsari, and Amnye Machen, as well as the caves of Padmasambhava and Milarepa—together with his summaries of the mythic tales that empower them, all help to make The Sacred Life of Tibet a remarkable pilgrim’s guide to Tibet and an accessible introduction to Tibetan devotional practice. The inclusion of detailed maps and an annotated list of over one hundred power locations arranged according to their respective Chinese prefectures contributes to the reader’s experience of an imagined journey to Tibet’s visionary land.
For all its expertise, however, the book has weak points. For one, Dowman’s use of the term “shamanism” to describe an indigenous pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, is problematic. This technical term is still mistakenly equated by some modern writers on Tibet with the Bonpo tradition. Following that convention, Dowman appears to be using the word “shaman” to describe a loosely defined variety of prerational, and hence magical, practices in the Tibetan religious arena that existed before, and are radically separate from, the more intellectually sophisticated literary tradition of Buddhism. Yet a recent study by anthropologist Geoffrey Samuel has demonstrated that “shamanic” and scholastic or what he calls “clerical,” dynamics play complementary roles in Tibetan society and are mutually operative within the whole range of Tibetan religion. The Tibetan lama, for example, functions as both shaman and priest when he performs the specialized role of mediator between ordinary and fundamental modes of reality—a role he perfects through his intimate knowledge of the sophisticated principles and practices of Tantric Buddhism.
As for the early indigenous religions of Tibet, historical evidence indicates that Bon developed into an organized and distinctive religious tradition only in deliberate opposition to Buddhism no earlier than the tenth century C.E. It is likely that an authentic pre-Buddhist Bon religion never truly existed. In other words, Buddhism and Bon developed together, as separate yet contemporaneous traditions. Dowman’s perspective on these matters is controversial and not in line with current scholarly opinion. Moreover, some of his remarks on Tibetan history—most notably the statement that “the number of Tibetan histories written through the centuries can be counted on two hands”—indicate his unfamiliarity with Tibet's rich tradition of historical documentation. This strangely naive viewpoint may explain Dowman’s apparent lack of awareness when confronted by the complexities of Buddhist and Bonpo relations.
In spite of these few regrettable gaps, however, The Sacred Life of Tibet is certainly an enjoyable introduction to the sacred space of Tibetan religious life. As a reference work, Dowman’s book offers a grand overview of the complex network of Tibetan beliefs, symbols, and devotional practices involved in pilgrimage, and as a pilgrim’s guidebook The Sacred Life of Tibet stands as an indispensable companion for anyone interested in embarking on a personal visionary journey to Tibet’s power places.
Bryan J. Cuevas is a Ph.D. candidate in Tibetan Studies at the University of Virginia.