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Ge bcags (Gebchak) dgon pa, founded in 1892 in Nang chen, Khams (Qinghai Province, PRC), is still active today with around 250 nuns practising intensive Vajrayāna rituals, yogas and meditation.
The nuns’ knowledge goal is embodied, nonconceptual awareness, yet they spend many hours daily reading texts as part of their training. By investigating the whole context of the nuns’ lifeworld and ways of learning, this ethnography questions the role of reading in Ge bcags’ tacit knowledge tradition. At a time when Tibetan learning practices are quickly modernising, this book demonstrates a Buddhist tradition whose textual knowledge is not exactly literal, but cultivated through continuous, whole person learning.

Abstract

Chapter Six takes a focused look at the nunnery’s communal ritual life based on participatory observation of the nunnery’s annual bKa’ brgyad (‘Eight Pronouncements’, or Sādhanā of Eight Heruka) sgrub chen. I look at different levels of the sgrub chen ceremony’s context, from the outer atmosphere of the nuns’ collective engagement to the words of the scripture. I consider a substantial passage from the sgrub chen scripture that the nuns recite by translating it in two ways: first, how it might be read by a younger Ge bcags nun, and second how it might be read by a senior nun or informed Western reader. The chapter aims to give a sense of how the text might be engaged with and learned by the Ge bcags nuns, whose daily lives are based around repeated recitation and enactment of similar texts.

In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery

Abstract

Chapters Three to Six contain the bulk of the ethnography of Ge bcags Nunnery, and the pith of the book’s overall statement. Chapter Three describes the lifeworld of the Ge bcags nuns, including their natural environment, daily activities, practices and characters. It outlines the main elements of the nuns’ daily lives and their tantric practice tradition, looking at the nunnery’s annual schedule of collective ritual ceremonies, as well as the gradual stages of training that a new nun engages in after entering the nunnery. The chapter alludes to the Buddha nature principle underlying Ge bcags nuns’ learning, and its corollary nondual rig pa awareness that is the knowledge goal of all their practices.

In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery
In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery

Abstract

In the book’s Conclusion, I give a summary discussion of my argument for our need to move towards more holistic investigations of the embodied and contextual meaning of Buddhist texts and practices. I point to questions for future research, such as the expansion of our conceptual framework of ‘meditation’ in brain and mind sciences, and the possible future flourishing of Tibetan female textual production. The book concludes by looking at some of the modernising conditions in Tibetan Buddhism over the last few decades, how these have reflected at Ge bcags Nunnery and what the fu-ture might be like for such a community of full-time spiritual practitioners on the Tibetan Plateau.

In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery

Abstract

Chapter Two looks at the autobiography (rang rnam) of the nunnery’s founder, Tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho, to understand his learning style and influences in composing scriptures and establishing Ge bcags and branch dgon pa across Eastern Tibet. It then outlines and examines the ‘Sixteen Volumes’ (Pod sde bcu drug) of scripture attributed to Tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho, which along with Ratna gling pa’s gter ma form the textual foundation of Ge bcags’ practice system. Looking at their compositional style, audiences and processes of textual production, the chapter points to the pragmatic nature of these texts, their oral dimension and how they are read by the Ge bcags nuns.

In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery

Abstract

Chapter Five returns to the question of ‘reading’, looking more closely at how the Ge bcags nuns read and learn. Ge bcags’ Buddhist tradition is predominantly practical and its highest knowledge is nonverbal, yet the nuns spend hours each day reading texts as part of their training. How and why does a Ge bcags nun learn to read, write and memorise? The chapter asks, fundamentally, what the role of written texts is at Ge bcags Nunnery and their relationship to personalised oral instructions. Along with Chapter Six, Chapter Five demonstrates how the nuns derive meaning from their texts through a living interdependence of experiential and scriptural practices.

In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery

Abstract

Chapter One looks at the cultural background of the kingdom of Nang chen where Ge bcags Nunnery resides, especially the Ris med atmosphere at the time of Ge bcags’ founding that has characterised the nunnery ever since. It seeks to ascertain the worldview and cultural value system out of which Ge bcags Nunnery arose as a community of mainly female practitioners valued by society for their embodied experience of tantric Buddhism.

In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery

Abstract

Chapter Four examines more closely the core elements of the Ge bcags nuns’ practice system, namely yi dam deity yoga (lha’i rnal ’byor) that is the framework of all their practices, rDzogs chen which is their hermeneutical context and the subtle body of rtsa, rlung and thig le that is the basis of the nuns’ learning experience. The chapter takes insight from the Japanese Buddhist scholar Yuasa (1987) in discussing the mind-body integration that is the goal of Ge bcags’ training pathway, as well as the mind-body paradigm in Asian Buddhist traditions that challenges the translation of Buddhism into English. The chapter considers the relationship of Ge bcags’ written texts to the tradition’s highest form of knowledge (rig pa), and how the nuns express their knowledge most saliently in their embodied human examples.

In: The Words and World of Ge bcags Nunnery