Assessing and Adapting Rituals That Reproduce a Collectivity

The Large-Scale Rituals of the Repkong Tantrists in Tibet

in Religion and Society
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Tantrists, non-monastic religious specialists of Tibetan Buddhism, constitute a diffuse, non-centralized form of clergy. In an area like Repkong, where they present a high demographic density, large-scale supra-local annual ritual gatherings of tantrists are virtually synonymous with, and crucial for, their collective existence. In the largest of these rituals, the ‘elders’ meeting’ is in effect an institutionalized procedure for evaluating the ritual performance, its conditions and effects, and, if necessary, for adjusting aspects of the ritual. At a recent meeting, the ‘elders’ decided to abandon a powerful and valued but violent and problematical component of the ritual, due to its potential detrimental effects on the fabric of social relations on which the ritual depends for its continued existence. Thus, a highly scripted, ‘liturgy-centered’ ritual (per Atkinson) can be adapted to the social context. The specialists of these textual rituals demonstrate collectively an expertise that extends into the sociological dynamics surrounding the ritual.

Contributor Notes

NICOLAS SIHLE is a Researcher at the Centre for Himalayan Studies, a research unit of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). His first book, Buddhist Rituals of Power and Violence: The Figure of the Tibetan Tantrist (2013, in French), is an ethnography of Tibetan tantrists, non-monastic specialists of tantric rituals. His current research focuses on the renowned communities of tantrists in northeast Tibet (Qinghai) and on collaborative work in the comparative anthropology of Buddhism. He recently co-edited a special issue of Religion Compass on the Buddhist gift (2015) and a special section of Religion and Society on the anthropology of Buddhism (2017). E-mail:

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