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Assessing and Adapting Rituals That Reproduce a Collectivity

The Large-Scale Rituals of the Repkong Tantrists in Tibet

Nicolas Sihlé

ABSTRACT

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.

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Introduction

Legacies, Trajectories, and Comparison in the Anthropology of Buddhism

Nicolas Sihlé and Patrice Ladwig

The anthropology of Buddhism may give the impression of already having a well-established lineage. However, understood as a collective endeavor bringing together specialists from different parts of the Buddhist world in a comparative spirit, it remains very much an emerging project. We outline in this introduction some of the striking features of the beginnings of this subfield, such as how it has undergone a process of emancipation from textualist interpretations of Buddhism, and survey some of its main thematic and analytic orientations, pointing in particular to its most substantial ‘long conversation’, on the structure and dynamics of Buddhist religious fields. Throughout, we focus primarily on the period following an assessment of the subfield made by David Gellner in 1990. Finally, we stress the importance and highlight the promise of a comparative anthropology of Buddhism that builds on a critical, reflexive examination of its central concepts.