Since the 1980s, ethnic Tibetan regions of post-Dengist China have become the scene of a vibrant religious revival. Charismatic Tantric masters play a vital role in the movement in Eastern Tibet (Kham). In Weberian terms (see Weber  1980: 661), these charismatic developments originate from a political crisis that results in the social dislocation and economic isolation that characterize the lives of many Tibetans as members of one of China’s ethnic minorities. For the purpose of our discussion, I would classify charismatic Khampa lamas into two categories. In the first, charisma is routinized and institutionalized in the status of a reincarnate master or trülku (sprul sku).1 The second category concerns individuals who climb the ladder of religious hierarchy and develop personal charisma without being able to rely on trülku credentials. While I have analyzed in depth the case of one such contemporary Khampa saint elsewhere (Turek 2013), I would like to investigate the charismatic dimensions of sainthood in this article. I will discuss the case in the context of charisma theory to explore how religious leaders channel the transcendent through ritual symbols that combine both institutional authority and personal charisma.
The point of departure in many discussions of sainthood and charisma in Buddhist contexts has been an analysis of the original concept of ‘charisma’ as conceived by Max Weber ( 1980: 654). Thus, Ray (1994: 422–423) critiques Weber for his interpretation of the Buddhist ascetic as a lone individualist and develops his own categorization of Buddhist saints. Tambiah (1984: 334) adds that charisma must be understood as a structured network of communication and exchange. Furthermore, Goossaert and Ownby (2008: 5) and Lindholm (2013b: 9) emphasize charisma as a relationship mutually constructed by leaders and followers. Tambiah (1984: 335) also critiques Weber for overlooking the potential of material objects to capture charisma, a point that has received some attention in recent years, as studies of the materiality of religion have become a prominent trend within social anthropology. This article demonstrates that beyond Tambiah’s model of the ‘sedimentation’ of charisma in holy objects as exemplified by amulets, and the application of this template onto relics (Martin 1994; Sharf 1999), an item can wholly determine the dynamic of a charismatic performance. More than a “repository of power” (Tambiah 1984: 203) and than insignia that signify superiority or privilege, the religious garment that I discuss not only channels the routinized charisma of the lineage and effectively extends the master’s personal power through the performativity of its symbolism. It also serves as the main organizing principle of symbolic meanings within his network of influence.
Notwithstanding the focus on materiality in religion that is reflected in studies of monastic garb (Abeysekara 2002; Grigo 2015; Kieschnick 1999), the relationship between vestimentary practices and religious charisma has not been thoroughly examined. Works that analyze the theme of the clothing of charismatics have focused on contexts that are either political (Gonsalves 2010; Perinbanayagam 1971) or academic (Clark 2006). It is also a fact that although many Tibetan Buddhist developments and institutions have relied on charisma, critical studies of the phenomenon have remained sparse. The present article joins discussions on both the limitations and the valid aspects of the Weberian model of charisma, but it also draws on studies of charismatic actions in traditions or contexts beyond Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. By focusing on the costume of a charismatic master, I hope to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the strategies employed by rising religious leaders to assert and maintain their authority within their networks and to promote it beyond these limits.
The Making of a Saint
Tsültrim Tarchin (Tshul khrims mthar phyin) is one of the most sought-after masters among teachers of the Kagyü (bKa’ brgyud) schools active within the People’s Republic of China. He is known as the embodiment of Milarepa (Mi la ras pa) (1052–1135 ce), the most famous Tibetan hermit-saint, for his accomplishment of the Six Yogas of Nāropa, especially tummo (gtum mo), the Yoga of Inner Heat. He has instructed scores of meditators engaging in a three-year meditation retreat and has inspired many monastic disciples to commit their whole life to meditation in emulation of their master. Tsültrim Tarchin has been attracting lay and monastic followers from the entire plateau and far beyond—from all over mainland China, Hong Kong, and even Western countries. He is the founder of and head teacher at the meditation school of Lachi (La phyi sgom grwa), a hermitage for group training of ordained disciples, notably nuns, located in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province.2
I first heard of Tsültrim Tarchin in 2007 while interviewing a senior monk in the Goche (mGo che) monastery of the Karma Kagyü school about contemporary yogins who are modern masters of meditation and miracles. Before setting off for Lachi together with two friends, we inquired about Tsültrim Tarchin and his hermitage in the nearby monastery of Kyodrak (sKyo brag). We ascended the steep hill in a jeep driven by a follower of the master, and on our arrival we learned that Tsültrim Tarchin was in formal retreat and was therefore not receiving guests, except for disciples and practitioners with queries pertaining to meditation. After a few days of uncertainty and verification, it was decided that we would be granted an audience. Based on the assumed degree of our interest in Tantric teachings and on the condition that we repeat 100,000 times the short purificatory mantra associated with the deity Vajrasattva, the decision was made by the master’s son, an accomplished meditator who was Lachi’s second-in-charge in terms of religious instruction. After a 40-minute trek to the rocky summit of a hill, we arrived at the yogin’s remote hideaway nestled among white jagged boulders. Tsültrim Tarchin sat immovable in his meditation booth, clad in a simple white cotton robe despite the bitter cold, working his rosary and gazing into the horizon, completely indifferent to our presence for a long time. His eyes had a piercing quality to them; in striking contrast with his white ascetic garb, his dark, deeply lined face radiated strength, virility, and pragmatic shrewdness. His stout body and large, round stomach did not give him the appearance of a renunciate and attested to the fact that, according to one of the disciples at the hermitage, “he [had] recently started eating human food again.”
The following year I came back to Lachi to collect data for my dissertation. I was accepted as a disciple, which was the only condition under which I was allowed to stay at the hermitage. After several weeks of work, guided training in meditation, and interviews with Tsültrim Tarchin that seamlessly developed into sermons, the initial condition for my entry became a predicament that brought my academic endeavor to a halt. The master expected me to abandon all worldly concerns and to focus solely on training in meditation. Since this contradicted with my wish to proceed with both fieldwork and religious practice, that period of ethnographic work at Lachi ended.
Tsültrim Tarchin was born in 1947 in a village located about 20 kilometers from Kyodrak monastery, outside of the town of Sharda (Shar mda) in Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai. Little is known of the master’s childhood and youth during the Maoist era. He attended a state school where he learned Mandarin and memorized Marxist doctrines. When he was 18, he married and had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. Having received training in accountancy at the township sometime during the Cultural Revolution, Tsültrim Tarchin was elected accountant to the local commune. His tasks included supervising work as well as evaluating others by issuing work points. In around 1980, he learned about the man who was to become his teacher: the master Karma Norbu (Karma Nor bu) (1906–1984), known as the Second Milarepa. He gave Tsültrim Tarchin oral instructions in the mystic cycle of Mahāmudrā and the transmission for the psycho-physical practices of the Six Yogas of Nāropa. In 1988, at the age of 41, Tsültrim Tarchin made up his mind to leave ordinary life behind him. Following in the footsteps of his lama, he became a renunciate repa (ras pa), meaning a ‘cotton-clad one’, resolved to meditate in solitude regardless of any hardships. He suggested to his wife that she and their six children all accompany him in his new life as meditators. However, convinced that the children were too young, she decided that they would stay at home. After his ordination, Tsültrim Tarchin joined Seljé Rinpoche (gSal byed rin po che)—the abbot of the nearby monastery of the Barom (‘Ba’ rom) Kagyü school in Kyodrak and one of the most prominent disciples of Karma Norbu—on a pilgrimage to Central Tibet. The relationship that developed between the two meditators at this time was to become very important for Tsültrim Tarchin’s religious career, recognition, and activity. Later, in keeping with the biographical tradition of Milarepa and his guru, Tsültrim Tarchin led an ascetic existence for six years in the mountains of Chapti (Chab sti) near Kyodrak. He first avoided any form of shelter and stayed out in the open at all times. He then wandered from cave to cave, living off alpine plants and cold spring water or applying the Tantric method of extracting nourishment from stones.
At about this time, Seljé Rinpoche presented Tsültrim Tarchin with a white cotton robe as a sign that he successfully generated “the blissful heat of tummo,” as the hagiographies of repas say. In around 1999, the repa began his career as a meditation instructor in a number of retreat centers in the area and surrounding regions. His skill at performing the Six Yogas was recognized beyond the locality and the Barom Kagyü school. In 2005, Tsültrim Tarchin founded the meditation school of Lachi at the foot of Chapti. In 2008, the hermitage housed up to 150 meditators—a number that constantly fluctuated—from the immediate vicinity and other areas. Those in attendance included three of Tsültrim Tarchin’s own children, his brother, and his elder sister. Tsültrim Tarchin has many lay disciples and donors from urban centers of China. He has been invited to faraway places such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Japan, although he rarely travels. In association with his yogic expertise, Tsültrim Tarchin is credited with possessing many supernatural powers. There is talk of several handprints and footprints he is supposed to have left in stone. Local people also believe that Tsültrim Tarchin has the ability to fly like Milarepa and the Barom patriarchs.
Clothes and Charisma
Let us first note that charisma should be separated from other strands of authority held by Tantric masters, such as the right to pass on esoteric instructions in oral or ritual form. In Tibetan practice, this right is based on ritual accomplishment evaluated by one’s guru. This attainment should also be distinguished from charisma in that the former may simply denote the capacity to provide spiritual guidance, while charisma plays out in the social field through interactions between the charismatic and his clients.
How are we to understand the powerful attraction exerted by Tsültrim Tarchin? There are many instructors whom practitioners can commit themselves to or follow in Kham today. The choice often depends on the proximity of a disciple’s dwelling to that of a given teacher and/or on kinship loyalties. However, this would only explain why Tsültrim Tarchin’s family members and former neighbors as well as monks from Kyodrak monastery might have chosen him as their principal teacher or why some local laypeople would visit Lachi to venerate him.
To discuss the question of what is it about Tsültrim Tarchin that has helped him magnetize followers who fall into neither of the categories described above and who come from locations as remote as Lhasa, Shanghai, or Hong Kong, I will turn to the common denominator in most of the testimonies of lay and monastic followers that I have collected. As with the Thai saint Acharn Mun described by Tambiah (1984), Tsültrim Tarchin is valued mostly for his supernatural abilities: staying warm in a simple thin cotton robe even in the depths of winter, being able to melt snow with his tummo skill, and doing without food or sleep over long stretches of time. Accounts show that his moral leadership and ritual training come second; they are implicit in the narrative of ascetic accomplishment through the body. The figure of Tsültrim Tarchin combines a human ideal with superhuman powers that correspond to a specific principle of recognition of sainthood in late medieval Europe: the capacity to lead an exemplary life (virtus morum) and to exhibit ‘signs’ (virtus signorum), that is, the power to work miracles (Kleinberg 1992: 8). These two qualities can be seen as interdependent, co-existing in Tsültrim Tarchin’s body and in his life story. The perfection of the ascetic body became necessary for someone like Tsültrim Tarchin, who used to be an ordinary monk, in order to assume charismatic authority, to inspire deep emotions in others, to attract followers, and to found a hermitage that would become the focal point of his activity. The perfection of the body was accomplished in accordance with Tantric tradition and marked with the white cotton robe. It is through this religious marker and body technique that the master communicates the attainment of virtus signorum, which transforms his body into a precious instrument with the power to transmit blessing, as perceived by his followers.
In Tantric teachings, signs of accomplishment are called ngodrup (from dngos grub, Skt. siddhi) or druptak (grub rtags) and are often displayed through the ascetic body. They involve supernatural abilities such as impermeability to the elements, flying, or extracting food from stone. Not only do they play a vital role in the identification and therefore in the making of a saint, but they also maintain the focus on the miraculously transformed body at the core of many transactions within the charismatic network. It is important to note that bodily druptak, even if grounded in the most elitist esoteric doctrines, are discernible for many, including the laity.
In his youth, Tsültrim Tarchin lived the life of a low-level cadre in the village commune. During Deng’s liberalization era, he met his teacher Karma Norbu, one of the few surviving and active meditation masters, and followed in his footsteps, engaging in radical ascetic practices. His transition from a villager and government cadre to a Buddhist ascetic came about by the renunciation of worldly life and the adoption of intensive Tantric training. The liminality of Tsültrim Tarchin’s training period was enhanced by his choice of a solitary dwelling in the wilderness and in caves in emulation of Milarepa and his own guru, Karma Norbu, and by his gradual change of attire—from layman’s clothes and a Mao suit to monastic garb and, finally, the white robe of a repa. Tsültrim Tarchin’s return to society in a new role of charismatic authority was induced by the evident nature of his bodily signs of achievement, that is, being able to survive in the mountains without any food or shelter despite the simple thin cotton robe he was wearing. Because Karma Norbu had since died, Tsültrim Tarchin had to be confirmed as a Tantric instructor by another of his teachers, Seljé Rinpoche. He could have subsequently become one of the many lamas in the Kyodrak area, which was brimming with religious activity. Instead, his charisma and popularity grew in a spectacular manner. According to Weber, charisma develops when an individual asserts spiritual authority and finds acceptance for his claim. I argue that Tsültrim Tarchin’s charisma evolved around one key decision that enhanced his claim to charismatic power: choosing to wear the white garb of a tummo virtuoso rather than the red robe of an ordained monk.
As Tsültrim Tarchin himself explained, when he first received the white cotton robe from Seljé Rinpoche in honor of his tummo skill, he occasionally changed back into a red robe when going down to the monastery to attend ceremonies: “I did not want to draw too much attention to myself as the only one dressed in white” (pers. comm., November 2008). However, in the end, he discarded the red robe to stay true to his poverty vow, which allows him only one piece of clothing, opting for the white one instead.
Since then he has often been photographed posing in the style of Milarepa: dressed in his white robe and red meditation belt, sitting cross-legged at his cave, his right hand cupped over his right ear to listen to the prophetic voices of the ḍākiṇīs, female messengers of the Buddhas. Many shops in the provincial capital Jyekundo (sKye dgu mdo) and in other towns sell computer-processed photographs of him in that pose, styled as a traditional painting, sewn in brocade. One of those images shows Tsültrim Tarchin in his younger years, in his white robe, with the red meditation belt wrapped around his shoulder and knee. Above his head, on the left-hand side, in the traditional manner of depicting Tantric lineages, is a miniature painting of Milarepa also in a white robe and red meditation belt. On the top right-hand side is a digital cutout of another photograph depicting Karma Norbu in the same attire (see fig. 1). Tsültrim Tarchin’s disciples display the pictures in cars, houses, and meditation huts and actively take part in circulating them. This genre of artistic representation has historically played an important role in disseminating cults of Tibetan saints. Due to their symbolic language, these images can have a profound effect on the viewer, and since Tsültrim Tarchin lacks a written hagiography, their role in promoting his charisma cannot be overestimated.
During a stay in Lachi, I brought a large poster depicting Tsültrim Tarchin in the manner described above. The master seemed pleased and displeased at the same time. “Why would you bring such nonsense with you?” he said and smiled. If we assume that “charisma is created by symbolic processes that involve appropriate presentation of selves, the management of enhanced identities” (Perinbanayagam 1971: 391), then, first, donning the robe and, second, posing for photographs comprise auto-hagiographic statements that enhance Tsültrim Tarchin’s personal charisma. This strategy should always be seen in relation to the concept of ‘skill in [the choice of] means’ (Skt. upāyakauśalya), which gives Buddhist preceptors the ethical liberty to choose any didactic technique, provided that it is useful with regard to disciples.
In the past, the white garment of a repa was a compelling symbol of the power of one’s own accomplishment and the power of the lineage. Ever since the eleventh century, when Milarepa accomplished the Inner Heat and is said to have been clothed, even during the toughest winters, only in a simple white cotton robe as a sign of his mastery over the elements, there has been a custom of indicating tummo proficiency with a garment woven from untreated cotton—a privilege reserved solely for experts.3 An elite group of Milarepa’s disciples who achieved a similar degree of mastery in tummo during his lifetime became known as “the lineage of cotton-clad siblings” (sKu rgyal 1982: 11–12).
According to Milarepa’s biographic tradition, after the master’s death, strips of his own robe were left for disciples as a vehicle of blessing and as a relic to be kept and distributed in place of physical remains. Such was the significance of wearing cotton for the further perpetuation of the Kagyü schools that several Tibetan scholars claim that it led to creating the designation of ‘the White Lineage’ or Kargyü (dKar brgyud), a homophone of Kagyü. Tsültrim Tarchin also emphasized that the white robe stands for the identity of the Kagyü sect. Since Milarepa’s time, Kagyüpa chronicles have come to abound in stories of cotton-clad masters whose ritual mastery and charisma are expressed in different ways, including political leadership and founding new religious schools. One such example is Tishri Repa (Ti shri ras pa) (1164/5–1236), a patriarch of the Barom school of which both Tsültrim Tarchin and Seljé Rinpoche are representatives. Tishri Repa’s chaplaincy at the Tangut court remains one of the earliest instances of the influence that Tibetan Buddhist masters exerted in Central Asia (Sperling 1987).
Even though they practiced extreme forms of renunciation, early repas were greatly revered in society. The robe visibly marked them out as objects of veneration, sources of magical intervention, and epitomes of both moral transformation and accomplishment in Tantric training, allowing them to fulfill the demands of various audiences. Simultaneously, or perhaps in consequence, the factual designation repa was assigned to the uppermost echelon on the socio-religious scale.
Moreover, especially dating from the fifteenth century, the white cotton robe as a signifier of charisma has been used in literary or artistic representations of Milarepa (see fig. 2) and several other Kagyü masters as an instrument of ideological dispute, reflecting the competition between lay yogins and ordained monks (DiValerio 2015; Larsson 2012; Quintman 2014). Tsültrim Tarchin also referred to some of the anti-monastic sentiments expressed in these debates and in this context remarked that “monasteries are a waste of time” (pers. comm., October 2008).
The repas’ white robes are to be understood in a broader context of symbolically charged religious clothing. The symbolism of Buddhist robes (Skt. kāṣāya) was originally meant to “reflect the ideals of life in poverty and simplicity” (Tanabe 2004: 731). Over the course of time, the robes also developed the capacity to convey rank, status, and occasion (ibid.: 732). Tsültrim Tarchin’s mobilization of the repa’s white robe both embraces and transcends these standard uses of Buddhist clothing.
For Tibetans, the red robe of an ordained monastic, the basic uniform of monks and nuns, mainly connotes celibacy and the special status of monkhood, while ceremonial clothing items such as grand hats and cloaks are typical insignia of office. The formal attire of Tibetan lineage holders represents a good example of how charisma can be captured and routinized, as described by Tambiah (1984). It can perhaps be argued that the Tantric tradition employs mechanisms that foresee the potential precariousness of personal charisma or charisma in its ‘pure’ form, as classified by Weber ( 1980: 141). Styled after the headgear of the patriarch Tishri Repa, the Five-Peaked Hat worn by Tsültrim Tarchin as a Barompa hierarch on ceremonial occasions inevitably draws disciples’ eyes away from his face, which emits pure charisma, and redirects their gaze to the hat, which stands for the Barom lineage (its peaks commemorating the five principal gurus of Tishri Repa). The depersonalization that occurs by diverting the followers’ devoted attention aims at protecting institutional orthodoxy and, in terms of doctrine, could be seen as a display of emptiness (Skt. śūnyatā), the self-deconstructive feature of Buddhist enlightenment. This category of ritual attire is an example of how pure charisma is captured, routinized, and applied in a functional manner. Personal power is fed into the specific lineage and monastic institution and is passed on to a successor through the garment. This transfer mostly occurs on a symbolic plane since it is not necessary to pass on the object itself. However, for paraphernalia such as the Black Hat of the Karmapas it is vital that the actual item itself be handed down. There are various reasons for this, such as the accumulation of blessing power with every generation of wearers.
As with any symbol of ritual accomplishment, the white garment is given by a representative of the religious establishment. Tsültrim Tarchin originally received his robe from Seljé Rinpoche, just as their main lama, Karma Norbu, had been granted his by the Sixteenth Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyü school. By virtue of its link to the sectarian identity of the Kagyüpas and its embedment in orthodox mechanisms of obtaining the right to a certain category of symbols only when proven worthy, it is evident that the white robe expresses routinized charisma.
When the white robe of a repa is worn all the time instead of the red monastic one, it becomes an exceptional emblem, worn not simply to underline a ritual function, but to signify individual accomplishment enhanced by an ascetic lifestyle. It is not automatically worn by all who learned or are authorized to transmit the Six Yogas (although they may certainly don it on certain occasions). Moreover, it is not customary for a reincarnate lama to inherit the habit of wearing the white robe from his predecessor. This extraordinary uniqueness expressed by the white garment when worn exclusively turns it into a suitable device to extend pure charisma. Before we consider how this works in the repa’s case, note that in Tibetan Buddhism personal charisma frequently appears within the perimeters of tradition and orthodoxy, as in the case of Tsültrim Tarchin, who received the robe to mark the accomplishment of tummo. Thought should therefore be given to whether Weber’s ( 1980: 661–663) presentation of routinized charisma as a reduction of personal magnetism is valid for religions where “visionary experiences” arise from techniques found in traditional routines (Feuchtwang 2008: 93, 98). Parallel to a Hassidic saint described by Yoram Bilu (2013), Tsültrim Tarchin’s “sacredness is an extension and expansion of an existing template for sainthood, and so is well understood and fairly easily maintained within the community” (Lindholm 2013b: 24). Through his life story, his emphasis on tummo in teaching and practice, his ascetic lifestyle, and his vestimentary code, Tsültrim Tarchin combines the roles of Milarepa, past Kyodrak yogins, and other famous Barompa masters with potent ritual symbols and traditional narratives about the prospect of liberation from suffering that is achievable “in this very body and life,” to quote the Milarepa mythology (Zhang Yisun 1985: 2081). As a “bricoleur of heroic roles, religious symbols and stories” (Feuchtwang 2008: 94), Tsültrim Tarchin harnesses the charismatic potential of this carefully assembled repertoire. If we refer once again to Weber ( 1980: 657), by presenting himself as such a leader, Tsültrim Tarchin becomes capable of bringing about institutional renewal and reform, his meditation school being a good example.
However, this would not be possible without the most important representative of the local religious establishment—the abbot of Kyodrak monastery, Seljé Rinpoche, who was instrumental in making Tsültrim Tarchin a contemporary saint. Not only did he present Tsültrim Tarchin with the white robe, but he also actively supports and advertises Tsültrim Tarchin’s hermitage and his teaching. Much like the case of the Italian mystic Padre Pio (1887–1968), whose canonization allowed the Catholic Church to appropriate “some of his primary charisma, and so has reinvigorated itself” (Lindholm 2013b: 22), in endorsing Tsültrim Tarchin, the Barom school in general and Kyodrak in particular can claim some of his personal charisma and harness this power for local revitalization. This appropriation contributes to how, over recent years, Tibetan Buddhism has been revived and has become globally successful and increasingly attractive to transnational audiences. This also applies to Seljé Rinpoche and Tsültrim Tarchin, who have a number of urban Han and Western disciples.
Parallel to the charismatic Catholic priest Father Tom as described by Wu (2013), Tsültrim Tarchin excels at enhancing his identity through performativity, to paraphrase the quotation above from Robert Perinbanayagam. When Tsültrim Tarchin replaced the red monastic habit with the cotton robe of a repa, he claimed charismatic authority by associating himself with the supernatural symbolism imbued in the robe. While there are several counter-examples of masters who were recognized as embodiments of Milarepa but continued wearing their red monk’s robe, such as Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (Zhabs dkar Tshogs drug Rang grol) (1781–1851), the symbolic link with miracles signified by the white robe has further allowed Tsültrim Tarchin to actively contribute to the construction of his life story as hagiography.4 When a Western film crew asked him about his ability to perform miracles, he expounded the Buddhist view on the nature of reality and human perception, but then referred to a lay follower who worked in one of the Lachi retreat enclosures as a cook and who saw him leave a handprint in solid stone. The man gladly shared his story in which Tsültrim Tarchin came up to a large boulder, placed his hand on it, and commented: “The rock is so soft today!” The imprint took a few days to emerge, but then it became very clear. Whenever I saw it, which was on several occasions, it received no special attention, although the account of the miracle had swept through the area.
Healing has been described as one of the key features of charisma (Csordas 1997; Wu 2013). Tsültrim Tarchin only occasionally performs curative activities compared to Father Tom’s almost weekly miracles (Wu 2013: 35), although I have seen him tear off a piece of his white robe and hand it over to help a local middle-aged layman overcome a smoking addiction. Before I embark on an analysis of the applications of the cotton robe, which extends and structures Tsültrim Tarchin’s charisma, I want to point out that wearing the robe does not automatically imply personal power, as can be observed in the examples of Tsültrim Tarchin’s two repa disciples, whose interactions with others and teaching activities are initiated and supervised by their master. Therefore, by displaying their white cotton robes, the two repas channel the routinized charisma of the transmission lineage and the power of their guru, rather than becoming autonomous producers of charisma themselves.
Recent studies of Chinese religions have interpreted pure charisma as ‘expectations of the extraordinary’ (Feuchtwang 2008), and the affective nature of these expectations has been emphasized (Goossaert and Ownby 2008; Huang 2008). Parallel to what has been shown for charismatics active within new Chinese religious movements or for the Catholic Father Tom, Tsültrim Tarchin also inspires deep emotions in his followers. For instance, a Han Chinese monk, one of his closest attendants, recounts: “When I was here in the mountains for the first time to see the guru, I felt very excited. After that I decided to stay” (pers. comm., March 2015). I consider such affective responses as “constitutive aspects of ritual interactions themselves, both reflecting and inflecting the latter’s course in a variety of sensory, expressive, moral, and strategic ways” (Berthomé and Houseman 2010: 69).
I have discussed elsewhere how lifelong Tibetan hermits are expected to automatically achieve the goal of liberation ‘in this body and life’ (Turek 2013). Since these expectations of the extraordinary are based on convention and social agreement rather than individual hopes, the personal charisma of yogins such as Tsültrim Tarchin is more stable and less dependent on external conditions than is the case with Han Chinese qigong masters discussed by Palmer (2008) and Goossaert and Ownby (2008).
The principal ritual transactions that Tsültrim Tarchin engages in at Lachi are bestowing blessings through touch, giving sermons, counseling laymen and monastics on various life matters, providing individual meditation instruction as well as guided meditation sessions for advanced disciples, conferring empowerments, and performing divinations. A good example for examining how ritual structures revived at Lachi are related to the affective domain in which the repa’s followers experience his charisma is teaching tummo. According to Tsültrim Tarchin, training the mind and the body to bring out the Inner Heat draws on the feeling of devotion to the guru and to the lineage. Tummo is an esoteric liturgy, and much of its tradition has been passed down orally, which emphasizes the direct guru-disciple connection. In many Tibetan tummo lineages, including Tsültrim Tarchin’s, it is vital that the content of the practice and the experiences of the trainee are protected by a seal of secrecy; the exercises should also take place out of the sight of non-initiates. In fact, most of the advanced practices taught at Lachi are enacted in secluded, private spaces. Another vivid illustration of this pattern are the regular oral instructions of virtually every disciple living at the hermitage in the form of a dialogue about experiences in meditation, whose form is rooted in the mystic Mahāmudrā tradition. The concealment of ritual within designated boundaries strengthens the liminality of the Tantric transformation process. Secrecy also intensifies the charismatic experience by delineating symbolic space for the strategic arousal of the emotions that are experienced toward the guru.
The Tantric tradition encourages affection toward the teacher according to a certain psycho-physical pattern: meditation manuals describe shedding tears or shivering with overwhelming thankfulness as positive signs of openness and indications of the disciples’ progress along the path. Nevertheless, the traditional framework opens up an arena for unconstrained emotional reactions that help to sustain the master’s personal charisma, as defined by the scholars referred to above. At Lachi, spontaneity is certainly encouraged by the informal setting of the venue. Feelings can be deeply experienced, especially given that here disciples receive tummo instructions from a master in a white robe, which in the instance of this practice is a quite literal projection of their goal. That the Tantric guru in his function as a vehicle of the lineage and of the teachings operates as a quasi-institution may again be interpreted as a measure in which tradition protects itself against the risks of abuse through personal influence. However, Tsültrim Tarchin’s own power does not contradict or challenge the routinized charisma expressed by the white robe or by the ritual practices transmitted at Lachi. In this case, the convention of tradition is used as a vehicle for pure charisma, something that in the context of Catholicism is also attested for Father Tom, who through “the combination of personal and institutional charisma doubles his authority” (Wu 2013: 45). However, to understand Tsültrim Tarchin’s allure, note that the white robe itself is more than just an object in which charisma is deposited, as with the amulets charged by Thai forest saints (Tambiah 1984). The garment also functions as a performative symbol used by the master as a key prop in his theater of charisma. Through such tactical use of religious garb, Tsültrim Tarchin again resembles Father Tom (Wu 2013: 45), whose sophisticated understanding of clothing as a powerful body technique helps him to orchestrate his charisma.
Let us now look again at the quotation from Perinbanayagam in which the charismatic engages in a suitable presentation of identity and imagine the striking brightness of the repa’s white garb against the red robes of other clergymen, the black clothes of laypeople, and the colors of the landscape. Religious clothes have been described as a “magnet for emotions” (Kieschnick 2007: 229). For Tsültrim Tarchin, the white robe illustrates how the interrelation of emotion and ritual can play out in sensory ways and thus functions as a device to spontaneously evoke powerful feelings that sustain his charisma. As Kieschnick observes, in a religious setting “physiological elements” can influence affective states (ibid.: 228). Although in this spectacle of charisma both costume and set are part of a template, they are geared toward eliciting followers’ spontaneous emotions and expectations. In addition to affective states being molded by conventional guru devotion, emotions can also emerge more freely in terms of time, mode, and intensity. They are not standardized elements of training, even if routines can be used to articulate them.
The white cotton garb of a repa, together with Tsültrim Tarchin’s intense, penetrating gaze, makes him “look the part” of a charismatic (Lindholm 2013b: 23). Wearing the white robe is in keeping with the master’s personal theatrical style, which is reminiscent of Father Tom or of the South American shaman described by Kelley (2013). As a visitor and later as a short-term resident of his meditation school, I was mystified and intrigued by Tsültrim Tarchin’s impressive physical presence, sudden entrances, dramatic facial expressions and gestures, as well as his oratory skill in imparting instructions punctuated by his perfectly timed, provocative laughter.
The remote environment is another device in this spectacle of charisma. The isolated area where Tsültrim Tarchin chose to live and where he founded his hermitage accentuates the symbolic meaning contained in the white fabric. Barompa master-hermits such as Kyodrak Chöjé (sKyo brag Chos rje) (1372–1450) or Kagyü Trashi (bKa’ brgyud bsKra shis) (?–1953), who all wore a single cotton garment, are said to have worked miracles among these very hills, in caves and on mountain summits. In more recent times, wearing the single white garb has been associated with Tsültrim Tarchin’s principal guru Karma Norbu. By virtue of these associations, the robe implies that Tsültrim Tarchin has transformed and conquered the wilderness by supernatural feats. Indeed, he knows how to use this environment as a backdrop for his activity. He rarely leaves the hermitage and sometimes insists on giving specific instructions at the top of the mountain in front of his cave, surrounded by scenery that looks almost unreal in its pristine crudeness. Only a few hours’ car ride from the urban center of Jyekundo, his hermitage is far removed from the living conditions of many contemporary Tibetans. The austere setting and remoteness of the upper caves and the lower meditation huts even unsettled my research assistant Samdrup, who hails from a local pastoralist family.
In his repa robe, Tsültrim Tarchin readily stands out from other lamas. The garment is both rare and unique. In the Tantric tradition, the white garb is a powerful, symbolic representation for the mind-body complex transformed through successful tummo practice, where the virtus signorum of corporeal heat serves as clear evidence of spiritual attainment. The single cotton sheet attests to the fact that its wearer can bear the cold without succumbing to it. Religious garb can be a powerful means of communication, despite a lack of precision in the message (Kieschnick 2007: 229). Even if the average Khampa layperson may not have the religious training to clearly identify that the cotton robe links Tsültrim Tarchin to Milarepa or tummo practice, they would unmistakably recognize that its whiteness is a sign of a special status within the religious hierarchy.
The richly layered symbolism of the white garment is augmented with Tsültrim Tarchin’s red meditation belt, which is also in Milarepa’s style. The person wearing the belt particularly addresses a highly elitist audience of monks and nuns who are looking for a qualified instructor to transmit the Six Yogas of Nāropa, one of the most esoteric ritual cycles within Tibetan Buddhism. The technical subtleties of these meanings address an elite but their power is plain to almost everyone.
The robe is a relatively rarely used although conventional emblem that marks the perfection of ‘signs’ of the Inner Heat. Tsültrim Tarchin uses it as the costume of the famous saint Milarepa. But what adds to the effect his charismatic performance has on specific local audiences is his stout and brawny physique, which reflects masculine qualities valued in a society where machismo once served as a vital component of leadership in the secular politics of clan rivalry (Tsomu 2014). His large, staunch figure clad in the attire of a high-profile ascetic is the simultaneous embodiment of ideals of religious and secular authority.
As a final point, I argue that the cotton robe is more than simply Tsültrim Tarchin’s strategy for charisma extension. The real power of the garment resides in the fact that it can lend itself to the full range of roles, symbols, and narratives in the particular bricolage that constitutes and structures the master’s personal charisma: all the layers of meaning, processes, and symbols intersect in the white cloth and are ordered in a way that fully expresses his power of influence. The white robe envelops the narratives of Tsültrim Tarchin’s previous identities as a pious householder, converted government cadre, determined monk, and disciple to a famous ascetic. The garb also marks the master’s change in status from ordinary hermit to “living saint,” which is how Tsültrim Tarchin is described in English for a transnational audience on a webpage presenting the activities of Kyodrak monastery.5 That the cotton robe of a living saint is the final visible layer in this sequence of identities is not merely a chronological element in the master’s life—it is first and foremost a symbolic, didactic depiction of a culturally valued progression on the path toward the absolute attainment of liberation and enlightenment, which themselves are also represented by the robe. As an expression of pure charisma, Tsültrim Tarchin performs, at this ultimate level of information contained in the robe, the heroic roles of renowned yogins and lamas of the past through the esoteric language of tummo practice.
An important aspect concealed between layers of meaning in Tsültrim Tarchin’s charismatic bricolage is the potential for inducing social change, as was originally ascribed to charismatic leaders by Weber ( 1980: 657). In a previous work (Turek 2013), I argued that in today’s China the collective sentiments of Tibetans influence readings of conventional religious symbols, including the repa’s white robe, which, in the modern reality of China, stands for the power and validity of Tibetan tradition. When, following decades of destruction, repression, and instrumentalization that befell the Tibetans after their inclusion into communist China, Tsültrim Tarchin emerged from his seclusion distinguished by his white robe as one of the very first meditators trained after 1950, he proved that he was nevertheless able to accomplish the goal of liberation ‘in this very body and life’. Because his personal victory extends to all those who subscribe to the Tantric Buddhist cosmology he internalized, Tsültrim Tarchin has become empowered to focus and effectively reconcile the contemporary collective sentiments and concerns of his Tibetan followers. Thus, the simple white cotton robe of a tummo virtuoso has become a powerful means to awaken the potency residing in traditional narratives and social roles and in the landscape of Kyodrak. This force could be used to alleviate various social crises, such as the autocracy of the Chinese state, its colonizing projects, and the abrupt modernization they entail.
Beyond the Tibetan context, the symbolism of the white robe has been circulated around the world along with the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhist hagiographies, and the life story of Milarepa has been translated into a great number of foreign languages. These factors have likely contributed to the growing transnational participation in Tsültrim Tarchin’s charismatic network.
In the case described in this article, the charismatic master Tsültrim Tarchin asserts, maintains, and advertises his authority with the help of a specific religious garment that he wears continuously: the simple white cotton robe of a virtuoso ascetic. He is hailed as a living saint primarily due to what in the Christian history is called the virtus signorum and in the Tantric tradition is manifested through bodily signs of perfection—specifically, the psycho-corporal practice of tummo. The white robe of a tummo specialist is a traditional way of channeling the power of the lineage, but in this case it is clear that when an item expresses routinized charisma, it can still be used as a medium for the extension of personal power.
Tsültrim Tarchin’s personal charismatic bricolage contains a variety of religious and worldly leadership figures, symbols, and narratives. All these meanings operating in his network of influence and attracting further potential followers are collected in and performed through the white cotton robe, which lends them a structure that is indicative of the master’s personal charisma.
Despite mechanisms within Tibetan Buddhism that put constraints on pure charisma by channeling it through media such as ritual clothing, the tradition has made room for the emergence of many charismatic gurus, such as Tsültrim Tarchin, while appropriating their charisma in order to reshape and reinvent its institutions. Doing so helps to address the demands of local and transnational audiences and contributes to how Tibetan Buddhism has been successfully adapting to modernity, both in China and globally.
I am grateful to Tsültrim Tarchin, who became the focus of this article, for his support and for opening many doors for me. I also owe thanks to Nicolas Sihlé and Patrice Ladwig for their useful comments on this contribution.
Tibetan terms are transcribed according to the “THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan” by David Germano and Nicolas Tournadre. At the first occurrence of a term, I add the transliteration in brackets, following the so-called Wylie system, with capitalization of root letters for proper nouns. Sanskrit terms are indicated by the abbreviation ‘Skt.’.
This is not to be confused with the famous site of Milarepa located between Tibet and Nepal, even if the correspondence with the name of Tsültrim Tarchin’s meditation school is intentional.
It might also be argued that since the robe is actually not white but made of undyed cotton, in the context of Kagyü schools it could emphasize the highest precepts of Mahāmudrā by symbolizing the experience of unfabricated, uncontrived simplicity.
It would be worthwhile to compare Tsültrim Tarchin’s vestimentary choice with that of other figures who also embodied Milarepa. I will leave this question for further research.
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