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Building a Religious Empire

Building a Religious Empire presents an account of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism during its expansion and consolidation of power from the mid-seventeenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries, examining the extraordinary effort Geluk lamas put into establishing institutional frameworks to standardize monastic life.

Building a Religious Empire
Tibetan Buddhism, Bureaucracy, and the Rise of the Gelukpa

Brenton Sullivan

2020 | 304 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents

A Note on Language and Romanization

Chapter 1. The Geluk School's Innovative Use of Monastic Constitutions
Chapter 2. Administering a Monastery for the "Common Good"
Chapter 3. Institutionalizing Tantra
Chapter 4. The Systematization of Doctrine and Education
Chapter 5. Singing Together in One Voice

Appendix. Monastic Constitutions to the Mid-Eighteenth Century

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Building a Religious Empire is focused on the story of the Geluk (Tibetan Dge lugs) school of Tibetan Buddhism, the most widespread school of Tibetan Buddhism, best known through its symbolic head, the Dalai Lama. The vast majority of the monasteries in Tibet and Inner Mongolia—a landscape that makes up a third of the territory of today's China—as well as those in Mongolia are Geluk monasteries. Historically, these monasteries were some of the largest in the world, and even today some of the largest Geluk monasteries house thousands of monks both in Tibet and in exile in India. To understand how this came to pass, this book reveals the compulsive efforts by Geluk lamas in the early modern period to prescribe and control a proper way of living the life of a Buddhist monk and to define a proper way of administering the monastery. These lamas drew on the sort of administrative techniques usually associated with state-making—standardization, record-keeping, the conscription of young males, the concentration of manpower in central cores, and so on—thereby earning the moniker "lama official" or "Buddhist bureaucrat" (Tibetan bla dpon). They also thereby succeeded in establishing a relatively uniform and resilient network of monasteries stretching from Ladakh to Lake Baikal, from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.

Previous explanations of this success of the Geluk school over other schools of Tibetan Buddhism have focused on the brilliance of its founder or on the role played in later centuries by the school's powerful Mongol patrons in eliminating, often violently, rivals. What has not been appreciated is the zeal and thoroughness with which Geluk lamas organized, systematized, and administered their monasteries, thereby giving rise to a uniform and hegemonic school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is the deployment of bureaucratic techniques usually associated with the state for the purpose of extending the Geluk "liberating umbrella" over more and more lands and peoples that best justifies describing the Geluk project as "spiritual colonialism."

The cumulative effect of the organizing efforts of Geluk lamas was the belief that monastic life must follow codified patterns of study, worship, conduct, and administration for the sake of the monastery and for Buddhism as a whole. The Geluk project of incorporating all peoples under its religious rule was designed to be a predictable one, whereby every aspect and every moment of the monastic life was subjected to bureaucratic scrutiny and control. This privileging of the monastery and its rules lent the Geluk school a consistency and an integrity that was conducive to Geluk ambitions to spread Buddhism across wide stretches of Inner Asia, and it is also the reason we talk today about a single, unified Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Building a Religious Empire traces the unique and overriding preoccupation of Geluk lamas with administering their religious empire from the time of their assumption of power in Central Tibet in the seventeenth century through their expansion and consolidation of power along the frontier with China and in Mongolia in the eighteenth century (roughly 1642-1750). In contrast to leaders of other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Geluk lamas devoted an extraordinary amount of time worrying about the institutional framework within which every other aspect of monastic life—be that philosophizing, meditating, conducting rituals, or anything else—would take place. I argue that this privileging of the monastic institution fostered a common religious identity that insulated it from factionalism along the lines of any specific religious leader, practice, or doctrine. The construction and maintenance of a bureaucratic system of Geluk monasticism further provided legitimacy to the Geluk project of conversion and spiritual conquest.

The Geluk school's recipe for success was not just prioritizing the organization of its fixed monastic institutions. Equally important was the mobility of monks and lamas, which both ensured a degree of uniformity among Geluk monasteries and was facilitated by that uniformity. Building a Religious Empire addresses the "mother-child" (T. ma bu) or "branch" monasteries (T. dgon lag), the "monk streams" (T. grwa rgyun) or study-abroad relationships between monasteries, the institutional links based on liturgical traditions, and so on, that developed over this period and tied together into a single corporate entity the thousands of Geluk monasteries across Tibet and Mongolia. The shared practice of ensuring that one's own administrative and monastic practices were modeled on those of another, more centrally located monastery contributed to the formation of a system of overlapping networks and loyalties that collectively made up the Geluk school. Thus, by the mid-eighteenth century there developed a remarkable consistency in the forms of administration, study, and ritual across Tibet and Mongolia, making it relatively easy for a new monk to travel from the small, local temple where he first renounced to his temple's mother monastery for ritual training, or for the enterprising, young, scholar-monk to make the difficult journey to Central Tibet to seek advanced training at one of the major Geluk monasteries there.

Nor was this mobility between and among monasteries limited to young monks or monks engaged in studies. Lamas—the high-ranking clerics of the Geluk church—also frequently moved between monasteries. They did this, as did lamas of other schools of Tibetan Buddhism, for the sake of study and teaching, alms begging and the distribution of alms, pilgrimage, and the construction or restoration of temples. But Geluk lamas also did this as part of their regular administrative duties, serving as abbot of first one monastery and then another or even holding concurrently the abbotship of two or more monasteries. This peregrinating and rotating cohort of Geluk lamas ensured an administrative continuity between monasteries located as far apart as different sides of the Asian continent. The Geluk school was polycephalous, or "multi-headed"; meaning, it did not rely on a single lama or monastic seat for promoting and maintaining its teachings and organization but on a proliferation of such lamas and monastic centers. One can even say that the Geluk school was "hydra-headed" because, like the mythic Hydra beast, it could regenerate new heads to help lead and administer the Geluk church when one died, was killed, or was otherwise unable to fulfill his duties. This, together with a common concern for consistency in monastic practices and institutions, aided the Geluk school in outperforming its rivals and helped to prevent the school from splintering into sub-schools or new schools and revelations.

To be sure, the Geluk school was not a homogeneous religious group. Other scholars have documented the various lines on which heated and even violent divisions could be drawn, from power politics and conspiracies in Lhasa, to differences of opinion over the best future course of the Geluk school, to endless legal battles over the ownership of temples and fiefs. Nonetheless, I argue that what allowed for this diversity within the Gelukpa was precisely the rhetoric and preoccupation with consistency in its monastic forms. So, while different monasteries might have used one or another of a small group of scholastic manuals (T. yig cha), for instance, they all followed the same basic format of debate.

What the Gelukpa did exceptionally well was to make the monastery—the place and the institution—the essence of Buddhism. Certain aspects of the Geluk school were never questioned, such as the inerrancy of the school's founder and, significantly, the importance of monastic discipline. "Discipline" here refers not just to individual comportment and norms such as celibacy but also to the specificity with which the organization of the ideal monastery was laid out and the strictness with which its administration was carried out. Above all else, what was agreed upon was the idea that there existed a proper and orderly way of living out the monastic life and that that way was and ought to be made explicit and available to all who wished to submit to it. What we are talking about is the systematization of the monastic life and thereby of Buddhist liberation itself. The fact that intra-Geluk disputes can usually be cast as disputes between monasteries rather than as doctrinal or sectarian disputes—there are no Geluk sub-schools—demonstrates the success of the Gelukpa in making monasteries and disciplined monastic life the essence of "proper Buddhism." The relatively homogeneous system of "disciplined" monks and monasteries appealed to political rulers and laity, and it facilitated the socialization and control of its growing number of monks and monasteries in early modern Tibet and Mongolia.

Legislating Proper Buddhism

The Geluk school's bureaucratic proclivities are most visible in the hundreds of "monastic constitutions" that Geluk lamas composed for monasteries flung across Tibet and Mongolia. Like Christian monastic "customaries," these constitutions (T. bca' yig) express the need to institute "proper" administrative procedures, scholastic curricula, liturgical sequences, financial protocols, and so on. They also appeal to notions of "impartiality" and "the common good" to underscore the idea that theirs are monasteries of order and of reason. Having traveled to dozens of monasteries in Tibet and Mongolia between 2008 and 2016 (including one extended stay at a monastery in Tibet from 2011 through 2012), I collected rare manuscripts of monastic constitutions dating principally from the eighteenth century. I further collected every available monastic constitution composed for a monastery before the mid-eighteenth century as well as a representative sample of constitutions from after that period. I have contextualized these constitutions by consulting Chinese-language gazetteers and Qing Dynasty imperial compendia and Tibetan-language histories, chronicles, biographies, and other sources.

My close examination of all these monastic constitutions has allowed me to identify the moment that Geluk lamas seized this genre of administrative document as one of the school's many methods for expressing and acting upon its concern for systematizing monastic administration and practice. Beginning with the compositions of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), these constitutions reveal a palpable preoccupation with what sociologist Max Weber called rationalization, that is, the propensity for increasing the predictability of social life and interactions through the standardization of procedures. These constitutions reflect and call for bureaucratic techniques normally associated with state-making, including the standardization of administrative terminology and procedures, record-keeping (e.g., rosters of resident monks), the demarcation of monastic territories, and so on, all of which facilitated the growth and management of large-scale monastic cores and the proliferation of Geluk monasteries across the Tibetan Plateau and Mongolia.

Historically, each Geluk monastery would safely guard its monastic constitution. The monastery's highest officers would periodically reveal the constitution, read it aloud, comment on it, and appeal to its written word and meaning in order to exhort the monastery's resident monks to best comport themselves. The hope was to make the monastery a beacon of "proper" Buddhism and thereby attract new disciples and lay patrons alike to the monastery. Chapter 1 traces the development of this genre from its origins in the eleventh or twelfth century through the point when the production of monastic constitutions became prolific in the mid-eighteenth century. I demonstrate how the preeminent Geluk lama of the seventeenth century—the Fifth Dalai Lama—and his successors in the eighteenth century both drew upon and departed from earlier precedents. Geluk lamas did not invent the genre of monastic constitutions, but they did perfect it and capitalize on it.

As engineers of a new, far-flung religious empire, Geluk lamas deployed novel financial instruments and institutional arrangements to support and control its burgeoning body of monks and to insulate such resources from the monastery's highest officials. These lamas also regularly appealed to notions of "impartiality" and a "common good" that was to be protected from personal avarice by legal-bureaucratic norms. Such "expropriation of the means of administration" is arguably the lynchpin for a fully functioning bureaucratic administration. Chapter 2 examines the promotion of these ideals as well as the actual application of new administrative techniques, which together contributed to the legitimacy of the Geluk project and to the school's ability to manage its growing body of monks.

In Chapter 3, I argue that Geluk lamas took special care to institutionalize tantra, the most potent source of both spiritual liberation and destruction (i.e., destruction of an individual's hope of liberation and destruction of real-world enemies). The lineages of tantric transmission that epitomized the early history of the Geluk school (and other schools) came to be overshadowed by the more standardized, routinized, and semi-public form of transmission through tantric colleges. As Buddhists, the power associated with meditation and esoteric ritual practice could not be altogether repressed; instead, they were channeled into institutions that served the interest of Geluk monasteries and the Geluk school.

In Chapter 4, I demonstrate the Fifth Dalai Lama's early concern with creating separate monasteries, such as Drepung, that specialized in the study of Buddhist philosophy. The systems of scholasticism that the Fifth Dalai Lama helped to standardize—curricula, methods of debate, the awarding of scholastic degrees, degree exams—were then instituted at monasteries along the frontier with China and ultimately in Inner Mongolia. This standardization and dissemination of "right knowledge" and "right ways of knowing" contributed to the uniformity of the Geluk school and, in conjunction with Geluk liturgy, informed and socialized scores of monks and promoted "brand loyalty" on an unprecedented scale. This standardization and exportation of Geluk scholasticism also contributed to the formation of explicit scholastic ties between monasteries, with certain monasteries becoming "feeder schools" for the more centrally located and prestigious monasteries. Thus, the growth in the number of monks as well as the geographic expansion of the Geluk school were facilitated by such novel and carefully devised institutional arrangements.

Chapter 5 describes the pathway or mechanism for Weber's contention that bureaucracy cultivates esprit de corps, namely, liturgy. It charts the standardization of recitations and ritual from the time of the founder of the Geluk school, and especially the Fifth Dalai Lama, through the exportation of the Geluk liturgy to Inner Mongolia by Geluk lamas from the Tibet-China frontier in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. Much as early modern states discovered that forcing a battalion to march together in formation contributed to the group's cohesion and group identity, Geluk lamas fashioned an extensive liturgy (almost entirely in the Tibetan language) that was practiced in common by hundreds of thousands of monks. This contributed to the integrity of the Geluk school even as it extended farther and farther across the Tibetan Plateau and Mongolia, where Tibetan language was the "church language," or the "language of the dharma."

I conclude by explaining why religious institutions are often overlooked by scholars of Tibetan Buddhist history. A focus on religious ideas (philosophy) and virtuosos (meditators, ascetics, and saints), has obscured the decisive role of more down-to-earth practices by religious elite. Understanding the expansion of religious groups and the grip they have on a population requires scholars to attend to the techniques of administration and control they employ, techniques that are often the same as those used by political rulers. In the early modern and premodern worlds, "popular mass politics was religion, and religion was political." Such an approach also allows one to appreciate the similarities and differences with other religious empires, such as the Catholic Church. Both the Catholic Church and the Geluk school depended on bureaucratic techniques of standardization and control, but the "polycephalous" nature of the Geluk school distinguished it from the pope-centered Catholic Church and lent the Geluk school a degree of flexibility and autonomy that was advantageous in the shifting political landscape of early modern Inner Asia.

The rest of this Introduction presents the theoretical framework for understanding the Geluk preoccupation with bureaucracy and the school's success. Max Weber's insights into the ethics (the sets of values) of the world's major religions, his concept of "rationalization," and his typology of the forms of rule and legitimation are applied to the Geluk school to reveal what made it unique and successful. In presenting the Gelukpa as bureaucrats, I hope that the reader learns something about the most prevalent form of monastic life on the Tibetan Plateau. In addition, we may together peer into the functioning of some of the most successful Buddhist monasteries and thereby learn something more generally about what makes religious organizations successful.

The Growth of the Geluk School: Power, Money, and Organizational Capabilities

The spiritual, or religious, dimension of Tibet is its most noted feature. These range from hoary, romantic descriptions of life in Tibet, especially pre-modern Tibet, as a heaven on earth, to more matter-of-fact observations that the vast majority of Tibetans identify as Buddhist and that Buddhist practices and Buddhist myths have been some of the most important contributors to the formation of a common identity across the Tibetan Plateau. Perhaps the most noted feature of Tibet's religious landscape is its great number of monks. The usual estimate given for the proportion of the male population that lived the life of the celibate monk until the twentieth century is nearly one-third, that is, one-sixth of the overall population. The pre-modern censuses on which this estimate is based are not entirely reliable, and one more conservative estimate suggests only 10 to 12 percent of the male population in the more densely populated, agricultural regions of Tibet were monastics. Even so, this number situates Tibet well above other Buddhist countries, such as Burma and Thailand, in terms of their estimated monastic populations.

Statistics for the pre-1950 population of Tibet, including Tibet's monastic population, are sparse and not entirely reliable. However, several scholars have pointed back to two censuses carried out shortly after the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism came to power in 1642 under the direction of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) and his principal patron, the Oirat (particularly the Khoshud) Mongol Güüshi Khan (1582-1655). R. A. Stein refers to a 1663 census documenting 50,900 Geluk monks and approximately 100,000 monks and nuns of all schools. The twentieth-century Tibetan scholar Dungkar Lozang Trinlé appears to have arrived at a similar figure, citing the 1698 history of the Geluk school by the Fifth Dalai Lama's prime minister, suggesting there were 97,528 monks across Central, Eastern, and Western Tibet at that time. Then, in 1737, another census found more than 302,500 monks under the Dalai Lama's dominion (principally, in the Central Tibetan province of Ü) and another 13,700-plus monks under the Panchen Lama's dominion (in the neighboring province of Tsang). These figures point to a dramatic (at least threefold) increase in the number of monks in less than a century.

The Geluk monastery known as Gönlung Jampa Ling, which is situated along the cultural frontier between Tibet and Mongolia and which figures prominently in this book, similarly underwent a major demographic shift during this period. When it was first founded in 1604 by a high-ranking lama from Central Tibet, it is said that "more than a hundred monks" gathered there, each in his own small hut. By 1698, when the Fifth Dalai Lama's prime minister was compiling his history of the Geluk school, Gönlung Monastery had 1,500 monks. This made Gönlung the largest monastery outside the direct dominion of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the fourth largest monastery on the entire Tibetan Plateau. On the eve of the monastery's destruction by Qing imperial forces in 1724, the monastery may have had as many as 2,400 monks.

The establishment and growth of monasteries such as Gönlung point to another kind of monastic growth: the geographic expansion of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. As Gray Tuttle has demonstrated, the geographic region where Gönlung is situated, known in Tibetan as Amdo, has been characterized by a pattern of "almost complete Dge lugs pa [Gelukpa] dominance of massive monastic institutions." Although Tuttle's periodization of Geluk expansion into Amdo includes earlier periods, it is clear that the most significant and sustained growth began once the Gelukpa and their Khoshud (also written "Qoshot," "Hoshuud," etc.) and Zünghar (also written "Dzungar," "Junghar," etc.) Mongol patrons came to power in the mid-seventeenth century. The same can be said of Mongolia.

There is yet another feature of monasticism in Tibet in the aftermath of the Gelukpa's assertion of religious and political authority: institutional size. While the 1737 census referred to above gives the number of monasteries as 3,150 under the Dalai Lama's dominion and 327 under the Panchen Lama's dominion, the number of Geluk monasteries said to be recorded for the year 1882 is 1,026 even while the number of Geluk monks increased to 491,242. "In other words," write the scholars who first drew attention to this phenomenon, "the sect was concentrating its monks in fewer monasteries." Although one cannot place too much confidence in these statistics, it is safe to say that the growth in the number of monastics did not always correlate with an increasing number of monasteries. It did mean bigger monasteries, however. This has led the anthropologist of Tibet, Melvyn Goldstein, to describe the characteristic and dominant form of monasticism in Tibet as "mass monasticism," defined as having "an emphasis on recruiting and sustaining very large numbers of celibate monks for their entire lives." The sheer number of monks rather than their "quality" became the measure of a successful monastery.

The explanations typically given to describe this phase of monastic growth and expansion are power and money. That is, the Fifth Dalai Lama (16171682) consolidated political and religious power over Central Tibet through the help of his new patrons, the Oirat or "Western Mongols." According to the redoubtable scholar Giuseppe Tucci,

[The Fifth Dalai Lama] established firm ties between these monasteries and the central government, he appointed mk'an po [religious teachers] and abbots he could trust; by this time nothing happens without the Dalai Lama's sanction and consent; he deposes at his pleasure the abbots who arouse his suspicious, as was the case with the abbot of Šel dkar. . . .

Moreover he neglects no opportunity of keeping this great monastic population attached to himself; in 1655 he restored the usage of reciting sacred texts and with this pretext he caused the monks of the great monasteries to come to Lhasa by turns.

This portrait of the newly empowered Fifth Dalai Lama presents him as being everywhere at all times. He appoints the officers of monasteries, monitors their conduct, and dismisses them when necessary. He prescribes the rituals the monasteries were to conduct.

In addition to political power, scholars have identified the immense amount of economic and human resources to which the Dalai Lama was suddenly the beneficiary, which he allocated to his favored school of Buddhism. The Tibetan scholar Dungkar has written, "The fifth Dalai Lama, using his political power, built thirteen monasteries for all religious sects except the Bka' brgyud [Kagyü] sect, converted a part of Bka' brgyud pa's monasteries to the Dge-lugs sect, stipulated the number of monks in various monasteries and the monk corvée system, gave the three main [Geluk] monasteries—Se-ra, 'Bras-spungs, and Dga'-ldan—the right to manage their own manors and the people on them, and stipulated the amount of crops and money the government provided for the monasteries." Dungkar concludes his overview of the economic and political power responsible for the Geluk success by criticizing the fact that all sects, but particularly the Gelukpa, were enmeshed in such economic activity: "The broad masses of the people called them bla-dpon (meaning "monk official," "lama official") to show their respect to them, but this term itself had profound satiric implication."

When the Oirat Mongols (particularly the Khoshud and some Zunghars) settled in Amdo, the Geluk monasteries there, many of which had been established through earlier missionary activity, were the recipients of these patrons' largesse. This, together with the "Eastern Mongols" predilection for the Gelukpa—a phenomenon often attributed to the charisma of the Third Dalai Lama and his meeting with the Tümed Mongol Altan Khan in the sixteenth century—positioned the Geluk school to expand across the Tibetan Plateau and into Mongolia. Later, in the eighteenth century, when a segment of the Oirat (the Torghud/Kalmyks) migrated to the Caucasus, they took their support for the Geluk school with them. Thus, the religious empire of the Geluk school stretched from its center in Lhasa, to the northern reaches of Mongolia, and to the western reaches of Eurasia. This process also resulted in construction of some of the Geluk school's most iconic, large-scale monasteries, such as Kumbum and Labrang in Amdo. In short, the independent variable in this sort of analysis is the patron, that is, the Mongols, who installed the Dalai Lama, paid for the Geluk monasteries, and carried their zeal for the Geluk school wherever they went.

One recent, innovative article that approaches the growth and expansion of the Geluk school from a different angle is McCleary and van der Kuijp's "The Market Approach to the Rise of the Geluk School, 1419-1642." They apply an economics-of-religion approach to the rise and success of the Geluk school. They argue that the Geluk school exhibited club-like characteristics that gave the school an edge in the competitive religious arena of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Tibet. Moreover, it was these club-like characteristics, and not state intervention, that made the Gelukpa "organizationally capable of generating the violence that led to a monopoly outcome." I have drawn particular inspiration from their attempt to explain the Geluk success by considering institutional factors apart from purely political or economic ones. My argument differs from McCleary and van der Kuijp's in that I focus more on the period that began after the Fifth Dalai Lama came to power in 1642 with the assistance of his Oirat Mongol patrons. As such, I am less interested in the Gelukpa's use of violence than in their passion for and ability in organizing their monasteries. Without denying the importance of such violence, I ask what the Gelukpa did with their newfound power and how they directed the resources they received in order to build their own school (and not just destroy their opponents). I want to draw attention to the fact that Geluk hierarchs were prodigious organizers with a proclivity for rationalizing all aspects of their monasteries, from doctrinal orthodoxy to the scheduling of major rituals and systems for administering and financing its monasteries. This, I argue, was just as important for the Geluk school's monopoly position and longevity as was its willingness to participate in violence or exhibit other club-like characteristics.

I also depart from McCleary and van der Kuijp's adoption of anthropologist Melvyn Goldstein's definition of mass monasticism. "Mass monasticism," according to Goldstein, "is a system devised to recruit as many monks as possible regardless of any detriment caused to the discipline or ideal of the monastery. In fact, he argues that monasteries lowered their standards in order to help as many monks as possible find their niche and to retain as many monks as possible. The primary problem with this line of reasoning is that it actually inverts what the historical record reveals about the discipline of the largest monasteries. As Georges Dreyfus has written, "We should not assume that all Tibetan monasteries were equally lax in their discipline. . . . Since important aspects of the discipline are regulated by the particular code of each individual monastery or monastic unit [i.e., monastic constitutions], the strictness of monastic discipline varies greatly (as one might expect). In general, the large central monasteries of the tradition tended to be much stricter than the local smaller monasteries." Just as the Chinese pilgrim Yijing had observed of the largest monasteries in seventh-century India, a review of the historical record suggests that Dreyfus is correct and that some of the largest Geluk monasteries in Tibet were the most strictly regulated. A second problem with the concept of "mass monasticism" is its singular focus on the number of monks (the "masses"). I prefer to speak instead of "mega monasticism"—borrowing from the label "mega churches" applied to the twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon among Protestant churches—in order to draw equal attention to the "volume" of (i.e., the number of monks at) the monastery and the institutional complexity of these monasteries.

These explanations—of power and wealth provided by Mongol patrons, on the one hand, and of unique organizational capabilities of the Geluk school, on the other—are not incompatible. On the contrary, they may even be complementary insofar as the conservative and rule- and procedure-oriented Geluk school may have appealed to the Mongol leaders who patronized the Geluk school in much the same way that the teachings of the founder of the Geluk school in the fourteenth century appealed to the most important political power in Central Tibet from that time. Moreover, the military and economic might of the Oirat Mongols may have cleared the way for Geluk lamas to operationalize their religious ethic of organization and rationalization. In short, Geluk growth and dominance were not just the result of the Fifth Dalai Lama's direct rule and management of monastic affairs—although that did happen—nor should they be attributed solely to economic might—although their Mongol patrons gave them that.

Gene Smith once remarked on the integrity or robustness of the Karma Kagyü school relative to the other Kagyü schools: "Two subsects have branched off of the Karma pa, but there have been far fewer divisions than one might have expected. A possible explanation for this may be the well-developed organization of monasteries coupled with the prestige of the great incarnations." As we shall see in Chapter 1, the Karmapas were the primary opponents to the Gelukpa through the first half of the seventeenth century and, as this quote suggests, the strength of the two competing schools may have shared a common basis in their organizational capabilities.

Buddhist Bureaucrats

The above communist-infused critique of Geluk hierarchs by Dungkar as being "lama officials," which we might also gloss as "Buddhist bureaucrats," is true in ways that even he did not realize. Dungkar's critique is meant to imply that the typical Gelukpa was a monster of a sort—half monk, half political official—and not a complete or pure anything. The implication is that the Gelukpa were "bureaucrats" in the popular, negative sense of the term—functionaries and managers of an organization that exists only to perpetuate itself at the expense of the people and of progress. While this may be how Marxist-Leninist regimes think of bureaucracy, this is not the way in which the concept was formalized by the sociologist Max Weber in the early twentieth century. In fact, Weber's understanding of bureaucracy and the bureaucrats who work in it can illuminate a lot more about the Geluk school than can the popular notion of the terms.

For Weber, bureaucratic rule is the purest example of rule that is based on the rule of law. It is "the most rationalized known means of exercising authority over human beings." It is important to remember that this is Weber's analytical evaluation concerning bureaucracy, not a normative one. It is true that Weber considers bureaucracy and the rational, legal authority on which it is founded to be most fully developed only in the modern period, but this is not because they are "better." After all, Weber famously used the image of the "iron cage" to describe the world ultimately transformed by rationalization and modern bureaucracy—an inescapable world of calculation and acquisition, devoid of value. Moreover, rationalism is by no means found solely in modern states.

So, what does Weber mean by "rationalization" and how is that useful to our analysis of the Gelukpa? For Weber, rationalization is the desire for coherence. It is a reaction to the suffering and uncertainty of the world in which we live, "a stand towards something in the actual world which is experienced as specifically 'senseless.'" It consists of the human "tendencies toward order in human thought." It is a quest for meaning, although meaning need not be understood as a logical or cognitive ordering of the world. Indeed, Weber argues that one of the most common ways in which people have responded to the senselessness of the world is by seeking refuge in "sacred values," promises of material well-being and especially spiritual states of ecstasy or wholeness. These religious states are essentially emotional states, and it is these states that become the focus of later, more abstract theological and philosophical speculations. These speculations are often the products of intellectuals who seek to "sublimate" the acquisition of the sacred value into a sacrament or doctrine; they add "metaphysical meaning" to this emotional value (i.e., to the emotional satisfaction of experiencing a sacred state).

Rationalism, then, is a feeling of closure, of completeness, of order, or of control over the world provided by particular emotional states and by the abstract systems that give form to those states. Rationalism is not simply whatever accords with our modern-day, scientifically informed understanding of how the world works. Indeed, both the notion of a savior and that of karma are primary examples of rationalization (of suffering). Rather, rationalization is the increase in predictability, order, and efficiency that comes with the observation and production of laws governing the cosmos, nature, and human relations. Or, more technically, the maximization of "the calculability of means through the standardization of action." It is this penchant for calculability and predictability through standardizing action that typifies the later Geluk approach to religious life.

Rationalization in the form of the Protestant ethic has been credited with providing the "spirit" of modern capitalism and, more recently, with providing the "toolbox" for the construction of modern bureaucracy. The latter argument has been made by historical sociologist Philip Gorski. In particular, Gorski describes the indignation and criticism that arose due to such practices as venality (the appropriation and sale of office) within the late medieval and early modern Catholic Church. These critiques were later reiterated by reformers such as Martin Luther, which prevented the uninhibited spread of such patrimonial forms of administration in Northern Europe. Later, pietist reformers extended this critique to the corruption and "spoils systems" as practiced in the early modern states. The proposals these Protestant reformers advanced, such as the rational use of remuneration of administrators (salaries), required technical qualifications (exams), written rules, and so on, were precisely the features of what we now recognize as the hallmarks of bureaucracy. Moreover, Gorski underscores the importance of attending to the ideal interests—the creation of a more predictable world in the pursuit of salvation—that gave rise to what is now the most widespread form of administration.

For Weber, much of early, Indian Buddhism was very rational. It exemplified the "genteel intellectual" approach to the problem of suffering. Apart from adopting and elaborating on the doctrines and worldview consisting of samsara, karma, and liberation, these intellectuals sought a purely "cognitive" solution to the fundamental problem of the world. Liberation from the cycle of suffering was coterminous with gnosis, knowing or wisdom, and thus it was in contemplation that one sought resolution and escape.

However, this wisdom and liberation were fundamentally tinged by "emotion," and thus the goal of this path of contemplation was one of the "irrational loci" to which these intellectuals-cum-contemplatives retreated. Thus, the rationalization process of early Buddhists faltered upon the "mystical" grounds of quietism, "silence," "passivity," and "rest." The Buddhist virtuoso, the monk, was at his best a world-fleeing mystic.

The Buddhist mendicant's Western counterpart, the Christian monk, is understood by Weber to be "ascetic" rather than "mystic." That is, he applied himself to changing the world around him rather than merely "accepting" the world as it is and seeking to adjust to it. Thus, Weber prefers to call Christian monasticism a "world-rejecting asceticism"—an ethic that stands in tension with the world and seeks to transform its cruder aspects. Weber writes, "The occidental church is a uniformly rational organization with a monarchial head and a centralized control of piety. That is, it is headed not only by a personal transcendental god, but also by a terrestrial ruler of enormous power, who actively controls the lives of his subjects. Such a figure is lacking in the religions of Eastern Asia, partly for historical reasons, partly because of the nature of the religions in question." In distinguishing Buddhist monasticism from Christian monasticism, Weber even anticipates the argument of this book by downplaying the similarities between Christian monasticism and Tibetan monasticism: "Even Lamaism, which has a strong organization, does not have the rigidity of a bureaucracy. The Asiatic hierarchs in Taoism and the other hereditary patriarchs of Chinese and Hindu sects were always partly mystagogues, partly the objects of anthropolatric veneration, and partly—as in the cases of the Dalai and Taschi [i.e., the Pa?chen] Lama—the chiefs of a completely monastic religion of magical character." In other words, Buddhism, especially in its later stages, succumbed to the primitive belief in the extraordinary power inherent in particular objects, actions, and people to influence the material world.

Weber's analysis of Buddhism was limited by the paucity of rich historical and ethnographic literature on Buddhism. Research at that time was primarily oriented toward the study of early Buddhism as understood through later Pali doctrinal sources. Later, Mahayana Buddhism was written off as a popular and magical aberration. As the anthropologist David Gellner has written, "By paying no attention to the Vinaya (monastic discipline) texts, Weber underestimated the all-important role of the Sangha (monastic community) in the life of the monk. He also underestimated the degree to which early Buddhism had already accommodated itself to lay religious interests and therefore included elements of prayer, deification of the Buddha, and so on." As a result, Weber overemphasized the "magical" aspects of Tibetan Buddhism and overlooked other aspects of early Buddhism where rationalization had taken hold, such as in monastic life. Actually, if we take what Weber had to say about Western (Christian) monasticism and apply it to Buddhist monasticism, much is revealed. Weber wrote, "Only in the Occident, where the monks became the disciplined army of a rational bureaucracy of office, did asceticism directed toward the outer world become increasingly systematized into a methodology of active, rational conduct of life." We now know that early Buddhist monasticism, rather than being characterized by a "minimum of organization" and by lone mendicants cut off from society, consisted of complex economic and legal arrangements. And if that is true of early Buddhism, then it is doubly true of the monasteries devised by the Gelukpa. After all, the Gelukpa did not flee from society; they ruled it. And their monasteries were the largest in the history of the world.

The renowned Tibetologist R. A. Stein's contention that Tibet be understood as an "ecclesiastical state" alerts us to the possibility of applying Weber's analyses of "hierocratic associations" and the "church" to the study of Tibetan history and religion. "Hierocratic associations" are a type of corporate authority holding "a monopoly in the bestowal or denial of sacred values." Similarly, a "church" is "a community organized by officials into an institution which bestows gifts of grace." Officials in a church are said to "fight principally against all virtuoso-religion and against its autonomous development." This helps to explain a rather widespread discomfort among Gelukpa with institutions and practices more dependent on charismatic authority or other sources of authority apart from the legal authority of the institution itself. For instance, Geluk hierarchs frequently express a certain level of skepticism toward the process of identifying reincarnate lamas. Oracles and their mediums, too, although not dispensed with, are subjected to tight controls to protect from any potential "prophetic assault."

Hierocratic associations share much in common with modern bureaucratic states, most importantly their reliance on rule of law. They also have a hierarchy of officials that both ranks and delimits the area of jurisdiction of each official and a separation of the "official sphere" from the "private sphere." As we shall see, these traits epitomize the Geluk approach to organizing its monasteries.

A bureaucracy in its "pure form" is said to be characterized by "a single hierarchy of offices, meritocratic selection of personnel, and a systematic application of clearly defined impersonal legal norms in the form of abstract general rules regulating all procedures, as well as the rights and duties of officials." It is perhaps this last characteristic—"clearly defined impersonal legal norms"—that most epitomizes Weber's concept of bureaucracy and the legal authority on which it rests. Beginning in Chapter 1, we shall be looking at just such rules as they were codified by the Gelukpa in documents known as chayik (T. bca' yig), translated variously as "constitutions," "guidelines," or "constitutions," among other names.

Bureaucracies, moreover, "tend to evolve toward centralized control, functional differentiation, technical specificity, as well as depersonalization and impersonality." The benefits of bureaucracy are greater speed, precision, and uniformity and predictability of operation. Bureaucracy also minimizes the personal, irrational, and emotional elements in official business and improves "corporate coherence, esprit de corps, and useable knowledge and skills." Thus, the predictable program of monasticism stipulated by its hierarchs was an efficient way for training its growing number of monks, and the uniformity of that program strengthened a corporate identity. A more cynical view of bureaucracy argues that it is merely the conceit of a transparent, meritocratic system that gives bureaucracy its allure. Assuming this perspective, one can argue that the promotion of the idea of a depersonalized Geluk monasticism appealed to aspiring monks and commanded their loyalty, while its presentation as a predictable and conservative approach to monasticism appealed to laity and potential patrons.

The Geluk church was not a "pure bureaucracy." The system of reincarnating lamas (T. sprul sku) competed with the superior at the head of the hierarchy of officials at the monastery (the abbot), which in some places may have eroded the efficacy of the abbot's power. The Geluk church also was not a pure "hierocratic association." The Dalai Lama's Ganden Phodrang government historically exercised political power over much of Central and Eastern Tibet, and, as such, it exhibits characteristics of a different social stratum, that of temporal ruler (e.g., some large-scale, public rituals are held more out of official or civic obligations to the state's subjects). But this is to be expected. As Weber wrote, "The great majority of empirical cases represent a combination or a state of transition among several such pure types." Nonetheless, addressing the bureaucratic and hierocratic features of the Geluk school can help to explain historical outcomes that have previously been explained only in terms of material interests or doctrine.


Identifying the origin of Geluk bureaucracy is beyond the scope of this book and likely beyond the abilities of the current field of Tibetan history. Even the origin of bureaucracy in modern Europe is much debated despite the details of that political history being much better understood. Nonetheless, it is clear that the figure of the founder of the Geluk school, Tsongkhapa (13571419), and his writings had a lasting impact on the identity of that school. Moreover, his creation of a totalizing "path" of Buddhist practice grounded in the ideas of discipline and reason provided what Weber calls the "world images" or "ideas" that have, "like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of [material and ideal] interests."

Tsongkhapa Lozang Drakpa was posthumously credited with being the founder of the Geluk school or the New Kadam school as it was initially known. The earliest biographies of Tsongkhapa depicted him as both an ardent advocate of orthodoxy and, interestingly, as an institution builder. Tsongkhapa's mark or "stamp," as Weber would call it, upon Tibetan Buddhism was an emphasis on ethics and monastic vows, an emphasis on a systematic study of Buddhist philosophy so as to acquire a correct view of the nature of reality, and the compatibility and integration of esoteric (tantric) practice and vows with exoteric, monastic vows. Moreover, Tsongkhapa sought to systematize an approach to Buddhist salvation in which monastic discipline was prioritized. On that foundation one would pursue the systematic study of (exoteric) Buddhist philosophy. Only then would one be prepared to engage in beneficial contemplative (esoteric) practice, which was further limited by the sanction that such practice not contravene the more foundational monastic vows (such as celibacy). The biography of Tsongkhapa and, specifically, his decision to not engage in tantric practice with a consort further underscores his commitment to this ordering of priorities.

Tsongkhapa built a complete worldview that charts the way from one's present predicament to liberation. That "path" is a graded one that largely foreclosed upon the possibility of a "shortcut" to liberation through contemplative practices alone. In other words, the acquisition of "sacred values" is postponed and "sublimated" by elaborating a nonnegotiable metaphysical and intellectual path one has to traverse. That path and Tsongkhapa's philosophical works more generally were produced by relying on scholastic and Buddhist hermeneutical practices that emphasized the importance of scriptural authority and the determination of the definitive or correct meaning of scriptures, among other things.

In addition to constructing a single, unified system of path and goal, Tsongkhapa is also remembered as an institution-builder. His "four great acts" are recorded in early biographical literature as restoring a Maitreya statue, lecturing on monastic discipline to monks at Namtsedeng temple, founding the new year's Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa, and founding the Ganden Monastery. As Kurtis Schaeffer has written, "The four acts single out Tsongkhapa's efforts at forging a strong monastic network through art, monastic ethics, and public ritual, yet do not mention his philosophical work, suggesting that he was known as an institution-builder as much as an intellectual in the period immediately following his death."

Thus, if we can speak of a "religious ethic" that Tsongkhapa and his early disciples granted the nascent Geluk school, it was one of building an all-encompassing intellectual and soteriological system and of institution-building. This is the legacy that later generations of Gelukpa would inherit.

The Great Fifth

The social and political arena for the full implementation of the Geluk religious ethic was the mid-seventeenth century. The violent end to the conflict there at the hands of the Fifth Dalai Lama's supporters, the Oirat Mongols, eliminated the Geluk school's main competitors for religious and political power, and it cleared the way for major institutional reforms. This parallels Gorski's observation that revolution in early modern Europe often catalyzed bureaucratization "by demolishing distributional coalitions that can stand in the way of reform." Gorski has also identified the importance of an "ascetic Protestant monarch of severe habit and mind" for the full implementation of a rationalized administration. The Tibetan counterpart to this "ascetic Protestant monarch" was the Fifth Dalai Lama.

The Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lozang Gyatso, or "The Great Fifth," and his Ganden Phodrang government (based in Lhasa) have received increased scholarly attention in recent years. As a result, we know more about how the Dalai Lama and his ministers were astute political strategists. He and his school emerged victorious from the centuries-long conflict between political and religious powers located in Tsang (western Central Tibet) and Ü (eastern Central Tibet) due to the fortunate alliances they formed with, first, the Tümed Mongols and, later, the Oirats or "Western Mongols." Later, the Fifth Dalai Lama would also visit the court of the rising Manchu Qing Empire, and the Gelukpa would capitalize on the unique relationship between their school and the imperial court.

Once the Dalai Lama seized power in 1642, he and his ministers set about creating an image of the Dalai Lama and of his school fit for a bodhisattva king. Myths of the deeds of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteśvara, which had been developing and circulating in Tibet for centuries, were made the backdrop of the Dalai Lama's rule, as the Dalai Lama himself helped to spread the idea of his and his predecessors being emanations of the bodhisattva. This connection had the important implication of also identifying the Dalai Lama with an earlier emanation of Avalokiteśvara, the dharma king Songtsen Gampo (d. 649), who is credited with catalyzing Tibet's golden age of vast, imperial rule. Various other efforts were made in print, architecture, ritual, and so on, to further legitimize the Dalai Lama's rule.

The Dalai Lama and his ministers also sought to create an environment that would reflect the universal rule of a bodhisattva. They did so, for instance, by welcoming and patronizing intellectuals from India and elsewhere in South Asia who helped foster the study of language and medicine. More generally, the Dalai Lama presented the Geluk school as the inclusive, "non-partisan" bearer of Buddhism that was destined to spread across the world. Of course, it is much easier to be "universally-minded" or "non-partisan" when one is in power, having secured that position through violence. But this new authority based in Central Tibet did not rest after its Mongol patron-allies carried it to power. Moreover, the Dalai Lama and the Geluk school did not maintain its dominance through recourse to violence, nor did it legitimize its authority solely through drawing on tradition. Instead, the continuing success of the Dalai Lama's school had to do with their rationalizing tendencies that undergirded their unrestrained ambitions to "spread Buddhism vastly" and to "enlighten like the sun the darkness" of the East.

Those tendencies may have had particular importance for legitimizing the Geluk dominance in places outside Central Tibet, particularly Mongolia, where customs and traditions from Tibet's past competed with local, non-Tibetan traditions and customs. To be sure, the legacy of the "priest-patron" or "royal donor and reverend donee" relationship between the earlier Mongol ruler Altan Khan (15071582) and the Third Dalai Lama (15431588) was important for legitimizing the Geluk school in these far-off places, but equally important may have been the stories of the Third Dalai Lama's "ethical rationalization" of life in Mongolia. One of the earliest records of this encounter is found in the biography of Altan Khan and his immediate descendants: "The errors of the non-Buddhist spirit dolls and fetishes were burned. / The mad and stupid shamans were annihilated and the shamanesses humiliated. / The State of the Supreme Dharma became like a silk protection cord." Animal and human sacrifices were banned, and, as a later biography describes it, the Dalai Lama commanded that "all the Chinese, Tibetans, Mongols, and so on who live in this land [i.e., Kökenuur] abide by the rules of the ten virtuous actions." Such ethical injunctions later informed Altan Khan's code of law for the Mongols.

These stories of the "ethical" and "pure" Gelukpa in Mongolia were part of the legacy that the Fifth Dalai Lama and later Gelukpa inherited, and it was one they felt compelled to uphold. Thus, when another Geluk incarnate lama from Kökenuur (also "Kokonor") was traveling in Mongolia in the 1770s, he likewise sermonized on the importance of refraining from alcohol and of "avoiding the ten unwholesome deeds" of killing, stealing, and so on. But the Gelukpa were known for more than just moral discipline. Equally important was the legacy of Tsongkhapa's institution-building. The Gelukpa devised monasteries that were disciplined in the widest sense of the term, ensuring that the hundreds and thousands of monks that inhabited any one monastery were kept busy learning and memorizing its liturgy, its calendar of worship and tantric practice, its hierarchy of offices and functionaries, its system for redistributing wealth, its scholastic curriculum and methods of debate, and so on. These monks were also taught and knew of the ties that their own monasteries had with hierarchs and institutions in more centrally located areas and with branch monasteries and monasteries farther afield. This facilitated travel and communication between Geluk monasteries and contributed to the coherency of the Geluk school.

A Religious Empire

The expansionist program of the Geluk school is one of its features that justifies referring to the Geluk school as a "religious empire." Of course, "empire" is almost always used in scholarly writing to refer to a political entity. "Empire . . . is a system of interaction between two political entities, one of which, the dominant metropole, exerts political control over the internal and external policy—the effective sovereignty—of the other, the subordinate periphery," writes one scholar of empire. Religion is sometimes "used by" empires to provide a common sense of identity among its diverse peoples (e.g., umma for the Umayyad, Abbasid, and other Islamic polities; Christianity for the Carolingian Empire), but it is seldom presented as the main actor or driver of history.

A more recent attempt to define "empire" provides a more complex and, for our purposes, more illuminating definition, although it too focuses on polities: "Empires are large political units, expansionist or with a memory of power extended over space, polities that maintain distinction and hierarchy as they incorporate new people." This definition is slightly more applicable to the case of the Geluk school insofar as Geluk lamas were explicitly and actually expansionist and maintained and identified with a memory of power extended over space (that of the Tibetan Empire of the seventh through the ninth centuries). The school has also exhibited a longevity and staying power, which is a characteristic of any conventional empire. Most important, thinking of the Geluk school as an empire encourages us to place its mechanisms of rule alongside those of states. It helps, moreover, to reveal the extent of the Gelukpa's ambitions, their proximity to and engagement with power, and the contributions that religious ideas and practices have made to political and social change.

Of course, conventional empires are also typically recognized by their command of "army and cannon" or the means and will to export it to other polities as part of their expansionist programs. This is something the Gelukpa lacked, even if the Dalai Lama could muster troops in times of war and major monasteries maintained a corps of "punk monks" who would police major assemblies and who could be directed to attack other nearby monasteries or local enemies. But even the "ecclesiastical empire" of the Western Christian Church lacked this and often depended on temporal powers to enforce its will. By considering the Geluk expansion across Inner Asia and its consolidation and systemization of power in the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries as a process of building a religious empire, we can better appreciate the religious control effected by its common body of doctrinal and practical norms and the resulting uniformity and resilience of the Geluk school as a whole.

The key to the Geluk school's expansion and staying power, in any case, is its proclivity for and excellence in bureaucracy, a feature of most empires whether conventional (political) or religious. The following analysis of the Geluk "religious law"—the silken cord—reveals how the Gelukpa, beginning with the Fifth Dalai Lama, built a hierocratic organization that drew on legal authority to spread across the expanse of the Tibetan Plateau and into Mongolia. By plotting the administration of their monasteries, Geluk hierarchs left us with a record of their rationalizing minds and their path to success. They were "organization men" in the sense that they prioritized the organization (the monastery) and planned for (organized) its success by, among other ways, encoding its rules and procedures in monastic constitutions. The success of the Geluk school was as much or even more the result of its hierarchs' organizing vision and methods as it was any other factor, such as political patronage or philosophical prowess.

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