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LibraryThing ReviewUser Review - LibraryThing
Samuel wrote Civilized Shamans for an anthropological audience, but the book has become a key text for students of Tibet’s history and religion. He proposes that shamanic influence is greater in Tibetan Buddhism than in other Asian Buddhist societies because Tibet lacked a strong, centralized state. Aside from his persuasive theory, the book is a brilliant, impartial overview of Tibetan Buddhist practice and its historical roots. He covers all culturally Tibetan regions – Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Tibetans in exile. Samuel differentiates between Karmic, Bodhi and Pragmatic orientations in Buddhism. Karmic orientations are concerned with the cycle of samsara and rebirth; they maintain an external moral code for social order. The Bodhi orientation is soteriological: individual enlightenment means transcendental salvation. In the worldly, Pragmatic orientation, revered individuals intervene in the relationships of people and things to maintain well-being and harmony. All three orientations are found in all Buddhist societies to varying degrees, but he suggests that South Asian Theravadin states were strong enough to relegate shamanic practitioners to the margins of society. Shamanism in Tibetan societies, by contrast, compromised monastic authority and became centrally important through the role of the Tantric lama. The book has three parts. Part One describes Tibetan societies in the premodern period. Samuel’s emphasis is their diversity; he categorises them into geographically distinct regions and describes their cultural differences. This shows the relatively small impact of a central authority in all areas other than central Tibet. Part Two describes religion in premodern Tibetan societies. Here Samuel revisits the different orientations and explains how they appear in practice. He covers Tibetan values and worldview, folk religion, Tantra and Tantric deities, lamas, monks and yogins, the ‘crazy siddha’ tradition and gompa (monasteries or religious communities). Part Two finishes with a delightful chapter describing some recent lamas’ biographies – a good way to show how social and religious traditions synthesise in practice. Part Three brings the themes of the first two parts together. It traces the philosophical and cultural lineages from early Buddhism in India through its decline there and growth in Tibet. Samuel focuses on two uniquely Tibetan syntheses between the different Buddhist orientations: the Gelug tradition and the Rimed movement. He traces the development of shamanic, inspirational Buddhism and its clerical, rational counterpart since early Buddhism in India. The former relies on personal contact with an alternative reality for authority, the latter on a hierarchy of scholarship. These two distinct philosophical heritages offer alternate conceptions of enlightenment. The Gelugpa tradition, originating in Tsongk’apa’s work, leans towards a conceptual synthesis, the Rimed movement of the other schools towards revelatory practice. Samuel’s work is a synthesis itself. He leaves no stone unturned; he navigates skilfully between large bodies of religious, philosophical, anthropological and historical literature, his detailed description always relevant to a wider picture. One thing I like best about his work is his clear thinking. Though this is an academic book, he does not indulge in needless jargon – he guides the reader through a potential quagmire of conflicting material with dexterity. For the most part he is careful to separate visionary history from historical fact, clearly, at the same time respecting his subject matter. His skilful presentation is inspiring.
Review: Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan SocietiesUser Review - Goodreads
Great book! A little bit of a dry read for those who aren't academically inclined, but it offers a wealth of information about the history of Buddhism's integration into Tibetan culture. It also thoroughly explains the function of Shamanism within a Buddhism context.
Shamanic and Clerical Buddhism
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