Nicole Willock, "Lineages of the Literary: Tibetan Buddhist Polymaths of Socialist China" (Columbia UP, 2021)

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What happened to the Buddhist scholars who stayed behind in Tibet and China after the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans fled from the People’s Liberation Army in 1959?

In Lineages of the Literary: Tibetan Buddhist Polymaths of Socialist China (Columbia University Press 2021), Nicole Willock discovers through the stories and writings of the “Three Polymaths” (Tib. mkhas pa mi gsum) of socialist China that contrary to common assumptions, Tibetan Buddhist leaders active in the People’s Republic of China were not mere political “collaborators.” Willocks reveals in the book that the three Buddhist polymaths, Tséten Zhabdrung (1910 – 1985), Mugé Samten (1914 – 1993), and Dungkar Rinpoché (1927 – 1997) alternately safeguarded, taught, adapted, celebrated, and discarded religious epistemes, practices, and institutions in a post-Cultural Revolution PRC.

The title of the “Three Polymaths” is often used to refer to Mar Shakyamuni, Yo Géjung, and Tsang Rabsel, who according to Tibetan Buddhist historiography, preserved the Buddhist monastic lineage from the tyrannical king Langdarma (d. 842) one millennium ago. Willock points out that since the early 1980s, the title of the “Three Polymaths” has been passed on to the twentieth-century Buddhist scholars Tséten Zhabdrung, Mugé Samten, and Dungkar Rinpoché, who became not only heroes to many Tibetans in China but also cultural icons symbolizing both the survival and the continuance of Tibetan culture in the post-Mao era.

In Lineages of the Literary, Willock explores the Three Polymaths’ writings from a wide range of literary genres, including more traditional ones such as autobiographical life writing (Tib. byung ba brjod pa) and Buddhist poetry, as well as modern innovations such as encyclopedia entries (Tib. tshig mdzod) and academic essays (Tib. dpyad rtsom). Willock argues that the writings of the Three Polymaths highlight the way they adapt and disregard religious epistemes for the purposes of revitalizing Tibetan culture in their own fashion.

Interestingly, the Three Polymaths’ writings do not engage explicitly with the social-political contexts of their lives. What is revealed instead, Willock argues, is how these three Tibetan Buddhist leaders acted as moral agents who strategically deployed Buddhist epistemes to impart varying visions of Tibetan culture in the post-Mao era. Taking Saba Mahmood’s idea of “moral agency,” Willock finds that “[T]he culturally specific disciplines and religious epistemes that [the Three Polymaths] accessed in their unique subject positions as male Géluk Buddhist elites allowed them, unlike many other leaders in post-Mao China, to cross state-imposed divides between secular and religious institutions that might otherwise have been impossible to bridge.”

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. student at the Religious Studies Department, University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation is a digital humanities project mapping transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.

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