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Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet: Archaic Concepts and Practices in a Thousand-Year-Old Illustrated Funerary Manuscript and Old Tibetan Funerary Documents of Gathang Bumpa and Dunhuang.

Death and Beyond in Ancient Tibet: Archaic Concepts and Practices in a Thousand-Year-Old Illustrated Funerary Manuscript and Old Tibetan Funerary Documents of Gathang Bumpa and Dunhuang.

John Vincent Bellezza, Osterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien, 2013.

John Bellezza, known for his work on the rdo-ring and other archaeological remains on the Changtang, here turns his attention to early Tibetan funeral practices as represented in certain early manuscripts. These consist of a remarkable illuminated funerary manuscript in a private collection, and related texts from other sources including the Gathang Bumpa and Dunhuang collections. These sets of texts are representative of what the author designates as the 'Tibetan archaic funerary tradition(s)', and the aim of his study is 'is to elucidate the eschatological patterns and ritual constructs of death rites in ancient Tibet.'

It is immediately apparent that those death rites lacked the moral and ethical imperatives characteristic of Buddhist notions of death and transmigration, and if the texts cannot be precisely dated, the absence of Buddhist conventions supports their being evidence of either earlier Bodic funerary traditions or of local traditions co-existing with the early Buddhist period. The illustrated manuscript from a private collection is attributed by the author to the 11th or first half of the 12th century, though he allows a wider possibility of its dating to 'between 1000 and 1250 CE'. The others are somewhat earlier.

The four sets of texts--'[a]n ancient group of Tibetan death rituals that share many basic elements in common'--demonstrate rituals for coping with premature deaths occurring as a result of precisely-defined conditions or events, with the ritualists intervening in the process in order to rescue the deceased from the demonic world. They speak of an understanding of existence as involving a close relationship between, or an interlinking of, the worlds of men, animals and spirits, and this 'exaltation' of animals or birds and their role is advanced as a defining characteristic of what the author terms 'the religion of the ancient Tibetans' (p.215). Quibbles over the definition of the latter two signifiers apart, this seems a strong working hypothesis and a valuable path of enquiry. In addition to the illuminated funerary manuscript, for example, the Dunhuang texts concern the ritual deployment of various animals, and those from Gathang Bumpa concern a horned deer, or stag, that acts as a vessel for the dri.

The author tends to see these texts as non-elite works, or at least as applicable to a broad range of social classes, and does not speculate as to their relationship, if any, to the elaborate funeral practices of the elites. He does note with due caution, however (pp. 139-40), a myth from the Gathang Bumpa texts that might reference the rdo-rings. While long presumed to have funereal associations in their various geographical situations, conclusive evidence of this is elusive, and the point is of wider interest.

Ultimately each of the texts discussed is a piece of a jig-saw puzzle, with no guide as to what the final picture looks like. Bellezza marshals an impressive array of data in his analysis, and the work benefits from a more cautious approach to the material than he has displayed in some of his earlier publications. The study of early funeral rituals on and around the Tibetan plateau offers fertile ground for progress incorporating both textual and archaeological research for which he is well-equipped.

It is thus regrettable that he should include an intemperate attack on the work of another scholar, Michael Walter, who Bellezza states (p.180 n329), 'wilfully misrepresents and distorts the imperial-period religious scene.' Bellezza's work in itself proceeds from certain assumptions not universally accepted by more cautious scholars, and his tendency to quote much later texts in support of statements concerning early Tibet (while here much less evident), has been one of a number of criticisms of his own methodology. The author would have been better-advised to engage more fully with the work of others such as Walter, who shares an interest in isolating early Tibetan material free of Indic influence, and probably to have located that discussion in a specialist journal rather than this monograph.

Ultimately there is a great deal we do not know about the fascinating question of "pre-Buddhist Tibet" and no serious thesis can be easily refuted. R.A. Stein, whom the author cites with approval, continues to be an essential starting point to such issues. But in contrast to the author's position, Stein's work allows possible influences from China and even Hinduism, as Walter's work embraces Central Asian and even Indo-European precursors.

In sum, however, there is much here of value and it will be of considerable, albeit specialist, interest. Well produced as one has come to expect from this publisher, it includes a foreword by Charles Ramble and excellent colour reproductions of the illustrated manuscript.
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Author:McKay, Alex
Publication:The Tibet Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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