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The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism by Jacob P. Dalton. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 2011. xii, 311 pp. $40.00 US (cloth).

Shortlisted for the 2012 Academy of Religion book awards in the Historical Study of Religion category and winner of both the 2013 E. Gene Smith and Bernard S. Cohn book prizes (given by the China and Inner Asia Council, and South Asia Council, both of the Association for Asian Studies), Dalton's The Taming of the Demons is a landmark study of Tibetan religion and history. Dalton's study demonstrates how advanced Tibetan studies as a discipline has become in recent years, and speaks to how valuable Tibetan sources, found within the so-called Library Cave at the Mogao complex near the city of Dunhuang, in Gansu province, China, can be for reconsidering the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism and history at large. Furthermore, Dalton's monograph shows that the most violent and disturbing aspects of the narrative of tantric Buddhism in the Tibetan context are no longer relegated to the periphery of the discipline or considered "defects" of the tradition (p. 155). Where this study is most convincing is, moreover, of special note, because it shows how medieval narratives can, in and of themselves, remain relevant, intriguing, and independently persuasive. The problems that arise, therefore, stem from what appears to be overreaching on the part of an expertly trained scholar in suggesting hypotheses, which need not deter from the overall strength of the argumentation.

Dalton's study shows that killing has been a part of the so-called Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition from the advent of the Mahayana through at least the nineteenth century. Righteous killing evoking the narrative of the bodhisattva Vajrapani's subjugation of Rudra (a Vedic god associated with wind, storms, or the hunt), and the particular ritual of "liberation" (sgrol ba), form the backbone of this impressive study, which painstakingly introduces the reader to the rich context of the development of Buddhism upon the Tibetan plateau. Because many devotees, scholars, and aficionados are wedded to the notion that Buddhism is a religious tradition that holds abandoning violence to be sacrosanct, the point of departure for Dalton's study is that, "[the] Buddhist realm of Tibet was in multiple ways founded on the mythic and ritual themes of tantric violence" (p. 17).

Chapter One presents an overview of compassionate violence in Indian Buddhism prior to the development of the tantric traditions, centring upon the notion that state of mind--enlightened or deluded--defined the category of the demonic. Chapter Two shifts to the "age of fragmentation" that followed the collapse of the Tibetan empire in the tenth- and eleventh-centuries, when Buddhism became increasingly popular among Tibetans and tantric ritual manuals were directed toward indigenous questions. Chapter Three, perhaps the most impressive to this reviewer, provides a translation and detailed description of a liberation ritual from material found in the Library Cave at Dunhuang that dates to the tenth century. The text portrays murder by beheading and, according to Dalton, cannot be understood in terms of an effigy, because one is presented nowhere in the text. Given that this text describes ritual murder of a human being, Dalton compares it to human sacrifice from the Kalika Parana of the Sakta tradition in order to demonstrate an Indian origin for the ritual. Chapter Four investigates decrees by King Yeshe O (ca. 959-1050) that forbid murderous rituals against the backdrop of the text carefully discussed in chapter three.

Chapter Five traces whether or not murderous rituals could have remained a viable option for Tibetan ritual experts during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when landowning clans and monastic estates established authority over Buddhist authority. The pan-Tibetan Buddhist identity that developed during this phase came to flourish during the thirteenth through seventeenth centuries, when Indian origins no longer held the authority they once did in an earlier age. Violence within the context of Mongol rule, and later concerning Mongol patronage of the Dalai Lamas of the Geluk pa tradition, is addressed in chapter six. Chapter seven takes the narratives of violence and subjugation up to nearly the present day with a comparison between the writings of Rigdzin Garwang (1858-1930) and perhaps the most famous early Tibetologist--and Orientalist, to be sure--L. Austine Waddell (18541930), both of whom condemn blood sacrifice on the order of what Dalton discusses in chapter three. Three appendixes will be of particular note to specialists, and serve to reinforce the tremendous value of the material presented in chapters one through four.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Dalton's study is his ability to contextualize materials in a manner that will likely accord with specialists of Tibetan, Indian, and even East Asian Buddhism and historiography. His presentation of the murderous ritual found within a Tibetan text in the Library Cave, likely based upon the Guhyasamaja-tantra, is both nuanced and broad in terms of explication. As long as Dalton remains closely tied to this ritual, these texts, and the context of Tibetan Buddhism as can be evinced from Tibetan materials found in the Library Cave in comparison with material from the Indian subcontinent, this study shines and demonstrates Dalton's expertise. But The Taming of the Demons is far too short to address all that he does in a mere 135 pages of text sans endnotes, appendixes, and bibliographic information. Dalton is to be commended for tracing the Rudra subjugation myth and ritual as widely as he does in this book, but this is precisely where many of his hypotheses become tenuous. Chapters Two and Three demonstrate, nevertheless, groundbreaking research that convincingly argue for a reconsideration of the period of Tibetan history known as the "Dark Age" (ca. 842-986 CE). Had he opted to attempt to reconstruct the context of the murderous ritual backwards instead of forwards in chronological terms, I can only imagine how much stronger this study would have been.

The Taming of the Demons is clearly intended for an audience well informed in terms of Tibetan history and religion. Yet it does not always and consistently provide accurate Tibetan transliterations (rather than simplifications) for all terms discussed therein; this can be frustrating for specialists, despite the fact more-and-more authors seem to be going in this direction today. Dalton's study is certainly required reading for anyone interested in the history and development of so-called tantric Buddhism in Tibet, whether we can safely or effectively speak of an Indo-Tibetan tradition or not. It should also be noted that Dalton's study plugs some of the more serious gaps left by Ronald Davidson's Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture (New York, 2005).

Anyone who is misguided enough to believe that Buddhism is a religious tradition that abhors violence must read Dalton's wonderful, short monograph.

George A. Keyworth

University of Saskatchewan
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Author:Keyworth, George A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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