Copyrighy by Royal Anthropological Institute
Samuel, Geoffrey. x, 725 pp., bibliogr. Washington, London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. 51.50[pounds] Civilized shamans is the first major comparative study of the Tibetan-speaking peoples written by an anthropologist. Earlier Tibetologists -- such as Tucci, Stein, Snellgrove and Richardson -- wrote general books on Tibetan society which remain useful introductions, although today their content and analysis appear dated. Since these pioneers, most Tibetologists have contributed more academically rigorous specialized studies. Because of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, anthropologists have usually worked with Tibetan refugees -- some producing reconstructions of communities within Tibet -- or in areas outside the modern boundaries of the People's Republic of China, such as Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh. The problem of assessing their work on relatively marginal communities and understanding the general features of pre-modern Tibet remains. In this encyclopaedic book, Samuel draws together the work of Tibetologists of different disciplines, to analyse the patterns structuring the great variety of specific social, political and religious forms throughout the Tibetan-speaking region. He argues that concentration on the formal features of the political hierarchy of Central Tibet prior to 1959 has distorted our understanding of Tibetan society, when even Central Tibet was in practice fairly decentralized, especially before this century. Much of the first part of the book is made up of extremely useful succinct ethnographics of different Tibetan areas, drawing on the works of numerous anthropologists and other scholars who have written in European languages. He outlines the kinds of political organization associated with the various regions at different times, and relates them to his fourfold classification of Tibetan social structures: centralized and remote agricultural communities, pastoral and urban communities. He points out that the diversity of social systems over time and place can be seen in terms of variations on common themes, such as the institution of estates (gzhung), which were flexible enough to adapt to changing political realities. In the second part of the book, Samuel explores the nature of Tibetan religion, discussing three approaches which may be said to characterize Buddhist societies: the `pragmatic', `karma' and `bodhi' orientations. He argues that the `karma orientation', which puts emphasis on a well disciplined monastic sangha, ethical conduct and gradual training, has tended to be dominant in Theravada Buddhist countries, with the `pragmatic orientation' relegated to the sphere of non-Buddhist practice, performed by low-status religious specialists, and the `bodhi orientation', which is concerned with the realization of Enlightenment, relatively marginalized, confined to groups of forest ascetics. In Tibet, however, all three orientations are integrated in Buddhist practice and in the same religious specialists, and the karma orientation' is rarely dominant. Samuel stresses the variety and fluidity of religious roles, practices and institutions. He relates the difference between Tibet and other Buddhist societies to the weakness of the State in Tibet: it never succeeded in controlling Buddhist monasteries and their lamas, or making the religious system completely `clerical'. Part 3 is an account of historical developments in the religious ideas and practices in the Tibetan cultural world. Samuel links the complex combinations of religious trends in India prior to the importation of Buddhism to Tibet, and throughout Tibetan history, to social and political changes. The final chapters examine the two major cultural streams of the later period: the dGe-lugs-pa order and the Ris-med movement. The dGe-lugs-pa became politically dominant and especially from the late nineteenth century, moved towards a more centralized state structure in the political sphere, a more hierarchical monastic order and a relatively dogmatic and graduated religious path. The Ris-med -- non-sectarian -- movement emerged in Eastern Tibet in areas under threat from the expansion of the Central Tibetan State, and remains a major influence on contemporary Tibetan Buddhism. It emphasized the primacy of tantric meditative insights and the numerous routes to Enlightenment. While the dGe-lugs-pa graded and excluded teachings, Ris-med gathered together and transmitted teachings of all the lineages, including those of the non-buddhist Bon-pos and minor Buddhist lineages which may otherwise have been lost. The contrast is one of emphasis: the dGe-lugs-pa were never entirely rationalized', while the non-dGe-luge-pa orders maintained monastic colleges and scholastic traditions. The book uses the theoretical perspective Samuel outlined in Mind, body and culture: anthropology and the biological interface (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990). The concluding chapter summarizes this approach, which essentially assumes that political, economic, social, religious and cultural developments are inseparable processes. He acknowledges a debt to Weberian sociology, while arguing that primacy should not he given to the political and economic spheres. Civilized shamans is a clear, readable account integrating research on Tibet in terms of Samuel's theme of the synthesis of `clerical' and `shamanic' cultural patterns, in this unusual society in which a complex literate culture maintained `shamanic' insights and procedures as its highest achievement. There are some problems with the system used for transcribing Tibetan: the elimination of hyphens or spaces means that words such as roue snyom become `ronyom' rather than `roue-nyom' and the appropriate pronunciation might be less clear to a non-tibetanist than the use of correct spelling, which would have been preferable for the specialist.