Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies

Reviewrd by Cathy Cantwell


Vol.29 No.3

 Sep 1994


 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 
            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 
            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.