Jacob DaltonThe Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism

Yale University Press, 2011

by Luke Thompson on December 25, 2014

Jacob Dalton

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[Cross-posted from New Books in Buddhist StudiesJacob Dalton’s recent book, The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism (Yale University Press, 2011), examines violence (both symbolic and otherwise) in Tibetan Buddhism.  Dalton focuses in particular on the age of fragmentation (here 842–986 CE), and draws on previously unexamined Dunhuang manuscripts to show that this period was one of great creativity and innovation, and a time when violent myths and rituals were instrumental in adapting Buddhism to local interests, thereby allowing Buddhism to firmly establish itself in Tibet.  While much twentieth-century scholarship faithfully followed Tibetan historiography’s assertion that the age of fragmentation was a dark time during which the light of Buddhism faded completely, Dalton not only confirms that Buddhism continued throughout this period, but also looks to the Dunhuang materials to show that it was in fact the age-of-fragmentation narratives of demon taming that laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new, pan-Tibetan Buddhist identity beginning in the eleventh century.

Central to Dalton’s project are a myth and a ritual.   The myth is that of the subjugation of the demoness Rudra, in which a compassionate but wrathful Buddhist deity violently defeats the wild Rudra, using a means that Buddhism condemns (violence) and yet is used as a force for good in this case.  This narrative encapsulates a theme that runs throughout the book: the Buddhist ambivalence towards violence, an ambivalence present in the tradition from its earliest days but which found its fullest expression in Tantric Buddhism.  The ritual, on the other hand, is the so-called liberation ritual, in which a victim—usually an effigy is prescribed—is ritually murdered and then purified.  Dalton focuses in particular on a Dunhaung ritual manual, which, incidentally, makes no mention of an effigy, thus leaving some doubt as whether or not the manual intends an actual human victim. This rite and the story of Rudra constitute a pair of sorts, and together served as a theoretical, historical, mythic, and practical model whereby the native, evil demons of Tibet could be tamed (i.e., ritually murdered and purified) and employed in the service of Buddhism.

Dalton also demonstrates how the themes of violence and demon taming continued beyond the age of fragmentation.  For example, a composite work called the Pillar Testament (late-eleventh to mid-twelfth c.) contains a legend in which the seventh-century king Songtsen Gampo had to subjugate the land of Tibet—envisioned as (and thus identified as none other than) a huge rākṣasī demoness lying on her back—by pinning this demoness down with thirteen temples.  In this way the legend carries the model of demon subjugation that was used at the local level during the age of fragmentation to a national level during the second imperial period.  Later on, as Tibetans ceased to think of their own evil nature and autochthonous demons as the greatest threat to Buddhism and instead shifted their attention to peoples and powers at the periphery of their realm, the same model of demon subjugation was applied, with Tibet’s perceived enemies (particularly the Mongols) taking the role of sacrificial victim.

The book’s content is wide ranging yet skillfully woven together through the dual themes of violence and liberation (i.e., demon subjugation).  Along the way we hear about the differences between Chinese and Tibetan receptions of Buddhist scriptural attitudes toward violence, Padmasambhava as a demon tamer, the Indian Kālikā Purāṇa, King Yeshe Ö’s late tenth-century attempts to prohibit the liberation rite, the fifth Dalai Lama’s use of demon-quelling rites for military success, and eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century British and Tibetan views of, and condemnations of, what appeared to be sacrificial rituals.  These are but a few of the many topics covered in this books’ seven chapters.  Three appendices provide a translation of the Rudra myth as well as transcriptions, translations, and transliterations of two liberation rite manuals from Dunhuang.  This book will be particularly valuable to those researching or interested in violence in religion, Tibetan historiography, the importance of Dunhuang materials in the study of pre-modern Tibet, the relationship between Buddhism and autochthonous deities, the use of myth in the construction of Buddhist identity and history, and nineteenth and twentieth-century Western views of Tibet.

The Taming of the Demons was shortlisted for the 2012 American Academy of Religion Book Award in the Historical Study of Religion category, it won the 2013 E. Gene Smith Book Prize on Inner Asia (Association of Asian Studies China and Inner Asia Councils), and it won the 2013 Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize (Association of Asian Studies South Asia Council).

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