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Tibetan Nonsectarianism (ris med) Taylor, Andrew


Tibetan nonsectarianism (ris med) describes a religious orientation in which the various philosophical and practice lineages of Tibetan Buddhism are understood as uniformly efficacious rather than as mutually exclusive competitors. Although many Tibetan Buddhists throughout history have adopted such an orientation, the concept was theorized most sophisticatedly in Kham and Amdo from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, a period notorious for its political upheaval. Scholars have generally cited Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye Yonten Gyatso (‘Jam mgon Kong sprul Blo gros Mthaʽ yas Rgya mtsho, 1813- 1899), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (‘Jam dbyangs Mkhyen brtse’i Dbang po, 1820-1892), and Orgyen Chokgyur Lingpa (O rgyan Mchog gyur Gling pa, 1829-1870), as three of the most important proponents of nonsectarianism as a self-consciously distinct, rather than implicit, orientation. All three were in close contact with one another and devoted their lives to reviving and preserving Tibetan Buddhist practices and teachings they feared were on the cusp of extinction, either due to active political suppression or popular indifference. The nonsectarian approached proved especially important in the late twentiethcentury for Tibetan Buddhist teachers who had been forced into exile and sought to articulate a quasiunified Tibetan Buddhist tradition that would be intelligible to the international world, and nonsectarianism has found a prominent place in the writings of modern luminaries as diverse as Kalu Rinpoche (Kar lu Rin po che, 1905-1989), Chogyam Trungpa (Chos rgyam Drung pa, 1939-1987), and the present Dalai Lama (Bstan ʼdzin Rgya mtsho, 1935-present). There is not widespread agreement, either among scholars or Tibetan Buddhist teachers, about the precise use of nonsectarianism in the writings of the teachers mentioned above or in contemporary discourse. Indeed, the category is just as broad as “pluralism” or “ecumenicism.” Jamgon Kongtrul was primarily concerned with the “eight chariots of accomplishment” (sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad) while contemporary teachers are more likely to emphasize the nonsectarian orientation with respect to the Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug, and Sakya schools. Some argue that nonsectarianism is inclusivist, and was used by teachers of Kham and Amdo to subtly assert the superiority of their own local practices, while others believe nonsectarianism should be genuinely pluralistic, wherein the Tibetan Buddhist schools are treated as coequal. Some argue that nonsectarianism implies that a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner can draw on whichever practices would be useful to them individually, while others argue that one should follow exclusively a single lineage in one’s own practice while respecting all others. These different readings have unsurprisingly yielded many different translations of ris med into English, of which “nonsectarianism” is the most common, but “ecumenicism,” “universal,” “without bias,” “impartial,” “an ecumenical approach,” “eclecticism,” “nonpartisan,” and “nondiscrimination” have also been used. A further point of ambiguity is whether Tibetan nonsectarianism was exclusively an elite discourse in the nineteenth century, or if it included popular elements as well. Although Jamgon Kongtrul, Khyentse Wangpo, and Chokgyur Lingpa were all elite monastics, they sought to popularize practices that had henceforth been aimed primarily at fellow elite practitioners.

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