Religious Tradition - Secular Ethics? Transformations of Tibetan Buddhist Ethics in Twentieth-Century South Asia

Globalized representations of Buddhism today oscillate between a rhetoric of secular ethics, science, and philosophy on the one hand, and one of spirituality, devotion, and exoticism on the other. Tibetan Buddhists and followers of Tibetan Buddhism play prominent roles in representing this spectrum of interpretations. This Tibetan engagement, as well as its specific discourses, can only be understood by contextualizing it within the particular history of Tibetan Buddhism in the twentieth century. While this history pivots on the exile to India in 1959, it needs to be traced back further.

In the late nineteenth century, South Asia saw what is now termed the "revival of Buddhism," which began in Sri Lanka and quickly spread to British India. Almost from the start, Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhists participated in this through networks of trade, pilgrimage, and education that linked Tibet to the subcontinent. Colonial and global conceptions of heritage, modernity and progress influenced the reinvigorated Buddhist reform movements’ contestations and re-negotiations of traditional Buddhist ethics, of individual religiosity and of the idea of a Buddhist society. With the beginning of Tibetan exile in India in 1959 and the deterioration of Indo-Chinese relations, the once porous boundary between Tibet and South Asia was closed, ending the earlier exchange. Speculative discussions on new Buddhist social ethics took on new meaning as the forming Tibetan diaspora established new institutions and practices of governance and community. The project of building a state in exile both articulated and put into practice new forms of social ethics that renegotiated the Buddhist tradition in the tension between religious traditionalism and secular modernization.

The 1959 Tibetan exile has often been described as a radical break. This project seeks to transcend this view, investigating instead the continuities of discourse and contestation in Buddhist social ethics. Tracing the transnational entanglements of individual Tibetan reformers from the 1930s to the 1950s will allow an analysis of the ways their thinking influenced the re-assembling of the Tibetan community in exile in the 1960s. A wealth of source materials ranging from individual publications, speeches, and periodicals to government documents and textbooks will be analyzed using the methodology of Conceptual History. This will enable it to trace the key concepts and emotions that underlie the emerging new systems of Buddhist social ethics. In combining insights from Diaspora Studies and the History of Emotions, the exile community will be viewed as a feeling community that re-constituted itself through specific diasporic emotional practices. Thus, a foray shall be made into the emotional history of modern Buddhism, and a contribution made to research on religious and social transformation in migration and diasporic communities.


Prof. Margrit Pernau