Envisioning a Tibetan Luminary examines the religious biography of Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1934), the most significant modern figure representing the Tibetan Bön religion-a vital minority tradition that is underrepresented in Tibetan studies. The work is based on fieldwork conducted in eastern Tibet and in the Bön exile community in India, where traditional Tibetan scholars collaborated closely on the project. Utilizing close readings of two versions of Shardza’s life-story, along with oral history collected in Bön communities, this book presents and interprets the biographical image of this major figure, culminating with an English translation of his life story.
William M. Gorvine argues that the disciple-biographer’s literary portrait not only enacts and shapes religious ideals to foster faith among its readership, but also attempts to quell tensions that had developed among his original audience. Among the Bön community today, Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen has come to be unequivocally revered for an impressive textual legacy and a saintly death. During his lifetime, however, he faced prominent critics within his own lineage who went so far as to issue polemical attacks against him. As Gorvine shows, the biographical texts that inform us about Shardza’s life are best understood when read on multiple registers, with attention given to the ways in which the religious ideals on display reflect the broader literary, cultural, and historical contexts within which they were envisioned and articulated.
William M. Gorvine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College. His research explores religious biography, conceptions of saintliness, and the Tibetan Bön religion, while his teaching and professional work support interdisciplinary approaches to Asian studies, contemplative pedagogy, andreligious literacy.
“Gorvine’s narrative is a brilliant exposition of the general tenets of the Tibetan Bön religion. This represents an excellent introduction to the doctrine and ascetic practices of Bön as demonstrated through the life of one of its most beloved and celebrated recent masters. The rationale of this study is to highlight the function of a Tibetan literary genre, the hagiography (namtar), as a teaching device as well as to inspire practitioners and the faithful. Gorvine not only manages to convey the full extent of the original two Tibetan works but is also able to contextualize the events reported as well as the nature and type of spiritual work Shardza was engaged in. In this way, students of Bon as well as scholars researching the material that is the basis for practice amply demonstrated here are able to benefit from the reading of this very accessible study.”–J. F. Marc des Jardins, Associate Professor of Religion and Cultures, Concordia University.