Theses Doctoral

Materials of Buddhist Culture: Aesthetics and Cosmopolitanism at Mindroling Monastery

Townsend, Dominique

This dissertation investigates the relationships between Buddhism and culture as exemplified at Mindroling Monastery. Focusing on the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, this work argues that Mindroling was a seminal religio-cultural institution that played a key role in cultivating the ruling elite class during a critical moment of Tibet's history. This analysis demonstrates that the connections between Buddhism and high culture have been salient throughout the history of Buddhism, rendering the project relevant to a broad range of fields within Asian Studies and the Study of Religion. As the first extensive Western-language study of Mindroling, the project employs an interdisciplinary methodology combining historical, sociological, cultural and religious studies, and makes use of diverse Tibetan sources. Mindroling was founded in 1676 with ties to Tibet's nobility and the Fifth Dalai Lama's newly centralized government. It was a center for elite education until the twentieth century, and in this regard it was comparable to a Western university where young members of the nobility spent two to four years training in the arts and sciences and being shaped for positions of authority. This comparison serves to highlight commonalities between distant and familiar educational models and undercuts the tendency to diminish Tibetan culture to an exoticized imagining of Buddhism as a purely ascetic, world renouncing tradition. Although Mindroling was in many regards an exemplary model of monasticism, rather than focusing solely on renunciation Mindroling's founders aimed to integrate a Buddhist doctrinal perspective with being in the world. The cultivation of aesthetics and practical ethics were as central to a Mindroling education as composition, rhetoric and Buddhist doctrine. During the dissertation's period of focus, Mindroling alumni consistently went on to successful careers in a highly complex sociopolitical milieu that comprised Tibetan, Mongol and Qing elements. In addition to its role as a school, the monastery was a center for literature and rituals that helped unify the Tibetan polity, a unification that was still underway and frequently contested. Buddhist rituals are inextricably tied to Buddhist aesthetics and material culture, making Mindroling a center for the arts as well. Mindroling was also known for esoteric meditative techniques, martial rituals, a marriage of classical Indic and innovative Tibetan styles, and the relative prominence of women teachers. In all aspects Mindroling crystallized an early modern zeitgeist that was both uniquely Tibetan and highly cosmopolitan. The monastery received the favor of Tibet's most influential patrons, but as a result of sectarian conflicts Mindroling was razed to the ground by Dzungar Mongols in 1717. A female Buddhist expert joined forces with a former Mindroling student who had gone on to become the highest ranking Tibetan leader to reestablish the monastery. Mindroling thrived and became known as the "mother monastery" to an extensive network of institutions across the vast Tibetan cultural region that based their ritual liturgies, art practices and curricula on the Mindroling model. Official institutional documents including the monastic history, constitution and curriculum are analyzed in conjunction with biographies and letters to construct a history of Mindroling's role in shaping the high culture and cosmopolitan aesthetic of early modern Tibet.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Tuttle, Gray
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 24, 2012