Samuels on Sullivan, 'Building a Religious Empire: Tibetan Buddhism, Bureaucracy, and the Rise of the Gelukpa'

Brenton Sullivan. Building a Religious Empire: Tibetan Buddhism, Bureaucracy, and the Rise of the Gelukpa. Encounters with Asia Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021. 304 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-5267-5.

Reviewed by Jonathan Samuels (University of Oxford)
Published on H-Buddhism (November, 2021)
Commissioned by Lucia Galli

Printable Version:

Tea, Cake, and Dominion

This book’s cover announces it as “an account of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism, focusing on the school’s expansion and consolidation of power along the frontier with China and Mongolia from the mid-seventeenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries.” The author talks of a network of monasteries, “stretching from Ladakh to Lake Baikal, from Beijing to the Caspian Sea,” characterized as the manifestation of a “religious empire” (p. 1). The decisive Oirat Mongol intervention in Tibet (1642) in support of the Geluk school of Buddhism is seen as heralding this empire’s foundation: the event eventually led to the assumption of power by the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82) and secured Geluk primacy in Tibet, under the rule of his successors. As the first monograph-length work devoted to unravelling the Geluk school’s dominance in Tibet, this is conceived of as a major addition to our historical understanding, and its ambitions are writ large in its title. Its source materials are primarily monastic “constitutions” (Tibetan: bca’ yig).[1] While other monastic establishments fall within this study’s purview, its main focus is Gönlung (dGon lung ’jam pa gling) Monastery—founded in 1604 in present-day Qinghai Province—as it charts the spread of Geluk influence beyond its Central Tibetan heartland into eastern Tibet and beyond.

The book is organized in five chapters: “The Geluk School’s Innovative Use of Monastic Constitutions,” “Administering a Monastery for the ‘Common Good,’” “Institutionalizing Tantra,” “The Systematization of Doctrine and Education,” and “Singing Together in One Voice.” The aptness of the “religious empire” characterization forms a central thesis of the book. It begins, promisingly, by proposing that this empire was built on the application of techniques usually associated with state building, including “standardization, record keeping, the conscription of young males, [and] the concentration of manpower in central cores,” which had first been deployed in monastery administration (p. 1). The author argues that the Geluk school’s approach was defined by “bureaucracy,” something that distinguished it from what preceded and explains its ability to expand. Each of the book’s chapters describes an innovation that the author claims the Geluk school brought to a particular sphere and that facilitated its rise to power. The tone is set by the first chapter. Although the Geluk school did not invent the monastic “constitution,” the Fifth Dalai Lama apparently became the most prolific composer of them, up to that point. The author asserts that these “constitutions” were imposed on both Geluk and non-Geluk monasteries and thus represent both the medium and record of the Geluk extension of power. Chapter 2 argues that the Geluk school was responsible for “the centralization and institutionalization of communal resources” (p. 57). Thus, by emphasizing the idea of “common” monastic welfare and by pooling and more rationally distributing common resources, they were able to support larger monastic populations, which they controlled through reliance on such offices as the “disciplinarian.” Chapter 3 contends that the Geluk created tantric branches (sometimes referred to as “tantric colleges”), which contrasted with the “philosophical college,” and that the greater regulation and uniformity that these introduced to ritual brought about the “domestication of hitherto untethered, esoteric transmissions” (p. 105). Chapters 4 and 5 further concentrate on the theme of standardization, in the scholastic and liturgical realms respectively. The fourth contends that the Geluk school was responsible for creating a common curriculum, whereas the fifth notes that they also developed a standard liturgy. Like the “constitutions,” the author argues, both were used to promote homogeneity among Geluk monasteries and gain entry into non-Geluk institutions.

Before evaluating the book’s content, a few more minor observations are in order. There are blemishes in the editing. For example, despite the policy of excluding originals of translated portions of text, a few chunks of transliterated Tibetan remain (e.g., pp. 203, 212). And while transliterated versions of Tibetan names and terms are included, these contain some errors in transcription—such as mtshad nyid for mtshan nyid and mngos for mdos (pp. 47, 166). Translated terms are also sometimes uninformative or slightly misleading. For instance, the author renders two topics of the Geluk curriculum as “The Twenty Bhikṣus” and “Thought and Form,” having assumed that very literal translations of the Tibetan words will suffice (p. 124). But the two in question (dge ’dun nyi shu and bsam gzugs) refer, respectively, to “The Twenty Sagha” (classes of mainly ārya beings, not monks) and “The Concentrations and Formless Absorptions” (states of meditation, etc., not categories of phenomena). These could easily have been checked, since each has been the subject of a book-length study.[2] The author also translates one prayer’s title as “Protector of the Rabjam Scholars,” something that I checked only because a prayer dedicated to holders of a scholastic title (Rabjam) would be so unusual (p. 144). But upon locating and reading the text (rab ’byams skyob pa), I found nothing to substantiate the author’s claim and conclude that this is a misidentification based on a very literal reading of the title, without having scrutinized the prayer itself. In isolation, none of these mistakes are earth shattering, but they suggest hastiness and a lack of rigor.

Among the book’s strengths, the chief is probably the basic concept: some attempt to explain the Geluk school’s rise and hegemony is long overdue. Equally, the individual propositions of the five chapters are thoughtfully constructed and worthy of exploration. The author also strikes a good balance between the political and religious dimensions of the subject. In Gönlung Monastery, he also makes a fine choice. It represented a significant regional hub and interesting arena of Tibetan, Mongol, and eventually Qing relations. Gönlung developed into a “mega-monastery”: the author describes its component parts, as well as its relationship with the branches that it spawned, the so-called “mother-son” (ma bu) connection. The author uses the available documentary evidence to convey much about Gönlung’s running and the avenues through which its influence spread. As a result, this work paints a clear picture of both a network of monasteries and the regional expansion that Gönlung’s establishment represented.

This is, essentially, a study of Gönlung Monastery and its related institutions. But it frames itself far more ambitiously. This is the main source of its problems, since in attempting to explain the construction of a whole “religious empire,” beginning in the seventeenth century and reaching far beyond eastern Tibet, it engages in some dubious generalizations, elisions, and historical simplifications. Without a reliable description of the state of Tibetan monastic institutions—scholastic, organizational, and administrative—prior to the seventeenth century, the nature and extent of their change under the Geluk cannot accurately be assessed. The book is greatly weakened by its failure to seriously engage with monastic institutions during earlier eras. This combines with a tendency to reconstruct monastic history based almost exclusively on the model of Gönlung. The author claims, for instance, that even the largest monasteries in Tibet were, up until the sixteenth century, little more than “encampments” and that the system of scholasticism was only truly formalized “under the influence of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his followers” (p. 114). The author offers no real historical evidence for such assertions but points to the gradual manner of Gönlung’s own development. He thereby conflates Gönlung’s evolution with that of monastic institutions more generally and seems to suggest that it took the arrival of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the creation of the state for the Tibetan monastery to make the evolutionary progression from sprawling encampment to highly organized, multi-faceted (but most significantly, educational) institution. But prior to the formation of the centralized state, the Tibetan monastery had already enjoyed at least five hundred years of relative institutional stability: an environment that had fostered the development of Tibetan scholastic traditions. The indigenous form of scholasticism associated with Sangpu (gSang phu) Monastery (founded 1073) had, especially, served as a major organizational impetus. This book gives the impression that a system of monastic education, with an agreed curriculum, formalized examination, and the awarding of scholastic degrees were Geluk innovations, within the era of the unified state. Such practices had, in fact, all developed prior to this time and were gradually undergoing standardization long before the seventeenth century.[3] The Fifth Dalai Lama’s precise contribution to the educational sphere is lost in this book, due to its confusions over the provenance of traditions. Chapter 4’s description of the evolution of Tibetan scholasticism and monastic education, among other things, make this chapter the book’s least reliable.

Similarly, to identify what changes the Geluk “empire” brought to administration, it would be necessary to examine Tibetan monasticism’s relationship with it prior to the seventeenth century. The “constitutions” are of limited use here, and the book duly passes over the longer history of monastic entanglement with governance and bureaucracy. But some idea of the complexity of legal, administrative, and bureaucratic structures that the monastic sector was involved in during, for instance, the Yuan dynasty, when Mongol overlords entrusted governance of Tibet to members of the Sakya school, can be gained from historical sources of the time.[4] The author’s individual assertions about Geluk innovations in this area may have merit, but as on so many occasions, the book does not inspire confidence that the claims are backed by solid historical research outside the world of seventeenth-century “constitutions.”

The Geluk school was undoubtedly responsible for a good deal of systemization and standardization. The book does a good job of illustrating this in terms of Gönlung’s relationship with its subordinate institutions: how these institutions modeled themselves on Gönlung by replicating its recitation and ritual, and sometimes its administrative and educational practices. But the book’s attempts to broaden the discussion are problematic. While there is some basis for referring to a standard Geluk curriculum (albeit one largely inherited from earlier scholasticism), the same cannot be said for a standard “Geluk liturgy.” Geluk monasteries had various shared recitations, but these were never formalized into a single “prayerbook.” Various factors militated against such absolute standardization. Even in the Geluk heartland of Central Tibet, the main monasteries clung proudly to their individual traditions. Institutional and regional differences (and the tensions arising from these) were always as important to the Geluk school’s structure as any uniform identity. Furthermore, the author’s choice of the term “liturgy” is clearly intended to imply, as in branches of the Christian Church, prescribed patterns of worship. And his description conflates the pattern of Gönlung’s relationship with its “branches” and the bigger picture of growing Geluk dominance. This results in a clumsy image of “constitutions,” together with a standardized “liturgy” and “curriculum” being used by the Geluk as tools in a campaign of monastery conversion.

At the heart of the matter is what exactly the author means by “religious empire.” At one point he simply identifies it as the Geluk school itself, hinting at certain parallels with the Catholic Church. He agrees that the Geluk extension over ever more lands and people was a project of “spiritual colonialism” but apparently wishes to distinguish the “empire” from both the government—the decidedly pro-Geluk Ganden Phodrang (dGa’ ldan pho brang)—and the state (p. 2). But for me, the book’s language repeatedly implies the existence of an entity that remains elusive throughout: some centralized authority, with a religious council at its heart, invested with the power to determine doctrinal and liturgical orthodoxy, and with the command structure and resources to enforce conformity, features that were largely alien to the Geluk school. Moreover, the Geluk school’s relationship with the state and the way the rising fortunes of the Geluk school can be separated from the advance of the state are never made entirely clear.

I found comments in the book’s introduction—talking of the need to examine religious institutions rather than obsessing ourselves with the great founders—inspiring. I was also eager to read more about the techniques of state building that the introduction states were employed in the construction of the “religious empire.” But the book never actually returns to most of these and seems more concerned with “tea” and “cake” than the mechanics of an empire. In this context, these are the “teas” (grwa ja and mang ja) served at the monastic assemblies and the “ritual cake” (gtor ma), another essential ingredient of ceremonial offering. But what I refer to is the lists on which these two so regularly feature. This book contains an inordinate amount of such things (in the final chapter alone, “ritual cake” is listed over thirty times). And although this sort of monastic minutiae is used by the author to show which recitations and rituals spread from Gönlung to its satellites, and perhaps also to exemplify a culture of precise cataloguing, a similar effect could have been achieved with a small portion of what is served up here. Some might perceive, within such registers, the seeds of state bureaucracy, but for me, the link is too tenuous, and the constant repetition of these clinical lists is anything but stimulating.

The book makes some interesting observations, such as in the apparent growth in divisions of functionaries in Geluk monasteries and the way that their respective places within the hierarchy were expressed in the share of offerings they received. It describes this as a “process of bureaucratization” (p. 69). But despite frequent allusions to a “bureaucratic” Geluk system, it is never laid out. Even the example cited, which is perhaps the clearest expression of what the author means, might be questioned. The increase in divisions seems to relate to those with roles in the domains of ritual and chanting, not governance. The book has little to say about the processes and procedures of this “bureaucratic” system and how these conditioned the lives of those within the monastery. The relationship between the monastery and the outside world, and especially how techniques were transferred from one to the other, is vague. The book does not ignore the area of monastic patronage, one that is crucial to accounting for the Geluk school’s strength. But again, in terms of understanding how an empire was built, identifying which Tibetan, Mongol, or Qing leaders provided support only takes one so far. This book does not even touch on populations outside the monastery: the nature of the interface between monastic administration and lay faithful, or the exchange of resources and services. It neither satisfactorily explains the creation of power structures, nor the system of immediate and other-worldly incentives and disincentives by means of which they were maintained. In short, it does not tell us much about a spiritual and economic infrastructure that might sustain an empire. Probing this latter area reveals that the Geluk school relied on more than just the appeal of the mega-monastery and the backing of powerful leaders in approaching populations and sociocultural situations that sometimes varied considerably. Even with a topic such as ritual and recitation, which the book covers in detail, analysis could have been developed much further. Were there more subtle processes than coercion at play, which explain the adoption of Geluk practices? Among peripheral communities, for instance, was emulation, akin to that found in Sanskritization, at work?

In brief, the book’s investigation of structures, systems, and above all processes is less than satisfactory, and its account of the spread of the “religious empire” never progresses beyond a clunky picture of top-down imposition. The reader may well feel that the Geluk school’s success has not, therefore, been adequately accounted for and that the appeal to the Tibetan populace of this most “bureaucratic” and scholastic of Buddhist schools remains an enigma.

In conclusion, although enthusiastic about the book’s basic conception and the propositions that frame each chapter, I was often skeptical about the arguments it advanced to support them. The most unconvincing aspects of the book overwhelmingly relate, however, to the grander sense of itself as a work that is anatomizing an “empire.” At its core is something of more modest scope, a study of Gönlung and the phenomenon of the Tibetan mega-monastery. And for those wishing to learn more about these two, I would recommend it.


[1]. “Constitution” is not a universally agreed translation for bca’ yig. For more on the genre, see Berthe Jansen, The Monastery Rules: Buddhist Monastic Organization in Pre-Modern Tibet (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).

[2]. James B. Apple, Stairway to Nirvāa: A Study of the Twenty Saghas Based on the Works of Tsong Kha Pa (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008); and Leah Zahler, ed., Meditative States in Tibetan Buddhism: The Concentrations and Formless Absorptions (London: Wisdom Publications, 1983).

[3]. For a description of their state a century and a half earlier, see Jonathan Samuels, “Tours, Titles, and Tests: Issues of Standardisation in Medieval Tibetan Monastic Education,” Journal for the International Association of Buddhist Studies 43 (2020): 181-213.

[4]. Most notably, the “Testament” of Jangchub Gyaltsen (1302-64), “bKa’ chems mthong ba don ldan,” in Rlangs kyi po ti bse ru rgyas pa (Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 1986). Aspects of Mongolian rule in Tibet are examined in Luciano Petech, Central Tibet and the Mongols: The Yüan Sa-Skya Period of Tibetan History (Rome: Instituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1990).

Citation: Jonathan Samuels. Review of Sullivan, Brenton, Building a Religious Empire: Tibetan Buddhism, Bureaucracy, and the Rise of the Gelukpa. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. November, 2021.

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