Liberating Last Rites: Ritual Rescue of the Dead in Tibetan Buddhist Discourse
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AbstractThis dissertation examines Tibetan funerary manuals based on the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana Tantra (SDP), an Indian Buddhist work first translated into Tibetan in the eighth century. I trace the transmission and study of the SDP in Tibet and the ways that it and the works it inspired distribute agency across multiple actors—human, divine, and material—in describing ritual methods for saving the dead from bad rebirths. A fundamental claim in these texts is that their rites can liberate even those who have committed terrible acts over many lifetimes. Focusing on Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan's (1147–1216) Light Rays for the Benefit of Others (Kun rig gi cho ga gzhan phan 'od zer) and several manuals and polemical works written in response to it, I explore how these texts shift responsibility away from the deceased and assign it to a network of actors including the ritual officiant and his disciples, a panoply of deities, and ritual objects. This speaks to contemporary discussions of agency and materiality, and emphasizes the importance of the latter in the study of ritual manuals.
Focusing on agency also reveals a critical difference between works based on yogatantric sources like the SDP and those inspired by advanced yogic practices characteristic of Highest Yogatantra. While SDP-oriented manuals frame the dead as passive recipients of liberating rites, texts like Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo (Bar do thos grol) imagine the dead as agents capable of securing their own freedom. This difference in necroliberative strategy is underscored by the Sa skya pa scholar A mes zhabs Ngag dbang kun dga' bsod nams' (1597–1659) Dispelling All Obscurations: Explaining the Bardo Teachings (Bar do chos bshad sgrib pa kun sel), which attempts to integrate these two models. Through a close examination of these writings, this dissertation contributes to our understanding of Tibetan traditions of Yogatantra and Highest Yogatantra vis-à-vis mortuary practices and the afterlife.
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