Synchronicity: Sobisch, “Some Aspects of Tantric Ritual Practice in Tibet”

At IABS/17/Vienna it was a pleasure to meet Jan-Ulrich Sobisch, who introduced himself to me. Upon returning, while searching for information related to the interpretation of mandalas in Western psychological literature, I was directed to a copy of his essay “Some Aspects of Tantric Ritual Practice in Tibet” (Horin, 15 [2008]: 73–92)—search engines are funny that way.

Once I began reading it, however, I realized that this modestly titled essay addresses a topic that I think is very important in understanding tantric conceptions of the efficacy of ritual. This is the understanding in some strains of tantric thought that the performance of some rituals encompasses the entirety of the path. (See “Fractal Journeys: Narrative Structure of the Path and of Tantric Practice,” in Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, third series, no. 14 [2012].)

Sobisch discusses this concept as found in the Mahāmudrā lineage descending from Gampopa, specifically in the work of Jigten Gonpo (1143–1217). Jigten’s Fivefold Profound Path of Mahāmudrā describes the path of liberation in a fashion similar to Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation (76). There are then also liturgies based on the Fivefold Profound Path. Although there are variations between these different liturgies, “they all make the claim to completely include all aspects of the path into one ritual, so that the whole path can be practiced within a single session” (79).

In his essay, Sobisch gives both detailed structural comparisons of the path and the rituals specific to the Mahāmudrā teachings he examines, and doctrinal citations that make clear that the structural alignments are consciously created. As I’ve said elsewhere, ritual is a performing art, one that demonstrates the creativity and constraints of any other. It is not just performative in the narrower philosophical sense deriving from Austin, Searle and then Tambiah’s use in anthropology, but in the wider sense of having important similarities to theatrical performance.

Sobisch’s essay supports my own suggestion that we should look to the understandings of the structure of the path for the narrative format employed to structure ritual. While such understandings are doctrinal, the usual doctrinal turn in interpreting ritual is to look for specific teachings in the didactic content of both doctrine and ritual. In other words, it is not the case that such rituals are designed to teach specific doctrinal points, like karma or emptiness, but rather are related to doctrine by way of the dramatic, narrative structures of the path.

I would suspect/suggest that the narrative structure of the path not only reflects the biographical narrative of Śākyamuni Buddha, but has reflexively served to structure those biographical narratives. The similarities between the two are not the result of one being foundational, but rather of an ongoing dialectic in the construction of both. That is going rather far afield for my own area of study, however. At the risk of continuing to wander away even further though, it also seems to me that the path provides a narrative structure for a great deal of Buddhist literature, including works that have been categorized as philosophical and therefore only examined for their didactic contents. The distinct categorization of thought into philosophy, religion, psychology that marks contemporary Euro-American academics is the consequence of the unique history of that academic tradition, and does not reflect the ways that Buddhist thinkers understood their own work. Imposing those distinctions necessarily cuts apart aspects of thought that had been organically integral to one another.

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