Dagmar Schwerk, "A Timely Message from the Cave" (2020)


Following the globalization of Tibetan Buddhism in the second half of the twentieth century, Indo-Tibetan Buddhist teachings such as Mahāmudrā have become increasingly popular around the world. Drawn by teachings that seem to promise practitioners fast-tracked enlightenment through powerful meditative practices and the blessings of the personal principal Guru, Mahāmudrā has not only maintained followers from Tibet and Bhutan, but has also attracted scholars and practitioners from the West.

In A Timely Message from the Cave, Dagmar Schwerk points out that while the globalization of Tibetan Buddhism has helped the Mahāmudrā practitioner community grow on a global scale, it has also brought numerous seemingly new challenges, such as disputes with respect to the correct transmission and authenticity of Tantric teachings. By investigating the commentarial writings of Je Gendun Rinchen (1926­–1997), the Sixty-Ninth Je Khenpo of Bhutan (the Chief Abbot of Bhutan), Schwerk finds that these disputes cover topics that were already well-established in premodern disputes between Buddhist masters and were often at the core of earlier Mahāmudrā controversies. Schwerk’s close readings of Je Gendun Rinchen’s commentary, The Timely Messenger (dus kyi pho nya), reveals that contrary to the global popular conception of Mahāmudrā, “the three traditional scholarly activities of a Tibetan or Bhutanese Buddhist master are nowadays as essential as ever for the preservation, continuation, and viability of a lineage: explication, debate, and composition.”

As one of the pioneering works on Bhutanese Buddhism in the twentieth century, Schwerk’s A Timely Message from the Cave centers on Je Gendun Rinchen, who was one of the most renowned and influential Buddhist masters in twentieth-century Bhutan. Relying on textual sources as well as archival materials, fieldwork, and even online sources such as social media posts on Facebook and YouTube, Schwerk maps out a transregional Buddhist intellectual network centered on this Bhutanese scholar, as well as the reception history of the Mahāmudrā controversy in Tibet and Bhutan as a whole.

In her analysis and annotated translations of Je Gendun Rinchen’s intellectual repertoire, Schwerks shows that for Bhutanese Buddhists “A mere reliance on the mostly common heritage of the Tibetan branch… was no longer considered sufficient anymore.” Arguing for “the importance of moving away from a focus on Tibet in order to begin to better understand Bhutanese doctrinal and exegetical positions and their developments,” Schwerk invites futures scholars of Himalayan Buddhism to pay further attention “to the general aspect of new inter- and intra-sectarian exchanges and additional cross-linked Bhutanese-Tibetan literal productions as well as their scope and significance.”

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Daigengna Duoer

Daigengna Duoer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation is a digital humanities project mapping the history of transnational and transregional Buddhist networks connecting early twentieth-century Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Republican China, Tibet, and the Japanese Empire.

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