Secularism, Purity, and the need for Unity: Learning from Srin, King Yeshe O, and Secular Leadership in Amdo Labrang

Over the last few months, conversations taking place on Tibetan social media consisted of topics regarding secular modernity, concepts of Tibetan purity, and by the seeming lack of interest in turning to lived Tibetan histories as a way to engage these topics. To be fair, I noticed some participants try to actually stress Tibetan histories to acknowledge that these topics are nothing new when viewed through our historical framework as a people, and also how these concerns can be engaged using our own historical knowledges as lessons. In agreement with these concerns, I’ve dug up an old essay from 2015 that looks at Tibetan histories across time, space, place, and figures that were dealing with notions of Pan-Tibetan identities and governmentalities, with the restructuring and mixture of old and new traditions, and with notions of the secular and the religious, all of which take place in different places and times across the Tibetan plateau.

I begin with scholarship by Janet Gyatso (1987) to engage notions of Srin, an indigenous non-human being that represents our land, who is converted first by the invasion of Bon and later by Buddhism. Such a notion challenges current concepts of purity and mixedness (not to confuse its association with just race) as new. Instead, Srin suggests a continual process of change and hybridity that is present in Tibetan histories that current conversations on both sides need to acknowledge and engage. Following Gyatso, I turn to Buddhist scholar Jacob Dalton (2011) who uncovers King Yeshe O’s history from the 990 C.E era. Dalton looks at the way King Yeshe O deals with emerging new religious figures and traditions that he saw as threatening the possibility of a united Tibet. The King introduces secularism as a way to counteract and balance the power between the state and religious order as a way to return Tibet to its united form under the “Great Kings” of Tibet’s past. Through this approach he achieves a way forward that allows local religious and secular power to intersect with religious state power to produce autonomous regional governance. This example could redirect contemporary CTA conversations regarding how a united front regarding fragmented Tibetan political interests can be achieved. King Yeshe O’s dealings challenge current conversations by Tibetans—both at the government and civil level who argue for the need for an applied way of dealing with our democracy using (liberal) secular ethics—to engage with past Tibetan historical intersections between the secular and religious. And finally, I end with anthropologist Charlene Makley (2007) who looks at the secular and religious leadership shared between the brothers Jamyang Shepa and Apa Alo in Amdo Labrang in the twentieth century. Their contemporary spin on religious and secular leadership made real autonomy historically possible for their region. Secular and religious leadership under Jamyang Shepa and Apa Alo suggests the ongoing life of the structural changes King Yeshe O introduced centuries back. That is, these changes were not just happenings of the past, but continue in the recent present. Overall, the lessons in this scholarship encourage the liberal oriented voices so prominent in the Tibetan social media landscape to consider actual histories of Tibet. If pundits are invested in these topics as they claim, they should engage such historical conversations rather than stick to symbolic statements made just for the sake of making them. It would do us all better to engage and learn from our dynamic histories of the ancient and recent past in shaping present-day conversations that could have real, positive effects for our hoped futures.


Janet Gyatso’s “Down with the Demoness: Reflections on a Feminine Ground in Tibet” analyzes both the myth and the gendered aspect of the demoness Srin (1987). According to the myth, as recorded in the terma Mani bka’ ‘bum, the Chinese wife of King Songtsen Gampo, Kong Jo, is troubled by the amount of difficulty she is facing in “transporting the statue of Sakyamuni to the Tibetan court” (37). She has a vision where she realizes the demoness Srin, who represents the Tibetan landscape itself, is causing all the difficulties. To subdue her, they build a total of thirteen Buddhist temples, some of which still stand today in places like Bhutan (39), to pin her down on her back. Four temples in the inner realm of Tibet to pin her shoulder and hip. Four temples at the border areas, pinning her knees and elbows. And, four temples at the borders beyond to pin her hands and feet. Finally, one temple at the Jo-khang, symbolizing her heart and considered the center of Tibet (38). Thus Srin is subdued and Buddhism can reign over Tibet. Besides Buddhist domination of Srin, what is this myth really about? And why is the demoness gendered as female?


The Ogress and the Monkey

According to Gyatso, this isn’t the first time Srin is referred to as mo, female. In the Tibetan myth of the copulation between a compassionate monkey and a lustful rock ogress, which brings about the birth of the first Tibetan, Srin is portrayed as mo. In this myth, the monkey is portrayed as the male Avalokitesvara and Srin as the female rock ogress (44). Although Srin is portrayed as mo in both of the myths, whether Srin is in fact female is unclear due to a lack of sources from pre-Buddhist Tibet. For scholar David Paul, the feminization of Srin in the Buddhist cannon may have something to do with how Buddhists of that time viewed women. Women according to Buddhists of that time were associated with desire and attachment, which was seen as dangerous and threatening to the celibate Buddhist monk (44).

Srin mo, according to Gyatso, “does not primarily represent woman, but rather a religion, or more accurately, a religious culture and world view that is being dominated” (45). In the subjugation of Srin, Srin isn’t killed, she is instead subdued and a new civilization is built on top of her, symbolized by the construction of Buddhist temples (40). Although it is the Bon tradition that is being dominated by Buddhism in the myth, Buddhism, according to Gyatso, may be “mimicking a pattern already established by Bon” (46). In Grub mtha’ shel gyi me long, “a late but well regarded account of the history of the religions of Tibet,” it is Bon that is subduing Srin, but this time, portrayed as Srin-po, male (46). Long before Buddhism, the Bon tradition, according to Erik Haarh, also invaded Tibet. Gyatso writes, “Bon-po text also contains a self-congratulatory account of the disruption and suppression of the earth beings by buildings” (50). Srin, according scholar R. A. Stein, belongs to an indigenous Tibetan tradition that predates both Buddhism and Bon, a tradition he calls the “nameless Tibetan religion” (50). Although there are no explicit accounts of this nameless Tibetan religion, “Srin-mo is actually kept alive” ironically, according to Gyatso, through the narratives of her subjugation in both Buddhist and Bon texts by the civilizations that came after and build upon her (50). So what does all this mean?

Srin, according to Gyatso, is a strong reminder to the Tibetans of their indigenous “fierce and savage” roots. Of how Tibetans view their land as a living organism that, as shown through King gLang dar ma’s concern for these beings (49), can be “violated, offended, and even wounded,” but can also be “appeased, protected, heeded, and valorized” (49). Srin also is a testament to strong female figures in Tibetan history, who Gyatso notes, were “notably more assertive than some of her Asian neighbors” (51). Accounts from the Sui shu and T’ang shu in eighth century A.D. and Tibetan texts from fifth century Tun-huang describe matriarchal societies ruled by Tibetan women, where “the supreme ruler was the queen, and sons took the family name of their mother” (34). Her myth and her associations with femininity and Indigeneity were so formidable that, as Gyatso continues, “the masculine power structure of Tibetan myth had to go to great lengths to keep the female presence under control” (50). But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Srin to me is the non-guaranteed aspect of her subjugation. Although she may be, “pinned, and rendered motionless” for now, “she threatens to break loose at any relaxing of vigilance or deterioration of civilization” (51). Which I take to be a fair warning about Tibetans—especially women—in the past, present, and future.


In Jacob Dalton’s “The Taming of the Demons,” chapters four and five consist of King Yeshe O’s historical background “somewhere around 990 C.E,” and concerns discussions on a “fragmented” Tibet (2011:97). Chapter Four, Sacrifice and The Law, looks at how Yeshe O dealt with the challenge of fragmented areas in his kingdom that he had no control over. According to Dalton, this is a time when, “Tibetans emerged from a century and a half of political fragmentation, Yeshe O’s new western court was striving to assert its authority over various local forms of Buddhism that had taken root in the preceding years of chaos” (97). Using the analogy of British colonial rule in India, which had also tried to control and outlaw ritualistic aspect of Indian belief systems, Dalton employs a similar method to understanding Yeshe O’s strategy in asserting his authority over what he saw as a weakened state.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In his attempt to restore “rule of law,” he introduced four different proclamations that took affect right after one another. The first proclamation declared Buddhism to be the official State religion. The second, “Legal Decree” in 988, designates two different leaders, “a secular king (mnga’ bdag) and a religious grand lama (bla chen),” in addition, “[d]espite this nominal separation of powers, Yeshe O ensured that both secular and religious authority remained entirely in the hands of the royal family” (102). This move, as Dalton argues, would insure “the groundwork for the Kadam and Geluk schools’ later success” (103). This decree also aimed to change the legal system that would combine “religious law (chos khrims) with secular law (rgyal khrims)” (103). The third proclamation “gathered all the regional leaders of Tibet at the new Guge court to issue a further ‘pronouncement’ (bka’ stsal), emphasizing the need for Tibetans to emulate the early imperial kings by following the laws of both Buddhism and the state” (103). And finally, the fourth proclamation was his public edict, which “addressed [against] the tantrikas of Tibet” (103). However, “the king was not opposed to the tantras per se, just to what he saw as their malpractice, and tantric practice was therefore permitted to continue within these new monkish, and more easily controlled, institutional settings” (105). Tantric rituals, according to Dalton, “was thus worked into monastic training and firmly grounded in Buddhist logic and ethics” (105). Liberation rites would be performed on effigy, instead of live victims (106). Under these changes, Tantric violence is channeled through acceptable and controlled form, and influenced an “array of Tibetan innovations, from new artistic forms to unprecedented systems of myth and ritual,” and more importantly, “the bloody violence of the age of fragmentation,” Dalton argues, “moved increasingly from the real to the symbolic” (109).

Chapter Five, “Foundational Violence,” takes a closer look at tantric rituals that have Indian origin or influence, and their taming, which, according to Dalton, gave rise to the “pan-Tibetan Buddhist identity” (110). Dalton attributes most of the myths and tantric rituals as originating from or brought to Tibet by Indian Buddhist influences. The myth about Kongjo, wife of king Songtsen Gampo, is repeated here, except in this version Srin-mo, from Gyatso’s reading, is called raksasi-demoness. This myth, according to Dalton, was similar in a lot of ways to the “Indian Puranic sources” (115). The construction of Buddhist stupas/temples as a way to pin down the demoness is similar to the Rudra myth, in which, “stupas are built over the demon’s body parts” (117). Even Vajrakilaya, tantric ritual dagger, used in tantric rituals of subjugation (118), and ritual text on building stupas and mandalas (119) are also influenced by India. The purpose of reviving Songtsen Gampo’s historic activities through the Piller Tastement’s, according to Dalton, was to employ a strategy that Yeshe O had already begun in order to revive Tibet as a new Buddhist landscape to that of the time during the “great kings” (121). This was a time when many monasteries were being constructed, as was the case in India according to Dalton. The demonization of Tibet and Tibetans seemed to be employed in a way, according to Dalton, to safeguard the new transition of the Buddhist monasticism. It was also a way to emphasize the dark centuries during the “fragmentation” that chapter four concentrated on to better situate this new movement to reframe tantric rituals in a more controlled monastic arena. The construction of monasteries in regional areas also, in regards to previous chapter, sustained Yeshe O’s hope for societies ruled between religious and secular heads. Heads of monasteries had close ties, according to Dalton, to regional heads. This was also a way, according to Dalton, for Tibet to retain a new Buddhist identity. For this new identity to be accomplished a narrative of self-demonizing accounts was needed to juxtapose itself against the purity of Buddhism in Tibet.


In the chapter on “Fatherlands” in her book The Violence of Liberation, anthropologist Charlene Makley focuses exactly on what Dalton touches upon in his chapter five: the Buddhist constructed landscape through mandala initiations (2007). Makley’s discussion is interested in the masculine roles of Tibetan male Lamas who construct the Buddhist sociospatial space as the initiators through their expertise in tantric rituals and mandalization. Using similar description from Dalton, Makley points out the importance of Lama Jamyang Shepa in Labrang as the tantric initiator and monastic head of Labrang monastery. He was highly respected and regarded in the region for his masculine role—masculine because most Tulkus, according to Makley, were male—in being able to subdue and purify the area. Because of such importance, he determined, as Makley argues, the sociospatial relationships Labrang assumed in regards to itself and their neighbors—other ethnic minorities in the area and the Qing Empire. This masculine role of the lama or tulku is what made Labrang, according to Makley, a bustling spiritual and economic center (59). The role is also what made Labrang, as Makley argues, an autonomous space.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Public display of affiliation and affinity to the monastic and its figures through gift offerings could, as Makely argues, heighten non-monastic lay masculinities—with the giving of the honored status of Namtisay by Lama Jamyang Shepa to “‘heirs of the ‘six earliest households’” who acted as the nonmonastic guardians (69). In the later years, when Labrang is threatened by incoming Nationalist war lord Ma Qj, and later the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the role of the fifth Jamyang Shepa and his older brother Apa Alo, who acted as, “the lay military commander,” is heightened (50). This combination of the religious and secular role between Jamyang Shepa and Apa Alo is reminiscent of the edict Yeshi O brought into existence. Apa Alo’s masculinity is heightened for his role in handling the incoming foreign intruders and was remembered as the, “incarnation of Namtisay himself” (75). However, unlike the Bonpos and Buddhists invaders in Gyatso’s work, this new foreign invader, CCP, does not seek to tame the demoness Srin-mo. Liberation is not achievable, according to the CCP, through religious tantric rituals but through “rationalized modern progress” and impose, “a communist sociospatial order west from the ‘old [liberated] regions’ into Tibetan areas” (52). This new incorporation of Labrang into the “Communist sociospatial order,” is what Makley argues, is emasculating and alienating Tibetan men who feel unfamiliar with this new imposed sociospatial order that does not correspond with how they have historically seen their masculinities and landscapes.


Taken together, these readings insist that contemporary concerns over secularism, religion, purity, and the need for political unity are not topics just of this moment. Instead, Tibetan histories suggests these topics are old concerns that were dealt with differently over time. If pundits engaged these histories alongside contemporary concerns, they can offer ways for us to move forward rather than become caught up in debates with no constructive conclusions. Tibetan histories should not have to stay unused in the past just because they took place in the past; instead they have the potential for thinking about the current political moment. Thus, I hope readers walk away insisting on the importance of Tibetan histories in making sense of the current moment. However, it is our responsibility to engage such histories, refusing to do so could put us at a disadvantage where we end up addressing the same problem in a cyclical manner with no clear resolution in sight.

Works cited:

Gyatso, J. (1987). Down with the demoness: reflections on a feminine ground in Tibet. The Tibet Journal, 12(4), 38-53.

Dalton, J. P. (2011). The taming of the demons: Violence and liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. Yale University Press.

Makley, C. E. (2007). The violence of liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist revival in post-Mao China. Univ of California Press.