Note: If you don’t feel like reading all of this skip to the last paragraph, which explains why I’m on Kickstarter.
When you think of Tibet, do you envision a meditating Buddhist monk or wrathful gods and spirits? I am going to guess the former, more often than not. While meditation and philosophy are a big part of Buddhism in Tibetan monasteries, there’s a whole pantheon of deities who haven’t received the same amount of attention. And I think that’s unfortunate, because their stories are really fascinating.
I am a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Virginia. My concentration is in Tibetan Buddhism, which I have been studying for the past decade. My dissertation is the focus of this Kickstarter project, and what I want to talk about is the story of Nechung Monastery and its gods. Nechung is a small monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. It is situated at the foot of a mountain, about a kilometer walk down from Drepung Monastery, the pre-modern site of the Tibetan government. This government is headed by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and is now in exile in northern India, nestled among the Himalayan foothills of Dharamsala. Nechung Monastery has a mythology that extends back over a millennium, and it rose to special prominence in the 17th century under the auspices of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. It is the original home of the Nechung Oracle, whose prophecies have aided the Tibetan government for centuries and still do so today. It is also the site of a rich ritual heritage that continues today despite the vagaries of the last half century.
The traditional narrative is that Nechung Monastery’s central deity, Pehar, was once the protector deity of a meditation school outside Tibet. In the late eighth century, when the Tibetan empire was expanding rapidly, Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery, Samye, was being built and needed a powerful deity to protect its treasures. The Tibetan King Trisong Deutsen sent one of his sons to the meditation school with an army composed of men and spirits. He brought Pehar back to Tibet with the help of the great Tantric exorcist Padmasambhava.
Since that time Pehar has had a number of adventures. He moved on to the area of Tsel, just below Lhasa, and burned down a monastery. As you can imagine, this angered a powerful Tibetan master there, who captured him in a box and threw him in a river. This box floated west toward Drepung Monastery, and an abbot there requested that his servant retrieve it. While the servant was carrying the box back to Drepung, Pehar escaped and lit upon a nearby tree. It was around this tree that a chapel was built and it was this chapel that the Fifth Dalai Lama expanded in the seventeenth century, becoming Nechung Monastery. He further installed the monastery’s oracle as the state oracle, enriched its ritual program, and added the site to his burgeoning government. The Nechung Oracle is most often possessed by an important emanation of Pehar named Dorje Drakden. Nechung Monastery still exists in Tibet today, its monastic community (somewhat) revived after the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. The monastery has also been reestablished in Dharamsala, which is where the current Nechung Oracle now resides.
This summary just scratches the surface of Nechung’s history and Pehar’s epic origins. Pehar is a deity connected to both Tibet’s oldest Buddhist center and youngest political institution, and the details of this should be brought to light. It is with my dissertation that I would like to tell his story, the story of Nechung Monastery, its rituals, and its oracle.
What Has Been Done:
After years of translating pertinent Tibetan texts into English while in the U.S., I went to Lhasa in the winter of 2010-2011 and again in the fall of 2011 to conduct fieldwork. I befriended the monks at Nechung Monastery, discussed Nechung’s history with them, and observed their rituals to Pehar and his emanations. I also went out to other monasteries and oracle chapels with ties to Nechung and talked with the monks there. In the summer of 2011 and again in the early spring of 2012, I went to Dharamsala and talked with the monks at the Nechung Monastery in exile. I also discussed the monastery’s history and deities with them and observed their rituals. I have already conducted all the necessary research. I have also written up a detailed outline for my dissertation, including chapter and subchapter descriptions and source citations. Finally, I have already begun writing the dissertation itself; I will be presenting a paper based on one of my chapters at a conference in Kobe, Japan.
What Needs to be Done:
Now I just need to survive the writing period. I am currently living in Alanya, Turkey with my beautiful girlfriend, Cecilia. We made a deal that if she followed me for the year of my fieldwork period, I would follow her for the year of my writing period. After some deliberation, she chose Alanya, Turkey, since the cost of living is low and it’s right on the Mediterranean to boot. For those who assume I am asking for money to support a “luxurious” lifestyle abroad, I should tell you that it is cheaper living here than in Virginia, where we would have lived if we stayed in the U.S. The exchange rate is about 2 Turkish lira to 1 U.S. dollar, and food and amenities here are cheap. We are paying $250 less for rent a month for a 2-bedroom apartment in Alanya, than a one-bedroom apartment cost me in Charlottesville, Virginia. However, despite the low cost, my savings are still not enough to cover my expenses for the second half of our year here. The funds that I receive from this project will go directly to the speedy completion of my dissertation, as well as to covering the costs for the rewards.
My current timeline is to be completed with the dissertation by August of 2013. In particular, my tentative goal is to have first drafts of my three central chapters completed by January of 2013. I will then write my introductory and concluding chapters from February to April of 2013. This gives me three months (May-July) to re-draft all of my chapters, making necessary changes, proof-reading, formatting, and otherwise finalizing my dissertation. I highly doubt this last process will require three months, but given that I will be moving back to the U.S. during this time, I’m covering my bases.
There are several reasons why I am using Kickstarter to raise money rather than sticking with the traditional academic methods of applying for grants and fellowships. First, a lot of the funding for higher education has dried up over the last decade. This has resulted in fewer grants and scholarships for an increasing number of graduate students to compete over. I already applied to many dissertation writing fellowships and unfortunately did not receive any. Second, this is my attempt to peek out of the “Ivory Tower,” to show that academics are not living the high life but are struggling—our marble rooms are filled with tears, sweat, and ramen noodles. Moreover, I would like to think this presents a possible alternative for other grad students seeking financial support for scholarship that contributes to the vast store of human knowledge. This is not an endeavor that should be kept behind thick iron gates, where grad students face a gauntlet of dwindling funds. It should be shared. Everyone should have the opportunity to play a part in the process and support the research that they consider important. It is for this reason that I am asking for help in supporting this endeavor. Living securely for the next year will ensure that my dissertation gets finished on time. Also, everyone who helps will get due recognition for their part in this project, and some will be handsomely rewarded—handsomely.
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