Necessary Questions of Chö: Uses and Abuses of Religion in Dondrup Gyel’s “Tulku”
“Why do you ask questions of roots and branches instead of the necessary questions of chö (Tib. chos)?” asks a character in Tibetan author Dondrup Gyel’s (don rgrub rgyal) controversial 1980 short story, “Tulku” (sprul sku). The Tibetan term chö can be translated in many ways, including to mean ‘the Buddhist teachings,’ ‘religion’ more generally, or even ‘the nature of reality.’ In “Tulku,” however, what chö means is not at all clear, and the various characters claim authority to determine what is legitimate chö. In the story, a Tibetan village is visited by a mysterious stranger claiming to be a tulku—a reincarnated religious leader— but who is actually a fraud. Most scholars have interpreted “Tulku” as a critique of traditional Tibetan religious devotion, and as a call by Gyel for Tibetans to modernize. This paper, however, proposes a new reading of “Tulku.” It suggests that Gyel pairs overt criticism of the corrupt tulku with a subtler critique of the Chinese government’s policy towards Tibetan Buddhism. It argues for such a reading by tracking how the word chö is used in “Tulku.” It shows that Gyel places the word not in the mouths of the Tibetan villagers, but rather in the mouths of the fraudulent tulku and the representatives of the Communist Party. Both thus use chö in order to appeal to the Tibetan villagers, claim power for themselves, and exclude the opposing party. “Tulku” thereby creates parallels between the ways in which the Tulku and the Party use chö to appeal to and manipulate the Tibetan villagers. On this reading, “Tulku” highlights the way chö can be weaponized by both traditional religious authorities and Communist party ideology, and suggests that in this modern period, any claimant to chö must be treated with caution and skepticism.
Copyright (c) 2021 Catherine Hartmann
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