Civilized Shamans: Buddhism In Tibetan Societies

Geoffrey Samuel


Civilized Shamans examines the nature and evolution of religion in Tibetan societies from the ninth century up to the Chinese occupation in 1950. Samuel argues that religion in these societies developed as a dynamic amalgam of strands of Indian Buddhism and the indigenous spirit-cults of Tibet.

The book stresses the diversity of Tibetan societies, demonstrating that central Tibet, the Dalai Lama’s government at Lhasa, and the great monastic institutions around Lhasa formed only a part of the context within which Tibetan Buddhism matured. Employing anthropological research, historical inquiry, rich interview material, and a deep understanding of religious texts, the author explores the relationship between Tibet’s social and political institutions and the emergence of new modes of consciousness that characterize Tibetan Buddhist spirituality. Samuel identifies the two main orientations of this religion as clerical (primarily monastic) and shamanic (associated with Tantric yoga). The specific form that Buddhism has taken in Tibet is rooted in the pursuit of enlightenment by a minority of the people–lamas, monks and yogins–and the desire for shamanic services (in quest of health, long life, and prosperity) by the majority. Shamanic traditions of achieving altered states of consciousness have been incorporated into Tantric Buddhism, which aims to communicate with Tantric deities through yoga. The author contends that this incorporation forms the basis for much of the Tibetan lamas’ role in their society and that their subtle scholarship reflects the many ways in which they have reconciled the shamanic and clerical orientations.

This book, the first full account of Tibetan Buddhism in two decades, ranges as no other study has over several disciplines and languages, incorporating historical and anthropological discussion. Viewing Tibetan Buddhism as one of the great spiritual and psychological achievements of humanity, Samuel analyzes a complex society that combines the literacy and rationality associated with centralized states with the shamanic processes more familiar among tribal peoples.

Reviews of Civilized Shamans




Chapter 1. Introduction: Shamanic and Clerical Buddhism

Chapter 2. Tibetan and Theravadin Societies: A Comparison



Chapter 3. Tibetan Societies: Introduction and Central Tibet

Chapter 4. Tibetan Societies: K’am (Eastern Tibet)

Chapter 5. Tibetan Societies: Amdo (Northeastern Tibet)

Chapter 6. Tibetan Societies: Southern and Western Tibet

Chapter 7. Tibetan Communities

Chapter 8. Some Conclusions



Chapter 9. The Ritual Cosmos and Its Inhabitants

Chapter 10. The Folk Religion and the Pragmatic Orientation

Chapter 11. The Karma Orientation, Rebirth, and Tibetan Values

Chapter 12. Tantra and the Bodhi Orientation

Chapter 13. The Lama and the Tantric Deities

Chapter 14. Tantra and the Pragmatic Orientation

Chapter 15. Lamas, Monks, and Yogins

Chapter 16.Folk Shamans, Tertön, and Crazy Siddhas

Chapter 17. Tibetan Religious Communities (Gompa)

Chapter 18. Some Recent Lamas



Chapter 19. From Structure to Process

Chapter 20. India: Buddhist Beginnings

Chapter 21. India: Mahayana Schools

Chapter 22. India: Tantra and the Buddhist Siddhas

Chapter 23. Tibet to A.D. 841

Chapter 24. Tibet: The Local Hegemonic Period

Chapter 25. Tibet: Mongol Overlordship

Chapter 26. Tibet: Gelugpa Synthesis and the Shamanic Reaction

Chapter 27. Tibet: Gelugpa Power and the Rimed Synthesis

Chapter 28. Conclusion


Epilogue: The Tibetans and Tibetan Religion Today

Appendix: The Monastic Population of Tibet

Publication Details

Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC. 1993. Paperback edition 1995 (also Asian edition, Mandala Book Point, Kathmandu.) (ISBN 1-56098-231-4 for US cloth edition; ISBN 1-56098-620-4 for paperback)

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Updated GBS 03/03/2002