Scholars have long recognized the transformative impact that colonialism had on Buddhist institutions, identities, thought, and practice. The period marked the rise of politicized identities linking Buddhism to anti-colonial nationalist movements alongside boisterous discussions about reforming Buddhism to its “innate” humanistic, scientific core. For many decades, histories of Buddhism under colonialism generally subscribed to a singular narrative in which colonial forces leveled such monumental changes that almost all forms of modern Buddhism were seen as derivative of ideologies introduced by Western colonial regimes. These narratives, however, only tell some of the story. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, scholarship has increasingly shown how Buddhists responded in a multitude of ways to colonial influence. There was resistance and collusion as well as instances where colonial systems had only minimal impact. Numerous ideas about Buddhism which for most of the 20th century were taken for granted—that the text is closer to “true” Buddhism than contemporary practice, that texts composed in “classical” languages are more authoritative than those in the vernacular, that Buddhism is not really a religion at all but more like a science of the mind or philosophy, that Buddhism is less ritualistic and more rational than other religious traditions, and so on—have their roots in the colonial encounter with Buddhism. Any student wishing to understand the place of Buddhism during the colonial period must consider the multiple trajectories and plural histories rather than singular, monolithic narratives.
James Duncan Gentry
As Tibetans began to import Buddhist scriptures and translate them into the Tibetan language in the 8th and 9th centuries, they also imported items like relics, reliquaries, statues, paintings, amulets, and other material objects believed to embody and transmit power through their physical connections with buddhas, bodhisattvas, and saints of the past. Guided by scriptural pronouncements, as these resonated with indigenous sensibilities Tibetans came to hold that sensory interactions with Buddhist power objects would enable unmediated access to the powerful sources of the Buddhist tradition for a range of pragmatic and transcendent goals. Such encounters were held to be so efficacious that they were sometimes promoted as viable complements or substitutes for the study and cultivation of Buddhist doctrine.
As Tibetans integrated Buddhism into Tibetan culture they began crafting their own Buddhist power objects. These became so ubiquitous and diverse in Tibetan Buddhist societies that there is no single Tibetan term that directly corresponds with the category of “power objects” to encapsulate their full range. Patterned after Indian prototypes, Tibetans developed their own terms and rubrics for these kinds of objects. They also adapted them to include a wider spectrum of items and advanced theories of their power and efficacy that extend beyond their Indian Buddhist counterparts. On this account, controversies sometimes erupted among Tibetan ecclesiastical scholars over the purported nature and potency of such things. The prominent role given to Buddhist power objects in Tibet entailed they would serve as touchstones for the formation of Tibetan Buddhist communities, institutions, and states. Yet, sustained discussion of these kinds of objects has only been sporadic among traditional Tibetan exegetes and modern academic scholars of Tibetan Buddhism.