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Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist Guardian Deities: Satara Varan Devi  

Sree Padma and John Holt

Satara varan devi, in the Sinhala language of Sri Lanka, refers to the four guardian deities of the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka. It is a phrase that first appears in inscriptions at Buddhist temples in the 15th-century Sri Lankan upcountry region of Gampola to denote the protective gods of the divine hierarchy who have been warranted with powers by the Buddha to not only protect the kingdom as a whole, but to provide for this-worldly well-being of individual Buddhist devotees as well. In ensuing centuries, the identities of deities constituting the satara varan devi varied from era to era and from place to place. Moreover, the identities of these deities were often composite conflations of a number of collateral deity traditions. The singular popularity of each of these deities for many devotees continues to form a significant presence in contemporary iterations of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist religious culture. Each are regarded as Buddhist deities, even though the origins of most can be traced to Brahmanical beginnings in India. Even so, most Sinhala Buddhists would be surprised to learn that worship of Vishnu, for instance, originated in India, since he is so well known in Sri Lanka as the guardian of the Buddhasasana (Buddhist tradition). Antecedent constructions of four guardian deities appear in earlier Vedic, Buddhist, and Puranic schemes that were articulated in the earlier history of Indian religions. These various constructions not only served the function of protecting temples, cities, regions, and, in the case of early Buddhism, the Buddha himself in cosmically configured contexts, but they also reflect the way in which deities from non-Vedic, non-Puranic, and non-Buddhist origins were also assimilated and subordinated, perhaps mirroring social and political processes that were historically in play. Comparatively, analogous but not identical processes of incorporation or assimilation can also be seen within the contexts of other Theravada Buddhist-dominated religious cultures: how the Burmese have enfolded nats (mostly euhemeristic, but some Hindu deities), how the Thai and Lao have enveloped phi (various spirits or powers of place and space), and how the Khmer have embraced the worship of neak ta (again, spirits or powers of place and space). In each of these other Theravada Buddhist cultural contexts, important Brahmanic deities have also been absorbed and their significance reframed. In Mahayana contexts, other Buddhists have similarly accommodated the worship of non-Buddhist indigenous deities in Japan (kami), in Tibet (bon), and in China (Taoist and Confucian supernaturals, in addition to deities of the Chinese folk traditions).

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Tibetan Buddhist Power Objects  

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.

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Tri Songdétsen  

Brandon Dotson

Emperor Tri Songdétsen (Khri Srong lde brtsan; 742–c.800 ce) is one of the most fascinating figures in Tibet’s religious and political history. He played a central role in shaping the character of early Tibetan Buddhism by patronizing and protecting it as an official religion of the Tibetan Empire (c. 608–866). After proclaiming his official patronage of Buddhism in c. 779, Tri Songdétsen oversaw the consecration of Samyé (Bsam yas) Monastery and made provisions for the official sponsorship of a nascent Sangha. From this point onward, Buddhism became an irrevocable component of Tibetan culture and spread its roots at both elite and popular levels. The basic contours of Tri Songdétsen’s life and work may be gleaned from contemporary administrative records and from the king’s own inscribed pillar edicts and their accompanying paper documents. These describe how he was enthroned as a fourteen-year-old boy after his father was assassinated in the course of a revolt. They also give Tri Songdétsen’s reasons for officCially supporting Buddhism, and mention some of the opposition that he faced. As accounts of the concerted introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, Tri Songdétsen’s edicts constitute a clear forerunner to later Tibetan “histories of the Dharma” (chos ’byung) that would become a standard medium for Tibet’s Heilsgeschichte from the 11th century to the 21st. In this way, Tri Songdétsen also played a key role in the genesis of Tibet’s unique form of Buddhist historiography. Ironically, the very historiographical traditions that Tri Songdétsen inaugurated in Tibet would in subsequent centuries come to express an ambivalent attitude toward the emperor’s central role in the establishment of Buddhism. Although he was lionized shortly after his death and in the century that followed, in Buddhist histories and hagiographies from the 12th century onward, Tri Songdétsen is eclipsed by the figure of the yogin Padmasambhava, who is credited as the real agent in the conversion of Tibet. Within this new narrative, the king is somewhat ineffectual in his commitment to Buddhism, such that his failure to follow Padmasambhava’s instructions eventually accounts for Padmasambhava’s departure from Tibet and for all sorts of future calamities that befall Tibet, its monarchy, and its people. The subordination of Tri Songdétsen to Padmasambhava is part of a larger movement by which kings receded from Tibetans’ devotional emphasis and from their daily lives, and by which the figure of the lama ascended to cultural paramountcy. In particular, it reflects a shift in devotional emphasis across the 11th to 13th centuries from the cult of Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong rtsan sgam po; c. 605–649), who was viewed as an emanation of Tibet’s protector bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, to that of the yogin Padmasambhava, revered as an emanation of the Buddha Amitābha. Tri Songdétsen became a supporting player in Padmasambhava’s hagiography and cult, as one of his twenty-five disciples, and was also refigured as an emanation of the bodhisattva Mañjusrī. It is in this guise that Tri Songdétsen is remembered within Tibetan cultural memory and within Tibetan Buddhism more generally from the 12th century to the 21st.