Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Religious Studies

First Advisor

Holly Gayley

Second Advisor

Loriliai Biernacki

Third Advisor

Jules Levinson


Within both the Euro-American and Tibetan--both etic and emic--imaginaries, the renouncer is seen as the spiritual practitioner ensconced in an isolated world of retreat, totally separate from the world. This vision, of course, produced out of the allure of the renunciate ideal--part fantasy, part reality--that sustains the authority of the religious teacher and lineage. In this thesis I examine the category of "renunciation" in Tibetan Buddhism and the means by which the seemingly contradictory renunciate ideal and need to be involved in practical, worldly affairs are negotiated and bridged. I ground my thinking by way of a close examination Mountain Dharma: Direct Advice on Retreat, a seminal retreat advice text (Tib. zhal gdams) of 17th century religious master Karma chags med, a luminary of the Karma bka' brgyud lineage of Tibet. Drawing from my original translations of selected chapters of Mountain Dharma, I demonstrate that the negotiation of the ideal and the actual, in terms of renunciation, was an active process for Karma chags med, who was acutely aware of the need to account for practical, social engagement. By situating Mountain Dharma in the historical, political, and religious conjunctures of its production, I propose that Karma chags med be understood as engaging in a domesticization of renunciation. His lineage was in a nadir, its leader exiled by the Dge lugs pa sect, and the articulation of a domesticated renunciation may have been conducive to the Karma bka' brgyud pas operating under reduced circumstances. Building upon theorists of South Asian religion and culture, I suggest that renunciation and retreat, for Karma chags med, is best understood as orbital. His advice text explicitly prescribes a renunciate ideal, and simultaneously includes chapters detailing practices by which a retreatant can attend to worldly, social affairs, such as garnering wealth or maintaining protection from brigands. I argue that we can understand renunciation as orbital in that "renunciation" is the productive tension between the ideal and the actual, and that, in this Tibetan context, we can make sense of the term only by considering and coming to understand both.

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