Tibetan Genre Classifications

“Collected Writings: (gsung ‘bum) in Tibetan Literature: Towards a Systematic Study of Their Compilation, Redaction and Composition and Its Use for Genre Classifications” by Jim Rheingans – Universität Bonn

I was keen to hear what Dr. Rheingans had to say regarding Tibetan genre because of our recent attempts to catalog the gdams ngag mdzod and all of the difficulties that arose when attempting to classify texts by subject. In his talk, Dr. Rheingans discussed his work on the 8th Karmapa’s (mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507-1554) gsung ‘bum, collected by the 5th Shamarpa (dkon mchog yan lag, 1525-1583). The gsung ‘bum as a concept, and as a classification scheme itself, does seem like an interesting place to begin looking for ways of classifying Tibetan writing by topic and genre. In the dkar chags of all the extant gsung ‘bum‘s we will find many different ways of classifying texts and I suspect it is not always easy to find systematic dkar chags. However, a study of many dkar chags would certainly begin to provide an interesting picture of how Tibetan’s classified texts over time. In the gdams ngag mdzod we see perhaps far too many schemas, as many different lineages are represented, each with their own classificatory terms. However, the organization of these disparate texts shown in the dkar chag by ‘Jam mgon kong sprul are themselves a useful example of a Tibetan system (historically situated in this case as a part of the ris med period) that might be worthy of research.

Dr. Rheingans noted that the concept of gsung ‘bum itself seems to be mostly Tibetan in origin and not something inherited from Indian literature. He seemed to be continuing to research this issue, briefly mentioning a loose collection of texts from Advayavajra but no “real” gsung ‘bum in the formal sense.

He went on to say that the norm seems to be that students take on the responsibility of systematizing the master’s work, sometimes with direction from the master, and sometimes after his death. In the case of the 8th Karmapa, it seems that there was in fact a blessing given and a clear intention written down by the Karmapa allowing the Shamarpa to begin the work of systematizing his works. There seems to be an important point here: the context of collecting these works and the historical situation is an important part of the study of the gsung ‘bum, and thus also of classification itself. Some gsung ‘bum have clear systematized dkar chags and some do not. The question Rheingans posed was, what is actually systematized? How far can we take these indigenous classification schemes? These kinds of questions need to be asked when engaging in classifying texts.

In his talk he made the important point that paying attention to the context of literary production and genre can yield clues for historical research and interpreting doctrine in Tibetan studies. That is to say, other than abstract interest in classification schemes, there are utilitarian reasons why various types of scholars would be interested in systematic genre classification.

What I found useful was his call for more precision regarding understanding compilation, redaction, and composition when describing and discussing Tibetan writing. I wasn’t able to ask about his thoughts, but the thought that came to me was: since Tibetan writing often involves a large amount of “borrowing,” even the classification of a text as being “authored” by one person as opposed to another is complicated. Therefore, distinction between the redactor, compiler, or composer, is not always clear. That is to say, along with issues of genre, issues surrounding the classification of “provenance figures” or contributors to the text also have to be tackled.

In his short talk he did not try to present a list of genres or classificatory schemes everyone can take home and start using, but instead brought everyone’s attention to a set of questions that may lead us in the right direction. One of his guiding questions was: How can we employ academic classifications without neglecting traditional terminologies, both for generic terms we have and concrete genres? How much use can we get out of terms like narrative, explicative, argumentative, descriptive, and so forth? On this topic he noted that when classifying some text, one shouldn’t be distracted by the title, but take a closer look at how the topic develops in the text itself. He then gave some examples of situations where a text may be labeled as a rnam thar or placed in a volume of rnam thars, but in fact the content is found to be a set of specific instructions made in response to requests from a particular student. Apparently, one rnam thar he looked at can be used as a dkar chag for Mi bskyod rdo rje’s gsung ‘bum.

One text may also contain the qualities of several genres, in fact many Tibetan texts do, but this doesn’t have to make the project of discussing classification a non-issue. Rheingans called for more effort in this area, reminding us that if we only approach classifying a text from the traditional philological reading, then we “forget to write the book that may be influential beyond Tibetan studies.” That is to say, he wondered if it was possible to look more deeply at Tibetan literature and begin to form some useful schemas that would be transcultural, useful to academics at large, and not just to a small group of Tibetan studies scholars. Towards this end, he suggested systematic exploration with broader studies, which I presume would include cataloging larger numbers of gsung ‘bum and their classificatory schemas, as well as other types of collections and connecting that with the study of Tibetan literature as a whole. In doing this kind of work he suggested that some postmodern methodologies may be helpful, but we also have to use caution in their application. He suggested  that perhaps it is still too early in the study of Tibetan literature to begin these kinds of classificatory projects, but Dr. Rheingans did seem hopeful that progress could be made.

On an interesting side note: There was also a discussion amongst those present at the Tibetological Library and Archive Resources panel focused on the idea of collecting genre types, subject headings and classification schemes for use in cataloging and archiving Tibetan works. For the librarian, the issue of how to classify a text is in fact quite practical and immediate, as the creation of a catalog for a library that is searchable by topic and genre is an obvious desideratum. I hope that practical work can be done to further this project as it will certainly benefit the whole field of Tibetan studies.