Bureaucracy often gets a bad rap as a mechanism that slows rather than speeds progress and growth. Associate Professor of Religion Brenton Sullivan would like to argue otherwise.
In his new book, Building a Religious Empire: Tibetan Buddhism, Bureaucracy, and the Rise of the Gelukpa (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), Sullivan chronicles how the Geluk order of Tibetan Buddhism, practiced by individuals known as the Gelukpa, used its zeal for organization and administration to sustain its prominence and reach across thousands of miles and hundreds of years.
For many Westerners, their sole reference point for Tibetan Buddhism is the current Dalai Lama, the 14th spiritual leader of the Geluk order, whose exile in India and frequent media appearances have given him a far larger international profile than his predecessors. There’s more to know, though, beyond the current Dalai Lama’s countless quotes-turned-memes on social media.
The Geluk order actually dates back to the late 14th century and is considered the most widespread and dominant of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. “Geluk means ‘tradition of virtue,’” Sullivan says. “The founder emphasized the importance of celibacy and observing monastic discipline.”
Sullivan found the initial spark for his book in graduate school while reading about the Fifth Dalai Lama, often called the Great Fifth, who ruled in the 1600s and is considered the most powerful and influential leader of the order’s 600-year history. “There were casual mentions of how he and his ministers were writing and sending constitutions to far-off monasteries, as well as discussions of sectarianism and how monasteries needed to get on board with their system of Tibetan Buddhism,” he says. “Those caught my eye.”
If you think about how you can have the same experience in a franchise wherever you are in the world, I think we can then appreciate how attention to detail in religious service and all other aspects of operation isn’t an accident.
At the time, Sullivan was spending his summers in Tibet. He visited a monastery in the remote region of Amdo. “It had been huge, with maybe 2,500 monks at its height,” he says. “I spent more time there and at its associated monasteries. That evolved into this project of looking at the monasteries not simply as the background to Buddhist meditation and philosophy, but as the foreground and understanding how they were administered and run.”
The key to that understanding would be the written constitutions that ruled each monastery. Sullivan was able to access over a hundred constitutions through the Buddhist Digital Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that has located, digitized, cataloged, and archived more than 15 million pages of culturally significant Buddhist works.
Sullivan also traveled to dozens of monasteries in Tibet and Mongolia between 2008 and 2016 to secure additional documents. “Some of these monasteries are technically forbidden; foreigners aren’t supposed to go to them,” he says. “The bus station will not sell you a ticket there. So while living in Xining (in China’s Qinghai province, bordering Tibet), I bought a motorcycle, which allowed me to go wherever, whenever I wanted.”
Introductions from other lamas got him in the door at some monasteries, where he’d stay in the monks’ quarters and ask questions for his project. But he found hesitation in response to his inquiries about constitutions. “The constitutions are often very closely guarded,” he says. “They’re usually held by the current abbot or disciplinarian.”
As Sullivan analyzed his collection of constitutions, each ranging from two pages to more than 100 pages, he was struck by the diversity of length and detail — and their overall consistency in themes, particularly in prescribing the prayers and rituals to be performed. “These were being written by lamas in central Tibet for monasteries on the periphery, in places like Amdo,” he explains. “Then about a hundred years later, you have lamas in Amdo writing constitutions for monasteries on the new frontier, in Mongolia. So you see this very strategic dissemination of what the ideal monastery should look like.”
That homogeneity underpinned the Gelukpa’s version of a “study abroad” program, in which young monks from all over were encouraged to take a pilgrimage to the most prominent monasteries in central Tibet. “A young monk coming from Amdo or even Mongolia, where they speak entirely different languages, will show up in Lhasa and be grounded in the same literature, the same prayers, and same philosophical texts. It facilitates not just that kind of movement but also a unique identity,” Sullivan explains.
The leaders of monasteries were on the move as well, changing assignments every few years and rotating through numerous monasteries in their lifetime. “Having the same abbot perform common practices, such as reciting the constitution, at different monasteries also reinforced this homogeneity and common sense of identity,” he says. “I believe that homogeneity is one of the reasons why the Gelukpa flourished and thrived.”
Sullivan offers a modern analogy of the successful Geluk model: “An adviser of mine once suggested that the Gelukpa were a really successful franchise,” he says. “They were able to replicate a successful model over and over. If you think about how you can have the same experience in a franchise wherever you are in the world, I think we can then appreciate how attention to detail in religious service and all other aspects of operation isn’t an accident. It’s the underpinning of success.”