Vajra Brother, Vajra Sister: Renunciation, Individualism and the Household in Tibetan Buddhist Monasticism



This article challenges two connected notions in the study of Tibetan Buddhism: that Buddhist monasticism is characterized by a pronounced move towards individualism, systematically detaching monks from relational social life; and that Tibetan Buddhist doctrines of karma represent an alternative mode of identity to those constructed within household life. By comparing the ritual practices and inheritance patterns associated with household groups in Ladakh with tantric ritual forms in local Buddhist (Gelukpa) monasteries, it is argued that they demonstrate pronounced structural similarities, centred on the shared symbolic construct of the household/temple as the source of socialized agency. An analysis of the meditative disciplines of Gelukpa monasticism is used to show how such training serves not to renounce kinship and household values, but to transform them into modes of religious authority, essential to the social position of monks (trapa) and incarnate lamas (tulku) in Tibetan Buddhism.