GUEST EDITOR: Religions Journal, Special Issue – “Pedagogy and Performance in Tibetan Buddhism”

With colleague Dr. Joshua Schapiro, Dr. Sheehy guest edited the special issue of the journal Religions on the topic, “Pedagogy and Performance in Tibetan Buddhism” Articles are Open Access and free to download.


This Special Issue explores a wide range of Tibetan Buddhist teaching practices, from the fourteenth century to the present, paying particular attention to the categories of “pedagogy” and “performativity.” The volume addresses, both Tibetans’ strategies for effective teaching, and their diverse approaches to displaying, concealing, and forming themselves as teachers.

Pedagogy has long been an interest of Buddhist scholars, particularly with respect to the ideal of “skillful means” (upāya kauśalya). Historical studies of Buddhist teaching techniques have addressed preaching practices (Mahinda Deegalle, Popularizing Buddhism, SUNY 2006), textbooks and teaching devices (Anne Blackburn, Buddhist Learning and Textual Practices in Eighteenth-Century Lankan Monastic Culture, Princeton 2001), and monastic curricula and debate (Georges Dreyfus, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, University of California 2002). Questions of pedagogy have been of especially pressing interest for those reflecting on the creative adaptation of Buddhist forms for contemporary audiences. In one particularly insightful essay, the very idea of “pedagogy” is used to complicate our understanding of encounters between Buddhist teachings and “non-Asian consumers” at large (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Pedagogy of Buddhism” 2003). This present Special Issue aspires to enrich these conversations by introducing as wide a variety of Tibetan pedagogical contexts as possible: from didactic narratives to biographies, from hostile confrontations to intimate guru-disciple transmissions, from monastic debates to public miracles, from teaching the body to denying that one is teaching anything at all.

A number of essays in this issue choose to consider how the idea of “performance” helps to clarify what is at stake in Tibetan pedagogy. The categories of “performance” and “performativity” have a long history in the Humanities and Social Sciences. As Catherine Bell efficiently summarizes in her entry on “Performance” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago 1998), despite the popularity of the term, there is little uniformity in its usage. Scholars speak of performance with respect to ritual enactments and improvisations, illocutionary speech acts, verbal art, and the formation of subjectivities. Scholars of Tibetan culture have capitalized on this range of possibility: writing on the consequences of ritual performance on the distribution of power relations (Martin Mills, Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism, Routledge 2010), and on self-immolations as rhetorically-infused performances (John Whalen-Bridge, Tibet On Fire, Palgrave Macmillan 2015), for example. Scholars in this volume apply theories of performativity in diverse ways in order to bring to life the sophistication of Tibetan Buddhist pedagogical negotiations.

Dr. Michael Sheehy
Dr. Joshua Schapiro
Guest Editors