#AsiaNow Speaks with Daniel A. Hirshberg

Daniel A. Hirshberg is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Mary Washington and author of Remembering the Lotus-Born: Padmasambhava in the History of Tibet’s Golden Age, published by Wisdom Publications and winner of Honorable Mention for the 2018 AAS E. Gene Smith Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

In Remembering the Lotus-Born I rely on an interdisciplinary approach to Buddhism, historiography, and cultural memory theory to explore the construction and evolution of what is arguably Tibet’s most popular narrative, its conversion to Buddhism under the “Lotus-Born” guru, Padmasambhava (eighth century). An historically shady Indian tantrika, he was invited to Tibet during the imperial apogee under Tri Songdetsen (d. ca. 800). Remembering the Lotus-Born focuses on the biographical and historical narratives of Nyangrel Nyima Özer (1124–92), who is renowned as the first of the great Buddhist “treasure revealers.” I uncover genealogies of some of Tibet’s most renowned religious phenomena, breaking new ground by demonstrating how Indian conceptions of karma, reincarnation, and textual revelation were assimilated by allegedly enlightened Tibetans of later centuries who, in claiming to remember their past lives, present themselves as direct witnesses of Tibet’s conversion. In thereby seizing a special editorial license for the reformulation of the past, they reconstructed the emic history of Tibet’s golden age. Since this story becomes a cultural origin narrative of Tibetan identity, it is all the more critical as Tibetans confront the pressures of Chinese administration at home and diaspora abroad.

What inspired you to research this topic?

The figure of Padmasambhava, as well as the vibrant traditions stemming from him, had been a draw since my earliest days studying Tibetan Buddhism as an undergrad, especially when I went on semester abroad in India and Nepal. That interest persisted into my Ph.D. at Harvard University, where my mentor, Professor Leonard van der Kuijp, encouraged me to parse the evolution of his persona, and with it Tibetan accounts of their past, through textual criticism and historiography.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I feel extraordinarily fortunate to live in a time and place that supports this kind of study and research.

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Secluded cave retreats high in the mountains have a long history in Tibet, and Padmasambhava is renowned for meditating in them for extended periods while mystically concealing “treasure” texts and relics in their rocks and recesses. They are challenging to access because of the altitude alone, but then the traveler/pilgrim/researcher must brave the many hand-hewn ladders and leather ropes to scale deep into the heart of the mountain. Such retreats were the hearths of Tibetan Buddhist practice lineages for centuries, and visiting them offers unique insights into the contexts of their development.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

An early inspiration was Erik Pema Kunsang’s The Lotus-Born, a translation of (a very late recension of) Padmasambhava’s first complete biography. For theory, Jan Assmann’s Religion and Cultural Memory is illuminating, and the textual analysis demonstrated in the work of Robert Mayer and Cathy Cantwell, Per Sørensen, and of course Leonard van der Kuijp remain essential for methodology.

What are you working on now?

I just published a more accessible piece on Padmasambhava’s iconography for an exhibition volume at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, and am completing an analysis of the textual and art historical resources on this topic for submission to academic journals. I am also exploring some of the technical terminology and traditional analogies of imagination, visualization, and visionary experience drawn from early Indic literature, which subsequently inspires Tibetan biographical writing. Last, I am initiating a larger-scale project employing Optical Character Recognition technology to trace the evolution of Padmasambhava’s biography across its most popular versions.