The Formation of the Tibetan State Religion: The Geluk School 1419-1642

CID Faculty Working Paper No. 154

Rachel M. McCleary and Leonard W.J. van der Kuijp
December 2007 (Revised January 2008)


Monopolistic competition of Tibetan Buddhism by the eleventh-twelfth century allowed for many schools and sects to develop with little differentiation in religious products. The rise of the Ming dynasty (1368-1424) represented a significant shift in Yuan foreign policy toward Tibetan affairs. Ming disengagement of China in Tibet translated into a liberalization of local politics with one major pattern emerging: a shift from secular politics and clan wealth to ecclesiastical monastic institutions. The Geluk sect formed during this period, successfully introducing superior technology in its organizational characteristics (celibacy, ordained abbots, casuistical adherence, scholastic training and doctrinal orthodoxy). The club model formation of the Gelukpa distinguished it from other schools and sects, reinforcing the technological superiority of its organization. With the loss of its major Tibetan patron, the Gelukpa facing extinction by its fiercest competitor, the Karmapa, raised the stakes by introducing the incarnate position of the Dalai Lama and his labrang (financial estate). The introduction of the incarnate Dalai Lama represented a technological improvement in that the Gelukpa could now directly compete for wealthy patrons with their fiercest competitor, the Karmapa. By forming an alliance with a foreign power (Mongols), the Gelukpa were willing to use extreme violence to become the state religion.

Keywords: economics of religion, market structure and monopolistic competition; natural monopoly in a religion market; club-theoretic model of religious groups; Tibetan Buddhism

JEL subject codes: A11, A12, D21, D40, D42, D49, D71, D74, H19, L21, L22, Z12