image of “Metaphors of Authority and Differentiation”: Dagmar Schwerk on the Use of Metaphors in Bhutanese Legal Codes
(© Oliver Mann)

“Metaphors of Authority and Differentiation”: Dagmar Schwerk on the Use of Metaphors in Bhutanese Legal Codes

Dr. Dagmar Schwerk is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Religion at Leipzig University. In her guest lecture “Tighter Than a Silken Knot and Heavier Than a Golden Yoke”, she talked about Tibetan Metaphors of the Religious and Political Between Imagination and Social Reality.

Dr. Schwerk, your research focuses on Tibetan and Bhutanese Buddhism. How did you come to this research area?

Initially, out of my interest in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and history but also social sciences. I studied Tibetology, classical Indology, and Political Science, before I proceeded with a PhD in Tibetology at the University of Hamburg. As a result, while, as a textual scholar, I’m working mainly with historical-philological and text-critical methods, I remain committed to the analysis of current societal topics.
Due to a recommendation of my former supervisor during my M.A. studies, I focused more in detail on Bhutanese Buddhism and Bhutanese history and began my research about an influential and quite unconventional twentieth-century Bhutanese Buddhist scholar who had been decisive for the religious-doctrinal identity of his school but also the modernization of Buddhism in Bhutan. Along the way, I realized that, in Tibetology, where Bhutan is usually studied under in Western academia, Bhutan is somewhat still under-researched. So, I continued to work on Bhutan—currently covering the period between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.

What is the difference between Tibetan and Bhutanese Buddhism?

Tibetan Buddhism in itself is very diverse. Since Buddhism first took hold in Tibet in the seventh century, it further developed over many centuries in very different ways in the vast geographical space of the Tibetan cultural area that was spanning, at times, from South Asia to Central Asia and East Asia. In a similar way, a diversification also took place in the region that’s today the Kingdom of Bhutan and that was also part of the Tibetan cultural area from the very beginning—resulting in what we’d now call “Bhutanese Buddhism.” However, since the foundation of Bhutan in the seventeenth century, with a Buddhist government separate from Tibet, the relationship between the societal spheres of religion and politics has been formalized and institutionalized in a quite unique way. As a result, Buddhism became extremely important in Bhutan for identity- and nation-building. Since the eighteenth century, we can observe the general tendency in Bhutanese historiographical sources to spell out differences towards Tibetan Buddhism doctrinally but also lineage-wise much more explicitly. Moreover, we find the own Bhutanese religious history is depicted sometimes differently from how it’s described from the perspective of religious histories written in Central Tibet or Mongolia and vice versa.

In your talk, you referred to the metaphors in the Bhutanese Legal Code from 1729. How come there are metaphors in a legal code?

Metaphors and figurative language are a fascinating feature we find in many Tibetan and Bhutanese legal codes and writings. In our example, we should not imagine the Bhutanese Legal Code from 1729 as a bureaucratic and formalized legal codex, but as a work that, besides providing rules for the different actors in the religious, political, and economic spheres, additionally conveys important Buddhist ethical principles and a Buddhist political philosophy embedded in Tibetan Buddhist Tantric cosmology. The work is therefore diffused by numerous quotations from other Buddhist literary genres, such as canonical and extra-canonical works, advice literature for rulers, proverbs and sayings, and narratives from the Buddha’s previous lives. Naturally, figurative language, such as metaphors but also allegories, symbols, emblems, similes, and personifications, play a pivotal role in those literary genres.

And which role do metaphors play in this work?

They legitimize a specific Buddhist form of governance in Bhutan, including its complex differentiation between the societal spheres of religion, politics, and economy and the underlying epistemic structures of Tantric Buddhist ethics and cosmology. Moreover, they vividly establish the authority of the Buddhist ruler and government officials. Referring thereby to metaphors and other figurative language used in earlier Buddhist governments in Tibet and India serves as an effective means of creating meaning, identity, and authority within the Buddhist polity in Bhutan and supported identity- and nation-building in Bhutan. Through poignant imagery and metaphoricity, remembrance of the well-known “glorious” Buddhist past with its characteristics and principles recreated a sense of unity and orientation, in particular, in times of crisis or discord. Therefore, I’d like to call them metaphors of authority and differentiation. More broadly speaking, the textual analysis of the Legal Code from 1729 and its metaphors can help us to get a better sense and feel about the role of metaphors for the transcendence-immanence distinction in the specific cultural context of the Tibetan cultural area.

How can we still understand metaphors used in eighteenth-century Bhutan?

That’s an important question to ask! We need to employ historical-philological and text-critical methods but also develop a sound and well-thought-through theoretical framework. In my case, for example, this includes approaches from literary and metaphor studies and religious studies. Moreover, to identify metaphors in premodern classical-Tibetan works, we have to ask how to distinguish conventional or solidified from real metaphors, in the sense of creative or innovative metaphors in the given non-Western cultural context of the Tibetan cultural area. Making this distinction is a well-known challenge in metaphor analysis. In a trans-cultural context, this includes therefore addressing the “linguistic positionality” of the researcher/translator. Depending on the research questions we’d wish to address, possible additional approaches must be applied, such as ethnography, linguistics, and cognitive sciences.

What, in your opinion, are the benefits of comparative research on religion and metaphors as it is being done in our Collaborative Research Center?

The benefits are, first and foremost, that it systematically brings into conversation different disciplinary approaches in the field of metaphor studies but also develops through the different empirical case studies a trans-cultural and less Anglo-Euro-centric perspective on religious metaphors. To give a last example, in an interdisciplinary work group, when we analyze metaphors in classical Tibetan, we need to explicitly explain which indigenous grammatical concepts and emic terms are found in the source language—there are quite a few different ones—and then determine which could serve as functional equivalents along with their semantic field for the etic terms used in English: “metaphor”, or German: “Metapher” in our conversation. In that sense, an empirical study of the Tibetan cultural area will not only contribute to a comparative analysis but also enable the discussion of follow-up theoretical questions in metaphor studies in a trans-cultural context.


Dr. Dagmar Schwerk is currently working on the research project “101059800-BhutIDBuddh: Buddhism, Diplomacy, and Travel: Identity- and Nation-Building in Bhutan” funded by the European Union. For more information, please see