Author Biography

Michelle J. Sorensen, PhD is an assistant professor at Western Carolina University. Her dissertation, “Making the Old New Again and Again: Legitimation and Innovation in the Tibetan Buddhist Chöd Tradition” (Columbia University, 2013), offers a revisionary history of the early development of Chöd; it includes English translations of Chöd texts attributed to Machik Labdrön and commentaries by Rangjung Dorjé. Michelle has spent over five years studying and doing research in Asia. As well as giving numerous conference presentations and invited talks nationally and internationally, Michelle has published articles and book chapters on topics including historical and contemporary Chöd praxis.


Based on observations from personal participation in the 2014 Saga Dawa Kortsay at Swayambhunath Stupa complex located near Kathmandu, Nepal, my essay draws attention to the distinctive lay Buddhist community that is formed in such ritual performances. Using Victor Turner’s concept of communitas, I argue that the liminal experience of the pilgrimage enables the constitution of a distinctive lay Buddhist community in terms of the self-transformation usually reserved for monastic practitioners. In contrast to recent accounts of Nepali pilgrimage that emphasize the subordinate role of the lay community in the Buddhist sangha, I argue that lay participants in ritual performances like the Saga Dawa Kortsay cultivate individual and collective identities as members of the sangha in their own right, with their own responsibilities for practicing and preserving Buddhist teachings. Through discussions of the Swayambunath complex, pilgrims’ efforts toward self-transformation, and their practice of Buddhist perfections through donations to mendicants, I use the example of the Saga Dawa Kortsay to explain how a distinctive lay Buddhist community is formed by pilgrims through the situation of communitas.


The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the editors for their their time and comments on the original draft of this paper, which were useful in clarifying the material. She would also like to thank Jeffrey Scraba for his conversations, comments, and support during the research and writing of this article.

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