Buddhism in the Tibetan Cultural Area – Part II – Richard H. Robinson


During the first two centuries after the demise of Buddhism in northern India in the early thirteenth century, the Tibetans succeeded in consolidating their religion into the form it was to maintain, largely unchanged, until the early twentieth century. This involved four processes: studying the history of Bud­ dhism so as to provide a background for textual study, gathering texts to form a standard canon, establishing doctrinal syntheses to interpret and accommo­ date the many schools of thought inherited from the two propagations, and forming a political system that reflected the increasing institutional power of ‘\:he monastic communities.

      1. Historical Issues

The first task confronting the scholars of this period was to establish a stan­ dardized canon from the mass of texts they had inherited from the two propa­ gations ofDharma; this, in turn, required that they research the history of Buddhism, both in India and Tibet, so as to provide a framework for their textual studies. In part, their research was motivated by a genuine quest for historical truth, and the resulting histories remain among the most reliable sources for modern historical study of Buddhism’s last centuries in India.

However, because the two propagations ofDharma to Tibet had resulted in two distinct camps of thought, partisan concerns occasionally eclipsed the his­ torians’ concern for factual truth. As a result, they came to focus on a handful of specific incidents that they polemicized to the point where it is virtually impossible to determine what actually transpired during the events in ques­ tion. The histories written during this period, however, provide excellent source material for studying the issues that were uppermost in the historians’ own minds.

One prime example of this partisan historiography was the controversy that developed over the correct record of the Great Debate held at Sam-ye in 790-92 on the issue of sudden versus gradual Awakening (see Section 11.2.2). The crux of the debate-if in fact the debate did occur-was not so much over the sudden or gradual nature of Awakening as it was over how necessary morality and analytical insight were in bringing Awakening about. This was a primary point of disagreement between the two major camps: the old schools, following their practice of Dzogchen, maintaining that simply stilling the processes of thought is enough to realize Awakening; the newer schools, fol­ lowing their monastic Madhyamika teachings, maintaining that morality and analytical insight were indispensable components of the Path. Thus the two camps focused on what support they could find for their positions in King Trhisong Detsen’s handling of the case. It is interesting to note how, in the course of the controversy, the battle lines were redrawn, with the Kagyii school and its practice of Siitra Mahamudra finding itself aligned with the Nyingmas. This realignment was to last up through modern times.

The controversy began with Kunga Gyalts’en (Kund-dga’ rGyal-mtshan; 1182-1251), leader of the Sakyan school, who is one of the few figures in Ti­ betan history to be remembered primarily by his Sanskrit name, Sakya Par:i­

<#ta. Sakya Par:ic;l.ita depicted the Chinese side of the Great Debate as being identical with the Siitra Mahamudra and “Chinese” Dzogchen methods of meditation that were being propagated during his time. According to him, Trhisong Detsen clearly repudiated the Chinese position, forbidding that it ever be taught in Tibet again. This, he said, was proof that Siitra Mahamudra and Chinese Dzogchen were invalid as well.

To counter Sakya Par:ic;l.ita’s attack, the Nyingmas produced their own in­ terpretation of Trhisong Detsen’s reign, in which the king’s daughter, Yeshe Tsogyel (Ye-shes mTsho-rgyal), became Padmasambhava’s primary consort, and the king himself became a trained Dzogchen adept. In addition, the twelfth-century Nyingma historian Nyang Nyi-ma ‘od-zer provided an alter­ native version of the outcome of the debate, in which Trhisong Detsen de­ creed that the gradual and sudden approaches to Awakening were essentially the same, the gradual mode being generally preferable simply because it was better suited for people of ordinary talents, whereas the sudden method was better for those with extraordinary talents. Thus, according to this account, both sides emerged victorious from the debate.

Buton (Bu-ston; 1290-1364), a monk belonging to an independent branch of the Kadams, later reasserted Sakya Par:ic;l.ita’s position in his definitive history of Buddhism (Strong EB, sec. 7.3), and this was to become the position

accepted by Tibetan officialdom. Hwa-shang, the Chinese representative at the debate, came to be depicted as a buffoon in the dances staged by the state to celebrate the Tibetan New Year, although this development was as much due to Tibetan nationalism as it was to historical beliefs. Nevertheless, the Nyingmas continued to uphold their version of the debate, and the matter was left at an impasse.

      1. Texts

Scholars worked throughout the thirteenth century to gather, standardize, and collate the various texts that had been brought over from India and translated into Tibetan during the previous centuries. The connection between this process and that of historical research is demonstrated by the collation’s having been completed in the beginning of the fourteenth century by Euton, the au­ thor of the definitive history of Buddhism mentioned previously. Buton’s canon consisted of two parts: the Kanjur (bKa’-‘ gyur), which contained the word ofSakyamuni and other Buddhas; and the Tenjur (bsTan’gyur), which consisted of later treatises not only on Buddhist doctrine, but also on other subjects-such as medicine, astrology, and grammar-that had been taught in the great Buddhist universities during the period when Tibetans were gather­ ing texts there. The Kanjur fell into four parts: the Mulasarviistivadin Vinaya, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, other Siitras, and Tantras. Very few Hinayana Siitras made their way into the collection. The first printed Kanjur was com­ pleted in Peking in 1411, and the first complete printings of the canon in Tibet were carried out at Narthang in 174?, utilizing 108 volumes for the Kanjur and 225 for the Tenjur.

Euton did not include Nyingma Tantras in his compilation of the canon, so in the fifteenth century a Nyingma scholar, Ratna Lingpa (Ratna gLing-pa; 1403-78), collected the Nyingma texts then available in a work called the Nyingma Gyudbum (rNying ma rgyud ‘bum), or One Hundred Thousand Ny­ ingma Tantras.

      1. Doctrinal Systems

The compilation of a standardized canon was only the first step toward resolv­ ing the most bewildering problem facing Tibetan Buddhists during this pe­ riod-that offinding order in the welter of conflicting doctrines and practices contained in the legacy of Siitras, Tantras, and treatises they had inherited from the past. Many monks of high intellectual caliber tackled the problem, out only two provided syntheses that were to prove enduring, forming the two basic approaches to doctrine and practice that have continued to charac­ terize Tibetan Buddhism up through the present.

The first of the two syntheses was provided by the great Nyingma scholar Longch’en Rabjam (Klong-ch’en rab-‘byams; 1308-63), who produced a se­ ries of texts called the Seven Treasuries, formulating the Nyingma path of practice in such a way as to make Dzogchen respectable in terms of Indian Buddhist doctrines. Longch’ en Rabjam was less interested in systematizing

Buddhist doctrine as a whole than in systematizing Dzogchen theory and prac­ tice. He held to the Nyingma position that all Buddhist teachings, no matter how contradictory they might seem on the surface, were equally valid as alter­ native approaches to the truth-as different teachings were suitable for differ­ ent temperaments-but that they all were ultimately inadequate as descriptions of the realizations to be gained through the practice of Dzogchen. However, by his time a variety ofDzogchen traditions had developed, and he felt called upon to impose some order on them.

He ultimately delineated three valid Dzogchen traditions, two lower ones tracing their lineage from a Chinese monk in Kashmir, and a higher one pur­ portedly founded by Samantabhadra (see Section 5.4.4) and brought from India to Tibet by Vimalamitra. The higher one taught two approaches to Awakening-both equally effective, but the second the more spectacular of the two. The first, a sudden method, was trekcho (khregs chod, cutting through rigidity), in which one simply broke through to the innate purity and simplic­ ity of awareness and then stabilized one’s ability to remain in touch with that purity. The second, a more gradual method, was togal (thod gral, passing over the crest), in which yogic techniques were used to stabilize the attainment of light acquired in the earlier stages to the point where one attained the rain­ bow-body, whereby one’s physical body would dissolve into light after death.

These practices are obviously shamanic in origin, related to the Bon myth of the creation of the world from light. Longch’ en, however, rationalized them with Buddhist doctrine by identifying the pure awareness realized in trekcho with the Dharmakaya, and the rainbow-body attained in togal with the sam­ bhogakaya. However, he was careful to point out that the Dharmakaya was not identical to the store-consciousness (see Section 4.3), for unlike the store­ consciousness it has been pure and nondual all along. Thus a recurrent ques­ tion in later Dzogchen teachings has been how to distinguish the two in practice.

Longch’ en Rabjam’s systemization of Dzogchen has remained definitive up to the present, but it solved few problems for those thinkers who respected the inconsistencies they found among the various schools of Buddhist thought. At the same time, his life-he reportedly sired a number of illegitimate chil­ dren-did notprovide a satisfying model for those who respected the Bud­ dhist teachings on morality. Only later in the fourteenth century did Tsongkhapa (Tsong kha-pa; 1357-1419), a native of northeast Tibet, formu­ late a system accommodating both of these concerns that was to win wide­ spread approval.

Tsongkhapa had become a novice in boyhood and received Tantric initia­ tions before going to central Tibet. There he studied the exoteric Mahayana treatises for years and visited all the notable centers of learning, regardless of their affiliation, his special interests being logic and Vinaya. Taking full ordina­ tion in the Kadam order at age 25, he began to ponder the central question of Mahayana philosophy: the meaning of the doctrine of emptiness. Did it com­ pletely negate the validity of conventional norms and reality-including other Buddhist doctrines-or did it leave them intact? After years of study and

meditation, he was introduced to a text by Candrakirti, the founder of the Prasangika Madhyamika school (see Section 4.2), and in 1398 this inspired a vision in which he saw all Buddhist teachings as being mutually reinforcing rather than contradictory. According to his vision, the·doctrine of emptiness, if properly understood, did not invalidate ethical norms, logic, or the doctrine of dependent co-arising. This realization formed the basis for the remainder of his life’s work.

Tsongkhapa’s Sung-bum (gSung ‘bum), or Collected Vliorks, total well over two hundred titles. They cover the entire range of Buddhist philosophy and Tantric practice under the rubric of Atisa’s threefold analysis of the Buddhist Path-renunciation, bodhicitta, and right view concerning emptiness-with a special emphasis on the last category. According to Tsongkhapa, the emptiness of the exoteric Mahayana treatises was in no way different from or inferior to the emptiness induced by Tantric practices; one needed to have a proper un­ derstanding of emptiness, arrived at through the processes of logic and textual study, for one’s Tantric practice to succeed. Logic was needed because it made clear the “object of negation,” that is, precisely what was and was not negated by the doctrine of emptiness. Textual study was needed for the same reason, for as one worked through the various formulations of Buddhist doctrine pro­ duced over the centuries, one’s understanding of emptiness would gradually become more subtle and precise.

Tsongkhapa rated, in ascending order, the various schools of Buddhist thought known to him as follows: Vaibha ka, Sautrantika, Yogacara, Svatan­ trika Madhyamika, and Prasangika Madhyamika. The rating was based on the thoroughness with which the school understood the doctrine of emptiness, although Tsongkhapa viewed the higher schools as perfecting rather than negating the lower ones. Sautrantika and Vaibha ka he faulted as giving too much reality to mental objects; Yogacara he faulted as giving too much reality to mind. For him, Prasangika Madhyamika provided the middle way in that it did not negate too little, as did the earlier Buddhist schools, nor did it negate too much, as did some of Tsongkhapa’s contemporaries, who saw emptiness as negating moral norms and other conventional truths.

To’ implement his proposed course of study, Tsongkhapa founded a monas­ tic university on Mount Ganden (dGa’-Idan), near Lhasa, in 1409. Soon his students founded two additional universities, also near Lhasa, at Dre-bung (‘B_ras spungs) in 1416, and Sera (Se-rwa) in 1419. In their heyday, the three universities housed a total of more than twenty thousand monks. Their cur­ riculum started with basic study in logic and then proceeded through what were termed the five great texts: six to seven years on Asanga/Maitreya’s Abhi­ samayalmpkara, a text on the bodhisattva Path (see Section 4.3); two years on Candrakirti’s Madhyamakavatifra, a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Stanzas on the Middle Way, to introduce the proper understanding of emptiness (see Section 4.2); two years on Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosa (see Section 4.4); and two years on a Vinaya commentary by Gui;iaprabha. Each year throughout the course of study, time would be taken out to review the fifth great text, Dhar­ makirti’s major work on logic and epistemology (see Section 6.2).

The curriculum as a whole was an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the great Indian universities. The student body in each university was divided into two debating teams, which were encouraged to be ruthless in their attack of each other’s positions. The course of study would culminate in several years of review before the student would attain his geshe (dse-bshes, Refined Knowl­ edge) degree and participate in a final debating contest. This contest ultimately grew into a major national event, with each year’s winner becoming a na­ tional hero.

Throughout the course of study, the monks also pursued preliminary Tantric practices. Only after the completion of their studies, however, were they allowed to pursue higher Tantric practices on full-scale retreats. Tsongkhapa insisted on strict adherence to the monastic discipline throughout the course of the practice. Although he did not deny the possibility that one might be able to pursue the Tantric Path with a partner, he set out a strin­ gent-virtually impossible-list of qualifications that both partners would have to fulfill if they did not want their practice to lead them to hell. As a re­ sult, his followers for the most part stuck to celibate Tantrism.

Tsongkhapa’s program was so distinctive that it developed into a new school, the Gelug (dGe-lugs, Virtuous Ones), and became so popular that it took over the Kadam school and in effect replaced it. His program influenced studies in the other major schools as well. The curriculum he set out remained unchanged until Lhasa fell to the Chinese in the middle of the twentieth cen­tury, and is still followed in Gelug monasteries scattered throughout the world. When Tibetan Buddhism spread to Mongolia and Siberia in later centuries, the Gelug curriculum formed the heart of the movement. Although it suc­ ceeded in producing a line of brilliant scholars and academicians, it put a freeze on creativity in Tibetan monastic academic circles. In the later centuries of Tibetan Buddhism, which we will touch on in the following, the creative im­ pulse tended to come from sources that found their inspiration in Longch’en Rabjam’s more eclectic approach.