Buddhism in the Tibetan Cultural Area
A TANTRIC ORTHODOXY
The Tibetan cultural area covers the lands in which the Tibetan form of the Buddhist Unexcelled Yoga traditions became established as the dominant religion. This includes not only Tibet, but also the Himalayan valleys immediately bordering Tibet-such as Ladakh, Spiti, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Mustang in northwestern Nepal-as well as areas further afield that the Tibetans converted to their form of Buddhism, such as Mongolia, the Buryats in Siberia, and the Kalmyks in the steppes north of the Caspian Sea. All of these lands had strong shamanic traditions prior to their adoption of Bud dhism, traditions that played a major role not only in determining which form of Buddhism was to become dominant in this area but also in reshaping Buddhist practice as it became established.
The question of the relationship between Buddhism and the preexisting shamanic practices provided a recurring point of disagreement and creative compromise throughout the history of Buddhism in these lands. On the pop ular level, the issues were similar to those surrounding Theravada syncretism in Southeast Asia: how the beliefs and rituals dealing with the spirit world were to be rationalized in terms of the Buddhist doctrine of karma. The primary difference here was that the dominant orthodoxy-Tantra, with its mantras, rituals, visualizations, and assumption of divine identities-acted as a primary source of techniques for the shaman’s arsenal. On the level of medita tion practice, the tension between shamanism and Buddhism revolved around
the question of how the states attained in Buddhist mind development corre sponded to the altered states of consciousness attained by shamanic adepts. As we noted in Chapter 1, the Buddha’s Awakening contained shamanic elements but also something more: a strongly ethical orientation and a phenomenologi cal analysis of the causal process by which the mind gives rise to suffering. The question for the Tibetans as they gained exposure to Buddhism was quite simply how essential this “something more” was to the attainment of the Bud dhist goal.
Related to this question was the social issue of how Buddhist Tantrism, a movement that glorified the personal powers derived from systematic trans gression, could provide the dominant ideology for a society without under cutting ethical norms. For the Tibetan shamans who sought and paid for initiations into Buddhist Tantra from Indian adepts, this was hardly an issue. But for the Tibetan kings who actively sponsored the importation of Bud dhism into their country-and later for the ecclesiastical leaders who took over the central government-the creation of ethical restraints on the more antisocial tendencies inherent in Tantra was a primary concern.
One final point that needs addressing before we begin our coverage of the history of Tibetan Buddhism concerns the way the practice of Tantra has af fected how the Tibetans themselves view that history. In performing a Tantric ritual, one is dealing with strong and potentially dangerous forces. One must have unshakable confidence in the techniques learned from one’s teachers, and this means that one must believe these techniques have been handed down, unchanged, from a supremely reliable source. Because none of the rit uals can claim to originate with Sakyamuni, they are generally attributed to Cosmic Buddhas whose mode of being supersedes all questions of historical proof. If changes are introduced into the tradition, they must be justified ei ther by rewriting history or by claiming special forms of transmission that cir cumvent normal means. This has led to a cultural pattern whereby history is valued not for its accuracy but for its usefulness in helping to empower the ritual participant. When asked by westerners what “really” happened at a par ticular point in history, Tibetans have been known to respond that the ques tion is irrelevant. What matters to them is the interpretation that can support the ritual.
At the same time, the Tantric practice of deva-yoga (see Section 6.1), com bin d with the Yogacara doctrine of the Dharmakaya underlying all minds, tends to blur the whole issue of personal identity. This has led to the creation of histories in which important individuals are emanations of great deities, bodhisattvas, and Cosmic Buddhas acting out an epic drama for the protection and prosperity of the Tibetan nation and its form of Buddhism-the more dramatic the epic, the better. Although both of these tendencies serve to ob struct the modern historian’s quest for accuracy, they are important historical facts in and of themselves, and must be kept in mind when trying to under stand how Tibetan Buddhism has developed over the centuries.
What little is known of pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion indicates that it dealt with what were later called the four ways of gods and men: divination, exor cism, magical coercion, and the guidance of the human spirit after death. A cult centering on the divinity of the king involved elaborate sacrifices for the maintenance of the king’s power while he was alive, and for the provision of his eternal happiness in the heavenly world after death. Ritual experts were hired for both sorts of occasions, and some seem to have acted as the king’s advisers in the day-to-day running of the kingdom. Scholars have suggested that this pattern, which focused political and sacred power on a single figure, set the stage for the later period in Tibetan history when monasteries assumed the role of noble families and their abbots the role of kings, but as we shall see, there were also economic reasons for this later development.
Considering Tibet’s proximity to India, Buddhism reached it remarkably late. The Tibetans themselves recorded that Buddhism was introduced twice into their country, first in the seventh to ninth centuries, and then again begin ning at the end of the tenth, with a dark period of anti-Buddhist persecution in between. We must qualify this scenario, however, by noting that it covers only the periods in which the rulers of Tibet took an active interest in the propagation ofBuddhism, and that the persecution was more antimonastic than anti-Buddhist. From the seventh century to the Muslim conquest of India at the beginning of the thirteenth century, a fairly constant stream of individual Tibetans filtered down through the Himalayan passes to acquire initiations and instructions from the Buddhist Tantric adepts in northeastern India and Kash mir. Their intei;:est in Tantric powers, as opposed to Buddhist phil_osophy, played a major role in shaping Tibetan Buddhism.
The First Propagation
The first king credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet was Song-tsen Garn po (full transliterated form: Srong-brtsan sgam-po; d. circa 650). King Song tsen inherited a united Tibetan kingdom from his father and started Tibet on a campaign of imperial conquest that made it the dominant power in central Asia, with control over the Silk Road, until the middle of the ninth century (see Section 8.1.3). He had two Buddhist wives, a princess from China and one from Nepal. To please them, he built Tibet’s first Buddhist temple, the Jo-khang in Lhasa (Strong EB, sec. 7.1). Later Tibetan historians identified King Song-tsen as an emanation of Avalokitesvara, and his Chinese wife as an emanation of Tara (see Section 5.4.4). After his reign, Lhasa began to attract Buddhist monks whose homelands had been decimated by the Tibetan con quests, but these monks, along with the handful of Tibetan monks they had managed to ordain, were later forced to leave Tibet when they were blamed for a smallpox epidemic in the capital. Nevertheless, they left behind a legacy of texts that served to convert Tibet’s first truly Buddhist monarch, Trhisong Detsen (Khri-srong Ide-brtsan; r. 755-circa 797).
Tibet’s imperial power reached its peak during Trhisong Detsen’s reign, as China was in the throes of the An Lu-shan rebellion (see Section 8.5). Ti betan armies occupied the Chinese capital at Ch’ang-an in 763, and captured Tun-huang, the great Buddhist translation center on the Silk Road, in 787, after which scholars there turned to translating Chinese Buddhist texts into Tibetan for their new overlords. Trhisong Detsen took advantage of this situa tion to send emissaries to India, China, and central Asia to obtain Buddhist texts; to invite Buddhist scholars to the Tibetan court; and to submit lists of questions concerning Buddhist doctrine to any renowned scholars who were unable to make the trip. One such list has been found in the caves of Tun huang. It is a remarkable document revealing that Yogacara was the primary school of Buddhist thought entering Tibet during this period, and that the king had a sophisticated grasp of its teachings and controversial points. Later Tibetans regard him, with good reason, as an emanation of Mafijusri (see Sec tion 5.4.2).
Two other significant events in the history of Tibetan Buddhism occurred during King Trhisong’s reign. The first was the building of the monastery at Sam-ye (bSam-yas), southeast of Lhasa, a process that took a total of 12 years, from 763 to 775 (Strong EB, sec. 7.1). The great Indian scholar Santarak ita was invited from Nalanda to preside over the founding of what was to be come Tibet’s first native monastery, but a series of natural disasters, which the anti-Buddhist faction at court attributed to his presence in the country, forced him to return to India. Before leaving, however, he counseled the king to in vite to Tibet an Indian Tantric adept, Padmasambhava, who would tame the local gods and demons, making them more amenable to the establishment of Buddhism on-Tibetan soil. The king followed his advice, and Padmasambhava accepted the invitation. Tibetan traditions report that Padmasambhava was a fabulous wonder-worker, subduing a vast number of demonic forces and forc ing pledges from them to protect Tibetan Buddhism.
Construction was then resumed on the monastery at Sam-ye. Santarak ita was invited to its consecration, and the king swore in an edict, still extant, that Tibet would dedicate itself in perpetuity to the support of the Triple Gem. At the same time, seven hand-picked members of the Tibet nobility, called the Seven Elect, were ordained to form the first native Tibetan Sangha. The Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya was chosen as the guide for monastic discipline. This is one of the few Hinayana texts to be translated into Tibetan and has formed the disciplinary code for all Tibeta.n monastic orders ever since. It is important to note, however, that the monastic form introduced into Tibet had little in common with the original Buddhist pattern of small, loosely organized com munities of alms-goers. Rather, life at Sam-ye was patterned on that of the great Buddhist universities in India: large, organized communities dependent on landed grants for their continued existence. This was one of the factors that eventually led Tibetan monasticism to become thoroughly politicized.
Historical records have little more to say about Padmasambhava after the consecration of the monastery at Sam-ye, but Tibetan legends credit him with spending decades in Tibet, subduing gods and demons throughout the land
Tibetans regard him as a second Buddha, eclipsing Sakyamuni in importance for their country. In later centuries the Nyingma order claimed him as their founder and as the conduit-from the great Cosmic Buddha Samantabhadra (see Section 5.4.4)-of their central meditation tradition, Dzogchen (rDzogs ch’en, The Great Perfection).
Whatever the truth of these legends, Padmasambhava had little influence over the policies adopted at Sam-ye. The king appointed a council, composed of the chief monks, to oversee the translation of Buddhist works into Tibetan and, in particular, to prevent the translation of Tantras. The large number of Tantric works that did make their way into Tibetan during this period were thus the result of independent efforts, and not of royal sponsorship.
The second major event occurring during Trhisong Detsen’s reign was the Great Debate on the issue of sudden versus gradual Awakening, held at Sam ye from approximately 790 to 792 (Strong EB, sec. 7.3). Historical sources covering this event are contradictory, with some even suggesting that no di rect debate was held, but rather that different scholars from India and China were invited to present their positions separately to the king. One of the few sources dating from the time of the debate-the report of Hwa-shang Mo ho-yan, the major Chinese participant and a student of the Northern School of Ch’an-claims that the Chinese defense of sudden Awakening won the king’s favor. Later Tibetan sources, however, all maintain that the Chinese lost the debate and that the king banned any further Chinese missionary activity in the country. There is strong evidence that this ban was never enacted, but the accepted version of the event had an important effect on later Tibetan thought and is in fact a major source for our understanding of the issues alive in the period during which this version crystallized, the thirteenth and four teenth centuries. Therefore we will discuss it in connection with that period in Section 11.3.1.
Two of Trhisong Detsen’s successors, his son and grandson, continued his
enthusiastic support of Buddhism. The grandson, Ralpachen (Ral-pa-can; r. 823-40), even appointed a Buddhist monk as his chief minister. However, this appointment, along with the growing power of the Buddhist monasteries in general, appears to have been unpopular with members of his court, for in 840 both the king and his chief minister were assassinated. Ralpachen’s brother, Lang Dar-ma (gLang Dar-ma), ascended to the throne and proceeded to crack down on the monasteries. He is depicted in the traditional histories as an anti Buddhist fanatic, although Tun-huang records portray him as opposed not to the religion per se, but simply to the inordinate power that the monasteries had begun to acquire based on their land grants. He in turn was assassinated by a Buddhist monk-the assassination was later justified on the grounds that it was an act of”kindness” to prevent the king from creating further bad karma andtheensuing political chaos brought about the end of the Tibetan empire and any semblance of centralized control in Tibet. The monasteries were de populated, and thus the period of the First Propagation ended.
Although the political order in the following period was too fragmented to provide any support to Buddhism, individual Tibetans continued to pursue
Buddhist Tantric practices, and a number of them made the trip to India for further initiations and texts. One of the most famous practitioners of this time was Ma-cig (Ma-gcig, The One Mother; 1055-1145), a nun who was forced to renounce her vows after having intercourse with the man who later be came her husband. After his death, she began to suffer a variety of ailments re sulting from breaking her vows and engaging in indiscriminate Tantric practice with improperly initiated adepts. Eventually she met up with an adept who had studied in Nalanda and who was able to diagnose the cause of her trouble. After arranging for her to undergo an elaborate ceremony of atonement, he became her new principal partner, and from that point onward she met with nothing but success. Eventually her fame eclipsed his; Tibetans continue to worship her as an emanation of Tara to this day.
Without royal patronage to encourage doctrinal orthodoxy and monastic discipline, Buddhist practice in Tibet mixed freely with shamanic customs. In the latter part of the tenth century, as various minor Tibetan kingdoms began to attain a measure of stability, the new kings came to regard this situation with concern, viewing Tantrism as detrimental to the moral fiber of their so cieties. Their concern is what led to the Second Propagation of the Dharma.
The Second Propagation
The Second Propagation began in the newly stabilized kingdoms to the south of Mount Kailasa (Strong EB, sec. 7. 5.1), in the extreme southwest of Tibet, as the central area around Lhasa was still in disarray. The prime mover in this Buddhist renaissance was the king of Purang, Yeshe-od (Ye-shes-‘od), who abdicated his throne in favor of his son and took ordination in order to devote himself fully to the Buddhist revival. He wrote an ordinance denouncing sex ual yoga and animal sacrifice as practiced in Unexcelled Yoga. Sending a group of followers to Kashmir to collect reliable texts, he set forth the principle that only those practices that were clearly derived from Indian Buddhist texts should be accepted as true Dharma. This principle formed the guiding stan dard behind the entire Second Propagation.
After Yeshe-od’s death, his grandson, O-de (‘Od-Ide), invited the great Indian scholar Atisa (982-1054) from the university at Vikramasila, near Na landa, to help spread the Dharma in Tibet. This was perhaps the most influ ential single event in the conversion of Tibet to the Buddhist religion. Scholars have often noted the symbolism of the founding of the monastery at Sam-ye, with Santarak ita representing the monastic/university strain of Buddhism, and Padmasambhava the Tantric strain. Atisa serves as a symbol of the Indian tradition that became the orthodoxy in Tibet, in that he combined both strains in one person. On the one hand, he advanced the Prasangika interpretation of Madhyamika philosophy (see Section 4.2), which was to become the domi nant school of Tibetan academic thought. Together with his Tibetan disciple Dromton (‘Brom-ston; 1003-65), he founded the first of the great Tibetan monastic orders, the Kadam (bK’ gdams, Bound to [the Buddha’s] Command), which became renowned for its high standard of scholarship and strict adher
ence to the Vinaya (Strong EB, sec. 7.4). On the other hand, he himself had studied under the famous Indian Tantric adept Naropa (see Section 6.3.4), and is remembered as the conduit of a great number of Tantric initiation lin eages in the monastic version ofUnexcelled Yoga (see Section 6.3.5). He was also responsible for the importation of the cult of Tara, which was to become Tibet’s most widespread bodhisattva cult.
The dual nature of Atisa’s thought is best illustrated by his analysis of the Buddhist Path into three stages: renouncing of the world of sarµsara, arousing the thought of Awakening, and attaining a correct view of emptiness. Viewed from an academic standpoint, this is a fairly standard interpretation of Mahayana thought. At the same time, however, it also follows the process of generation in deva-yoga. The renunciation of the world corresponds to the adept’s renunciation of the everyday level of experience to enter into the mal). c;lala he/ she is visualizing. The arousing of the bodhicitta corresponds to the adoption of the deity’s mind-set, and the correct view of emptiness corre sponds to the recollection of purity, in which the adept stops to reflect that all levels of reality-everyday and visualized-are equally empty of any self nature, so as to prevent the mind from placing any thought constructs on the ritual experience before proceeding with the remainder of the ritual. It is im portant to remember that this pattern of dual meanings applies not only to Atisa’s thought, but also to Tibetan Buddhist thought in general.
The story of Atisa’s invitation is interesting for the light it casts on the eco nomics of institutional Buddhism both in India and in Tibet at this time. To induce Atisa to come to Tibet, King O-de had to pledge a large sum of gold to the university at Vikramasila for what was essentially a three-year contract. When the three yearn were up, Atisa’s return to India was blocked by political unrest in the Himalayas. Thus he agreed to stay on, provided that additional payments be sent back to the university. All of this suggests that the Indian universities’ day-to-day operating expenses and the vagaries of royal support had forced them to depart from the traditional Buddhist willingness to offer teachings for free. This, together with the practice among lay Indian Tantric adepts of charging for their initiations, established the custom among Tibetans that it was legitimate to charge for the teaching, a custom that continues today. The Second Propagation continued until the demise of Buddhism in northern India and Kashmir, and was largely a story of how the new Kadam movement interacted with other Tantric lineages being brought from India during this period and with the earlier Buddhist traditions derived from the First Propagation. Many Tibetans continued traveling to India to collect texts
and initiations throughout this period, but two in particular stand out: Drok- · mi (‘Brog-mi, Nomad) and Marpa. Drok-mi (992-1074) collected a large number of initiations while in India, principally from the lineage of the Tantric adept Virupa. After his return to Tibet, another Indian, Gayadhara, sought him out and gave him exclusive Tibetan rights over his lineage as well. One of Drok-mi’s disciples, Kon-chog Gyalpo (Dkon-mchog Rgyal-po), established a monastery in Sakya (Sa-skya); his son, adopting the discipline of the Kadams,
As for Marpa (1012-96), he originally began studying with Drok-mi but objected to Drok-mi’s high initiation fees and so went to India to acquire Tantric initiations on his own. He studied primarily with Nampa, who taught him the Cakrasa1J1vara Tantra. On his return to Tibet, Marpa married and set himself up as a householder, revealing his mastery of the Tantras only to a chosen few. His main student was Milarepa (Mi-la ras-pa, Cotton-clad Mila; 1040-1123), who was to become one of the most beloved figures in Tibetan history. Mila, as a youth, had learned magic in order to take revenge on a wicked uncle who had dispossessed and maltreated Mila’s widowed mother. Seized with remorse after destroying his uncle, he sought first to expiate his bad karma and then to attain liberation. At age 38 he became Marpa’s disci ple. For six years the master subjected him to harsh ordeals (Strong EB, sec. 7.9) before finally granting him the initiation he sought. Milarepa spent the remainder of his life meditating in the caves and wandering on the slopes of the high Himalayas. After a long period of solitude, he gradually attracted a following, converted many disciples, and worked wonders for people’s bene fit. A fictionalized “autobiography” of Milarepa, composed in the fifteenth century, is one of the great classics of Tibetan literature.
Mila’s primary student was Gampopa (Sgam-po-pa; 1079-1153), a monk
of the Kadam lineage. Mila taught Gampopa a version of the Mahamudra med itation, called Sutra Mahamudra, that would not violate the latter’s vows of celibacy. In the original Unexcelled Yoga teachings, Mahamudra was the state ofinnate blank joy that the adept would attain at the climax of the sexual union. Sutra Mahamudra was a technique by which a celibate meditator could attain the same state through a union of the male and female “energy channels” in the body. This method was originally denounced outside of Gampopa’s fol lowing, but eventually became one of the dominant meditation methods in Tibet. However, an entire book could be written on the various permutations it underwent as it was passed down from master to master and school to school, combining with Dzogchen and other methods. (See Strong EB, sec. 7.6, for a version that closely parallels early Buddhist dhyana practices.)
Gampopa’s combination ofKadam monastic discipline and Mahamudra meditation formed the basis for a new school, the Kagyii (bKa’ brgyud, the Followers or the Transmitted Command). His disciples split into five sub schools, chief of which was the Karma school. Although monks of both the Kagyii and Sakya schools were expected to follow the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya, because their lineages were ultimately derived from laymen, they were somewhat more lax in their discipline than the Kadams.
Various other small schools and monastic orders formed as the Kadams combined with other Tantric lineages newly arrived from India, but none of them gained prominence. Quite a few of the older Tantric lineages, however, refused to have anything to do with the new reform movement. These older lineages were composed largely oflay practitioners whose traditions contained ot only authentic Buddhist texts but also apocryphal texts, doctrines, and
practices-such as Tantric rituals centered on native Tibetan deities-for which no Indian texts could be cited as precedents. The question of how to meet the challenge of the reform movement’s new standards and at the same time hold on to their old traditions brought these lineages together into two broad camps that eventually developed into two loosely organized lineages of their own. One was the Bon lineage, which declared itself a separate religion, maintaining that the Sakyamuni of the reform movement was an impostor Buddha, and that they held the lineage of the true Buddha, named Shenrab (gShen-rab, Best of Holy Beings), a native of a land to the west of Tibet called Ta-zig (present-day Tadjikistan?). Thus they had no need to justify their tradi tions as coming from India and were able to develop a tradition that is an unabashed amalgam of Buddhist teachings-generally following the Yogacarins-and older shamanic beliefs, including a myth of the universe being created from light (Strong EB, sec. 7.2).
The other camp, which accepted that they and the reformers worshiped the same Buddha, called themselves the Nyingma (rNying-ma, Ancient) school. This school maintained that its allegedly apocryphal texts were actu ally authentic in that they had been hidden by Padmasambhava and later dis covered by spiritual adepts. Thus the Nyingmas reopened the old controversy that had split the Sthaviras and Mahasanghikas (see Section 3.2.1) over what constitutes an authentic transmission. In the long run, the Nyingmas won the battle in Tibet, for the tradition of termas (gter-ma)-hidden treasure texts re putedly placed underground, underwater, in the sky, or in “mind” (conceived as the Dharmakaya)-spread to other schools as well. In the eyes of some, ter mas discovered by tertons (gter-ston), or treasure-finders, were a more pro found transmission than texts with an established historical pedigree. At any rate, termas provided the mechanism whereby new teachings could be ac cepted as authentic in a culture obsessed with lineages and precedents.
The primary Nyingma terma of this period was the Mani Kabum (Mal).i bka’ ‘bum), which set forth the eclectic proposition that all interpretations of the Buddhist path were equally correct, and that all altered states of conscious ness realized at the ends of these paths were equivalent. It also set forth a sys tem-which was to influence all subsequent Nyingma thought-whereby the Unexcelled Yoga level of Tantra was divided into three sublevels, with the Nyingma/Bon form of meditation, Dzogchen, forming the highest of the three.
Dzogchen, unlike more standard methods of Buddhist meditation, asserted that Awakening wasn’t “brought about” at all. Awareness in and of itself, the Nyingmas claimed, was already innately pure and nondual, and all that needed to be done in order to realize its innate purity and nonduality was to let thought processes come to a stop. The approach they prescribed was thus one of spontaneity and nonstriving, effortless abiding with the “Primordial Basis.” They offered no analytical path for how to accomplish this, however, for they said that any analysis would simply add to the mind’s thought processes.
The obvious parallels between the Dzogchen and Ch’an doctrines of spon taneity have caused some scholars to assume that Ch’ an was the source for the
Dzogchen tradition, but early Dzogchen documents from the tenth and eleventh centuries were careful to point out the very real differences between their school and Ch’an, which was also practiced in Tibet at that time. For their part, the Ch’an adepts had derived their doctrine of spontaneity from the Taoists, and it may be that the doctrine of spontaneous nonstriving had its roots ultimately in shamanic traditions common to Tibet, China, and central Asia. Thus the relation between Dzogchen and Ch’an may have been one of common ancestry rather than direct influence.
Thus, by the end of the Second Propagation, there were four major schools of Buddhism in Tibet-Kadam, Sakya, Kagyii, and Nyingma-with a fifth off shoot school, Bon, which maintained that it was a separate religion even though it held many doctrines in common with the Nyingma school. Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyii had well-established monastic orders for both men and women. Nyingma and Bon did not develop monastic orders until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and even then their monastic impulse was never strong.
As was the case with the schools of early Buddhism, no hard-and-fast lines existed between the various Tibetan schools, largely because of the tendency for individual monks, nuns, and lay adepts to travel about, gathering up in structions and initiations from as many authorized teachers-termed lamas (bla-mas)-as possible, regardless of affiliation. The Kadams retained their rep utation as the strictest in terms of celibacy, but otherwise the schools were dis tinguished primarily by which Tantra they followed and which Cosmic Buddha they regarded as the source of their particular lineage.