Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture Ronald M. Davidson
How did a society on the edge of collapse and dominated by wandering bands of armed men give way to a vibrant Buddhist culture, led by yogins and scholars? Ronald M. Davidson explores how the translation and spread of esoteric Buddhist texts dramatically shaped Tibetan society and led to its rise as the center of Buddhist culture throughout Asia, replacing India as the perceived source of religious ideology and tradition.
“Drawing on an extraordinary range of original sources, most of them previously unstudied, Davidson traces, in convincing detail, the peculiar blend of conservative monasticism, transgressive esotericism, and political and economic interest that characterized the formation of Tibetan Buddhist lineages and institutions.”
—Matthew Kapstein, University of Chicago, author of Reason’s Tracer Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Thought
“Davidson has illuminated the period of the Tibetan Renaissance for a modern audience with a brilliant scholarly study of rare clarity, originality, and wisdom. He deals with doctrine, ritual, institutions, and life narratives with equal insight and flair to build an intimate yet broad portrayal of one of the most fascinating periods of religious innovation and collective transformation in the history of the world.”
—David F. Germano, associate professor and director of the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library, University of Virginia
During the Tibetan Renaissance (950-1200 CE.), monks and yogins translated an enormous number of Indian Buddhist texts. They employed the evolving literature and practices of esoteric Buddhism as the basis to reconstruct Tibetan religious, cultural, and political institutions. Many translators achieved the de facto status of feudal lords and while not always loyal to their Buddhist vows, these figures helped solidify political power in the hands of religious authorities and began a process that led to the Dalai Lama’s theocracy. Davidson’s vivid portraits of the monks, priests, popular preachers, yogins, and aristocratic clans who changed Tibetan society and culture further enhance his perspectives on the tensions and transformations that characterized medieval Tibet.
Ronald M. Davidson is professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. He is the author of Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement and the coeditor (with Steven D. Goodman) of Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation.
This book seeks to recognize one of the most remarkable achievements in human history: the rebirth and reformation of Tibetan culture, approximately a century after the catastrophic collapse and fragmentation of the Tibetan empire in the mid ninth century. Somewhat overlooked in both traditional and modem accounts of the phenomenon is the simple fact that Tibetans employed the vocabulary, texts and rituals of one of the least likely candidates for the promotion of cultural stability—Indian tantric Buddhism—to accomplish much of this feat. Eased on their study and translation of the most esoteric of yogic instructions and Buddhist scriptures in the final phase of Indian Buddhism, Tibetans reorganized their social and religious horizon to accommodate the evolving institutions of clan-based esoteric lineages and religious orders. Over time, they refined their implementation of tantric ideals until Tibet became known as the field of activity for the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. As a result, Tibet eventually displaced India itself as the perceived source for ideal Buddhist study and practice, becoming the goal of devout Buddhist pilgrims from much of Eurasia, and the reference point for all viable esoteric Buddhism.
However, this work could not have seen the light of day without the willing participation of my Tibetan teachers and friends, preeminently Ngor Thar-rtse mkhan-po bSod-nams rgya-mtsho (Hiroshi Sonami) who read with me so many of the Sakya texts used and translated here. His generosity of spirit was only equaled by his insistence that I consider translating into English many of the works we read together, through our eleven years of association from 1976 until his untimely death on November 22, ‘987. We both knew that such an idea went against the grain of the culture of secrecy nurtured by the Sakya order for so many centuries, but Thar-rtse mkhan-po also believed that for Tibetan Buddhism to prosper in diaspora, it must redefine itself in unforeseen ways. Even while we differed on the validity of sources and the methodology of historical representation, we agreed that the Sakya tradition was just as glorious as it has been proclaimed. The subsequent approval I received in 1996 from H.H. Sakya Trinzen, the head of the Sakya order, for the publication of my translation 0f the Root Text of the Margaphala (Appendix 2) was more than anything else a vindication 0f Ngor Thar-rtse mkhan-po’s vision of the future.
The other person most influential in the development 0f this work is my friend and colleague, David Germano, of the University of Virginia. Almost from the moment we met, David and I have been mutually supportive of each other’s work. He, however, has consistently made time for my manuscripts and provided a venue for their assessment. Those of us who teach at predominantly undergraduate institutions do not have the asset of vetting our writings with graduate classes, and David has consistently provided this for me. He has used versions of this book in his graduate classes at UVA for many years, inviting me down to tangle with his graduate students and their insistent questioning of all received scholarship, even the unpublished kind. I treasure his willingness to make room for my sometimes impenetrable prose and odd jottings about the two or three centuries of Tibetan Buddhism that we both believe was extraordinary in every sense of the word.
Many other friends, colleagues and institutions deserve more gratitude than I can muster on these pages. Matthew Kapstein has been a source of inspiration and a reference point since we first met in 1971. Janet Gyatso and I have shared observations about Tibetan and Buddhist life since even before our graduate days at Berkeley. Dr. Cyrus Stearns very graciously shared both his own translation of the Root Text of the *Margaphala and his criticism of my rendering, thus saving me from many errors, great and small. David Jackson has often been a supportive presence, even when we disagreed about Sakya directions. Bryan Cuevas kindly read the entire manuscript and made many helpful suggestions. My friends Stephen Goodman and Kenneth Eastman both have known me longer than I would care to admit and deserve my thanks for many kindnesses. Roberto Vitali, Dan Martin, David S. Ruegg, Samten Karmay and Per Kvzrne have been consistent sources of encouragement and constant standards of good scholarship. Jan-Ulrich Sobisch made possible my obtainment of parts of the Phag ma grupa bka’ ‘bum, and Leonard van der Kuijp provided me photocopies of manuscripts he had secured in China. My supporters at Fairfield University also deserve my gratitude: Academic Vice President Orin Grossman, Dean Timothy Snyder, John Thiel, Paul Lakeland, Frank Hannafey, and all my colleagues in the Department of Religious Studies.
In India, Dr. Banarsi Lal has been more helpful that I can express, from his reaching out to me in 1983 through our association in 1996—97 and on, until the present. Professor Samdhong Rinpoche, the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies and Sampurnanand Sanskrit University deserve my thanks for their providing an institutional home during various research periods. This research was supported by grants from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars’ Senior Fulbright Research Fellowship, the United States Information Service, the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University, Fairfield University’s Faculty Research Committee, and my colleagues at the Department of Religious Studies.
Moreover, I must certainly thank Wendy Lochner of Columbia University Press for undertaking the publication of this difficult, lengthy and complex manuscript. She has encouraged my work in our discussions together, and Columbia’s editorial staff—Leslie Kriesel, Suzanne Ryan and Margaret Yamashita have been exemplary in their attention to the requirements of this project. For their patience and perseverance I am eternally grateful.
Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to my wife, Dr. Katherine Schwab, who has taught me that not all the world revolves around texts and languages, but who has been supportive in my frenzies of writing and publishing these last several years. Her kindness and grace have afforded me the luxury to be seized by the gods of scholarly endeavor, however meager the outcome. As always, the errors that no doubt afflict this work of history and interpretation can in no way be imputed to the many remarkable teachers, friends and colleagues I have had the good fortune to know, but these errors instead remain mine alone.
We are happy to have heard that the Prince-Bodhisattva’s noble figure is well and that his august activity extends everywhere. We, the righteous recipients of your generosity, are also well. You have looked on all with your great gracious love and have extensively acted with the intent to benefit generally both the kingdom and the Buddha’s doctrine. But especially you have included even lowly persons like us into your inner circle (lit., heart’s mandala). Therefore, your speech has been like a stream of nectar. Moreover, as we have found the finer things, complete in all requisites, come into our possession by the power of your intention to invest us with them, our happiness has naturally increased.
—Pakpa’s letter to Khubilai, ca. I25559
The widespread perception of Tibet is that of a traditional theocracy in which a priest-king presided until recently over a large monastic populace and received international acclaim as the icon of the true Buddhist religion. But what of Tibet before these factors took place? It may seem surprising that Tibet achieved its religious distinction while emerging from a catastrophic collapse of culture and by forming a civilization that institutionalized the position of Buddhism in a manner not seen before. Chogyel Pakpa, part of whose obsequious letter to Khubilai Khan is translated above, represents the Tibetan paradox of a Buddhist monk in political office. He stands as an emblem of Tibetan historical unfoldment, a sign of a civilization that effected a successful transition from utter disarray to Pan—Asian acclaim for its Buddhist accomplishments.
Pakpa was the inheritor of a lineage of Buddhist practice that stretched from the Mongol court of the Yuan dynasty, back through the halls of Sakya Monastery in southern Central Tibet, on into the dim recesses of the Indian development of esoteric, or tantric, Buddhism. Papa’s institutional base, Sakya Monastery, was founded in 1073 C.E. and became the fountainhead of several esoteric practices, most notably one known as the Path and Fruit (marga— phala: Lamdre) system. Yet Pakpa’s position as the agent of several secretive systems of tantric Buddhism was dependent on the dedicated activity of several generations of Tibetans and Indians beginning in the late tenth and early eleventh century. For some three hundred years, from approximately 950 to rzo, Buddhist monks and yogins paved the way for the ultimate victory of the esoteric religion throughout much of Asia. During this period they had taken forms of Buddhism that had survived on the periphery of Indian institutional life and turned them into the centerpieces of groups sponsoring a religious revival. In the process, Tibetans fashioned events almost without parallel in human history: the composition and codification of the Tibetan canon and the creation of Tibetan institutional religious life.
This book is about the renaissance period in Tibetan history, a period after the vigor of the Tibetan imperium (ca. 6o—So) and following the dark time of Tibetan social unrest (ca. 850—950). Most particularly, this book is about the place of late Indian esoteric Buddhism as a focal point for the cultural reintegration of the remnants of Tibetan civilization into the larger Asian universe. From the tenth to the twelfth century, Tibetans used the evolving literature and practices of later esoteric Buddhism as iconic forms and points of reference to reconstruct institutions, found monasteries, and reorganize the political re— a little of the four horns of Central Tibet. The status of the newly translated scriptures as the most secret and most efficacious of religious methods—the sexiest, if you will—assured them the preeminent position, so that translators specializing in this literature achieved the de facto aristocratic status that some could not obtain by birth. The most notorious of these Tibetan translators acted in the capacity of feudal lords, actualizing through their behavior the metaphor embedded in the ritual life of the esoteric system: becoming the sanctified lord of a spiritual state. The process that ultimately led to the Dalai Lama’s theocracy began with these tenth- to twelfth-century personalities, whose monastic status was sometimes lost and their vows compromised in the exercise of power and dominion.
Four themes play out in the movement of Tibetan religious and cultural life during its renaissance. First, Tibetans knit together their fragmented culture by using the textual and ritual tools provided by Buddhist religious systems, especially the late esoteric, yoga-based systems of Indian tantric Buddhism. This is most curious, for late tantric Buddhism was a local form in India, not a unifier of Pan-Indian Buddhist identity in the way it eventually became in Tibet. Second, during their cultural reemergence, Tibetans wrestled with the process of translating enormous amounts of material into an evolving literary language. This astonishing accomplishment brought them new knowledge and access to the ideology of Indian civilization and eventually caused them to textualize their culture, yielding multiple textual communities. Third, Central Tibetans promoted their new Buddhist culture so successfully, and on such an elaborate scale, that by the twelfth century they had managed to displace India as the preferred source of international Buddhist ideology In this, they were assisted by the declining security situation in India, which was plagued by Islamic incursions from the eleventh through the thirteenth century. Finally, Tibetan lamas employed the new ritual and ideological forms to establish a narrative of the religiopolitical authority of the Buddhist monk, so that monks could eventually replace the old royal line as the legitimate rulers of Central Tibet.
In all of this, the old Tibetan aristocratic dais, which constituted much of the authoritative Buddhist clergy, were a principal driving force. All Tibetans at this time—and at all other times as well—had to pursue their individual or common agendas on the social grid fashioned by the clan structure, as opposed o those without landed family corporate support. Paradoxically, Tibet’s aristocratic clans had been problematic during the imperium and had contributed to social instability during the early period of fragmentation. During the renaissance, though, they served as the primary foci for stable institution building. This is particularly true of the Tibet of our study: the four horns of Central Tibet. This area encompasses the provinces of U and Tsang, and so’4Tibet” in this book principally refers to that domain (map I). This was the region in which the great clans of the renaissance period established their estates and employed religion for multiple, sometimes conflicting, ends. This was the area from which the recognized sects or denominations of Tibetan Buddhism were to arise, to build institutions, to find success, and to achieve legitimacy This was the territory in which the great ritual and literary developments of Tibetan religion in the renaissance period took place.
There are several paradoxes throughout this byzantine process, not the least of which concerned the tantric sources for the movement, as these consisted predominantly of the mahayoga or yogini-tantra scriptures, instructions, and rituals. Since the renaissance period, Tibetans have configured their culture around a series of closely related texts espousing forms of Buddhist yoga. By doing this, they achieved a common discourse that they could not have obtained solely from their surviving Buddhist or indigenous Tibetan religious systems. However, this new series of religious reference points—with its ideology of personal empowerment, antinomian conduct, and internal yogic meditation—threatened to overwhelm the emerging fragile civilization. Ultimately, the aristocratic clans, both those left over from the old royal dynasty and some newer aristocratic groups, took control of much of this renaissance movement, even though Buddhism in Tibet never came exclusively under the dominion of the aristocracy. The great clans’ reassertion of control began a dispute between those clans and individuals representing the old royal dynastic religiosity and those adopting the new persuasion. The Khon clan, the founders of Sakya Monastery, became one of the mediating forces in this conflict, for they simultaneously represented the legacy of the old empire even while they actively supported the new movement. Their capacity to embody both worlds and the dynamics of their institutional and ritual systems were so successful that they eventually attracted the attention and sought the patronage of Chinggis Khan’s Mongol grandsons.
Even as desensitized to outstanding ability as postmodern societies seem, it is easy to see that the accomplishment of the Tibetan monks and scholars was extraordinary. Tibetans had come out of the dark ages of the collapse of the Tibetan empire into the dawn of a new period of cultural and religious efflorescence. Indeed, Tibetan historical literature describes this period using the metaphor of a fire’s resignation from a few embers left by its previous flame. As a consequence, Tibetans made a cultural pilgrimage from internecine wars and clan feuds to a period of intellectual and spiritual vigor. The position of those who dedicated their lives to translating the esoteric Buddhist system into the fertile valley of Tibetan religious life contributed in ways that they themselves seemed to understand only partially. In the course of events, these saints and scholars managed to formulate a new and stable religious life for the Tibetan people, one that both took into account the previous efforts of Tibetan clerics and kings and forged a new kind of Buddhist dimension. The catalyst for all of these was the ritual and the yogic literature that had evolved in India from the eighth to the eleventh century and its privileging of the rough, rural, and tribal realities of India’s regional centers and local traditions, in some ways analogous to the Tibetans’ own situation.
It is one of the accidents of Tibetan religious history that the story of the several dozen preeminent intellectuals of this period remains obscure. Largely ignored as humans in the aftermath of their achievement, they have become enshrined as images of Tibetan religious life, with the narratives of their real lives lying in dust on monastery bookshelves. These rigorous scholars, most of them Buddhist monks, struggled through almost unimaginable difficulties and turned the obscure doctrines and rituals of esoteric Buddhism into living institutions in their country. By doing so, they embedded the meditative, ritual, and conceptual models of Indian esoterism into the newly emergent revival of the Tibetan language, and they also resurrected the old lexicons and nomenclature to meet the challenge of the leading edge of Buddhist life. The ensuing textual legacy caused the Tibetans to reassess themselves so that the source of legitimacy and authority would thereafter be defined by reference to Buddhist texts.
Many of these same textual specialists were equally self-absorbed, with visions of personal grandeur and exhibiting an aggressive posture within their society. Some had come from modest backgrounds, the sons of yak herders or nomads driving pungent bovines at altitudes that freeze the blood on the high Buddhist grasslands of the world. Others represented the greater and lesser clans, whose authority drew on mythic systems, familial alliances, and landed re center sources. Some of the esoteric translators also were consumed with ambition, and they used their linguistic and literary training to assume aristocratic do- minion over the areas that fell under the control of their newly constructed establishments. The result was the continuing fragmentation of Tibet, with zones of personal or corporate dominion transformed from political estates into religious fiefdoms. Moreover, the same systems of ritual, yoga, and med translation that so assisted the reemergence of Tibetan public life also embodied the Indian feudal world in its models and vocabulary. This was an imagined universe that could not admit of direct political unification, even though it was stable in its regional affirmation.
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