The Four Traditions of Tibetan Buddhism: Personal Experience, History, and Comparisons
Seattle, Washington, USA, April 2003
Session One: Personal Experience and History
Tonight I’ve been asked to speak about the four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. I was asked also to speak a little bit about my own personal experience with them as a way to start. So, let’s do that.
I have a bit of an omnivorous mind and I’ve always been interested in almost everything and like to understand and study everything. When I originally became involved with Buddhism and studying it – that was in university about forty years ago – I became turned on by one particular lecture which spoke about how Buddhism went from one civilization to another and how it was reinterpreted and redefined in terms of the cultures of each of these civilizations. It sort of went Boing! and I really was turned on very much by that and that was what I wanted to study and become involved with – and I pretty much have followed that for the last forty years.
And that led to studying a wide variety of Asian religions and philosophies. First I was involved with China and how Buddhism came into China, the whole process with which Chinese philosophy influenced it, and how after Buddhism became less prominent in China, how it influenced the philosophy that followed that. After that I wanted to fill in the Indian side: where did Buddhism come from? How did that fit into all the different philosophies that were going on at the inception of Buddhism and during the development of Buddhism in India? There is a lot of debate and interaction back and forth between the Buddhist and Hindu Schools. And then that led to Tibetan Studies, how Buddhism went there and what happened.
So when I originally went to India back in 1969 on the Fulbright program to do my doctorate dissertation, I was not coming from a sectarian background, from one tradition of Buddhism. In fact, the whole approach that was followed at university in the sixties was that this was a dead subject, like Ancient Egyptian Studies, “And here we have the commentaries and you learn the language, you learn the grammar and try to figure it out,” like a grand crossword puzzle.
I had met Geshe Wangyal – a great Kalmyk Mongol Geshe, one of the first of the people from the Tibetan tradition in the United States – earlier during my university times. But I never really had an opportunity to study with him, so I didn’t identify with the Gelug tradition that he came from. But I went to India and, through connections from Geshe Wangyal, then I met with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, who had been with him in America and started eventually studying with their teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.
Back in 1969, I met His Holiness and was very, very impressed by His Holiness – Everything that I had studied was for real, this is what really struck me, and it wasn’t a matter of guesswork and it was really a living tradition and you could really become involved in the practice, rather than just my own approach, which was to try to figure it out myself what the practice might be like; this type of thing. So I got involved in the practice and it was the Gelug tradition and I studied that; that’s the main thing that I have studied.
But eventually, when His Holiness built the Library in Dharamsala and invited Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey to be the teacher there and Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches to be the translators, then I asked if I could also be of help. And His Holiness said, “Yes, but hand in the dissertation first and then come back.” So I did that and moved over to Dharamsala from Dalhousie. His Holiness always encouraged me from the very start to study in all the Tibetan traditions. As I said, I have an omnivorous mind. And if that is something that you can deal with and handle without getting confused, it’s very beneficial and it’s certainly the approach that His Holiness has. His Holiness has trained and is quite an expert in all the Tibetan traditions.
Even before I started studying with Serkong Rinpoche, I used to go to Bodh Gaya in the winters and there was a Karma Kagyu teacher, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, who used to teach in the seventies, the early seventies, mid-seventies in Bodhgaya. He’s continued to do that. I don’t know if he does that still today, but he used to teach there every winter and I would go every winter, for either His Holiness would teach there or usually Ling Rinpoche, the Senior Tutor, would teach in Bodh Gaya. And it was too cold up in Dalhousie anyway, or in Dharamsala. And Beru Khyentse Rinpoche was teaching, teaching mahamudra and various other Karma Kagyu things.
And he asked me if I would translate for him, because he needed a translator for the classes. I think it was he who asked me, actually I can’t remember so exactly. And I sort of checked it out and decided that this would be a great thing to do, to not only translate for him, but to be able to learn the Karma Kagyu side. And he was really a very, very wonderful teacher at that time, because he really was able to explain things in depth. I tend to ask lots of questions and want things pretty precise and he was able to help me with that. That was my introduction to the Kagyu side, starting to expand out beyond just one tradition.
Then I started to study with Serkong Rinpoche, who became my main teacher, the late Assistant Tutor of His Holiness. Serkong Rinpoche also was a master, like His Holiness, of all the different traditions, particularly, like His Holiness, the second one after Gelug being Nyingma. Serkong Rinpoche – one of his main responsibilities all along was to attend all the classes that His Holiness attended and be able to debate with him; and he also taught him and gave many lineages and initiations to His Holiness. But one of his main functions was to have the entire scope of His Holiness’s teachings, so that there was at least somebody else who had as large a scope as His Holiness that His Holiness could bounce ideas back and forth with and so they could discuss and refine His Holiness’s understanding.
So this whole movement that is so important to His Holiness, which is the grand unified theory of all the Tibetan traditions, is the main framework in which my entire training and my entire work has been evolving from many decades already. Serkong Rinpoche continued to encourage me very much in this direction. His Holiness’s part of the policy at the Library in Dharamsala had Geshe Dhargyey as well teach texts from other traditions besides Gelug. He taught Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation; he taught a Nyingma text by Longchenpa.
And from... even back in Dalhousie, His Holiness had had asked us as a team – myself with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoche and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey – to translate little pamphlets for him. His Holiness wanted them from the various different traditions. And when he asked us to translate a particular dzogchen text of Longchenpa, that gave me the opportunity to start to study with Nyingma masters. And I worked some with Dudjom Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma tradition and was able to study privately with him to get a bit of the dzogchen side. I think that’s where that started, but then later on I was able to do quite a bit of Nyingma and dzogchen studies with His Holiness, who teaches it quite frequently, and with Serkong Rinpoche as well, who was a great master of that tradition.
It was very interesting with Serkong Rinpoche: he was very special in terms of giving advice, to me at least, in terms of not trying to rule anybody’s life or anything like that, but he did point out two things. One was that I should study Tibetan astrology; he was the Kalachakra teacher of His Holiness and astrology is a big part of Kalachakra, or at least a significant part of Kalachakra, although you don’t have to study it order to get into Kalachakra. But in order to be able to understand certain aspects of the texts and sort of esoteric things it makes your understanding a bit fuller; so he encouraged me to do that.
And so I did, and in addition to that, he encouraged me that I must get the Sakya Hevajra empowerment and study in the Sakya tradition with Chogye Trichen. Dagchen Rinpoche and Sakya Trizin and Chogye Trichen are the heads of the three lineages of Sakya. So, he suggested that I really must do that. Serkong Rinpoche died in 1983 and he had told me this just some months or within a year of when he passed away. And so after he had passed away, I made a very strong effort to go to Nepal and to be able to study with him.
Chogye Trichen was really wonderful, he gave the initiation privately to me; there were a couple other people who happened to be there that he invited in, but because it had been requested by Serkong Rinpoche for me, he did that quite especially, which was awfully nice. So, that was sort of my entry into the Sakya side. And I must say, with all of that and trying to practice as best I can, in a little bit, at least in the styles of the other traditions and working to try to fit them together and see how they go together, this has really, really been very wonderful and very rewarding.
As His Holiness always says, even within one lineage, if you study different practices, there’s going to be emphases placed in different areas. He is always talking quite specifically about anuttarayoga tantra practice, but in the different deity systems there’ll be more emphasis on clear light practice, or more detail on the four blisses, or more detail on the wind yogas, or this or that. And although all of them are complete; by studying different ones, you get more detail on a side that then you can somehow fit in and fill in. Also you get a different angle on your meditation if you can see many different angles of approaching it.
This I found to be really, really the case, particularly in voidness meditation, because the style of doing voidness meditation is quite different in each of these traditions. So, you have in the Gelug tradition the four-point analysis and all of that. But in the Sakya tradition, for instance, you refine your understanding by working in the standard line of reasoning that you use in the short voidness meditation, like in a tantra sadhana. You start first with Chittamatra and the Chittamatra understanding, and then “all appearances are cognitive appearances the mind gives rise to, all of that comes from karma,” This is very much a Chittamatra type of thing, “coming from the mind.”
And then the voidness of the mind and they have a slightly different presentation of voidness, of how you describe conceptual and nonconceptual understanding of voidness. Looking at it that way and meditating on voidness in that way is not contradictory at all to the Gelugpa way of doing it, but it makes it much more full, because you’re approaching it from a different angle. This I found extremely, extremely helpful. There are many other examples, but I think one is sufficient to get the idea.
The big project that I’m doing now – and for hopefully the rest of my life, unless my attention turns to something else – is this Berzin Archives website. With that, one of the main ideas, of course, is to preserve all the teachings that I’ve received. I’ve had the good fortune to study with so many of the greatest teachers of the last generation, most of whom are gone – almost all of them are gone, except His Holiness. And I have about thirty thousand pages of unpublished material, of all the lecture notes and the transcriptions of teachings that I translated for and my own teachings and extensive reading notes, and anything that I ever studied with my teachers I usually did a rough translation of the text. So there’s tons and tons of material, and of course it keeps on growing from what I’m doing now.
One of the things that I want to do aside from preserving that – because it’s much too much to put into books and it would be all be thrown away in the garbage when I die if something isn’t done with it, because a lot is in my handwriting. But one of the things that I try very much to emphasize in it is the approaches of the different traditions. I really don’t like – whether we’re talking in terms of Buddhist traditions, or we’re talking in terms of cultures – to be limited to one. I’m a very, very international person. I’ve traveled to more than a hundred countries and taught in about seventy countries or more. So I’m very, very aware of different approaches; and when I teach, I’m always trying to learn the culture of the people that I’m teaching and I try to suit things to that. Similarly with the Dharma, I try to expand and give different approaches.
Even now when I’m teaching Shantideva in Berlin – the ninth chapter of Shantideva we’re at in the moment, that’s on the discriminating awareness of voidness, the wisdom chapter – then it goes through the various tenets and I like to bring in the Theravada position as well in terms of the evolution. The Mahayanists don’t address the Theravada in this context, but for a lot of people that is a background that they’re a little bit familiar with and they would like a little bit of clarity. Well, what do the Theravadins say about the two truths? What do they say about these various issues that are discussed? So, I like to bring all of that in and see how it all fits together.
Because I think it’s very important to get the large picture, the grand context of everything, especially nowadays in the West, where we have a very unique situation in the history of Buddhism, which is that we have access to all the different forms of it. Almost anywhere you go you have access. And even if you don’t have thirty centers in your city, which so many cities have now, from all the various traditions – it’s almost like restaurants from the different cuisines, so you have Buddhist schools from different traditions – you at least have access for that on the Internet. And so it is important, I think, to try to get some idea of how they fit together.
I’m always looking in terms of history; I’m very fond of history and I think that history is essential, actually, for understanding the development of Buddhism. Not just the history of Buddhism itself, that is often studied out of context, but the whole history and evolution of Buddhism is very much influenced by the political and economic histories of the countries that it took place in and the histories of the interactions of the countries through which it was being transmitted. And unless you see that and fit that together with history of Buddhism, it doesn’t really make sense.
Similarly I look in terms of the future. History doesn’t just end now, but it’s an ongoing process. So, I look at the future of Buddhism from a historical perspective of many centuries, because it’s just one little dot on the time scale. And it really is unsustainable the way that it is now in the West. It is absolutely doomed if the situation doesn’t change, because you can’t sustain three hundred brands of Buddhism – far too fragmented. It’s really very unfortunate that almost every teacher has to have their own center, their own organization, and their own party line, as it were. People’s loyalties are much too limited just to that particular group and this is very, very unhealthy.
And it doesn’t bode well for the future, because how can you sustain that? New people come along and how do they choose? It’s bad enough having to choose between four or ten brands, but how do you choose between three hundred? This is too much. The only way in which I think it can be sustained is for the different groups to combine in some way. It doesn’t mean that everybody gets subsumed into one more powerful group like sort of East Germany being swallowed by West Germany and everything that was East German was bad and so it just now becomes a larger West Germany, which is rather sad. But a way of putting things together that’s very respectful.
There is a historical precedent for that in terms of how the Tibetan traditions – we’ll look a little bit at the history – came together. Because there were no such things, no such entities in India as Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakya. But rather there were many teachers who came to Tibet, and many Tibetans who went to India and then went back and taught in Tibet, just as we have now – maybe not as many as we have now, but certainly there were quite a lot. And they all started lots of different monasteries all over the place, and each particular teaching had its lineage and this tantra practice or that tantra practice, this sutra lineage or whatever. So you had all these strands and they were put together and they did coalesce into these new groupings, these new clusters, as it were, of traditions.
And it wasn’t that if you had one line, it just went exclusively into one Tibetan tradition. Like the Guhyasamaja line from Marpa that’s in both the Kagyu but it also goes into the Gelug tradition, so many of these lines were shared. So it’s not a simple process; if you had to map it graphically, it would be a very complex representation of all these hundreds and hundreds of different lines and how they went together in different combinations. And I think that it’s going to have to become that way in the West eventually. But it will take great figures like Tsongkhapa, or of that type of caliber, to put them together.
And they will be put together undoubtedly in different combinations than they have ever existed before, particularly now when there are just so many brands of Buddhism available, it’s not just Tibetan. I think that there will be very interesting and exciting new combinations – I hope there will be. In order to put them together though, it requires knowledge and understanding and meditative experience in them all, or at least a large number of them, to see how they all fit together and to see what can be put together in a meaningful type of way, or at least which groups can go together in a meaningful type of way.
It really becomes pathetic when you have a number of different Geshes, for instance, from exactly the same monastery, teaching pretty much exactly the same thing, each having their own totally separate organizations and people not having anything to do with each other. So, the study of the different traditions, I think, is essential as a step in being able to preserve Tibetan Buddhism in the future in the West – not only Tibetan, but all of the Buddhist traditions. This has been my experience, and so I try to do that with the website, various topics that I’m writing about there and teaching.
What I find very interesting through my development is to see how much of what I took for granted as being generic Buddhism – “Well, everybody must accept that the Prasangikas teach this or that,” for example – is Gelug-limited, Gelug-centric. It’s the same process of leaving your country, like I left the United States, and you go start living in Asian countries and you learn that so many things that we took absolutely for granted – and the most fundamental things like symmetry, just absolute basic things – are ethnocentric, ethno-limited; that’s not the word, but anyway you have some idea of what I mean by that, it’s “ethnically specific.”
And by having that experience of living most of my life in Asia and traveling to so many countries and so many cultures in the world and always living in people’s homes – I never stayed in hotels – really learning that you can’t take anything for granted as being generic to everybody. Different ways of doing things, even.
One of the most astounding things was to learn a completely different way of doing arithmetic. The Tibetans, the type of math that’s done in Tibetan astrology, the way they multiply, the way they add, the way they subtract is different from the way that we do. I remember when Serkong Rinpoche was teaching me that, and my reply, my offhand comment to it was “Wow! This is really strange” – “really weird” is how I would have said it in English, but I used the Tibetan word “strange.” And he scolded me – he scolded me all the time – he scolded me and he said, “It’s not strange; it’s different. Don’t be so arrogant. It’s different, it’s not strange.”
So in the Buddhist teachings then as well, this experience has carried over. And I’ve been very open to trying to learn as I was studying the Gelug tradition. And the way that it was presented was “this is Buddhism.” It wasn’t even “this is Tibetan Buddhism,” “this is Buddhism.” And although the general topics are the same in all the traditions, there’s many, many different ways of presenting them. So I’ve been very excited to try to learn these different ways by either studying with Tibetan teachers or reading books, these type of things.
Serkong Rinpoche encouraged me very, very much to learn how to read comfortably in Tibetan; I had studied Tibetan for many, many years. And his point was, and he said it very explicitly, was that “You’re never going to find teachers who are going to teach you everything that you want to study. That’s unrealistic. The best that you can do is to ask various teachers to suggest to you what texts to read; you read them yourself; and then ask questions. See if they would be open to answering questions on the texts.” That was very, very wise advice, and advice that I had the language background to be able to do that. And so I followed that type of approach in my studies.
It still continues now, I’m very interested to learn the different approaches and the different traditions to these familiar topics, perception theory and all of that. Because again, you get very different pictures. So I try to do that in the Archives on the website – and this is mostly new writing.
That’s why it’s becoming a bit hopeless, because I have thirty thousand pages of this old material and I’m hardly getting to any of that, because I’m constantly writing new stuff. And when I teach, I really dislike teaching the same thing that I’ve taught over and over again; that’s not only boring, but it doesn’t really present an opportunity for adding new stuff to the website and the Archives. So, like I was saying the other day, working on this Archives project has helped me very much to become a person of initial scope motivation, finally, to at least start on a more sincere level of lam-rim, thinking in terms of preparing all this material for my next lifetime. I want to be able to access this in my next life, so that I can reconnect with Buddhism.
But it’s been helpful not only in that respect, but also in terms of the Mahayana teaching that when you practice or when you teach, imagine that you’re teaching to all sentient beings. So, now when I teach I’m never thinking of just the people in the room. The people in the room, fine, but they’re just the people in the room. I’m really thinking of the audience of people who would read this on the website. So, it becomes to me much more meaningful, whether I can visualize all sentient beings sitting in the bleachers on the side here of the ballpark or not.
I don’t think that’s what’s so crucial, your visualization of all sentient beings around you. If you can visualize it, great, but that’s not the point. The point is really to have it sincerely be for a larger scope, as large a scope of beings as possible that you can see benefiting from what you’re doing; and you’re extending out the benefit to all of them. Working on this website has been really very, very helpful in that respect, in my teaching and sitting at the computer or whatever I’m doing.
And of course, anybody who likes to volunteer to help with transcribing or especially typing my handwritten stuff... because all of that is not so easy to do. And fortunately, there’s one thing I can claim with confidence that I’m the world’s expert in, and that is in reading my own handwriting. I think we’re all world experts in that. And so that needs to be done while I’m still around to be able to correct it. Otherwise, there’s just too much that could be undecipherable. So, volunteers are always welcome.
Let’s go to the main topic then; the main topic here is these traditions. I’d like to speak a little bit about the history – we don’t have so much time left, so a little bit about the history. Let’s try to exercise some self-control not to get passionate about the history, because it’s a very, very fascinating topic, to me at least. And then speak a little bit about the common features and the differences. So, I’ll just go through the history a little bit briefly this time.
In the seventh century of the Common Era, King Songtsen-gampo of Tibet – I guess you’d call him an emperor; I call him an emperor on the web site; I think that’s more appropriate – he established a huge empire in Tibet. He conquered Zhang-zhung, which was this kingdom to the west, which was where the Bon tradition came from, and he unified Tibet and made this enormous empire. And he had three wives – among many, he probably had more – but he had a Chinese wife and a Nepalese wife and a princess from Zhang-zhung as his wife. And that was the custom, of course, in ancient times. You conquered places and made alliances by marriage, so he did that. And these various princesses brought to central Tibet with them texts from their traditions.
Usually the beginnings of Buddhism in Tibet are traced from that, although there is also a mythical thing that some text fell from the sky about 100 BCE, but this is more historically accurate. But there was very little influence from that early period.
And he sent his minister Tonmi Sambhota to Khotan, actually, to get a written language. This is a kingdom which was a strong Buddhist kingdom to the north of western Tibet, where the high Tibetan mountains and plateau ends and the mountain range goes all the way down to below sea level from the Tibetan plateau – it’s pretty high, a pretty drastic drop. And then you get into the Taklamakan desert – taklamakan is a lovely Turkic word meaning “go in and not come out.” I’ve been to this area; it is really quite formidable. So that’s Xinjiang province in China now, East Turkistan. And just at the base of those mountains where the desert begins was Khotan; it’s a beautiful area.
And this was a very strong Buddhist region, coming from basically Iranian influence, Iranian people; the language was related to Iranian languages. And they had a big influence on Tibet that’s usually not emphasized so much or indicated in the histories. They had a big influence and the Tibetan alphabet actually comes from their script, their adaptation of the Sanskrit alphabet. It just so happened that the teachers that they were going to meet in Khotan were in Kashmir at the time. And you had to go through Kashmir to get to Khotan. That was the most convenient way of getting there. And Tonmi Sambhota happened to meet them there, so for that reason they say that the script comes from Kashmir – it doesn’t, according to analysis.
Anyway, then the whole way of translating into Tibetan was very much influenced by this Khotanese way of breaking up words and giving the meanings of the individual syllables. But, as I said, not too much happened with Buddhism at that time; basically, they built some temples. But they built temples in thirteen places – from the Chinese influence, Tibet was conceived as a demoness lying flat on the ground and in order to somehow quiet the harmful forces they chose acupuncture points on the body of this demoness and built temples on them like you would do acupuncture, so that it would somehow tame the wild spirit of Tibet, which I find really a far-out story. I would like it to be true; whether it is true or not, I don’t know, but that’s the historical account from various scholars.
So they built these temples and it was over a pretty large geographic area. That’s all that you got in the very beginning: a couple of texts, a couple of statues that the queens brought. But afterwards there was a lot more contact with both China and Khotan, and then later contact with India. From India, that was coming from the Nepalese princess; the Chinese from the Chinese princess; and from the Zhang-zhung princess you got the Bon rituals for the state. I don’t want to go too much into that, as I said, I can be quite passionate about the whole topic, but it was different from what we would call Bon today. Anyway, they had a lot of rituals that came from that area.
Then, about roughly a hundred, hundred forty years later, in the middle of the eighth century, you had another great emperor, Emperor Tri Songdetsen. And he also was into expanding the empire and lots and lots of fighting with China and various Central Asian Turkic kingdoms and so on. And he invited Shantarakshita from India, a great abbot, to come. This was due to a prophecy that he invited him to teach in Tibet.
And at that time you had a very conservative faction – a lot of political factions in the government, that’s why I say you have to look at really the political history as well to understand what was going on. And the conservative faction was very xenophobic, anti-foreign and so they didn’t like at all this Shantarakshita coming. And there just happened to be a smallpox epidemic that broke out at that time, so Shantarakshita became the scapegoat for that, “He brought it from India,” and “Get rid of it, get rid of him!” So he was blamed and he was kicked out of Tibet.
So, he went back to India and through the influence of the king, who was still very in favor of Shantarakshita, he invited Guru Rinpoche to come back up to Tibet. The standard story was that he came to tame the demons. Well, basically, it was to get rid of the smallpox epidemic – to somehow tame the demons that were causing the interferences with the smallpox. So, all of this has historical references; it’s not just a story. So he came and did that and then they re-invited Shantarakshita and he came back up. And Guru Rinpoche and Shantarakshita and the king built the first monastery, Samyay.
They had Buddhist temples before, but they didn’t have a monastery. Monastery means monks, ordained monks. And Guru Rinpoche found people not so receptive, not quite ripe yet for the more advanced teachings, and so he hid – buried in the wall of Samyay, or in the pillars, or in various other places around Tibet and Bhutan – various texts dealing with dzogchen, the highest class of tantra teachings from his tradition. That was the Nyingma tradition that derives from him.
So at Samyay monastery you had the three groups – the Chinese, the Indians, and the Zhang-zhung people from West Tibet – making various translations of their materials – translating things into their language, out of their language, this sort of stuff. And Buddhism was made the state religion. And the Chinese emperor then sent two Chinese monks every other year to Samyay. And Shantarakshita predicted that there would be conflict that would arise over this. And he said that, “In the future you must invite my student Kamalashila to help with these conflicts and controversies that will come.”
More teachers meanwhile were sent to India and more of them came to Tibet and many of them also buried texts there. Then this conservative, xenophobic faction was really becoming very upset about the whole development of what was going on and there was a big persecution of Bon, which again was not a religious persecution the way that it’s presented in the Buddhist religious histories, but was much more of a political persecution. Bon there was referring to a group of people actually in the state, so it was sort of an Zhang-zhung faction. That’s a very important point that is needed to be stressed when you study history.
One of the things that has just gone on the website is this book that I wrote that I never published, it’s in the e-book section, it’s called The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Muslim Cultures Before the Mongol Period. And one of the things that I point out in the introduction is that histories always have an agenda from the culture that writes it. So, for instance the British version of the history of India painted the Mughals who were before them as horrible, so “All the Muslims and the Mughals were these horrible exploiters that just ruined your country and here we British are now on the scene to save you,” in a sense “to liberate you.”
And many peoples do that, communist Chinese liberate the Tibetans, they write their history like that. The British have their agenda in writing history, the Chinese had their agenda. The ancient Chinese as well, everybody was paying tribute to the emperor; any sort of trade that was ever done was described as tribute to the emperor from a vassal state – it was just trade, that’s all it was. Likewise the Buddhist histories, they have their agenda, the Islamic histories have their agendas, and so on. And one has to wade through all of that and factor out the baggage, the agenda that they’re trying to prove, to get down to the actual facts.
So, it’s the same thing here, the Buddhist presentation of the history and the Bonpo presentation of the history was that this was a religious persecution – it certainly was not. Because if you look at the rituals which were done in the state, they continued the same old so-called “Bonpo” rituals in the state afterwards, so it was a political thing. But these guys left and they buried texts as well, so obviously they felt very threatened a lot of things from their tradition.
And they buried texts, not like the Nyingmas, which were just dzogchen texts, but they buried everything for safekeeping. It’s interesting to look at that. I traveled in Tuva in Siberia. This is an area of Turkic people that followed Mongolian Buddhism; it’s just to the North of Western Mongolia. And they pointed out to me how they had, in fact, buried all their texts in mountain caves at the time of Stalin. So, one can get a little bit of an appreciation that these things of burying texts actually must have happened. It’s not just a myth.
So, the Zhang-zhung faction was kicked out. And then they had this debate – everybody was very suspicious of the Chinese as well and itchy to get them away too – and, lo and behold, the Indians won the debate and they chose Indian Buddhism. Well, if you look at it, the best debater of the debate logic tradition of India debating against a Zen monk who has no training at all in debate with a Tibetan as the translator who wanted the Indian side to win because everybody wanted to kick the Chinese out – it was a pretty loaded decision as to who was going to win this debate. Anyway, the Indian won – they had called Kamalashila up to debate as Shantarakshita had recommended – and the Chinese left and the Indian tradition was adopted in Tibet.
So, they did a lot of translations – they continued, they had been doing some translations before already. Some texts had to be translated from Chinese, they weren’t there in Sanskrit, but most came from Sanskrit. And in the early ninth century they made a dictionary and they standardized the terms and the styles. One of the great kings, Emperor Relpachen did that. And in that early dictionary and style sheet, the king decreed that they wouldn’t include any tantra material in this, because it was open to so much misunderstanding, And so the tantra stuff wasn’t really standardized so much at that time, although some was coming in.
Then what happened in the mid-ninth century, the same king that sponsored the dictionary project – you’d have to call him in objectivity a religious fanatic – made like seven households responsible for supporting each monk. So instead of going into the government with taxes, all the money went to supporting the monks and supporting the monasteries; and he appointed monk ministers and all this sort of stuff. And the monasteries were becoming way too powerful and it was economically devastating for the country and for the government.
And so the next king, Emperor Langdarma, the real horrible bogeyman of Tibet, instituted this persecution against Buddhism. Well, actually, if you look at it objectively, he only basically shut down the monasteries because they were too powerful and kicked the monk minister off of the government counsel, but he didn’t destroy the libraries of the monasteries. Because when Atisha came, about a hundred fifty years later, he was very impressed by the libraries that were there, so that’s clear evidence that it wasn’t this type of severe religious persecution that the histories would make it out to be.
But anyway, he pretty much closed the monasteries and he closed them all and that was very, very difficult for Buddhism. And then the country fragmented and there were difficult times.
Question: Did he laicize the monks?
Alex: Yes, he laicized the monks, so the monastic lineage was broken as well; that had to be renewed. It was that whole monastic institution had become just... it was going in the wrong direction, becoming too political and too economic and too powerful.
So, the basic teachings and practices didn’t have a monastic institution to support it and it was just sort of carried on a bit underground or privately. And a lot of misunderstanding arose and a lot of abuse, particularly concerning tantra, which the king had been cautious about to start with. They were taking a lot of the stuff terribly literally, particularly about the sexual aspect and the aspect of liberation of consciousness. They took it to get back into this whole sort of sacrifice number and assassination number, which often happens.
And in the beginning of the tenth century, the Bonpos started to recover their texts and the Bon texts were buried in a lot of places where the Buddhist texts were buried; in the beginning of the tenth century they started to recover them. That’s quite interesting that that phenomenon began in the Bon tradition, not in the Buddhist tradition.
In the end of the tenth century, then a more organized kingdom in western Tibet arose and they were interested in clarifying the teachings, because there was so much misunderstanding in Nyingma, and they sent more translators to India and Nepal to clarify. This was the beginning of the new translation period and from this new translation period – it’s actually more the new “transmission” period, in many ways that’s a better way of looking at it – you get the Kadam and Sakya and Kagyu traditions.
Often you hear the word pa at the end – Kagyupa, Gelugpa – that is referring to a person who follows those traditions – a Kadampa – but the tradition itself is Kadam and Nyingma and Kagyu and Gelug.
The Kadam tradition comes from Atisha, a great master from Bengal – let me just go fairly briefly through these if I can – and it emphasized lojong teachings. These are the teachings sometimes translated as “mind-training,” which is a terrible translation, because that sounds like training the intellect. It actually means cleansing of attitudes, it’s dealing with your attitudes. Lo is “attitudes” and jong is to “cleanse,” to “purify” negative ones that we might have; it’s not how you learn to memorize or something like that, like “mind-training.” Anyway, it emphasized that very much. And some of the early debate things were developed very much in that tradition as well.
It split into three separate lineages and was reunified by Tsongkhapa with much reform in the late fourteenth century and early fifteenth century. We’ll speak about this a little bit later, but Tsongkhapa was really, really radical; he made the greatest, hugest changes of anybody. It wasn’t a matter of reform in the sense of “people weren’t following the monastic rules very well and so he got them back to following the vinaya,” that’s a very, very small aspect of what he was all about. But the whole interpretation of almost everything in philosophy he redid.
What you find is that the other traditions – Sakya, Nyingma, and Kagyu – pretty much follow one style of interpretation of things with minor variations. But Tsongkhapa went in and he was incredible in terms of his scope of what he read and what he remembered; obviously he had an incredible photographic memory. And he would look at everything and all of the translations – most things were translated many, many times – and he’d say, “This translation is wrong and that translation is wrong and this interpretation of it is wrong,” and he’d prove them all by logic and by putting together various other scriptural sources.
So, an incredible critical editing of things; and unlike any of the authors in the past, he didn’t skip over the difficult pieces; the most difficult passages were the ones that he delighted in trying to figure out and explain. In this way he came up with a radically different interpretation of almost everything. This has been very mind-opening to me in my own studies, because it was always presented as though, “This is what everybody in Tibetan Buddhism thinks,” and “The Prasangikas say this,” and so on – it’s absolutely not.
So, Tsongkhapa was a great revolutionary. Among many disciples, from our point of view now, one big-name person was the master who later became known as the First Dalai Lama, although that name was given to him posthumously at the time of the Third Dalai Lama by the Mongols. It’s a Mongol name; dalai means “ocean,” actually after the Dalai Khan, who also had the name of the ocean. Mind you, the Mongols never saw the ocean, so ocean is a pretty far-out thing from a Mongol point of view.
The Fifth Dalai Lama – there was a civil war for about a hundred and fifty years in Tibet, a terrible civil war and the Mongols came in and put an end to it – that’s a whole nother history of “Buddhism in Mongolia and the interaction with Tibet” – and they made the Fifth Dalai Lama the political ruler of Tibet – they made him the spiritual leader also. And his teacher at that time became known as the First Panchen Lama. So the line of Panchen Lamas comes from his teacher.
That’s enough about the Kadam and then the Gelug tradition that came from that. The second tradition from that new translation period, coming from the end of the tenth century, was the Sakya tradition. The Sakya tradition comes mainly from Virupa and a few other translators. Their main teaching coming from Virupa is known as lamdray – lam is “the path” and dray is “the result,” so “the path and its results” – which is a combination of sort of lam-rim type of stuff with Hevajra. A very special teaching.
And you get a line there of five early masters, five great Sakya masters, and they form a family lineage; it’s within a family over several generations of uncles and nephews and that sort of thing. The Sakya line has always been a family-inherited type of thing. Originally they had the political rule of Tibet. This was when Tibet finally got reunified after this period of it being all broken up. This was in the thirteenth century with Sakya Pandita, who was probably the most well-known of the Sakya masters. Sakya Pandita and his nephew Pagpa, they became the tutors of Kublai Khan.
The Tibetans, like the Uighurs, the Turkic people north of Tibet, were the only ones that didn’t fight Chinggis Khan. So because they didn’t fight Chinggis Khan, then they weren’t destroyed by Chinggis and the Mongols. The Uighurs gave the Mongols their first taste of Buddhism, but basically their writing system and administrative things and how to organize a state and so on, and the Tibetans gave them a more organized form of Buddhism.
And they [Pagpa and the following Sakya lamas] were given the political rule of Tibet at that time. So, you get the Sakya lineage and that also has some sublineages, the Ngor and Tsar sublineages. So you get different masters of that.
Within Kagyu, the other new translation period, there are two main lines. There is the Shangpa Kagyu and the Dagpo Kagyu.
Shangpa Kagyu comes from a Tibetan by the name of Kyungpo Neljor, Garuda Yogi that translates as. Basically, he had gotten the lineages of – you’ve heard of the six yogas of Naropa – the word isn’t “yoga,” it’s the six “dharmas” of Naropa, but there is a set of six and these have to do with highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga practices. And there’s actually three sets of these: one from Naropa, but the other two are from great women practitioners, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. So, the Shangpa Kagyu lineage transmits these three sets of six teachings from these three great masters and that came through this Tibetan master Kyungpo Neljor. The late Kalu Rinpoche, who was very well known in the West, was from that tradition.
The other tradition, the Dagpo Kagyu tradition is the one that goes through the line of Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa. That’s a much more well-known line to many in the West. And Gampopa combined mahamudra and lojong – lojong were these cleansing of attitudes teachings from the Kadampa and mahamudra were teachings that came from various mahasiddhas, great accomplished beings like Tilopa and Naropa and there was a whole bunch of other ones as well in India. So he combined that. So you see that the lojong lineage didn’t only stay in the Kadam, but it went into the Kagyu as well.
And from Gampopa you get twelve lines of Kagyu; it divided into twelve Kagyu traditions from his students and the students of one of his students, Pagmo-drupa. So you get the twelve lines. And the most widespread of those are the Karma Kagyu that the First Karmapa was one of the major figures of and the Drugpa Kagyu and the Drigung Kagyu. Those are the ones that we find even in the West now as well.
The Nyingma tradition, as I said, it was that old period, but they had buried the dzogchen texts and the other texts were sort of transmitted still through all this period, but it wasn’t so totally clear, a lot of misunderstanding even there. And they started to uncover their texts in the early eleventh century; that’s about a century after the Bonpos started to uncover their texts, unearth them. And this happened when the new teachers were arriving, this new wave of teachers from India.
And it was pretty bewildering what all these texts were that were being uncovered and how they fit together and all of that. And they were codified – which means put together and standardized – in the thirteenth century by the great Nyingma master Longchenpa. And he really was the so-called father of Nyingma in the form that we find it now. And that is basically divided into a Northern Treasure Lineage and the Southern Treasure Lineage. And the Nyingma tradition is actually much more fragmented than the other three lineages, not as together in one sort of style.
The other major thing in the history what needs to be mentioned is the Rimey movement (ri-med, nonsectarian). It was started in the nineteenth century by a number of different figures, but the most outstanding one was Kongtrul Rinpoche, the great Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Tayey was his name, but Kongtrul is sufficient to remember. And this was intended to try to preserve the obscure lineages that were dying out or not so available from all four traditions.
But what was quite emphasized was the Jonangpa lineage, which was a minor Sakya lineage, that – without going into great detail – was persecuted and suppressed, from the Buddhist history point of view, for its doctrinal view. But if you look a little bit more objectively, I think it was for its political association with the other side in that big civil war that was going on. Anyway, they revived a lot of that tradition.
And in many ways the Rimey movement was a political thing to counter the growing influence of the Gelug lineage in the central government. The Rimey thing was more in Kham and that whole history and the interaction and Pabongka’s involvement and all of this and his very radical sectarian moves that he made were very much within the context of this rivalry in terms of political influence and paying taxes and all these sort of very mundane types of things.
So anyway, that’s a little bit of the history in brief; a lot more that one could look at.
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