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Sources of Tibetan Tradition

Sources of Tibetan Tradition

Kurtis R. Schaeffer
Matthew T. Kapstein
Gray Tuttle
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 856
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  • Book Info
    Sources of Tibetan Tradition
    Book Description:

    The most comprehensive collection of Tibetan works in a Western language, this volume illuminates the complex historical, intellectual, and social development of Tibetan civilization from its earliest beginnings to the modern period. Including more than 180 representative writings,Sources of Tibetan Traditionspans Tibet's vast geography and long history, presenting for the first time a diversity of works by religious and political leaders; scholastic philosophers and contemplative hermits; monks and nuns; poets and artists; and aristocrats and commoners. The selected readings reflect the profound role of Buddhist sources in shaping Tibetan culture while illustrating other major areas of knowledge. Thematically varied, they address history and historiography; political and social theory; law; medicine; divination; rhetoric; aesthetic theory; narrative; travel and geography; folksong; and philosophical and religious learning, all in relation to the unique trajectories of Tibetan civil and scholarly discourse. The editors begin each chapter with a survey of broader social and cultural contexts and introduce each translated text with a concise explanation. Concluding with writings that extend into the early twentieth century, this volume offers an expansive encounter with Tibet's exceptional intellectual heritage.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50978-7
    Subjects: History, Religion
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-xviii)
  3. PREFACE (pp. xix-xxii)
    Kurtis R. Schaeffer, Matthew T. Kapstein and Gray Tuttle
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
  6. List of Contributors (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
  8. Maps (pp. xxxviii-xlii)
  9. PART ONE Political Expansion and the Beginnings of Tibetan Buddhist Culture: (Seventh to Tenth Centuries)

      Tibet’s entry into world history begins with the unification of the Tibetan kingdom during the early seventh century and its subsequent expansion throughout large parts of Central Asia.¹ The earliest Tibetan writings, selections from which will be presented in the chapters that follow, and the histories of Tibet’s neighbors concur in placing Tibet’s rise in this period. The major powers established in East, West, and Central Asia at the time were set upon a collision course, for Tibet’s growth corresponded to that of China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), to the spread of Islam and the Arab conquests in the Iranian...

    • Chapter 2 IMPERIAL RECORDS FROM DUNHUANG (pp. 35-56)

      In 1900 a Chinese Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu was engaged in the pious restoration of one of the cave temples of Mogao at Dunhuang, the famous oasis on the Silk Road in Gansu province. Breaking through a wall, he found a concealed chamber adjoining the site of his work. Cave 17, as the chamber is now known, proved to be a repository containing tens of thousands of texts together with hundreds of paintings, some as many as 1,500 years old, and all written at least nine centuries before; the chamber had been sealed early in the eleventh century for...


      Besides the manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang, two additional types of record figure prominently among the Tibetan-language sources conserved from the epoch of the Tibetan empire. First and foremost are the various royal edicts preserved as inscriptions and, with a few exceptions, notably from Amdo and Kham, carved on stone columns found in Central Tibet. There are also a small number of official documents that survived in manuscripts preserved in parts of central and southern Tibet (for instance, at the monastery of Samyé and in the district of Lhodrak), some of which were eventually copied into the writings of later Tibetan...


      The development of Tibetan writing, the formation of a state bureaucracy, and the introduction of learning from abroad together contributed to great changes in the ways and means of knowledge formation in late first-millennium Tibet. The concern of the Tibetans not just to follow foreign models but equally to employ those models in the codification of indigenous Tibetan traditions has led some recent scholars to note a remarkable analogy between Tibet and other expanding civilizations of the early medieval period. Examples that have been proposed include the Islamic realms of the Umayyad caliphate (661–750) and the Frankish domains of...


      Chapter 3 examined the adoption of Buddhism as the religion of the Tibetan court during the reign of Tri Songdetsen (755–c. 797) and its continued expansion under his successors. The depth of Tri Songdetsen’s own commitment to the Indian religion and its traditions of learning was seen as well in the selections from hisCriteria of the Authentic Scripturesgiven in chapter 4. Despite this royal endorsement, important factions among the nobles—and no doubt the common people too—remained loyal to their ancestral beliefs and practices. They were supported by the priests of the indigenous Tibetan cults, who...

  10. PART TWO Tibet in Fragments:: From Empire to Monastic Principalities (Eleventh to Twelfth Centuries)
    • Chapter 6 RENEWAL AND REDISCOVERY: The Later Diffusion of Buddhism and the Response of the “Ancients” (pp. 167-188)

      Tibetan historiographical traditions are almost unanimous in their insistence that, under the ninth-century monarch Üdumtsen (a.k.a. Lang Darma, d. 842), monastic Buddhism was persecuted to such an extent that the Dharma was effectively extinguished throughout Central Tibet for the following century and a half. Though recent research suggests that the persecution, if in fact it occurred, primarily took the form of a reduction or withdrawal of sponsorship, and that Buddhism in Central Tibet, once introduced, never actually died, the most intensive Buddhist activity among Tibetans during the early postimperial period appears to have taken place far from the center, in...

    • Chapter 7 THE PROLIFERATION OF NEW LINEAGES (pp. 189-249)

      Despite the reservations about the transgressive aspects of Buddhist tantra expressed by the lords of Gugé and certain of Atiśa’s followers in the Kadampa tradition, tantric lineages continued to flourish in Tibet in tandem with the development of new monastic centers and the translation and educational projects they fostered. There was a growing consensus that the ethical and scholarly dimensions of Buddhism were fundamental, but rapid progress toward spiritual awakening, as well as the acquisition of ritual power and the charisma that accompanied it, were thought to arise, above all, through mastery of the tantras. And because tantric initiation depended...

    • Chapter 8 THE BÖN TRADITION (pp. 250-277)

      As the term has been used in contemporary scholarship, “Bön” has three primary referents. The first is the religious tradition of Tibet prior to the importation of Buddhism. “Bön” can also refer to the popular religion of Tibet: the ritual practices, annual rites, and mythic motifs that fall outside of institutionalized religion. Finally, the term can denote the religion that developed as early as the late tenth century in competition with emerging forms of postimperial Buddhism, and that shares much in common doctrinally, if not mythically with both the Nyingma school and some forms of Indian Buddhism then being introduced...


      The Tibetan medical tradition grew tremendously in the twelfth century, due in large part to the new translations that had been produced since the early decades of the eleventh century. Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055), the famous translator from western Tibet, rendered one of the great Indian medical treatises and its commentaries into Tibetan: Vāgbhata’sCondensed Essence of the Eight Branches of Medicine.Despite its name, this is a massive compendium of medical knowledge, treating physiology, pediatrics, spirit possession, head injuries, injuries from weapons, surgery, geriatrics, and virility. Vāgbhata’s work and a 2,000-page commentary by Candrananda formed crucial sources for the...

  11. PART THREE The Age of Monastic and Aristocratic Hegemonies:: The Florescence of Tibetan Culture (Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries)

      The Tibetan age of political fragmentation, aspects of which were surveyed in part 2, was accompanied, in some circles at least, by considerable nostalgia for the glory days of the Tibetan empire. The strength of Tibet, the wealth and refinement of its court, the achievements of its translators and scholars—all these and more seemed to have been lost or debased following the collapse of the Tsenpos’ dynasty. One result, beginning in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and culminating in the fourteenth, was an increasingly mythical view of the past, and the composition of ever more elaborate compilations of the...


      The materials in this chapter are concerned with the local history of Tibetan kingdoms—tracing ancient lineages, glorifying rulers for living up to the religious and civil ideals of Tibetan society (which occasionally included putting down rebellions against high taxes and attacking neighbors), protecting the resources of local rulers—as well as the history of Buddhism in India. These historical texts were written during or after the end of over a century of Mongol occupation of Tibet (1240–1340s) and show the influence that this integration into the Mongol empire had on Tibet. Moreover, because the authority of many of...

    • Chapter 12 EXPLORATIONS OF BUDDHIST DOCTRINE (pp. 371-424)

      The Buddhist renaissance of the late tenth to early twelfth centuries (chapters 6–7) was characterized above all by the renewed attention given to the transmission of Indian Buddhism in Tibet, including both textual translation and practical techniques of ritual and yoga. By the mid-twelfth century, however, Buddhism in India was declining rapidly, and the Tibetans found themselves heir to a vast body of written and oral tradition that was fast disappearing in the land of its birth. Under these changing circumstances, the chief concerns of the Tibetan religious elite began to turn from the reception of Indian Buddhism to...

    • Chapter 13 LITERARY DEVELOPMENTS (pp. 425-445)

      Along with the explosion of Tibetan historical writing and the development of a truly Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the literary arts underwent a gradual transformation from a foreign, imported form of discourse into a naturalized Tibetan medium for creative expression, philosophical exploration, and moral reflection. Three major Indian influences loom large behind the selections in this chapter: the narrative ethical literature of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist folktale anthologies; thedohā, spiritual songs of the late Indian Buddhist saints such as Saraha, Tilopa, and Nāropa; and the ornate poetry of thekāvyatradition descending from the poetic theorist Daṇḍin. The tradition of...

    • Chapter 14 WRITINGS ON DEATH AND DYING (pp. 446-467)

      It will come as no surprise that death and dying have been ubiquitous topics of reflection throughout the history of Tibetan literature. Among the literature preserved at Dunhuang are prayers for the dead, prayers to ward off death, funerary rituals, and cosmologies of the realms to which death may lead. The period between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries witnessed the formalization of much theological reflection upon death as a moral, soteriological, and persistent practical problem. This chapter provides a glimpse of this rich tradition by presenting four types of literature in which death is treated: tantric exegesis, prayer, narrative,...

    • Chapter 15 THE GROWTH OF THE ARTS AND SCIENCES (pp. 468-504)

      Why should one study the arts and sciences in a Buddhist culture when the ultimate goal, liberation from the suffering inherent to embodied existence, would seem to minimize the importance—or lead to direct criticism—of the cultivation of mundane and material accomplishments? One might respond that the question is faulty, for it presumes that Buddhist thought and cultural practice in Tibet proceed along parallel paths that seldom meet. But it may not be dismissed so easily, if only because the question was live for Tibetan intellectuals. Sakya Pandita summarizes the issue in his treatise on music: “Until, in your...

  12. PART FOUR The Age of Centralization:: The Rise of the Ganden Government and Its Bid for Cultural Hegemony (Seventeenth to Twentieth Centuries)
    • Chapter 16 THE BEGINNINGS OF THE GANDENPA SCHOOL (pp. 507-530)

      When Jé Tsongkhapa died in 1419 at the age of sixty-two, he left behind three major monasteries, one founded by him, two by his students; an enduring annual festival in Lhasa, the nexus of Central Tibetan religious life; a corpus of writings that critically synthesized nearly the whole of the Buddhist scholastic tradition; and a host of students who would also come to be among the most important philosophers and leaders in Tibetan history. Early Tibetan biographies of the master formalize key moments in Tsongkhapa’s career as a set of “four great acts”: the restoration of the old monastery at...


      For three centuries after the mid-seventeenth century, Central Tibetan history was largely marked by the political predominance of the Gelukpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, whose leaders generally held power or shared it with the Tibetan nobility. Except during the first half of the eighteenth century, the source of Central Tibetan political legitimacy was the office of the Dalai Lama, in a hierocratic religiopolitical system. This power came through an alliance with the Khoshud Mongol Gushri Khan (1582–1655), who led a series of successful attacks across the Tibetan Plateau against the enemies of the Gelukpa tradition and then ruled all...

    • Chapter 18 ARISTOCRATS, MONKS, AND HERMITS (pp. 556-584)

      The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were a watershed for the literary arts, with the growth of secular biography and poetry. The rise of the Dalai Lama’s government in the middle of the seventeenth century began a cultural renaissance in the Lhasa region, as seen in chapter 17. The formation of the new government also initiated the growth of a new class of educated urban intellectuals, though this would take several generations. In the middle decades of the eighteenth century, autobiography became a popular genre among the elite of Lhasa. The leading light in this lay adaptation of an old religious...


      The seventeenth through nineteenth centuries were marked by dramatic developments in eastern Tibet. The Gelukpa tradition, with the support of various Mongols and other local groups, such as the Premi of Muli, expanded exponentially. This was especially true in Amdo, where in the first two and half centuries since the founding of the Gelukpa tradition only some 60 Gelukpa monasteries had been established; in the two centuries following the 1578 visit of the Third Dalai Lama, over 350 new monasteries were founded. Many of these were anchored and organized around a core of large “mother” monasteries that served as specialized...

    • Chapter 20 ENCOUNTERING OTHER CULTURES (pp. 622-658)

      During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Tibet’s relations with neighboring and more distant countries and peoples were transformed in several important ways. These changes were in part due to wide-ranging political and economic developments in Asia and in Europe, but also reflected the shifts of power within the Tibetan world that accompanied the rise of the Ganden Podrang government of the Dalai Lamas (chapters 17–18).

      Of immediate import for Tibetan affairs was the decline of the Ming dynasty in China and the accompanying rise to power of a north Asian people, the Manchus, whose leaders succeeded in winning the...

    • Chapter 21 RELIGIOUS WRITERS IN AMDO AND KHAM (pp. 659-700)

      In the wake of Central Tibet’s protracted civil wars of the sixteenth through early eighteenth centuries, there was a remarkable flowering of cultural activity associated with local princely households and new monastic establishments in the eastern Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham. Amdo benefited from its strategic position linking Tibetan, Mongol, and Chinese domains, while Kham enjoyed strong ties with Sichuan, one of China’s richest provinces, making Kham a crossroads for flourishing trade.

      Though the complexities of social and religious life in these eastern reaches of the Tibetan world make generalizations hazardous, the tribal and clan-based societies of Kham and...

  13. PART FIVE Expanding Horizons in the Early Twentieth Century

      Although the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a variety of tentative contacts between Tibet and the West, through the activities of merchants and missionaries in particular, throughout much of the nineteenth century, Central Tibet seemed to Europeans a shrouded, inaccessible land. The enterprising English traveler Thomas Manning did succeed in reaching Lhasa in 1812, but besides this and a few similar exceptions, mostly Indian explorers in the service of the Raj, Central Tibet remained largely off limits to those outside the Tibetan, Chinese, Mongol, and Manchu cultural spheres. Foreign knowledge of Tibet (and Tibetan knowledge of places abroad) could develop...


      In contrast to the mostly cultural contacts described in the last chapter, the focus of this final chapter is Tibetan political and ideological encounters with the rest of the world. Although it is often repeated that Tibetans were not aware of international affairs as late as the 1950s, these selections demonstrate that many were quite well informed and engaged with the rest of the world. Records from the interlocutors between the West and Tibet, such as the Buryat (Russian) Mongol lama Dorjiev, who served as a teacher to and envoy of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and the Kinnauri (Indian) Christian-convert...

  14. CREDITS (pp. 757-764)
  15. FOR FURTHER READING (pp. 765-772)
  16. INDEX (pp. 773-810)