Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism

Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions

Christian K. Wedemeyer
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 336
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/wede16240
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    Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism
    Book Description:

    Making Sense of Tantric Buddhismfundamentally rethinks the nature of the transgressive theories and practices of the Buddhist Tantric traditions, challenging the notion that the Tantras were "marginal" or primitive and situating them instead -- both ideologically and institutionally -- within larger trends in mainstream Buddhist and Indian culture.

    Critically surveying prior scholarship, Wedemeyer exposes the fallacies of attributing Tantric transgression to either the passions of lusty monks, primitive tribal rites, or slavish imitation of Saiva traditions. Through comparative analysis of modern historical narratives -- that depict Tantrism as a degenerate form of Buddhism, a primal religious undercurrent, or medieval ritualism -- he likewise demonstrates these to be stock patterns in the European historical imagination.

    Through close analysis of primary sources, Wedemeyer reveals the lived world of Tantric Buddhism as largely continuous with the Indian religious mainstream and deploys contemporary methods of semiotic and structural analysis to make sense of its seemingly repellent and immoral injunctions. Innovative, semiological readings of the influentialGuhyasamaja Tantraunderscore the text's overriding concern with purity, pollution, and transcendent insight -- issues shared by all Indic religions -- and a large-scale, quantitative study of Tantric literature shows its radical antinomianism to be a highly managed ritual observance restricted to a sacerdotal elite. These insights into Tantric scripture and ritual clarify the continuities between South Asian Tantrism and broader currents in Indian religion, illustrating how thoroughly these "radical" communities were integrated into the intellectual, institutional, and social structures of South Asian Buddhism.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53095-8
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. I-VIII)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. IX-XII)
  3. List of Figures and Tables (pp. XIII-XIV)
  4. PREFACE AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. XV-XVIII)
    Christian K. Wedemeyer
  5. List of Abbreviations (pp. XIX-XXII)
  6. INTRODUCTION: MAKING SENSE IN AND OF THE HUMAN SCIENCES (pp. 1-14)

    Tantric Buddhism presents to the historian of religions an interpretative conundrum. It is, to all appearances, a significant branch of a major world religion—one whose scriptures and practices spread from India across Asia, capturing the minds, voices, and purses of millions in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Bali, Cambodia, China, and Japan. More recently, these traditions have begun to take root in regions as far-flung as Russia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. On the other hand, their widespread popularity seems virtually incomprehensible in light of the highly objectionable features of certain of their scriptures and rituals....

  7. PART I: HISTORIOGRAPHY
    • 1 ORIGINS, RELIGION, AND THE ORIGINS OF TANTRISM (pp. 17-36)

      In seeking to make sense of Tantric Buddhism, scholars have often looked to its origins as a way of explaining its most basic nature and causes, identifying it, and thus accounting for it. This method has been common throughout humanistic and historical studies of culture, and the study of Buddhism is no exception. Like other scholarly discourses, this one has its own coherency and structure in which a limited number of rhetorical modes recur consistently. In fact, the various accounts of the origination of Tantric Buddhism comprise a highly delimited set of possible representations.

      This chapter will explore the rhetoric...

    • 2 NARRATING TANTRIC BUDDHISM (pp. 37-67)

      In addressing issues of cultural understanding and interpretation, there is perhaps no discipline more crucial than history. In the past two centuries, for better or worse, history has become a dominant (perhapsthedominant) mode of understanding the world and ourselves. It is the privileged medium for expressing ideas and values, and for signifying meaning in the human sciences. There are other discourses, of course, by which persons, ideas, and institutions may be represented, associated, and evaluated; but when it comes to understanding dynamic processes of change, the language of power—the effective language—is history. It is thus to...

    • 3 GOING NATIVE: TRADITIONAL HISTORIOGRAPHY OF TANTRIC BUDDHISM (pp. 68-102)

      Modern scholars have only recently begun to devote attention to the question of how indigenous sources understand and depict the origins and history of their traditions, although this question figures prominently in esoteric Buddhist literature. Virtually none of the standard scholarly works on Indian Buddhism devote any attention whatsoever to the question of how the community that holds them sacred understood the history of these texts, but merely pass over the question in silence.¹ What little comment one does encounter on occasion is largely confined to depicting the indigenous view as reducible to the claim that the Tantras were taught...

  8. PART II: INTERPRETATION
    • 4 THE SEMIOLOGY OF TRANSGRESSION (pp. 105-132)

      The time has now come to return to the question posed at the beginning of this work: How to make sense of the fact that the seemingly antisocial, antinomian behaviors advocated in much of the later Tantric literature—that seem at first glance to be the ravings of madmen—are in fact “reckoned to be the sacred scripture of millions of intelligent human beings.”¹ What is one to make of a tradition whose most revered scriptures seem to counsel its devotees to violate not only its own most basic moral precepts, but to violate all the most essential contemporaneous standards...

    • 5 THE PRACTICE OF INDIAN TANTRIC BUDDHISM (pp. 133-169)

      As noted in chapter four, although the antinomian practices of the higher Buddhist Tantras feature an axial semiosis essential to their proper understanding,¹ this does not entail that these practices are not in fact to be performed. I suggested that at least the possibility of such performance is essential to the semiosis: If considered just a symbol, the full impact would not be possible and the semiosis of connotation would be reduced to mere flat denotation. In this chapter, we will advance our discussion of the transgressive aspects of the Buddhist Tantras by applying methods of structural discourse analysis to...

    • 6 TANTRIC BUDDHIST TRANSGRESSION IN CONTEXT (pp. 170-199)

      Having begun to trace the outlines of the semiotical system that structures the discourses and ritual logic of the nondual Buddhist Tantras, there remains the question of how to synthesize the observations we have made so as to advance the larger project of making sense of Tantric Buddhism. We have observed how modern scholars have advanced theories of the origins of Tantric Buddhism or cast its history in narrative form, by which means they construct a social context within which to interpret and explain its transgressive discourses and practices. We have explored the indigenous historiography of the Tantric traditions and...

  9. CONCLUSION: NO TWO “WAYS” ABOUT IT (pp. 200-206)

    In the foregoing, I have suggested a number of ways in which the methods of semiological analysis provide critical tools for advancing the scholarly study of Tantric Buddhism in India. Subjectively, scholars can gain critical distance—a more acute awareness of their own participation in dialectics of representation—through greater attention to the stock of conceptual models and narrative forms that circulate throughout the discourses that structure their fields of study. Objectively, analysis of the rhetorical patterns evident across the corpus of Tantric Buddhist scripture and ritual reveals an informing semiotical structure to the transgressions characteristic of the later Tantras,...

  10. APPENDIX I: THE INDRABHŪTI STORY ACCORDING TO PAD MA DKAR PO (CA. 1575) (pp. 207-208)
  11. APPENDIX II: CHAPTER NINE OF THE BUDDHAKAPĀLA TANTRA, THE “PRACTICE” (CARYĀPAṬALA) (pp. 209-210)
  12. NOTES (pp. 211-266)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 267-300)
  14. INDEX (pp. 301-314)

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