Tibetan Chan IV: The Great Debate

Why does history get written? I think we’d all agree that the motives for creating history are mixed, and just as complex as the uses it gets put to after it’s written. Though most of Tibet’s histories are histories of religion, it would surely be naive to imagine that the motives of their authors were wholly religious. After all, the union of religion and politics (chösi zungdrel in Tibetan) was not just a fact of life in Tibet, it was an ideal, a dearly-held expression of the uniqueness of Tibet’s culture.

So how does this apply to the story of the great debate between Chinese and Indian Buddhism that is supposed to have taken place at Samyé monastery under the aegis of the emperor Tri Song Detsen? The debate is certainly presented in religious terms, as a battle between two interpretations of the Buddhist scriptures. On the Chinese side, the Chan approach of the single method: the realization of the nature of mind leading to instant enlightenment. On the Indian side, the gradual approach of the six perfections leading to a gradual awakening in ten stages.

The classic account of the debate and the source for all later Tibetan historians, is the Testament of Ba. And this, even in the earliest form available to us, is clearly not a disinterested account. It gives the proponent of the Chinese view a brief paragraph to defend his position, followed by pages and pages of the proponents of the Indian view. And most of the refutation of the Chinese approach is spoken by a Tibetan nobleman from the Ba clan. But hang on, isn’t the Testament of Ba all about the Ba clan? Well, it certainly seems to have been put together by people from that clan, and it certainly places the Ba clan in the middle of the action in the story of how Buddhism came to Tibet.

I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that the story of early Tibetan history is the story of the Tibetan clans. Before Tibetan history began to be recorded, the clans were contesting with each other. During the Tibetan empire, the clans were in theory united under the emperors, but in truth, they continued to contest with each other, and this was one of the major factors in the ultimate failure of the empire. And after the empire fell, the fighting between the clans created what the historians called “the age of fragmentation.”

As for the Ba clan, they were deeply involved in the imperial court and often in competition with the Bro clan for the top ministerial positions. They seem to have played some part in the conspiracy against the Buddhist emperor Ralpachen, leading to his assassination and the enthronement of the deeply unpopular Langdarma. Given that Langdarma came to be blamed for the collapse of monastic Buddhism in Tibet, and the inception of the age of fragmentation, it seems that the Ba clan had some PR work to do if they wanted to demonstrate their credentials as supporters of the revered Buddhist emperors. And that’s what the Testament of Ba does, quite successfully.

*  *  *

So where does the story of the debate fit into this? Obviously it puts the representatives of the Ba clan at the side of the greatest Buddhist emperor. It may also be a not-so-subtle attack on another major clan, the Dro, the clan that most frequently crops up in the Ba clan’s power struggles. And as the empire began to fall apart the first  civil war was between the governor of Tibet’s northeastern territories (who was from the Dro clan) and a general who wanted to set himself up as a local warlord (from the Ba clan). The governor sided with the new Chinese power in the region, and the general was, after committing some appalling brutalities, eventually executed. For more about this see here and here.

So we shouldn’t be surprised if the old enmity between Ba and Dro finds expression somewhere in the Testament of Ba. Perhaps in the story of the debate? Consider the evidence:

1. There’s a Chinese manuscript from Dunhuang (Pelliot chinois 4646) that tells another debate story. As in Testament of Ba, the Chinese side is represented by the Chinese monk Moheyan, but the proponents of the other view are only mentioned as “Brahmin monks.” This manuscript also talks about “discussions” by letter over several months, rather than a staged debate. And the biggest difference is that it ends with the Tibetan emperor giving his seal of approval to the Chinese teaching:

The Chan doctrine taught by Mahayana is a fully-justified development based on the text of the sutras; it is without error. From now on the monks and laity are permitted to practise and train in it under this edict.

But what is most relevant to us is that it mentions that Moheyan was invited by one of Tri Song Detsen’s queens, the one from the Dro clan. The Chinese author of the text makes this quite clear.

2. A Tibetan manuscript from Dunhuang (Pelliot tibétain 996) gives us an account of a lineage of Chan masters. It begins with an Indian master who travelled to the Silk Road city of Anxi.* Here’s a translation of the beginning, which gives an idea of the tone of the work:

The master Artenhwer, an instructor who knew the path of the sameness of all phenomena travelled to Anxi from India, for the sake of sentient beings. There he gathered three hundred students, and taught them how to enter the Mahāyāna. He received divine food offerings from the sky, which satiated his three hundred students. At over a hundred years old he passed away in the posture of nirvana. Then the king of Anxi struck the body and said “If the master came to explain the dharma to multitudes of sentient beings, why did he only teach a few words?” And, having died, the master rose again for three days and taught the dharma to the king of Anxi and the Chinese prince of Gazhou.

The lineage of this Artenhwer gets passed down to a Chinese monk called Man Heshang. And he is supported by Trisumjé, the delön (the minister responsible for the northeastern marches of the Tibetan empire) — this is almost certainly a famous Tibetan minister from the Dro clan who lead the negotations for to the 823 Sino-Tibetan peace treaty. Later in this Chan lineage there’s a Tibetan master called Puk Yeshé Yang, who is supported by a monk from, once again, the Dro clan.

So, is it reasonable to suggest that the Chan teachers like Moheyan were known to have the patronage of the Dro clan? That would certainly make the story of the debate in the Testament of Ba very useful in their struggle with the Dro. Not only does it place them at the centre of the narrative of the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet, it’s also one in the eye for the Dro clan and their favourite Chan teacher.

*  *  *

This rivalry might answer a question posed by Matthew Kapstein: why is Testament of Ba generally well disposed towards Chinese Buddhism, except in the story of the debate? Earlier in the Testament of Ba we hear about a member of the Ba clan travelling to China receiving teachings from the Korean Chan teacher known as the Reverend Kim. While later Tibetan historians tended to present the debate as a rejection of Chinese Buddhism per se, the Testament of Ba, especially in its earliest known forms, suggests more specifically a rejection of Moheyan’s brand of meditation practice.

That’s enough for now. I won’t go into the question of whether the debate actually happened, although the very different version in the Chinese text certainly suggests that we might be better off thinking of a series of discussions, mostly by exchanges of letters, rather than a debate. And the author of 10th century Lamp for the Eyes of Meditation, which is all about how to rank the simultaneous and gradual methods, fails to mention any debate. And many, if not all, of the Tibetan Chan manuscripts from Dunhuang date from after the Tibetan empire, and thus well after when the debate was supposed to have happened, suggesting that the decline of Chan in Tibet happened slowly, and for other reasons.

*  *  *

See also…

Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan
Tibetan Chan II: The teachings of Heshang Moheyan
Tibetan Chan III: More teachings of Heshang Moheyan

*  *  *

A note on places and people…

So where is Anxi (An se in the Tibetan text)? Most people, following Lalou, have identified it with the great northern Silk Route city of Kucha. But this might not be right. Anxi was the name of the Chinese command centre for its western territories. This was in Kucha until the late 680s, when that city was taken by the Tibetan army, and the Chinese moved the Anxi commandery to Qocho (Ch. Gaochang). By my calculations, separating each member of the lineage by 25 years, Artenhwer should have been around in the first half of the 8th century, by which time Anxi may have referred to Qocho.

As for Artenhwer (A rtan hwer), this looks like a Tibetan transliteration of a Chinese transliteration of a foreign name, so finding the original may be a hopeless task. Flemming Faber identified it as the popular Persian name Ardasir, but as far as we know, there was no Buddhism in Persia by this time. It certainly doesn’t sound particularly Indian. Turkic perhaps? Any informed answers or wild guesses great appreciated…

And Dro Trisumjé? Hugh Richardson considers the identification of Pelliot tibétain 996′s Trisumjé with the army commander Dro Trisumjé doubtful. But it doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that bde blon Trisumjé mentioned in Pelliot tibétain 996 might have later held the role of army commander (dmag gi mchog). His involvement in the Sino-Tibetan treaty involves the same region that fell under the rule of the bde blon. A letter written by a Chinese officer to a Zhang Khri sum rje (Pelliot tibétain 1070 — see Demiéville’s Concile de Lhasa, pp.280-290) says that he chose Dunhuang as his residence and founded a temple there. Roberto Vitali has argued that this is Dro Trisumjé, and that he must have lived in Dunhuang before 810, when, due to a promotion to the rank of minister and general of the northeast army, he would have moved to a major prefecture like Guazhou. Though Vitali didn’t consider Pelliot tibétain 996, the fact that Trisumjé held the post of bde blon only strengthens his case.

*  *  *

And some Tibetan…

From the beginning of Pelliot tibétain 996 (f.1r):

$//mkhan po nam ka’I snying po’i dge ba’i bshes nyen gyI rgyud mdor bshad pa// dge ba’I bshes nyen yang/ chos mnaym pa nyId kyI lam rIg pa’/ mkhanpo a rtan hwer/ sems can gyI don du rgya gar yul nas/ yul an ser gshegs te/ slob ma sum brgya bsdus nas/ theg pa chen po’i don la cI ltar ‘jug pa’I sgo bshad/ lha’I zhal zas nam ka las blangs te/ slobs sum brgya tshIm bar byas so/ lo brgya lon nas/ ner ban thabs su dus las ‘das so/ de nas an se’I rgyal pos lus brda+bs te/ mkhan pos sems can de snyed la chos bshad na/ bdag la tshIg ‘ga’ yang ma bstan par gshegs sam zhes smras pa dang/ tshe ‘das te zhag gsum lon ba slar bzhengs te/ an se’I rgyal po kwa c[u']I wang chos bshad nas dus la ‘das so/

*  *  *


Hugh Richardson wrote about the rivalry between Dro and Ba as a background to the debate in:
1. Hugh Richardson. 1998. “Political Rivalry and the Great Debate at Bsam-yas.” In High Peaks, Pure Earth. London: Serindia: 203-206. (Unlike most articles in this collection, this one had not previosly been published.)

This is the earliest extant version of the Testament of Ba is the Dba’ bzhed:
2. Pasang Wangdu and Hildegard Diemberger. 2000. The Royal Narrative  Concerning the Bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Wien: Verlag  der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

That is, apart from a manuscript fragment from the 9th or 10th century:
3. Sam van Schaik and Kazushi Iwao. “Fragments of the Testament of Ba from Dunhuang”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 128.3  (2008 [2009]): 477–487.

The classic work on the Chinese text on the debate (or discussions), the Dunwu dacheng zhenglie jue 頓悟大乘政理決 is:
4. Paul Demiéville. 1958 (republished in 2006). Le Concile de Lhasa. Paris: Institute des hautes études chinoises.

Later Demiéville found another version of the text in the Stein collection, Or.8210/S.2647. As for the Tibetan Chan lineage in Pelliot tibétain 996, this was studied and published even earlier, in 1939, by Marcelle Lalou (surely the first person to discover the existence of Tibetan Chan among the Dunhuang manuscripts):
5. Marcelle Lalou. 1939. “Document tibétain sur l’expansion du Dhyāna chinois.” In Journal Asiatique October-December 1939: 505-523.

On the involvement of the Ba clan with the assassination of Ralpachen (or, if you follow his ingenious argument, actually of Langdarma) see:
6. Zuiho Yamaguchi. 1996. “The Fiction of King Dar-ma’s Persecution of Buddhism”. In De Dunhuang au Japon. Geneva: Librairie Droz. 231-258.

On the battle between two members of Dro and Ba in Amdo/Hexi, see:
7. Luciano Petech. 1994. “The Disintegration of the Tibetan Kingdom”. In Tibetan  Studies, edited by Per Kværne. Oslo: The Institute for Comparative  Research in Human Culture.

On Dro Trisumjé, and other aspects of clan rivalry during the Tibetan empire, see pages 18, 21-22 of:
8. Roberto Vitali. 1990. Early Temples of Central Tibet. London: Serindia Publications

and this too:
9. Roberto Vitali. 2004. “The role of clan power in the establishment of  religion (from the kheng log of the 9-10 century to the  instances of the dByil of La stod and gNyos of Kha rag).” In The  Relationship between Religion and State : (chos srid zung ‘brel), in  Traditional Tibet, edited by Christoph Cuppers. Nepal, Lumbini  International Research Institute.

And finally, Matthew Kapstein’s discussion of the attitude towards Chinese Buddhists in the Testament of Ba is on pages 34-35 of:
10. Matthew Kapstein. 2000. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism. Oxford  University Press, 2000.

38 thoughts on “Tibetan Chan IV: The Great Debate

  1. Thanks for the post.

    Are / have you investigated the arising of Dzogchen after the ‘suppression’ of Chan in Tibet? And its links if any?

    Enjoyed the ‘Stein’s Silk Road Legacy Revisited’ in the recent IDP Newsletter.

  2. Dear R.

    Yes, I’ve written about this recently in an article that should come out some time later this year. But I can’t promise any resolution of the question of Chan’s purported influence on Dzogchen. The reason why nobody has got very far with this long-running discussion is that it tends to be based on similarities in terminology (i.e. “nonduality, “spontaneity”, “freedom from activity” and the like. Yet these terms are mostly found in the the sutras (like the Lankavatara) that are a common basis for Chan and Dzogchen (in the case of Dzogchen, partly via tantras like the Guhyagarbha). So shared terminology doesn’t amount to much, except that both Chan and Dzogchen are based in the textual milieu of Mahayana Buddhism. Not that I want to close this question down, but it may be better to find a different way of asking it. As for the “suppression” of Chan, I don’t think it was suppressed. I suspect that when it died out, which was probably not before the 11th century, it was mainly due to its occupying the same space (so to speak) as Dzogchen…


  3. As for the “suppression” of Chan, I don’t think it was suppressed. I suspect that when it died out, which was probably not before the 11th century, it was mainly due to its occupying the same space (so to speak) as Dzogchen…

    Thanks S, yes think “died out” is better than “suppression”. Also as some say the politics.

    Like your idea “may be better to find a different way of asking it.” Maybe we just forget sometimes how much interaction there was.

    Liked the story in “Lion of Siddhas: The Life and Teachings of Padampa Sangye” of how Padampa Sangye who brought Chöd to Tibet, is asserted, in the Tibetan tradition, to have been the legendary Bodhidharma.

    Thanks again for a great blog.


  4. the realization of the nature of mind leading to instant enlightenment. On the Indian side, the gradual approach of the six perfections leading to a gradual awakening in ten stages.

    I wouldn’t exactly call Chan an approach of single method and leading to instant enlightenment. Although I don’t know what is your source, any given path – being a path is gradual. The reason why Chan, Dzogchen and Mahamudra are called nongradual paths is that gradual path relies on two accumulations that of merit and that of wisdom, whereas non gradual approaches state that wisdom is naturally present and so can be accessed directly without the need for the accumulation of merit. To avoid confusion these paths do not state that accumulation of merit is not worthy, by all means it is, but it is the point of prime importance.

    Also Chan is not some Chinese invention, but this teaching was practiced in India as well, since it relies on Indian sutras.

    Someone above noted something about the arising of Dzogchen after the “suppression” of Chan. But as we can see from Samten Migdron, both of these teachings were concurrent and it must be made clear that their view and methods are completely different. The method of Chan relies on the application of present awareness – that is shamatha practice as a preliminary and then remaining in the non-conceptual state of emptiness of all phenomena as the ultimate practice. The view of Chan is that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.
    Whereas for Dzogchen preliminary method is distinguishing through experience dualistic mind and non-dualistic nature of the mind and the ultimate method is to remain in that non-dualistic nature of the mind. The view is same as that of Chan in a sense that all that manifests is empty from independent and real existence, but it goes further in by saying that whatever manifests is also a manifestation of energy of the natural state. From the point of view of Dzogchen there is still a slight dualism in the view of Chan, because there is natural state which is empty, and this state observes empty phenomenon seeing this phenomenon as also empty. So in Chan practice and its result there is a slight separation between the natural state and the manifestations of phenomena arising from its potential. In this way it is assumed that the wisdom of Dzogchen is more complete. Also Dzogchen uses wisdom as a path from beginning to the end, whereas Chan uses ordinary presence as a path, eventually leading to the non-conceptual wisdom of emptiness. The original texts of both teachings are different in both content and origin, so it does not make sense to propose that they are related (apart from the fact that both are Buddhist teachings) or that one originates form the other. Such proposal can be made only by someone who has not really studied and practiced Dzogchen and Chan teachings and texts.

  5. Why would a series of documented discussions relating to Chan vs. Indian Buddhism preclude (…’rather than’…) the existence of a debate? Some who have written on this matter seem to think these events are mutually exclusive, perhaps hoping that the whole idea of a debate (and especially the idea of Chan Buddhists losing it) will go away.

  6. Dear I.S.

    No, the evidence for a series of discussions doesn’t preclude the historical existence of a debate. Yet even with the discovery of a Dunhuang fragment containing part of the dBa’ bzhed, I still can’t take the debate narrative as a serious source for “what really happened” when it so clearly serves a particular purpose — to discredit Moheyan’s Chan lineage and valorize the Indian lineages and certain members of the Ba clan who are supposed to have won the debate. As a piece of historical fiction, it works well, and it’s better, I think, to approach it in this light. It seems to have begun to make an impact on Tibetan Buddhist thought in the 11th century, and after this it becomes more and more influential. If it was in circulation before that, it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.


  7. Dear Kunzang Dorje,

    I agree, it’s hardly accurate to characterize Chan as a single method leading to instant enlightenment, but that is the way it’s characterised in the Testament of Ba. Actually, according to the 8th century scholar Zongmi, this was one of the four options followed by some Chan teachers. One of the things about Chan that is glossed over in Tibetan accounts is its heterogeneity. Your account of the differences between Chan and Dzogchen is subtle (is it based on the Samten Migdron?), but it does present Chan as if it was a homogeneous tradition. And especially during the time when Chan texts were translated into Tibet, there were a vast number of different approaches taught by different masters. And yes, some of them do speak of the manifestation of energy or light. Also, in the Dunhuang manuscript PT 116 there’s a precis of the teachings of Shenhui, stating the need to distinguish between mind (sems) and awareness (rig pa). Sound familiar?

    I’m playing devil’s advocate here, because I’m not convinced by the arguments for Chan’s influence on Dzogchen. But I would argue that the “Chan” that you are talking about is an abstraction that doesn’t quite fit what we see in the early sources.


  8. Thanks, as the material on Ba and Bro clans is very interesting and merits further research, On the other two minor points, as Barthes said there are as many readings as readers and as for the politics of history or history making, that is a large field in the Anglo-American as well as the more interesting continental schools of thought.

    On the debate subject itself, which is secondary, I really do not take current simplifications regarding Chan vs. Dzogchen seriously either. They are two different beasts in origin and development. I think a research into Mahamudra and Gampopa’s later codification and graduation of Mahamudra and the older Dzogchen Semde makes more sense. Apart from the diversity of Chan and later Zen schools, Chan is basically a Sutric vehicle.

    Which brings us to the question of the elephant in the room, tantra. Of course there was and still is tantra peppered in Chan regions of China and later Zen schools of Japan. However they simply do not compare to the geographical saturation levels in North India and later Tibet in the 8th to the 10th centuries. Neither does it compare to the diversity of the upper 6 tantra levels and local lineages nor the numerous levels within. In my opinion after official sanctioning of the ‘Indian way’, Chan necessarily did not have to go comparatively extinct. Look at the much debated decline of Buddhism in North India as it’s social ground gave way. Chan simply wasn’t a hit in Tibet and the reason not mentioned as far I know but obvious to me was not just the top-down endorsement but namely the tantric approach. This was and is effective in three ways. Firstly it hooks the practitioner and self propagates by creating next generations within the lineage. Secondly it has a social aspect all the way up to anu yoga level, which even if not engaged in with a view towards practice commitments, has a blessing effect for the attending community. Finally it has as it’s main form the process of ritual. There is no way Chan could compete with this aspect. In my view the same happened in India. Hindu tantric rituals proliferated out of control due to the liberal and heterogeneous and eclectic nature of various Hindu schools specially Shaivaism. With no effective checks and balances, Buddhism lost out there despite recent evidence that it’s tantric rituals are much older and well over 2000 years old. This largely sutric nature of Chan in my opinion also contributed to it’s decline later in China.

    Consider for example why Langdarma did not persecute Ngakpas and gave them free reign. It is obvious they were far too popular and not only due to chasing away the much dreaded hail storms with a slingshot. They carried out a variety of communal tasks most of which were essentially tantric rituals.

    The subject of the debate was not Chan vs. Dzogchen but Indian Buddhist Tantric schools based on Madhyamaka specially Yogacara. Dzogchen was top secret and restricted to very few from what we know.

    In my opinion the debate was not a single short event, rather a national debate and an evolving discourse. It obviously touched on the strategic alliance of Tibet. By leaning towards India as opposed to China, Tibet would gain more independence as the nature of Indian states and their track record not to mention the mighty Himalayas safeguarded it against future tampering or ambitions with the exception of ongoing threats from the smaller Nepalese and Bhutanes valleys. However they were nothing compared to the open plains towards the mighty east.

    The main factor in settling the result for me however must have been that the ideologues of the new order were children and disciples of Nalanda and Padmasambhava and Oddyiana, wherever that was. Chan did not stand a chance.

    The ‘story’ of the historical debate event as portrayed in the west in fact tells us more about us than what might have happened. A few decades ago when Tibetan studies were new to the academics and the majority of the new practitioners, the philosophical views of Gelugs were deemed supreme not to mention finding more traction in the western mindset. The Kagyus were largely ignored and the Nyingmas were laughed at. Now the situations are quite reversed. I never took the idea of a single Hollywood narrative style of the debate climax serious when I read about it first several years ago. It’s the dogs that didn’t bark which matters. Where was Padma or Shantarakshita or Vairo or Vima or the other 25 big guns. Interestingly while Trisong and his inner circle practiced Dzogchen secretly, they also practiced and propagated the usual gradual yogas and conceptual studies publicly much in the same way as the later Sarma schools focused on. Most of Dzogchen practice involves what some dismiss as gradual methods. The highest masters of the highest view and vehicle, Dzogchen, always emphasize this.

    The real difference in view between Dzogchen and Chan apart from the form is that Chan does not have the Clarity or light aspects found in Mahamudra and Dzogchen. This is a vast area of view and practice and of many levels much of which are unique to Dzogchen.

    Finally what was said on the lack of Buddhist bases in Persian speaking regions, to the North and Northeast of Tajikistan, Northern Afghanistan and North Eastern Persian province of Khorasan, it is simply not true. There is a large documented history of the Viharas there. As for the Persian traces in Chan within Tibet and Eastern China, there is some intriguing evidence which seems to have been ignored by everyone. The Ba and Bro and other clans’ roles seems even more interesting though.

  9. Dear Early T.,

    In my view KarmEy has some significant points, especially about the Buddhist pockets in the Persian areas (meaning places where her empire extended, leaving pockets of Persian-related culture and language, which anyway, were quite extensive, shooting up through Armenia into Georgia as well as into Central Asia, especially Khotan).

    Concerning your blogposting, I was wondering if there might be a counterpoint to the (today very common) idea that historical narrative is primarily self-serving or, as they say, ‘triumphalist’. I know you know the drill, ‘The winner gets to tell the story. So what’s to believe in the history books? Just tip them in the bin!’

    You seem to be doing a bit of it (the counter-extreme/ counterpoint, or at least a pushing of the envelope) when you appear to be saying that the winning side, since it won, *must* have falsified the evidence for its winning (meaning it may not have won at all, but wants us to think it did). Or at least *must* have obscured the routes that (actually) brought it to (actual?) victory. And they do this (or *must* do this) to preserve the results (the spoils) of their victory (whether it, the victory, actually happened or not). Am I reading you rightly?

    The very act of winning by (what is perceived as) the side of the author renders the winning event nonexistent, historically speaking…

    Am I being too hard? Drawing the contrast too solidly? Help me out here.

    You seem to have a big theory about how history works itself out in the historical sources themselves. And if this big theory is true it would have big consequences all over the place, wouldn’t it?

    Read a lot of Hayden White, have you, I wonder? I understand he has followers both here and in your part of the world, including some people who find no trouble ignoring things that bite the rest of us in the nose causing much anguish.


  10. My post above was not asking in a confrontational Chan vs. Dzogchen sense, so please don’t shoot the messenger.

    Karmey, could you expand a bit on this:
    The subject of the debate was not Chan vs. Dzogchen but — Indian Buddhist Tantric schools based on Madhyamaka specially Yogacara. – I cannot work out who the debate was between.
    And Dzogchen was top secret – Why was it secret? I don’t buy the western ‘elitist group’


    S, your point Also, in the Dunhuang manuscript PT 116 there’s a precis of the teachings of Shen hui, stating the need to distinguish between mind (sems) and awareness (rig pa). Sound familiar?

    Ch’an has strong teachings on ‘Tracing back the radiance’ As Chinul (The Collected Works of Chinul. The Korean Approach to Zen. Robert E. Buswell) puts it.

    Enjoying the posts.

  11. Hi buddhismnow,

    I did not aim my reply at anyone but the subject. In fact the subject of Dzogchen vs. Chan has become irresistible even if it is not the actual subject such as in this article. The reason for this popular comparative foray again I think is to do with us in the west not the subject. Before Tibetan Buddhism became known and popular in the west a few decades ago, Zen was well established and had celebrity followers such as the Beat generation personalities in the 50′s in NY and SF. Many of the large followers of the Zen community are interested in Dzogchen as it has come under the spotlight relatively recently. Most of the interest comes from them. In fact interest in all things Japanese is still popular in the west. It started with a great movement in the second half of the19th century in Paris, called Japonisme, which affected everything from literature to Theater and later film and Impressionism to other art movements lasting well over into 1950′s and philosophy and more. Too many names to mention. There are great underlying reasons for this as studied by numerous cultral writers. I would say actually the shock was more Madhyamaka and Nagarjuna underneath than Zen though improvisational techniques which saturated that culture via Zen was and is irresistible too. This totally ‘otherness’ made it so attractive to our western way of thinking with it’s diametrically opposed historical sources and rigid insistence on systematic and single points of view. So this is where the fuel for this popular topic comes form.

    The popular introduction into Tibet back then seems to have been basically the Nalanda system. By this time tantrics were not only allowed to live in Nalanda but it was taught there as well. As to why Dzogchen was secret with so few followers at the very top of the political and spiritual systems in Tibet? In my view there were two reasons. Firstly the trouble was mainly back in India not in Tibet. Most of the teachings would continue to come from India and be translated for some centuries. So I can see why Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra made it secret. There could have been the case that Indians would have labeled the Tibetan Dozgchen as unacceptable the same way tantra and Mahayana were originally labeled in history. In fact the gradually lifting of the secrecy and elitism with regards to Dzogchen took centuries into contemporary times and is well documented. This process can be a good parallel for the way Mahayana and Tantra were gradually brought to the foreground over centuries in India and became established. Currently Dzogchen has never been so public nor widespread. Although the results are not necessarily as great according to some teachers. In fact Khandro Nyingthigs, half of the Dozgchen Nyingthigs apart from Vima, was not taught and was buried by Padam with the young princess Pema Sel only to be revived later by her incarnation as terton Pema Ledrelsal who reappeared yet later as Longchenpa and unified it with the other half, Vima Nyingthig.

    Why the problem in India which still was needed for some time to come as far as Tibet was concerned? The answer I think is why Manjushrimitra gathered his top pandit followers to go and debate the young Garab Dorje. To put down the notion that the highest teachings, his Dzogchen, go beyond cause and effect. Of course Manju saw the light on the way to Damascus and became a disciple and was told to spread Dzogchen and base it on yogacara by the young Garab Dorje. There are some accounts of how the Buddhist elites through some kings outlawed the new Dzogchen in some territories. The adventures of Vairotsana mention these.

    The other main reason from the Tibetan POV is that this is how the ages and Kaliyuga unfolds. First the new Buddha turns the wheel with basic teachings. Then Mahayana and tantra are revealed gradually. Finally the ultimate vehicle of the nature of mind is initially introduced on a limited scale like the others. Then it becomes established and produces results in thousands of beings, see rhetoric on Kathok monastery for example. Finally Kaliyuga begins and before it takes hold completely, the ultimate teaching spreads like wildfire which is believed to be now though this too could still be a few centuries. Finally all is extinguished, though not necessary absolutely all, in the peak of Kaliyuga which lasts a longtime before the next Buddha, in this case Maitreya, descends from Tushita. The whole cycle begins again though the vehicles and names and actual emphasis on topics will be different. Any way that is how the Tibetan Dzogchenpas see it but it makes sense why the Nalanda and later Sarma systems were for a wide public and Dzogchen and essence Mahamudra were special editions or rather elitist as you put it.

    Finally the emphasis in Dzogchen has always been not the missionary zeal and quantity but rather achieving cases, followers, of high quality often in secret.

  12. When is your book coming out? I saw something listed in Amazon for later this year. What was the title?

  13. Dear Karmey and buddhismnow,

    You might be interested (though you may not agree with) a review of some recent Dzogchen publications that I wrote for Buddhadharma magazine (next issue I think). I also made the connection between the Western fascination with Zen in the mid-20th century, and the current vogue for Dzogchen. I think both are attractive as apparently context-free systems — that is, it seems to be possible to remove them from the Asian culture (including all of the rest of Buddhism) in which they developed. Alan Watt’s Beat Zen, Square Zen is a nice text for looking at the Western appropriation of Zen. Anyway, there comparisons between Dzogchen and Chan/Zen could go on and on, so perhaps we should stick with the topic of the debate narrative.


  14. Dear Dan,

    You seem to be making my arguments more extreme in order to discredit them. Hmmm, where would you get an idea like that? I’m not saying that the winning side must have falsified the evidence for its winning. You’re assuming there was a winning side. According to Pelliot tibetain 4646, the tsenpo accepted that Chan was a valid teaching, but that didn’t mean that Moheyan “won” since the Indian monks did not lose, except that they failed to secure the banning of Moheyan’s teaching. I don’t have a big theory, but in this case, I think there was a gradual convergence between the historical narrative of the debate and the eclipse of Chan for other reasons. I’m not sure that the debate narrative actually caused the end of Chan, but the narrative came to stand in place of a whole complex of causes and conditions. Didn’t this also happen with the end of the empire and the story of Langdarma?

    I think what you’re saying about Hayden White is that it’s easy to espouse theories of history as long as you’re not trying to work with historical sources. Well, maybe, but I can’t help feeling that approaching historical texts as literature is a relevant approach to Tibetan histories; especially if the alternative is approaching them as some kind of puzzle in which we can discover the historical “facts” if we just rearrange the pieces properly.


  15. Dear Sam,

    I’m glad you agree Dozgchen is “apparently” context free whereas we know well it is not. Chogyam Trungpa who took over many students of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, they were close friends and mutual admirers, was a genuine fan of Zen and Japanese culture and I believe to this day his Shambhala organization incorporates many Japanese topics in its programs. Trungpa ordered these Japanese topics, flower arranging zen style calligraphy etc., to be taught and often dressed in Japanese costumes.

    However there is a whole new category of newly invented western cults based on Tibet. The western founder of one such group who is not an educated person in Tibetan studies, was an admirer of Trungpa and so models his group on his own childhood fantasies of being a cowboy as opposed to Samurai! Interestingly his group was named long before as a coming fake terma in Dudjom (II) tersar (they claim to be following) and their supposed lineage masters such as the late Chimed Rigzin dismissed them or recently Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche have barred them from approaching him again. Most Zen groups though to this day are fairly clean and acceptable to the larger Buddhist community. The new westerners inventing cultish groups are basically variants of new-agers. They are also very interested in recruiting, money and influence by most means. Some of them who have been in this business on both sides of the Atlantic for decades still don’t speak Tibetan nor have basic dharma education. That is why they have to claim to be miraculous crazy siddhas like Trungpa and tulkus and tertons. This niche market is quite different to the Zen base. The reason for the nature of this type of new beast is again the elaborate rituals including various tantra. Of course their marketing spiels on instant enlightenment and, as you rightly mention, context-free systems and not forgetting lineage-free possibilities are heaven made for such entrepreneurial characters. So I hope in your article you have not thrown in the Zen base with recent new-agish cults with the now fashionable Tibetan flavors.

    On the historical debate, I get the feeling that Chan, as it was back then, was later lost to a large degree. I think there was no question of mistaking them or their Indian sources with each other. I feel Chan might have been a lot more substantial than what has come down to us and might have been very close to the fourth empowerment of the other Indian systems. I also feel the question was not so much instantaneous versus gradual paths but that the newer Indian systems were fresher, as we say in Terma lingo, but mainly much more comprehensive as well as the reasons I mentioned before. Anyway the whole of this paragraph is a hypothesis.

    I look forward to your article and books and any further material on the fascinating subject of the Bas and the Bros!

  16. So in your opinion, earlytibet, was there a debate — an actual debate, as opposed to a narrative of it — or not?

  17. Karmey — your intimation about Chan and empowerment may be right. I’ll probably write something here soon-ish about Tibetan Chan’s intersection with tantric practice.

    I.S. — so it’s cards on the table time? I’m glad you asked for an opinion, because I don’t think it could be any more than that. No, I’m not convinced there was a debate convened by Trisong Detsen, or any other tsenpo. The evidence — Kamalaśīla’s Bhāvanākrama texts, the Cig car rnam par mi rtog pa’i bsgom don, the Dunwu dasheng zhenglijue — certainly suggests that the two traditions were aware of each other, and that Chan teachers were sometimes on the defensive. In my opinion the debate narrative emerged as a way of making this literary material serve a particular purpose, as a narrative. And it is barely a narrative after all — just a brief and distorted version of Moheyan’s teachings, followed by a section supposed to have been spoken by Kamalaśīla and largely extracted from one of his Bhāvanākrama-s, followed by another long passage supposed to have been spoken by dBa’ Sang shi and then another passage attributed to dBa’ Dpal dbyangs. The whole thing is clunky, and looks very much like it has been cobbled together from earlier literary sources.

    And note too, that in this earliest known version, the debate is aimed at reconciliation (a garland of flowers to be offered to the winner), and there is no mention of the banning of Chan or the expulsion of Chinese teachers. After the debate narrative the Dba’ bzhed slips into a discussion of the texts were translated by the order of the tsenpo. There is no proscription of Chinese texts here, though it does mention that Mahāyoga tantras were banned from translation… So the debate narrative also evolved in Tibet (by Bu ston’s time at least) into a more extreme version in which the losers were treated more harshly (and accused of the assassination of Kamalaśīla to boot).

  18. Dear S.,

    Thank you for carrying on Kapstein’s historiographical train of thought. I agree there’s value in reading Tibetan histories as literature and narrative, and find your reading of the ,Testament of Ba insightful and very useful in understanding the debate narrative. I’m interested to see where it will lead.

    Tibetan Studies, in particular the study of Tibetan history, could certainly benefit from a methodological re-visioning along the lines implied in your post. In spite of its often critical approach, Tibetan historical writing is largely narrative, unlike European and Anglo-American historical writing of the last two centuries. And one of the key functions of narrative is explanation. I love Jerome Bruner’s take on narrative outlined in his Acts of Meaning: we tell ourselves stories in an attempt to interpret–thus explain–the anomalous experiences of life.

    Tibetan relations with influential India and China would have likely been quite anomalous (vs. normalized) at times, and the need to explain the changes in relations would have been keenly felt by later generations. As you rightly point out in your post, Tibetan histories are only ostensibly religious histories. There’s a lot broader range of interests being talked about in these narratives. No wonder then we have these seemingly contested versions of the debate narrative, since this particular narrative as taken such a central role in explaining Tibetan relations with India and China.


  19. Dear S.,

    You suspect rightly that I was trying to push you into a corner so you would come out fighting (and perhaps in the process make your ideas more explicit).

    I didn’t assume, let alone determine that there was a winning side. Subsequent history has meanwhile done that for us. As you know, many Tibetan intellectuals today DO accept that Ch’an lost, and that they (the Tibetans) are so much the better for it. I also don’t agree with them, or I agree with them, but then only in the sense that what was made to lose was a parody of Ch’an, made more ridiculous in the retelling.

    I like what you say: “the narrative came to stand in place of a whole complex of causes and conditions.” I see that happening a lot. Historians in the past have often simplified things, partly for educational purposes. If you’ve taught history you know that you can’t get people to internalize all the complex details or data, so just tell them that the cotton gin increased the productivity of slave labor, which increased the demand for slaves and the number of slaves, but ultimately caused the American Civil War and the abolishment of slavery. The ‘narrative’ here isn’t really entirely wrong, it may get your students good grades if they repeat it, but it is soooo inadequate, given how many other factors went into the Civil War besides seed-removal technology. (Sorry about the example, which comes from my own High School history class. There’s another step in the narrative about the role of northern textile mills… but I don’t remember everything, I’m afraid, after 40 years. But that I remember that much helps make the point that simplifying history pays off educationally speaking.)

    Do you think some kind of literary approach renders the puzzle-piecing approach unnecessary? I’m puzzled by that. I think there is no way around the fact that what we want to do is find out what is true in history, and sometimes what is beautiful or ugly or alive or erotic or ironic, it’s true, but even then it comes back to what is true. I don’t think a literary approach that uncovers irony or conflicting narrative is in itself a satisfying one, unless you’re the odd sort to be satisfied with a bad taste in your mouth with nothing there to chew or swallow. Finding alternative narratives doesn’t absolve us from weighing their respective merits with every means at our disposal. Especially since one of the narratives may lack merit, might even be based in nothing more than calculated non-truth. Conflicting narratives very often go closely together with real battles and real debates, I’d say, from what I’ve seen while I’ve been alive. In fact, if you’d like to step outside we’ll sort this thing out once and for all! You think putting scare quotes around “facts” does anything for anybody? Well, do you? Hey, I’m not scared of your bloody scare quotes. Bring it on! Let’s see what you’ve got there buster.


  20. In his book, Buddhism and Empire – The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet, BRILL 2009, pp. 25, Michael Walter writes:

    “Tibet’s military successes often resulted in quick expansions—and contractions—of its empire. This meant that the alliances between btsan-pos and clans must have undergone constant torques. Clan hierarchies of the Mgar, Dba’s, Myang, Mchims, Tshe-pong, Bro, Mnon, etc., would have watched as their ranks became thinly stretched, with the court requiring more and more personnel and advisors, who at first came almost exclusively from them.{58} This pressure, increasing as time and the amount of occupied area went on, was almost certainly an element in Khri Srong Lde Brtsan’s decision to turn away from, or to augment this system, by relying more and more on Sanghas. It is no coincidence that this change occurred at the time the Tibetan Empire reached its greatest geographical expansion. Monks provided additional manpower and thus took some pressure off this system. This was an excellent motivation for establishing Sanghas as official representatives of the Imperium. The inherent inflexibility of local clan politics would have been another cause for the lack of development of a professional administrative class of literati in the Imperium, such as had developed in China long before. The Sangha would have been seen as an institution to fill that role.

    Such dynamics must also have affected the politico-religious orientation of clan hierarchs to the btsan-pos. In its early period, the oft-cited annual and triennial “rites of renewal”, the oath-taking rituals that bound the btsan-pos and clan leaders, provided the btsan-pos with their manpower.”

    We know of the court intrigues regarding the introduction of Buddhism, Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyal, Vairotsana and his exile by Queen Tshe PongZa and allied ministers and his return as well as other dramas and that the tensions in the new court of the unified pan-Tibetan king were great and very delicate. So delicate that theyj ust exploded not long after. Basically the warring clans shifted their quarrels from thebattlefields onto a political dimension. Various ideological matters, Bon or variants of Buddhism and personalities, served as thinly disguised fronts. Of course with the introduction of Sarma schools later, this ideological front for power-plays and conflicts was repeated over the centuries as we know. So we have to take any narrative specially that early which suspiciously evolves over time and even has precious hints of clan motivations with a pinch of salt.

    Ironically I always thought the long periods of Japanese civil wars brought to a unifying end, which lasted due to the small isolated island area, by Ieyasu’s Tokugawa shogunate are the nearest analogy to early and medieval Tibet. Even the later Mongol imposition of the Gelugs could be seen as a stable Tokugawa system on an exhausted land of warlords.

  21. Dear D.

    You’re right to call me out on the scare quotes. I regretting them almost immediately. I almost went back and removed them from my own comment. Perhaps I should just put the whole comment in scare quotes. But don’t roll down your sleeves yet. I want to challenge your implication that literary criticism is identical to post-structuralism. There are many interesting things we can do in approaching historical texts as literature; identifying conflicts and ironies is only a part of it (and as you suggest, probably not very satisfying to most of us).

    One of the advantages of the literary approach is to readjust our lenses — instead of trying to peer back through our source text into the past of which it tells, we look at how it is informed by the context in which it was composed. So the Dba’ bzhed version of the debate tells us something about the struggle between Dba’ and Bro in the 9th and 10th centuries. And Bu ston’s version tells us something about the concern to locate textual authenticity in Indian lineages in the 14th century. (Thank you Ryan, by the way, for pointing out the continuing importance of the debate narrative in positioning Tibet’s relationship with India and China.)

    Sure, there’s truth here, but the truth more accessible to us via the text may not be the truth that the narrative purports to reveal. Yes, “conflicting narratives often go together with real battles,” but which battles? Not neccessarily the battles recounted in the narratives themselves.


  22. Have I got your position right: the story (or narrative) of a debate was cooked up to explain discrepancies in a received literature? You might get some takers on that. Me, I can’t see someone of Kamalaśīla’s calibre being coaxed out of the Kathmandu Valley just to sit around, shivering, tilting at Zen windmills for the hell of it. But that’s just me.

  23. The French Post-Structuralist methodologies are several and very different in nature, scope and focus. Also, they can be used by any side in a debate. The really interesting aspect of the subject is the evolving ‘narrative of this narrative in the west’ itself as I mentioned. Which partly mirrors the historical development in Tibet too. The story of the debate, or rather debates which did take place and if with apparently a final decree instead of a victory, is best represented by Nyingma big guns through history. Who sort of defended Moheyan as superior to the Indian gradual system, ‘as well as’ pointing out its short comings compared to Dzogchen in various areas. That is a whole different big story and goes beyond the major clarity issue.

    And remember it was the Nyingma icons who were debating, in whatever form, Moheyan and Chan in the first place which everyone including the Sarma schools forget or used to try to misrepresent. The Dba ‘lens’ later became the Sarma schools though fortunately those schools are recently quite different than a few centuries ago! More broadminded, inclusive and tolerant and shall we say Rimey? Tibetan Chan didn’t have to disappear if there was some level of base support as I said before no matter what the pressure. Look at the resurrection of the monasteries or Jonangpas.

    As for Moheyan though, his way might have been blasted by the so called Southern Chan school (yet another story), but you’d be surprised to know that he is alive and well in mid-level teachings of Nyingmas, where he rightly belongs as his own former colleague told him at the time. And in my opinion he is becoming more dominant, in subtle historical traces I detect, than one of his big supporters, Jigmed Lingpa, as Nyingma centers have moved away from the Gelug way of thinking in the last century with regards to causal vehicles below Ati yoga. Won’t go there either as I was the one who mentioned first the debate was not against Dzogchen and is off-topic. So there are many aspects which are beyond the scope here.

    Once every one of the many sub-narrative is at least examined, all being unresolvable, the last analysis might be totally unexpected and in my opinion the final laugh might be on everyone and quite amazing too.

  24. Karmey,

    Quite true — the setting of the debate narrative predates the Nyingma/Sarma division, and if anything, its context belongs to the lineages claimed by the Nyingma. But the narrative later came to situated between Nyingma-Sarma polemics, as if Kamalaśīla was an honorary Gelugpa and Moheyan a crypto-Nyingmapa.


    Since reading your post, this scene has been playing out in my mind:

    Tibetan envoy: Venerable Kamalaśīla, the mighty Tsenpo of Tibet has invited you to serve as chaplain to his court.

    Kamalaśīla: Tibet? Isn’t that an awfully long way from here?

    Envoy: Yes, the journey is long, but you will have the opportunity to propagate the dharma, and the tsenpo has poured funds into temple-building projects, translation projects, and sponsoring the sangha.

    Kamalaśīla: So I’ve heard, but there are plenty of good monks there already.

    Envoy: But you are much needed. There is confusion about the true teaching of the dharma. The tsenpo is not sure whether to believe some Chinese masters who say that it is not necessary to traverse the ten bhūmis.

    Kamalaśīla: That is troubling, but I’m actually very busy here. I really don’t have the time.

    Envoy: But you’ll get to take part in a debate! Not just writing texts, but taking on a Chinese master, mano-a-mano, with the tsenpo as referee!

    Kamalaśīla: OK, you’ve got me. I’ll pack my bags.

  25. The scenario you described is, as you know, some way from how later generations of Tibetans recalled (or represented) it. The issues at hand were serious; not ‘just’ doctrinal, but practical, with tangible consequences. There would be no need to mount a debate if it were not so. A formal debate in India was a risky, onerous undertaking, mounted only if the alternative, doing nothing, was even more damaging.

    The idea that we can be enlightened whenever we feel like it, with no other effort or consequences, was no doubt as seductive in Tibet and East Asia as it is now for many Western self-styled Buddhists. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t utter nonsense, from the general perspective of the Indian tradition, and can be safely ignored. Sure, it can be unwise to pick on wacko beliefs — it’s part of the nature of a belief that it resists interrogation — but when they are used to attack your own tradition, then you have a problem — and, under some circumstances, a debate.

  26. What I was trying to say, in a rather flippant way, I admit, was that I don’t think you need to hold on to the idea that there was a staged debate in order to explain the presence of Kamalaśila in Tibet. It’s interesting that the Dunwu dasheng zhenglijue suggests that Kamalaśīla (if we assume that the the Brahmin monk of this text is he) was already resident in Lhasa, where he was influencing the tsenpo against Chan, while Moheyan was not (though he had visited Lhasa).

    For what it’s worth, here’s the relevant section of the Zhenglijue, a rough translation of Demiéville’s elegant French. Not that this is an unbiased account, of course, but note that the differences in the order of events. Moheyan and the “Brahmin monk” are first invited with no sense that they are to be in conflict. Only later is there a polemical exchange (apparently by letter) instigated by the “Brahmin monk” and his disciples, and this goes on over several months:

    …In the countries with which [the tsenpo] entered into diplomatic relations, he sought, on a grand scale, eminent religious figures. From the five Indic countries, he invited thirty, including the Brahmin Monk; from the great country of Tang, he invited three Chinese monks, including the Chan master Moheyan: and they met in the Pure City, to discuss together the true system.

    Our grand master conferred the secret initiation into Chan, and demonstrated brilliantly his magisterial authority. The empress, from the Mou-lou [=’Bro] family, immediately seized by a devout faith, was enlightened in a single stroke. She shaved off her sable hair, and donned dark robes; she made the pearl of morality shine in the field of the passions, and reflected the system of Chan in the waters of recollection: glory defying all metaphors, even the the image of the lotus that flowers in the mud! Able to practice the salvific arts, she attracted, to convert, the souls of the living; and on many occasions, to the King’s maternal aunt, of the Si-nang-nam [=Sna nam] family, and women of the greater country, numbering over thirty, she preached the dharma of the Mahāyana, and all at the same time entered the religion. Does this not equal Prajāpatī, the first of the nuns?

    There was also a religious figure of great virtue, Pao-tchen, Administrator of the Clergy, whose secular name was originally Yi [Myang?]: a master of Chan, he did not allow the rule of discipline to fall within the field of the passions, and he knew how to discourse with a mouth full of the sacred texts, sūtra and śāstra; with an ever-increasing zeal, he observed the law of the Buddha: it even happened that his material body was dismembered, yet he never let himself be troubled or shaken, calmly continuing his Chan practices. Furthermore, the monk Siu-k’ie-t’i, son and heir of the king of the Supi, who practised steadfastly: radiant is the pearl of morality; his body wears clothes with a hundred patches, his spirit pervades the threefold emptiness. And they said to our great master: “Our only regret, great master, is that you came to late, and we were unable to hear this dharma earlier!”

    It was first in the Year Chen [792] that our grand master was informed of a edict, which read: “The Brahmin Monk, and others have declared, in a memorial, that the system of Chan called “Sudden Awakening” taught by the Chinese Monk, does not correspond at all with what was preached by the Golden Mouth, and they demand that it is stopped immediately.”

    Our master of Chan the began to laugh softly, and said: “Nonsense! Are the beings of this country so lacking in the suitability for the Mahāyāna that they let themselves be molested by the armies of the Evil One? Do they wish their own destruction, taking the dharma that I teach as contrary to the principles of the Buddha?” Then he grieved over their souls, and his tears flowed in torrents; then reverently prostrating himself before the Buddha, he cried: “If the people of this country are suited for the Mahāyana, and the Chan method that I teach is not fallacious, I demand a discussion with the adepts of the Hīnayāna in order to decide what is true and what is false. Then I will beat the drum of the dharma, shaking earth and sky; I will blow the conch shell of the dharma, inverting the mountains and peaks; and if any of my words are not in conformity with the truth, this is my wish: that before our divine sovereign I will be struck by lightning and reduced to dust, poor monk that I am!” And he memorialized in these terms: “I humbly ask His Divine Majesty to ask the Brahmin Monk some questions, so that we may discuss together and check the meaning of sacred texts. I know what to expect; and if my doctrine seems the least aberrant, then I ask that it be terminated!”

    “Yes!” said the king. And the Brahmin Monk and his group, for the months of a year, reviewed the sūtras to seek their meaning, and presented more and more questions, trying to find fault with our master….

  27. May I ask how exactly this extract supports your argument? According to the quoted part of the Chinese account (it’s “dacheng” in Mandarin, not “dasheng”, by the way), there was a formal, face-to-face debate. (As you know, all of the non-introductory text is in “question-and-answer” format, not at all suggestive of a literary exchange; for example, there is repetition, and redundancy. Then there is the fact that it is explicitly styled as an eyewitness account.)

    So are you advocating the much weaker claim that there was more than one debate (why should it not be the case that one debate — concerning one primary issue, though with manifold implications — can be staged on multiple occasions? It could hardly be any other way, given the massive cultural and linguistic barriers in place at the time), or that no debate took place? If you say that there was no debate, and that this view is based on a really thorough understanding of the sources you mention, you might also want to mention who first put this idea around, and who subsequently attached their name to it; that will tell your readers a lot of what they need to know.

  28. I’m just jumping in here with a very late response to a question from 2009, in which you were wondering about the negative effects of tea. There is a good summing up of the problem in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, in which Patrul Rinpoche writes:

    “For our very food and clothing, our homes, the adornments and celebrations that give us pleasure, are all produced with harmful actions. As everything we do is just a concoction of negative actions, it can oly lead to suffering. … consider tea …

    Where tea is grown in China, the number of small creatures that are killed while it is planted, while the leaves are being picked and so on, would be impossible to count. The tea is then carried as far as Dartsedo by porters. Each porter carries a load of sixty-two khag, taking the weight on a band around his forehead which wears away his skin. But even when his skull shows through, all white, he carries on. From Dotok onwards, dzo, yaks and mules take over, their backs breaking, their bellies perforated with cuts, patches of their hair chafed away. They suffer terribly from their servitude.

    Bartering tea involves nothing but a series of broken promises, cheating and argument, until finally the tea changes hands, usually in exchange for animal products like wool and lambskins … So when we think about the production and trade of such products, we can understand that even a single sip of tea cannot but contribute to rebirth in the lower realms.”

  29. Dear I.S.

    Truly, I don’t have an argument as such. You asked for an opinion about whether there was a debate, and I gave one — as an opinion, certainly not an argument. And I’m always willing to change my opinion. But unless some early and exciting new sources come to light, I don’t think anyone can make a convincing argument either way — which doesn’t mean there won’t be more arguments. In fact the lack of reliable sources seems to be a recipe for endless bickering. Nor am I arguing for the occurance of several debates. Again, there is no serious evidence for this either.

    Anyway, you may be able to put me right here, but it seems to me that the Zhenglijue is not suggesting that the Indian and Chinese masters were called to Lhasa for a debate. Rather, the beginning of this passage states that they came at the invitation of the tsenpo, and engaged in discussions with no rancour. The bad feeling only develops later, as a memorial is written by the Indian party against the Chinese teachings. By this time Moheyan is no longer in Lhasa. Now, does the Zhenglijue imply that after this memorial there is a staged debate between the two masters?

    As for the main part of the Zhenglijue. When you state that it’s in a question-and-answer format, I’m sure you are aware that this is very common in Chan treatises; for example, we have the treatise written by Tanguang, supposedly written in response to questions sent by Tri Song Detsen — a literary composition. Also, many of the Tibetan Chan treatises also use this question-and-answer format to get their points across. I don’t think that they need to be considered records of oral exchanges, still less of formal debates. But you suggest that Zhenglijue questions and answers show signs of being taken down from an oral exchange? I’m not sure repetition and redudancy are evidence alone, as the Zhenglijue questions and answers are supposed to be derived from at least two sources.

    It seems that your argument that there was a single, staged debate, then comes to rest on showing that the Zhenglijue questions and answers are a direct record of such an event. Do you think that it is possible to do this? It would be a very interesting exercise.


  30. So is this right: your position is that there is not enough evidence to determine whether there “was a debate”, or “several debates”. Now it’s a claim about sufficiency and quality of evidence, calling anything anyone can say into doubt. Quite a claim — you’re making it; you back it up. The issue for your readers will certainly not be what I think (you have in any case misrepresented — I have not talked about ‘staging’ at all). Rather, the issue is your contradiction of Tibetan historians, who unanimously conclude that there was a debate, do they not — they, much closer to events than you or I, were quite sure of it — as well as of a number of scholars.

    Indeed, the question-and-answer format is in vogue among Chan writings of the period. Many of these may have been partly, if not wholly, imaginary. But do you contend that they could not, especially in high-profile situations, record actual discussions? This would defy a presupposition of the genre — that the dialogue is ‘real’, in some sense of the word. Literary conventions aside, the author of this particular text is not a Chan master but an official, with different training, priorities and responsibilities. He may be sympathetic to Chan conventions, but he is certainly not bound by them in all respects. (Chan masters would themselves not want to be bound by conventions, I would guess.)

    You have asked: does this text show that another debate took place? I suppose it would depend on how you define ‘debate’ — to do so clearly, unambiguously, would be an excellent starting point. Does it show signs of being an oral exchange? It styles itself as a record of a spoken exchange. To what extent it actually is or not is another, more complex matter. (Not for me to give soundbites on, I’m afraid.)

    Regarding your cut-and-paste of the Demiéville translation: elegant or not, (1) Demiéville’s ‘Concile’ is based on just one of the available MSS; (2) his interpretation of the text is questionable in places, partly due to (1) — overall, it is admirable, but specific points could be improved, sometimes greatly [this is hardly the place to discuss details, but it might be prudent not to assume that any one part is beyond question]; (3) no detailed discussion of any Sanskrit text of any of the BhKs (he starts to bring in the Chinese text, then abruptly stops, without any detailed consideration — for example, pointing out or explaining significant differences). Demiéville’s translation is a great and pioneering work of which any scholar could be proud. But it’s not anything like the last word on that text, nor on the moment in history that produced it.

    So let’s hear something about where the idea that there was no debate came from. Isn’t some acknowledgement of previous work, however unfashionable now, still a helpful starting point?

  31. I.S.,

    In your first paragraph you seems to say we should not think or research or question the subject as historical figures and scholars have already spoken! In fact figures throughout Tibet’s history have had questions on the topic even going as far as claiming no one can say what Moheyan really beleived in and so no one can judge his position.

    Secondly your claim in that first paragraph regarding Sam’s position as novel is false. A number of western scholars have questioned the Sarma official orthodox version of exactly what happened for some time now. Before you accuse people on false premises, it is wise to research the field a little bit.

    Thirdly, still in the first paragraph you defend the idea that your version is exactly what happened and is uncontested. This is obviously false as Nyingmas through the centuries have questioned this ‘official history or story’ and they were the opposing side to Moheyan’s position as back then no sarma existed. Kamalashila and his masters, opposing Moheyan’s positions in that national discourse, are the pillars of Nyingma. Which just shows how open-minded they have always been by not demolishing him as later fictionalized but saying the issue was far more complex than propagandized. After establishing a totally absolutist position in your first paragraph, you then go on from the second paragraph onwards to dismantle your own harsh opening statements. There is no coherency.

    Lastly you completely ignore the power-play context the article refers to, regarding clans not to mention India vs. China strategy, and thirdly the later Sarma reframing of the ‘story’ which Nyingmas have always objected to as having pwoer motivations in later times. In the same vein as the Dba motivations researched here. Even recent Sarma positions is not as hard as your first paragraph and is closer to the contradictory admissions in the rest of your piece.

  32. The views which you claim are mine aren’t, Mr. Karmey. That’s a discussion-ender for me.

  33. Dear I.S.

    I’m also against the casual dismisal of a historical tradition. But on the other hand, if we felt we had to accept versions of history only because they are agreed upon by all Tibetan historians, wouldn’t that close down a lot of interesting discussions? They were closer to the events, sure, but we are fortunate enough to have access to sources, like Wangxi’s text, that they did not. Not that we should take these sources as ammunition to destroy what has been written “in the tradition”. But we are free to add nuance, to doubt.

    I agree, a definition of “debate” would help us to avoid pointless arguments that arise of out semantics rather than the sources. The idea of “debate” that I have been been trying to complexify is that single event staged by the tsenpo that the Testament of Ba and every subsequent Tibetan history (all apparently based on this one source) tells of. So, what you suggest — a re-reading of Wangxi’s text based on all the manuscript sources, and, yes, improving on Demieville’s work (why not?) has to be the best way forward.

    So, where did the idea that there was no debate at all come from? Well, as I’m sure you know, Yoshiro Imaeda wrote an article in 1975, casting doubt on the traditional narrative, and suggesting that Moheyan and Kamalaśīla might never have met face to face. Is that what you have in mind, or something earlier? Other Japanese scholars seem to have been more inclined to accept that some version of a debate took place.


  34. Perhaps you hoped this discussion would end. I have found it very interesting and am grateful for the opportunity to read the dialogue…I do apologize for the late addition.

    Between the end of Trisong Detsen’s reign until the early tenth century, I wonder if there was a sizable and sustained Tibetan population that viewed a synthesis of Indian and Chinese teachings as a source of strength and a mark of the unique dharma of Tibet. In the article you co-authored with Dalton, “Where Chan and Tantra Meet”, you mention that once the empire collapsed, Tibetans drew upon both Chinese and Indian sources, yet examples of syncretism remained few (63). Any updates on the topic or current thoughts?

  35. Not at all – let the discussion continue! But only briefly…

    You said: “Between the end of Trisong Detsen’s reign until the early tenth century, I wonder if there was a sizable and sustained Tibetan population that viewed a synthesis of Indian and Chinese teachings as a source of strength and a mark of the unique dharma of Tibet.”

    Two things spring to mind – first the imperial support for the Sino-Tibetan translator Chos grub (Facheng). See for example the colophon to IOL Tib J 219: “By the royal edict of the glorious divine Tsenpo, the great editor-translator Go Chödrup translated, edited and finalized this based on the Chinese book.”

    And then there is Pelliot tibétain 996, mentioned in this post. The verses attributed to Nam ka’i snying po in this manuscript certainly allude to tantric concepts, while being ostensibly in the tradition of Chan. And according to the chronology, this is well after the reign of Khri srong lde btsan.


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