Monks and Mahāyoga

As you probably know, after the collapse of Tibetan imperial power towards the end of the 9th century, the lineage of monastic vows (the vinaya) died out in Central Tibet. During the ensuing dark period, if the traditional histories are to be believed, the lineage of the vows survived only in the far northeast of the Tibetan cultural area. Now if that is true, we might hope to see some corroborating evidence among the Dunhuang manuscripts — and I think we do. Several manuscripts that (judging by their handwriting) seem to be from the post-imperial period contain classic texts on the monks’ vows, such as the Vinaya-vāstu and the Prātimokṣa-sūtra (see for example IOL Tib J 1).

It seems likely that these manuscripts, like most manuscripts, were made to be used.  They are the kinds of extracts and summaries that would have been part of the ceremonies of taking and renewing of the monastic vows. Which is to say, they were probably written and used by Buddhist monks. These monks who were maintaining a monastic lineage which may well have died out in Central Tibet, but was very much alive here in the northeast, in places like the mountain retreat of Dantig, or the walled city of Tsongka.

If we accept that the Dunhuang manuscripts containing vinaya texts were used by Buddhist monks, then an interesting issue arises: were these monks also writing and making use of the many tantric manuscripts also to be found in the Dunhuang collections, including those Mahāyoga texts containing violent and sexual imagery? If they were, then the problems involved in monks practising tantric rituals must have come up here, before they were explicitly discussed by Atiśa, who famously addressed the issue a century later.

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I was thinking about this after looking at one of the biggest Mahāyoga manuscripts in the Dunhuang collections, a manuscript so big that it begins in the Pelliot collection in Paris (Pelliot tibétain 42), continues in the Stein collection in London (IOL Tib J 419) and ends back in Paris again (Pelliot tibétain 36). Clearly it had already broken into three parts before Stein and Pelliot arrived at the cave in Dunhuang. Put the three back together, and you get a major ritual, involving torma offerings, teachings, the visualization of mandalas, and a violent ritual of liberation (sgrol ba). The liberation ritual has recently been discussed in detail in Jacob Dalton, who describes it as “clearly the most violent text to emerge from the library cave at Dunhuang.” Surely not the kind of thing for monks?

Looking at the manuscript again recently, I noticed some text that had been added to the end of the ritual, either by a different scribe, or by the same scribe writing less carefully. This text turns out to be a summary of the vinaya, beginning like this:

The vinaya of the hearers is divided into eighteen different sects. Of these, the one that exists in Tibet is the system of the Mūlasarvāstivādins.

Fair enough — this agrees with what the Tibetan historians say, and indeed the fact that the massive Mūlasarvāstivādin vinaya is the version of the monastic vows that was preserved in the Tibetan canon. On the other hand, I think this is the first time I have seen the fact mentioned in a Dunhuang manuscript. The text goes on to enumerate the different classes of vows in the vinaya of the Mūlasarvastivādins. Maybe it was a kind of primer for new monks.

So why is this text written on the last pages of a major Mahāyoga ritual? Perhaps so that the monks performing the ritual should do it in the context of their Buddhist vows (and thus certainly not taking the violent and sexual imagery of the texts literally). Or as a rebuke to the text by a shocked monk: this is what Buddhism is about, not that! I don’t know, but I suspect the former is more likely than the latter. Everything we know about tantric Buddhism in India and Tibet suggests that it was thoroughly accepted in the monastic context. What remained uncertain and shifting was the exact nature of the relationship between the monastic vows and tantric practices, and issue that received much discussion later in Tibet in the “three vows” literature (these being the monastic vows, the bodhisattva vows and the tantric samaya vows). The juxtaposition of texts here suggests that similar negotations were already taking place in the northeast of Tibet in the tenth century.

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Jacob Dalton. 2011. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ronald Davidson. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Carmen Meinert. 2006. “Between the Profane and the Sacred? On the Context of the Rite of ‘Liberation’ (sgrol ba).” In Michael Zimmermann (ed.), Buddhism and Violence. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute. 99-130.

Sam van Schaik and Imre Galambos. 2012. Manuscripts and Travellers: The Sino-Tibetan Documents of a Tenth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim. Berlin: de Gruyter.

7 thoughts on “Monks and Mahāyoga

  1. In fact, even without its mention of the vinaya, the idea that this text advocated actual human sacrifice was already faintly absurd, given the context. After studying many such rituals over the last 20 years, we fail to see why this one is much different, either in its wording, or ritual structure. To put it another way, if this text advocated actual human sacrifice, then so must all the others. And we already know they don’t…..

  2. Actually, I think Carmen Meinert’s earlier translation and work on that same manuscript, which predates Dalton’s work, has been somewhat overlooked. Her later piece too, for the LIRI conference, comparing the reception of Mahāyoga ‘killing’ rituals in China and Tibet, is full of nuance.

  3. Dear Rob,

    Thank you for the reminder about Carmen Meinert’s paper on sgrol ba, which is as you say, very good. I’ve added to the references above. As for the idea that the ritual itself, as presented in this manuscript, could have been practised as a real human sacrifice, I’m not sure anyone has argued very hard for that. As I remember, Jacob Dalton in his book (which I don’t have with me at the moment) was saying that the ritual as written could be interpreted that way either by wayward practitioners or those who criticized the ‘old’ ritual traditions, like Ye shes ‘od.

    By and large I feel that the contextual material surrounding these rituals in Dunhuang suggests that the people who wrote the manuscripts were involved in teaching lineages in which the broader Buddhist context, including the vows, was very much a part of the package It’s interesting that another Dunhuang text with a long discussion of sgrol ba (Pelliot tibétain 840, which I wrote about in this blog) is written alongside, and in the same hand, as a text on the samaya vows. Among other things, the latter text says:

    There are three types who will damage the samaya if the secrets ever get out to them: (i) frauds who bestow tantric texts when they haven’t received the samaya, and haven’t had an empowerment, (ii) those who practise based on the words alone, and (iii) those who don’t practise the divine dharma.

    Which seems to be much the same kind of thing as what is said nowadays, about the need to engage in the practices in the proper context, and not misinterpret the symbolic language…


  4. The text is really rather tame by comparison with other Mahāyoga sources, something which should perhaps be discussed. The head severing etc [of the liṅga] is a very standard part of smad las rites, hence the cute little sets of miniaturised implements like toy swords and axes which monasteries have. The text’s inherent linkage with Guhyasmāja, not to mention its proximity to the vinaya pasage you mention, perhaps make it a rather questionable choice to put forward as his possible example of actual human sacrifice—the book is here before me, and that does seem to be what he is saying. But despite that unfortunate choice of example, its still a book with numerous merits.

  5. What I mean to say is, while the Mahāyānist Upāyakauśalya-sūtra type of ethos of ‘forcible liberation’ of the zhing bcu is always a rare but real potential in Mahāyoga abhicāra, that in itself is not so much a human sacrifice as a form of ‘phrin las, a hazardous and potentially expensive undertaking in karmic terms undertaken voluntarily by the heroic yogin for the benefit of others, not unlike the ethos of a dutiful patriotic soldier undertaking the risks of war. It is not worship or offering in any simple sense, hence the vague application of the term ‘sacrifice’ is problematic, notwithstanding the sacrificial symbolism of the means used, i.e. the sgrol ba rites.
    Turning to the more regular pūjā aspect of sgrol ba if you will, the orgiastic sacrificial imagery of many such rites, especially the smad las versions, should not blind one to their overtly soteriological intention. That was the whole point of that period’s evolution of tantric ritual, what one might call, ritually speaking, the essential gist of the so-called ‘Mahāyoga’ of that period: the re-interpretation of apotropeic rites into soteriological purposes. In Indian sources, a certain ironic playfulness is sometimes in evidence in this re-interpretation of sacrifice—evidence perhaps that elements of what old-fashioned anthropologists used to call a ‘joking relationship’ pertained between Śaiva and Tantric Buddhist yogins. Be that as it may, a mainstream Mahāyoga text is about the last place one would expect to find actual human sacrifice qua worship or offering. When analysing these tantric texts as historians, context often means more than literal content.

  6. And I don’t mean, in the above, to say that Śaiva or Śākta sacrifice lacked soteriological intentions, at least for the victims…

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