The Decline of Buddhism III: Should the secret mantra be secret?

Nowadays we tend to see secrecy as a bad thing. When secrets are kept by governments, we suspect repression, and as recent events in Tibet have shown, we’re often right on that count. On the personal level, the secrets people keep from each other are found as plot devices, from Shakespeare to soap operas, that lead to all kinds of conflict and sorrow. In our post-Enlightenment (and I mean the 18th-century kind) world, do we need secrecy?

Secrecy that is of course very much a part of tantric Buddhism, which is also known as ‘secret mantra’. Keeping the tantric practices secret from those who have not been initiated into them is one of the fundamental samaya vows undertaken by those who do receive empowerment in these practices. When modern suspicions about secrecy are applied here, we find people suggesting that the secrecy in tantric Buddhism is all about the gurus (or in Tibet, the lamas) keeping the teachings to themselves, and thereby gathering numerous disciples, fame and of course, wealth. This is to see secrecy as a power issue, like the secrecy practised by governments or corporations.

I’d like to suggest a more sympathetic view of secrecy in tantric Buddhism, using the poem that we looked at in the last post. As you may remember, this was a poem about the decline of Buddhism since the time of Lang Darma, a decline caused not by too few people practising Buddhism, but too many practising tantric Buddhism:

Masters who are lost in the errors
Of not judging the levels of meditative experience
Know nothing of the transworldly meaning.
For every hundred students there are a thousand teachers,
And nobody listens to the divine dharma.
For every village there are ten masters,
And the number of vajra assistants is uncountable.
Everyone thinks “I am accomplished as the deity.”
In the end, since there are so many of this type,
Won’t the vajra body be destroyed?

Let’s think about the situation described here. Clearly the tantric teachings have become very popular, which should not be a bad thing. The statement that there are ten masters per village may be a rhetorical exaggeration, but it does indicate that Buddhism has ‘trickled down’ to the lives of ordinary people in the villages. The problem, for the author of our poem, is that disproportionate number of these ordinary people  have set themselves up as tantric masters, having decided that they have achieved the necessary accomplishments without applying any empirical tests to their own meditative experiences.

Now, I’m a great believer in looking at manuscripts as a whole, rather than plucking individual texts out of them. The poem we’re looking at here is on a scroll (Pelliot tibétain 840) with other Tibetan texts, all written in the same handwriting. That is to say, it was the same person who wrote all these Tibetan texts on the scroll (which he picked up somewhere to reuse–it already had a Chinese sutra written on the front).* The main text that he wrote on the back of the scroll is a long tantric meditation practice. So, for a start, we can see that he had no problem at all with tantric practices as such. Then he turned the scroll over and wrote some more Tibetan texts in between the lines of the Chinese sutra, an unusual thing to do: paper must have been scarce.

The poem I just quoted is one of the texts written ‘between the lines’. Interestingly enough, the text that was written above it is all about the samaya vows. There are different ways of presenting these vows, and this text uses one that was popular at Dunhuang, and later found its way into the Nyingma school: the three root vows (see this previous post on the subject). These are: to respect the guru, always to practice the mantras and mudras, and to keep the tantric teachings secret. This text, then, seems very much related to our poem. The author of our poem seems to imply that the problems he describes are due to an ignorance (willful or not) of these vows. So what does the text above it have to say about secrecy?

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.

The justification of secrecy seems quite clear here. When the master-disciple relationship (symbolized in tantric Buddhism by the ceremony of empowerment), fraudulent teachers can get hold of texts and teach others, without ever having had personal instruction. Individuals might think that it’s fine to pick up a book and put what is written there into practice without any clarification. And finally, people might think that tantric Buddhism can be practised in isolation from the rest of the dharma.

It does seem to me that these were genuine concerns, not merely the justification for keeping knowledge and power in the hands of the few.† For our writer, the evidence of the problems caused by ignoring the reasons for secrecy were evident all around him, with more masters offering to bestow the tantric teachings than students putting them into practice. This was no local problem: the same complaints about village tantric masters appear in the edict of the West Tibetan king Lha Lama Yeshé Ö, written in the 980s, and it was these very concerns that led to the reforming movements of the later transmission (phyi dar) of Buddhism in Tibet.

* * *

Just to show that the suspicions that I alluded to at the beginning of this post were common among Tibetans as they first came into contact with Buddhism, and with tantric masters in particular, I’d like to add one of the questions and answers from Nyen Palyang’s 9th century text Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva. I’ll let the answer stand for itself.

“When the tantric master requests an offering at the time of empowerment, isn’t this just something they’ve made up?”

The enlightened path to liberation is an eternal treasure
That is found after having been lost on the road of samsara for innumerable aeons.
It wouldn’t be excessive to offer one’s life ten million times, not to mention anything else.
The truth or falsity of this can be checked in all the secret tantras.

* * *

Karmay, Samten. 1980. “The Ordinance of lHa Bla-ma Ye-shes-‘od”. In M. Aris and S. Aung San (eds.) Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson. Warminster: Aris and Phillips: 150-160.

Tibetan texts
Pelliot tibétain 840/2: … dam tshig ma nos pa dang/ slob dpon dbang ma bskur ba’i rkun gnas kyis lung phog pa dang/ yi get tsam rnyed pa la rten cing spyod pa dang/ lha chos mya spyod pa gsum car ‘dra ste// ‘di dag la gsang shor na/ dam tsig gting nas nyams par gyur te// …

IOL Tib J 470: … /slobs la dbang mnod pa’i dus su/ /yon ‘bul ‘tshal lo/ zhes bgyi ba rang bzo ma lags sam//skal pa grangs myed ‘das par lam skol gdod rnyed pa//bla med byang chub thar lam g.yung drung gter//des ni lus srog bye bas gcal kyang ma ches na//gzhan lta ci smos bden rdzun gsang ba’i rgyud la kun ltos/ …

* I denote the writer of the Pelliot tibétain 840 as ‘he’ throughout this post. This isn’t done thoughtlessly, but because all of the Tibetan scribes I have come across in the Dunhuang manuscripts are male. If in future I come across evidence for a female scribe, I will be very interested indeed, and will probably write about it here.
† Though this probably doesn’t need to be pointed out to most readers, the same issues are very much at stake today. Only just now I received Google Ad directing me to a website that makes the following promise: “Instantly Meditate Like the Greatest Gurus!” The author of this website, who shall remain nameless, makes much (mis)use of the idea of secret teachings.

15 thoughts on “The Decline of Buddhism III: Should the secret mantra be secret?

  1. Dear Early,

    I don’t think this is a secret to you, but even if it’s true that you haven’t (and nobody else has) identified any women among the scribes, that is not to say that all the scribal names are identifiably masculine without any chance of ambiguity, or does it? It doesn’t mean that some among these names *could not* be women. Can you really say with complete confidence that “all of the Tibetan scribes… are male”?

    There is an Old Tibetan painter who was a woman (and notice ‘bri-ba is a verb used for both scribing and drawing).

    Some early Dunhuang paintings with Tibetan-language painters’ inscriptions (not donors’ inscriptions, as stated in the catalogue) are illustrated in Roderick Whitfield & Anne Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese Art from the Silk Route, George Braziller (New York 1990), pp. 73-75, plates 52-54. The painters’ names The-god-za Leg[s]-mo and Do-khong-legs appear here The first painter was most definitely a woman, as indicated by the syllables za (‘wife,’ ‘woman from the clan of…’) and mo (in this case surely a feminine gender marker; the masculine alternative Legs-po does occur as a proper name).

    Would you be making an argument for lack of literacy among women in Dunhuang or in Tibet? I’d like to hear such an argument, since it would be an important thing to know, and not because I necessarily want to torture anybody, least of all you, with a form of feminism they may not much care for.


  2. It’s an interesting question. I wrote too hastily I think; I should have said that all of the scribes of identifiable gender were male. I have had a quick look through the scribes names compiled by Marta Matko, and I find no instances of ‘ma’, ‘mo’ or ‘za’ among them. Of course, many of the names are Chinese or mixed Tibeto-Chinese, and I wouldn’t be able to judge the gender of these.

    So it’s an open question, sure. You might like to have a look at IOL Tib J 856(A) and (B), a letter from a woman (a mother and her son, in fact) to the monks at Dunhuang, asking for their help. FW Thomas discussed it in his TLTD vol.II, pp.20-21. Whether she wrote the letter herself, I don’t think we can say.

    I certainly wouldn’t want to be drawing any conclusions about female literacy. I think some women probably did write at Dunhuang. At least among the Chinese manuscripts we have a document from a womens’ club and a nun’s will, though again the name and gender of the scribe are not known to us. If you have access to it, have a look at The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith (ed. Susan Whitfield) pp.246-259, where a nice range of manuscripts relating to women are discussed. Some, but not enough, of these pages are up there on Google Books.

  3. Thought-provoking post, especially the citations from Dunhuang.

    The culture of secrecy in tantric Buddhism goes back to the earliest texts calling themselves tantras. It is interesting to note the prevalence of the term “secret mantra/tantra” in Tibetan sources, while the equivalents we might expect in Sanskrit (*guhyamantra/tantra) are not nearly as common, or necessarily used in the same way. It seems that Tibetans used “secret” to designate initiatory tantric traditions in which mantras are transmitted as secret knowledge. As we know, there are other tantric traditions, associated with some kriyaatantras and non-violent deities, in which mantras are fundamentally not secret and can be used and passed on by anyone. However, some studies seem to think Secret Mantra is shorthand for the whole of the Vajrayana.

    The list of those who break the samaya confirms that this must have been a hot topic at the time. Indian tantric texts identify vow-breakers as people who may legitimately receive severe punishment, without necessarily going into much detail about who the vow-breakers are. And since these very texts were fundamental in the Buddhism transmitted to Tibet in the early days, it is not surprising that we get some hand-wringing about the issue.

    However, I am not sure that the three kinds of vow-breakers listed is exactly what the Indian tradition might have had in mind. The initiatory tantras involve practices which would invite sure condemnation from non-tantric Buddhists were they to become widely known. So it seems to me that a “vow-breaker” is originally conceived as someone who takes initiation and then goes around shooting their mouth off. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what the original concern was if you hear any Theravadin today going on about the horrors of tantric Buddhism — of which they invariably know nothing in a personal sense. But imagine how damaging this kind of thing might have been if the same sentiments were voiced by ex-students of some prestigious tantric teacher. Indeed, we have plenty of examples of this happening, just not from India in the period where it seems to be of greatest concern.

    So secrecy does have value, and its value lies precisely in its power to conceal and reveal — the very thing that makes much of tantrism tick.

  4. Thanks for the very interesting thoughts about the difference between Indic and Tibetan interpretations of the need for secrecy. I suspect this is mainly due to the fact that India was so much more of a heterogeneous religious environment (as you suggest) than Tibet. It’s amazing to think that even by the 10th century in Tibet the main threat to tantric Buddhism was not perceived to be from another religion, and not even from other forms of Buddhism, but from spread the Vajrayana itself, such was its uncontested success. Thus the centre of concern about secrecy moved on to the misuse of the secret texts, rather than criticism of them.

    Apropos of this I have wondered about Sonam Tsemo’s defenses of the Vajrayana in his Presentation of the Four Tantra Classes (Rgyud sde bzhi’i rnam gzhag) in the 11th century. Did the “followers of the perfections” (pha rol tu phyin pa ba) that he presents as the opponents of the Vajrayana really exist in Tibet in his time? Or was this just a model he inherited from the Indic commentarial tradition?

    By the way, in this work Sonam Tsemo definitely equates Vajrayana with secret mantra, though obviously this should not to be read back onto the Indic scene.

  5. That’s a good question. Was there such a thing as a non-tantric Buddhist in 11th century Tibet? There were always Tibetan monks who had little interest in, or aptitude for, tantric teachings, but it is hard to recall any group that disavowed them entirely. On the other hand, it is certain that such orders existed in South Asia. The fact that tantric Buddhism seems to have been completely accepted in Tibet (among other places) at a quite early stage is one of the features that distinguishes it from Buddhisms practiced elsewhere.

  6. As for the question posed by I.S., it does actually not arise, because 11th-century Tibet saw the establishment of Tibetan Buddhist scholasticism. Apart from the tantric traditions in existence by that time, new scholastic (mtshan nyid) schools evolved. The exposition of Prajñāpāramitā philosophy was also met with interest as can be deduced from indigenous commentaries. These, I assume, might be regarded as the “followers of the perfections” mentioned by earlytibet and Bsod nams rtse mo. While the former is a 21st-century scholar, the latter, by the way, was active in the second half of the 12th century, not 11th.

  7. Dear Junglo,

    Thanks for that important point. The new scholasticism was of course very much on the rise during Bsod nam rtse mo’s time (the 12th century, not the 11th indeed!), and the latter studied at Gsang phu, perhaps the most important centre of scholasticism. (Ronald Davidson discusses this on pp.339-40 of his Tibetan Renaissance)

    Still, it seems a bit of a stretch to infer that the proponents of the new scholasticism would have rejected the tantras to the extent that they needed to be convinced of the validity of the Vajrayana. (Of course there may be other evidence for this in the histories and biographies that I’m not aware of.) On the other hand, it seems reasonable to infer that Bsod nam rtse mo’s reliance on the objection/response model in his treatise is influenced by the scholastic methods taught at Gsang phu.

  8. Dear E.T.,

    It also appears unlikely to me that scholars or groups thereof rejected the tantras on the whole. But from what I know in those days a new type of scholar evolved, who was primarily concerned with the exposition of non-Tantric teachings. For example the 11th century was absolutely vital for the transmission of the main teaching lineages of Buddhist logic and epistemology to Tibet, and these subjects have very little to do with the tantras. I was indeed thinking of the abbots of Gsang phu, and this monastery appears to have been established in 1073, which makes it an 11th-century institution. To which degree the resident monks and scholars engaged in tantric practices will forever be unknown. I won’t deny that they are very likely to have studied tantric texts, so from this point of view I concede that I.S. was right to speculate that non-tantric Buddhist in 11th century Tibet, who entirely disavowed the tantric teachings, probably didn’t exist.
    (Be careful when mentioning Davidson’s study, in Jinajik this work was labelled as a “book to avoid”… :-)
    Must go now and phone home.

  9. An interesting topic. Consider the mahasiddhas whose behavoir, today, no one actually takes seriously or believes anymore. When I say that I am referring to the possible reality that such behavoir leads to (in a practice context, mind you)….what? Non-duality? Certainly today’s sceptics would not say enlightenment. I honestly don’t think today’s practitioner’s believe in enlightenment anymore. We have no criteria with which to recognize such a state in any case. (The texts describe it as “signless”.)

    I am reminded of a story told by a female student of Chogyam Trungpa in which she describes going to see him one day. (This story can be found in the ‘Chronicles Project’ archives project). He says to her, “Jump out the window.” And she tells this story by saying her response was, “Yes, sir. Right now?” And Chogyam Trungpa just laughs and tells her it isn’t necessary. Nonetheless, one cannot help but remember Tilopa and Naropa.

    I recently listened to a talk by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in which he mentions the ancient mahasiddhas and talks about how he always wondered about them. His opinion was that they smelled, ate raw fish and misbehaved. One the one hand we admire them so much these days as the founders of tantrism and yet were they present among us what would we do? Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche says he would not have wanted to let them inside his house.

    So if we are told to not speak of certain things because of the possible (and in this case considerable) misunderstandings, well, you have it right from the mouth of a tulku that even he does not or might not always perceive clearly. Or even be around that which might produce exactly what buddhism says it is about. All you have to do is remember the considerable upset that still surrounds some of the (and by ancient standards) mild beviour of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. At least he didn’t ask that lovely woman to REALLY jump out of the window. And here is another question while we’re at it – if he had said “yes, jump” and she had refused would that have been breaking samaya? Of course only Chogyam Trungpa could have answered that question but just to consider it should bring pause to those that think they know what is and is not samaya breakage. imo, it is always only between the guru and the student and no one else’s opinion counts for diddly-squat.

    Clearly, a complicated issue for those who earnestly seek to practice. btw – in the same talk Dzongsar Khyenste mentions how the guru is someone “you hire to destroy you.” How well does that go down in today’s world??? Finally, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche also mentions in the same talk Gangshar Rinpoche who reportedly said after the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese, (paraphrased here) “Finally, the Chinese did what we ourselves could not do.” YEOW!

    As always, a thoughtful discusssion although I am aware that I have steered it somewhat away from the manuscript considerations that began the topic. My apologies. Return to your texts gentlemen.

  10. Jinajik’s criticism of Tibetan Renaissance seems to be that it is dull and that contributions are attributed only in the apparatus rather than the main text. These do not seem to be reasons not to cite it; the scholarship does not seem to be in question?

    (I found it interesting, and I am happy to go to footnotes to find sources when I want them, so experiences may vary.)

  11. David,
    My statement was an ironical one. I find Davidson’s study good.

  12. Regarding Tibetan Renaissance, since my comments were brought up here by others, allow me to clarify. I write for specialists, not people who have time to read just anything. Given the book’s largely derivative nature – perhaps not evident to people who aren’t constantly flipping to the endnotes – there is not much there for people who already know the literature. Indeed, experiences may vary. What you get out of it is in inverse proportion to what you’ve read.

    If you follow my original comments, you will also notice that there were several avenues of criticism which I didn’t take up. Of course I don’t see why Tibetan Renaissance shouldn’t be cited insofar as it makes original and reliable contributions. So what are they? If there is something I have missed, here on the Internet one can point it out at any time; though maybe my own blog would be a more appropriate forum than this one.

  13. In Davidson’s defence, it should be pointed out that he did use primary Tibetan historical sources extensively in Tibetan Renaissance, especially in the chapters on Sakya history. This is the strongest aspect of the book, and in this respect I would argue it’s essential reading, along with Cyrus Stearns’ recent works. But since this is a tangential topic to early Tibet, I agree with Iain that Jinajik might be a better place to discuss it…

  14. Hi Early,

    The nameless one is Alex Henke. Are you forgetting we’ve got google boxes?


  15. Ah. In the age of Google no-one ‘shall remain nameless’. How would The Man with No Name survive today? How would Odysseus trick the Cyclops? And what of the experience that is supposed to be truly without name (ming med)?

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