“Lying Lamas” — Reconciling Hagiography and Historicity


Shri Singha: Was he Indian or Chinese? Or does it even matter? Source: HAR

Some readers will recall that as a doctoral student, my research explores hagiographic representations and interpretations of non-monastic tantric specialists (and their sometimes transgressive and antinomian behaviors) across Indo-Tibetan Buddhist time and space. To date, one can loosely identify two major themes within much (but certainly not all) of the extent scholarship on tantric Buddhist hagiography: questions about historicity, and questions about semiotic representation. As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, semiotic studies that question have immense value, but only when recognized to be half of any given literary event (the moment when words on a page are articulated and abstracted into “meaning” in a human being’s mind). The other half of the equation—which has received considerably less focus, and to which I hope to draw greater attention—is the reader.

Being that many (most?) readers of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography are also Vajrayana practitioners, an apparent conundrum arises when any given hagiographical narrative, whether articulated in a sacred text or by ones beloved Lama, seems to be contradicted by historical, scholarly analysis. However, the primary objective of this post is to demonstrate that this opposition dissolves upon closer inspection, particularly when contemplated in conjunction with important Buddhist concepts like thab, (Tib. ཐབས་, Wyl. thabs, Skt. upaya, “skillful means”),  tendrel (Tib. རྟེན་འབྲེལ་, Wyl. rten ‘brel, Skt. pratityasamutpada, “dependent arising”), and the Union of Two Truths.

China, Śri Singha, and Keyboard Warriors

Being fundamental to my methodological approach to the academic study of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography, the ideas articulated in this post have been marinating in my mind for some time now. However, the impetus for finally putting them to pixelated-paper was an equally pixelated event that occurred recently on a popular social media website. A dear friend and Nyingmapa Vajra-brother of mine posted an image of himself sitting below a breathtaking, life-size mural of the mahasiddha Shri Singha—one of the “founding fathers” of the Nyingmapa Dzogchen lineage. Citing recent scholarship on the topic (also see: Powers 2012: 397-8), this friend stated in the caption to the image that Shri Singha was likely an Indian mahasiddha from the Indo-Himalayan region presently known as Kinnaur.


Life-size mural of Shri Singha in the Zangdok Palri Mandala in Tso Pema, India. Source: Ankit Sinha

This seemingly innocuous post became a battleground of belligerence when a commenter became enflamed by the fact that the association of Shri Singha with India appeared to contradict the traditional narrative that the mahasiddha came from China, as stated by that commenter’s Lama and many other well known Tibetan masters. According to the commenter, their Lama “is Dzogchen” (direct quote, my emphasis), and therefore no mortal scholar could ever present any evidence that could possibly falsify or warrant reevaluation of the traditional narrative that Shri Singha was Chinese. And because the commenter’s Lama “is Dzogchen,” the commenter deemed it impossible that their Lama could ever be wrong about the details of a Dzogchen lineage master’s life story—especially regarding a lineage master as important as Shri Singha. Despite my friend’s attempt to share relevant (academic and religious) sources on the topic, offense was taken and the commenter ultimately blocked my friend’s social media account.

However, this digital falling-out between two devoted members of the Buddhist sangha is quite tragic because, as we will see, offense need not be taken. What may at first appear to be irreconcilable, mutually exclusive contradictions between hagiography (traditional narratives) and historicity (the verifiability or falsifiability of a given historical event or claim using scholarly methodology) are actually two equally valid epistemic systems when assessed by their respective value systems. Furthermore, for those of us—like my friend mentioned above—who are both scholars and practitioners, I will argue that it is possible for us to subscribe to both narratives, simultaneously.

So then, what are the value systems that underlie these two approaches to biographical narrative?

Historicity and Falsification

(NOTE: Much of this section repeats some of the points made preciously in the two-part series on Prajnaparamitaic translation theory [ here and here ], re: academic knowledge production, upaya, and the Union of Two Truths.)

As I have pointed out in the articles linked above, academic knowledge production is based upon a two-point, or “one axis” spectrum of truth (supported <—> unsupported). The classical model of the scientific method (which is here, admittedly, totally over-simplified, but which suffices for our current discussion) goes something like this: 1. Develop hypothesis. 2. Develop experiments that empirically test this hypothesis. 3. Analyze results. 4. If results support hypothesis, continue with more experimentation with same hypothesis; if results do not support the hypothesis, adapt the hypothesis and continue with more experimentation.

It is crucial to this system that the hypothesis be falsifiable—that is, it must be something that can be supported by evidence or otherwise disproven (falsified) with evidence. In a caricaturized debate between atheists and theists, atheists might say to theists, “You cannot prove god exists.” Meanwhile, theists might say to atheists, “Yes, but you cannot prove god doesn’t exist.” This illustrates this issue of falsifiability. For something to be a valid academic argument, it must be able to be tested and either supported or falsified by evidence. Falsification is an apt term for scholarly endeavors because the scientific method cannot ever definitively prove anything to be true—it can only ever definitively prove something to be untrue. For instance, in my terribly simplified model of scholarly inquiry outlined above, if one’s hypothesis is supported by empirical evidence, there are always more experiments that can be done to potentially falsify the hypothesis. However, if the empirical evidence does not support the hypothesis, then it can be definitively stated that the hypothesis is not true, and therefore needs to be revised to account for the conflicting evidence.

(For further discussion on academic knowledge production, with appropriate caveats given to emergent disciplines and experimental methodologies that challenge the regime of falsification, see my two posts on Prajnaparamitaic translation theory linked above, or click here and here).

Therefore, the value of academic scholarship is measured by its “truthfulness” (I use this word “truth” very loosely). Here I intend “truthfulness” to signify the degree to which something is verifiable or falsifiable using empirical analysis. This might seem readily obvious to some readers, but it is imperative that this distinction be made, because hagiographical narratives and teachings in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism utilize a different value system.

Hagiography and Upaya

Truthfulness is a slippery slope in Mahayana Buddhist epistemology because the latter works on a four-point, or “two axis” system of truth, articulating between “true” and “false” on the X axis, and between “relative (or conventional)” and “ultimate” on the Y axis (this is, of course, viewing ultimate truth from the perspective of relative truth, because distinguishing between relative and ultimate is a dualistic binary which is necessarily relativistic). Therefore, a dualistic conceptual distinction between this and that (like all words, for instance) can be “true” on the relative level, while simultaneously dissolving into the non-dual ground on the ultimate level. However, to further complicate the matter, Mahayana philosophy values both relative and ultimate truth as being in a state of unified equilibrium. This question of “truthfulness” becomes quite complex in Mahayana and Vajrayana contexts. Thus, it is not the only value system upon which the validity of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist teachings are emically judged. So then what is the value system governing these Buddhists teachings? In short: upaya (Tib. ཐབས་, Wyl. thabs, “skillful means”).

In order to help myself understand upaya, I have developed my own modern rendition of a well-known sutric parable. Imagine there is a mother and a daughter inside a house, and the mother realized that the house is on fire. The daughter, however is so engrossed in playing with her toys that when the mother says, “Honey, the house is on fire! We must


Wall painting of Shri Singha inside Dudjom Orgyen Choling in Boudhanath, Nepal.

go!” the child does nothing, continuing to play with her toys. The child has never seen a house burn down, she has never encountered the pain of heat and burns, and she has very little grasp of mortality, so she has no frame of reference with which to understand her mother’s urgency. The Mother frantically continues appealing to the daughter, begging her to get up and leave the house, but the daughter simply continues playing. Then, the Mother gets a skillful idea. She says, “Oh what’s that? I think I hear the ice cream truck outside!” The daughter certainly has a frame of reference with which to understand the urgency required to catch the ice-cream truck, lest it passes by leaving her empty-handed and ice-creamless. Thus, the Mother and daughter quickly run out of the (still burning) house. Once outside, the daughter realizes there is no ice cream truck, but now, from her new vantage point, she can see that the house is being consumed by flames, she can see it collapse, and she is now in a position to better understand that which she could not have understood before.

The skillful “lie” told by the mother is upaya. Recognizing that her daughter lacked the perspective to understand the urgency of the scenario, the Mother had to use skillful means to first elicit a non-conceptual transformation in her daughter (getting her to physically get up and leave the house) that would subsequently allow the daughter to realize a much broader perspective post-transformation. In other words, it is only after this transformation that the daughter is able to see the much larger picture—a much larger and graver picture than she was able to grasp while still in the house. With the privilege of a new perspective, the daughter could then appreciate the insignificance of dualistic categories like “lies” and “truth” in the face of the much larger implications at stake (like being burned alive).

In this example, the Mother is the Lama, the daughter is the Lama’s disciple, and the skillful “lie” about the ice cream truck represents the Buddhist teachings. To be clear, I am not here to say that all Buddhist teachings are lies, per se. Rather, I am arguing that whether they are lies or not is totally irrelevant to the value system upon which the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist teachings are based. These teachings are intended to skillfully catalyze non-conceptual transformations in students that ameliorates the student’s suffering and bring the student ever closer to enlightenment, and therefore liberation (ie. escaping the “burning house” of suffering).

Therefore, the value of hagiographical narratives is not based on their truthfulness, as is the case in much of academia. Rather, their value is wholly contingent upon their ability to skillfully transform the student’s perceptions in order to minimize suffering, maximize compassion, and ultimately bring the student to liberation (so that they can then skillfully help other beings come to the same state of realization, of course). In this way, I do not feel it is necessary to be offended when other scholars challenge the veracity or historicity of various teachings or hagiographical narratives. Even if your Lama “is Dzogchen,” that does not mean everything she says must be inherently true in the relative, dualistic, academic sense. Rather, if your Lama “is Dzogchen,” then you can rest assured the value of her teachings—being totally divorced from relative conceptualities about “true” and “false,” “right” and “wrong,” “facts” and “lies”—has everything to do with whether or not they will skillfully bring you closer to enlightenment.

So, personally speaking, as a scholar-practitioner doing academic research into Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography, I am perfectly happy to accept that even though, for instance, my beloved Dudjom Rinpoche writes in The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (1991: 497)) that Shri Singha was born in China, this may actually not be the case according to the epistemic systems that produce Western scholarship. Furthermore, the fact that Dudjom Rinpoche might be “wrong” (by academic standards) about Shri Singha’s birthplace in no way challenges my perception of Dudjom Rinpoche as being a modern Buddha, more kind than the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Nor does it mean that practitioners must abandon traditional narratives in favor of “academic” ones, precisely because, as this article attempts to article, traditional and academic approaches to historiography stem from different epistemic systems and are based upon different goals. To reiterate, all words and all conceptual knowledge, including all Dharma knowledge and concepts, are ultimately dualistic compartmentalizations that completely dissolve in the dharmadatu of ultimate truth. Therefore, I am fully content to accept that both narratives can exist in equilibrium without having to be reconciled, one over the other. For this reason, if it were not so tragic to see schisms in the sangha, I would laugh at the irony of Dzogchen students bickering over whose Lama is more correct about a mahasiddha’s birthplace.

About the Translation Below

The translation that I have prepared to accompany this essay is an excerpt from hagiography of the 11/12th C. Lord of Siddhas, Padampa Sangye. This excerpt states Padampa Sangye was none other than the great 8th C. Buddhist master Kamalasila. If this were the case, then by the time Dampa Rinpoche displayed his passing into parinirvana (death) in the early 12th century, he would have been over four hundred years old.

Empirically speaking, I have never seen a human being live to be four hundred years old, nor have I seen credible documentation of a human living such a long time. Therefore, barring some massive discovery of credible evidence, from an academic standpoint, it seems unlikely that Dampa Rinpoche lived to be four hundred years old. However, as a practitioner, this is all totally and completely beside the point.

While I am willing to accept on the relative level that Dampa Rinpoche probably did not live that long,, as a practitioner I am also perfectly content to follow my Lama’s words when he says that Dampa Rinpoche was Kamalasila. This is precisely because I have confident faith in my Lama’s upaya. Both narratives can co-exist when we recognize them to be based on totally different value systems, which are, in turn, based on two totally different intentions.


Vairotsana Lotsawa and Acarya Padampa Sangye. Source: HAR

Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section below!


An Excerpt from the Namthar of Padampa Sangye, entitled:
“The Sun Blazing with One Thousand Rays of Siddhis”

[pg. 35] Biographies further state that when Khenpo Bodhisattva’s body approached death, he prophesied that, “In the future, a time will come when corrupted philosophies will spread here in Tibet. At that time, you must invite my student, Pandita Kamalashila.”

When the Chinese Hashang disseminated perverse doctrines that obstructed virtuous practices of body, speech, and so forth, Kamalashila was invited from India as an antidote. He [then] wrote the trilogy on the Stages of Meditation, and disputed the false tenets by means of debate, annihilating them and causing the Buddha’s teachings to spread and flourish. Having done so, according to the beliefs of some disciples, he then demonstrated the process of passing away into Nirvana.

[pg. 36] In fact, he [actually] traveled back to India. When he later returned to Tibet, his name became Dampa. Regarding the presence [of this information] in quotes or teachings, nowhere can this be seen or heard in the authority of Dampa’s own words; however, in general, one finds that in the texts of the Zhije tradition, it is said that in India, Dampa Rinpoche was known as both Kamalashri and Kamalashila.

Additionally, when Lama Dorje Denpa [Buddha Shakyamuni] was facilitating a feast-gathering, he had a vision of the 84 mahasiddhas, and offered a verse of praise for each. In one of those verses he says:

Skilled in grammar, logic, scripture, philosophy, and oral instructions,

Awareness-Holder who has discovered the boon of immortality,

I pay homage to the Guru

Known as Kamalashila

If one considers the words of that verse, it is quite obvious and clear. According to the words of the Karmapas, it also appears that in India, Dampa was known as Kamalashila. Agreeing with all of this, the great scholar Patyashri further states that having returned to India, [Dampa Rinpoche] received, from male and female mahasiddha gurus, from various yidam deities, and from wisdom dakinis, the blessed transmissions and oral instructions on countless extraordinary Sutric and Tantric teachings—some that had been heard before and some that had never been heard.

[pg. 37] Having practiced at [various] holy sites, it is said that he benefited all the beings in the noble land of India by means of enlightened activity which tamed beings according to their needs, including generating countless magical emanations and so forth.

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.

Tibetan Source

chos kyi seng ge & ganga pa gnyis kyis brtsams. “grub pa’i dbang phyug chen po rje btsun dam pa sangs rgyas kyi rnam par thar pa dngos grub ‘od stong ‘bar ba’i nyi ma.” Buddhist Digital Resource Center. Web.  ( https://www.tbrc.org/#!rid=W1KG14796 )

Sources and Bibliography

“Biographies: Sri Simha, the Lion of Dzogchen.” Dharma Fellowship. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.

DiValerio, David M. The Holy Madmen of Tibet. New York: Oxford UP, 2015.

Gyatso, Janet, and Jigs ‘Med Gling Pa. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary: A Translation and Study of Jigme Lingpa’s Dancing Moon in the Water and Dakki’s Grand Secret Talk. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Amy. The Social Life of Tibetan Biography: Textuality, Community, and Authority in the Lineage of Tokden Shakya Shri. Lanham: Lexington, 2014.

Jiigs Bral Ye Shes Rdo Rje, Bdud ‘joms, Gyurme Dorje, and Matthew Kapstein. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002. Print.

Powers, John, and David Templeman. Historical Dictionary of Tibet. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012.

Quintman, Andrew. The Yogin & the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.

Media Sources



24 thoughts on ““Lying Lamas” — Reconciling Hagiography and Historicity

  1. The case you make here is fine. “Lying Lamas,” though, seems sensationalistic. It is appropriate for Tibetan lamas to repeat they origin stories they were taught in traditional lineage histories. In no way are they lying or even “lying.” At some point in the future, the great shedras may decide to integrate lineage lore with contemporary historical research. We are far from that point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Yudron la,

      I wholeheartedly appreciate your participation in this post. It means a lot whenever friends or readers (or anybody, for that matter) takes the time to share their feedback on my writing.

      Concise reply:

      Nowhere in this article do I argue that Lamas are actually lying. Rather, I am polemicizing academic obsessions with historicity by drawing attention to upayic value systems that transcend dualistic categories of “true” and “false” in favor of a much more noble aspiration: to skillfully utilize all phenomena to benefit beings and bring about transformation in the minds of disciples, regardless of whether those skillful means fit neatly into dualistic academic categories based on empirical verifiability. In fact, integrating academic perspectives of “historicity” into shedras is exactly what this article is arguing AGAINST.

      Long reply:

      Firstly, I understand your distaste for the word “lying,” but reconceptualizing notions of “truth” and “lies” is an ongoing theme of this blog. You are more than welcome to disagree with this aspect of the project, but this is not the first time I have used this word and it will not be the last. Please see my other two articles on Prajnaparamitaic translation theory which discuss this reevaluation of the word “lies” in depth. My point here is that in fact these Lamas are NOT lying, precisely because their intention is not to be “historically accurate” in the academic sense. Rather, a Lama’s intention is to ameliorate the suffering of beings by channeling their realization into skillful uses of language and other tools, and this skillfulness is not bound by the same dualistic academic categories of “true” and “false.” And to further this point a bit more, as stated in my previous collaborative article with Repa Lama-la, another aspect of this blog is an experimental attempt at literary tulzhug chopa, which is precisely intended to use diction that intentionally ruffles feathers (what you might call “sensationalistic”) in order to catalyze more nuanced discussions– like this one you and I are having.

      I would liken this reevaluation of notion of “lies” (which also implies a reevaluation of notions of “truth”) to the reevaluation of the word “mad” throughout Indo-Tibetan Buddhist time and space. There are still great masters who take major issue with this use of the word “mad” (Tib. smyon pa, “nyonpa”), like the beloved and highly realized master, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, for instance. On the other hand, there are also great masters who wear the title “mad” loudly and with dignity, like Milarepa, Padampa Sangye, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and others. This furthers my point about the ability of different realized beings to use the same conceptual categories (in sometimes seemingly contradictory ways) in furtherance of the same skillful intention to affect transformation. From an academic standpoint, if Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche says using the word “nyonpa” is distasteful, while Milarepa happily calls himself a “nyonpa,” then one of them must be wrong. However, this is the very academic shortsightedness that this article is drawing attention to.

      Milarepa and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche are both intending to benefit beings, but their realization allows them to use skillful methods in differing ways–ways that might seem contradictory from the academic perspective but that are actually in complete congruence if one considers their deeper intention. When one drops this academic dualism and evaluated this seeming contradiction from the emic perspective of upaya, then both Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and Milarepa can both be correct despite appearing to contradict each other, because both have the realization to know what words to use in any given moment to best bring about the realization of their aspirations: to benefit their students according to their specific needs.

      Furthermore, I think that you may have slightly misunderstood my general argument here. In fact, this article is not polemicizing traditional narratives or a Lama’s right to repeat traditional narratives. This is precisely what this article seeks to defend–a Lama’s right to skillfully use tools that do not fit neatly into preconceived Western categories of truthfulness! Personally, I do not want to see academic historiographical methodologies taught in shedras because I think the skillfulness of traditional narratives far outweighs being historically “correct.” And this is precisely why I (playfully) use this word “lies”: because from a generalized academic perspective, some aspects of traditional narratives are “provably lacking in historicity.” However, this article is intended to argue that this academic obsession with “historical truth” completely overlooks the emic value in traditional narrative–namely, the skillful use of all phenomena to bring about transformation in students that assuages suffering and brings about liberation.

      Again, I sincerely thank you for your willingness to engage. Catalyzing discussions like this is one of the primary reasons I choose to write the way I do.

      May all beings benefit.



    • And for the record, my reevaluation of the word “lies” is partly inspired by the Omniscient Jigme Lingpa.

      In closing, I offer you this quote, translated in a previous article on this blog, in which the Omniscient One himself elaborates on the skillful use of lies:

      “. . . I am aware that differentiating between samsara and nirvana,

      Due to the magical display of awareness and ignorance, is a mistake.

      Yet, I am also saddened that the deceptive sorcerer of habitual tendency

      Continues to beguile [sentient beings].

      Aside from the ground expanse, with its six distinguishing characteristics,

      I realize that everything is a lie—a grand one.

      However, for the sake of guiding faithful disciples,

      Here I will illuminate my experience and realization…”


  2. Yeah, I think I understood your argument in the body of the article fine. I just feel the title is click-baity. I doubt anyone accused lamas in general of lying. Wasn’t your issue that a student said that his or her lama’s beliefs about Shri Simha coming from China could not be incorrect from an academic historical point of view because he “was Dzogchen?” [I guess that means he was either a great scholar of the Dzogchen literary tradition or omnicient?] Firstly, this is the student’s devotional perspective. Second, if the lama believes traditional accounts are authoritative, he is not “ameliorating the suffering of beings by channeling their realization into skillful uses of language.” I presume he is simply recounting his studies of the religious literature which he regards as authoritative.

    Years ago, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche created a stir when he published an account of history in The Necklace of Dzi that contradicted traditional Nyingma account of lineage history. As an outsider to Tibetan culture, it appears that these issues will come up more and more as more Himalayan lamas may receive a secular as well as a religious education and more Lamas, Khenpos and Geshes from non-Himalayan cultures emerge.

    On another topic, I would like to note that I did not find the article you cited by an anonymous author of the Dharma Fellowship website to be convincing. It looks like someone’s speculation. The author does not present adequate citations for his theory that the name Cina for Kinnaur was forgotten by the Tibetans and mistakenly applied to China at a later date. The website is not a peer-reviewed scholastic journal. It’s an interesting theory–that’s all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Yudron-la,

      Thank you again for your thoughtful response.

      No I was not taking issue at all with the student’s quoting of their Lama’s traditional narrative, as at the end of the article I explain how I too choose to follow traditional narratives (Re: Dampa Rinpoche being Kamalashila), nor was I trying to drfinitely claim that Shri Singha was from China or claim that the cited article was definitevly correct.

      Rather, I was using this as an example of A ) the seemingly contradictory nature of traditional versus academic/historical narratives on the surface (but which, as this article attempts to argue, however unsuccessfully, when looking below what appear to be surface contradictions, in fact the two can co-exist); and, B ) the unneccessary falling out between sangha members over something that, in my view, need not be taken offense to.

      My entire point is that we practitioners CAN follow traditional narratives even in the face of contradictory scholarship by recognizing that the two come from different epistemic systems with different underlying values and perspectives.

      Therefore, I absolutely encourage that student to stay devoted to their Lama’s traditional narrative. But I also encourage them to not take offense at those students who choose to cite academic narratives.

      My whole point of this article is that when faced with what at first appear to be irreconcilable differences between academic and traditional narratives, we tend to think that one must be “right” and one must be “wrong.” However, my argument is that what seem to be contradictions are actually two equally valid epistemic products tuat can co-exist side-by-side, simultaneously unresolved. And therefore, for those of us who straddle academic and traditional narratives, both can even co-exist in our minds, as I stay devoted to the traditional narrative (with its epistemic proccesses and values) that Dampa Sangye was Kamalashila AND accept from an academic perspective (with its own epistemic system based on falsification and empiricism) that he may not have been.

      I am absolutely not trying to favor one narrative over the other. I am simply saying that both pieces of knowledge (traditional or academic) come from their own contextual epistemic systems that are based on different values and therefore yield different outcomes.

      Nor am I arguing that Buddhist scholars do not put effort into trying to verify historicity and authority in a way similar to scholarship. There are plenty of examples of great Buddhist historians that went to great lengths to try to verify historical veracity (Taranatha comes to mind here). Rather, I am simply pointing out that while the two systems of historical verification (traditional and academic) might look the same on the surface, Buddhost scholars are working within the ontological system of two truths, while academics only work in what Buddhists would call relative truth and start from the assumption that the self and the self’s sense faculties are the ultimate judge of truth (ie. empiricism).

      So you’re right to assume that the student’s Lama probably did hold the China narrative to be authoritative. But that same Lama also no doubt has the realization to simultaneously realize the nature of ultimate truth which is beyond all dualities.

      This ability to accept “both, and” rather than “either, or” is at the root of my argument about Buddhist epistemology, and is at the heart of my playful reevaluatiom of the word “lies.”

      It really means a lot to me that you’ve taken this much time to discuss these matters. I have chosennot to further address the charge of “click-baitery” because that was absolutely not my intention and with all due respect I will not stop my contemplation and reevaluation of this word “lies.” But I’m also not saying you’re wrong. “Both, and” ❤

      May all beings benefit.



  3. I do not quite agree that upāya is beyond the duality of truth/falsity, as upāya is sa.mv.rti (not paramārtha; nor is it some category in between – I think that your “therefore”, in bold, may be a non sequitur); more importantly, it does not seem that Buddhist historians themselves follow the principle that you describe. Rather, they present evidence and discuss what they consider most plausible, even debating with other historians on points of detail. That their historical reconstruction differs from (most) modern academics is due to a different understanding of ontology and epistemology – as traditional scholars do not consider modern science to be the most accurate epistemic means, do not make strong generalizations from personal experience (as you did in reference to long life-span) and/or have a strong perspectivism regarding the common object of perception – all three points being scarcely compatible with your grounds to discard the identification of Phadampa Sangye Rinpoche as Kamalaśīla. Your comments on the possibility of a long life-span may indicate a very different philosophical framework (not compatible, for example, with Dharmakīrti’s pramā.na theory and its restrictions on the application of anupalabdhihetu; let alone Candrakīrti or others). I therefore disagree with your identification of the point of difference between academy and tradition, as well as with your proposed method of reconciliation. It is clever and ingenious, but does not seem plausible, nor compatible with whatever little I may know of the Buddhist sources. Nonetheless, glad to read your reflection and always ready to change my mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Jnaanagarbha Shikshaka,

      As I have said before, your input on these topics is invaluable, and I sincerely rejoice for having such educated readers and interlocutors (that goes for Yudron-la as well).

      Firstly, I certainly concede that, being a conceptual category, upaya is not ultimate truth in and of itself. However, there are many truths born of relative genesis that can be skillfully used to gesture towards the absolute (see, for instance, the highly compartmentalized teachings and systems related to Dzogchen, or the word “Dzogchen” itself, for that matter). However, I wholeheartedly reject both your and Candrakirti’s claim that upayic methods must agree with relative truth in order to be effective. To generalize (immensely) here, I think this distinction touches on some of the classic debates between what (on the surface) appear to be contradictions between Sutra and Tantra–the same “contradictions” that led Lha Lama Yeshe Od to call upon Atisha for clarification.

      Take, for instance, the highly contentious Nyingmapa rite of “liberation.” On the surface, this rite seems to employ methods that absolutely break relative categories based on Karma, Bodhisattva vows, and foundational tenets like ahimsa. Also take, for instance, vratacarya or tulzhug chopa. Many of the prescribed behaviors (which I will not repeat here for the sake of samaya), when viewed superficially, seem to transgress countless (relative) Mahayana categories based on Karma, virtue, and so forth. In “Words of My Perfect Teacher,” Patrul Rinpoche says (pg. 146 of my copy):

      ‘phags pa’iyulgyi dbang phyug phal mo che

      gdol pa g.yung po sdig spyod phal pa’i tshul

      nyams pa las kyang shin tu nyams paryod

      “The majority of Indian masters/Siddhas,

      In the manner of barbarians, outcastes, and common evil-doers,

      Were even more degenerate than the most defiled [people among them].”

      Regarding your second critique, re: Buddhist historians, I’ll start by conceding that I absolutely do not intend to argue that Buddhist historians abandon all concern for relative veracity and historicity. As I stated in my reply to Yudron-la above, Taranatha comes to mind as a perfect example of a highly realized Tantrika who went to great lengths to try to be as accurate in his historiography as possible. This is why I state that, from the Buddhist perspective, relative and ultimate are in equilibrium–meaning, they are both valued. However, I am simply pointing out that while Western scholars only work from the perspective of relative truth, Buddhist scholars have, as you aptly stated, a completely different epistemic system.

      Furthermore, I would challenge your categorization of “Buddhist Historians.” I’m sure this was not your intention, but the way you have stated your case appears to me to be highly reductionistic, overlooking the great heterogeny among Buddhist scholars throughout time and space–heterogeny that, for instance, led to the demise of Jonangpas like Taranatha and holders of the shentong (“Other Emptiness”) view. Furthermore, your claim seems to deny the coevalness of Buddhist historiography. I am a 21st century Buddhist historian and I do not follow your outlined methodology. There are countless other modern Buddhist historians who go to great lengths to debate each others’ claims and methodologies. Rather, the category you label as “Buddhist historians” seems to be a selective group of historians from particularly geo-historical context(s) (the geo-historical contexts in which you are most well versed). I would argue that the degree to which Buddhist historians and historiography is heterogenous makes any claims of homogenous methodology impossible.

      Returning to this question of the value of “lies” (or, to use more academic diction, “relative untruths”) in the skillful upayic methods of the Lama or Guru, I direct you to the Jigme Lingpa quote cited above in my response to Yudron-la. Or, for your convenience, I will copy it here:

      “. . . I am aware that differentiating between samsara and nirvana,

      Due to the magical display of awareness and ignorance, is a mistake.

      Yet, I am also saddened that the deceptive sorcerer of habitual tendency

      Continues to beguile [sentient beings].

      Aside from the ground expanse, with its six distinguishing characteristics,

      I realize that everything is a lie—a grand one.

      However, for the sake of guiding faithful disciples,

      Here I will illuminate my experience and realization…”

      This quote touches on the precise point that I am trying to make (however unsuccessful my attempt may be). From the perspective of ultimate truth, or at least, the Tibetan systems for accessing, realizing, and categorizing Ultimate Truth with which I am most familiar and into which I am initiated, all relative truth can be playfully called “a lie,” and “a grand one” at that! Therefore, all skillful upayic methods that utilize relative truth and its conceptual categories (in other words, all Dharmic teachings) are examples of the upayic value of “lies.”

      Before I finish, though, I’d like to give a few caveats and concessions. In relation to the tulzhug chopa behaviors referenced above, which prescribes behaviors like stealing, killing, and other “non-virtuous” activities, it is important to point out that (nearly) all important texts on the matter state that such behaviors should ONLY be practiced once a disciple has reached at least the level of “heat,” and should be practiced without regard for the Eight Worldly Concerns, and so forth. So I must concede that even these radically, transgressively non-dual methods have their own accompanying systems of relative truth that must be respected. I will also concede that I am not nearly as well-versed in Sanskritic philology and primary sources related to Sutric philosophy. However, despite my lack of expertise in these areas, as I stated above, the very same critiques and citations that your employ in this (wonderfully delicious) debate have been used throughout Indo-Tibetan Buddhist history to polemicize various aspects of Buddhist tantra, especially the more transgressive or radically nondual aspects of Tibetan Buddhist tantra. Therefore, I am also willing to concede that your interpretation is just as valid as I believe my own to be. This ability to accept “both/and” is one of the traits that I most respect about Indo-Tibetan Buddhist epistemology, and is replicated throughout history– in the Union of the Two Truths, in the Tibetan tendency to see Madhyamika and Yogacara as being in equilibrium, and even in the interpretation(s) that hold Sutra and Tantra to be congruent.

      I will also concede that my bolded “therefore” is definitely a non sequitur hahah. Will edit immediately!

      PS. I think I got an A on my exam. Thanks for your well wishes 🙂


      • Thank you for the reply. In future I shall mention more specifically which Buddhist historians I mean: in this case I was primarily thinking of Tārānātha and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

        To be frank, I do not understand how any of the examples, or quotes, you adduce would contradict the claim that relative truths should be valid relative truths to be effective upāya for realizing the ultimate – to me, those example, as well as many others from the mantra traditions, seem to confirm it indeed. But since this is a matter that relates to mantranaya, I cannot discuss it further. It was also not my contention that academics (i.e. historians such as those who would discard Phadampa Rinpoche’s lifespan) work only within conventional truths – I would rather say that, for the most, their epistemology is not based on a Buddhist two-truths level and is incompatible even at the level of conventions. However, it seems our perspective differs at some very basic level and on too many counts to find a clearer ground for discussion through the internet, thus I wish you well and leave further comments for other circumstances.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. P.S.:
    Two pertinent verses from Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra:

    bahirgatānāṃ na śivābhyupāyaḥ |
    bhraṣṭā hi te saṃvṛtitattvasatyāt
    tadbhraṃśataś cāsti na mokṣasiddhiḥ || 6.79

    upāyabhūtaṃ vyavahārasatyam
    upeyabhūtaṃ paramārthasatyam |
    tayor vibhāgaṃ na paraiti yo vai
    mithyāvikalpaiḥ sa kumārgayātaḥ | 6.80

    6.79 Those who have moved away from the path
    of the revered Ācāryanāgārjuna do not have auspicious means,
    because they are stray from the truth of conventional reality
    and straying from that, liberation cannot be accomplished.

    6.80 The truth of conventional transactions is the means,
    ultimate truth is what should be attained through the means;
    anyone who does not understand their distinction
    due to wrong concepts is going on a bad path.

    For verse 79 there could be an alternative reading of the syntax, but I leave it at this for the moment. The most important sentence is in this context: upāyabhūtaṁ vyavahārasatyam upeyabhūtaṁ paramārthasatyam “The truth of conventional transactions is the means, ultimate truth is what should be attained through the means”.


    • Thank you very much for your contribution, Jnaanagarbha. I look forward to finding the causes and conditions to have such discussions in more conducive mediums in the future (perhaps, face to face at some point!).

      May all beings benefit.


  5. Why (oh why) does the guru need to be perfect?

    With reference to the dispute of Samye Singha being born in India or China

    An attempt to explain:

    As I am not a scholar of either Sanskrit or Tibetan, I cannot enter a discussion on an informed research level. To put the egg before the chicken: why does it matter where this siddha was born? As I begin probing into personal or better psychological motivies here, it seems to be of major importance to be right and of course even more so that the teacher/guru is right. So why does that matter?

    As a human being we quite naturally cling to validation. This validation has to come from outside as we experience from our babyhood upwards. If we are well validated we can develop healthy self-esteem, healthy boundaries and so on and are able to validate ourselves as an adult. If not, we search for validation outside forever like hungry ghosts. Gurus/teachers can provide such validation.

    If the under-validated person now steps into the concept of guru devotion that may complicate the whole process quite a lot. In a western dualistic approach everything said is taken as absolute truth. The disciple tends to identify with the teacher’s words literally more than their intrinsic content. The guru becomes unquestionable and uncritiziable, a part of the self and therefore infallible. I doubt that this is the concept of guru devotion.

    Any teachers in this world are here but for one reason: They are not enlightened (as yet). They are not perfect. They are as human as we are. They may be qualified and/or accepted by us to guide us on our path but to take every word of the teacher as literal truth may be somehow far fetched.

    Having sailed the Indian subcontinent for a dozen years without a major break, I would like to point to the Asian understanding of the flexibility of truth against the more western concept of truth-versus-lie that leaves very little room in the middle to navigate in. The eastern version of guru devotion is to have faith in the guru to state facts to the best of his/her knowledge. If proven wrong in a detail, well, they are humans after all as well and fallible as such. That does not hamper the teacher or the disciple or their relationship. Tolerance is implemented and no one has lost faith or face.

    Our responsibility is to choose the teacher we can stick with through his/her possible mistakes. Nevertheless, the guru may employ skillful means in displaying mistakes in order to purify our defilements, as he does not have to prove himself right or be society/research compliant.

    So why then does it hurt so much if our teacher is wrong when it doesn’t hurt the teacher at all? It may not even matter to him at all.

    No, it hurts the disciples. It hurts their ego. It hurts their validation and it hurts their search for perfection outside of themselves! It may hurt their pride, as well. Negative emotions arise. So the practitioner turns outward and blocks the opponent?

    If the reason for being a vajrayana practitioner is to reach enlightenment for the sake of all sentient being, why does it matter at all if Samye Singha was born in China or India, if he has slit eyes or round eyes? I believe this question is totally without value in view of the above goal.

    My Kagyu root guru would have settled this issue in four words: Forget it. Go practice!

    May all sangha rejoice in the goodness and merit of each other, see the positive qualities, virtue and buddhanature of the other and ultimately forget to quarrel until all beings have reached enlightenment!

    Liked by 1 person

    • “No, it hurts the disciples. It hurts their ego. It hurts their validation and it hurts their search for perfection outside of themselves! It may hurt their pride, as well. Negative emotions arise. So the practitioner turns outward and blocks the opponent?”

      “My Kagyu root guru would have settled this issue in four words: Forget it. Go practice!”

      These points are so spot-on that it nearly brings tears to my eyes. You have approached this debate from a different yet wholly congruent angle as did I, although yours is much more concise and, dare I say, skillful (haha).

      For all the same reasons you cited above, I can accept that both traditional and academic narrative can co-exist in harmonious equilibrium, even when they directly “contradict” each other, because ultimately the traditional narrative is not based upon the same values as is the academic one, nor is it the product of the same epistemic processes.

      In that sense, I am perfectly content to follow my Guru’s narrative, traditional or otherwise, because I have faith that his use of words and narratives is intended to help me reach liberation and “progress” (another problematic Western concept) in my practice, regardless of whether his words fit neatly into the Western academic concept of “truth.”

      So on that point, Forget it! Go Practice!

      ❤ ❤ ❤


  6. Interesting point, jnaanagarbha, to apply the Two Truths to this topic. I really can’t address that, because I am not a Dharma scholar.

    What I am thinking about is my beloved older Tibetan lamas who repeatedly underscore the necessity for very pure faith and devotion in order for the practitioner to shift from having mere spiritual experiences into realization. For them, faith means believing that King Songtsen Gampo had Amitabha on top of his head (and nearly everything else recounted in the writings of the great masters.) While not holding that these traditional histories are “ultimately true,” they would worry about the spiritual welfare of those who do not wholeheartedly believe them. Even when there are contradictions within the same work, e.g. the Nyingma chojung by Kyabje Dudjom RInpoche—Guru Rinpoche’s 20th-century representative—says Nubchen Sangye Yeshe was a direct disciple of Guru Rinpoche, and at the same time presents the dates that he lived as being far later than Guru Rinpoche’s sojourn in Tibet.

    It raises the question of whether the Western education and cultivation of critical thinking create neural synapses that don’t exist in people raised in traditional pre-scientific cultures. I vividly recall an enlightened master who had had heart surgery in the U.S. talking about the traditional tantric placement of the heart literally in the middle of the chest. Clearly, that is where he experienced his meat heart, even though his scars were to the left of the midline. He was able to hold both of those realities in his mind without any sense of contradiction. While I can readily accept that there is an invisible energetic heart centered at the midline of my chest, my mind registers a disconnect when I try to situate my flesh heart there.

    Is this neural patterning the cause of my unenlightenment?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really appreciate these points, Yudron-la, and agree with each of them.

      This question about “neural pathways” mirrors an exact conversation I was having with a friend today, although you have chosen biological diction whereas I used anthropological diction, referring to “enculturation.” But I think both are gesturing towards the same fact (certainly enculturation could be seen as a process of establishing “appropriate’ or “accepted” neural pathways or conceptual relations within a society) that students who have been raised in Western knowledge systems find it very difficult to allow seeming contradictions to co-exist without need of reconciliation (proving one to be “more right” than the other).

      Your anecdote about the traditional anatomy systems is apt.

      Sarva mangalam


    • Although I am not sure as to whether your post was going in that direction, let me start by saying that I do not believe, not even one bit, in the existence of a cultural divide between “West” and “East”. I consider that assumption to be wrong at many levels, and at worst a self-fulfilling prophecy that impedes understanding between human beings. If the word “culture” has to make any sense (and I am not sure of this), it should be a flexible category to be handled with care and by being perceptive about specific context.

      I think anyone trained in pramā.na and/or Madhyamaka, and purporting to be convinced of their tenets, should have little difficulty in accepting the plausibility that a great practitioner might have Amitābha on his head, or that you may have two drastically different historical accounts of the same event. Both points do not relate to a greater or lesser flexibility in respect to the law of non-contradiction (which is one of the basic parameters through which the Buddhist traditions *almost universally* evaluate something as Buddhavacana); they rather relate to different understandings of causal and perceptual processes, of what is meant by “mind”, and of how mind affects causation or shared perception. These, in my opinion, are the genuine differences, and key points of the view, which have been missed in the initial post. I do not believe that resorting to ideas like “cultural difference” has much explanatory value, and I somehow dislike it explains away rather than explain the problem. My own personal preference is to employ ideas from within the Buddhist tradition and avoid, or minimize, academic jargon.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Let me rephrase this in another way:
        the point is not which culture (“East” or “West”) one comes from. The point is one’s philosophical outlook, which here means one’s outlook on reality and how he know it, not necessarily an explicitly avowed philosophical position. More specifically, that depends on one’s relationship to some idea of “modern science” and how much one is invested in it. This has no clear-cut or even geographical distribution, and many who consider themselves paladins of Western civilizations (such as numerous Christian groups) have a difficult relationship with modern science, while many Asians are strongly committed to science as the highest form of human knowledge. As for the academic/practitioners divide, academics in the humanities should feel no pressure to keep any level of allegiance to modern science – indeed the humanities has been and should be the institutional space where alternatives to, and critiques of, a scientific framework can be articulated. A Buddhist practitioner, even if working as an academic, has no obligation to develop an implicit trust in modern science. Human beings should be allowed to think.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “As for the academic/practitioners divide, academics in the humanities should feel no pressure to keep any level of allegiance to modern science – indeed the humanities has been and should be the institutional space where alternatives to, and critiques of, a scientific framework can be articulated. A Buddhist practitioner, even if working as an academic, has no obligation to develop an implicit trust in modern science. Human beings should be allowed to think.”

        I could not agree more. Thank you again for your thoughtful contribution.


  7. Speaking as a practitioner, not a scholar, I strongly believe that truth, experience, and reason should be the arbiters for all claims. Buddha’s method is seeing reality, not wrapping one’s self in a thick, warm blanket of mythology.

    In this I can see a precedent in the Foremost Lama Je Tsongkhapa’s argument in “Essence of Eloquence” that statements from sutra which cannot withstand analysis cannot represent the Buddha’s final meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. In the Indian tradition, one does not seek the origin of rivers or yogis. Because their ‘present’ greatness is all that matters. And their beginnings and point of origin are of little avail to their state of being and self realization, as they operate and exist in a state that is beyond all conceptualization of the mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is an interesting point of view, Mr. Pawar ji. Although this perspective is different in important ways from the one articulated herein, I think it gestures towards a similar idea–namely, that it is the yogin’s skillful ability to guide us fallible beings to liberation that is most important in these matters.

      Thank you for your participation.

      Sarva mangalam.


  9. As an analogy a Bodhisattva named Purified of All Flying Fucks takes up the life of a wandering mendicant. Abandoning his home and all the familiar cultural trappings and attachments of his land he travels the single sphere, along the way learning various medicinal and mantric techniques for relieving the suffering of sentient beings. In his travels he arrives in a strange new land. Lets call this land Anihc-land. There he learns that once upon a time in order to save the people from a vast famine a great Siddha taught the people a secret receipt for making bread without grain, in its place using the seeds and leaves of a special herb that grew only in the mountains of Anihc-land. Purified of All Flying Fucks Bodhisattva was not particularly interested in this countries history of bread making. However, in his wandering he had come to learn that this special herb when burnt as a sang offering cures diseases of the eyes and purifies vision. So he cultivated a supply of the pure eye herb, enjoyed the bread of that country and continued on in his travels. Savoring his experience in the country, he still did not once turn back with attachment or longing to settle and return to the comfort of worldly life.

    Passing over a treacherous , frigid and desolate mountain pass the Bodhisattva arrived in another strange new country. Lets call this country AidnI-land. There he learns that once apon a time in order to save the people from a vast famine, a great Sidddha taught the people a secret receipt for making bread without grain. In its place they were to use the seeds and leaves of a special kind of herb that grew only in the mountains of AidnI-land. The Bodhisattva Purified of All Flying Fucks thought to himself – Wow. That sure sounds familiar! But with little concern for worldly affairs he paid no mind to the similar tale of that country. The reason for his travels to this country had been that he had learned that the herbs of that country when burnt in a sang offering greatly magnified the faculty of speech and increased the efficacy of healing mantras. So Bodhisattva Purified of All Flying Fucks cultivated a supply of the healing speech herbs, enjoyed the bread of that country, savored his experience and traveled on.

    Returning through the mountainous pass from which he came the bodhisattva came across two caravans that had set up came together for the night. One was from AidnI-land and one was from Anihc-land. The merchants of each caravan drank and boasting merrily about their home lands. Seeing the wandering mendicant they offered him bread, meat and wine and bid him to stay in their camp for the night. With his offering one of the merchants began to recount how once in a time of famine following a great war, a great saint arose and blessed his noble people, saving them from death and starvation. The other merchant jumped up and drunkenly shouted ” Liar! This is the heritage of my people! Siddha such and such was of our land!” The two men began to quarrel. Greatly alarmed by what he had learned and the quarrel that was now happening before his eyes the bodhisattva said ” fuck this shit!” and fled the camp, traveling high into the mountains. Finding a hermits cave near the peak of the mountain he sat down. ” How can it be that these people perpetuate ignorance and division when in truth their worlds are a vast field of blessing, equal and without differentiation? I will use the herbs I have collected and at dawn perform a sang offering to purify the land.”

    Performing the sang offering at dawn and burning the pure eye herbs and the healing speech herbs he uttered these words as mantra. “From this mountain peak amid the clouds the land in all directions appears flat, like the palm of a hand. Let all beings abandon the discrimination of name, place and adobe. If emanations of the blessed one appear in the south, let beings travel there and cultivate the treasures and teachings of that pure land. If emanations of the blessed one appear in the north, east or west, let beings travel there and cultivate the treasures and teachings of those pure lands. May they realize that all lands through out the trichillocosm are in fact false yet vividly they appear, thusly they are in fact equal and without division, like the sky. May the beings of this land come to know that great beings manifest in a multitude of locations and under a multitude of appellations out of compassions for beings who are mired in discrimination. Thusly manifesting in the world they are able to lead beings to the perfect peace that is far beyond discriminative thought. By the blessings of the great mother and her sons the victors, may it be so.”

    That morning the people of AidnI-land and Anihc-land both saw miraculous displays radiating from the mountain top. Wondrous scents filled the air, heavenly music was heard and a great vision of the legendary Siddha was seen levitating above the mountain top, from his heart sending out emanations into the ten directions. The people of both lands simultaneously generated the same thought ” What is the cause of these miraculous displays?” Scaling the mountain the people of each land arrived at the cave of the famed Siddha to investigate. At that time the bodhisattva had already departed, escaping through the sky to continue his travels. Left written in the dirt of the cave floor were the worlds.


    Signed- Zero Fucks Bodhisattva.

    Liked by 1 person

    • May all beings, without a single exception, swiftly realize the state of “Fucking Over It” and purify the seven categories of fucks (flying, swimming, walking, thinking, seeing, saying, and hearing) in this very lifetime!

      May the teachings of Mahasiddha Purified of all Flying Fucks arise where they have not arisen; and where they have already arisen, mau they only increase and never deteriorate.

      E ma ho!


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