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.
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
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.
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.
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 Shes 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.