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Alex Hubbard 2009-05-30

Dear David,

how very interesting, thank you. I look forward to hearing more, if more is forthcoming. On the other side of the coin, if you are interested to learn more concerning the history of the scholarly relationship to Buddhism in the West, I can recommend ‘The Cult of Nothingness: The Philosophers and the Buddha’ by Roger-Pol Droit. It begins with a brief summary of the centuries preceeding the 19th and goes into detail concerning the period ending around 1890, as such it covers some really fascinating material explaning the origin of the historical inaccuracies, prejudices and misunderstandings of Buddhism (Hegel stands out so far as the major source for the propagation of the ‘annihilationist’ view of Nirvana). His overall thesis is that Buddhism became the basis for a great deal of projection regarding the social changes taking place in Europe at that time, especially worries concerning nihilism and atheism. As David L. Roy pointed out in his review of the book, it seems that the West continues to use Buddhism for its own ends, albeit from a more positive (though with a no less neutering) perspective. Justifying current metaphysics and theories of the human, contemporary interpretations of Buddhism centre around ideas of self-help and therapeutic applications, prompting the question: will Western practitioners and their respective teachers ever allow Dharma in the West to be ‘as it is’?

All the best, Alex.

Using Buddhism for our own ends

David Chapman 2009-05-30

Hi, Alex,

I’m not planning to write more about Buddhist history, I’m afraid. (I can try and answer questions if they come up.) I do plan to write a series of pages about Buddhism’s future, however.

One of my major themes will be the relevance of Continental philosophy to Buddhism’s future. So the book you recommend is highly relevant—thank you very much!

As for your last bit: I would like to say “yes, but.” There is a big danger of our missing the point. But there is also a danger of supposing that Buddhism has some unchanging, Asian essence, which we have to preserve “as it is.” History shows that Buddhism has changed radically, many times, as different cultures have used it for their own ends. Whatever we now take to be authentic was once a wildly controversial extrapolation. Buddhism has not only changed internally in response to changing social needs, it has been in fruitful dialog with other intellectual and religious movements throughout its history. No one ever wanted to admit this, but it is inextricably syncretic.

Vajrayana is a case in point. Buddhist and Hindu Tantra are so similar that it has always seemed they must have a single origin. The research described in Davidson’s first book strongly suggests that Buddhism got Tantra from Hinduism, rather than versa, or their co-developing it. Apparently, Tantra was imported suddenly, not for religious reasons, but in response to a financial crisis that Buddhism faced due to a sudden political regime change. But then, as Tantra became part of Buddhism, it was transformed.

We have to use Buddhism for our own ends, or we won’t use it at all. That has always and everywhere been true, and adaptability is one reason the religion has done as well as it has.

So . . . The psychotherapeutic and New Age appropriations of Buddhism look like hideous distortions now, but something good may yet come of them. I don’t want to go that way; but that’s because I don’t like psychotherapeutic or New Age culture, not because I think hybridization is anathema.

Another point that might be relevant is a musical analogy. Mastery is usually a prerequisite to innovation. Usually it is only after someone has mastered the existing discipline that they are able to bring forth something that is both new and valuable. Attempting any sort of Buddhist-Western synthesis without having mastered a traditional Buddhist lineage seems dubious.



As it is

Alex Hubbard 2009-05-30

David, thanks for your response. I like your positive appraisal of the current ‘psychotherapeutic and New Age appropriations of Buddhism’; I must admit I had not considered that something good might come of them for Buddhism, though I had presumed that individuals utilising Buddhist practices for psychotherapeutic ends gained something thereby. Your last point is, in fact, was what I was alluding to with my final comment rather than a suggestion that Buddhism as we have inherited it is the authentic form of the tradition, though my point was not made clear. What I meant was that Buddhism ‘as it is’ contains the radical component of providing methods for realisation of the non-dual state, and so presumably opens the door to more profound, and ultimately more beneficial possibilities for individuals and society than the self-help therapeutic interpretation, and so it is that component that should be explored, even if other uses are found.

I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts on the role of Continental philosophy and Buddhism; I hope to deepen my own exploration of this issue over the next few years. More specifically, recently I am wondering if there isn’t furtile ground, both academically and in terms of public knowledge, in the cross-over between phenomenology/existentialism and the Philosophy of Religion. For example through the works of Martin Buber (especially ‘I and Thou’), and those of Emmanuel Levinas. Buber has had both an academic (mainly European), and a cultural impact as he was/is seen as an existentialist thinker. Levinas is less well known but his interests cross the divide between phenomenology, existentialism and religion, opening up that discourse as an area to which Buddhism could offer an excellent contribution.

One final point. I once read the Dalai Lama as having stated that realised Western practitioners are what’s needed in the West in order to provide the ‘gold standard’ so as to secure the ‘currency’ of the Buddhist tradition as a whole, and its future in our part of the world. Sounds about right to me.

All the best,

Levinas, Buddhism, Will Buckingham

David Chapman 2009-05-30

Yes—Amen to all that! Sorry to have distorted your point.

I don’t know if you know that Will Buckingham, the author of the wonderful thinkBuddha blog, is studying Levinas in relationship to Buddhism. He mentions that here.

May we all realize Buddhism sufficiently that it continues to benefit future generations!


What people do versus what many academics like to study

Ngakpa Namgyal 2009-05-30

I’m not totally sold on the idea that ‘Western historians are. . . trying to create a more objective history’. Most academics are trying to write things that will get positive peer review, which get them placed in better publications, and increase their ability to obtain research grants. In doing so they seek also to explore that which fits with their general hypothesis about whatever subject matter they are studying. Due to the rules of academic investigation, what they produce might end up being ‘more objective’, but in my experience ‘improving objective study’ is rarely the goal. Also ‘more objective’ seems impossible to me - something is either objective or not. . .

That bit of pedantry on my part aside, in the study of religions there are various interesting branches. Purist academic text-based religious studies has its roots in the theological examinations of texts from the Judeo-Christian religions. They are text based, and therefore tend to focus on ‘that which is written down’. In doing so, they tend also to try to find the earliest version of what was written down, and tend also to buy into the notion that they earliest version is somehow the best, or purest. This finds support from those philologists who are interested in the roots of language. The affect of this in terms of Buddhist study is that straight-down-the-line philologists and relgious studies specialists end up drawn to monastic instutions. Samuel, who currently teaches locally in Cardiff, takes more of an anthropological approach. He is more interested in what people actually do, as opposed to what is written down. If you sit in a cafe by the stupa in Bodha, you can learn a lot about what Tibetan Buddhists actually do. Most Buddhists are not monastic. They are Buddhism, in a very real sense. Their history is rarely recorded.

In terms of history - the joy of Dzogchen, is that the focus is always pragmatic and functional. I would imagine that the Dzogchen view of history would be that the more appropriate version of history is ‘that which increases the reader’s inclination toward greater openness and kindness’ - whatever its degree of objectivity.

In terms of the future - I would predict that the future form of vajrayana will be influenced by the same two things its history has been influenced by - political expediency on the one hand (the source of the uglier parts of our history) and the accomplishments of dedicated practitioners on the other. I guess the most important thing about the future of vajrayana, is that we - today’s practitioners - are it. What we do now, and why we do it, will shape that future. I find that exciting; terrifying; and humbling, all at once. Thanks for your website - keep up the sterling work - and - thank you for allowing me to indulge in another ramble!


Practice, academic study and history

Rin'dzin 2009-06-01

Dear Namgyal,

I may have misinterpreted your comment, I am very sorry if so.

I understood you as suggesting two points:

  1. That there are different ways to approach Vajrayana (or any religion). A historical study of tradition is one way. An ethnographic study of practice would be another. Experiencing the meaning of the tradition through life as a practitioner is another.

  2. That these approaches are fundamentally incommensurable. (That seems to be on a par with your first paragraph, ending: “something is either objective or not…”)

I would like to think that this is not the case – that I might combine an understanding of the historical formation of tradition, and its visionary history with my own Vajrayana practice and they could inform each other. I am more familiar with practice and visionary history than I am with the political, social and economic origins of Vajrayana. For that reason, the above article seems helpful in its pointers to the pitfalls and recommended places to start.

I appreciate that an academic approach will not be to everyone’s taste. However, exploring our history and its continual reinvention according to cultural circumstances could be useful to help understand Vajrayana now.

I too am interested in anthropological approaches. Sherry Ortner has written an interesting historical ethnography of the founding of Sherpa Religious Institutions, which gives some insight into the relationships between monastic and non-monastic traditions in the 19th and early 20th century. Although fairly academic in style, it’s also a good yarn, and can be found in “Culture through time,” ed. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, p57 – 93. (Stanford: Stanford Univeristy Press.) Unlike much in the anthropological historiography of non-Western religions, she mostly avoids using Judeo-Christian concepts and terminology in her analysis.

All the best,


Dark Age or Golden Age?

David Chapman 2009-06-02

Here is an example of how objective history may be important to us as Buddhists, and in shaping the future of Buddhism. It suggests an answer to the question “can Buddhism be successful without any monastic institutions at all?”

According to traditional Tibetan history, as written since about 1050, the period 842-978 was the Tibetan “Dark Age.” Buddhism was firmly established in Tibet a century earlier by Padmasambhava, King Trisong Deutsen, Shantarakshita, and others. That was the glorious Imperial Period. Buddhism was destroyed in 842 when the Tibetan Empire collapsed. During the Dark Age, only bad things happened, and they were so bad that hardly any historical records were kept. Buddhism was only re-introduced into Tibet in the “Second Spread”, starting around 978.

A very different story is emerging from study of documents rediscovered in the Dunhuang library. These include an enormous number of Tibetan works from the Dark Age, most of which have not been read in a thousand years. Jacob Dalton, who wrote the thesis I described above, has been working on them with Sam van Schaik (who writes the very interesting earlyTibet blog). Most of the material still has not been read, so conclusions are tentative. And I am not qualified to evaluate the accuracy of the historical work. However, according to this line of research, it appears that:

The so-called “Dark Age” was more like a Golden Age—for Vajrayana Buddhism. What was destroyed in 842 was monastic Buddhism. Freed from monastic and government constraints, Vajrayana flourished. It was, perhaps, Vajrayana’s finest period. Among other things, Dzogchen appears to have been developed then. In any case, according to Dalton, “the Tibetans who emerged from the dark period were far more Buddhist than the Tibetans who entered it.” (“Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 124:4, 2004.)

The “Dark Age” ended when monastic institutions were re-imported from India, and given control of Buddhism by royal decree. Once that had been done, the history of the past couple hundred years became inconvenient. The religious history of the Imperial period was re-written, and the history of the “Dark Age” was suppressed. (But earlier versions of events survived at Dunhuang.)

The objective history was inconvenient to two groups for opposite reasons. It was inconvenient for the non-monastic Nyingma because the Dark Age was a period of extraordinary innovation, which was seen as a no-no when more conservative approaches gained power. It became necessary to pretend that all the new material actually came from India, much earlier, with Padmasambhava and others. That required substantial re-writing of history of the Imperial period, to suggest that Vajrayana was much better established then than it actually was. The objective history was also inconvenient for the Sarma monastic institutions, because Buddhism had done so well without them. So, it seems likely, the Sarma and Nyingma collaborated to suppress these inconveniences.

In terms of inspiration for our individual practice, it doesn’t matter whether or not there really was a Golden Age, in which tantric heroes did great deeds. The vision of a Golden Age—whether we locate it in the era of the 84 Mahasiddhas, or the Imperial Period of Padmasambhava, or in the so-called Dark Age—can be powerful motivation to practice.

What objectively happened in the Dark Age matters for the future, however. Some prominent Western Buddhists are now arguing that the reason Buddhism is “not working” (in their opinion) in the West is that we do not have strong monastic institutions. They suggest that Buddhism has never succeeded anywhere without monastic institutions, which are the core of the religion.

We have to decide what Buddhist institutions to support. Should Westerners devote our money, time, and political energy toward creating Western monasteries? If it is true that Buddhism cannot survive without then, then probably yes. But the Tibetan “Dark Age” may be a strong counter-example. If Buddhism did better in Tibet without monasteries, we should support non-monastic institutions instead. Perhaps we are entering the Second Golden Age of Vajrayana.

So actual facts—did Buddhism in fact flourish in the “Dark Age”? Was Dzogchen developed then? How strong or weak were Sutric and Tantric institutions during the Imperial Period, really? What effect did the re-establishment of monasticism have on actual Buddhist practice in the decades after 978?—matter.


Good list. Be nice to make

Greg 2011-02-24

Good list. Be nice to make this a really comprehensive account of resources for understanding Nyingma tantra and Dzogchen from a contemporary historical-critical perspective. Extremely illuminating indeed for practitioners.

To that end I would add:

1) Germano’s dissertation (Poetic thought - The Tantric synthesis of Dzogs Chen) and his “Architecture and Abscence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection.” in Journal of the International Assodation of Buddhist Studies 17.2

2) Germano, David F. (2007). “The shifting terrain of the tantric bodies of Buddhas and Buddhists from an Atiyoga perspective”. In The Pandita and the Siddha: Tibetan Studies in Honour of E. Gene Smith, ed. Ramon Prats. Amnye Machen Institute.

3) Sam van Schaik’s “The Early Days of the Great Perfection” in the JIABS 27.1

4) Dalton, Jacob (2005). “A Crisis of Doxography: How Tibetans Organized Tantra during the 8th-12th Centuries”. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28:1: 115–181.

5) Butters’ dissertation “The Doxographical Genius of Kun mkhyen kLong chen rab byams pa”

6) Garson’s dissertation “Penetrating the Secret Essence Tantra: Context and Philosophy in the Mahayoga System”

7) Jann Michael Ronis’ dissertation “Celibacy, Revelations, and Reincarnated Lamas: Contestation and Synthesis in the Growth of Monasticism at Katok Monastery from the 11th through 19th Centuries” UVA 2009

8) “Gregory Alexander Hillis’ dissertation “The Rhetoric of Naturalness: A Critical Study of the gNas lugs mdzad” UVA 2003

9) van Schaik’s page:

10) “A Comparative Study of the alaya-vijnana as Seen from the Yogacara and Dzogchen Perspectives” David F. Germano and William Waldron. In Buddhist Thought and Applied Psychological Research: Transcending the Boundaries, ed. Nauriyal, D.K.; Drummond, Michael S.; Lal, Y. B.



Oh and The Early Development

Greg 2011-02-25

Oh and

The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibétain 307
Author(s): Jacob Dalton
Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 124, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 2004), pp. 759- 772

Historical resources

David Chapman 2011-02-25

Thanks, Greg, that’s a fabulous list!

Some I knew, but many are new to me. I’ll enjoy reading them over the next while. It’s great that so much is available online!

Most practitioners probably won’t want to read these kinds of academic works. It could be really valuable for someone to explain the implications of these kinds of historical studies for regular Tibetan Buddhists.

Ngakpa Ögyen Dorje and I are doing a little of that on our Ngakpa Update site—concentrating particularly on the role of Tantra in the so-called Dark Age, and its implications for Vajrayana’s future. Neither of us are professional Tibetologists, though, so we’re confining this analysis and presentation to a quite narrow subject area.

The issues around authority to speak are quite daunting. Western Tibetology, Vajrayana, and Tibetan culture all have rigorous, conflicting criteria for who can say what. Perhaps no one is qualified—and thus no one says anything.

I’ve no idea how you are situated; but if you think you can draw out some practical implications of the history, for current Western practitioners, I’d encourage you to do that.



I'm not so sure - I think

Greg 2011-02-25

I’m not so sure - I think most reasonably intelligent practitioners are interested in this information and would be receptive to it. Although I certainly agree that it can be quite jarring and usually requires some degree of cognitive readjustment.

As far as qualifications go, I have none. For me, as a practitioner, there were two main gateway drugs to Buddhist studies info - Ryan’s “Vajrayana Research Resource” over at, and the “Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism” series by Wisdom Publications established by the late great Gene Smith. Having unfettered access (as you do) to a university library and ILL, it was off to the races from there. At this point I’ve spent the last few years compiling a massive database of material across all areas of Buddhist Studies.

Given the nature of the internet and age we live in, information inevitably disseminates more and more widely. Wikipedia articles on all sorts of topics are steadily improving, and a lot of people will get exposure that way. There is no avoiding this stuff anymore even for those who want to.

Buddhism has sold itself in the west as compatible with science and modernity, and now its time to put the money where the mouth is even if it hurts a little. Personally, I think the end result will be much better for it.

Saw the Ngakpa Update site - looks good. Looking forward to future posts.

A few more: van Schaik, Sam &

Greg 2011-02-28

A few more:

van Schaik, Sam & Jacob Dalton. 2004. “Where Chan and Tantra Meet: Buddhist Syncretism in Dunhuang,” in The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith. London: British Library Press.

“Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 124:4, 2004

Martin, Dan “Illusion Web: Locating the Guhyagarbha Tantra in Buddhist Intellectual History.” In Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History. Journal of the Tibet Society. Christopher Beckwith, ed. Bloomington: The Tibet Society, pp. 175-220. 1987.

  1. “The Conjunction of Chinese Chan and Tibetan rDzogs chen Thought: Reflections on the Tibetan Dunhuang Manuscripts IOL Tib J 689-1 and PT 699″, in: Contributions to the Cultural History of Early Tibet (extra volume to Studies in Central and East Asian Religion), Matthew T. Kapstein/Brandon Dotson (eds.), Leiden/Boston: Brill, 239-301.

Don't know how i overlooked

Greg 2011-02-28

Don’t know how i overlooked this one:

“The Development of Perfection: The Interiorization of Buddhist Ritual in the Eighth
and Ninth Centuries.” In Journal of Indian Philosophy 32.1 (2004): 1-30.

Also worth checking

Greg 2011-02-28

Also worth checking out:

“Recreating the Rnying ma School: The Mdo dbang Tradition of Smin grol gling.” Jacob Dalton, In Bryan Cuevas and Kurtis Schaeffer, eds., Power, Politics, and the Reinvention of Tradition in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Tibet. Leiden: Brill

“Lighting the Lamp: An Examination of the Structure of the Bsam gtan mig sgron.” Jacob Dalton and Sam van Schaik. In Acta Orientalia, vol. 64 (2003): 153-175.

Thanks, Greg.

Rin'dzin 2011-03-08

Fantastic set of links, Greg. Thank you very much.


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