Archive for the ‘Presentations’ Category

Opening Chants

The International Conference on Tengyur Translation in the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda

The conference began on January 8th with chants offered in three languages: Pali, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. Students at the Central University of Tibetan Studies are now able to study Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Hindi, as well as other modern languages. Recently awarded university status (2009), the institution was established in 1967 and is now directed by Geshe Ngawang Samten, who played a key role in the proceedings of this conference. The previous director, Samdong Rinpoche, was also present and gave a speech as the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The university was an excellent host for the conference, despite the pervasive cold, and I’m sure everyone especially appreciated all the students and staff who helped provide hot tea and crackers each day. The tech staff also had their hands full as many people chose to prepare PowerPoint presentations. Even with the power going out daily they kept things running rather smoothly.

Shrikant Bahulkar oversaw the opening ceremonies and participants heard welcoming words from Geshe Ngawang Samten, Tenzin Bob Thurman, HH Gaden Tri Rinpoche, and others. After the opening speeches, and tea to warm us up, we heard from Tom Yarnall, Christian Wedemeyer and Paul Hackett. The topic of this opening session was to be an overview of the Tengyur, it’s history, composition, and so forth. From Dr. Wedemeyer we heard more about the history and formation of the Tengyurs and from Dr. Hackett we heard details of the composition of the various Tengyurs. From Dr. Yarnall we received an interesting argument that basically presented the particular way in which it seemed the conference conveners were conceiving of their project to “Translate the Tengyur.”  The argument relied upon an interesting way of conceiving of Tibetan Buddhism and clearly described why the translation of the Tengyur is important and relevant to today’s scholars. What we heard was an introduction to one way of talking about the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as preserving the ancient Indian academic world of Nālandā, Vikramaśīlā, and so forth. Although I cannot repeat all of Yarnall’s discussion here, similar logic was presented on the official Tengyur Translation Website and it is worth repeating because it is interesting to note the kind of rhetoric used:

(1) That although the great Indian institutions such as Nālandā, Vikramaśīlā, and so on were ostensibly run by Buddhists, they were not only (or even primarily) Buddhist religious institutions; that they rather were multi-cultural, multi-tradition, cosmopolitan institutions, and hence true “universities” (as also argued by S. Dutt, L. Joshi, and others); (2) That as such, the many centuries of Buddhist arts/sciences developed in these institutions and recorded in the Sanskrit śāstras compiled therein took place in a vibrant, contentious, multi-tradition milieu in which each point had to be argued and defended; i.e., this was not a context such as Tibet (or other “Buddhist countries”) in which Buddhists were speaking virtually exclusively with other Buddhists, and thus could take for granted at least some common assumptions, perspectives, methodologies, and so on (rather, no premise or point could be taken for granted in the Indian context); (3) That therefore the Tengyur—as the repository of many of these śāstras (in Tibetan translation) which record the discourse that occurred in such a pluralistic environment very similar to our own contemporary, multi-cultural global environment—is uniquely important and relevant today (indeed, HH noted that in this way it may be even more relevant/accessible than many of the texts in the Kangyur); and (4) That therefore, the translation of the Tibetan Tengyur into modern languages and the publication of well-edited and annotated editions of these translations should be a prime priority for contemporary Buddhist scholars and institutions. (Taken from the official Tengyur Translation Website)


Dr. Yarnall (University of Columbia)

In his talk, Dr. Yarnall described the great academic institutions of ancient India in some detail, and linked their achievements with the texts preserved in the Tibetan Tengyur. He also presented a quote from the Dalai Lama in which he identifies himself as holding the tradition of Nālandā and not particularly that of the Mahāyāna or Varjayāna. Perhaps I am simply ignorant of this trend in the discourse, but I found it very interesting that the Dalai Lama and others who are scholars, students and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism were associating themselves so strongly with their idea(l) of Nālandā University. Every participant at the conference was given a new CUTS publication, a poem by the Dalai Lama praising the Seventeen Pandits of Nālandā, published in Tibetan, Chinese, English and Hindi. The overall effect of this, along with Dr. Thurmans interjections, was the sense that the real reason for translating the Tengyur is that it is supposed to be a faithful source for understanding the “scientific” tradition of Nālandā, which in turn is representative of an “authentic” Indian culture whose “inner sciences” pacified the barbarian lands of central and east Asia and will likewise pacify the West. Note also that the AIBS publication series is titled a “Treasury of Buddhist Sciences.” I personally rather like the idea of ancient liberal arts colleges producing texts on the inner and outer sciences of India and I like pushing the ideal of a modern pluralistic environment of scholarly debate. However, even disregarding the liberal use of the term “science,” I was left with the feeling that there is probably more to the story. I have not researched the actual evidence we have for reconstructing the scholastic culture of Nālandā, but perhaps someone reading this could post some more information about it online.



Dr. Wedemeyer (University of Chicago)

Dr. Wedemeyer provided a nuanced look at the idea of “the Tengyur.” He began with the now famous joke about the student who angrily told a theologian, “If the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, It’s good enough for me!” Which might now be rendered in our context as, “If the Dege edition of the Kangyur and Tengyur were good enough for the Buddha, they’re good enough for me.” I doubt many scholars or translators have the exact same thinking with regard to the Tengyur or Kangyur, but a lack of understanding about the complexity of the development of these collections, and their content, seems to be widespread.

The many Tengyurs are collections of texts that developed over considerable amounts of time in various places in Tibet. The library at Nālandā did not have a “Tengyur” section. It is not until centuries after Nālandā’s heyday that we begin to see the creation of Kangyurs and Tengyurs in Tibet. Dr. Wedemeyer described the Tengyur more as a genre than a fixed set of scripture. In his opening remarks, Wedemeyer said, “The distinction between Kangyur and Tengyur is itself a relatively late construction, the two were probably not distinguished before the production of the circa 1310 Old Narthang Manuscript Kangyur. That is, the very existence of the Tengyur as a separate collection from that of the Kangyur is itself a human choice, one which we may chose to follow or not. Furthermore, it would seem that the idea… the concept of a collection of writings of Indian authors distinct from the revealed Sutras and Tantras appeared before anyone thought to physically prepare this collection separately from the (?) literature. The earliest records of a Tengyur found so far seems to be sometime after 1270 by o rgyan pa rin chen dpal, who notably speaks of Tengyurs in the plural. In the following century this mode of organizing Buddhist literature took off. We read of the textual transmission, the lung, of the Kangyur and Tengyur being given around Sakya in 1300. Later a Golden Tengyur was produced in Sakya in 1322-24. And most famously perhaps, Bu ston consecrated the Zhwa lu Tengyur in 1335….Very recently two Tengyur catalogs composed by the 3rd Karmapa have come to light, whose content and whose structure vary significantly from alternative redactions….Tengyurs were often both marked by local character, individualistic productions reflecting the tastes and allegiances of their authors, and open ended, works were added and subtracted at various times in their histories….As an aside, the Kalacakra was occasionally included in the Tengyur. Bu ston notes this in his Zhwa lu Tengyur catalog, but argues that its inclusion in the Tengyur is auspicious. And so one might regard as auspicious the inclusion of a translation of part of the Kalacakra by Vesna Wallace, which inaugurates the AIBS Tengyur publication series…

The formation of the Tibetan Tengyurs is not a simple story and so the translation—or perhaps we should speak of the “creation” of a ” Western Tengyur,” for it most certainly will be a creative production—will not be a simple story. The formation of some of the texts in the Tengyur are not simply a matter of an author composing a text in “Sanskrit” and having it translated into Tibetan. Colophons have been modified, text added or removed. Some texts come from Chinese, Tibetan or other sources. It is not always obvious who composed the texts, or even who translated them. There are duplicates included in the collections in different sections and multiple different translations of texts are included as well. Medicine, poetry, logic, ethics—you might even find a text on basket weaving—all are included. The early redactors of the Tibetan canons were focused more on an attempt to be comprehensive, than an attempt to create an authoritative, exclusive bible of Buddhism. In fact, there are non-Buddhist materials included in the Tengyur. While some texts most certainly represent what we would likely judge to be the height of philosophical and religious thinking, others may be surprisingly obscure and obtuse. It seems that some people erroneously assume that the works of Candrakirti and Nagarjuna and other philosophers are proof enough that all of the Tengyur will be worth reading. I think many modern Buddhists will find this is not the case. This, in itself, is not a problem. It simply makes the translation of the entire Tengyur a complex affair.  The translation of all the texts collected in all the Tengyurs would be an amazing scholarly feat worth the effort, if only for the things translators and specialists would learn in the process. It would probably be one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of humanities scholarship and I hope that the many great scholars at the Tengyur Translation Conference are able to guide such a project towards completion.

Throughout the conference I think it was made clear that few people participating there had a simplistic view of the contents of the Tengyur. In his opening talk, Dr. Yarnall proposed that “multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches” should be used when translating the texts of the Tengyur in order to insure quality translations that preserve the spirit of the multicultural scholastic approach he believes was found at the historic Nālandā University. Furthermore, he suggested, translators should be trained in multicultural approaches and their translations should be aimed not merely at Buddhist practitioners, but at the world at large. This is a fascinating approach and I look forward to seeing how this may be made possible while translators work on these texts with geshes and khenpos and lamas who are steeped in their traditions. In fact, in this globalized era, such a project will certainly become an interesting example of multiculturalism and the process itself will have a great deal to teach us. Perhaps just as much, or more, than the translations themselves.

As I noted in a previous post, several presenters mentioned the idea of needing critical editions of texts for quality translations to be made. It seemed that most people leaned towards the idea that as many variant versions of a text from as many languages as possible were necessary in order to produce the kind of quality translations people wanted to see (or at least, that’s what people said out loud). However, as soon as someone with a practical head for budgets looks at the project of translating ALL the texts included in ALL the various Tengyurs, the thought of creating critical editions, or even referring to all the versions of a text during translation, may cause quite a bit of disquiet. Funding issues aside, the first problem is a lack of qualified translators who can work in Pali, Chinese, Sanskrit and Tibetan. Perhaps there can be new university programs designed to produce Tengyur text translators? Or perhaps, translators and scholars can take advantage of modern technology and use online programs to collaborate on translations, allowing specialists in each of the various canonical languages to contribute expertise to a particular translation. Perhaps the project can be taken slowly and the proper attention paid to detail. In the current climate, it seems more likely that many translations will be made using one Tibetan version of a text with modern Tibetan commentaries from a particular tradition used to elucidate the meaning. These translations will not be as much about translating the original Indian texts as they will be about transmitting a particular Tibetan tradition associated with said texts. Thus, these translations will produce new Tengyurs for a new age. These new Tengyurs will sprout like mushrooms wherever donors can be found and one day we will have a conference about how to collect all the “really authentic” ones into a big database and translate them. I, for one, shall continue to hope that quality shall win out over the quantity focused translation projects, but only time will tell.


Day One of the Tengyur Translation Conference in Atisha Hall, CUTS

See the other post from Marcus on the Tengyur Translation Conference here.


See the follow up to this blog post here.

Tengyur Translation Conference Banner


The crowd on the opening day of the conference in Atisha Hall

The “Tengyur Translation Conference: In the Tradition of the 17 Pandits of Nalanda,” was held at the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS, formerly CIHTS) in Sarnath, India, with the support and attendance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Scholars, teachers, translators and Tibetan Lamas from many traditions attended the four day affair in the unusually cold January weather, which made Atisha Hall a large refrigerator throughout the proceedings. Despite the need to speak at the podium wearing North Face jackets and scarves, participants gave some excellent presentations and many lively discussions marked this important scholarly venture. Jointly held by CUTS and AIBS (American Institute of Buddhist Studies, Columbia, New York), the conference was to be a meeting of some of the best minds in Buddhist studies on the project of translating the entire Tengyur section of the Tibetan Canon. Such a project presents many organizational, theoretical, philological and economic problems, some of which were touched upon by various presenters. In fact, a key purpose for the conference was the assessment and discussion of such issues amongst a learned body of scholars.

Dr. Robert Thurman

The conference came together in large part due to the efforts of Robert Thurman’s “crew” at AIBS and the University of Columbia, Annie Bien and Tom Yarnall, and on the CUTS side, Shrikant Bahulkar and Ven. Ngawang Samten. Hats off to all those seen and unseen who provided for all the participants and laid the ground for the conference.

Dr. Thurman made a point to note that this conference was really the third in a set of conferences he felt built on one another, the first being the translator conference in Boulder and the second the Khyentse Foundation conference in Bir. This and other comments may have led some participants to wonder about the relationship between the organizations involved in each of these conferences, organizations which are in fact quite distinct. Although the stated projects and goals of each conference were somewhat different, probably the most important thing that links each of these conferences is the opportunity they provide for an ongoing dialog among translators and scholars who work with Tibetan texts. This, I think, is the most important outcome of these conferences and I hope it can continue. Regardless of the various organizations, politics and attempts at institution building, the translators, scholars and scholar-practitioners who attend these conferences benefit greatly from the time they share together. Every person I asked about the conference responded as most do at the conferences I have attended over the past few years: The most important aspect of the conference is the time outside of the scheduled events where they meet with colleagues and discuss finer points or are introduced to new people and ideas. However ephemeral and unquantifiable, it appears that the unchaperoned times are the real reason to attend such a conference.

One of the more concrete outcomes of the conference was the reports that were made on the state of translating Buddhist texts into a whole host of languages. Participants arrived from many countries to discuss translations of primarily Tibetan texts into English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Nepali, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, and other European languages. It was an impressive list really and particularly interesting to hear about the efforts of Nepali and Hindi translators. There were a number of calls from the audience to place more focus on the importance of translating Buddhist texts into the modern languages of India, as this was where the Buddha’s teaching originated. Ngawang Samten noted that at the Central University of Tibetan Studies about 60 texts have been translated into Hindi so that key commentaries are available to Indian peoples. Although it was a little difficult to piece together a clear picture of the state of Tengyur text translation around the world, the picture painted seemed to indicate that quite a lot of work is currently underway. While some presenters described the long history of translation efforts into their mother tongues (German, French, English), others decried a sad state of affairs (Spanish, Hindi). Although there appears to be work happening around the world, compared to the mountain of texts that exist as a part of the several known Tengyur catalogs, the world’s Tibetan translators still have a long way to go. One important point that was made by quite a number of delegates at the conference was that the key factor in translating texts into their language was not seen to be money or support, but expertise and training. There simply are not enough well-trained translators capable of working on what are some of the most difficult texts in Buddhist literature. Translating Tengyur texts is not just a matter of gathering together a group of people who are excited about the project and who know a little Tibetan. Time and again scholars at the conference noted the importance of establishing schools or finding other ways to support the development of truly qualified translators. The lack of qualified translators is felt not only in Spanish or Hindi or Russian, but in every language. What to do about it is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed by any organizational body wanting to tackle such an ambitious project.

Betsy Napper, who gave some of the most practical advice, suggested that a training program could be developed in which the younger generation of translators worked on draft translations of texts and then handed off their work to elder translators. Before any actual translation work should be done, however, she suggested the project be taken on in a modular way, first developing online and bibliographic tools, then creating groups to develop critical editions of texts, and so forth.

Alexander Berzin also presented practical advice for tackling the immense project by discussing lessons learned developing his “Berzin Archives” website. Truly an amazing accomplishment, the large network of translators, transcribers, editors, proofreaders, and other specialists that Dr. Berzin has developed provides a constantly evolving archive of translations and teachings on Buddhism in many languages worldwide. Dr. Berzin was therefore able to give specific advice about the development of tools for managing work-flow, tools for managing translation in many disparate languages – such as a wiki that all translators could log into – interlinked glossaries that allow standardization of terminology, separate online glossaries for readers, and so on.

The Dalai Lama himself also offered some interesting advice: Collect all the texts from the Asian canons (Chinese, Korean, Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan) and make sure that the texts missing from one are included in another. Once a “complete” canon is available, then translate that into modern western languages.

It remains to be seen what advice will be taken to heart as various projects to translate the Kangyur and Tengyur develop around the world. Robert Thurman’s American Institute of Buddhist Studies was the driving force behind this conference and they have been working on the project of translating texts from the Tengyur for some time. Their mission statement, as reported by Dr. Thurman at the opening of the conference, is “To create and support the necessary institutional framework within which to produce critical, readable, contemporary translations of the 3,600+ classical source texts of the “liberating arts and sciences” of the Indo-Tibetan civilization.” This is truly a massive undertaking and one that will need the support of many scholars and translators world-wide if it is to even begin to make headway. It will be very interesting to see what comes out of this exciting project in the coming years.

A seat waits for His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Poster from the ICTB in Atlanta, Georgia

The second International Conference on Tibetan Buddhism began today, October 19th, at Emory University. Several hundred scholars and writers, venerable nuns and monks, lamas and tulkus, and representatives from sangha’s around the world converged on the Emory Conference Center in Atlanta, Georgia for a meeting of influential minds. The attendance list reads like a who’s who of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Although a certain bias can be noted, it appears that the organizers made an effort to include representatives from many traditions. There are certainly a few key figures missing and it’s too bad because one of the key points that His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama stressed in his opening speech was the importance of nonsectarian collaboration among Tibetan Buddhist groups.

To formally open the conference, HHDL gave a moving speech about the importance of remembering the shared root of all types of Tibetan Buddhism and he implored the conference attendees to discuss the problems of degeneration and corruption of Tibetan Buddhism. He did not leave the sense of the “root” of Tibetan Buddhism abstract, but instead specifically pointed to the traditions of Nalanda and particularly to the writings of the masters of Nalanda. He said that it was necessary to study their writings directly and that too many Tibetan Buddhists focus on their individual lineage master’s writings or their college’s yig cha, to the detriment of the tradition. His Holiness seemed to really want to emphasize that it was important that the different schools needed to work together more and that it was essential that we deal with ‘corruption’ in Tibetan Buddhism. He did not elaborate on specifics, but it seemed to me that he was saying more than just the usual “we’re in a degenerate age, be careful with the quality of dharma you teach…” kind of talk. He said that Tibetan Buddhism has become empty ritual in some instances and that deep and proper understanding needs to be cultivated.

The opening session included introductions and remarks from Geshe Lobsang Negi, Dr. Gary  Hauk, Lobsang Nyandak, Greg Kruglak and a performance by the Drepung Loseling Monks of the Mystical Arts of Tibet Tour. After the address by His Holiness, Khamba Lama gave a report on the First International Conference on Mongolian Buddhism, which concluded in September in Ulan Batar. Following the departure of His Holiness, the first panel sessions began. Session 1A was on Tibetan Buddhism’s Encounter with Modern Science and Session 1B was on Tibetan Buddhism and Social Engagement.

Panel Session 1B: Tibetan Buddhism and Social Engagement.

As you can see, many distinguished guests were present.

The “Engaged Buddhism” Panel was chaired by Dr. John Makransky and the keynote speakers were Dr. Jan Willis and Lama Pema Wangdak. Responding panelists Acharya Fleet Maul, Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Diana Rose, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche were each given a very short time to present a few thoughts on engaged Buddhism. This format was somewhat interesting but led to each person giving a short spiel that was very informative but didn’t seem to lead to real dialog. “Questions” from the audience were similar in that they were not in fact questions at all, but statements made by very interesting people doing very interesting things, which sometimes included general questions for all present to take home and consider. David Germano seemed to have prepared a particular three-point speech (a condensed version of a speech he gave at IATS this year), which he provided to the whole room and seemed, by the observed reaction of the crowd, to be the most interesting and thought provoking of all. He charged academic institutions with not being truly ethical in their actions regarding Tibet and called on everyone to consider how their actions and chosen focus in regard to Tibetan Buddhism effects Tibet and Tibetans. Unfortunately time was up at the end of his speech and no one was prepared to respond. The panel really was very interesting, and some of the most important statements probably came from Ven. Lekshe Tsomo, who rightly mentioned the inequality in Tibetan Buddhist institutions and the plight of Buddhist women the world over; however, there was no time for real dialog about anything. It appears that there will be a “business meeting” tomorrow that will allow for “resolutions” to be drawn up―which sounds delightful and absurd―but perhaps at that time actual dialog among the panelists and attendees can occur.

Before moving on to the next panel I wanted to summarize here a few of the points made at the panel on engaged Buddhism:

Dr. Jan Willis noted that while “engaged Buddhism” might be a new term, Buddhism has been engaged since it’s inception. From the very moment that Buddha stood up from his Kusha grass seat and began to teach, Buddhism has been “engaged” in the world. The rest of her comments then were about the foundation of Buddhism as an engaged religion and about an ethics in which she linked compassion and interdependence with love in the Bible and Dr. Martin Luther King’s ideas. She said that we should feel our responsibility for others when we feel love and that we should then act in the world for others benefit.

Lama Pema Wangdak of the Sakya tradition, creator of Tibetan Braille, spoke a little about his personal experience with social engagement and stressed that education and the founding of schools for children who would otherwise not receive quality schooling was essential for the preservation of Tibetan culture. He spoke about the importance of investing in the brain trust of Tibetan people.

Acharya Fleet Maul, creator of the Prison Dharma Network and author of Dharma in Hell, spoke about some of the challenges Tibetan Buddhism faces in terms of “engaged Buddhism.” He said that “Tibetan Buddhism is not the leader in engaged Buddhism” and that compared with the developed modern Buddhisms from China and Japan we are lagging behind and there is a lot of work to do. However, he stressed that he feels that the Vajrayana path gives us a particular strength in the area of service. He said that it provides the fortitude for going into the modern charnel grounds and working with injustice directly.

The Very Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo gave a talk about her experience on sabbatical from the University of San Diego when she traveled to 14 Buddhist countries around the world. Her report focused on the tragedies that beset Buddhist women around the world and I must commend her again for being the only person on the panel to really mention how little support and how little power women have in Tibetan Buddhist institutions the world over. One of the key points she brought up was about the power of other religious groups who are working to convert traditionally Buddhist peoples. This was also touched on by several other people at the conference and from the various reports I have heard it sounds like certain areas are getting to a point of crises in which Buddhism may be overtaken by Christian and Muslim proselytizers who provide basic needs to Buddhist peoples, who then convert because they need food and clothing (more on this later).

Diana Rose, President of Garrison Institute and the Lostand Foundation, spoke about the Garrison Institute and her work creating a training program for care-givers and people who work in shelters.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche, teacher and author of Carefree Dignity and Fearless Simplicity, was very well spoken and succinct. He said that there were two principles that are key for the Buddhist tradition that connect with the sense of “engaged Buddhism”:
1) Nonviolence and 2) Contentment. He said a few things about nonviolence, but chose to spend more time describing the importance of the middle way of being content with what one has and what one’s body needs, not with what one’s mind wants to have. Basically he said, with many examples, that overconsumption is really NOT OK and that right livelihood includes paying attention to how we live in relation to Mother Earth.

Before continuing to make notes about some of the interesting papers at the IATS conference this past August, I wanted to sneak in a little note about one of my teacher’s work. Dr. Phil Stanley has been working on analyzing the Tibetan canons for more than sixteen years. His work includes detailed statistical analysis of at least six Kangyur and four Tengyur, including analysis of the location of repeated texts, texts missing in some versions, as well as analysis of provenance figures given in colophons.

Phil Stanley’s recent dissertation analyzes the concept of canonicity and scripture in different traditions and presents the thesis that “Canonicity in Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism in general differs from the Christian concept commonly presumed in religious studies in consisting of an inclusive canonical continuum not restricted to just the scriptures attributed to the Buddha.” The Christian concept of the ‘canon’ is rigidly associated with their concept of ‘scripture’ and has influenced the study of the Buddhist tradition in Academia such that the Buddhist understanding of ‘canonicity’ has been confused and the research has been one-sided in favor of Kangyur study, until recently. Phil proposes three types of canons: 1) “Formal Canons of doctrinally diverse scriptures and treatises, 2) Practical Canons of select texts inside and outside the Formal Canons that formed the basis of specific traditions, and 3) Inclusive Canons of all texts accepted by specific traditions.”

Phil’s dissertation is available from UMI and can be found through the ProQuest database: The threefold Formal, Practical, and Inclusive Canons of Tibetan Buddhism in the context of a pan-Asian paradigm: Utilizing a new methodology for analyzing canonical collections
by Stanley, David Phillip, Ph.D., University of Virginia, 2009, 738 pages; AAT 3400969

One of the few mentions of Tibetan sources at the Society for Tantric Studies Conference came from a young scholar at the University of Chicago who provided an interesting discussion of Kānha and the Grub thob brgyad bcu tsa bzhi’i lo rgyus. Samuel Hopkins noted that while most of the stories of the 84 Mahasiddhas follow a relatively strict format, Kānha’s story deviates significantly and he pursued this anomaly in his paper. If I understood correctly (I haven’t really read the story in Tibetan), unlike all the other stories, Kānha’s story begins later in his life-after initiation-and ends somewhat negatively with a warning about pride-Don’t be like Kānha. Aren’t we supposed to be impressed by the “greatness” of the Mahasiddhas? Not in Kānha’s case. It was interesting to hear that we have texts in which Kānha describes himself as grotesque, comedic, loathsome, detestable. Samuel Hopkins says that what he most certainly was was subversive. Kānha mixed comedy, criticism, and “serious” Buddhist teachings together in his own texts in such a way that his fame appears to come from his lack of decorum-his “crazy wisdom.” While we have many texts by various masters of the tradition, there are certainly few that are first person accounts of this kind. He may also have presented himself as a Hindu while secretly touting Buddhist teachings, or perhaps he was a member of a Hindu sect. The “anomalous Siddha” is actually claimed by more than one tradition, and while his texts may be by many different people writing under one name, what is so interesting is that despite his strange characteristics, sometimes seemingly at odds with Buddhist principles, his story remains a part of the grub thob and a part of Tibetan culture. The question is why, out of 84 stories of mahasiddhas, is this siddha the nail that didn’t get pounded in? Perhaps we shall hear more from this “other” Mr. Hopkins in the future.

“Collected Writings: (gsung ‘bum) in Tibetan Literature: Towards a Systematic Study of Their Compilation, Redaction and Composition and Its Use for Genre Classifications” by Jim Rheingans – Universität Bonn

I was keen to hear what Dr. Rheingans had to say regarding Tibetan genre because of our recent attempts to catalog the gdams ngag mdzod and all of the difficulties that arose when attempting to classify texts by subject. In his talk, Dr. Rheingans discussed his work on the 8th Karmapa’s (mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507-1554) gsung ‘bum, collected by the 5th Shamarpa (dkon mchog yan lag, 1525-1583). The gsung ‘bum as a concept, and as a classification scheme itself, does seem like an interesting place to begin looking for ways of classifying Tibetan writing by topic and genre. In the dkar chags of all the extant gsung ‘bum‘s we will find many different ways of classifying texts and I suspect it is not always easy to find systematic dkar chags. However, a study of many dkar chags would certainly begin to provide an interesting picture of how Tibetan’s classified texts over time. In the gdams ngag mdzod we see perhaps far too many schemas, as many different lineages are represented, each with their own classificatory terms. However, the organization of these disparate texts shown in the dkar chag by ‘Jam mgon kong sprul are themselves a useful example of a Tibetan system (historically situated in this case as a part of the ris med period) that might be worthy of research.

Dr. Rheingans noted that the concept of gsung ‘bum itself seems to be mostly Tibetan in origin and not something inherited from Indian literature. He seemed to be continuing to research this issue, briefly mentioning a loose collection of texts from Advayavajra but no “real” gsung ‘bum in the formal sense.

He went on to say that the norm seems to be that students take on the responsibility of systematizing the master’s work, sometimes with direction from the master, and sometimes after his death. In the case of the 8th Karmapa, it seems that there was in fact a blessing given and a clear intention written down by the Karmapa allowing the Shamarpa to begin the work of systematizing his works. There seems to be an important point here: the context of collecting these works and the historical situation is an important part of the study of the gsung ‘bum, and thus also of classification itself. Some gsung ‘bum have clear systematized dkar chags and some do not. The question Rheingans posed was, what is actually systematized? How far can we take these indigenous classification schemes? These kinds of questions need to be asked when engaging in classifying texts.

So many texts, how should/can they be classified?

In his talk he made the important point that paying attention to the context of literary production and genre can yield clues for historical research and interpreting doctrine in Tibetan studies. That is to say, other than abstract interest in classification schemes, there are utilitarian reasons why various types of scholars would be interested in systematic genre classification.

What I found useful was his call for more precision regarding understanding compilation, redaction, and composition when describing and discussing Tibetan writing. I wasn’t able to ask about his thoughts, but the thought that came to me was: since Tibetan writing often involves a large amount of “borrowing,” even the classification of a text as being “authored” by one person as opposed to another is complicated. Therefore, distinction between the redactor, compiler, or composer, is not always clear. That is to say, along with issues of genre, issues surrounding the classification of “provenance figures” or contributors to the text also have to be tackled.

In his short talk he did not try to present a list of genres or classificatory schemes everyone can take home and start using, but instead brought everyone’s attention to a set of questions that may lead us in the right direction. One of his guiding questions was: How can we employ academic classifications without neglecting traditional terminologies, both for generic terms we have and concrete genres? How much use can we get out of terms like narrative, explicative, argumentative, descriptive, and so forth? On this topic he noted that when classifying some text, one shouldn’t be distracted by the title, but take a closer look at how the topic develops in the text itself. He then gave some examples of situations where a text may be labeled as a rnam thar or placed in a volume of rnam thars, but in fact the content is found to be a set of specific instructions made in response to requests from a particular student. Apparently, one rnam thar he looked at can be used as a dkar chag for Mi bskyod rdo rje’s gsung ‘bum.

One text may also contain the qualities of several genres, in fact many Tibetan texts do, but this doesn’t have to make the project of discussing classification a non-issue. Rheingans called for more effort in this area, reminding us that if we only approach classifying a text from the traditional philological reading, then we “forget to write the book that may be influential beyond Tibetan studies.” That is to say, he wondered if it was possible to look more deeply at Tibetan literature and begin to form some useful schemas that would be transcultural, useful to academics at large, and not just to a small group of Tibetan studies scholars. Towards this end, he suggested systematic exploration with broader studies, which I presume would include cataloging larger numbers of gsung ‘bum and their classificatory schemas, as well as other types of collections and connecting that with the study of Tibetan literature as a whole. In doing this kind of work he suggested that some postmodern methodologies may be helpful, but we also have to use caution in their application. He suggested  that perhaps it is still too early in the study of Tibetan literature to begin these kinds of classificatory projects, but Dr. Rheingans did seem hopeful that progress could be made.

On an interesting side note: There was also a discussion amongst those present at the Tibetological Library and Archive Resources panel focused on the idea of collecting genre types, subject headings and classification schemes for use in cataloging and archiving Tibetan works. For the librarian, the issue of how to classify a text is in fact quite practical and immediate, as the creation of a catalog for a library that is searchable by topic and genre is an obvious desideratum. I hope that practical work can be done to further this project as it will certainly benefit the whole field of Tibetan studies.

‘Tools of the Trade’ of the Tibetan Translators
Peter Verhagen, Leiden University, The Netherlands

(12th Seminar of the IATS, Vancouver, BC, August 16th, 2010)

Peter Verhagen presented a list of textual sources that he believes the early Tibetan translators of Indian Buddhist texts relied upon as “tools of the trade”. I beg his pardon, and hope he doesn’t mind that I share this list here, as it was made publicly available by him at the conference and I think others will be interested. These are the texts he discussed and the citations he provided in a hand out:

1) Mahāvyutpatti = bye brag tu rtogs byed chen po
sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. co, f. 1r1-131r8

2) sgra byor bam po gnyis pa
sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol co, f. 131v1-160r7

3) khri lde srong btsan sad na legs (799-815) > ‘translation’ edict 814 CE

4) khri srong lde btsan (755-797) >’translation’ edict 795 (or 783) CE

5) *Sv-alpa-vyutpatti = bye brag tu rtogs byed chung ngu

9) Dhātupāṭha

– CG 21: Dhātu-kāya, Tib. byings kyi tshogs
sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. no, f. 112v6-122v2 (Tohoku no. 4429)

– CG 22: Dhātu-kāya, Tib. (lung ston pa ka lā pa’i) byings kyi tshogs
sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. le, f. 63r3-75r7 (Tohoku no. 4285)

– CG 25: Dhātu-kāya, Tib. (tsandra pa’i) byings kyi tshogs
sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. re, f. 71r5-78r7 (Tohoku no. 4277)

– CG 30: Kalāpa-dhātu-sūtra, Tib. ka lā pa’i byings kyi mdo
sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. no, f. 1v1-10r7 (Tohoku no. 4422)

– CG 32: *Dhātu-sūtra, Tib. byings kyi mdo (brda sprod pa tsandra pa’i byings kyi tshogs kyi gleg bam gyi mdo)
sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. no, f. 21v2-31v4 (Tohoku no. 4424)

– CG 45: Pāṇini-dhātu-sūtra, Tib. Pā ṇi ni’i byings kyi mdo
Peking bstan ‘gyur vol. pho, f. 342v2-358r5 (Otani no. 5913) [sde dge: deest]

10) Gaṇapāṭha

– CG 2: Viṃśaty-upasarga-vṛtti, Tib. nye bar (b)sgyur ba nyi shu pa’i ‘grel pa
(a) Peking bstan ‘gyur vol. le, f. 36v4-41v1 (Otani no. 5768); snar thang vol. le, f. 35v1-39v7; dga’ ldan vol. le, f. 43r1-49r2
(b) sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol re. f. 30r1-34r2 (Tohoku no. 4270); Co ne vol. re, f. 32r1-36v3

– CG 18: Prayoga-mukha-vṛtti, Tib. rab tu sbyor ba’i sgo’i ‘grel pa

  • sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. she, f. 244r1-250v6 (Tohoku no. 4292)
  • co ne bstan ‘gyur vol. she, f. 246r1-252v6
  • Peking bstan ‘gyur vol. le, f. 238v1-245v6 (Otani no. 5781)
  • snar thang bstan ‘gyur vol. le, f. 222v1-230r6

– CG 26: Saṃbandha-siddhy-abhidhāna-prakriyā,
Tib. ‘brel ba grub pa zhes bya ba’i rab tu byed pa

  • sde dge bstan ‘gyur vol. re, f. 78v1-106r5 (Tohoku no. 4278)
  • co ne bstan ‘gyur vol. re, f. 85v4-114v4
  • Peking & snar thang bstan ‘gyur: deest

The UK Association for Buddhist Studies will have its conference this year Tuesday and Wednesday, July 6th and 7th at the University of Leeds.

“Historiography, adaptation and contemporary practice” – at the Michael Sadler Building, University of Leeds.



  • Prof. Steven Collins (Chicago): “No-self, gender, and madness”
  • Dr Joanna Cook (Cambridge): “Remaking Thai Buddhism through international pilgrimage”
  • Prof. Duncan McCargo (Leeds): “Buddhism, legitimacy and violence in southern Thailand”
  • Dr Catherine Newell (SOAS): “The new Buddhist missionaries: the global ambitions of Thailand’s Dhammakaya temples”
  • Dr James Taylor (Adelaide): “Mobility and resistance; modern monastic questers”
  • Dr James Benn (McMaster): “A Chinese apocryphal sutra in its eighth-century context”
  • Prof. Ann Heirman (Ghent): “Speech is silver, silence is golden? Speech and silence in the Buddhist sagha”
  • Dr John Kieschnick (Bristol): “The adjudication of sources in traditional Chinese Buddhist historiography”
  • Dr Francesca Tarocco (Manchester): “Buddhist images in modern China”

Film showing

  • Dr Patrice Ladwig (Max Planck Institute): “The last friend of the corpse: funerals, morticians and crematoria in Chiang Mai”

Postgraduate presentations

  • Jane Caple (Leeds): “Contemporary revival and development of Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in eastern Qinghai (Amdo)”
  • Berthe Jansen (Oxford): “Buddhist and non-Buddhist themes contained in Tibetan wedding recitations”
  • Lewis Doney (SOAS): “The daṇḍa-swinging Dharmarāja: early Tibetan appropriations of Indian Buddhist narratives”
  • Frederick Chen (Oxford): “A pagan god transformed into a Buddhist god or a Buddhist god transformed into a Chinese god?”

Also featuring surprise musical performance
Registration (please register before end of June 2010): £45 (UKABS/WREAC £30; students £20).
Register before 31 May for a £5 discount. Fee includes lunch & dinner on 6 July and lunch on 7 July.
Further information and registration: or
Organising committee: Martin Seeger, Francesca Tarocco, Ian Harris, Jane Caple

The mysterious Niguma was an Indian woman from Kashmir who probably lived in the 11th century. Not only are the dates uncertain, but so too is almost everything about her. I will explore what there is to know and not to know about Niguma. What does stand firmly as testimony to her existence is her legacy of teachings, which form the very core of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, one of the “Eight Great Chariots of the Practice Lineages” that were later identified as the main conduits through which experiential Buddhism spread from India to Tibet.[1]

 Who was this phantasmic lady Niguma? I will include here the brief biography found in the Golden Rosary of Shangpa Biographies, but other than that one finds only hints and guesses from other sources. For instance, here is a typical description from the great Tibetan master Taranatha:[2]

 The Dakini Niguma’s place of birth was the Kashmiri city called “Incomparable.” Her father was the brahman Santivarman (Tib.: Zhi ba’i go cha). Her mother was Shrımati (dPal gyi blo gros ma). Her real name was Srıjñ›na (dPal gyi ye shes). She had previously gathered the accumulations [of merit and wisdom] for three incalculable eons. Thus, in this life [as Niguma], based on the teachings of the instructions by the adept Lavapa and some others, she manifested the signs of progress in the secret mantra vajray›na, and attained the body of union. So her body became a rainbow-like form. She had the ability to really hear teachings from the great Vajradhara. Having become a great bodhisattva, her emanations pervaded everywhere and accomplished the welfare of beings.

The elusiveness of Niguma is typical of the lore of the dakini, the very embodiment of liminal spiritual experience.  Additionally the difficulty of pinpointing historical information may well be due to the lack of ancient sources from India, and the lack of concern about such mundane matters by the Tibetan masters who encountered her in dreams and visions and maybe in person. After all, when confronted with the blazing apparition of the resplendent and daunting dark dakini bestowing critical cryptic advice, a background check would be rendered irrelevant. Indian Buddhist hagiographies are virtually unknown, whether of men or women.[3] In Tibet, where hagiography became a prolific genre in its own right, those of women were extremely rare, for all the usual reasons. It is in the experiences of those heroes who encountered the dakini that one finds the most information, and which are invested with the value of spiritual meaning. In the Golden Rosary of Shangpa Biographies, Niguma’s life story consists of only six folia, half of which is a supplication prayer to her, while that of her disciple Khyungpo Naljor, called a “mere mention” (zur tsam), is 43 folia, and those of brother Naropa, Taranatha, Tangtong Gyalpo and so forth where Niguma is mentioned are much longer than that. Even more distressing, I have discovered that half of the remaining half of Niguma’s life story, the part that concerns her birthplace, appears to be directly lifted from a biography of Naropa![4] Perhaps she is just an adornment on the lives of great saints, a figment of mens’ imaginations.

            That, of course, is something one has to wonder and worry about in nearly all of the more ancient writings about dakinis. The idealized image of a female messenger, awesome keeper of the great mysteries to be revealed only to the deserving spiritual virtuoso, is packed with power and intrigue for both male and female practitioners. Though unique in its particulars to Himalayan Buddhism, it is found in reminiscent forms throughout the cultures and religions of the world. The mystery of the dakini herself will not be revealed because she is the very definition of mystery, and were she discovered by other than mystics, it would not be she.

But what of the actual woman behind the image? In the case of a reportedly historical woman such as Niguma, we should be able to find at least some hint of a subjective story, something to convince us that she is more than the object or projection of the practitioner’s realization. And more than the “other” of the male “self.” We seek her as the subject of her own story.

 Niguma’s Home

Niguma’s life does present us with a few crumbs. First of all, her birthplace is known to be in Kashmir, a hub of Buddhist activity, particularly of the tantric type, and probably in close quarters with the Shaivite tradition and other forms of esoteric Hinduism. The specific town, or perhaps monastery, is called Peme (dpe med) in Tibetan, meaning “without comparison,” translating Anupama.[5] But we find in her biography that this is not a real town, exactly, but one that has been created by an illusionist. The first hard fact is already shaky. The story first mentions the creation myth, as it were, of Kashmir itself, a land that was once under water. According to Niguma’s biography, it was the time of the previous buddha, Kashyapa, though in other versions the story centers around Buddha Shakyamuni’s time and his disciple nanda.[6] In any case, a disciple wished to build a temple in the area of Kashmir and stealthily negotiated with the subterranean beings, or naga, who were tricked into upmerging and forking over a large area of land. It reports that the residents were amazed, though in the same story in Naropa’s biography it is the n›ga themselves who were amazed. In any case, the amazed ones commission an illusionist to create a city, which he does based on the “blueprint” of the great celestial city of the gods called Sudarshana. But this talented architect-magician died before he could dissolve the city, and so it remained. This, then, is Niguma’s home town: a divinely inspired illusion.

 Family and Friends

Niguma’s family relationships are similarly slippery, particularly when it comes to her connection with Naropa (956-1040),[7] her contemporary and a great adept whose teachings on the six dharmas learned from Tilopa spread widely in Tibet. The names of her parents given above by T›ran›tha are indeed the same as those of N›ropa in his biography in the Kagyu Golden Rosary by Lhatsun Rinchen Namgyal and are similar in other biographies.[8] Those same biographies tell the story of those parents’ first child, Shrıjñ›na, and how they had to perform special supplications for a male child after her birth. We also have the name of N›ropa’s wife, Vimala or Vimaladıpı (Dri med pa or Dri med sgron ma), with whom he parted to pursue his spiritual career. N›ropa is sometimes said to be from Bengal in the east, but there is little evidence for this theory and most authors locate his birthplace in Kashmir, along with Niguma.[9] There is even some evidence that Naropa’s well-known hermitage of Pushpahari, or Pullahari, commonly identified as being on a hillock west of Bodhgaya, may have been in Kashmir.[10] In Niguma’s biography it simply mentions that he was also in the area. Despite any misinformed discrepancies, it would seem to be quite clear that Niguma and Naropa were sister and brother. Yet scholars, mostly western, have insisted on suggesting that Niguma was his consort, perhaps his sister too, in a sort of tantalizing tantric gossip. Alas it may be the great translator Herbert Guenther who started the trend. In his introduction to The Life and Teaching of Naropa he makes a most puzzling allusion:[11]

 [Naropa’s] wife seems to have gone by her caste name Ni-gu-ma, and according to the widely practiced habit of calling a female with whom one has had any relation ‘sister’ she became known as ‘the sister of Nāropa.’

 Guenther cites The Blue Annals and the Collected Works of bLo bzang chos-kyi nyi -ma, an eighteenth century Gelukpa scholar known as Thu’u kvan Lama, as the sources where “Ni-gu-ma is stated to have been the wife of Naropa.” However, both sources state nothing so definitive. The Blue Annals, which devotes most of a chapter to the accounts of Niguma and her lineage, mentions her only as Naropa’s sister,[12] using the Tibetan word lcam mo, a combination of lcam (an honorific) and sring mo (“sister”). The second source similarly says only that she is Niguma’s lcam,[13] as do all other sources in Tibetan that I have seen. A supplication to Niguma in the practice of the white and red Khecharı dakinis uses the unambiguous term sring mo, calling her “the single sister of the awareness-holder.”[14] Admittedly the word lcam mo can be used as mistress or wife, particularly as the senior of several wives,[15] but given this bivalent meaning plus the fact that we have the identical parents’ names and the name of Naropa’s real wife, why on earth would one choose to translate it as “wife”? Even the translator Roerich does not do so in the Blue Annals, and comments elsewhere that “in the ancient language lcam means always ‘sister’.”[16] It does seem to be that tired old need to attribute a woman’s worth to her mate that plagues the annals of history, coupled with the scholarly penchant for repeating the confident pronouncements of former scholars.

Another possible source of confusion pertains to a supposed meeting between Naropa’s Tibetan disciple Marpa and Niguma. In the Introduction to the translation of Tsangnyön Heruka’s biography of Marpa called The Life of Marpa the Translator, the following information is offered, repeating the relationship in an even stranger way:

 After attaining his first realization of mahāmudrā under Maitrıpa, Marpa returned to Nāropa. This time, Nāropa sent Marpa to receive teachings from Niguma, Wisdom (Jnāna) Dākinī Adorned with Bone ornaments. She was Nāropa’s wife before he renounced worldly life to enter the dharma, and later she became his student and consort. Finally, she became a great teacher herself and her lineage of teachings was taken to Tibet (though not by Marpa) and continues to this present day. Unfortunately, our story here does not tell us very much about their meeting (xliii).

 The Tibetan text  reveals that Marpa was indeed sent on two separate occasions, first by Naropa and later by Shantibhadra, to meet a certain dakini called simply by her the metonym “Adorned with Bone Ornaments”.[17] Nowhere does it mention Niguma specifically by name in this or other biographies of Marpa. It is true that in later eulogies Niguma is described as wearing bone ornaments, but I believe this could be considered a regular wardrobe for dakinis, whose options were generally confined to charnel grounds. Better evidence of their identity than similar attire would be that both Marpa’s dakini and Khyungpo Naljor’s Niguma can sometimes both be found in the same great cemetery of Sosadvıpa (Tib. Sosaling), said to be just to the west of Bodhgaya and the vacation spot of many a great master, including Padmasambhava. It was also, however, a famous dakini gathering spot. In Marpa’s biography he finds the bone-deckeddakini on two occasions: once he receives the empowerment and instructions in the Four Seats Tantra from her, and a second time he receives a prophecy about meeting N›ropa (after he had already passed away).[18] Given the widespread prevalence, even requirement, of dakini encounters on the spiritual path of yogis, this account gives us nothing to cling to. Moreover, there is no account wherein Niguma receives any teachings from Naropa, though the similarity of content might lead one to believe otherwise. But how do we know that it was not the other way around—that Naropa did not receive teachings from his big sister?


Niguma’s teacher was, famously, the Buddha Vajradhara. The only piece of specific information about Niguma’s human teachers that I have from my sources is her connection with a certain Lavapa, according to two accounts by Taranatha. However Lavapa is not mentioned by name in Niguma’s Life Story, where it says only that “she directly saw the truth of the nature of phenomena just by hearing some instructive advice from a few adept masters.” The only two named masters in the Life Story are Naropa and Ratnavajra, and then only as cohabitants in Kashmir.[19] Again, the commonly-held belief that Niguma received the six dharmas from Naropa seems to be unsubstantiated. In fact, the Blue Annals, following a similar statement in Khyungpo Naljor’s biography, quotes Niguma saying that “these six doctrines are known only to myself and Lavapa.”[20]

But it is difficult to identify this Lavapa. Taranatha provides some nice anecdotal stories of an acarya Lavapa in The Seven Instruction Lineages and discusses him again in his History.[21] He is also mentioned by Naropa’s guru, Tilopa, as one of his four human teachers and the one from whom he received dream yoga, or lucid clarity, depending on the account.[22] Some sources identify him with Kambhalapada, one of the eighty-four great adepts (mahasiddhas) of Indian Buddhism, although Taranatha does not seem to make this identity. In any case, the Lav›pa who was Tilopa’s teacher would have likely been too early to be Niguma’s teacher, and he is also associated with the conversion activities in the west of India.[23] So we are still left with a lack of information on his “Lavapa of the East,” other than that he is lesser (i.e. younger), or later. Here is another version by Taranatha, with its veiled jab at this unidentified Lavapa:[24]

 She listened for a bit to instructions from Lavapa of the East, and after meditating for seven days together with the master himself, she became a dakini of timeless awareness with a rainbow body. She manifested the realization of the eighth level. It is said that Lav›pa of the East [did not gain the full rainbow body because he] left behind a palm-sized portion of the crown of his head. This Lavapa is the lesser. The name Nigu accords with the Indian language, which is Nigupta, and it is said to mean “truly secret” or “truly hidden.” In fact, it is the code-language of the dakinis of timeless awareness.

 Code Language

The symbolic or code-language of the dakinis (mkha’ ‘gro’i brda’ skad) is itself “truly hidden.” Masters of meditation decipher these communications in moments of inspiration, but by the time we hear what they might be, they have already been translated and carry all the perils of that craft, including possible fraud. We can see a few indecipherable graphics called dakinicode-letters” (mkha’ ‘gro brda’ yig) in treasure texts, but even this is only a subcategory of the mystery code-language itself. In his commentary on the treasure text Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo, the great nineteenth century master Jamgön Kongtrul explains:[25]

 A person endowed with the karmic continuation and destiny will, by means of a profound coincidence of place, time, and aspiration, be able to decode the symbolic meaning of these treasure letters that are nirmanak›yas, the vajra forms endowed with all eminent aspects, and establish them correctly in writing.

 Perhaps the dakini code-language is beyond verbal communication, with its necessarily dualistic and designatory nature. But then why call it “language”? Symbolic communication is specifically distinguished from non-verbal transmission in the Nyingma tripartite transmissions of dzogchen teachings, where the symbolic linage of the awareness-holders (rig ‘dzin brda’i brgyud pa) falls neatly between the non-verbal lineage of the buddhas’ ‘thought’ or intention, and the aural lineage of ordinary people. Janet Gyatso suggests that the dakini, in keeping with her playful character, is “working within language to subvert it, drawing attention to its own (dualistic) structures while never retreating outside its realm.”[26] And certainly the esoteric teachings of the tantras themselves in their written form are known to be coded. After all, the common name for those teachings is “secret mantra” (gsang sngags). The dakini code-language is a secret within that secret, and seems to be reserved for the most profound and spontaneous experiences of only very gifted practitioners.

Taranatha makes no attempt to tell us what the name “Niguma” really means in that language, leaving it rather to the initiated to find out.

            In a similar way it is difficult to precisely identify Niguma’s other attributes that recur in most sources, although they are reported as quantifiable facts. She had high-level realization, placing her in the “pure” (dag pa) or non-dissipating (zag med) levels, she attained the so-called rainbow body, and most famously, she could receive teachings directly from Vajradhara. What do these qualities actually mean, other than ways to impress us? I explore these lofty attributes in my forthcoming book on Niguma

 As much as I have searched for this dakini named Niguma and hoped to find her as an actual person and the subject of her own story, it may have been in vain. The more I dig, the more elusive she becomes. No doubt I am looking in all the wrong places, in old books and dusty corners. Still, I hope that this might be more than another case of the female as a vehicle of meaning for men, or that, as one post-Buddhist feminist puts it, “the place of the male as subject is unconsciously protected, whilst creating a notion of fluidity around the concept of the female body.”[27] I might have to admit, however, that she is primarily an important event in the lives of the men who saw her, rather than a historically locatable person. These, in any case, are really the only sources of information. Her own story, if it ever existed, is not to be found other than the few details that I have explored here.

[1] The so-called Eight Great Chariots of the Practice Lineages (sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad) is a system of identifying the streams of esoteric instructions (man ngag) that came into Tibet from India. Based on an initial listing by Prajñ›raŸmi (1517-1584), it was developed primarily by the great Tibetan savant Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé (1813-1900) as a doxographical tool in his great efforts to preserve the histories and teachings of all those lineages by collecting and printing them in the large compendiums known as his Five Great Treasuries. He enumerates these eight chariots as (1) Nyingma, (2) Kadam, (3) Lamdré, (4) Marpa Kagyu, (5) Shangpa Kagyu, (6) Zhijé and its branch of Chöd, (7) Dorjé Naljor Druk (or Jordruk), and (8) Dorjé Sumgyi Nyendrup. See Kongtrul, The Treasury of Knowledge: Esoteric Instructions.

[2] Clearing up Darkness of the Mind, TCW, 17:459 (f. 22a1-4). T›ran›tha (1575-1635) gives his full name as Kunga Nyingpo Tashi Gyaltsen Palzangpo (Kun dga’ snying po bkra shis rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po). He used the Sanskrit translation of his title Drolwai Gonpo (sGrol ba’i mgon po) as his name to show his close connection with the Indian tradition, as he studied directly with Indian teachers in Tibet. T›ran›tha was an incredible realized master, historian, and philosopher, whose prolific writings encompass nearly every aspect of knowledge in Tibet, with his collected works numbering twenty-three volumes. He is thought of particularly in connection with the Jonang school, as his most common epithet Jonang T›ran›tha or Jonang Jetsun clearly indicates, but his influence is much broader. 

[3] Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: “Even Indian Buddhist hagiographical narratives are scarce and are limited to idealized renderings of the life of the Buddha and a few other works” (115).

[4] The Life Story of the Supreme Learned N›ro Pa˚chen (mKhas mchog n› ro pa˚ chen gyi rnam thar) by Sangye Bum, in the Rwalung Kagyu Golden Rosary, vol. 1: 87-129.

[5] Advaitavadini Kaul mentions a monastery in the town of Anupamapur› (grong khyer dpe med) in connection with Gunakarasribhadra (Buddhist Savants of Kashmir: Their Contributions Abroad, 49).

[6] See, for example, the recounting of this tale by Bu-ston, translated by Obermiller in The History of Buddhism in India and Tibet, 89-91. One of a group of nanda’s disciples called Madhy›ntika is prophesied by nanda to be the future settler of Kashmir, “the place suitable for mystic absorption and the best resting-place.” In fulfillment of that prophecy, the events of the story unfold more or less as related here. In terms of the drastic environmental change in the geography of Kashmir that resulted, the time of the previous Buddha might be more appropriate. See also note 65??

[7] N›ropa’s dates are given as fire-dragon to iron-dragon year, which would be 956-1040. Atısha’s departure for Tibet is reliably dated to 1040, and he brought relics from the cremation of N›ropa with him. The stÒpa in which they are enshrined still survives in Nethang Dolma Lhakang temple, founded by Atısha. According to Peter Roberts’s introduction to Mah›mudr› and Related Instructions, the common erroneous dates of 1016-110 (such as in Guenther, The Life and Teaching of N›ropa ) was the result of taking literally an episode in Tsangnyön Heruka’s version of the life of Marpa in which he visits N›ropa. However it turns out that the visit and Naropa’s song are derived from one of Tsangnyön’s visions and are without historical basis.

[8] See Guenther, The Life and Teaching of N›ropa (16), with the following information: born into the Shakya clan, brahman caste, his father named Zhi ba ho cha (Shantivarman) and mother dPal gyi blo gros (Srimati) who was the daughter of the great king sKal lden grags pa. They had only one daughter, the princess dPal gyi ye shes (Srıjñ›na). N›ropa’s wife was Dri med pa (Vimala) whose mother was the Brahmini Nigu. (Note that the Sanskrit names are reconstructions from the Tibetan.) These names accord with those given in the biography by Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339). However in The Life Story of the Supreme Learned N›ro Pa˚chen by Sangye Bum, the father’s name is given as the brahmin dGe ba bzang po, and his mother’s name as the brahmini dPal gyi ye shes (89-90; f. 2a6-b1), which in other places is actually the daughter’s name.

[9] The earliest biographies of N›ropa, such as that of Gampopa (1079-1153) and Lama Zhang (1123-1193), do not name a specific birthplace other than simply “the west.” All accounts of Naropa include the story of a ˜›kinı appearing to him and telling him to “go east” to find his guru Tilopa, which really only makes sense if he is somewhere in the west. In The Life Story of the Supreme Learned N›ro Pa˚chen, which claims to have compared five different biographies, Sangye Bum gives his birthplace as the “land of Moslems” (kha che’i yul), almost universally interpreted to mean Kashmir (88). (Recall that Moslems gained control of Kashmir in the 14th century). In case this is not clear, Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339) specifies “ka smi ra”, transcribing the Indian “Kashmir” as nearly as is possible in Tibetan in his version of the life story (f. 26a2). Kachö Wangpo (1350-1405) is even more specific, saying: “In the east of India, the town of Jammu (‘Dzam bu) in Srinagar (Sri na ga ra), a district of Bha ga la.” Srinagar and Jammu are easily identified in the south-eastern part of the Kashmir valley, but “bhagala” is not so clear. The biography by Lhatsun Rinchen Namgyal (1473-1557), which was translated by Herbert Guenther in The Life and Teaching of N›ropa, is a verbatim copy of Kachö Wangpo’s, a very common practice in Tibetan literature where plagiarism is truly the highest form of flattery. Dorje Dze-ö ‘s biography of Naropa, translated by Khenpo Könchog Gyaltsen in The Great Kagyu Masters, has the same information. It seems that it is only in the inexplicable identification of the Tibetan transliteration “Bha-ga-la” as “Bengal” in these two translations (despite the obvious reference to Srinigar and Jammu) that N›ropa has been widely viewed in the western world as Bengali.  But later Tibetan authors such as T›ran›tha have upheld Kashmir as his birthplace. One last twist to this research is that Sangye Bum’s description of “the land of Moslems”, identical to the one in Niguma’s life story, adds that it is also called “Kosala”! (89; f. 2a6) This ancient kingdom where the Buddha Shakyamuni spent most of his teaching life is nowhere near Kashmir or Bengal, but somewhere in the middle. This seems to come out of nowhere and I have no explanation for it. On Naropa’s birthplace see also Templeman, The Seven Instruction Lineages, 46 and 115, n.157.

[10] For example, in his translation of the Blue Annals, George Roerich notes that modern Tibetan pilgrims believe the location of Pullahari to be in Kashmir near Srinagar (400). And more interestingly, the colophon to Tilopa’s Esoteric Instructions on the Six Yogas (Chos drug gi man ngag) states that it was translated by N›ropa and Marpa in Pu˝hpahari in the place of the Moslems (kha che’i gnas), again referring to Kashmir (Toh. 2330, f. 271a2-3).

[11] Guenther, “Introduction”, The Life and Teaching of N›ropa, xi-xii.

[12]N› ro pa’i lcam mo“, Gö Lots›wa, 2:854 and again on 855 (Roerich, 2:730).

[13] Th’u’ Kvan Lama, Collected Works of bLo bzang chos-kyi nyi-ma, vol. Kha, f.3a1.

[14] Increasing Enlightened Activity: the Feast offering and Concluding Rites of Red and White Kecharı in the Shangpa Tradition (Shangs lugs mkh’a spyod dkar dmar gnyis kyi tshogs mchod dang rjes chog phrin las yar ‘phel), ST, 3:300 (f. 2b5-6).

[15] BD 1:765.

[16] Roerich, BA, 390.

[17] rus pa’i rgyan can. The actual description is “the ˜›kinı of timeless awareness with whom it is meaningful to be connected [and who] has bone ornaments” (ye shes kyi mkha’ ‘gro ma ‘brel tshad don ldan rus pa’i rgyan dang ldan pa) (Tsangnyön Heruka, 38). Fun fact: Tsangnyön Heruka was also called “Adorned with Bone Ornaments” (gTshang smyon he ru ka Rus pa’i rgyan can).

[18] Nalanda Translation Committee, The Life of Marpa the Translator, 32 and 80, respectively. The Four Seats Tantra (Catu¯pı˛ha; gDan bzhi) is a mother tantra of highest yoga tantra. In Sangye Bum’s Biography of Marpa in the Rwalung Kagyu Golden Rosary (a collection of biographies of the Middle Drukpa masters in Rwalung), Marpa receives this from ‘Phags pa rang byung (1:136). Khyungpo Naljor did not receive this tantra from Niguma either; it did not seem to be in her repertoire.

[19] grong khyer der che ba’i pa˚˜ita n›ro ta pa dang/ rin chen rdo rje gnyis bzhugs so (ST, 1:40; f. 2b4).

[20] The Blue Annals (Deb ster ngon po) by Gö Lots›wa Zhonnu Pal (1392-1481): “chos drug gi gdams pa ‘di rnams shes pa nga dang lwa ba pa ma gtogs med “(vol. 2:856). In the translation, Roerich inserts Kambalap›da as another name for Lav›pa, though this identity is not certain in this case. The statement in Khyungpo Naljor’s life story is in Shangpa texts, vol.1:92 (f.17b4).

[21] Templeman, The Seven Instruction Lineages, 33-36; and T›ran›tha’s History of Buddhism in India, 241-245. The supplementary notes in the back of the latter (408) reveal that the translators also identify him with Kambhala, as in the Blue Annals, although the author Gö Lots›wa did not make that identity explicit.

[22] Esoteric Instructions, 137; TOK, 1:526. He is also mentioned often in the various biographies of Tilopa, including Marpa’s biography of Tilopa, The Life of the Mah›siddha Tilopa, page 5 in the Tibetan transliteration. By some accounts, it was lucid clarity that Tilopa received from Lav›pa, and T›ran›tha would seem to corroborate, although there are many versions. For a discussion of this see ibid., 69-70, note 31.

[23] Templeman, T›ran›tha’s Life of K¸˝˚›c›rya/K›˚ha, 82.

[24] A Supplement to the History of the Lineages, DZ vol. 18:102-103 (ff. 2b6-3a3). For a brief and confusing discussion of Lav›pa’s identities and dates, see T›ran›tha,The Origin of Tara Tantra, 60, n. 173. Also see some stories about this siddha in Dudjom RInpoche’sThe Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism 1:485-487. Here he is identified with IndrabhÒti the Younger, son of King Ja, as his teacher, whereas T›ran›tha associates with IndrabhÒti the middle. In fact much of this confusion may arise from the multiple IndrabhÒtis.

[25] Padmasambhava/Jamgön Kongtrül, The Light of Wisdom: Vol. I, 37. Translation by Erik Pema Kunsang.

[26] Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self, 251.

[27] Campbell, Traveler in Space, 139.

American Academy of Religion 2009, Day 1

The first presenter on this panel was very well meaning and had some mildly interesting things to say, but as with much of the “Buddhism and Science” dialog, it was mostly a bunch of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Beginning with a quote from Lopez’s new book on the subject, Dr. Cho tried to argue for a slightly more positive reading of the exchange between Buddhism and science than Lopez allows for, but ended with a warning about “the prison that the label of science creates.” It seemed obvious that the talk was well-meaning, but the content was a string of sentences full of jargon, most of which I found my Orwellian self translating into simpler, clearer, language. (In case you haven’t read it, Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is a must read for any writer. In it, he argues for clear speech and writing over convoluted “academic” English.)

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