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Posts Tagged "james blumenthal"
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By James Blumenthal
The past few years has been an exciting time for scholars, historians, and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism as dozens of forgotten and lost Buddhist manuscripts have been newly discovered in Tibet. The majority of the texts were discovered at Drepung monastery, outside of Lhasa, and at the Potala Palace, though there have been smaller groups of texts found elsewhere in the Tibet. The single greatest accumulation is the group of several hundred Kadam texts dating from the eleventh to early fourteenth centuries that have been compiled and published in two sets of thirty pecha volumes (with another set of thirty due later this year). These include lojong (mind training) texts, commentaries on a wide variety of Buddhist philosophical topics from Madhyamaka to pramana (valid knowledge) to Buddha nature, and on cosmology, psychology and monastic ethics. In addition to these Kadam texts from the early followers of Atisha, a small but important find of Gelug and Sakya texts were also discovered in the Potala Palace.
The discovery of this incredible body of Buddhist literature represents perhaps the most important find of Buddhist texts since the unearthing of the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early twentieth century or the Gandharan manuscripts found in Afghanistan about twenty years ago. The publication of these texts offers the opportunity for deepening our knowledge of the historical development and the context out of which living traditions emerged creates the possibility of further enriching our understanding and experience of the traditions. Thus, this is an exciting and important discovery for many. …
LIKE A WAKING DREAM
By James Blumenthal
The first time I met Geshe-la was about 20 years ago, not long after receiving notification that I had been accepted for graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. The university had established the first doctoral program in Buddhist Studies in North America back in 1962 and Geshe-la had been a faculty member there since 1967. I was attempting to decide between two potential schools and wanted to visit the campus and meet the person who would be my Ph.D. advisor. Geshe-la told me to come by his office around noon. On that day, I walked up Bascom Hill, made my way to Van Hise Hall, and up to the twelfth floor where Geshe-la’s office and the Department of South Asian Studies looked out over Lake Mendota and the west side of Madison. I knocked on the door and he said, “Come in,” with his soon-to-be-very-familiar and cheery Tibetan accent. I opened the door and saw his warm and inviting smile. He came across as very humble and approachable. His presence was infectious. This was the former debate examiner for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, arguably the top Tibetan scholar of Buddhist philosophy in the world, and teacher to many tulkus, lamas, geshes, top Western academics, and thousands of Dharma students around the world; and he could not have made me feel more comfortable. I knew I had found my teacher.
The scene proceeded in a way that will immediately be familiar to dozens of his graduate students over his three decades at the university: he slid half of his lunch (a sandwich and apple slices) across the table to offer to share them with me. I came to learn over the years that he did this virtually every day with one or more of his students with whom he was reading a text or discussing points of doctrine over his lunch hour.
Geshe-la instilled confidence at every turn. As humble as he was, there was never any doubt about the authority with which he taught Buddhist philosophy. He always encouraged us to question ideas, but he did instill some fear when he would throw out a question in a philosophy seminar that was intended to reel in a debate partner. “Who thinks production and disintegration are simultaneous for Dharmakirti?” No matter what the student opponent would say in response to his questions, they were in trouble. They were about to debate with the master. But it was an intellectual trouble that always served to sharpen their minds (and the minds of others in the class) and deepen their understanding. We all knew that he was a master teacher. One need only look at a short list of his students (Jantse Chöje Lobsang Tenzin Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Sera Je Khensur Geshe Donyo, Jeffrey Hopkins, José Cabezón, John Makransky, etc.) to witness the fruits of following his instruction.
Geshe-la’s mind is razor sharp. In 20 years of receiving teachings from Geshe-la on a wide variety of topics, I never saw him pause with uncertainty. I never saw him hesitate for a moment to answer a student’s question. It was always as if he knew it was coming and was just waiting for the prompt to give his response.
When teaching he often would quote Indian or Tibetan master’s texts that he had memorized in order to support or help illuminate a point. The Tibetan tradition of memorizing texts is well known. But with Geshe-la, it was something extraordinary even in that context. He would regularly quote texts from memory that were well outside the standard texts required to be memorized in the geshe curriculum. Not only would he cite texts broadly from the Gelug and Indian sources, but also from other Tibetan lineages of thought and a wide range of Indian sources as well. Let me give an example to illuminate this point.
When I was near the end of my Ph.D. and was getting ready for my formal dissertation defense, I had a meeting with Geshe-la to go over some last remaining points and issues. Often when a doctoral student gets to this point they are more knowledgeable than even their doctoral advisor on their dissertation topic. I had translated and was writing on Shantarakshita’s The Ornament of the Middle Way (Madhyamakalamkara). Though it is certainly mentioned and discussed in Gelug literature, the text and its commentaries are not a part of the standard geshe curriculum in the Gelug tradition. So when I sat down with Geshe-la and argued for an interpretation of a particular point in Shantarakshita’s writings that stretched a bit outside the traditional limits of the standard Gelug presentation of that point, I (naively) did not think Geshe-la would have ammunition to argue with me on the point. I was mistaken! I had Shantarakshita’s root text opened in front of me and Geshe-la did not have a copy of the text in front of him (he had given me his personal copy as a gift when I began work on the dissertation). He heard my point and without missing a beat began his counter-argument by quoting stanzas from the root text word-for-word from memory as I read along in the open text on the table in front of me. He went on to elaborate on its subtle and implied meanings and then to argue his own point of interpretation which was incredibly profound and insightful.
Suffice it to say I did not have the luxury of knowing my dissertation topic better than my doctoral advisor. But not having that luxury is just one small example of the extraordinary gift it has been to study closely with Geshe-la for 20 years. Geshe-la is a teacher in all the best and most meaningful senses of the term. He is not only an incomparable scholar of the tradition, but he thoroughly embodies and exemplifies what he teaches. Everything I know or understand about Buddhism is thanks to Geshe-la’s kindness, skill, wisdom, compassion, and as he was so aptly named, “spontaneous patience.” I pray that I have the merit to be his student again in future lives.
James Blumenthal, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Buddhist philosophy at Oregon State University and professor of Buddhist Studies at Maitripa College. He is the author of The Ornament of The Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Shantarakshita along with more than 40 articles in scholarly journals and popular periodicals on various aspects of Buddhist thought and practice. He recently finished work with Geshe Lhundup Sopa on Steps on the Path: Vol. IV, a commentary on the “Shamatha” chapter of Lamrim Chenmo by Tsongkhapa which is forthcoming.
By James Blumenthal, Ph.D.
Nalanda Monastastic University was the greatest center of Buddhist learning in India’s glorious past. With upwards of 30,000 monks and nuns including 2,000 teachers living, studying and practicing there during its heyday, Nalanda was unmatched. Established during the Gupta Dynasty in the late 5th to early 6th century C.E. under the patronage of the Gupta king Shakraditra, the institution survived for six hundred years, through the Pala Dynasty, until ultimately being destroyed in 1203 by Turkish Muslim invaders. In 1204 the last throne-holder (abbot) of Nalanda, Shakyashribhadra, fled to Tibet. In the intervening centuries, however, many of India’s greatest Buddhist masters trained and taught at Nalanda.
Nalanda’s renown as a center for higher learning spread far. It attracted students from as far away as Greece, Persia, China and Tibet. Although Buddhism was naturally the central focus of study, other subjects including astronomy, medicine (Ayurveda), grammar, metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language, classical Hindu philosophy, non-Indian philosophy and so forth were all regularly studied. Chinese pilgrims who visited Nalanda in the 7th century C.E. give detailed accounts of the physical premises and activities in their travelogues. For example, they describe three nine-story buildings comprising the library that housed millions of titles in hundreds of thousands of volumes on a vast variety of topics!
Much like the large Gelug monasteries of Sera, Drepung and Ganden, living quarters were divided according to regions of the world from which the monks and nuns came. There are clear records of a well-populated Tibet Vihara at Nalanda during the later period. In fact, history reveals that at one point there was a Tibetan gatekeeper at Nalanda. The gatekeepers were traditionally the top scholars/debaters at the institution. Their job was to stand “guard” at the gate and defeat in debate any non-Buddhist who proposed to challenge the scholarship and ideas of the institution. If they could not defeat the gatekeeper in debate, they would not be allowed further into the monastery.
The Seventeen Pandits of Nalanda Monastery refers to a grouping of seventeen of the most important and influential Mahayana Buddhist masters from India’s past. His Holiness the Dalai Lama frequently refers to himself as a follower of the lineage of the seventeen Nalanda masters today. He even wrote an exquisite poem in praise of the seventeen.
So who were they? Historically speaking, this particular grouping of Indian masters seems to have become prominent quite recently and to be based on attributions of lam-rim (stages of the path) lineages in Tibet. A likely predecessor to this grouping is an Indian reference to the Six Ornaments of the Southern Continent (i.e., India) and the Two Excellent Ones. These eight form the core of the seventeen. The Six Ornaments first include Nagarjuna (c. 2nd century C.E.), the revealer of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the systematizer and founder of the Middle Way (Madhyamaka) school of Buddhist philosophy. The most famous treatise of his six texts of reasoning is The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, probably the single most analyzed, commented upon and discussed philosophical treatise in Buddhism’s history. The second of the six ornaments is Aryadeva (c. 3rd century C.E.) who is sometimes referred to as Nagarjuna’s heart disciple and sometimes simply as his first authoritative commentator. Like Nagarjuna, Aryadeva is universally revered as an authoritative voice for all subsequent Middle Way commentators and is most well known for his treatise The Four Hundred Stanzas.
In addition to the two Middle Way school masters, included among the six ornaments are the two earliest masters from the Mind-Only school (Yogachara/Chittamatra): Asanga (300-390 C.E.), the founder, and his disciple and half-brother, Vasubandhu (c. 4th century C.E.) one of the system’s earliest and most authoritative commentators. In addition to his own treatises, Asanga is also famous, according to tradition, for retrieving the five Maitreya Buddha texts1 directly from Maitreya in his pure land, Tushita. With regards to Vasubandhu, before becoming a leading exponent of the Mind-Only school, he wrote a famous treatise from the perspective of the Great Exposition school (Vaibhashika) entitled The Treasure of Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha) which is utilized extensively in Tibetan scholastic studies. Traditionally, seven years is dedicated to the study of this text in the Gelug geshe curriculum.
Two additional Mind-Only school proponents round out the six ornaments: Dignaga (6th century C.E.) and Dharmakirti (600-660 C.E.). The two are most famous as the groundbreakers in Buddhist logic and epistemology. Specifically, they wrote philosophical treatises on the contents and means of accruing valid knowledge. They argued that from the Buddhist perspective there were two sources of valid knowledge: logical inference and direct perception. Much of their writings were detailed elaborations on these topics.
The Two Excellent Ones refers to the two great Vinaya masters: Gunaprabha (c. 9th century C.E.) and Shakyaprabha. Gunaprabha was a disciple of Vasubandhu’s and is most famous for his treatise, the Vinayasutra. Shakyaprabha was a disciple of Shantarakshita’s (also among the seventeen) and the other major teacher of vinaya among the seventeen. He is particularly associated Mulasarvastivada-vinaya line which has been followed in Tibet since the time of the early Dharma King, Ralpachen (born c. 806 C.E.). His teacher Shantarakshita began this ordination lineage in Tibet when he ordained the first seven Tibetan monks and founded Samye Monastery.
Beyond the Six Ornaments and Two Excellent Ones, are nine additional Indian Buddhist masters, each of whom profoundly impacted the shapes of Indian and/or Tibetan Buddhism for centuries.
Buddhapalita (470-550 C.E.) was one of the great commentators on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka thought. He is the earliest Indian Madhyamika specifically identified as a proponent of the sub-school of Madhyamaka known in Tibet as the Middle Way Consequence school (Prasangika-Madhyamaka). He received this designation in Tibet due to his use of a form of reasoning that drew out the absurd logical consequences of the philosophical rivals of Madhyamikas when he commented on Nagarjuna’s root text on wisdom.
Buddhapalita was subsequently criticized by another Madhyamaka master, Bhavaviveka (500-578 C.E.). He argued that a proper Madhyamaka commentator ought to do more than show the absurdities of other’s views; they also have a responsibility to establish the view of emptiness and to do so with autonomous inferences (svatantranumana). He subsequently became known in Tibet as the “founder” and primary proponent of a sub-school of Madhyamaka known as the Middle Way Autonomy school (Svatantrika-Madhyamaka).
Chandrakirti (600-650 C.E.) is revered by many in Tibet as the founder of the Middle Way Consequence school, often regarded as the highest Buddhist philosophical explanation of reality. He famously came to the defense of Buddhapslita’s use of consequentialist reasoning contra Bhavaviveka’s criticism. In a line of thinking further developed by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 CE) they argued that a Madhyamaka philosopher ought not to utilize autonomous inferences because the very use of that sort of reasoning entailed the acceptance of an inherent nature in the subject of the argument. Since the existence of an inherent nature in anything was precisely what Nagarjuna was refuting, the use of autonomous inference seemed like a fatal flaw for a Madhyamaka. Though historical evidence suggests that Chandrakirti’s views likely did not have extensive support in India until the late period there, by the 13th century in Tibet, his views on a proper understanding of Madhyamaka began to dominate the philosophical landscape and continue to today.
Shantarakshita (725-788 C.E.) was a towering figure in late Indian Buddhist philosophy and also immensely influential in Tibet. Philosophically, he is famous for integrating the three major lines of Mahayana philosophy into an integrated coherent system. These were the Madhyamaka, the Yogachara and the logico-epistemological thought of Dharmakirti. Beyond India, he spent the last seventeen years of his life in Tibet, ordaining its first monks and serving as abbot of it first monastery. Moreover, probably nobody has exerted a greater influence on Tibetan Buddhism in terms of the way in which Tibetans approach philosophy. Shantarakshita virtually taught Tibetans how to do philosophy during the early dissemination of the Dharma there.
Two of Shantarakshita’s disciples (in addition to Shakyabhadra mentioned above) are also included in the list of seventeen. Kamalashila (c. 8th century C.E.) likewise was an immensely important figure in India and Tibet. Like his teacher, Kamalashila wrote extensively on Madhyamaka and pramana (logic and epistemology) as well as on meditation theory and practice. His three Stages of Meditation (Bhavanakrama) texts are among the most cited in traditional Tibet expositions on the topics. Moreover, also like his teacher, he spent extensive time in Tibet during the early dissemination. He famously and successfully defended the Indian gradual approach to enlightenment at the Great Debate at Samye (also called the Council of Lhasa) against the instantaneous approach advocated by Hvashang Mohoyen, the Chinese master. Tibetan histories often recount that since that time Tibetan have followed the Indian method. Haribhadra (700-770 C.E.), the last of Shantarakshita’s disciples included in the group of seventeen, wrote the most famous and commonly utilized of the 21 Indian commentaries on The Ornament of Clear Realizations by Maitreya and the Mahayana path system in general. The other major commentator on The Ornament of Clear Realizations to be included among the seventeen is Vimuktisena (c. 6th century C.E.) whose text Illuminating the Twenty Thousand: A Commentary on the Ornament is likewise extensively cited by subsequent Tibetan authors.
Shantideva (c. 8th century C.E.) composed what is perhaps the most important and influential classic on how to practice in the Mahayana tradition: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacaryavatara) while a monk at Nalanda. His text on the development of bodhichitta and the practice of the six perfections is revered and studied extensively by all Tibetan traditions. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often refers to his favorite passage in Buddhist literature as coming from the dedication section of this text: “As long as space endures, as long as sentient being remain, may I too remain, to dispel the miseries of the world.”
The final master included among the seventeen was the Bengali scholar-adept Atisha (980-1054 C.E.), who was a critical figure in the later dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet. Like many of the others on this list, Atisha’s impact on the shape of Tibetan Buddhism was immense. His classic, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathpradipa) is widely regarded as the root text on the graduated stages of the path presentation found in Tibetan classics like Je Tsongkhapa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (also commonly referred to by the abbreviated Tibetan name, Lamrim Chenmo), Gampopa’s Jeweled Ornament of Liberation and Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher among others. In addition to the stages of the path teachings, Atisha also introduced the lojong, or mind training, tradition of Mahayana practice in Tibet. Lojong teachings are quintessential Mahayana teachings in that their aim is to eliminate both the self-cherishing attitude and self-grasping by teaching means to cultivate the altruistic compassion of bodhichitta and the direct realization of emptiness. Like the stages of the path teachings, the mind training tradition is one that is embraced by all Tibetan lineages.
Together the seventeen great masters of Nalanda monastery represent the real high points of Indian Mahayana. The inspiration and teachings of these great masters continue to bless practitioners of the Mahayana to the present day.
James Blumenthal, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Buddhist philosophy at Oregon State University and professor of Buddhist Studies at Maitripa College. He is the author of The Ornament of The Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Shantarakshita along with more than 40 articles in scholarly journals and popular periodicals on various aspects of Buddhist thought and practice. He recently finished work with Geshe Lhundup Sopa on Steps on the Path: Vol. IV, a commentary on the “Shamatha” chapter of Lamrim Chenmo by Tsongkhapa which is due for publication in the fall.
1. The five Maitreya texts are: The Ornament of Clear Realization (Abhisamayalamkara), The Ornament of Mahayana Sutras (Mahayanasutramkara), Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes (Madhyantavibhaga), Distinguishing Phenomena and the Nature of Phenomena (Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga), and The Sublime Continuum (Uttaratantra).
This collection of engaged Buddhism resources is a continuation from “Compassion in Action” by James Blumenthal, Ph.D. from the April-June 2011 issue of Mandala located on page 44.
Chappell, David Wellington. Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace. 3rd ed. Somerville, Mass: Wisdom Publ., 2002.
Eppsteiner, Fred (Ed.). The Path of Compassion: Writing on Socially Engaged Buddhism. Rev. 2nd ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1988.
Gyatso, Tenzin (Dalai Lama XIV). Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together. New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010. Print.
King, Sallie B.. Being Benevolence: The Social Ethics of Engaged Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism. 3rd ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1998.
Rinpoche, Samdhong, and Donovan Roebert. Uncompromising Truth for a Compromised World: Tibetan Buddhism and Today’s World. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2006.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society. Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1992.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. Conflict, Culture, Change: Engaged Buddhism in a Globalizing World. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005.
Queen, Christopher S.. Engaged Buddhism in the West. Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 2000.
Queen, Christopher S., and Sallie B. King. Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Watts, Jonathan S. (Ed.). Rethinking Karma: The Dharma of Social Justice. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2009.
Online Academic Journals that Publish on Engaged Buddhism
Blumenthal, James. “Toward A Buddhist Theory of Justice.”Journal of Global Buddhism Vol. 10 (2009): 321 – 349.
TURNING THE WHEEL
By James Blumenthal
The “three turnings of the wheel of the dharma” mark three historical points at which new developments in Buddhist thought emerged in India. “Turning the Wheel” is a metaphor for the setting in motion of new teachings. Though the teachings of all three turnings are said to have been spoken by the historical Buddha, the second and third turnings, those characterized as Mahayana, were not publicly known until centuries after the passing of Shakyamuni Buddha.
The language of the three turnings was first found in the most famous sutra from the third turning, The Sutra Unraveling the Thought. In that sutra, a disciple respectfully asks the omniscient Buddha about what appears to his limited mind to be a contradiction in the Buddha’s teachings. He asks the Buddha to explain why he explained that things do exist in the teachings from the first turning of the wheel and that they are empty of true existence in the second turning of the wheel. The Buddha’s response to this question forms the basis of the third turning of the wheel. Tibetans traditionally frame the new developments, which formed the basis of new philosophical schools such as the Middle Way school (second turning) and the Mind-Only school (third turning), in this way to help make sense of the different presentations on the nature of reality found in the Buddhist canon. It is traditionally explained that the Buddha taught the different turnings to different disciples according to their propensities and capacities for understanding.
The first turning includes those teachings given by the Buddha in the earliest historical period of Buddhism in general, and Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching career in particular. Many of these teachings are fundamental to all schools of Buddhism such as the four noble truths, the eightfold path, selflessness (anatman), dependent-arising, impermanence, the five aggregates, etc. Perhaps the most famous of the many discourses (Pali: sutta, Sanskrit: sutra) of the Buddha from the first turning is the one that records the Buddha’s very first teaching at Deer Park to the first five disciples entitled The Turning of the Wheel of the Dhamma Sutta. In actuality, virtually all of the contents of the Pali version of the Buddhist canon, that version utilized by Theravada Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia today, are considered by Tibetans to be teachings from the first turning of the wheel. …
Professor of Buddhism, Jim Blumenthal, recollects his early days as an activist for the environmental non-profit Greenpeace and considers the Buddhist philosophical imperatives to bringing witness to injustice …
Let me begin with a confession. Though I was quite active in the environmental movement in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (I worked full-time for the international environmental group, Greenpeace, for four and a half years, and was arrested more than ten times for non-violent acts of civil disobedience in defense of the planet), other than conscious living, I have not done a whole lot recently. The inner-activist in me feels guilty.
I was already a Buddhist during my environmental activist days. I saw environmental activism as Dharma activity. After all, the Buddhist notion of dependent-origination, the idea that all phenomena arise in dependence on an interwoven web of causes and conditions resonates quite well with the basic tenets of deep ecology. When we harm one living being, we – directly or indirectly – harm all living beings. As a Buddhist practicing in the Mahayana tradition, had I not committed to care and work for the well-being of all living beings? Is that not the responsibility that one training to become a bodhisattva accepts?
I found that this Buddhist sense of personal responsibility resonated also with a tenet put forth in the Quaker faith – that we have a responsibility to bear witness, and help to bring the witness of our community to the injustices that we are aware of that are harming living beings. The more people in society who are aware of an injustice, the less likely it is that society as a whole will allow it to continue. There is a profound democratic sentiment underlying this idea….
Read the complete article as a PDF.
James Blumenthal is an Associate Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Oregon State University and a Professor of Buddhist History and Tibetan Language at Maitripa Institute in Portland, Oregon.
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