Kevin R. D. Shepherd



What are your views on Buddhism? More specifically, the controversy about the Zen exponent D. T. Suzuki. In a wider context, Westerners are often puzzled at the very different traditions within Buddhism, to some extent perhaps explained by geographical factors. Buddhism started with a relatively simple, straightforward teaching, but eventually acquired an extensive array of gods, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas that can prove bewildering. How do you approach these matters? The factor of Tibet now seems to be significant in contemporary commentaries. Do you have a perspective in that subject?



Necessity for Detailed Study


D. T. Suzuki, Zen, and Japanese Nationalism


Hu Shih Version of Chan and Revisions


Sudden and Gradual in Chinese Buddhism


Shakyamuni Buddha and Early Indian Buddhism


Nagarjuna to Mantrayana


Tibetan Buddhism

20.1  Necessity for Detailed Study

My introduction to this religion occurred in 1965, when I visited the Buddhist Society of London. However, I did not commence a detailed study until the early 1970s, when I began to borrow books on Buddhism from Downing College Library in Cambridge. The Mahayana traditions were my favoured subject at that period. One task was to understand how the various sects and teachings had spread from India to Central Asia, Tibet, China, Japan, and yet other countries. The diversity of teaching, ethnic complexities, and the time-scale of many centuries, comprised a challenging field of investigation.

I discovered that many Western enthusiasts of Buddhism did not apply themselves to any detailed study of this religious phenomenon. They expected to get "enlightenment" by adopting the practice of meditation. There were many disappointments. The practitioners often opted to follow a particular tradition, usually Zen (associated with China and Japan) or Vajrayana (associated with Tibet). I did sample both of those traditions, but without becoming a partisan (Pointed Observations, 2005, pp. 43-5).

What interested me was the Buddhist phenomenon as a whole, and from a historical and philosophical standpoint, not from any sectarian one. How many times did I find Zen elevated above all other religions and philosophies? There were numerous instances of that approach available in popular literature; I developed an allergy accordingly. I became aware that specialist scholarship was probing Zen (Chan) in a more analytical spirit than generally known.


hu shih

l to r: Daisetz T. Suzuki, Hu Shih

I returned to these matters in the 1980s at CUL (Cambridge University Library). I was able to track ongoing books like Professor Bernard Faure’s highly rated The Rhetoric of Immediacy: A Cultural Critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism (1991). A version of Zen was included in my Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (2004), pp. 103-122. Here I incorporated a topic marginalised for many years prior to the 1990s, namely the debate between the Japanese savant D. T. Suzuki and the Chinese scholar Hu Shih. Both of these men were University Professors; their respective worldviews were conflicting.

A controversy now centres upon D. T. Suzuki, a Zen exponent criticised in relation to Japanese nationalism of the late Meiji era and the early twentieth century. The full argument has some strong extensions. There was a general tendency amongst Japanese Zen Buddhists, of the early twentieth century, to adopt nationalist attitudes of militarism, inspired by imperialist agendas. This discrepant trend was forgotten and ignored in the subsequent phase of Western enthusiasm for Zen. The compromised situation of Zen "enlightenment" invites due scepticism.

20.2  D. T. Suzuki, Zen, and Japanese Nationalism

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966) became widely regarded in the West as the major expositor of Zen Buddhism. Some commentators state that he achieved enlightenment. He became a Professor of Buddhist philosophy at Otani University in Kyoto from 1921, and later a visiting Professor at Columbia University during 1952-7. His output should not be underestimated. He could speak seven languages and wrote many books. He contributed such influential works as Essays in Zen Buddhism (3 vols, 1927-34) and Zen and Japanese Culture (first edn 1938; second edn 1959). Another major book was his Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra (1932). Perhaps more widely read were his Manual of Zen Buddhism (1934), Living by Zen (1949), and The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind (1949).

D. T. Suzuki

The reputation of Suzuki for enlightenment derived from his early years. While studying at Tokyo University as a young man, he took up the practice of Zen at weekends, and during vacations, with the Rinzai Zen priest Soyen Shaku (1859-1919). This occurred at a monastery of Engakuji Zen Temple in Kamakura. Suzuki did not become an ordained monk, instead remaining a layman. His fabled enlightenment in 1896 is associated with the practice of koan, enigmatic phrases later becoming popular in America. Suzuki married an American Theosophist in 1911. Conservative Japanese Zen practitioners regard him as a populariser of Zen.

Suzuki’s version of Zen was innovative and apologist, following a Buddhist trend occurring in the Meiji era (1868-1912). His version of bushido, the cult of the sword, is very easy to criticise. Suzuki was the son of an army doctor, and the descendant of a samurai family. I questioned the status of enlightenment (satori) credited to Professor Suzuki by Western partisans of Zen (Shepherd, Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One, 1995, p.187 note 177). Descriptions of satori are often vague, making this experience easy to claim by persons far less accomplished than Suzuki. To his credit, the Japanese savant is reported to have been unimpressed by the Beatniks Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; the occasion was a meeting they gained with him in New York in 1958. Suzuki apparently discerned the alcoholic problem of Kerouac. The Beat innovators believed they understood Zen; others were in strong doubt of their orientation.

After his Zen phase at Engakuji Temple, in 1897 Suzuki moved to America, where he remained until 1908. In later years, many Westerners came to regard him as a Zen teacher. However, he rejected that role, instead adopting the career of a writer and lecturer. In 1949, Suzuki said to one Western enquirer: "I am a talker not a teacher." His own report, of his 1896 satori at Engakuji, claimed the "real state of samadhi" in ceasing to be conscious of the Mu koan prescribed by his mentor Soyen Shaku. According to Suzuki, this experience enabled satori or enlightenment. The satori was endorsed by "a series of checking questions" in a formal interview with Shaku (Richard M. Jaffe, introduction, Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki Vol. 1, University of California Press, 2014, p. xxii). Both of these "enlightened" entities were sponsors of the Japanese war effort.

Suzuki has been accused of Zen nationalism. This theme is expressed by such scholars as Professor Robert H. Sharf. Zen nationalism involved a disconcerting factor generally ignored in the West during the lifetime of Suzuki:

It was no coincidence that the notion of Zen as the foundation for Japanese moral, aesthetic, and spiritual superiority emerged full force in the 1930s, just as the Japanese were preparing for imperial expansion in East and Southeast Asia. (Sharf, Whose Zen: Zen Nationalism Revisited, 1995)

Suzuki is here viewed in terms of presenting the Japanese Zen experience as both unique and universal. The deducible claim of some exponents like Suzuki was: "Zen is truth itself, allowing those with Zen insight to claim a privileged perspective on all the great religious faiths" (Sharf 1995:46). Zen uniqueness was introduced to the West "through the activities of an elite circle of internationally minded Japanese intellectuals and globe--trotting Zen priests, whose missionary zeal was often second only to their vexed fascination with Western culture" (Sharf, The Zen of Japanese Nationalism, 1993).

Sharf observes that Japanese military victories, including defeat of the Chinese in 1895, influenced a national tendency to view Japanese accomplishments with reference to bushido, the way of the warrior. "The fact that the term bushido itself is rarely attested in pre-Meiji literature did not discourage Japanese intellectuals and propagandists from using the concept to explicate and celebrate the cultural and spiritual superiority of the Japanese" (Sharf, Japanese Nationalism, linked above). A work by Nitobe Inazo entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan, was published in English in 1900. This was the tip of the iceberg. "A generation of unsuspecting Europeans and Americans were subjected to Meiji caricatures of the lofty spirituality, the selflessness, and the refined aesthetic sensibilities of the Japanese race" (ibid).

Soyen Shaku

The first English language books on Zen emphasised a close relationship between Zen and the fashionable "way of the samurai." The first of these books was published in 1906, namely Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot by Soyen Shaku (1860-1919), a priest of Rinzai Zen who was the abbot of temples at Kamakura. He was also a teacher of Suzuki. Shaku included, in his published sermons, a brief defence of Japanese military aggression in Manchuria. The priest asserted: "War is not necessarily horrible, provided that it is fought for a just and honourable cause" (cited in Sharf, Japanese Nationalism). The nationalists viewed military aggression as honourable, in the cause of the divine Emperor. The Zen abbot glossed war with the statement: "Many material human bodies may be destroyed, many hearts may be broken, but from a broader point of view these sacrifices are so many phoenixes consumed in the sacred fire of spirituality" (cited in Sharf, art. cit.).

Soyen Shaku was keen to depict Westerners as being generally unsuited to Eastern mysticism. Large numbers of the aliens became converts to Zen and samurai lore. Many years later, some Westerners were keen to pay high prices for lethal Japanese swords, which gained a repute as being warrior talismans of a virtually transcendent category.

Soyen Shaku served as a chaplain to the Japanese army during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. In 1904, the pacifist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote to Shaku, requesting the abbot to join him in denouncing the war. Soyen Shaku refused, demonstrating a nationalist spirit. After that war, Shaku attributed the victory of Japan to the samurai code (Wikipedia Soyen Shaku, accessed 12/01/2019).

The second Zen book in English was Religion of the Samurai: A Study of Zen Philosophy and Discipline in China and Japan (1913). The author here was the Soto Zen priest Nukariya Kaiten (1867-1934), a university professor and a friend of Suzuki. One message in his book is that only in Japan was Buddhism still alive; the author promotes the idea that pure Zen could only be found in Japan. Moreover, "Zen is an ideal doctrine for a newly emergent martial Japan" (Sharf, Japanese Nationalism). Nukariya Kaiten stated: "It is Zen that modern Japan, especially after the Russo-Japanese War, has acknowledged as an ideal doctrine for her rising generation" (cited in Sharf 1993). Kaiten "argues that the spirit and ethic of Zen is essentially identical with that of the samurai" (Sharf 1995). Late Meiji era Zen apologists were keen on bushido and national spirit, an ideology blending easily with themes of imperial conquest and unconditional obedience to the Emperor.

Suzuki furthered the connection of Zen with bushido. "The notion that Zen is somehow related to Japanese culture in general, and bushido in particular, is familiar to Western students of Zen through the writings of D. T. Suzuki" (Sharf 1993). Suzuki remained a middle class Zen layman. Much of the writing about his life is "hagiographical in nature." Sharf further describes Suzuki as "a product of Meiji New Buddhism," meaning the reaction to government opposition and loss of income and land for Buddhist temples. The defensive partisans "readily admitted to the corruption, decay and petty sectarian rivalries that characterised the late Tokugawa Buddhist establishment." The new Buddhists of the late Meiji era "actively appropriated the ideological agenda of government propagandists.... They became willing accomplices in the promulgation of kokutai (national polity) ideology - the attempt to render Japan a culturally homogenous and spiritually evolved nation politically unified under the divine rule of the emperor" (Sharf 1993).

Despite the popular accolades gained by Suzuki in the West, Paul Demieville, "perhaps the greatest scholar of East Asian Buddhism of his day, decried the manner in which Suzuki attempted to embrace the whole of Japanese culture under the banner of Zen" (Sharf 1993).

Various critiques of Suzuki emerged in subsequent years. A strong issue is that of his alleged support for Japanese military aggression in Asia, including the Pacific War dating to 1937-1945. One of his emphases was "the sword that kills and the sword that gives life." Some have seen in such phrases "at the very least tacit support for Japanese militarism and expansionism in Asia" (Richard M. Jaffe, introduction, Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki Vol. 1, University of California Press, 2014, p. xvii). Suzuki definitely supported the earlier Russo--Japanese war and the colonisation of Korea. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, exploiting natural resources and cheap labour. The invaders forced Koreans to adopt the language and religion of Japan (primarily Shinto).

In 1904, Suzuki invoked Buddhism in his attempt "to convince Japanese youth to die willingly for their country." This was eight years after his "enlightenment." Satori decoded to warcry. In the Russo-Japanese war, 47,000 young Japanese men lost their lives in the death programme advocated by Suzuki, Soyen Shaku, and many other zealous Buddhist exponents. Subsequent articles of Suzuki, publshed during the Second World War, have also gained criticism. See Brian Victoria, "Zen as a Cult of Death in the Wartime Writings of D.T. Suzuki," The Asia-Pacific Journal (2013). The accusation is here lodged that Suzuki weaponised Zen, "turning Zen into nothing less than a cult of death."

In 1941, certain writings of Suzuki on Zen and bushido, appeared in Japanese military journals. This gesture of the author cannot be considered a gesture of pristine Buddhist pacifism. However, those writings of 1941 do not employ themes like "Japanese spirit" (yamato damashii), dying for the imperial cause, or State Shinto, concepts common in the output of other Japanese intellectuals of that era (Jaffe 2014:xviii). Suzuki's own agenda wished "to displace the increasing emphasis on Shinto as the foundation of Japanese life" (ibid:xvii).

The partisan Jaffe interpretation is described in terms of being "calculated to neutralise the criticisms that, since the 1990s, have destabilised his [Suzuki's] heroic image as a custodian of Asian tradition." Quote from George Lazopoulos, Zen Again: Reconsidering D. T. Suzuki (2015).

A defensive version of the contested situation is: "Like many Japanese intellectuals of his generation, Suzuki passively accepted Japanese imperial expansion and the increasingly military aggression against China in the 1930s, although Suzuki did later admit his guilt for his failure to be more outspoken" (Jaffe 2014:xvii). On several occasions during the late 1930s, and 1940s, he wrote (in private letters) that the war in Asia, and against the Allies, "would cause great harm to Japan" (ibid:xviii). In a letter of 1941, Suzuki commented: "This war is certain to take us to the brink of destruction - indeed we can say that we are already there" (ibid). By that time, Suzuki could evidently foresee the backlash from America.

The photograph on book cover shows Japanese monks at the Echizen Nagahira Temple performing military drill, 1930s

An American scholar of Zen has contributed the significant book Zen at War (1997; second edn, 2006), and also Zen War Stories (2003). Professor Brian (Daizen) Victoria reveals that Zen Buddhist traditions supported the aggressive political and military disposition of Japan during the first half of the twentieth century, and even afterwards. Almost all the Japanese Buddhist temples strongly supported Japanese militarism. A basic belief discernible is that war was necessary to implement dharma (Buddhist religion) in Asia. This disconcerting development was criticised by Chinese Buddhists.

The significant output of Brian Victoria "revealed that many leading Zen masters and scholars, some of whom became well known in the West in the postwar era, had been vehement if not fanatical supporters of Japanese militarism" (Victoria, Zen as a Cult of Death, 2013, article linked above). In response to these revelations, "a number of branches of the Zen school, including the Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect, acknowledged their war responsibility" (ibid). This apology appeared in 2001, over half a century after the heavy casualty Pacific War ended in 1945.

Victoria has shown that Zen theory strongly influenced the Japanese military. A prominent example was Lt. Colonel Sugimoto Goro (1900-1937), who died in battle in China, hit by a grenade fragment. His famous posthumous book Taigi (Great Duty) was popular amongst young Japanese officers. He wrote: "Through my practice of Zen I am able to get rid of my self. In facilitating the accomplishment of this, Zen becomes, as it is, the true spirit of the imperial military." Goro described his role in terms of "soldier Zen." His death was honoured by Zen communities, who regarded him as a surpassing and god-like entity. Goro is well known for a nationalist theme of unity between the Japanese Emperor and his subjects:

The reason that Zen is necessary for soldiers is that all Japanese, especially soldiers, must live in the spirit of the unity of the sovereign and subjects, eliminating their ego and getting rid of their self. It is exactly the awakening to the nothingness (mu) of Zen that is the fundamental spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects.

Goro was treated as a national hero by his teacher Yamazaki Ekiju, leader of Rinzai Zen. Ekiju was a fervent nationalist who celebrated the Emperor. Japanese wartime Zen leaders interpreted a Buddhist doctrine of the non-existence of self in an improvised manner, meaning complete willingness to die in the service of Emperor and state. This was definitely not the original meaning of such concepts (Victoria, "A Buddhological Critique of Soldier-Zen in Wartime Japan," in M. Jerryson and M. Juergensmeyer, eds., Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2010). The war against China was justified by soldier Zen. Obedience to the Emperor was first and foremost.

The crux of this situation is: "Institutional Buddhist leaders were united as one in their fervent promotion of the war effort" (Victoria, Zen War Stories, New York: Routledge 2003, p. 226). Rinzai leader Yamazaki Ekiju wrote; "The faith of the Japanese people is a faith that should be centred on His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor" (ibid). The Zen communities were monarchist at this period.

Lt. Colonel Sugimoto Goro

The Zen soldier Sugimoto Goro affirmed that, amongst Buddhists, only the Zen movement had enshrined the Emperor in image formats featuring Amitabha Buddha. A wartime emphasis of influential layman D. T. Suzuki is also revealing: most of Japan's problems could be solved instantly "if the warrior spirit, in its purity, were to be imbibed by all classes in Japan" (Victoria 2003:202).

Zen exponents of that era employed themes of no-self and non-duality "to legitimate Japanese militarism and indoctrinate soldiers with an ideology of self-sacrifice." This tendency jettisoned the essential Buddhist precept of ahimsa or non-violence. A loophole for this dismissal was the nondual doctrine of emptiness (shunyata). The reported exhortation of a seventeenth century Zen teacher to a warrior patron reads: "The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness.... The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword." This relativist message was tailor-made for samurai actions of killing. Zen was accordingly often criticised by other Buddhist traditions for antinomian dismissal of monastic ethical precepts (James L. Ford, The Divine Quest, East and West, State University of New York Press, 2016, p. 297).

In 1941, the Soto Zen leader Omori Zenkai (d.1947) was a strong supporter of Japanese militarism. He wrote: "It is in killing the idea of the small self that we are reborn as a true citizen of Japan" (Victoria, Zen War Stories, p. 116). A serious confusion is evident. Soldier Zen, and the Japanese army in general, was not killing the small self but instead victim bodies that became corpses.

Brian Victoria has revealed how a group of Zen-inspired terrorists assassinated two major political figures in 1932. An allied group killed the Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, with catastrophic effects for Japanese democracy. The terrorist leader was Inoue Nissho (d.1967), an army spy who resorted to Zen meditation in 1921. He reputedly gained “enlightenment” under the famous Rinzai Zen master Yamamoto Gempo. Nissho subsequently indoctrinated young patriots who became his accomplices in terrorism. These nationalist assassins were sentenced to life imprisonment, but released in 1940. Nissho then became an adviser to the Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro during World War II.

To train his terrorist band, Inoue Nissho employed traditional Zen methods, including meditation and koan. He at first only envisaged legal political activism. By 1930, he resolved upon killing, drawing inspiration from the koan collection called Mumonkan. One of his group later gave the explanation: “We sought to extinguish Self itself.” In his own court testimony, Nissho disclosed: “I was primarily guided by [Mahayana] Buddhist thought in what I did.” He also stated: “I transcend reason and act completely upon intuition” (quotes from Victoria, Zen Terror). The extreme confusions here resulting from putative Zen enlightenment, and the use of koan riddles, are relevant to remember.

In 1934, the Zen master Yamamoto Gempo defended the terrorists in his court testimony. "Yamamoto was so highly regarded by his fellow Zen masters that they chose him to head the entire Rinzai Zen sect in the years following Japan's defeat in August 1945" (source last linked).

In his revealing output, Brian Victoria has also emphasised an obscured reference found in the Suzuki article Rush Forward Without Hesitation (1941). This article appeared in Kaiko Kiji, the Imperial Army Officers Journal, in June 1941. Suzuki there states: "I believe one should pay special attention to the fact that Zen became united with the sword." This is a reference to soldier Zen. The wartime writings of Suzuki are a headache for his partisans, not to mention pacifists and Buddhist believers in ahimsa (non-violence). Suzuki praised medieval warlords like Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen for demonstrating the unity of Zen and the sword. These two sixteenth century samurai "were responsible for the deaths of thousands of their enemies and their own forces, each one of them attempting to conquer Japan. Suzuki lumps these warlords together as exemplars of what can be accomplished with the proper mental attitude acquired through Zen training" (Victoria, Zen as a Cult of Death).

Suzuki became ascendant in the 1930s with such works as Essays in Zen Buddhism. He had an influential habit of describing Indian Buddhism as inferior to the Japanese version. Suzuki expressed "a harsh view of the fate of Buddhism, particularly Chan, in China" (Jaffe 2014:xvi). He even stated: "There is no Zen in China worth speaking of" (ibid:xvii).

Less well known are Suzuki articles on the Nazi regime, appearing in a Kyoto newspaper of 1936. "When read in the context of the times, Suzuki's articles are actually a cleverly worded apologia for the Nazis" (Victoria, "D. T. Suzuki, Zen and the Nazis," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11 no. 4, 2013). The Zen exponent is disconcerting on the subject of Hitler's attitude to Jews. Brian Victoria here reminds that the content of these articles "reflected the pro-Nazi thinking of many Japanese at that time."

Like [Count] Durckheim, but unlike Herrigel, both Yasutani [Roshi] and Suzuki succeeded in leaving behind (or rather 'burying') their wartime pasts, presenting themselves to the Western world as the epitome of Eastern spirituality. (Victoria, A Zen Nazi in Wartime Japan, 2014)

This evocative reflection is significant. Karlfried Graf Durckheim (1896-1988) encountered Suzuki during a residence in Japan during WW2, when Durckheim was an agent for Nazi propaganda, while favouring comparison of German militarism with bushido. Durckheim was subsequently further confused by psychotherapists like Jung and Neumann; he even became regarded as a "Zen master." Eugen Herrigel (d.1955) wrote a book in German translated as Zen in the Art of Archery (1948; trans. 1953), associated with the Nazis. Herrigel joined the Nazi party in 1937, and was subsequently found guilty of collaboration with Nazism. Suzuki nevertheless praised Herrigel in a preface he wrote for the English edition of the latter's book. The lucid Brian Victoria comments: "Zen's connection to archery is primarily a postwar 'myth' that Herrigel himself promoted" (Victoria 2014, article linked above). See also Hans Joachim Bieber, Zen and War: A Commentary on Brian Victoria and Karl Baier's Analysis of D. T. Suzuki and Count Durckheim (2015).

Yasutani Haku'un Roshi

Yasutani Haku'un Roshi (1885-1973) was a Soto Zen priest who became a reputedly "enlightened master" in America after World War Two. Well known Western exponents of Zen promoted his sanitised teaching. However, Yasutani wrote a disconcerting wartime book (in Japanese) on the Soto Zen founder Dogen (d.1253). Zen Master Dogen and the Shushogi (Tokyo, 1943) was translated into German for the edification of Durckheim. That book contained the author's extremist right wing views. Yasutani, a committed imperialist, desired to save the people of Asia from America and Britain in the Japanese war project.

Victoria has revealed how, in his book of 1943, Yasutani expressed fervent nationalism, emphasised obedience to the Emperor, and castigated "demonic teachings of the Jews." The anti-Semitic component is pronounced. The Roshi here patriotically alleged that Dogen expressed reverence for the Japanese Emperor. Yasutani later travelled to the West several times during the 1960s, and was featured to advantage in Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen (1969). This influential work made Yasutani famous. According to Victoria, the Roshi never acknowledged his wartime nationalist exposition. The relevant details came (for Western Zen enthusiasts) as "a jarring, visceral kick in the gut that forces a confrontation with such issues as the nature of enlightened mind" (The Hardest Koan, 1999).

In his 1943 nationalist outpouring, Yasutani Roshi wrote: "Of course one should kill, killing as many as possible. One should, fighting hard, kill every one in the enemy army." This was six years after the war horror known as Nanjing Massacre, when violent mass rape accompanied the high death toll created by Japanese soldiers in the Chinese capital. The details can shock sensitive readers to a substantial extent.

The cult of death subsequently lost popularity. "Yasutani's support of the Japanese military establishment was ignored, denied, or diminished; now, new research reveals Yasutani's rabid anti-Semitism at the height of World War Two if not before" (The Hardest Koan, article last linked)

Another Soto Zen priest, Masanaga Reiho, glorified the reckless young Kamikaze suicide pilots in 1945:

The source of the spirit of the Special Attack Forces [Kamikaze] lies in the denial of the individual self and the rebirth of the soul, which takes upon itself the burden of history. From ancient times Zen has described this conversion of mind as the achievement of complete enlightenment. (Victoria, Zen at War, p. 139)

Professor Victoria comments that this emphasis (shared by Durckheim) was tantamount to claiming that "typically teenage pilots" were fully enlightened. The nationalist bias here ignored pressure exerted on the pilots, from military commanders, to sacrifice their lives for the imperialist cause (Victoria 2014, article linked above).

The diaries of D. T. Suzuki reveal that he was in contact on forty-four occasions (between 1930 and 1945) with the military extremist Count Makino Nobuaki (ibid). This activist was a close adviser of the Emperoro Hirohito. Nobuaki (1861-1949), born to a samurai family, was an imperial court official who contributed to the militarisation of Japanese society. He influenced the Emperor into sanctioning the illegal invasion of China by the extremely violent Japanese army.

Suzuki urged that traditional Japanese Zen lacked social engagement and logic (ronri). He emphasised that logic was necessary for Westerners to accept Zen. The issue here becomes the extent to which he changed Zen from the older model via the "logical and irrational" format of Modern Zen, the extension of Meiji New Buddhism. Suzuki's version of Zen enlightenment was influenced by the thought of William James, and also by his close friend Nishida Kitaro (Jaffe 2014:xiii). Some critics say that Suzuki decontextualised Zen tradition. His version was nevertheless regarded as authoritative Zen by his Western supporters, who failed to discern the nationalist ideology at work. Suzuki Modern Zen should now be distinguished from the modern Rinzai and Soto monastic orthodoxies in Japan.

In 1984, there were over 23,000 ordained Zen priests in Japan. These men had undergone a minimum of two or three years monastic training. They staffed over 20,000 registered Zen temples in Japan. "The vast majority of these functioning Zen priests have little knowledge of, or interest in, the musings of intellectuals such as Suzuki, Nishida, or Hisamatsu" (Sharf, Japanese Nationalism).

Suzuki presented bushido to a Western audience as "the very embodiment of Zen" (Victoria, Zen as a Cult of Death). He glorified the sword in a well known work eventually entitled Zen and Japanese Culture, originating in the 1930s. This book conveyed the impression that samurai were Zen practitioners. Suzuki samurai ideation saturated the American Zen sector, where swords became revered as tokens of Buddhism. The samurai were a warrior class not basically inclined to contemplation or koan, although a number of them did opt for Zen affiliation, discernibly advantageous to Zen temples. New Buddhism apologists presented bushido as a code of chivalry. The operation of that martial code evaded fixed rules, serving relentless imperial purposes of conquest and colonisation. The samurai sword was an instrument of death and execution, with other savage excesses also occurring via use of that weapon.

The wartime writings of Suzuki on bushido were evidently regarded by the Japanese army as a boost for morale. His article Zen and Bushido was selected for inclusion in the "military-dominated" book Bushido no Shinzui (The Essence of Bushido). This was published in November 1941, less than a month before the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbour. Other contributors to that work included the prominent Imperial Army General Sadao Araki (later sentenced as a class-A war criminal). The Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe (1891-1945) penned the introduction. The Suzuki article stated: "When it comes time to act, the best thing is simply to act. You can decide later on whether it was right or wrong. This is where the life of Zen lies. The life of Zen must become just as it is, the life of the warrior" (Victoria, "The Negative Side of D. T. Suzuki's Relationship to War," The Eastern Buddhist 41, 2:97-138, pp. 134-5; article dated 2010). Critics say that this argument amounts to amoral relativism.

Brian Victoria informs that the same 1941 article by Suzuki "contained not so much as a single word acknowledging the immense suffering inflicted on the Chinese people by Japan's ongoing aggression" (ibid:136). This trait converged with the disposition of Prime Minister Konoe, who has the repute in earlier years of escalating the war with China after the Nanjing bloodbath; this aristocrat stated that Japan was irrevocably committed to conquest of China. Fumimaro committed suicide at the end of the Second World War, upon learning that he was to be tried as a suspected war criminal.

Between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese imperial army invaded and oppressed Manchuria, Mongolia, China, Burma, and elsewhere. Korea was already a victim of colonialism, and remained so for many years. The imperialist aggressor employed tactics of extreme violence (Edward Russell, The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes, 1958). The neo-samurai army executed civilians, conducted massacres, wrecked cities, and abused prisoners. They launched a very brutal war against China, including the infamous Nanking Massacre of December 1937. The bloodstained swords and bayonets served imperial policies of conquest and devastation.

The Nanjing Massacre can still shock any sensitive person. At least 300,000 Chinese were killed, mostly civilians. At least 20,000 women were raped, while some estimates say 80,000. Most of the raped women were brutally killed by the "chivalrous" code of deadly bushido. Japanese soldiers (or samurai) raped girls less than ten years old, and women over seventy years old. They also raped pregnant women and nuns. Many women were gangraped by samurai terrorists. The molesters were also compulsive looters who burned Nanjing to ashes. "The brutalities included shooting, stabbing, cutting open the abdomen, excavating the heart, decapitation, drowning, burning, punching the body and the eyes with an awl, and even castration or punching through the vagina" (History of Nanking Massacre). Some victims were disembowelled. The Japanese government afterwards refused to apologise for these and other World War Two atrocities, though various statements of apology were subsequently made over the years.

The Japanese bayoneted infants, forced family members to rape one another, beheaded children, threw bodies into wells to poison the water supply, and buried civilians alive. It was the first of many similar massacres, though none took place on the same scale as that at Nanking. (Mel Judson, Japanese War Crimes)

Australian POW Sgt Leonard Siffleet being decapitated by a samurai sword at Papua New Guinea, 1943

The early 1940s saw the extension of bushido crime into horrific concentration camps of the Second World War. The samurai code of no surrender was matched by a contempt for prisoners still alive. When I was a boy, hideous stories about victims were fairly common in Britain. Unfortunately, many of these recitals were true and understated. My own mother informed me that a man in the same street as her family had become a concentration camp victim. He somehow managed to get a message despatched from bushido hell, informing his relatives in Cambridge that the abusers had cut out his tongue. My mother was allergic to the sight of Japanese swords, knowing that these weapons were used to execute prisoners. Some prisoners who returned alive to Britain could not adapt to ordinary life; these victims of torture and harassment had been pushed over a psychological precipice by their vicious tormentors. Many Second World War samurai swords, and earlier examples, eventually became popular as violence fetishes of a badly educated consumer population in Western countries.

One of the very numerous bushido atrocities occurred at Hong Kong in December 1941. The troops of General Ito Takeo arrived at a sanctuary for ninety-six wounded enemy soldiers. At the hospital entrance, the protesting medical doctor was shot in the head, his body afterwards being repeatedly bayoneted by compulsive murderers. "In the wards, a massacre of unprecedented ferocity took place. The Japanese ripped the bandages off the wounded patients and plunged their bayonets into the amputated arms and legs before finishing them off with a bullet" (George Duncan, Hong Kong Atrocities). Other bushido events occurred within the Hong Kong colony:

Atrocities were committed at various locations throughout the colony, including the rape of thousands of women and young girls. On this day, any misconceptions the world had that Japan was a civilised nation, disappeared into thin air. (Duncan, Hong Kong Atrocities)

The scale of samurai oppression extended to the so-called comfort women who were forced or tricked into living at Japanese military brothels between 1932-1945. The Japanese leaders destroyed many documents that might incriminate them; however, sufficient evidence remains as testimony to extensive abuse. Estimates of the number of victims have varied from 200,000 to 400,000. There were many Koreans, also Chinese and women of other nationalities, who became sex slaves of the samurai. These slaves were raped many times daily. They were also beaten (and even tortured). An unknown number committed suicide. Only about 25 percent of them are thought to have survived the ordeal. One of the Korean survivors eventually became famous as a protester. See Obituary: Kim Bok-dong (2019). Kim died at the age of 92, "without ever receiving the apology she wanted, still railing against the injustice."

The predatory samurai had no appreciation of any non-Japanese culture. Some of their victims were inmates of the Jingling Women's University at Nanking; students were taken away in trucks to live a degraded existence in Japanese army brothels. Despite all the evidence, Japanese nationalists still deny events they do not wish to remember.

From the invasion of China in 1937 until the end of World War Two, the Japanese military regime murdered nearly three million to over ten million victims. The death toll was probably about six million Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indochinese among others, including Western prisoners of war. The bushido democide was attended by a military belief that enemy soldiers who surrendered, while still able to fight, were criminals (R. J. Rummel, Statistics of Japanese Democide).


20.3  Hu Shih Version of Chan and Revisions

Coming from a very different background to D. T. Suzuki was Hu Shih (1891-1962), the Chinese philosopher and educator. He was not a subscriber to either Confucianism or Buddhism. His arranged marriage, in 1917, partnered him with an illiterate girl who suffered from the affliction of bound feet, a disability which had been encouraged by the Confucian system for many centuries. Meanwhile, in 1910, Hu Shih was sent to study agriculture at Cornell University in America. He moved on to Columbia University to study philosophy, there coming under the influence of his new tutor John Dewey (1859-1952), the famous pragmatist philosopher.

Hu Shih

Hu Shih returned to China after securing his doctorate. He became a Professor at Peking (Beijing) National University, the centre of intellectual life in China. He subsequently became a leading figure in the emergence of modern China. He served as the Republic of China's Ambassador to America (1938-42), and was also Chancellor of Peking University (1946-48). Afterwards living in New York, Hu Shih moved to Taiwan in 1958, becoming President of the Academia Sinica, a prominent scholarly organisation, founded in 1928 at Nanjing (subsequently at Taipei).

He was a prominent liberal intellectual in the May Fourth Movement of 1917-23. Hu Shih both advocated, and mediated, use of the vernacular as the official written language. The obstruction was the classical Confucian language which had been ascendant for many centuries. The masses were still ninety percent illiterate, blindly indoctrinated with Confucian tradition imposed by the higher classes. Hu Shih assisted a project of relegating the status of Confucian texts to that of reference works, as distinct from prescribed manuals to be routinely memorised.

Confucianism was now seen as a barrier to cultural growth, a religion advocating superfluous ritual, class distinctions, and a filial piety obstructing independent thought. Hu Shih was a strong critic of Confucianism. He also resisted nationalist sentiment, insisting that China must abandon "pretensions to uniqueness" (Hu Shih: An Appreciation). Until 1928, China was ruled by oppressive warlord regimes. Afterwards, as an independent intellectual, Hu Shih was in conflict with the Nationalist government. The subsequent Communist government was another doctrinaire problem for liberals. His output eventually reaped neglect and disdain, subsequently reassessed by Chinese scholarship in the late 1980s.

Hu Shih disagreed with the version of Zen Buddhism promoted by D. T. Suzuki. In China, Zen is known as Chan, which commenced long before the transplantation to Japan. According to Hu Shih, “Zen can be understood only within its historical context.” This statement comes from his 1953 article on Chan Buddhism in the journal Philosophy East and West. That article was entitled “Ch’an Buddhism in China: Its History and Method.” Hu Shih there states:

My greatest disappointment has been that, according to Suzuki and his disciples, Zen is illogical, irrational, and, therefore, beyond our intellectual understanding.... The Chan (Zen) movement is an integral part of the history of Chinese Buddhism, and the history of Chinese Buddhism is an integral part of the general history of Chinese thought. Chan can be properly understood only in its historical setting.... The main trouble with the "irrational" interpreters of Zen has been that they deliberately ignore this historical approach. "Zen," says Suzuki, "is above space-time relations, and naturally even above historical facts." Any man who takes this unhistorical and anti-historical position can never understand the Zen movement or the teaching of the great Zen masters. Nor can he hope to make Zen properly understood by the people of the East or the West.

In the same issue of the journal, featured the response of D. T. Suzuki, “Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih.” Suzuki did not retract his ideology. He maintained that Zen had to be understood within. The "irrational" Zen was generally triumphant outside China. "Hu Shih’s views were forgotten outside the ranks of scholarship, which has since tended to prove those views correct. In the uncritical sectors elsewhere, the influence of ahistorical Zen has been disastrous in various aspects of New Age belief and sentiment” (Shepherd, Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, p. 107).

Hu Shih’s revised version of the Chan patriarch Shen-hui was very different to that of Suzuki, and is still of interest. He was the first scholar to study the Tun-huang manuscripts preserving the teachings of Shen-hui (684-758). His biographical study of that Chan practitioner was published in 1930. Hu Shih was partial to Shen-hui; however, his assessment of textual processes concluded that the traditional history of Zen amounted to “about ninety percent humbug and forgery” (quoted in Shepherd 2004:115). The pragmatic Hu Shih was nevertheless sympathetic in his conclusion that a sane method existed behind the apparent madness of classical Chan practitioners. There emerges an alternative complexion to such diverting Chan pleasantries as: “My dear fellow, how fine are the peach blossoms on yonder tree!” (quoted in Shepherd 2004:121, citing a 1931 article of Hu Shih).

According to Hu Shih, most Chan schools in the eighth century CE emphasised knowledge (prajna) instead of quiet sitting or meditation (dhyana). During the lengthy period 700-1100 CE, the Chan masters "taught and spoke in plain and unmistakeable language and did not resort to enigmatic words, gestures, or acts." This angle conveys a different complexion to the "irrational" question and answer method associated with koan, becoming standard in later centuries. According to Suzuki, the question and answer method amounted to prajna intuition. "The difference between Hu Shih and Suzuki is that between a historian and a religionist" (Wing-Tsit Chan, Hu Shih and Chinese Philosophy, 1956).

Assessments of the Hu Shih-Suzuki exchange have varied. A critical judgment comes from Professor John McRae, a more recent authority on Shen-hui, who says that “neither man [Hu Shih and Suzuki] seems to have had the interest or capacity to really consider the other’s position.” See John R. McRae, “Shen-hui and the teaching of Sudden Enlightenment in Early Chan Buddhism” (227-278) in Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (1987, Indian edn, Banarsidass, 1991), p. 261 note 15. The outlook of both contestants was quite clearly defined.

McRae has complained that Hu Shih interpreted the career of Shen-hui as a major transformation in Chinese intellectual and cultural history. “Hu defined this transformation as the reassertion of native Chinese values and the rejection of the Buddhist ideas that were so popular during the Six Dynasties and early T’ang dynasty periods” (McRae 1987:231). The basic fulcrum for this interpretation was the teaching of “sudden enlightenment” promoted by Shen-hui, a doctrine which Hu Shih viewed as being inherently Chinese in outlook. McRae urges that, although Chan Buddhism did undergo a major transformation in the latter half of the eighth century, this did not amount to a revolution in Chinese intellectual history. Further, Shen-hui was only one of a number of monks involved in this process of change, and the “sudden” teaching was only one of the doctrinal factors involved (McRae 1987:232).

Hu Shih referred, in his 1953 article, to the teaching of Shen-hui in terms of a “new Ch’an which renounces ch’an itself and is therefore no ch’an at all.” McRae juxtaposes this verdict with his own critical reflection that Shen-hui failed to give gradual cultivation any serious consideration, despite his concession to a period of such cultivation subsequent to insight or “awakening.” McRae assesses Shen-hui “as a missionary concerned only with increasing the size of the flock” (McRae 1987:254). Further, “the central thread that unites all of Shen-hui’s ideas and activities was his vocation of lecturing from the ordination platform” (ibid). The same scholar states: “Shen-hui’s polemical fervour correlates with doctrinal and practical superficiality” (ibid:251).

The image of a myopic Chan evangelist lends a critical context to attendant events celebrated in Chan lore. Shen-hui was the disciple of Hui-neng (638-713) and successfully campaigned for public recognition of this obscure monk as the sixth Chan patriarch. The famous Platform Sutra purports to preserve a sermon of Hui-neng. That document is now thought to have been composed circa 780 by a member of an early Chan grouping known as the Ox-head school. The teaching of the legendary Hui-neng apparently reaped oblivion. See Philip B. Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (1967). Shen-hui is now seen to have distorted the teaching of the so-called Northern School of Chan in his campaign against the “gradualists.” See McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Chan Buddhism (1986). See also McRae, Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Genealogy, and Transformation in Chinese Chan Buddhism (2003).

Complexities in the early situations of Chan are prodigious. Hu Shih tended to exalt Shen-hui. That zealous monk is now viewed by other scholars as an erring sectarian in the version of history he imposed. Shen-hui called his own tradition the Southern School, a term through means of which he annexed the East Mountain school associated with earlier Chan patriarchs. Whereas Hui-neng’s rival Shen-hsiu (d.706) was relegated to the status of the Northern School, purportedly possessing an inferior teaching of “gradual enlightenment.” The claim of "sudden enlightenment" merits due caution as an ideological innovation.

The Shen-hui depiction of “Northern School” has been questioned. That maligned contingent apparently considered themselves to be representatives of the “Southern School,” here meaning South India, from where the first Chan patriarch Bodhidharma supposedly originated. Zongmi (Tsung-mi), who claimed to be the fifth patriarch of Shen-hui’s ho-tze lineage, “was in many respects much closer to the Northern School than to his proclaimed master Shen-hui” (Bernard Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy, 1991, p. 13). For Zongmi, see 20.7 below.

Such considerations have prompted a sobering suggestion: “The demarcation line drawn by historians between the two schools may be purely fictitious or at least unstable” (Faure 1991:13). See also Faure, The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism (1997). See also Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History: Vol. 1: India and China (1988), p. xx, for the relevant observation: “The abundant historiographical literature that has emerged during the past two decades shows that Suzuki’s thesis on the ahistoricity of Zen has not really been accepted.”

The idea of a non-ritualist Zen, favoured in the West, is contradicted by relegated history. "Classical Zen ranks among the most ritualistic forms of Buddhist monasticism. Zen 'enlightenment,' far from being a transcultural and transhistorical subjective experience, is constituted in elaborately choreographed and eminently public ritual performances. The genre, far from serving as a means to obviate reason, is a highly sophisticated form of scriptural exegesis" (Sharf, The Zen of Japanese Nationalism).

See also Chih-P'ing Chou, English Writings of Hu Shih: Chinese Philosophy and Intellectual History Vol. 2 (Berlin 2013); Lou Yulie, "On Hu Shih's Study of Chan History" (66-86) in Yulie, ed., Buddhism: Religious Studies in Contemporary China Collection Vol. 5 (Leiden 2015).

20.4  Sudden and Gradual in Chinese Buddhism

Tang Dynasty Buddhist statues at Fengxian temple, Longmen Caves, Henan Province. Courtesy Wikipedia. The limestone seated image of Vairocana Buddha is 17 metres (56 feet) high, dating to 673-75 CE.

Chinese Buddhism involved the interplay and competition between several different Buddhist sects. These were eventually overshadowed by the Neo-Confucian philosophers who are thought to have assimilated some elements of Buddhism, however indirectly. Even within the phenomenon of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, rival sects produced different interpretations of basic meditation features deriving from Indian models.

The theme of “sudden versus gradual” can be found in various books on Zen. The relevant terms relating to sudden/gradual polarity have been closely analysed by specialist scholars, along with the textual locations. The sudden-gradual controversy is first attested in the debate visible between the Chinese Buddhists Tao-sheng (c.360-434) and Hui-kuan (363-443). The former promoted the theme of sudden enlightenment (tun-wu), whereas the latter defended gradual enlightenment (chien-wu). This was a pre-Chan occurrence. Tao-sheng has been credited with a Neo-Taoist tendency apparently influencing his “sudden” theme. Tao-sheng referred to gradual practice as a preparation for sudden enlightenment. See Whalen Lai, “Tao-sheng’s Theory of Sudden Enlightenment Re-examined” (169-200) in Peter N. Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought (Indian edn, Banarsidass 1991).

Gradualist teaching was an outcome of a basic Mahayanist position, being associated with the Indian character of early Mahayana. The Chan priest Shen-hui (684-758) denounced the gradualism (or meditation practice) of the “Northern” Chan school, associated with court circles at Laoyang. A uniquely Chinese version of Chan was traditionally believed to have resulted from the protest. The word ch’an basically means practice, being derived from the Sanskrit term dhyana (meditation). Shen-hui is traditionally associated with the figure of Hui-neng, the "Sixth Patriarch" of Chan and the subject of enthusiast lore created by later generations. See Philip B. Yampolsky, "The Birth of a Patriarch: The Biography of Hui-neng" (1714-52) in P. W. Kroll, ed., Critical Readings on Tang China Vol. 4 (Leiden 2018).

Hui-neng is described as an illiterate manual labourer gaining the role of sixth Chinese Chan lineage holder. The teachings attributed to him were elevated as the Platform Sutra, the word sutra being customarily reserved for teachings of Buddha (Peter Hershock, "Chan Buddhism," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Much "Buddha Word" did not actually derive from the Buddha, but from the ingenious compilers of Mahayana texts.

The supposedly iconoclastic Chan of the “Southern” School was later presented in laconic format, contrasting with the more didactic and logical idioms of the Indian original. This trend provided “a new rhetoric with which to express sinitic Buddhist concepts.” The tangent is particularly associated with the Hongzhou school, reputedly employing tactics of beating, kicking, and shouting. Mazu Daoyi (709-788) was believed to have kicked a colleague in the chest. In a converging direction, Linji Yixuan (d.866) became renowned for employing a loud shout (ho) in his teaching method. See Robert E. Buswell Jr, “The ‘Short-cut’ Approach of K’an-hua Meditation” (321-377) in Gregory, Sudden and Gradual.

The “sudden” method of Linji was celebrated in verbal idioms such as: “Attainment is attained instantly, with no time required, no practice, no realising” (Buswell 1991:342). More recently, that form of exegesis became popular in America. A variant of this theme reads: “All persons are in fact already enlightened, and only mistakenly believe that they are not; hence, enlightenment involves nothing more than simply accepting that fact” (ibid). Shakyamuni and the many Indian generations of Buddhist monks would not have recognised this doctrine. Enlightenment here becomes meaningless.

The conventional assumption of continuity between Hui-neng or Shen-hui, and figures like Mazu, is contradicted by recent scholarship. Shen-hui locates to the era of “early Chan,” whereas Mazu belongs to the so-called “classical Chan.” The latter phenomenon is represented in the annals by “encounter dialogue,” meaning the spontaneous interaction between Chan masters and their students. The classical Chan dialogue exhibits paradoxes and conundrums. Related and very influential koan formulae were innovated by later Chan formulators of the Song era.

Discourses attributed to Mazu and his major disciples, and encounter stories about them, remained the lore of traditional Chan literature and were repeatedly read, performed, interpreted, and eulogised. Their images were idolised as representatives of Chan spirit and identity, not only by the successors of Chinese Chan but also of Korean Son, Japanese Zen, and Vietnamese Thien. (Jinhua Jia, The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism, State University of New York Press, 2006, p. 3)

Much of the subsequent Chan literature was retrospective, a creation of monks living centuries later. "Despite the iconoclastic image depicted by his successors of the late Tang to early Song, Mazu was well versed in Buddhist scriptures" (ibid:6). For instance, Mazu claimed Bodhidharma's transmission of the Lankavatara Sutra, a text rejected by Shen-hui. "Daily Life in Chan communities followed standard Chinese monastic precedents" (Hershock, last article linked, accessed 05/08/2021).

Encounter dialogues cannot be traced back to the Tang era. "Radicalised images" of Mazu and other Chan teachers first appear in the mid-tenth century record, well over a century after their deaths. The iconoclastic stories only became normative during the Song era. This process of invention permitted novel religious formulations to gain acceptance, facilitating the legitimisation of Chan (Poceski 2007:11). The Hongzhou school, created by the Mazu circle, is now credited with the establishment of a nationwide Chan orthodoxy that eclipsed earlier Chan traditions.

There were Chan reactions to “sudden” tactics. Criticisms of the Hongzhou tradition (or lineage) were notably expressed by Guifeng Zongmi (780-841), a very literate monk who complained that the mood of spontaneity was “often misinterpreted by ignorant students as advocating antinomianism” (Buswell 1991:336). Zongmi was a distinctive Chan historian, a Confucian convert to Buddhism associated with the Southern School. He relates how Shen-hui became elevated as the seventh Chan patriarch by an imperial commission in 796. Shen-hui’s attack on the Northern School evidently inaugurated “a period of intense and often bitter sectarian rivalry among the proponents of the different Chan lineages.” See Peter N. Gregory, “Sudden Enlightenment Followed by Gradual Cultivation: Tsung-mi’s Analysis of Mind” (279-320) in Gregory, ed., Sudden and Gradual, p. 280.

The Chinese Mahayanist schools of Hua-yen and T’ien-t’ai were at strong variance with Chan. The former two schools identified with the gradualism of the Indian heritage, and disapproved of the extremist Chan tendencies. Zongmi was so perturbed, at the rivalries dividing Chinese Buddhists, that he described the situation in terms of: “Buddhist teachings had become a disease that often impaired the progress of the very people they purported to help” (ibid). Seeking to offset this problem, he composed the Chan Prolegomenon. His purpose was to reconcile Chan with the scholastic traditions of Buddhist learning known as chiao. The latter represented gradualism.

The approach of Zongmi contrasted with the polemical attack of Shen-hui against the Northern School. The former was not only affiliated to Chan, but also to the Hua-yen tradition of Chinese Buddhism. His reconciling tactic stressed that he had encountered many Buddhists who used the terms “sudden” (tun) and “gradual” (chien) in a thoroughly inadequate manner. He enumerated the different ways in which the pervasive and confusing terms had been employed with regard to practice and enlightenment. The output of Zongmi is now viewed as a basically accurate account of Chan trends, providing a corrective to the later ideological landscape created by Song monks of Chan affiliation.

Zongmi explicated his own viewpoint in terms of “sudden enlightenment followed by gradual cultivation.” The Chinese phrase is rendered tun-wu chien-hsiu. In this charting, tun-wu is the actual foundation for practice via the initial insight (chieh-wu). That "sudden" insight is only the first stage in a tenfold process of spiritual cultivation said to climax in the complete realisation of Buddhahood. Some commentators have deemed this a form of gradualism, while others say that Zongmi straddles both sides of the “sudden-gradual” dichotomy. However, there are anomalies in relation to the standpoint of Shen-hui, whom Zongmi claims to represent in his own doctrine of “sudden followed by gradual.” This teaching was a conservative line of defence on the part of Shen-hui in some arguments, whereas the more radical teaching of “sudden enlightenment and sudden cultivation” (tun-wu tun-hsiu) was apparently the preferred doctrine of Shen-hui when he was on the offensive (Gregory 1991:305-7). See also Peter Gregory, Tsung-mi and the Sinification of Chinese Buddhism (1991).

Such considerations do, at the least, serve to guard against the more fluent and uncritical versions of Chan (Zen) which have been strongly influential outside China. Exactly who gained insight or enlightenment, or exactly who was most assiduous in spiritual cultivation, are questions that may be strongly pressed in the face of routine assumptions.

Despite advances in recent scholarship, "the overall picture remains fragmentary" concerning Chan during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). "It is precisely the elusive and changing nature of Chan Buddhism which leads to the difficulty in answering the question what Chan was" (Pei-Ying Lin, Precepts and Lineage in Chan Tradition: Cross Cultural Perspectives in Ninth Century East Asia (doctoral dissertation 2011, pp. 247-8, available online).

A relevant observation concerns Zongmi: "On the one hand he began to integrate ten diverse Chan schools into one grand narrative, and on the other hand he was strongly in favour of an integration of scholasticism and meditation" (ibid:247). A strong tension existed between scholarly monks in the capital and mendicant monks in the mountain regions. "For mendicant monks, the path to enlightenment relies on practices, namely meditation and the practice of bodhisattva-hood, rather than preaching to emperors and aristocrats" (ibid:250). The different approaches were not always opposed. "Contrary to the common understanding of Chan Buddhism, the Chan patriarchs were supposed to back up the authority of scriptures" (ibid).

The influential monk Shen-hui attacked the Lankavatara Sutra, with consequences of omission in Chinese Chan sources. That Indian text, together with the Indian patriarch Bodhidharma, comprised "the essential elements of the early Chan lineages" (ibid). Early Chan strongly related to an Indian monastic model of learning, whereas later Chan moved at a tangent.

Throughout the Tang Dynasty, Chan masters reputedly referred to "formless practice." Chan tradition nevertheless continued to insist upon repentance rituals and ordination ceremonies (ibid:81-82). Such discrepant factors were not elucidated in the popular contracted version of "Zen Buddhism" that gained favour in America during the 1960s, with distorting consequences.

Eventually, a severe persecution of Chinese Buddhism was launched by the rival Confucian hierarchy. "A new and virulent form of Confucian nationalism arose, viewing Buddhism as anti-Chinese, an economic parasite" (Welter 2006:8). The dateline here was 841-5 CE. The Buddhist clergy owned large landed estates. Over 250,000 monks and nuns were forced to resume a lay lifestyle. Over 5,000 Buddhist temples, monasteries, and libraries were destroyed by Confucian officialdom.

Contemporary with this misfortune was Linji Yixuan, a legendary figure later depicted as an iconoclastic Chan teacher. He is described in terms of "dismissing the great Buddhist scriptures as 'hitching posts for donkeys' and encouraging anyone who happened to see 'the Buddha' on the road to kill him" (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 05/08/2021). The tradition of Linji was one of the rural schools that flourished, while urban Buddhist trends were devastated by the Confucian reaction. Linji was not the "founder" of the Linji tradition, an assumption made by later generations, similar to influential beliefs in Bodhidharma as the founder of Chinese Chan and Hui-neng as the founder of the Southern School (Mario Poceski, Ordinary Mind as the Way: The Hongzhou School and the Growth of Chan Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 16 note 2).

The romanticised image of the Hongzhou school as an iconoclastic tradition expressed in later Chan texts - and widely reproduced in popular and scholarly works on Chan/Zen - is at odds with the historical realities of Tang Chan. (Poceski 2007:4)

The falsifying lore of Chan misconstrued factual developments. Mazu and his assocates were not outrageous radicals. Instead, they taught a Buddhist way appealing to officials and literati. Numerous disciples of Mazu belonged to the establishment of Chan priests. The early schools of Chan disappeared, replaced by an orthodoxy featuring followers of Mazu in the early ninth century. The Linji tradition is closely associated with the Mazu influence.

Numerous disciples of Mazu secured prominent clerical positions throughout China, including the two capitals. They attracted scores of disciples, some coming from as far away as Korea, and received support and approbation from famous literati, powerful officials, and the imperial court. Many of them were well educated and from gentry families. (Poceski 2007:5).

Chan gained a prestige role during the Song dynasty (960-1279), acquiring both religious and political standing. The majority of public monasteries supported by the Song court were Chan. "Members of the Linji faction headed influential state-supported monasteries and authored works commissioned by imperial edict" (Albert Welter, Textual History of the Linji lu). The Linji tradition also achieved influence in Korea and Japan.

Two and a half centuries after the death of Linji Yixuan, the Linji lu claimed to record his activities, dialogues, and sermons. There is more historicity attaching to the figure of his monastic contemporary Zongmi, whose Chan Prolegomenon is described as a sophisticated Indian style exegesis launched as a critique of competing Chan teachings. Zongmi urged that a transmitter of Chan must use Sutras and other works as a standard. In contrast, from the Edo period (1603-1867) onwards, Japanese Rinzai Zen marginalised the Sutra-based Chan of Zongmi and the later exponent Yongming Yanshou (d.976), author of Mind Mirror. The enigmatic koan format was instead preferred. The popular Western promotion of Chan and Zen (associated with Alan Watts and others) was strongly influenced by the Japanese sectarian preference to interpret Chan as eschewing words and language (Jeffrey L. Broughton, Zongmi on Chan, Columbia University Press, 2009).

Zen apologists of the twentieth century depicted Zen as a transcendental tradition remote from political connections and "above historical facts." Scholars like Albert Welter have shown that this interpretation is pronouncedly erroneous. The strong relation between Chan monks and political rulers was crucial to the success of Chan in China. During the Song era, the emerging Chan written record was influenced by considerations of court favour and literati patronage. See Welter, Monks, Rulers, and Literati: The Political Ascendancy of Chan Buddhism (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Chan masters of the Song era were appointed to prestigious monasteries, being supported by rulers and officials, while gaining honorific titles confirming their status. Chan doctrine claimed a unique approach to Buddhism, simultaneously winning patronage from the wealthy, as did other Buddhist traditions.

Chan transmission records, the literary collections documenting the Chan movement and its aspirations, were forged to champion certain Chan factions and their political supporters.... Local patrons erected new monasteries and designated which Chan masters would serve at major Buddhist establishments in their domains. (Welter 2006:6,11)

A new class of "scholar-officials" were patrons of the "new" Buddhism in the Song era. Chan was very much a part of this trend, being keen to dissociate from the aristocratic Buddhism of the Tang period. The objective was now to develop a new literary style with public appeal (ibid:14). This process culminated in the Chan literary forms of gongan and yulu (recorded sayings). Gongan is the Chinese equivalent of Japanese koan, being adapted from encounter dialogue. In subsequent centuries, koan was used extensively in Japanese Zen, and believed to facilitate enlightenment. Meanwhile, the Chan exegetes of Song China were preoccupied with the construction of lineages, meaning the master-disciple transmission featuring as a prominent component of doctrine.

In traditional Chan history, the rejected "Northern School" was viewed as being unworthy of serious consideration. Nevertheless, that school continued to exert a strong influence. Acknowledgment occurred in the Jiu Tangshu, a history of the Tang era compiled in 945 CE. The compilers here regarded the priest monk Shenxiu as the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, making no reference to the dissident Shen-hui (Welter 2006:32). The otherwise obscured figure of Yuquan Shenxiu (d.706) was much later resurrected by modern scholarship. This monk inherited a preference for the Lankavatara Sutra from his teacher Hongren (Hung-jen) at East Mountain. His last years were spent at the court of Laoyang, then one of the biggest cities in the world.

When Shenxiu left the East Mountain community, he withdrew into solitude. He may have reverted to a lay lifestyle. If so, he returned to monastic life at the Yu-chuan temple in Hubei province. He built a hermitage, located over a mile away from the temple, evidently desiring further solitude. Ten years later, he began accepting students. Shenxiu was invited to the court at Laoyang in 700 CE, when he had reached a ripe old age. He stayed at the court reluctantly, wishing to return home to the temple. He and his followers recommended both the sudden and gradual approaches, in accordance with personal ability and prior experience (Damien Keown, "Shen-hsiu," Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism, 2004).

Many years after the death of Shenxiu, in 732 his former disciple Shen-hui denounced him for abandoning the true teachings of Chan in a "gradualist" stance. The priest monk Shen-hui, existing outside court circles, accused his contemporary Pu-chi of usurping the title of Seventh Patriarch, and for having elevated his own teacher Shenxiu (Shen-hsiu) as the Sixth Patriarch. At this period, Chan compilers elaborated "a theory of the succession of Six Patriarchs, from Bodhidharma through Shen-hsiu" (Yampolsky 2018:1714). The earliest Patriarchs are regarded in terms of a legendary casting by some rigorous modern analysts.

Recovering the history of Chan (and other Buddhist traditions) is a pursuit hindered by sectarian preferences, canonical literature, retrospective doctrine, and substitute events. The same drawback applies to other religious traditions achieving a doctrinaire standpoint.

20.5  Shakyamuni Buddha and Early Indian Buddhism

For many years, Hinayana Buddhism has been less popular than other developments. Hinayana is the so-called Lesser Vehicle, in contradistinction to the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). The word Hinayana was a stigma employed by later Mahayana exponents, denoting a supposed inferiority. "No Buddhist groups ever referred to themselves as Hinayanists" (Hirakawa Akira, A History of Indian Buddhism, University of Hawaii Press, 1990, p. 256). The depreciatory term survived in modern coverages.

Hinayana represents the early Buddhism, a religion split into numerous offshoots developing from the original or “primitive” Buddhism. The search for Shakyamuni (Gautama) Buddha is a pressing matter. Only one of the "Hinayana" sects survived into later centuries, namely the Theravada, associated in some minds with a gloomy monasticism far inferior to the paradoxes of Zen (also a monastic tradition, despite the Western enthusiast attempt to modify and eliminate context). The resuscitation of Shakyamuni is not to be underestimated. Buddhism began in a North Indian habitat obscured by legend, textual intricacies, and sectarian rivalries.

The chronology of Siddhartha Gautama, alias Shakyamuni Buddha, has been disputed, some scholars favouring a date of 480 BC for his birth. However, other dates favoured for his birth are 623 BC and c.563 BC. He lived to be eighty years old. Archaeology has recently urged the sixth century BC as a relevant timeline. Excavation at Lumbini, in Nepal, the reputed birthplace, revealed a previously unknown timber shrine. Burnt charcoal in the postholes provided a radiocarbon dating (Oldest Buddhist Shrine Uncovered, 2013). There are disagreements about exactly what has been discovered.

Gautama was but one of several shramana sages who were in conflict with orthodox Brahmanism of the early post-Vedic era. Along with Mahavira (the Jain), he may be considered the most distinctive of these “forest philosophers,” to employ a generalising description. "To write about the life of Shakyamuni is a desperately difficult task" (Etienne Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism, Paris 1988, p. 15). He was born into the Gautama clan of the Shakya tribe, identified with the border of India and Nepal. There are problems in extricating a biography from the Pali and Sanskrit sources. We may believe that this kshatriya adopted a mendicant lifestyle at the age of twenty-nine. After travelling from the Himalayas to Rajagriha, the capital of Magadha, he became a disciple of two Yoga masters, Alara Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. Under their direction, he experienced a form of ecstasy. However, when he emerged from this samadhi, he found that his state was exactly the same as before. No transformation had occurred.

The mendicant thereafter desisted, moving to Uruvilva, where he undertook austerities for several years. Maintaining severe fasts and stopping his breathing, again he was disappointed. He accordingly "renounced such penances" (ibid:16). His ascetic companions then left him in disapproval, moving on to Varanasi. Gautama thereafter reputedly attained enlightenment at Bodhgaya, thus being freed from the cycle of rebirth.

Buddhist settlements in India. Courtesy Anil K. Pokharia, Researchgate

Shakyamuni (Gautama) gained monastic and lay adherents, a number of them brahmans. The early canonical works of Theravada Buddhism contain diverse references to his career. The events most celebrated are his miraculous birth in the Lumbini Garden near Kapilavastu, his enlightenment (bodhi) under a tree at Bodhgaya (in Bihar), his preaching the first sermon at the deer park near Varanasi (Benares), and his decease at Kushinagar. Later Buddhist tradition elaborated a hagiography several centuries after the death of Shakyamuni. He inspired a monastic order of a very disciplined type. A detailed monastic code (vinaya) emerged in the early Buddhist religion.

After ceasing extremist ascetic practices, Shakyamuni advocated a monastic "middle way" between householder indulgence and ascetic denial. Active in what is now Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, he apparently maintained a distance from Varanasi, "a centre of the Vedic sacrificial cults, which were in the hands of a professional guild of Brahmins, as well as of the cremation business - a city in which a heavenly after-life was offered for sale.... The majority of the Benares citizens, therefore, were cold and unfriendly towards the wandering mendicants who camped outside the city in such alarming numbers, and preached heretical ideas" (Hans W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha, Penguin 1989, p. 74). However, the mercantile classes, also the aristocracy, are strongly implied as supporters of Shakyamuni in his struggle with the priesthood (B. G. Gokhale, New Light on Early Buddhism, Bombay 1994, pp. 53-4).

The shramana Gautama was in strong opposition to Vedic religion. He considered ritual ablutions and fire sacrifices to be useless. He rejected animal sacrifices, occurring on a large scale amongst the high caste priests. "To the Vedic cult he opposed his view that all cults could be dispensed with" (Schumann 1989:75).

Shakyamuni accepted the law of karma (Pali: kamma), which “operates mechanically and incorruptibly to ensure that each one receives the appropriate fruits of keeping or breaking the rules” (ibid:147). He also accepted the reality of samsara, meaning the cycle of death and rebirth, or reincarnation, a process governed by karma. Life in samsara is determined by good or bad actions and incentives. Liberation from samsara is the objective. Notably, “the Buddha rejected ritual and cult observances; he considered that they only tended to attach us more firmly to samsara” (ibid).

The appropriate Sanskrit term for liberation is nirvana (nibbana). Nirvana is outside samsara, though not amounting to an Absolute (Shakyamuni did not teach that nirvana is samsara, a contradictory equation formulated centuries later). Negotiating the Vedic ritual society, he disconcerted Hindus by disavowing the doctrine of atman. Instead, he taught anatman, non-self. Shakyamuni denied being a nihilist. “Since the so-called person is only a bundle of phenomena with no ‘self’, and since its existence is inevitably bound up with suffering, its ending is no loss” (ibid:150).

The mendicant Shakyamuni taught the “noble eightfold path,” including right mindfulness. This was evidently not an unyielding dogma, because “in addressing the laity he often started from the questioner’s occupation, explaining the rules in relation to his means of livelihood and social status (ibid:148). "In the early discourses, the caste system remains the second most criticised theory, next to the doctrine of atman. Not only did the Buddha provide innumerable arguments against this conception of caste, he also practiced what he preached" (David J. Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy, University of Hawaii Press, 1992, p. 27).

The Buddhist monastic community was known in Sanskrit as sangha. A basic difference existed between lay followers and the monks. “The rules or precepts of the sangha, of which there were approximately 250 for monks, were called the vinaya” (Akira 1990:63). Discipline was strict; if any of the most serious precepts were broken, then permanent expulsion from the sangha was the consequence. Temporary suspension could result from the violation of other precepts.

Women gained a significant role as nuns in this renunciate community. "Buddhism was the first religious tradition to recognise women's ability to attain the highest spiritual status attainable by any man" (Kalupahana 1992:27). Cf. Jainist details of considerable interest: "The Kalpasutra [an early Jain scripture] is quite clear that on Mahavira's death the tirtha which he had founded contained a body of female ascetics two and a half times as large as the number of male ascetics and a lay community containing twice as many laywomen as laymen, while it is also stated that during the fordmaker's [i.e., Mahavira's] lifetime 1,400 women as opposed to 700 men achieved salvation" (Paul Dundas, The Jains, Routledge 1992, p. 49). The conclusion is inescapable that women played a substantial role in the formation of shramana communities at this early period.

The original Buddhist lifestyle is often stated to have been itinerant, with a break during the rainy season. An alternative view suggests that "most of the Buddha's preaching was done in urban centres, wherein he may have spent extensive periods of time even outside of the vassavasa [rains retreat] period" (Gokhale 1994:55). Available statistics reveal that the number of suttas (discourses) he delivered in urban centres is "overwhelmingly large" at 83 percent of the total. This leads to a conclusion that the rule of living in a fixed location only during the rainy season, even during the lifetime of Shakyamuni, "had assumed the nature of an ideal rather than a reflection of the reality" (ibid). When monasteries later developed along the itinerant routes, new forms of organisation and economic complexity arose, emerging during the Mahayana era which started about the time of Christ.

An assessment of early Western interpretations of Shakyamuni affirms: “The idea of an agnostic teacher of ethics of entirely human proportions who was later divinized by the enthusiasm of his followers, remains a liberal nineteenth century European creation” (David L. Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Serindia 1987, p. 8). The “rationalist Buddha” here loses rating, the reason being textual indications of more elaborately religious content, including the concept of a series of Buddhas, of whom Shakyamuni was the most recent. The critical implication is that Shakyamuni himself was a promoter of spiritual doctrines.

The Pali suttas, relaying the teachings of Buddha, are more subtle than conventionally assumed. “Summaries of the Buddha’s teachings rarely convey how much use he made of simile and metaphor” (Richard F. Gombrich, How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, 1996, p.65).

None of the languages in which the [Hinayana] canon now appears was the language of the Buddha himself, whatever it was, though one of them, Pali, is probably very close to it. From internal evidence it seems certain that these oldest texts had crystallised into roughly the shape in which we have them by the time of the second council or shortly thereafter. So at best we can hope to see the Buddha about as well as did his own disciples three generations after his death. (Michael Carrithers, The Buddha, Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 7)

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, dating to the third century BC and later. Courtesy UNESCO

The famous Great Stupa at Sanchi, located in Madhya Pradesh, was commissioned by the Maurya emperor Ashoka in the third century BC. The four carved gateways were added generations later, in an ongoing construction project. The stupa was built over Buddha relics.

The emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism after conducting a violent conquest. The Kalinga War of c.260 BC reputedly killed at least a hundred thousand people, with many more being deported. In his subsequent remorse, Ashoka promoted Buddhist tolerance and non-violence throughout his sprawling empire. According to Theravada tradition, the monarch sent Buddhist missionaries to different areas of India, also to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Gandhara, Kashmir, and Greek territories, effectively spreading the young religion.

Flourishing monastic centres were Magadha (in Bihar), Gandhara (in the north-west), and Avanti (Ujjain and Vidisha region, near Sanchi). Ashoka lavished his wealth upon the construction of many new monasteries, including one at Pataliputra (Patna), the scene for a third Buddhist council convened by the monarch. Traditional sources refer to the control of "heretical" doctines associated with unworthy monks who had not been duly ordained. A modern interpretation is that new regulations "compelled several monasteries to migrate, sometimes to a great distance" (Lamotte 1988:520). Some commentators favour the view that a majority of Mahasanghikas objected to additions made to the Vinaya (monastic rules) by the influential minority faction known as Sthaviras.

Ashoka found that dissensions existed amongst the Buddhist monks. "The emperor was compelled, in his edicts at Kosam, Sanchi and Sarnath, to threaten the instigators of the schism with excommunication" (ibid:518). Nevertheless, at this time the original sangha split into two branches, the Sthaviras and Mahasanghikas. The process of division continued, with numerous sects and sub-sects emerging during the last two centuries BC. One of the most influential of these monastic groups was the Sarvastivada, active in North India and Central Asia until the seventh century CE. Many of their texts survive, allowing some insight into doctrine, although historical details remain sparse.

Generally, there was no violent opposition between the adepts of the various Buddhist sects. They all considered one another as disciples of the Shakya [Buddha], enjoying the same rights and prerogatives. They all professed the reality of Samsara and Nirvana and as one man adhered to the law of the dependent origination of phenomena. They only differed over secondary points of the doctrine and discipline. (Lamotte, Hist. of Indian Buddhism, 1988, pp. 518-519)

The differing sects were a consequence of the nationwide spread of Buddhism. "The environment determined the use of language and dialect, the type of clothing and food" (ibid:519). The Buddhist territories now included not merely the "Aryan" Gangetic Basin, but also Dravidian lands to the south, and the Graeco-Scythian zone in the north-west. With a few exceptions, "the supposed founders of the sects are all fictitious persons" (ibid:521).

A substantial difficulty exists in ascertaining historical detail for the centuries of early Buddhism. The Mahasanghika tradition appears to have been the origin for Mahayana trends of interpretation, apparently first occurring in Andhra. This may have led to a situation in which Mahasanghikas accepted early Mahayana teachings in addition to their own. The Mahasanghikas are associated with a substantial contingent of laymen, many of whom were high caste brahmans. They "devised a transcendent Buddha, a supernormal being having nothing further in common with the world and whose terrestrial life was no more than a fiction" (Lamotte 1988:645).

Mahayana texts in Sanskrit, such as the Mahavastu and Avadanashataka, "like to present the Buddha, no longer only as a sage, but as an extraordinary being 'adorned with the thirty-two marks of a Great Man, his body resplendent with the eighty minor marks, nimbused by a fathom-wide radiance, more brilliant than a thousand suns, like a great mountain of jewels in motion, attractive in every way.' It is this sublime image, not that of the shaven and tonsured bhikshu [mendicant monk], that the chisel of the Gandharan artists preferred to represent" (ibid). A process of elaborate worship developed, accompanying artistic innovations.

20.6  Nagarjuna to Mantrayana

The development of Indian Mahayana from Hinayana is attended by scholarly disagreements. The proliferating array of Mahayana Sutras, appearing in Sanskrit during the early centuries CE, was later preserved in the Chinese and Tibetan Mahayanist canons. However, the name of Nagarjuna became more famous than any of the Sutras. Almost nothing is known about the life of Nagarjuna, the subject of diverse theories attempting to locate his background and perspective.

Nagarjuna is sometimes regarded as a nihilist, denying ultimate truth via his insistence upon universal emptiness (shunyata). To be more specific, Western scholars have variously regarded him as an agnostic, sceptic, nihilist, relativist, and mystic. One of his more well known enigmatic verses reads: "No letting go, no attainment, no annihilation, no permanence, no causation, no birth: that is spoken of as nirvana" (Mulamadhyamakakarika, 25:3). The basic purport amounts to: everything is empty (shunya) of inherent existence (svabhava).

Tibetan depiction of Nagarjuna, nineteen century Gelukpa thangka. Courtesy private collection, Himalayan Art Resources. Nagarjuna is typically shown as a monk with the hood of seven snakes or nagas, a feature of Tibetan iconography.

Nagarjuna is strongly associated with the Tibetan tradition of Mahayana exegesis. There are various Tibetan commentaries on his Madhyamaka philosophy. A prominent Gelukpa text is the commentary by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419). A recent presentation, influenced by Tibetan exegesis, remarks upon different English translations available of the key work by Nagarjuna, namely the Mulamadhyamakakarika:

Inada reads Nagarjuna from the standpoint of the Zen tradition, and his translation reflects that reading; Kalupahana reads Nagarjuna as a Theravada commentator on the Kaccayanagotta-sutra, and his translation reflects that reading, as well as his view about the affinities between James's pragmatism and Theravada Buddhism. Sprung adopts Murti's Kantian interpretation of Madhyamika, and his translation reflects that interpretation. Streng reads the text as primarily concerned with religious phenomenology. There is no translation of this text into English, and no commentary on it, that specifically reflects an Indo-Tibetan Prasangika-Madhyamika interpretation. Inasmuch as this is my own preferred way to read Nagarjuna, and the reading dominant in Tibetan and highly influential in Japanese and Chinese discussions of Mulamadhyamakakarika, I believe that it is important to fill this lacuna in the English bibliography. (Jay L. Garfield, Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. vii-viii)

I have no preferred way in which to read Nagarjuna, not being a Buddhist and nor being committed to diverse exegetical trends in academic Western philosophy and psychology. I am an Irish-English citizen philosopher interested in finding out what actually happened in the interface between Hinayanist Mahasanghika and nascent Mahayana in the Indian milieu. Much remains to be confirmed.

Interpretation of these reductio arguments [of Nagarjuna], and of the degree to which the madhyamika endorses their conclusions, is a matter of hot dispute between Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, and Candrakirti. (Jay L. Garfield and Geshe Ngawang Samten, trans., Ocean of Reasoning, Oxford University Press, 2006)

Early Indian commentators like Bhavaviveka (c.500-578 CE) and Chandrakirti (c.600-650 CE) apparently lived a few centuries after Nagarjuna. Various related standpoints were subsequently debated in the Tibetan Mahayanist tradition. The investigator desiring some historical ballast can experience frustration. Nagarjuna exists in a vacuum evading reliable detail.

Despite the existence of various legendary accounts of his life passed down in Buddhist literature, contemporary scholars agree on hardly any details concerning him [Nagarjuna]. It is unclear when he lived (although some time during the first three centuries AD is most likely), where he worked (almost all places in India have been suggested), what he wrote (the Tibetan canon attributes 116 different texts of very diverse content and quality to him), and even how many Nagarjunas there were in the first place (up to four different ones have been distinguished). (Jan Westerhoff, Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka - A Philosophical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 4-5)

Professor Westerhoff favours six works attributed to Nagarjuna. These comprise the Yukti corpus of Tibetan tradition. However, there is no certainty that all of these texts were composed by Nagarjuna, excepting the Mulamadhyamakakarika. The others have been questioned in terms of authenticity (ibid:6). The verse format of the Yukti corpus "often leads to a very condensed expression of argument which requires a variety of details to be filled in" (ibid). A general resort is made to the extensive commentarial literature accumulating in India, Tibet, and China over nearly two thousand years. See also Jan Westerhoff, The Dispeller of Disputes: Nagarjuna's Vigrahavyavartani (2010); Mark Siderits and Shoryu Katsura, Nagarjuna's Middle Way (2013).

The Madhyamaka tradition was mediated to China, and strongly sustained by the Tibetan version of Mahayana, meaning the monastic preservation of Indian texts. Legends developed about the origins of Madhyamaka transmission, elaborated by the Tibetan chroniclers Bu-ston and Taranatha. Nagarjuna was credited with treatises relating to the Tantric tradition; however, these are several centuries later than the Karika.

Nagarjuna has been called the most influential thinker in the Mahayana tradition. See Joseph Walser, Nagarjuna in Context: Mahayana Buddhism and Early Indian Culture (2005). Nagarjuna is here viewed in the context of monastic debates which occurred during the second century CE. Professor Walser credits a number of Nagarjuna treatises as being authentic. He argues that these texts bridged the gap between the existing Buddhist canon (of the Hinayana) and the new Mahayana teachings. Nagarjuna is here depicted as providing scope for the legality of Mahayanist exegesis within the parameters of the Buddhist monastic code (vinaya). Walser suggests that Nagarjuna may have composed the Ratnavali at the period 170-200 CE, in the southern zone of Amravati.

David J. Kalupahana

Nagarjuna is usually described as a Mahayanist. However, one erudite work about this exponent stated on the cover: “The book shows that Nagarjuna’s ideas are neither original nor are they an advancement from the early Buddhist period; Nagarjuna is not a Mahayanist.” That description comes via courtesy of the State University of New York Press. The author of the book was Professor David J. Kalupahana (1936-2014), a scholar from Sri Lanka. The title was Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way (1986). This book has been omitted from some bibliographies, apparently because the minority author was not a Mahayanist. I will adopt a more inclusive approach, not being a Mahayanist or a Theravadin.

The Ceylonese exponent makes the bold statement: “Now it is time to exorcise the terms Theravada and Mahayana from our vocabulary” (pp.5-6). Kalupahana is here attempting to show that some early Mahayanists, and others, were making an endeavour to overcome sectarian interpretations. The objective was a return to the non-sectarian form of Buddhism found in the early discourses of the Pali Canon. A new translation of Nagarjuna’s major work Mulamadhyamakakarika (or Karika) was intended to reveal that “a majority of modern scholars” had created an obstacle to understanding the correct context for Nagarjuna (ibid:6). The Karika consists of 450 verses arranged in 27 chapters. The full title is translated as “Basic Verses on the Middle Way.”

Over the course of centuries, Nagarjuna became rated as a second Buddha by Mahayanist canonisers. Professor Kalupahana disputes this mythologisation, observing that such a pronounced elevation arose because the Mahayana schools refused to recognise the spiritual status of many early disciples of Shakyamuni mentioned in Hinayana texts (ibid:2).

Kalupahana was not the first scholar to express a “non-Mahayanist” theme. He duly stressed that A. K. Warder was “one of the first to raise the question whether Nagarjuna was a Mahayanist” (ibid:7). Professor Warder was one of the more daunting Indian scholars of the 1960-80 period, an expert in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu literature. In the lengthy work Indian Buddhism (1970; second edn, Banarsidass 1980, p. 376), Warder stressed the apparent absence of reference by Nagarjuna, especially in his major work, to the Mahayana or Mahayana Sutras. “His references to sutras are all to the old (Hinayana) Tripitaka, mostly to the Samyukta; he writes simply as a Buddhist trying to establish the correct interpretation of the Tripitaka as recognised by all Buddhists.”

Warder further deduced: “He (Nagarjuna) was claimed by the Mahayanists as their own, but his real position would seem to have been not to take sides in a provocative controversy hardly conducive to progress on the way” (ibid:376-7). Warder stated that five works other than the Karika were “probably” by Nagarjuna (ibid:375).

Kalupahana complains that recent pro-Mahayanist interpreters assumed that Nagarjuna must have rejected any Hinayana literature. “Not only are they reluctant to accept certain positive statements of Nagarjuna in the Karika, they are also ready to abandon some of the most important chapters in that work either as later interpolations or as having no relevance to Nagarjuna’s thesis” (Kalupahana 1986:7).

A version explicitly criticised here is that of T. R. V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System (1955). Kalupahana accuses Murti of having “portrayed the Buddha as a half-hearted metaphysician introducing a theory of elements that came to be rejected by Nagarjuna” (Kalupahana 1986:xv). More muted criticisms were here made of Kenneth K. Inada, Nagarjuna (1970) and Richard Robinson, Early Madhyamika in India and China (1967). Basic aspects of the Kalupahana critique emphasise Nagarjuna’s teaching as “a mere restatement of the empiricist and pragmatic philosophy of the Buddha” (ibid:8).

Other scholars affirm that Nagarjuna was a Mahayanist who adhered primarily to the Hinayana canon. He favoured the Shravaka (Arhat) Tripitaka. The attribution of specific works to Nagarjuna is not straightforward. The only work universally agreed upon as his own is the Karika. However, some analysts credit him with over a dozen compositions. The Mahayanist attribution is strongly related to the presumed authenticity of these texts. That attribution is favoured in Christian Lindtner, Nagarjuniana (1987).

Ruins of Nalanda University, Bihar

The disputed Nagarjuna texts became a focus for the Madhyamaka (“Middle Path”) school of Mahayana. Nagarjuna was apparently born in the latter half of the second century CE. His biography is legendary. The oldest surviving accounts of this figure are found in much later Chinese and Tibetan texts. Medieval Tibetan hagiology links him with the monastic university of Nalanda in North India; this attribution cannot be regarded as reliable.

We also find traditional sources claiming that Nagarjuna taught at Nalanda University, though our best archaeological evidence suggests that Nalanda was only founded several centuries after the most plausible date for Nagarjuna. Buddhist historians appear to try to construct a fictitious lineage of a 'Nalanda tradition' that associates most of the major Buddhist philosophers of ancient India with a single educational institution. (Jan Westerhoff, The Golden Age of Indian Buddhist Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 25)

The Tibetan chroniclers did not deliberately create anything fictitious. They believed retrospectively that Nagarjuna and others must have been part of Nalanda, an important landmark of Mahayana Buddhism in the Tibetan perspective.

Nalanda was founded during the fifth century CE, in the kingdom of Magadha (Bihar). Pali was apparently the main language of instruction. The site was known as mahavihara, meaning great monastery. Nalanda attracted scholars from China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Central Asia. In the seventh century, this Buddhist university gained over 10,000 students, according to pilgrim reports. Events at Nalanda in that peak period "are known to us almost exclusively from Chinese sources" (Sukumar Dutt, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, 1962, p. 331). The Nalanda mahavihara reputedly included an extensive library. Nalanda continued until the late twelfth century, when Turkish invaders proved destructive. The site was resurrected by British archaeology during 1917-35.

More credence can be given to the traditional detail of an origin in the brahman caste. The high caste Nagarjuna is said to have been born in South India. His locale remains uncertain, despite many suggestions. In his time, the Mahayana was only a minority movement. Early Mahayana Sutras were circulating as "Buddha Word," though the authors were much later Buddhists.

The Nagarjuna texts are associated with a philosophical negativism. The essential emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomenal existence is emphasised. This theme has been viewed as a continuation of the early Buddhist doctrine of anatta (no-self), which denied the atman of Hinduism. The original context of anatman (Pali: anatta) is debated. The term arose in a situation of conflict with brahmanical expositors of the caste system and post-Vedic ritualism.

Nagarjuna is interpreted by Kalupahana as an empiricist. The modern commentator seems to relish the comparison he makes between the Buddhist exponent and David Hume, who likewise “refused to accept the notion of a cogito” (Kalupahana 1986:81). The notion for refusal, in Nagarjuna’s case, was the atman. Another analyst concludes: "The doctrine [of Nagarjuna] is not speculative but empiricist; the Buddha emphatically rejected all speculative opinions (drishti) and propounded no such opinion himself" (Warder 1980:377).

A particular verse of the Karika (XXV,19) gave rise to a belief in the identity of samsara and nirvana. This contradicts the teaching of Shakyamuni. Samsara denotes the constricting round of rebirth, while nirvana denotes freedom or liberation from that cycle. The Karika verse says there is no difference between these two states of existence. This has been interpreted by partisans as a unique teaching of Mahayana philosophy, while critics detect a confusion. Kalupahana urges that the relevant verse should be viewed in historical context, implying that a relativist doctrine was not intended (Kalupahana 1986:366-7).

The contextual Karika terminology in Sanskrit is difficult for many non-specialist readers to integrate. A problem in verse texts is that abbreviations can be misleading. Whatever Nagarjuna meant precisely by the disputed “identity” verse, the samsara-nirvana equation underwent some questionable adventures in later Tantric guises and counterparts. Many centuries later, this was the kind of doctrine that appealed to American antinomians of the Leary-Alpert trend, not forgetting Beat Zen.

For a critical assessment of the Madhyamaka position, see David Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism (1987), pp. 81ff, remarking that in the associated Perfection of Wisdom sutras, “the teachings about the emptiness of all concepts are to some extent balanced by recommendation given to the career of a Bodhisattva” (ibid:92). However, Kalupahana is averse to the bodhisattva lore, which he views as a Mahayanist superfluity. He emphasises that the term bodhisattva occurs only once in the Karika (XXIV,32), in a context which “offers no consolation to those who accept certain doctrines of popular Mahayana” (Kalupahana 1986:348). The monastic ideal of the bodhisattva emphasised moral virtues of this role, depicted in terms of an altruism prepared to forego nirvana for the purpose of assisting other beings caught in samsara. The ideal was a noble one, though subject to pronounced mythologisations. The earlier Hinayana role of the arhat or arhant (saint) was depicted as inferior and selfish by comparison.

The translator Edward Conze was partial to the Perfection of Wisdom texts, known in Sanskrit as Prajnaparamita. See, e. g., Conze, The Prajnaparamita Literature (1960). Other scholars are sceptical of such Mahayana sutras claiming to be Buddha Word. The presentation evidences a clear sense of competition with Hinayana antecedents; this has raised provocative questions about the rivalry between various sects implicated. Some legitimising commentators maintain that the conflict was a development in which a religious tradition with a larger scope was in process of supplanting a more limited one.

In a subsequent book, Professor Kalupahana complained at the insistence of his critics that dependence on the Karika alone for understanding Nagarjuna is an error. The critics argued that Nagarjuna’s philosophy must be assessed in the light of “all the works attributed to him, rightly or wrongly, whether they represent his early writings or his later ones.” Kalupahana responds that the Karika was the last major work of Nagarjuna, and “as such, it supersedes any other work he may have compiled during his early years” (Kalupahana, A History of Buddhist Philosophy, 1992; Indian edn, Banarsidass 1994, p. 259 note 9).

The Madhyamaka tradition divided into two trends of interpretation. One assessment reads:

On one side were the Prasangikas, who held that their philosophy could only serve to demolish the positions held by others. They took as their authority the Buddha's statement that he himself had no viewpoint (ditthi), and rigorously avoided trying to establish any position of their own. On the other side the Svatantrikas could appeal for authority to the many canonical passages where the Buddhist right view (samma-ditthi) is contrasted to wrong view (miccha-ditthi) and recommended; they set forth positive arguments to show that Buddhism, as interpreted by Nagarjuna, was both coherent and true. (Gombrich, How Buddhism Began, London 1996, pp. 27-28)

The new Mahayana Sutras frequently dismiss the Hinayana Tripitaka as an inferior teaching to be discarded by the excelling compassionate bodhisattvas. Mahayanist ridicule of arhats can be strident, this earlier category of saint (who has reached nirvana) being portrayed as deficient in altruism. The "intolerant and misrepresenting denunciations... are refreshingly absent from Nagarjuna's pages" (Warder 1980:376).

The numerous Mahayana Sutras were evidently competing with the Hindu exaltation of Shiva and Vishnu. Shakyamuni Buddha was now the "supreme overlord of the universe" (ibid:394). The Mahayana bodhisattvas also became virtual gods in a new pantheon, which included Avalokiteshvara, eventually regarded as a saviour from dangers such as disease, murder, snakebite, and forest fire (Dutt 1962:160). The Mahayana lore of Amitabha Buddha attached this deity to the Sukhavati heaven of pleasure. Devotees could be reborn in that heaven if they thought of Amitabha at the time of death. Even a single thought of him was sufficient to become a bodhisattva in that heaven. Furthermore, bodhisattvas could become Buddhas after only one more birth (Warder 1980:359ff).

"The Gandavyuha is a literary masterpiece," and also "a highly imaginative religious novel" (ibid:424), probably composed in South India, perhaps Andhra. This text may date from the third century CE. The spiritual hierarchy in the story is thought to mirror the political hierarchies of that era. The Gandavyuha Sutra was apparently composed by monks for a wealthy urban elite, including women. The authors are suggested to have targeted an audience of aristocrats and wealthy merchant bankers. Buddhist monasteries were in receipt of considerable wealth from prominent donors (Douglas E. Osto, The Gandavyhua-sutra: A Study of Wealth, Gender and Power in an Indian Buddhist Narrative, doctoral thesis 2004, available online).

Mahayana idealism appears in the Lankavatara Sutra, strongly asssociated with the Yogachara school and the Chan tradition in China (D. T. Suzuki, trans., The Lankavatara Sutra, 1932). The format consists of Shakyamuni teaching the bodhisattva Mahamati. The date is apparently the fourth century CE. A related conception is chittamatra or "mind only," an alternative tag for Yogachara. The underlying theme here maintains that nothing in the universe exists except thought or mind; the world of matter is a form of imagination, a reflection of thought. Buddhist "idealism" interprets the world as an illusion, similar to the maya of Vedanta.

The Yogachara tradition is strongly associated with Asanga (d.c.360) and his brother Vasubandhu. Many works were attributed to Asanga, but only perhaps three are generally considered authentic, primarily the Mahayanasamgraha (E. Lamotte, La Somme du Grand Vehicule d' Asanga, 2 vols, 1973). This work survives in Tibetan and Chinese translations. The influential Tibetan doxographies downgrade Asanga in favour of Nagarjuna, regarding Madhyamaka as the most authoritative Buddhist philosophy.

In contrast to the typical Madhyamaka reluctance to speak about the specifics of relative reality, the Buddhist path of purifying the deluded mind, and the fruition of that process, classical Yogachara not only presents sophisticated analyses of ultimate reality but also elaborates on how the deluded mind operates, how it can make the transition to the unmistaken nondual wisdom that sees this mind's own ultimate nature, and what the characteristics and the fruitions of this wisdom are. (Karl Brunnholzl, trans., A Compendium of the Mahayana: Asanga's Mahayanasamgraha and Its Indian and Tibetan Commentaries, 3 vols, Boulder: Shambhala, 2018, 1:XVIII-XIX)

Yogachara is very different to the Madhyamaka format. For instance, the alayavijnana ("storehouse consciousness") is emphasised, to explain the process of karma. The alaya is stated to contain impressions (vasanas) of all past actions or experiences, forming the "seeds" of future karma in the next rebirth. The alaya contains both purity and defilement. A thorough purification is accordingly required. Asanga concedes that other traditions possessed a knowledge of alayavijnana, including the earlier Mahasanghika and Sthaviravada of Hinayana.

Dharmakirti was a fifth or sixth century Mahayana logician afflicted by typical hagiography. "Much of the thought of this highly inquisitive and subtle philosopher often became, in late Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, a series of unquestioned formulae to secure Buddhist fundamentalism" (Tom Tillemans, "Dharmakirti," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 05/09/2021). By his time, the renewal of brahmanical Hinduism was overpowering. In his major work Pramanavarttika, Dharmakirti attacked Vedic authority and brahmanical belief in the efficacy of mantras. The Mimamsaka logicians of Hinduism asserted that the Vedas were eternal and uncreated by humans.

The disputed license for mantras was now to receive a major boost, via the Tantric innovation of Mantrayana, which infiltrated Buddhism from about the sixth century CE. The Mahayanist response to the extravagant Shaivism of ornate temples left tell-tale signs. “Ritual itself becomes the [Buddhist] way and supersedes the Sutras” (Warder 1980:494).

The magical aspect of Tibetan Mahayanist religion substantially derived from the Indian Buddhist phase of Mantrayana, becoming known as Vajrayana in Tibet. “Generally speaking, through most of the history of Buddhism in Tibet it has been ‘millenial’ Buddhism that has been paramount” (Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, Smithsonian Institution 1993, p. 29). That reference includes the pronounced ritualism devoted to maintaining a relationship with “gods and spirits” of various kinds.

Tibetan Buddhism is frequently presented as an unchanging version of the Indian monasteries in North India. However, critical analysts view the Tibetan sequel in terms of a “radical transformation in which the character of the Indian Buddhist tradition was all but lost” (Matthew T. Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 4). The sequel is here credited as to some extent being the product of Indian Buddhism, though “liberally mixed with large doses of Hindu tantrism and indigenous Tibetan demonology and superstition” (ibid). The iconography is revealing in this respect. Some well known features of Tibetan Buddhist art have no relation to Hinayana or early Mahayana.

Yamantaka, a Vajrayana deity, the mythology described in terms of a violent aspect of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, who assumes the ferocious guise to vanquish Yama, the god of death, thereby ending samsara, the cycle of reincarnation. Tibetan thangka, early 18th century. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yamantaka is also explained in relation to Bhairava, a form of Shiva worshipped by Hindus.

During the eighth century CE, Buddhist influence was contracting in North India. Mahayana was only able to survive in the north-eastern region (Bihar and Bengal) ruled by the Pala dynasty (750-1162). Although Buddhist in affiliation, the Pala monarchs were strongly influenced by Hindu Tantric religion. While acting as patrons of Buddhist temples and the allied universities of Nalanda and Vikramashila, the Palas also supported Shaiva ascetics and received initiation from these holy men. The Pala kings appointed brahman ministers on a regular basis for many generations (Jhunu Bagchi, The History and Culture of the Palas of Bengal and Bihar, New Delhi 1993, pp.19, 5).

The Pala monarch Narayanapala (861-917) "constructed a thousand-storied spacious Shiva temple at Kalashapota" (ibid:13). Mahipala I (977-1027) donated a large monastery (math) adorned with Shiva temples (ibid:19). Nayapala (1027-43) constructed many temples, frequently Shaiva. Though described as a Buddhist in Tibetan annals, Nayapala may have converted to Shaivism in his later years, installing many images of Shiva (ibid:20,44). This eclectic trend was represented by texts like the Guhyasamaja Tantra and Hevajra Tantra. There now emerged Buddhist deities unknown to earlier Mahayana, though very similar to icons of Shaiva Hinduism.

The appearance of Tantric Buddhism in the learning and culture of Nalanda in the Pala period is attested by the images of many Tantric deities recovered from the site…. This centre of liberal learning [Nalanda University] seems to have fallen from its standard of liberal scholarship to become more and more a centre of studies in Tantric doctrines and Tantric magic rites. (Sukumar Dutt, Buddhist Monks and Monasteries of India, 1962; Banarsidass 1988, pp. 345-6)

The Tibetan chronicler Taranatha describes the activity of Indian tantra-gurus or siddhas at this period of Pala rule. These figures became strongly identified with Vajrayana. Taranatha reports that the Mahayanist Abhayakaragupta gained influence at Nalanda. This exponent favoured Tantric exorcism rites. His works were apparently “purely Tantric interpretations of Madhyamika and Yogachara doctrines” (ibid:346). From Nalanda and other Mahayana centres, Indian monks travelled to China where they introduced Tantric teachings and practices. “Vajrabodhi, a Tantric Buddhist monk, arrived in China from South India in AD 719 and translated many Tantric texts into Chinese” (ibid:350). Mantrayana likewise became very influential in Tibet.

A stone statue of the Tantric deity Yamantaka was found at Nalanda, dating to the eighth century CE. Standing on a prostrate buffalo, this god has six heads and six arms. He wears a garland of skulls, with snake symbolism also evident. The Nalanda Museum includes statues of Shiva and Parvati (Excavated Remains of Nalanda Mahavihara, Archaeological Survey of India, 2015, section on Stone Art at Nalanda). Yamantaka became a staple feature of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine and iconography. Meanwhile, the phase of Buddhist Tantric Yoga in north-east India emerges in scholarly reconstruction.

The Yoga Tantras taught that Buddhahood could be achieved through a highly ritualised series of consecrations, and there was no traditional authority for this in the case of Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. Thus it had to be deliberately supplied by what can only be described as a tour de force…. Whereas the early Buddhist literature refers to serious practitioners as bhikshus or arhats and the Mahayana literature refers to them as bodhisattvas, already in the later Mahayana literature the term yogin makes its appearance, and from now on is used ever more frequently…. The differences between the Vajrayana and the earlier forms of Buddhism are extreme. The main difference derives from the Mahayana use of incantation and ritual as means toward the ultimate goal, whereas in the earlier phases of Buddhism their use was largely peripheral…. The use of sexual symbolism is developed in Buddhist tantras quite as much as in Hindu ones…. They [Buddhist yogins] worshipped a divinity in terrible form, whether male or female, identifiable in Hindu tradition as a fierce form of Shiva or of his spouse the Great Goddess (Devi), using a variety of names…. Similar fraternities of yogis have continued to exist in India and their practices, found as abhorrent by modern observers, correspond in very many details with those referred to in Buddhist tantras. (David L. Snellgrove, Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Serindia 1987, pp. 120, 125, 130, 132, 157, 170)

Buddhism virtually disappeared from India during the thirteenth century, retaining only a very negligible presence, while living on in Tibet and other countries.

20.7  Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Gelukpa monks at Lhasa, 1938

Tibetan Buddhism inherited the Indian traditions of Mahayana. This new phase was very different from the itinerant ascetic lifestyle of “primitive” Buddhism in ancient India. Tibetan monasteries, in the medieval era, featured rival Lamaist communities subject to a degree of friction. For instance, a sectarian conflict between the Kagyupa and Gelukpa (Yellow Hat) groupings lasted for decades until the Dalai Lama (a Gelukpa) gained political ascendancy in 1642. This victory of the Gelukpa monastic order involved a political process supporting a centralized regime at Lhasa. The Gelukpa order was led by the Dalai Lama, who became the figurehead of Tibetan Mahayana.

The Gelukpa order encouraged what has been termed “mass monasticism.” This phenomenon can offput Westerners. The fact is that Tibetan monasticism served well for population control, in contrast to the burgeoning growth of population in other countries. The Tibetan Army was created in 1913, when the Dalai Lama declared Tibet to be an independent nation, after the Chinese invasion of Lhasa in 1910 (Warren Smith, Tibetan Nation, 1996). This milieu was remote from nuclear weapons and industrial pollution.

When the Chinese Communist forces invaded Tibet in 1950, the defending army was poorly equipped and disintegrated. The Chinese aggressor destroyed many monasteries, while imprisoning monks and objectors. In some Tibetan regions, Chinese settlers soon outnumbered the native population. The Chinese occupation destroyed Tibetan forests in a project of industrial greed. Chinese nuclear and toxic waste were dumped in Tibet. Thousands of monasteries were destroyed by “progress.” The Chinese polluted their own country to a devastating extent, even while the population boomed in a network of industrial cities and enveloping smog. The Chinese copied the Western model of civilisation, which has transpired to be extremely hazardous.

Four Gelukpa Abbots of Sera monastery, 1920-21, via Sir Charles Bell's Mission to Lhasa. Courtesy The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Tibetan monasticism favoured “an emphasis on recruiting and sustaining very large numbers of celibate monks for their entire lives” (Melvyn C. Goldstein, Tibetan Buddhism and Mass Monasticism, 2010, p. 1). The monastic incentive originated in Buddhist India many centuries before. After the Dalai Lama gained leadership in 1642, his chief minister recorded (in 1694) that a total of 1,807 monasteries existed in Tibet, plus 97,538 monks of all sects. Generations later, in 1951 the Tibetan government estimated 2,700 monasteries and 115,000 monks (ibid:3). This means about ten to fifteen percent of the population, and twenty to thirty percent  of all males.

During the 1950s, a few monasteries were large establishments accommodating over a thousand monks. In the Lhasa vicinity, three huge Gelukpa monasteries were Drepung, Sera, and Ganden. Drepung had 10,000 inmates. Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, contained only about the same number of inhabitants.

Monks were recruited when young, often in the 6-12 age group. They gained a social prestige exempting them from manual work in villages and obligations to the aristocracy. Monks effectively escaped serf status. They nevertheless had to support themselves, which they did in a variety of ways. “Many monks in Tibet actually spent a considerable amount of time engaged in income-producing activities including crafts like tailoring and medicine, working as servants for other monks, engaging in trade, or even leaving the monastery at peak agricultural times to work for farmers" (Goldstein 2010:10). See also Georges Dreyfus, Drepung Monastery, a format including the detail that many monks at Drepung supplemented their income by performing rituals for the laity.

Gelukpa monks, 1936, possibly outside the Jokhang temple in Lhasa. Courtesy The Pitt Rivers Museum

At Drepung, a minority of inmates were “scholar monks,” studying for about fifteen years to obtain the degree of geshe. They often lived in a very frugal manner, necessitated by the absence of funding. In contrast, the majority of “common” monks were not involved in study, with some of them even remaining illiterate. The discrepancies arose from a democratic milieu which awarded “equivalence to all monks regardless of their knowledge or spirituality” (Goldstein 2010:14).

Some criticism has extended to the overall monastic arrangement. Large monasteries owned estates and serfs. Drepung is reported to have owned 185 manorial estates, 20,000 serfs, and 16,000 nomads. According to Chinese statistics of 1959, 36 percent of cultivated land in Tibet was held by monasteries, 24 percent by aristocratic families, and 39 percent by the government (ibid:10). The monasteries were effectively banks, loaning money and grain at high interest. Scores of monks were sent out every year to collect payment of interest at harvesting time.

Drepung allocated substantial income to rituals and prayer-chanting assemblies. These regular communal events occurred in capacious assembly halls, where large quantities of firewood, tea, and butter (for tea) were consumed (ibid:11).

In contrast to the studious intellectual monks, approximately ten per cent (or more) of the inmates at the three major Gelukpa monasteries were in the category of “combat monk” (dob-dob, or dab-dob). These men gained a dual reputation for being aggressive extroverts and honest, hard-working monks. Their activities at Sera monastery have been described in some first-hand detail (Tashi Khedrup, Adventures of a Tibetan Fighting Monk, 1998). A Western assessor comments:

There are monks who simply are unable to abide by the monastic laws. They are aggressive and pugilistic. They desire many of the pleasures of the layman’s life, but remain in the monastic system because of the economic and prestigious incentives the system offers. (Melvyn C. Goldstein, “A Study of the Ldab Ldob,” Central Asiatic Journal (1964) 1(2):123-141, p. 125)

Three dob-dob monks. Courtesy National Geographic Society

Generally strong and vigorous, the dob-dob monks were not inclined to learning when this major decision came at the age of eighteen. Some learned to read and write, that is all. They preferred athletic competitions, which could be demanding. They accomplished much of the hardest work in monastic precincts, and were frequently tea makers; this task involved the carrying of heavy teapots. They are reported to have tended sick and elderly monks. "On the better side they were characterised not only by generosity within their own group, but often by light-hearted, almost reckless, charity to those in great material need, the beggars and the poor" (David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet, Boston: Shambhala, 1995, p. 241).

At their worst, these monks were disposed to fight amongst themselves, or with laymen; their duels, using weapons, could result in severe injury or even death. A few of them became disciplinary agents to enforce decorum. However, others were notorious for predatory homosexual tendencies. The dob-dob monks retired from their ambiguous community by the age of forty, thereafter filling other monastic roles.

A relevant account comes from Lobsang Gyatso (1928-97), an outspoken monk from Drepung who became a refugee in 1959 (Memoirs of a Tibetan Lama, trans. G. Sparham, 1998). "He was an unswerving follower of the Dalai Lama but scoffed at the posturing of incarnate lamas and never went to public tantric teachings.... He describes a country and a people as they really were, and he describes himself honestly as an ordinary man, with all his failings, caught between the pull of the world and the tranquillity of spiritual life" (Notice).

Tibetan Buddhist environments were different to Theravadin societies of South-East Asia. Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Thailand, and Burma are the latter day inheritors of ancient Indian Theravada, a division of the Hinayana. The “shamanic” and “clerical” dimensions of Tibetan Buddhism have been distinguished. Even in Theravadin countries, “many monks are involved in ‘pragmatic religion’ to a considerable degree as makers and empowerers of magical protective devices and occasionally as exorcists and the like” (Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, Smithsonian Institution 1993, p. 27).

An early ideological conflict emerges. “Several of the earliest Tibetan Buddhist documents clearly treat the Buddhist conception of a repeating cycle of birth, death, and rebirth as alien to earlier Tibetan belief” (Kapstein 2000:5). The situation subsequently changed to one of unanimous Tibetan acceptance of the reincarnation theme, indeed to the extent of promoting an unquestioned belief in reincarnate Lamas. This belief was preferred to hereditary lineage in the Karma-pa and Bri-khung-pa sects of the Kagyu Lamas. This trend was later adopted by the Gelukpa leaders.

Professor Samuel questions the common description of premodern Tibet as a centralised state under the rule of a theocratic government at the capital of Lhasa. He says that the political system was far more complex, admitting “a number of autonomous religious orders, only partly composed of celibate monks” (Samuel 1993:32). The Tibetan gompa ("monastery") was a phenomenon varying from a small village temple to a monastic town. “Most of the larger gompa are centered around one or more series of reincarnate lamas” (ibid). Each Lama was recognised as the reincarnation of the previous office holder in the series. Such “rebirth-series” of lamas often acquired political control over large territories, sometimes in alliance with local aristocrats.

The history of Tibet is not straightforward. The alternative is romantic obscurantism. Tibetan folk religion is a potential distraction. In Tibet, “the number of folk superstitions is endless” (Folk Religion in Tibetan Culture). The functionaries included “sorcerers, witches, mediums, oracles, diviners, and astrologers, dealing with divinations, curses, exorcisms, weather control, and spirit contact trances” (ibid). These activities are often described in terms of Bon, a label sometimes applied to the early medieval era, signifying shamanistic trends adapting to Buddhism by the eleventh century.

Some scholars are very critical of legendary elements in the Bon and Nyingma traditions. Padmasambhava reputedly arrived in Tibet from India during the eighth century to assist the establishment of Samye, the first Buddhist (and Nyingma) monastery in Tibet. Hagiographies of this figure appeared from the twelfth century. "It remains possible that Padmasambhava is simply the ideal of yogin-magician and so represents any number of actual sages and is thus no one historical person at all. The details of the story of his visit to Tibet could quite conceivably be a later fabrication, intended to give authority to the teachings promoted by his followers in complete analogy with the case of gShen-rab, the supposed founder of Bon" (Snellgrove and Richardson 1995: 171).

The native Bon ritual shamans claimed to control and trap bad spirits; they acted as oracles, and apparently performed extensive animal sacrifice as a royal priesthood. The Buddhist law of karma contradicted Bon attitudes, which modified under the new influence. Copying Buddhist models, Bon developed monastic institutions from about the tenth century CE. Both the Bon and Nyingma practitioners innovated new temple rituals, a process including deference to Buddhist and indigenous gods. In the wake of this admixed pantheon, "Buddhist monks and yogins were able to unleash against troublesome demons fierce gods such as 'Horse-Neck' (Sanskrit Hayagriva, Tibetan rTa-mgrin), who already belonged to the Indian Buddhist pantheon and so were purely foreign importations" (Snellgrove and Richardson 1995:109).

By the end of the fourteenth century Buddhism of one form or another had permeated the whole of Tibetan society…. The demands of armed strife between the great monasteries, each with its noble supporters [i.e., aristocrats], must have weighed heavily on farmers and peasants, but warfare was mainly a seasonal occupation, pursued after the harvest was gathered in…. There is, indeed, no suggestion then or at any other time of peasant unrest in Tibet, and we may presume that small people already had their stake in local monastic interests through their family connections in the ever-growing communities of monks. (Snellgrove and Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet, 1995, p. 177)

Tsongkhapa, 19th century thangka painting. Courtesy Buryat Historical Museum and Himalayan Art Resources

A very influential figure was Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the inspiration for subsequent Gelukpa developments. As a young man, he visited various teachers of different Lamaist backgrounds. “His training exemplifies the close connections between all schools of teaching at that time and also the wide range of studies…. These included studies in monastic discipline, ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ teachings, logical philosophy, rhetoric and debating, tantric cycles, medicine, religious chanting and dancing” (ibid:180).

Fully ordained at the age of 25, fifteen years later Tsongkhapa joined the Kadampa monastery of Reting (Rva-sgreng), associated with the celebrated figures Atisha (982-1054), reputed abbot of of Vikramashila, and his pupil Brom-ston (1008-1064), who founded Reting. These predecessors established the Kadampa tradition, emphasising strict monastic discipline. This tradition regarded the wandering non-celibate Nyingma practitioners as a backward influence.

At Reting, Tsongkhapa wrote his influential Lam rim chen mo (Graduated Path), subsequently the key text of Gelukpa teaching (see Joshua Cutler et al, trans., The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, 3 vols, 2000-2015). Tsongkhapa emphasised Prasangika-Madhyamaka as the highest form of philosophical reasoning. In 1408, he established a New Year festival celebrated in the Jokhang temple at Lhasa. This move gained him more followers. In 1409, Tsongkapa founded the Ganden monastery. Drepung was created by his disciples in 1416. During the year of his death, his followers also established the Sera monastic community.

The early abbots of Drepung were chosen for their scholarly and contemplative prowess. The situation became afflicted by political events, especially a notorious rivalry with the Karmapa, a sub-division of the Kagyu tradition, famous for earlier exemplars such as Milarepa and Gampopa.

The Kagyu school had a long history, and it was headed by several prominent incarnations, including most notably the lineage of the Karmapa lamas. The rivalry between the schools also took on a regional dimension as the prominent patrons of the Kagyupa included the king of Tsang, while the Gelukpa patrons were centred in U [Dbus]. Likewise, powerful family alliances, like the Rinpung and Nedong familes, were aligned with the Kagyupas and the Gelukpas respectively. Just as the Gelukpas had made inroads in Tsang by building Trashi Lhunpo Monastery, the Kagyupas sought to establish a monastery in Lhasa with Rinpung patronage. Gelukpa monks from Sera and Drepung monasteries destroyed it in 1479, thereby fortifying the divisiveness. (Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa, One Hundred Thousand Moons: An Advanced Political History of Tibet, trans. Derek F. Maher, Leiden: Brill, 2009, p. 290, translator's intro. to chapter six)

The inauguration of the Dalai Lama sequence attended the instance of Gedun Gyatso (1475-1542), who was “regarded retrospectively as the second of the Dalai Lamas…. The custom was clearly adopted and maintained primarily for reasons of statecraft” (Snellgrove and Richardson 1995:182). The increasing prestige of the Gelukpas aroused opposition from the Karmapa prelates and their lay supporters. “Several lines of reincarnating lamas developed within the Karma-pa” (ibid:137), the first being the Black Hat (Zhva-nag) tradition dating back to the thirteenth century. The hostility greatly hindered the presence of Gedun Gyatso at the new Gelukpa monasteries near Lhasa. Nevertheless, Drepung now became the largest monastery in Tibet, already having at least 1,500 inmates when Gyatso died.

The third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso (1543-1588) studied at Drepung, where he became the abbot. He formed an alliance with the Tumed Mongolian leader Altan Khan, creating a successful missionary project designed to negotiate Mongolian shamanism. Sonam Gyatso insisted that the Mongolians should dispense with animal sacrifices, military bloodshed, and the immolation of women on funeral pyres. The fourth Dalai Lama was Yonten Gyatso (1589-1617), a great-grandson of Altan Khan who became abbot of Drepung and Sera. Many Tibetans reacted to him as a foreigner, especially the Kagyu and their allies.

When the young Yonten Gyatso was escorted to Tibet in 1601, elaborate receptions occurred at Lhasa, annoying rivals. The Red Hat reincarnate lama of the Karmapa sent messages to Gyatso which the Gelukpa leaders considered to be insulting. "They replied in similar terms, and thus relations became embittered at once, and this led to further rounds of insults and acts of petty violence. The Gelukpas, despite their fine beginnings, were now operating on the same worldly terms as the older religious orders" (Snellgrove and Richardson 1995:193).

In 1610, a Kagya faction undertook a raid in the Lhasa Valley. The King of Tsang retaliated with success. The Gelukpas then proved resistant to a royal request for consecrations. The angry monarch then attacked Drepung and Sera with considerable violence. Hundreds of monks and soldiers were massacred at Drepung, the monastery being destroyed. The surviving inmates fled to Amdo, in East Tibet. The Gelukpas were persecuted by opponents. Yonten Gyatso is thought to have been poisoned.

The adverse situation was redressed by the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-82), who invoked the support of his Qoshut Mongolian patron Gushri Khan (d.1655). See Kurtis R. Schaeffer, "The Fifth Dalai Lama" (348-363) in Gray Tuttle and K. R. Schaeffer, eds., The Tibetan History Reader (Columbia University Press, 2013). This counter-attack quelled the Eastern regions of Tibet by 1641, afterwards defeating the King of Tsang at Shigatse. Leaders of the Red Hat Karmapa community refused to accept defeat, with the consequence of fierce fighting before Gushri vanquished them. Hundreds of young Drepung monks participated in the strife, an expedient justified by the fact (or excuse) that they had not yet received full ordination. This exploit was apparently the prototype for subsequent adventures of "combat monks."

The Fifth Dalai Lama effectively endorsed the Mongol violence of Gushri Khan, representing the warlord as a bodhisattva in his Song of the Queen of Spring: A Dynastic History, composed in 1643 (Derek F. Maher, "The Rhetoric of War in Tibet: Toward a Buddhist Just War Theory," Political Theology, 2008, 9,2:179-191). The Fifth Dalai here identified Gushri Khan as an emanation of Vajrapani, "the bodhisattva representing perfect yogic power" (Derek Maher, "Sacralised Warfare: The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Discourse of Religious Violence," in Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds., Buddhist Warfare, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 81). The literary strategy is "directed toward legitimising Gushri Khan as a sanctified, righteous warrior in the cause of Buddhism" (ibid:82).

In 1639, Gushri Khan defeated at Beri a Bon chieftain, said to have oppressed Buddhism in Kham. Many Bon supporters were imprisoned. However, such conflicts were only "minor sideshows" compared to the battles between Gelukpa and Kagyu partisans (ibid:83). The Fifth Dalai Lama does not mention who was defeated, a pointed omission convenient for his justification of the war, in which many soldiers and civilians died.

During the lifetime of the Fifth Dalai Lama, "significant portions of Tibet were unified through the military conquests of the Mongolian Gushri Khan" (Shakabpa 2010:321). Cf. Samten G. Karmay, The Illusive Play: The Autobiography of the the Fifth Dalai Lama (2014). The political historian Tsepon Wangchuk Deden Shakabpa (1907-89) is well known for emphasising that the due relationship between Tibet and China is one of "preceptor and patron." Shakabpa also "argues that the [Fifth] Dalai Lama became the actual ruler of Tibet, despite the fact that the Qoshot Mongolian Gushri Khan and his heirs maintained the title of king of Tibet" (Shakabpa 2009:321).

The new Gelukpa ruler of Tibet (the Fifth Dalai Lama) was lenient towards most of his Lamaist opponents. "Once he had brought the Karma-pa monasteries to heel and stripped them of most of their property, he allowed many of them to re-establish themselves" (Snellgrove and Richardson 1995:196).

The Jonangpa monasteries were an exception to this clemency, being terminated by means of making them Gelukpa institutions. Both political and doctrinal reasons are stated as the cause of this suppression. Politically, the Jonangpa had supported the King of Tsang. Doctrinally, they differed from Gelukpa teachings on shunyata, instead emphasising non-dual nature of the mind, a factor resembling a permanent self. "The parallel with orthodox Indian teachings of a 'supreme self' (brahman) manifest in individuals as an 'individual self' (atman) might not seem so obvious to us, but it was enough to create what must have been the most bitter of philosophical battles between Tibetan religious orders, resulting eventually in the destruction of Jonangpa monasteries and the burning of their books" (ibid:179-180).

In 1716, the Jesuit missionary Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733) arrived at Lhasa. This Italian traveller gained audience with Lhazang Khan, the Qoshut Mongol ruler of Tibet who had deposed the Sixth Dalai Lama (a libertine figure who renounced his monastic vows and adopted lay status). The Qoshut had been supporters of the Gelukpa cause for generations, but now alienated Tibetan allies. The following year, Desideri moved to Sera monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa. Here resided 5,500 Gelukpa monks. The visitor applied himself to learning Tibetan, his primary source being the Lam rim chen mo of Tsongkhapa. His purpose was to refute Buddhism, especially the teachings on rebirth and shunyata (emptiness).

Reconstructed costume of Zunghar Mongol soldier

The studies of Desideri at Sera were interrupted by turbulent events. A rival faction of Zunghar (Dzungar) Mongols invaded Lhasa in December 1717, killing Lhazang Khan and pillaging the city. Zunghar signifies a branch of the Oirat tribes (who included the rival Qoshuts). The Zunghar impact united many Western Mongols into a single nomadic state in Central Asia, to the north of Tibet. They fought the Khalka Mongols to the east, and the Manchu Ching dynasty to the south-east. The Oirat tribes built stone towns and adopted Tibetan Buddhism.

Sera and other Lhasa monasteries conspired with the Zunghars to overthrow Lhazang Khan. The invaders were welcomed both by monks and the populace. However, the aggressive expansion of Zunghar chieftain Tsewang Rabten (rgd 1697-1727) was not inspired by the Buddhist monastic code, instead displaying nomadic warrior tendencies to warfare and plunder. Zunghars now “behaved as savage and rapacious masters, looting all and sundry and even ransacking the tomb of the fifth Dalai Lama…. Nying-ma-pa monasteries were especially victimised, but even Geluk-pa foundations and lamas were persecuted and robbed on the pretext that they had allowed their discipline to become lax” (Snellgrove and Richardson 1995:217-18).

These events precipitated the intervention of Chinese emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), who sent a small army to Tibet that was annihilated by Zhungars. A second Chinese army was despatched, while the Zunghars were already retreating from Central Tibet. In 1720, the Chinese (Manchu Ching) firmly established their control of Tibet, with the assistance of a Tibetan force. As a consequence, the Chinese installed a new Dalai Lama favoured by the people, and maintained representatives at Lhasa, supported by a Chinese garrison. Now commenced the Ching administrative rule of Tibet, a country regarded as a vassal state. Some scholars refer to this development as a Ching Protectorate.

The Ching emperor Yongzheng (rgd 1723-35) soon withdrew troops from Tibet, concentrating those soldiers mainly at Xining, a city in Sichuan province (West China). The Qoshut leader Lobzang Danjin, a grandson of Gushri Khan, gained control of Amdo in 1723. That year, the Ching army drove the Qoshut Mongols from Taersi temple, near Xining. Zunghar support did not arrive. The Ching army reputedly executed tens of thousands of Qoshut supporters of Danjin. Several years later, in 1731 the Zunghars achieved a spectacular victory in Central Asia over the Chinese army, who lost thousands of men after being lured beyond their supply lines by nomadic tactics (Peter C. Perdue, "The Ching Emperors and their Mongol Rivals," in Nicola Di Cosmo, ed., Warfare in Inner Asian History 500-1800, Leiden 2002, pp. 377ff). Nevertheless, the days of the Western Mongols were now numbered.

Meanwhile, the Jesuit scholar Desideri fled to the province of Dakpo, where he continued to study until 1721. He composed works in Tibetan with the intention of converting his readers to Christianity. He evidently found in Tibetan monasteries “an extensive literature and a sophisticated scholastic tradition” (Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Thubten Jinpa, Dispelling the Darkness: A Jesuit’s Quest for the Soul of Tibet, Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 14). Desideri wrote:

Although the Tibetans are quite amenable to listening with goodwill, they are not superficial and credulous; they want to see, weigh, and discuss everything in great detail, with logical reasoning; they want to be convinced and not to be instructed. (Lopez and Jinpa 2017:15)

The well informed missionary concluded that preaching the Christian gospel would not succeed in Tibet. Instead, Buddhism had to be defeated by means of argument “written in Tibetan, employing Tibetan Buddhism vocabulary in the Tibetan Buddhist scholastic genre, and citing Tibetan Buddhist texts in support of his arguments” (ibid:15). Desideri accordingly produced such works in Tibetan as Inquiry concerning the Doctrines of Previous Lives and Emptiness, Offered to the Scholars of Tibet by the Star Head Lama called Ippolito. This work was unfinished.

Although Desideri was proficient in Tibetan and understood the Buddhist argument, his sole concern was evidently to substitute the rival with Christian doctrines. He condemns Tibetan Buddhism in his Italian work Notizie Istoriche del Thibet (Historical Notices of Tibet). His project failed because the Roman Catholic Church prohibited Jesuits from preaching in Tibet, a country regarded as the exclusive territory for Capuchin evangelism. Desideri’s description of Tibet is of historical relevance for detailing events during his sojourn. See Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, trans. and ed., Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri, 2010.

The Chinese exerted a rule of fear. After a civil war, in 1728 seventeen Tibetan rebels were executed by Manchu Ching officers at Lhasa as a public spectacle and deterrent. Some of the victims were sliced to death in the barbaric imperialist manner. Others were slowly strangled or decapitated with three sword thrusts. One family were exiled as slaves for Chinese soldiers, though most of them died en route to their destination (Luciano Petech, China and Tibet in the early Eighteenth Century, Leiden 1950, pp. 108ff, 133ff; second edn, 1972).

Twenty years later, the Lhasa riot of 1750 occurred when a Tibetan regent was murdered by two Chinese diplomats. The Chinese retaliated against several leaders of the rebellion by “cutting them into pieces,” a prescription of the ruthless Manchu general Bandi. Other rebels were decapitated, their heads being placed on poles as a deterrent for shocked public spectators.

During the late 1750s, the Zunghar confederation of Central Asia were eliminated by the Chinese emperor Qianlong (rgd 1735-96). This notorious episode amounted to “a deliberate ethnic genocide” (citation in James A. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Zinjiang, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 95). In this Zunghar genocide, an estimated 70 or 80 percent of the victimised Mongol community died from the sword, disease, and starvation, afflictions engineered by relentless Manchu generals. The Zunghar population was 500,000 to 800,000, the fatalities amounting to a major human rights catastrophe. The imperial instructions spared from death women and children, who were now enslaved as bondservants, their ethnic identity being erased in the process (ibid:88ff). The former Zunghar territory was renamed Xinjiang, the Manchu Ching warlords resettling numerous Han Chinese and others in that zone to further Empire interests (see further Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, 2005).

The Chinese emperor Kangxi, who regarded Tibet as a tributary vassal, took control of Lhasa in 1720. Tibetan customs nevertheless continued almost without alteration. When the Gurkhas sacked the Gelukpa monastery at Shigatse in 1792, a Chinese army (assisted by Tibetans) drove the formidable invaders back to Nepal. The Gurkhas invaded for a second time in 1856, only being persuaded to leave in return for a long-term indemnity. Despite Chinese overlordship, Drepung and two closely related monasteries continued to dominate the administration at government level.

l to r: Alexandra David-Neel; a Tibetan Tantric practitioner, illustration from Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1932

A contrast with Ippolito Desideri was the first European woman to visit Lhasa two centuries later. She left a record of encounters with Tibetan mystics and occultists. Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) was a resourceful French-Belgian traveller who learned Tibetan, gaining entry to Lhasa in 1924 by resort to disguise as the aged mother of the pilgrim Lama Yongden who accompanied her (My Journey to Lhasa, 1927). Her further book Mystiques et magician du Thibet (1929, English trans. 1931, American title Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1932) became popular in America, subsequently packaged in the exotic "psychic phenomena and human potential" vogue. The work in question is relevant in another direction. The author exhibits a strong degree of empathy with Tibetan Buddhism, while making critical comments such as: “The so-called Buddhist population is practically Shamanist and a large number of mediums: Bonpos, Pawos [mediums], Bunting and Yabas of both sexes, even in the smallest hamlets, transmit the messages of gods, demons and the dead” (David-Neel 1932:9).

The record here is revealing in relation to Bon sorcerers attempting to free a dead person or “spirit” from a demon. David-Neel witnessed “several performances where the [Bon] sorcerer, after having simulated extraordinary efforts, declared that the ‘spirit’ had been taken away from him by the demon. In this case, all rites, [animal] sacrifices… and the payment of the Bon’s fee, must begin all over again” (David-Neel 1932:38). The narrator relays that Lamas of Tantric sects were believed to keep a demon prisoner. Such Lamas became the focus of fantastic stories.

Reaching Sikkim in 1912, David-Neel encountered the exiled Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), who advised her to study Tibetan. Her interpreter meanwhile was Lama Dawasandhup (1868-1922), a teacher of English at Gangtok who later translated the Bardo Thodol, a funerary recension. She describes this man as an occultist hoping to gain supernormal powers; he was also an addict of “fermented beverages” associated with the Nyingma lamas (ibid:14-19).

Dawasandhup eventually became a professor of Tibetan at the University of Calcutta. He was favoured by the American commentator W. Y. Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), who refers to Lama Kazi Dawasandhup as the translator of Bardo Thodol. The American (a scholar of Celtic literature unfamiliar with Tibetan) revised the version of Dawasandhup and added lengthy introductory material conveying his own views (The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1927).

In Tibet, this “Buddhist” funerary text was intended to be read to a dead or dying person, giving directions about how to navigate the intermediate state between death and rebirth. The underlying ritual was employed by Bon and Nyingma practitioners. “The whole conception of guiding a departed consciousness… through this ‘Intermediate State’ of forty-nine days duration is manifestly of non-Buddhist origin” (Snellgrove and Richardson 1995:110).

Evans-Wentz, an American Theosophist, became a disciple of Dawasandhup. He did not know Tibetan (or Sanskrit), and has been accused of misrepresentation, promoting his own book on the Bardo Thodol as a sacred Buddhist scripture. In Tibet, the so-called “Book of the Dead” was an amorphous and obscure corpus of writings, not gaining final format until the seventeenth century. The influential Carl Jung mythologised the Western creation of Evans-Wentz, thus assisting an opportunistically marketed bestseller (in various guises) targeting a gullible readership (Donald S. Lopez, Jr, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, 2011; see also Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, 1998, new edn, 2018).

A culturally disastrous error was achieved by the American LSD craze. Manic psychedelic partisans interpreted the Bardo Thodol as a transcendent guide to LSD “trips.” Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert co-authored The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964), later glorified by Penguin Classics. This misleading innovation was based on the English version of Dawasandhup and Evans-Wentz. The American LSD fad ignored Tibetan funerary usage, also being unfamiliar with linguistic complexities. Leary became well known for soporific injunctions in the idiom of: “Turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.” The switch-off psychedelic deceptions often proved hazardous.

Meanwhile, in Sikkim David-Neel became a disciple of the gomchen (great meditator) of Lachen hermitage during 1914-16. The associations are those of the Nyingma tradition. The gomchen wore a rosary necklace made of 108 pieces of human skull, also an apron carved of human bones. He carried a ritual dagger (phurbu). A similar apron appears in a photograph of the same book, revealing a magician or Tantric practitioner (ngagpa) of northern Tibet. Such ordained non-monastic personnel (Nyingma and Bon) are strongly associated with the use of mantras and rituals. In addition to learning Tibetan, David-Neel learned bizarre exercises from the gomchen for two years, including purported telepathic ability and tummo breathing to assist keeping warm in a freezing environment.

In 1916, the French traveller visited the eminent Panchen Lama at his monastery in Shigatse. The domineering British expelled her from Sikkim. She and her companion Alphur Yongden (a tulku or reincarnate lama) departed for Japan, then travelled across China to the Kum-Bum monastery in Amdo, founded in 1583, the home of 3,800 Gelukpa monks. David-Neel lived here for nearly three years, copying rare manuscripts in the library, including works of Nagarjuna. In 1921 she commenced an itinerary to reach Lhasa, an undertaking which lasted three years because of difficulties and detours. However, she departed from the venerated city after only two months, feeling disappointed at not being able to access desired places because of her necessary disguise as a beggar. The isolationism of Tibet was generally unyielding.

The French traveller reports that many Lamas were wealthy, poverty not being enjoined on Tibetan monks. “Those [monks] who succeed in becoming stewards of a tulku (reincarnate lama), often become important and wealthy persons” (David-Neel 1932:107). The great majority of ordinary monks became traders. Learned monks might earn a living as teachers, as resident chaplains at the homes of wealthy lamas or laymen, as artists, medics, and astrologers (ibid:107). Her description of the dob-dob category is not flattering. David-Neel refers to these “combat monks” in terms of “unlettered braggarts whose fathers have placed them as children in the monastery when their place ought rather to be in the barracks” (ibid:109).

In 1903-4, the conflict between Britain and Russia led the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, to imagine that Russia was intending to invade Tibet. He endorsed a military expedition to Tibet led by Colonel Francis Younghusband, who advanced by force to Lhasa. Tibet had no standing army. The invaders encountered mainly peasant soldier recruits and fearless dob-dob monks armed with swords and muskets. “The bravery of the Tibetans came as a surprise to the opponents, but they had no military training and were in the main armed with antiquated muzzle-loaders locally made” (Charles Bell, Tibet Past and Present, 1924, p. 67).

The British advance resulted in a disgraceful massacre of poorly armed Tibetans at Chumik Shenko in March 1904. The victims were despatched with deadly Maxim machine guns, a tragedy resulting in up to 700 dead and nearly 200 wounded. The British casualties numbered only 12 wounded. The Tibetan fighters had been told to be as non-violent as possible, and were confused that their amulets did not work; Gelukpa lamas had declared these items to be a protection from harm. They had no conception of the damage that Maxim guns could achieve in the world of military oppression.

Further skirmishes followed the same pattern. Hundreds of Tibetans were killed, with only a few British losses (meaning native troops like Gurkhas and Sikhs). The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876-1933), fled to Mongolia. At Lhasa, the British secured a treaty permitting their trading activity at Gyantse and other places, while also imposing on Tibet an indemnity (which they later reduced). The invaders then peacefully withdrew (see further Charles Allen, Duel in the Snows: The True Story of the Younghusband Mission to Lhasa, 2004). As a consequence, Chinese influence increased. The unusually honest diplomat Sir Charles Bell (1870-1945) reflected that Tibetans “were abandoned to Chinese aggression,” for which the British military expedition was primarily responsible.

l to r: Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso; General Zhao Erfung

The British public were against the invasion, which served to trigger the 1905 Tibetan Rebellion associated with Batang monastery in Kham. The Khampa people of Kham reacted to Ching policies, including a restriction on the number of monks. Local Kham chieftains were strong supporters of Gelukpa monasteries, disliking foreigners and missionaries. The fierce Khampas (many thought to be of Mongol descent) killed a few French missionaries (mistakenly believed to be Ching allies) and many local Christian converts, also a key Ching official. A retaliatory Chinese military campaign was launched. The aggressive Manchu Ching general Zhao Erfung reportedly executed many Tibetans by means of decapitation and mass burial while still alive.

Zhao Erfeng (1845-1911) became known as Zhao the Butcher. He crushed the Gelukpa lamas of Kham and destroyed monasteries in Yunnan and Sichuan. Reaching Lhasa with an army in 1910, Zhao drove the Thirteenth Dalai Lama into exile. The Tibetan leader fled to Darjeeling pursued by 200 Chinese cavalry. Soon after, the hated Ching dynasty fell to the Republic in 1911. Zhao was executed that same year by the Republicans. In 1912, at the request of the Dalai Lama, Chinese troops withdrew from Tibet.

In 1920, Sir Charles Bell was invited to Lhasa by the same Dalai Lama (Thubten Gyatso), staying nearly a year. Unlike Lord Curzon and other elite British personnel, Bell developed a genuine interest in the history and people of Tibet. He is often classified as a Tibetologist. His various books include Portrait of the Dalai Lama (1946). In his corpus, Bell included a detail of racist implication: “Chinese officers, both civil and military, regarding the Tibetans as a vastly inferior race, refused to learn their language” (Bell, Tibet Past and Present, 1924, p. 75).

The Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in 1950 had dramatic repercussions. Many Tibetans were sent to prisons and labour camps. The monasteries were closed by Communist strategy; thousands of these sites were ransacked by Communist soldiers during the Cultural Revolution period of suppression. Some monasteries were restored, functioning as tourist sites under strict Chinese control. The suppression of Lamaism continued, any support for the Dalai Lama being proscribed. The religious persecution has involved a severe degree of Chinese intimidation, extending to the torture of victims at notorious detention centres. This situation has been criticised in the West as a breach of human rights. "Chinese police and prison authorities routinely torture and abuse inmates, and the situation is particularly severe in ethnic minority regions" (Tibetan Monk Dies from Beating in Custody, 2021).

See also Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History (1967); Hugh Richardson, Tibet and its History (1984); Warren Smith, Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations (1996); Matthew T. Kapstein, The Tibetans (2006); Sam Van Schaik, Tibet: A History (2011); Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1959 (4 vols, 1989-2019).



Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Uploaded August 2008, last modified September 2021.