Tibetan philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F003-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 04, 2020, from

3. The role of conceptual understanding in spiritual realization

Tibetan thought on the nature of meditation and spiritual realization seems to be divided into two camps, both stemming (in very complex ways) from the Great Debate of bSam-yas (Samyay) in the latter part of the eighth century. This debate was a (year-long?) series of exchanges which are reputed to have opposed the ‘Gradualist’ (rim gyis pa) Indian Buddhism represented by Kamalaśīla and others to the Chinese ‘Subitists/Simultaneists’ (cig car ba), who were represented by Hva-shang Mahāyāna, a monk from Dunhuang holding Chan positions. The historical details of the Great Debate (which is with few exceptions depicted in Tibetan sources as having been won by the Gradualists) cannot be developed here, except to say that it now seems clear that several ‘heretical’ positions of Chinese, Tibetan and even Indian origin were under attack from the Kamalaśīla side.

In fact, as D. Seyfort Ruegg (1992) has insightfully remarked, the debate became a partly dehistoricized topos in the Tibetan representation of the history of their own philosophy. The bSam-yas debate and its traces were perceived to recur constantly in the form of an opposition between two models of the Buddhist path, namely mediacy versus immediacy – the path taken as a progression, where philosophical analysis and various moral practices lead step by step to awakening versus the path which is not a series of intermediate steps, but is fundamentally identical with the fruit to be attained. This latter ‘path’ is one where realization comes from a mode of awareness that is characterized by no mentation (amanasikāra; ci yang yid la mi byed pa), an awareness that consists in seeing or coming face to face (ngo ’phrod) with the nature of the mind (sems nyid) without reliance upon any concepts whatsoever – this realization is all we need to become enlightened at once. To take an important example of the recurrence of this debate, the thirteenth century’s greatest thinker, Sa skya Paṇḍita (Sagya Paṇḍita, 1182–1251), makes a rapprochement between the Hva-shang side and the Tibetan tradition of Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) by criticizing the ‘Self-sufficient White Remedy’ (dkar po chig thub) doctrine of the bKa’-brgyud-pa scholars sGam-po-pa (Gamboba, 1079–1153) and Zhang-Tshal-pa (Shangtselba, 1123–93) as being a revival of the ‘Great Perfection of the Chinese tradition’ (rgya nag lugs kyi rdzogs chen). (Compare ’Jam dbyangs bzhad pa’s first type of erroneous Mādhyamika.) Another example: for Tsong kha pa, Hva-shang becomes an exponent of a mere blank-mindedness, a kind of stupefaction where one supposedly rests virtually unconscious. This Hva-shang-style blank-mindedness is then taken to be what will ensue if, like certain ‘Mādhyamikas free from extremes’ who deny ‘too much’, one rejects all entities and all predication whatsoever and hence fails to make the proper distinction between so-called truly established things and conventional things.

What was the issue? Did the Hva-shang position lead to nothing but voluntary stupefaction, as Tsong kha pa and even some contemporary Western writers depict it? To use Ruegg’s phrase, the Great Debate involved ‘lattices’ of related ideas, and the lattice of ideas associated with the partly dehistoricized version of the Hva-shang position involves, very noticeably, the idea of an innate nature which is in some sense already perfect and actual. Indeed, in a twelfth-century account of the Great Debate, the Chos ’byung me tog snying po, and in the sixteenth-century historical work the mKhas pa’i dga’ ston (Feast for Scholars; Minzu chubanshe edition, 1986: 389; see also Ruegg 1992: 73, 86, note 164), one of the ways in which the issue is formulated is whether sentient beings are ‘Buddhas from the beginning’ (dang po nas sangs rgyas) – Hva-shang’s side supposedly advocated a kind of innate version of the Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha) existing fully ab initio, not just as a germ or potentiality for enlightenment, but as already accomplished. (Compare, for example, the view found in the nine sorts of Great Perfection teachings described in an early work, the bSam gtan mig sgron (Lamp for the Eye of Meditative Absorption) of gNubs Sangs rgyas ye shes (Nup Sanggyay yayshay, tenth century): ‘The nature of the Buddha, sentient beings and their objects is to be without exception enlightened in the great state of the spontaneous dharmatā, which is without beginning nor end’ (1974: 320; see also Karmay 1988: 114).) It is not surprising, if one holds that there is a type of innate perfected nature, that the path should consist essentially in stopping thought and seeing this nature. It is also probably not very surprising that focusing on good actions along the path should seem to Subitists such as Hva-shang and others a significant distraction. Non-mentation would not be a stupefaction, where the mind is reduced to virtual insentience, but would be more like a re-cognition or ‘anagnosis’ (to use the phrase of Giuseppe Tucci (1980: 13)) of what was already there.

Kamalaśīla’s side and its later followers of course panned this Buddhahood ab initio as an utter absurdity. During the Debate, for example, Ye-shes dbang-po (Yayshay wangbo) supposedly argued: ‘If you accede simultaneously [to enlightenment] then why are you still doing anything; if you are a buddha from the beginning (dang po nas sangs rgyas), what then is wrong?’ (mKhas pa’i dga’ ston, 1986: 389). And elsewhere on the same page in the mKhas pa’i dga’ ston, he is represented as criticizing the idea of ‘being enlightened without having done anything’ (ci yang ma byas par ’tshang rgya ba). All this is a kind of Gradualist common sense, but it is also somewhat unimaginative, especially so in that a number of clear-headed Tibetan and Chan philosophers devoted a lot of deep thought to this difficult subject and seem to have been quite aware of the gross absurdities into which one should not fall.

Finally, it is hard to agree with Samten Karmay (1988: 87–8) that the Subitists and Gradualists both accepted an identical version of the ‘spiritual basis’ (gzhi), and that therefore the debate turned only on questions of method. Karmay argues this because of ‘correspondences’ that he sees between various key terms on each side, although these correspondences are far from clear; even when the same word is used on the Gradualist and Subitist sides (for example, tathāgatagarbha), it is unlikely that the concept is being taken in altogether the same way. In short, the idea of some sort of innate perfected nature is a crucial issue in the Great Debate; we are not dealing just with methods. Indeed, if there is only method involved, and no question of Buddhahood ab initio being re-cognized, the general Subitist position becomes an almost grotesquely unintelligent method, and the criticisms by Kamalaśīla, Tsong kha pa and others about meditation without analysis yielding a rather useless mental tabula rasa become difficult to avoid.

Citing this article:
Tillemans, Tom J.F.. The role of conceptual understanding in spiritual realization. Tibetan philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F003-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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