Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture

Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture

Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture

Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture

Synopsis

How did a society on the edge of collapse and dominated by wandering bands of armed men give way to a vibrant Buddhist culture, led by yogins and scholars? Ronald M. Davidson explores how the translation and spread of esoteric Buddhist texts dramatically shaped Tibetan society and led to its rise as the center of Buddhist culture throughout Asia, replacing India as the perceived source of religious ideology and tradition. During the Tibetan Renaissance (950-1200 C. E.), monks and yogins translated an enormous number of Indian Buddhist texts. They employed the evolving literature and practices of esoteric Buddhism as the basis to reconstruct Tibetan religious, cultural, and political institutions. Many translators achieved the de facto status of feudal lords and while not always loyal to their Buddhist vows, these figures helped solidify political power in the hands of religious authorities and began a process that led to the Dalai Lama's theocracy. Davidson's vivid portraits of the monks, priests, popular preachers, yogins, and aristocratic clans who changed Tibetan society and culture further enhance his perspectives on the tensions and transformations that characterized medieval Tibet.

Excerpt

This book seeks to recognize one of the most remarkable achievements in human history: the rebirth and reformation of Tibetan culture, approximately a century after the catastrophic collapse and fragmentation of the Tibetan empire in the mid ninth century. Somewhat overlooked in both traditional and modern accounts of the phenomenon is the simple fact that Tibetans employed the vocabulary, texts and rituals of one of the least likely candidates for the promotion of cultural stability—Indian tantric Buddhism—to accomplish much of this feat. Based on their study and translation of the most esoteric of yogic instructions and Buddhist scriptures in the final phase of Indian Buddhism, Tibetans reorganized their social and religious horizon to accommodate the evolving institutions of clan-based esoteric lineages and religious orders. Over time, they refined their implementation of tantric ideals until Tibet became known as the field of activity for the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. As a result, Tibet eventually displaced India itself as the perceived source for ideal Buddhist study and practice, becoming the goal of devout Buddhist pilgrims from much of Eurasia, and the reference point for all viable esoteric Buddhism.

However, this work could not have seen the light of day without the willing participation of my Tibetan teachers and friends, preeminently Ngor Thar-rtse mkhan-po bSod-nams rgya-mtsho (Hiroshi Sonami) who read with me so many of the Sakya texts used and translated here. His generosity of spirit was only equaled by his insistence that I consider translating into English many of the works we read together, through our eleven years of association from 1976 until his untimely death on November 22, 1987. We both knew that such an idea went against the grain of the culture of secrecy nurtured by the Sakya order for so many centuries, but Thar-rtse mkhan-po also believed that for Tibetan Buddhism to prosper in diaspora, it must redefine itself in unforeseen ways. Even while we differed on the validity of sources and the methodology of historical representation, we agreed that the Sakya tradition was just as glo-

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