Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture

By Schaik, Sam Van | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2007 | Go to article overview

Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture


Schaik, Sam Van, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. By RONALD M. DAVIDSON. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2005. Pp. xvi + 596. $75. (cloth), $32.50 (paper).

Everything you know is wrong. That phrase, a section heading for Ronald Davidson's previous book Indian Esoteric Buddhism, could be an alternative subtitle for this new study. In the most striking iconoclastic moment in the book, Davidson brings to light a previously neglected document that casts doubt upon the great translator Marpa's relationship with the Indian siddha Naropa. This relationship is fundamental to the Kagyu lineages, and Davidson's challenge to the traditional accounts feels like a key moment in the clash between traditional Tibetan historiography and Western positivist historical methods.

Tibetan Renaissance is a monumental work of tremendous scholarship, bringing together an array of historical sources to create a convincing narrative of the dynamic activity of Buddhists in Tibet during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This period is of vital importance in the formation of the religious traditions that came to characterize Tibetan Buddhism, both those of the old (Nyingma) and new (Sarma) traditions. The period was characterized by the influx into Tibet of a huge number of new tantric texts and practice lineages, and the formation of powerful groups around these new lineages. This is quite rightly the focus of Tibetan Renaissance.

Davidson's Indian Esoteric Buddhism dealt with the phenomenon of "tantric" or "esoteric" Buddhism in India. Tibetan Renaissance begins with a summary of the relevant material from the first work. It is clear from the outset that the historical approach outlined at the beginning of Indian Esoteric Buddhism will also be applied in Tibetan Renaissance. In the earlier work Davidson stated that his aim was "to honour those Indian Buddhist masters who have constructed esoteric Buddhism in their own time" (p. xi). However this was not to be the same kind of honor accorded by traditional histories, for Davidson would "seek humanity where others seek holiness."

Similarly in the current work Davidson is engaged in a kind of service of honor, in this case toward the early founders of the Sakya tradition, the Khon family, one of the most important and powerful new lineages that appeared in Tibet in the eleventh century. And while he affirms that the Sakya tradition is "as glorious as it has been proclaimed" (p. x), he approaches the individuals who created this tradition in the same critical manner, presenting them as fallible human beings rather than signifiers of holiness. Sometimes this critical manner becomes provocative, as for example when Davidson describes the siddha Virupa as "a failed monk, probably not excessively learned, and given to hanging round with the wandering bards for whom composition in Apabhramsa was the norm" (p. 54). Such statements seem to be intended as a corrective to traditional hagiography and contemporary Buddhists who continue to hold figures like Virupa in great reverence.

Davidson makes it clear that his historical method is intended to have an immediate impact upon the contemporary tradition: "While the Khon and the Sakya tradition have not received the attention they merit, it is to some degree precisely because of their conservatism and unwillingness to compromise their principles in the modern world" (p. 267). This simultaneously respectful and critical attitude underpins Tibetan Renaissance. Davidson has dedicated himself to the reconstruction of the distant lives of the early Sakya masters, but this is not merely an act of homage to the tradition; with the attempt to present the biographies of the major figures of this period stripped of hagiography and secrecy, he aims to bring the tradition into the modern world.

After a brief overview of Indian tantirc Buddhism, Davidson turns to the narrative of the Tibetan renaissance, which begins with the period following the fall of the Tibetan Empire that has often been characterized as a "dark age. …

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