The Spoken Scholarship of Kensur Yeshey Tupden Collected, Translated, Edited, Annotated and Introduced by Anne Carolyn Klein
"The work will be of use to scholars of Tibetan Buddhism and comparative philosophers of religion. Everyone in oral studies should read the introduction.
Does a Bodhisattva’s initial direct cognition of emptiness differ from subsequent ones'? Can one "improve" a nondualistic understanding of the unconditioned and, if so. What role might subtle states of concentration play in the process'? In material collected by Anne Klein over a seven year period. Kensur Yeshey Tupden addresses these and other crucial issues of Buddhist soteriology to provide one of the richest presentations of Tibetan oral philosophy yet published in English. Anne Klein`s introduction to his commentary surveys oral genres associated with Tibetan textual study. and the volume concludes with a translation of the text on which Kensur bases his discussion of the "Perfection of Wisdom" chapter in Tsong-kha-pa`s Illumination of (Candrakirti's) Thought (dbu ma dgongs pu rab gsal). translated here by Jeffrey Hopkins and Anne Klein.
"The text that is the subject of Professor Klein`s study is one of the most important in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Her innovative approach will make the work of interest not only to scholars. for whom it will be essential reading, but more generally to anyone interested in the Tibetan interpretation of emptiness." — Jose Ignacio Cabezon.
Anne C. Klein is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Rice University. Her books include knowledge and liberation and Knowing Naming and Negation, and the forthcoming Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self.
Kensur Yeshey Tupden (Ye—shes-thub—bstan. l916-1988) was one of the most respected among the last generation of Gelukba scholars to complete their training in Tibet prior to the Chinese takeover in l959. Kensur came into exile in India in the early l960s. and during his ten years as abbot he oversaw the reestablishment of Loseling College. Drebung Monastery in Mundgod. India.
In the spring of 1968, I enjoyed a college semester abroad at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland. While admiring the sun`s sparkling effects on that city’s famous lake during a morning class on Kierkegaard. I was seized by a powerful desire to go to India. Nothing diminished this inviolable urge, even when I understood it would take some doing and several years to accomplish the journey.
I returned home determined to find a path to India. This led me to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where I arrived in the fall of 1969 with a vague expectation that I would find a project to engage me in India and perhaps a companion to travel with. At my first class, I sat on the floor toward the back of a crowded room as the professor asked our names and the pro- gram in which we were enrolled. When I called out that I was in Buddhist Studies, two heads in the front row swiveled in my direction. One was that of Jeffrey Hopkins, who subsequently introduced me to Tibetan thought and language and invited to Wisconsin the teacher who helped me formulate a project for my first trip to India. The other was that of my future husband, Harvey Aronson, who, on our first evening out a few months later, brought up the subject of travel to India and whose American Institute of Indian Studies Dissertation Fellowship would unofficially fund my initial Indian sojourn and my first efforts to study the text elaborated in these pages.
The Tibetan monk, scholar, and tantric master Kensur Ngawang Lekden arrived in Wisconsin in the spring of 1970. I attended his classes on Prasangika philosophy at the University, and also his extracurricular meditations on Sunday afternoons, where he based his instructions on the early chapters of Candrakirti’s Entrance t0 the Middle Way (dbu ma la jug pa, madhyamakavatara). During my second year at Wisconsin, I lived at "Tibet House," an arrangement created by the late Richard Robinson and Jeffrey Hopkins, whereby a few graduate students could share a house with Rinboche, enabling us to form a more personal relationship with him. Kensur was then seventy years old. Before he walked out of Tibet in 1959 in search of a safe route for the Dalai Lama, he was abbot of the Tantric College of Lower Lhasa, an incumbent to the Throne of Tsong-kha-pa, and famous throughout Tibet for his lectures and learning, As he liked occasionally to point out, his title of "Rinboche" ("Precious One") came to him not through birth, in that he was not seen as an incarnation or tulku, but through the learning and other qualities he cultivated in his lifetime.
He was totally unassuming. A man who in Tibet could be approached only with bowed head and lowered eyes, and to whom anyone within speaking distance would immediately prostrate themselves, contentedly put away the cutlery and picked up carpet lint in this old Wisconsin farmhouse. He knew also how to foster a relationship without much reliance on the language I could not yet understand. Once he gestured firmly that we leave the warm house and walk uphill over hard Wisconsin snow to share for a simple moment a view he enjoyed.
I completed my M.A., worked for a few months, and then, with their encouragement, sold the car my parents had given me and bought a ticket to India. Shortly before leaving Wisconsin, I consulted with Kensur Ngawang Lekden. Much as I respected him, I felt comfortable with him by now and confidently asked his advice regarding what I might study in India. To my surprise, he balked. He said he couldn’t really say. He had no advice. Taking courage from our friendly relationship, I persisted. Wasn’t there something he might suggest? Please? I would really appreciate it. Finally, he paused in his nay--saying, and when the pause ended he was suggesting that I read Candrakirti’s Entrance to the Middle Way. Next day, I xeroxed the Tibetan text and Poussin’s French translation of Candrakirti’s commentary on it. I was off! I had an extended visa, very hard to get in those days, thanks to Prof. Robinson, who, some weeks before the terrible and ultimately fatal accident that befell him in the spring of 1970, had written to a colleague at the University of Delhi, That letter paved the way for a university affiliation and the treasured year—long student visa.
Now that I had determined what I would study, the challenge was to find someone who both spoke English and was trained in the philosophical background and oral traditions of the text, regarded by Tibetan scholars as a most difficult work. I was fortunate to make a connection with Doboom Tulku, then a student at Banaras Sanskrit University, living in Sarnath, and interested in improving his English by teaching a foreigner. We worked together for several hours every afternoon, I struggling with the Tibetan, he helping me with it and adding occasional explanations from Tsong-kha—pa’s Illumination of the Thought which lay open on his desk.
The room we worked in was a large dormitory, shared by several monks. When I entered for our first session, Doboom Tulku introduced me to the older monk who sat near the table where we read. “This is Guru—ji," he said. Guru-ji, with whom I could not speak much because we did not know each other’s language, sat on his cushion, reading, reflecting, or affably looking on, during most of my classes over the next five months. When I showed him, in the fall of 1971, a letter saying that Kensur Ngawang Lekden had died, he looked at me
with his characteristic clear and quiet gaze and said simply, "A sun has set."
I did not speak with Guru—ji again until 1980, when I returned to India on a Fulbright Dissertation Fellowship. My actual dissertation focused on other texts, but I had never given up my commitment to study fully the Entrance and its commentarial tradition. This meant engaging with oral commentary as well as the written word. After my preliminary work on the text with Doboom Rinboche, and now that I could speak Tibetan, reading Tsong-kha-pa’s commentary with a scholar who could illuminate it orally was a natural next step. Jeffrey Hopkins had already translated the first five chapters of Tsong-Kha-pa’s Illumination, which meant I would start with the sixth chapter, itself more than half the entire work, on the perfection of wisdom.
When I arrived in India for my Fulbright year I went south to the new Drebung Monastic University in Karnataka State to pursue my long-cherished goal. Everyone told me that Kensur Yeshey Tupden, a senior scholar and former abbot of Loseling College, Drebung, was the person to study it with. When we met, Kensur Yeshey Tupden turned out to be none other than Guru—ji, whose real name I never learned while he oversaw my studies in Sarnath. Despite a teaching schedule that often kept him sitting on his cushion, lecturing in roomful of students for six or eight hours a day, Kensur met with me daily to wad Tsong-kha-pa’s text.
Reading a text in the Tibetan monastic environment is never an engagement with words or ideas only. It is also a human encounter and one that for me, in practice and in memory, permeates the text and the intertwined traditions of ritual, conversation, meditation, and analytical debate which the text embraces. Other intangibles also come into play. It has, for example, indelibly impressed me that no matter how dense the philosophical content of our text or the technical minutiae on which our discussions focused (and the reader will noon encounter both in the body of this book), Kensur’s physical posture and personal ambience was always relaxed, with no sign of the breathy or obsessive air one often sees associated with rigorous thinking. Similarly, no matter how many hours had passed since he began his teaching, his manner was always the same; kindly, patient, with a quiet enjoyment in what he was doing. The soothing quality of his demeanor was reflected in a soothing coolness of the air, rare in that climate in the summer months, which surrounded us as we worked. There seemed always to be a breeze in his rooms. It was a relief to step inside his door and out of the sun that blazed oven like over the several hundred yards I traversed from my quarters to his. I came to experience this blend of personal and atmospheric comfort as metaphysical refreshment which fused clarity with caring, physical groundedness with abstract thinking, and abstract thinking with human engagement. Indeed, my entire chain of association with this text, from Kensur Ngawang Lekden to Doboom Tulku to Kensur Yeshey Tupden himself, as well as the association of those who made these interactions possible-such as Richard Robinson, Jeffrey Hopkins, Harvey Aronson, my parents, and Geshe Wangyal—links this work, hard abstractions and all, with human kindness and the pleasure and privilege of human interaction.
By the end of my six months’ stay at Drebung monastery we had completed most of Tsong-kha—pa’s Perfection of Wisdom Chapter. In December 1980, I returned to the States, finished my dissertation, and then took up where I had left off, listening to, translating, and editing the first forty-five or so hours of tape-recorded commentary. Many questions developed from this process. Luckily, I was able to continue our discussions when Kensur was invited to the University of Virginia as Visiting Lecturer in 1982 and during his visits to the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center as Resident Teacher later that year and again in 1985 and 1986. On all these occasions, I was able to add more detail and context, through approximately twenty more hours of oral discussion on issues that had emerged during our first readings. I completed a penultimate draft of the compiled and edited oral "text" in 1987, thanks to a summer grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In between other projects, I have continued to edit and annotate the material until now. In a kind of karmic coda, two weeks before sending this to press, I was able to ask a last round of questions on oral and written commentarial genres in discussion with Kensur’s senior student, Gen Yeshey Thabkey (ye shes thabs mkhas) of the Tibetan Studies Institute, Sarnath, during his visit to the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in July 1993.
Thus, the discussion you find here is actually several layers of commentary gathered over a period of six years. The latter two layers were garnered mostly in response to issues and questions that I pursued. In most cases the questions are blended into the text, but I have let parts of the dialogue remain to give something of the flavor of our interaction. The result is, I believe, the densest presentation of Tibetan oral philosophy yet committed to written English; that is, the proportion of oral comment to printed text is unprecedentedly high. At the same time, this volume represents only the first third of the oral commentary I received from Yeshey Tupden on this text; there are still about eighty hours of tape to be transcribed and edited. The luxury of asking him further questions is not ours, however, since another sun set when Kensur Yeshey Tupden died in New Delhi in the fall of 1988.
I regret very much that I did not manage to finish this volume during my teacher’s lifetime, as he would have liked. In 1986, some months before he was discovered to have intestinal cancer, he told me it would be good if I could finish it soon. I’m sorry it took me so long, Kensur, but here it is.
The Illumination of the Thought (dbu ma dgongs pa rah gsal) is one of two major works by Tsong-kha-pa to comment directly upon and incorporate an Indian Madhyamika text. It is also the last of his five works on Madhyamika, written in 1418, the year before his death, when he was sixty-one years old.‘ This text, among the last in a lifetime of writing that produced over two hundred separate titles occupying eighteen Tibetan volumes, can be located in other ways as well. On the one hand, it takes its place in a lineage of textual commentary considered to link the turn-of-the-millennium Nagarjuna and the seventh—century Candrakirti with the fourteenth—century Tsong-kha-pa. Innumerable other voices, including a wide of range of Buddhist scriptures and the opponents whose views he debated, also surface in this text. The other locus, and the one to which this volume directly addresses itself, is the place of Tsong-kha-pa’s work in the living oral philosophical traditions of Tibet. It is in this latter context that Tibetans encounter texts such as this, whether as monastic scholars listening to it from their teachers and debating its fine points with their peers, or more rarely as members of the lay public who gather on special occasions to hear discourses on it from renowned lamas.
Nagarjuna, the initial systemizer of Indian Madhyamika, formed the basis for virtually all subsequent Indo—Tibetan Madhyamika studies with his Treatrise the Middle Way (dbu ma’i bstan bcos, mulamadhyamakasastra). Candrakirti, who studied and then became abbot at the famous Buddhist Monastic University of Nalanda in the post—Gupta period, marked a turning point in Indian Madhyamika. His Entrance to the Middle Way’ (dbu ma la jug pa, madhyamakdvatara) expanded greatly on Nagarjuna’s writing and paved the way for a new vision of Madhyamika known as Prasangika— Madhyamika. Candrakirti organized his discussion around the ten Bodhisattva grounds (sa, bhumi), and his interweaving of practical guidelines-such as detailed descriptions of the perfections of giving, ethics, and patience-as well as philosophical analysis, struck a deep chord in Tibet, where a whole class of literature outlining the stages of the path (lam rim) grew up on this model, with Tsong-kha-pa’s own work one of its supreme exemplars.
Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way lies at the heart of both Tsong-kha-pa’s Indian-based texts on Madhyamika. In the Ocean 0f Reasoning, Great Commentary on (Nagarjuna’s) "Treatise on the Middle Way" (rigs pa ’i rgya mtsho rtsa shes tik chen),’ Tsong-kha—pa comments directly on Nagarjuna’s work and incorporates it into his text in the manner characteristic of Tibetan commentarial tradition. In the Illumination, Tsong-kha-pa takes as his focus Candrakirti’s famous commentary on Nagarjuna’s Treatise, the Entrance to the Middle Way (dbu mu la jug pa, madhyamakavatara Here Tsong-kha-pa not only incorporates Candrakirti’s verses into his own prose but draws extensively from Candrakirti’s [Auto] Commentary to "Entrance to the Middle Way" (dba ma la jug pa'i rang ’grel, madhyamakavatarabhdsya) as well. In this way, Tsong-kha—pa’s work is elaborately intertextual, not only incorporating and addressing significant portions of Candrakirti’s work but also quoting from or implicitly referring to a wide variety of Indian and Tibetan texts. For the Gelukba (dge lugs pa) order, which regards Tsong-kha—pa as its founder and reveres him as teacher of the first Dalai Lama, Tsong-kha—pa’s corpus is a high mark in the formidable enterprise of making a coherent presentation of the Madhyamika perspective, an enterprise that had begun approximately four hundred years after Sakyamuni Buddha’s death with the writing of Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Middle Way.
During the reign of the eighth-century religious king Tri-song-day-tsen (khri smug lde brtsan), Tibetans seem to have taken an approximately equal interest in Chinese and Indian Buddhist traditions, with ongoing translation projects rendering Sanskrit and Chinese works into Tibetan, and Tibetan into Chinese? Gradually, however, things changed, and much of Tibet came to regard India as the major, if not the sole, source of teachings on Buddhism. This tendency was hastened to a significant extent by the so—called debate, which may actually have been merely an exchange of documents, between the Chinese Ha-shang and the Indian pandit Kamalasila. In the aftermath of this exchange, King Tri—song-•day—tsen decided against the Chinese position and the monks who promulgated it, who were then "driven from the land."‘ This decision may have been for political as much as doctrinal reasons, but from that time the prestige of Indian Buddhism was virtually unchallenged in Tibet.
The Illumination remains to this day an important focus of Madhyamika studies in the Gelukba monastic universities. It is approximately ten times the length of Candrakirti’s Entrance and follows Candrakirti’s structure in setting forth the ten grounds by which a Mahayana Bodhisattva progresses to the eleventh ground, Buddhahood. These ten grounds are occasions for completing or enhancing, respectively, the ten perfections of giving, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, wisdom, skillful means, aspirational prayer, power, and exalted wisdom. The first five are accomplished in order to facilitate the sixth, the perfection of wisdom, and the last four are subdivisions of it. The discussion of the sixth ground constitutes more than half the entire text of eleven chapters.
Kensur weaves into his discussion of Tsong-kha-pa’s work reflections on numerous difficult and interesting issues. He considers in some detail the inter- play between concentration and analysis, comments on the relationship between ordinary study and a Buddha’s omniscience, as well as on the way in which emptiness inspires religious life, and in the later chapters devotes particular care to the crucial philosophical nuances that distinguish the major schools’ discussions of emptiness.
Nagarjuna warned that emptiness misunderstood is as dangerous as a snake held by an inexperienced snake—handler. Tsong-kha-pa, as Robert Thurman has noted] responded to this warning by dedicating much of his literary effort to clarifying the meaning of emptiness. In the Illumination, his attention to this task is interwoven with his efforts to examine the relationship of that understanding to other aspects of the Bodhisattva’s path. Tsong-kha-pa, like Candrakirti, is said to have had direct meetings and conversations with Manjusri, the embodiment of all Buddha’s wisdom. This wisdom is considered the central inspiration of the Illumination, and the hope of attaining wisdom animates its traditional readers to this day. Thus, Tsong-kha-pa’s work, like most Buddhist texts, is regarded as a medium by which one contacts the mind of the Buddha’s that inspired it, even as one reads about the wisdom and other qualities that enable oneself to experience such a mind, first vicariously and then actually. Such is the larger religious vision in which this work abides. Tsong-kha- pa’s text, therefore, in addition to the philosophical reflections it offers, also provides a basis for entering into the world of oral commentary, wherein human speech creates multiple webs and layers of connection. Among the most important of these are the links between teacher and student, which also involve relationships between teacher and text, student and text, as well as between text and personal reflection, and which engage students and teachers with a wide variety of other texts cited in the reading, or quotes that simply come to mind in the course of reflection and conversation.
Let us begin then, by considering the oral genres and other 'Tibetan scholarly traditions that contextualize Kensur’s discussion.
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