by Georges Dreyfus and THL.
The Commentarial Hierarchy
The philosophico-religious curriculum of Tibetanmonastic scholasticism consists of three textual layers. This commentarial hierarchy makes clear both the constitutive nature of the basic scholastic texts and the mechanics of their appropriation.
The first layer contains the authoritative and canonical foundation provided by the great Indian text (gyazhungrgya gzhung) such as the Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament of Realization, henceforth referred to as the Ornament), a commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom literature attributed to Maitreya; Nāgārjuna’s Treatise of the Middle Way; and Candrakīrti’s Introduction to the Middle Way.15 Each supports an entire field of study. Thus the study of the path is organized around the memorization and study of the Ornament, and the study of madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness revolves around either of the latter two works. These treatises are the root texts (tsawartsa ba, mūla), written in kārikā (tsikleur jepatshig le’ur byed pa)…
Tibetans did not invent the reliance on root texts; it is part of the methodology used by both Hinduism and late Indian Buddhism. In the Hindu traditions, following Patañjali’s grammatical tradition, these aphoristic summaries of a tradition’s scriptural basis are called sūtras. For example, the meaning of the Upaniṣads is summarized by the Brahmasūtra, which is in turn the subject of commentaries. In the late Indian mahāyāna tradition, the term sūtra is reserved for the teachings of the Buddha, and these texts are instead called “treatises” (tenchöbstan bcos, śāstra). They fulfill the same function as their Hindu counterparts: they summarize, systematize, and explain the meaning of the scriptures. Such works are intended to serve as the basis of further oral and written commentary. They would be read in relation to a bhāṣya or a vṛtti (drelwa’grel ba), a commentary that in turn could be supplemented by a vyākhyā or ṭīkā (drelshé’grel bshad), a more detailed gloss.16 Tibetan curricula are similarly structured. Once the mnemonic verses have been committed to memory, they are studied in the light of further commentaries, which can be of three types: Indian commentaries, Tibetan commentaries, or monastic manuals.
The first type of explanatory text, the Indian commentaries (bhāṣya or vṛtti, drelwa’grel ba), explicates a root text. For example, in the field of madhyamaka, commentaries on Nāgārjuna’s Treatise include Candrakīrti’s Clear Words; Buddhāpalita’s commentary, which bears his own name; Bhavya’s Lamp of Wisdom; and Śāntarakṣita’s Ornament of the Middle Way,17 all of which are considered important by Tibetanscholars. For studying the Ornament, there is a standard list of twenty-one Indian commentaries. Sometimes, the texts belonging to this second layer are autocommentaries (i.e., commentaries written by the author of the root text), such as Candrakīrti’s own explanation of his Introduction to the Middle Way.
Theoretically, the authority of the Indiancommentaries is extremely important; practically, they are used in Tibetan education relatively rarely by teachers and students. As translations of the Sanskrit rendered in a highly artificial language, they are quite difficult to understand; the majority of Tibetan scholars thus tend to prefer Tibetan commentaries, which authoritatively summarize them. Only extremely advanced scholars see the root texts and their Indian commentaries as the real source of their tradition and the central object of intellectual activity.18
The second layer consists of those Tibetan commentaries (bödrelbod ’grel) that were composed later, often between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Because they provide clear glosses on and explanations of the difficult points in the Indian root texts, they can easily be adopted by a school to define doctrinal positions. Each school has its own central commentaries, which are held to be authoritative. For example, GelukpaDge lugs pas use TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s texts, particularly his Clarification of the Thought, as their main guide in the field of madhyamaka studies, whereas the SakyapaSa skya pas focus on GorampaGo rams pa’s commentary. 19 NyingmapaRnying ma pas rely on MipamMi pham rgya mtsho’s texts, such as his commentaries on Śāntarakṣita’s Ornament of the Middle Way, and on the ninth chapter of Śāntideva’s Introduction to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.20 KagyüpaBka’ brgyud pas have a still different central text, the commentary on Candrakīrti’s Introduction by the Eighth Karma pa ṃikyö ḍorjéṃi bskyod rdo rje (1504-1557).21
In the third level are found the monastic manual (yikchayig cha), which are used quite extensively... They present easily digestible summaries of the most important points as well as the material for debate. Manuals fall into two broad categories: summaries, a genre called General Meaning (Chidönspyi don), and debate manuals, called Decisive Analysis (Takchömtha’ gcod). The Collected Topics (Düdrabsdus grwa) are a type of debate manual; they are a GelukDge lugs specialty, though they are certainly not unknown in other traditions.22
For each topic studied, the procedure is similar. The process starts with the heuristic memorization of the root text and sometimes of its commentaries. It continues with the interpretation of the root text through commentaries, and culminates in dialectical debates. For example, in the case of the Ornament, the first text likely to be examined is Haribhadra’s Clear Meaning,23 which provides a brief explanation of the root text. This explanation, which is authoritative but terse and unclear, is in turn supplemented by Tibetan commentaries (second level). GelukDge lugs monastic universities are likely to rely primarily on GyeltsapRgyal tshab’s Ornament of the Essence of Commentaries, which is often complemented by TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s Golden Garland.24 These two texts explain the Ornament in the light of the other commentaries, particularly the twenty-one Indian commentaries. They also present each topic more systematically. Although these texts are more accessible than Clear Meaning, they are not always easy to understand. Hence, they are in turn supplemented by the monastery’s manuals, which are more comprehensible and better organized, though less authoritative. There, students find the clearest statement about the subject matter.
As students examine each topic, they rely on this chain of commentaries, which offers an increasingly detailed and clear picture of the contents of the root text. Each level of commentary explicates the terser or less systematic texts of the preceding textual level; ultimately, the elaborate explanations provided by the authoritative Tibetan commentaries and the manuals are read back into the root text, which is assumed to implicitly contain them. By assuming identical content of commentary and commented text, scholars can build a commentarial hierarchy of increasing clarity in which more explicit statements are projected back onto the less clear but more authoritative earlier levels. Thus the views of the more explicit texts, which reflect the views of the school or the monastery, are validated and given full authority, thereby establishing the orthodoxy of the tradition.
Such a structure does not prevent critical interpretation of these texts, as the later discussion of debate will show. Scholars do question the validity of particular glosses offered by the manuals of their monastery or by Tibetan commentaries. Such questions are often freely debated. Nevertheless, the commentarial hierarchy is so central to the construction of knowledge in their tradition that few scholars are willing to discard it. Hence, they tend to gravitate toward its interpretations despite any doubts they may have.
Students begin by mastering the techniques and basic concepts necessary to engage in debate. During this period, which usually lasts three years,25 monks are trained in the art of debate as they study the The Collected Topics. They are also introduced to the basic concepts of logic and epistemology that they will use throughout their studies. The texts used are manuals specific to the monastery and contain five parts:
- The Collected Topics (Düdrabsdus grwa) proper (in three parts)
- Types of Mind (Lorikblo rigs)
- Types of Evidence (Tarikrtags rigs)
The first three texts of the The Collected Topics teach monks the debate’s structure, techniques, and terminology. These introductory manuals provide the key to the practice of debate.26 The first chapter introduces the students to debate by focusing on the logical relations between colors and showing how these relations can be used in simple debates. Later chapters introduce more sophisticated topics, including the basic outline of the Buddhist conceptual universe and its main categories, and examine logical relations such as exclusion and inclusion. But not all of the topics are important for later studies; several are mere brainteasers introduced purely to sharpen the reasoning abilities of the students. In fact, the real topic of the three volumes of the The Collected Topics is training in debate.
That training is completed when epistemology and logic are introduced to the students. The lo rigs presents the main concepts used in Buddhist epistemology, a subject of great importance in the GelukDge lugs school. From this genre of text, students learn about the nature of knowledge, its types, and its objects. The Types of Evidence delineates the types of reasoning they must use and begins to supply the different logical tools that will be available to them during their studies. For example, students learn how to distinguish probative arguments from statements of consequence...
This propaedeutic phase of the curriculum is often completed by the study of doxography (druptagrub mtha’, siddhānta), which examines Buddhist and non-Buddhist systems of belief. In this way, students acquire a sense of the shape of the tradition as a whole—its main ideas and its most important distinctions. To help them understand the structure of the Buddhistworldview, students have recourse to another genre of text, the Paths and Stages (Salamsa lam). In this stage, they also study the Seventy Topics (Dön Dünchudon bdun cu), a summary of the seventy topics covered by the Ornament. Throughout the first part of the curriculum, no in-depth comprehension is expected of the students, who develop their reasoning abilities and learn the basic philosophical vocabulary needed for the rest of their studies. They also acquire a variety of cognitive maps on which they can locate all the ideas that will confront them in the core of the curriculum, the study of the five treatises.
Central Exoteric Studies
The central part of this monastic training is subdivided into two phases. The first and more important is the study of three texts that summarize the main aspects of non-tantric Buddhism as understood by the GelukDge lugs tradition:
- Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament of Realization), attributed to Maitreya
- Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika (Commentary on Valid Cognition)
- Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra (Introduction to the Middle Way)27
The Abhisamayālaṃkara, which is studied for four to six years, examines the Perfection of Wisdom literature. It provides an understanding of the Buddhist and, more particularly, mahāyāna worldview together with a detailed analysis of the path. Every year, one month is devoted to Dharmakīrti’s Commentary, which outlines in detail Buddhist logic, epistemology, and philosophy of language. This text also provides the philosophical methodology for the whole curriculum, as we will see later. After they have thoroughly absorbed this training, students are ready to examine what is considered the culmination of their education, madhyamaka philosophy. This philosophy, which provides the doctrinal core of the GelukDge lugs tradition, is taught with the help of Candrakīrti’s Introduction, which serves as a guide to Nāgārjuna’s seminal Treatise of the Middle Way.
The study of these three texts, which may take six to ten years, demands the kind of sustained philosophical thinking particularly valued by the GelukDge lugs tradition. Sometimes, monks who are keenly intent on leading the hermitic life leave the monastery after finishing this part of their education. Although they could benefit from further study, they are considered ready to start on their meditative careers.
In the second and final phase of studying the exoteric texts, the students already well-trained in philosophy gain more maturity and a richer overview of the tradition. It consists of two treatises:
- Vasubandhu’s Abhidharma-kośa (Treasury of Abhidharma)
- Guṇaprabha’s Vinaya-sūtra28
The study of the Abhidharma enriches the understanding of the Buddhist view of the world already conveyed to the students by the Ornament. The study of the Vinaya initiates the students in the intricacies of monastic discipline and the collective organization of the order. Because of their importance, both texts receive extended scrutiny (lasting four to eight years). Yet if they are important, why are they taught so late in the curriculum?
One reason is that these texts contribute little to the intellectual qualities most valued by Tibetan scholars—the ability to penetrate difficult theoretical concepts, raise doubts about them, explore their complexity, and come to a nuanced understanding of their implications. Such qualities are developed by the study of the first three texts, which are more philosophical and lend themselves to analysis through the commentarial and dialectical practices that are at the heart of Tibetan scholasticism. Hence, it is important to expose students to those texts when they are young and their minds can be sharpened. Later they will have time to study Abhidharma and Vinaya, which are less demanding but require a more sedate approach.
Moreover, the Vinaya is only partly relevant to Tibetan monastic practice. Although it lays out the monastic discipline, the vows to which monks commit themselves by becoming members of the order, and the principles around which the life of this order is organized, the Tibetan practice of monasticism does not strictly conform to the strictures laid down in the Vinaya. The vows are the same, but they are studied by monks only after ordination, in summaries called Training for Bhikshus (Gelonggi LapjaDge slong gi bslab bya). The actual organization of the order in Tibet derives not from the Vinaya but from the monastic constitutions. In addition, the monastic calendar follows the Vinaya’s prescriptions only partly.
Nevertheless, the postponement of the study of the Vinaya, the canonical discipline incumbent on any monk or nun, is quite surprising, for one would expect monks to know the rules to which they have committed themselves and the procedures they must follow. Monks notice this paradox. A caustic Mongoliangeshédge bshes is supposed to have said, “When there are vows, there is no [knowledge of the] Vinaya. When there is [knowledge of the] Vinaya, there is no vow.”29 When monks begin their careers, they are enthusiastic and pure, but do not know the monastic discipline. Instead of studying it immediately, they wait for ten or fifteen years. When they finally turn to Vinaya, they understand what they should have done—but it is too late. By then they have become blasé and have lost their enthusiasm for monastic life.30
Such disaffection is a particular worry for monks who have finished the first three texts in an atmosphere of intense discovery and intellectual excitement. They are well acquainted with their tradition and have the intellectual tools needed to gain a deeper, more inward-looking understanding. This change in approach is especially important for the study of the Vinaya, which examines the moral aspects of the tradition—more specifically, monastic morality—not theoretically and philosophically but practically. There is extensive discussion of the moral precepts: their number, their nature, the actions that they exclude, and so on. However, very little philosophical discussion is devoted to the nature of moral concepts.
This approach to morality reflects the belief that it cannot be understood theoretically, since moral rules can never be derived from observation or deduced philosophically. In Buddhist epistemology, morality is described as thoroughly hidden (shintu kokgyurshin tu lkog gyur, atyantaparokṣa), a domain of reality that is inaccessible to direct experience or to reason. In Buddhism as in most Indiantraditions, good and bad are understood in terms of the consequences of one’s karma —that is, in relation to action. An action is bad if, and only if, it leads to negative karmic results.31 But the only way to understand that an action such as killing will lead in the future to being killed or reborn in painful circumstances is to rely on some authority, whether the instructions of a person or the exegesis of a text.32 In the Buddhist tradition, such authority is provided by the Buddha and his teachings, particularly the Vinaya, which focuses on monastic rules and by extension provides some guidance to the laity as well.
In this area, monastic studies resemble Islamic studies, which emphasize jurisprudence—particularly in the Sunni branch of Islam, in which philosophy and theology play a limited role. That tradition overwhelmingly privileges religious jurisprudence as the main subject of learning, the central and perhaps only way to gain access to the divine. The yeshivas of Jewish tradition have the same curricular orientation…These studies are in part distinguished by being concerned less with philosophy than with exegetical matters or the moral and legal questions treated by the texts they interpret. Students discuss the details of midrashic interpretations or debate the rules contained in the talmudic literature, arguing about the rationale behind the prescriptions. By so doing, they get closer to the divine.
Tibetan scholars take a somewhat similar approach to studying Vinaya and Abhidharma. Rather than emphasizing the sharp dialectical and philosophical focus required in studying the first three texts (a focus discussed below), scholars stress commentarial exegesis, which here provides not just the indispensable basis of debate but the essence of the study. Debate is not a mode of inquiry into these texts but a way to assimilate their content, and it is therefore often replaced by a less formal conversation, not unlike that in which yeshiva students engage. However, the use of this method exclusively for Vinaya and Abhidharma (considered less important than the first three texts) illustrates the difference between Tibetan monastic education, which generally has a philosophical orientation, and that of the yeshiva, which stresses the exegetical and legal. Though rules and regulations can be known only through the enlightened vision of a Buddha, their study is not the main way to gain access to such vision. Instead, the study of philosophy, which prefigures meditative practice, is considered la voie royale.
Like other parts of the tradition, the Vinaya is studied through commentaries, which in this case are particularly important. There is no other way to learn about monastic morality, for the kind of philosophical analysis suitable for the first three texts cannot be applied to morality. The Vinaya itself is said to have been proclaimed by the Buddha and hence is canonical in the narrow sense of the word. But students focus less on these texts than on their commentaries, particularly Guṇaprabha’s Vinaya-sūtra. Contrary to what its title suggests, this difficult and long work is a treatise, not a sūtra. It is studied by every scholar and memorized by better students. Less enthusiastic students are happy to memorize the verse condensation (domtsiksdom tshig) of its topics, and the truly reluctant try to get away with committing to memory only the most important parts, which are neither short nor easy to memorize. I must confess that I belonged to this last category.
When I moved to SeraSe ra to prepare for my final exams, I studied Vinaya with geshédge bshes Lozang TuptenBlo bzang thub bstan, who was kind enough to teach me. I managed painfully to memorize the key passages of the verse condensation and was able to answer questions concerning the most important points of the Vinaya studies. My overall knowledge of the Vinaya was very limited, as my fellow students knew. Yet they did not hold my ignorance against me. In their eyes, my comprehension of the first three texts was sufficient to establish me as a scholar, and their opinion accurately reflected the consensus of the GelukDge lugs tradition in exile. Monks nowadays have neither the leisure nor the scholarly gusto for exploring the details of the Vinaya and Abhidharma, as they did in Tibet, where scholars ferociously debated the intricacies of these texts and where knowledge of the Vinaya and the Abhidharma was considered a scholar’s crowning achievement.
Another indication of the role played in the curriculum by the Vinaya and the Abhidharma is that the Tibetan commentaries used in studying them, unlike those for the first three texts, are not tradition-specific. All Tibetan Buddhist traditions agree in relying on the commentary by kun mkhyen tsho na ba on Guṇaprabha’s Vinaya-sūtra.33 This voluminous text explains the meaning of the root text and presents a masterly overview of all Vinaya practice and literature. It is complemented by the same author’s word commentary (i.e., a gloss) of the Vinaya-sūtra, as well as by a commentary by dge ’dun grub.34 In the GelukDge lugs tradition, the latter is used extensively, and scholars contrast its sometimes more conservative explanations with kun mkhyen tsho na ba’s broader standpoint. Moreover, though manuals exist (as mentioned earlier), they are very rarely used, since their dialectical and didactic style is taken to be ill-suited to these texts.
Similarly, the study of the Abhidharma is based on a pre-GelukDge lugs text, the famous Great Chim (ChimchenMchims chen) or ChimdzöMchims mdzod, a commentary on Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Abhidharma.35 One of the earliest of the Tibetan scholastic commentaries, it presents a masterful synthesis of the Abhidharma systems of the vaibhāṣika and sautrāntika schools, as explained by Vasubandhu, and summarizes the mahāyāna Abhidharma, as explained by Asaṅga. This large and invaluable sum, which covers the relevant Indian subcommentaries, is studied in conjunction with Vasubandhu’s text, which is memorized. Vasubandhu’s autocommentary is discussed as well, but in less detail. Often Gendün DrupDge ’dun grub’s commentary is also used, for it provides an elegant gloss on Vasubandhu’s text as well as a useful summary of the whole system.36 The Abhidharma can be studied for up to four years, but this is very much a luxury. Compared to the Vinaya, whose study requires a sustained effort, the textual basis of the Abhidharma is easier to master; moreover, most of its topics have been already partly covered in the study of the Ornament.
- Texts and the Curriculum
- Final Examinations and the Title of Geshédge bshes
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