Sakya Paṇḍita [sa skya paṇ ḍi ta] (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


1. Life and Works

was the fourth of the “Five Great Throneholders” of Sakya
(Tib. sa-skya), the monastery that was the seat of the noble
Khön clan and the institutional hub for one of the main schools
of Tibetan Buddhism. The first of the five was Sapaṇ’s
grandfather, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, and the second and third were his
uncles Sonam Tsemo and Drakpa Gyeltsen. His uncles were both celibate
monks, so the royal line fell naturally to him, the eldest nephew.
Sapaṇ’s biographies contain hagiographical fancy that
assimilates his early life to that of the Buddha or other great
intellects: His mother dreamed of a crowned Nāga king coming to
her when Sapaṇ entered her womb; as an infant he spoke and wrote
Sanskrit; as a child he was gentle and compassionate, knew many topics
without having studied them, and imbibed the dharma without effort. As
he grew (and we enter more realistic history), he received teachings
from many great masters both within his family and abroad, and he
continued to distinguish himself for his preternaturally quick
mastery, sharp discernment, and elegant instruction. In dreams, he had
visions confirming his abilities at understanding the works of
Vasubandhu and Dignāga.

A major turning point in his life came when the Kashmiri scholar
Śākyaśrībhadra arrived in Tibet with an entourage
of paṇḍitas from India and Nepal. Sapaṇ
went to meet him and established a crucial relationship with these
scholars. He was able to hire one of the
paṇḍitas, Sugataśrī, as a personal
tutor for three years, and then return to study with
Śākyaśrī for another five years. It was with these
scholars that Sapaṇ came to master the linguistic
sciences—Sanskrit grammar, poetics, and metrics—but also,
and especially, epistemology (tshad ma). Sapaṇ was said
to have had various doubts and questions about the understanding of
Dharmakīrti’s philosophy that he had received from his
early teachers, which were resolved by his studies under
Śākyaśrī. He learned to translate under the
tutelage of Sugataśrī, and then together with
Śākyaśrī retranslated Dharmakīrti’s
Pramāṇavārttika into Tibetan.

Before Sapaṇ, Sakya was a renowned center for the study of the
Lamdre system of the Hevajra Tantra, rooted in the
masterful works and reputation of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo. Sapaṇ
established Sakya anew as a leader in the study of epistemology.
Sapaṇ engaged in many public, spirited debates with members of
rival Tibetan schools and, famously, with visiting Brahmanical
paṇḍitas (including one *Harinanda), whom he is
said to have defeated (see Hugon 2012 on this event). His personal
reputation, and the tantric reputation of Sakya, were surely important
factors behind the Mongol prince Köden inviting him to negotiate
terms for the Tibetan surrender in 1244. It is not entirely clear just
what the terms turned out to be, and Sapaṇ died in the Mongol
capital. But just a few years later, Sapaṇ’s nephew
Phakpa, whom he had brought with him, was named supreme administrator
of a united Tibet under Mongol rule—a position that stayed with
the Sakya for a century (Wylie 1977 [2003] and Petech 1990).

Sapaṇ composed many short works, but he is best known for five major

  1. Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels (Legs par bshad pa rin
    po che’i gter
    ; Bosson 1969);
  2. Treasury of Epistemological Reasoning (Tshad ma rigs
    pa’i gter
    ; Fukuda et al. 1989–1994 and Hugon
  3. Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes (Sdom gsum
    rab dbye
    ; Rhoton 2002);
  4. Clarifying the Sage’s Intent (Thub pa’i
    dgongs pa rab tu gsal
    ; D. Jackson 2015); and
  5. Gateway to Learning (Mkhas pa rnams ’jug pa’i
    ; D. Jackson 1987 and Gold 2007).

The first is a popular collection of pithy sayings and moral
instructions (Kolmaš 1978); the others are treated further
below. Although it is difficult to summarize his worldview, it is
hoped that this survey reveals a philosopher of remarkable
consistency, vision and depth.

2. Epistemology and Philosophy of Language: The Treasury of Reasoning

2.1 Introduction to the Work

Sapaṇ’s Treasury of Epistemological
is one of Tibet’s best known and most consequential
philosophical achievements, roundly extolled as a work of genius and
validation of Sapaṇ’s reputation as an emanation of
Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom. It is an
unrivaled touchstone for Tibetan approaches to concept formation,
philosophy of language, cognition and perception. Still, the work has
an ambiguous legacy. Like the Three Vows, it was mired in
controversy from its debut—controversy around a number of its
stridently combative positions, but especially, and without end,
controversy around its meaning. What’s more, at least some of
its advocates were false friends, appropriating the glow of
Sapaṇ’s legacy while making only selective use of the
work’s masterful exposition of Dharmakīrti and, especially,
turning a blind eye to crucial particulars that might call into
question their own cherished
Recent scholarship has begun to reveal the work’s own goals and
place it within its intellectual contexts, but the project is complex
and ongoing. This section is, of necessity, only a sketch.

The Treasury is staunchly anti-realist about both cognitive
and linguistic objects. Nominalism and pragmatism are hardly outside
the range of expectation for a Buddhist. Yet Tibetans both before and
after Sapaṇ (esp. Chapa before, Tsongkhapa after) have tended to
hew to a more intuitive and “moderate” realism—to
use Georges Dreyfus’ terminology (1997). Sapaṇ defends a
position that is more spare and more severe than most Tibetan
epistemologists, and, according to modern scholarship, closer to
Buddhist traditions are widely known for their insistence that
ordinary beings are uniformly deluded and reality seen correctly by a
Buddha is entirely beyond their (our) ken, so the counter-intuitive
nature of anti-realism is not at all discomforting to the Indic
Buddhist mainstream. Sapaṇ certainly considered his own views
more accurate and more authentically Indian than those of his Tibetan
adversaries. This self-understanding was, no doubt, buttressed by the
fact that he had studied Sanskrit and Indian linguistic sciences with
the followers of the Kashmiri scholar
Śākyaśrībhadra and that with
Śākyaśrī he had retranslated, and thereby
rejuvenated the study of, Dharmakīrti’s
Pramāṇavārttika. Association with great
Indian paṇḍitas gave Sapaṇ the confidence
to distinguish his own conservative stance from ideas he disparagingly
called “Tibetan” innovations.

Sapaṇ’s main adversaries in his Treasury were
adherents of the tradition of Ngok (rngog lugs) centered in
Sangpu (gsang-phu) monastery, whose most prominent advocates
were Ngog Lotsawa himself and his disciple Chapa Chokyi Senge. As
Chapa’s epistemology gained ascendancy, study of the
Pramāṇavārttika was apparently eclipsed by
that of other writings of Dharmakīrti’s (primarily the
Pramāṇaviniṣcaya), and this perhaps had the
effect of these thinkers losing sight of the key Buddhist
philosophical ingredient for a strong anti-realist view: concept
formation via exclusion
Whatever the cause, the significance of this piece of Buddhist
epistemology seems to have been missed or downplayed by Chapa and his
Sapaṇ’s Pramāṇavārttika
renaissance helped to bring the doctrine of apoha back into
the center of Buddhist epistemology and thereby resisted the rising
tide of moderate realism. The great Tsongkhapa (1357–1419), more
than a century later, rejuvenated moderate realism in Tibet through a
new synthesis of epistemology with Madhyamaka.

2.2 Concept Formation in the Treasury

Sapaṇ’s strict nominalism rejects the reality of cognitive
and linguistic objects, which makes him an “illusionist”
about the mind. Where Daniel Dennett (1991) criticizes the “Cartesian
theater” model of the mind, in which images play across a mental
screen, Buddhist philosophers criticize the “duality” that
constitutes the subject/object binary. The notion of a cognitive
object, for this tradition, is intertwined with the false reification
of the self, a cardinal Buddhist error. There could only be mental
objects if there were mental subjects; viewing subjects and mental
objects are attributable, together, to the tendency of ordinary beings
mistakenly to project a “self”. Moreover, the utility of
concepts for language and thought would require that they be
unchanging against the backdrop of the Buddhist view that all things
are impermanent; if, as Sapaṇ argues, they were impermanent,
they would be mind-dependent, and hence private objects (see Stolz
2006). What needs to be explained, therefore, is not the reality of
concepts, but the causes that bring about their seeming to
appear and function.

Mahāyāna Buddhists believe that this fundamental error is
rooted in beginningless karmic tendencies. Our minds have been
conditioned by our previous actions, and we experience the world
through their capacities and strictures. Our karmic conditioning
provides the conceptual nexus through which we think and communicate
with other beings who have similar karma and therefore similar
conceptual tendencies. This karmic basis of conceptualization and
language, which finds them both to be pragmatically beneficial while
fundamentally erroneous, is the lynchpin of Sapaṇ’s
philosophical position in the Treasury. Against his
contemporaries, who rely upon concepts and linguistic objects being
quasi-real entities in order to account for cognition and language,
Sapaṇ explains the utility of concepts, and the linguistic
entities to which they are tied, with reference to the same process
that makes them erroneous: the never-ending causal flow of karma. Like
floating hairs that appear due to ophthalmic disease, cognitive
objects are nothing but a failure in the system, and have no
independent reality.

Sapaṇ is perhaps uniquely attuned to how decisively it is
karma that underwrites the doctrine of apoha, the
Buddhist approach to concept formation in the light of emptiness. Not
even Dharmakīrti, whose epistemology courted Buddhists of the
Śrāvakayāna, was willing to be as vividly pragmatist.
Be that as it may, Sapaṇ makes constant reference to
Dharmakīrti and is reasonably seen to have provided a faithful
extension of his views. Above all, Sapaṇ maintains without
exception the key ontological distinction in Buddhist epistemology
between real, causally effective momentary particulars that are the
potential objects of perception, and false conceptual constructions
that are the seeming objects of cognition. Where all of reality is
divided into these categories, we can see even by the definitions that
concepts and abstract objects must be unreal. Chapa and his followers
spoke of intermediate categories of various kinds—cognitive and
perceptual objects that are not simply momentary bare
particulars—and Sapaṇ and his followers targeted them as
insufficient to a Buddhist view.

The motivation for these intermediate positions is not difficult to
see. With such a strict division between momentary perceptual
particulars and erroneous linguistic concepts, it is difficult to
explain how we could ever arrive at anything like knowledge. This is
where Dignāga’s doctrine of apoha is supposed to
help. Although there are no real concepts and no linguistic
universals, there are apparent universals that we
mistakenly—but pragmatically—superimpose on real things.
We create concepts not by identifying some real quality or similarity
that is shared across distinct entities, but by ignoring most of their
differences and “excluding” non-members of a set from a
conceptual field, outside a pragmatically beneficial boundary. A key
question that arises to challenge this possibility is, How can a
fallacious boundary be pragmatically beneficial? Why, for instance, is
a concept or a word recognized and shared by various people, if there
is no real similarity among the objects to which it refers? The
answer, which as I’ve said Sapaṇ gives more explicitly
than any other thinker, is karma. The mistake of
superimposing what is falsely taken to be a real general concept on an
actually real particular which it is taken to represent works
for beings that tend to see things the same way:

With propensities beginninglessly habituated, and having generated the
power for an error to appear, on the occasion of the sign, without
distinguishing the concepts and the particulars, one imputes the sign,
“This is a pot”. Later, if one says, “Pour the water
in the pot”, without asking, “Pour the water in the
individual pot, or pour it into the concept pot?” one
understands the object of engagement to be the very thing

Karma also provides the answer to the question of how an unreal
concept can be stable in a changing mind, and across references to
distinct, changing entities. The answer is that concepts are no more
stable than the “self” is a real, stable entity. Still,
due to karma, we have certain tendencies to experience the world in
similarly-patterned modes. Through Buddhist practice, it is possible
to overcome these; through Buddhist epistemology, it is possible to
understand their erroneous yet beneficial applications. This expresses
a version of the Buddhist karmic causal theory of meaning that has
been noted in Yogācāra thought (see Gold 2006 and Tzohar
2017a, 2017b).

3. Defending the Dharma: A Clear Differentiation of the Three Vows

3.1 Introducing the Work

The Three
is a polemical treatise, and it is Sapaṇ’s most
controversial work. It is an assemblage of distinct doctrinal
arguments directed against Sapaṇ’s Tibetan contemporaries,
organized under the rubric of three sets of vows. The categories of
vows refer to the three main categories of Buddhist theory and
practice: (1) Disciples’ (śrāvaka) monastic
vows, (2) Great Vehicle (mahāyāna) or bodhisattva
vows, and (3) Mantra/Tantra vows. Before it ever reached Tibet,
Buddhism in India had developed through these three forms, each with
its own more-or-less distinct philosophical and ritual framework. Even
as later systems became preeminent, however, earlier stages of
Buddhist practice were kept, integrated into lower rungs in a complex
Yet although Buddhist intellectuals in India and Tibet took on this
systematizing theoretical work, there was never a single institution
capable of preventing innovation and experimentation in ritual and
doctrine, and over the centuries numerous practices crossed the
lines ideally set (often after the fact) between the categories.
Consequently, there were evident divergences between
idealized systems and their practiced realities, and many conservative
institutional leaders in Tibet during the later diffusion period
(spyi dar) sought to reign in all errors, but especially
those that upset the structured hierarchies of tantric Buddhism.

In the Three Vows, then, Sapaṇ’s central concern
was to correct errors in his contemporaries’ theories and
practices, so as to preserve the integrity and the effectiveness of
the teachings. As mentioned above, Sapaṇ’s linguistic
training made him confident that he had a better understanding of
authentic, Indian sources than most of his contemporaries. He
therefore adopts a critical stance against what he considers Tibetan
innovations, but his concerns are not merely clerical, and he is not
simply nostalgic or obedient to tradition. Nor, if we take him at his
word, is he simply writing for political gain. On the contrary, he
provides a vociferous defense of the use of scripture and reasoning to
protect Buddhist doctrine, and he emphasizes the unfairness of those
who would claim his critiques are motivated by hostility or jealousy
(III.625ff.; Rhoton 2002: 178–181). Rather, as he explains near
the end of the work, careful and informed analysis is crucial because
even practices that closely resemble authentic ones can undermine the
teachings, if they fail to properly follow key points (III.432; Rhoton
2002: 152). In this context, he concisely summarizes the
“essentials” he considers sacrosanct for each of the three
traditions: For the tradition of the Disciples, they are the monastic
vows and the four truths; for the Great Vehicle, the thought of
enlightenment and the discipline of the perfections; and for the
Mantra tradition, the initiation and the two processes of generation
and completion. If you get these wrong, practice becomes essentially
non-Buddhist and most importantly, ineffective. He sees his critiques
as, above all, practical soteriology.

Under this umbrella, Sapaṇ lists ten fallacious doctrines, which
he considers a particular threat to the essential teachings in his

  1. Disciples’ vows are taken to last until
  2. Mind-only rites for bodhisattvas are given to
  3. It is taught that bodhicitta (the
    bodhisattva’s altruistic mindset) should not be cultivated in
    meditation through the exchange of self and other;
  4. Initiations are deemed unnecessary for Mantra
    practice and are substituted with the Vajra Sow blessing;
  5. People have faith in teachers who have not cultivated
    the two (tantric) processes;
  6. People are instructed not to visualize the
    guru on top of one’s head;
  7. The Realm of Reality (dharmadhātu) is
    made into an object of dedication, called “existent
  8. Instead of means and emptiness, a state of bare
    non-elaboration is taught, called “the White Self-sufficient
  9. “Dreamed” bodhicitta;
  10. Abrupt visualization of tutelary

These ten errors are by no means the limit of the topics covered in
the Three Vows, but they represent the kinds of issues that
motivate the work, and they stand at the center of Sapaṇ’s
doctrinal disputes with his adversaries. Many of these are reiterated
throughout his works—also appearing, for instance, as topics of
discussion in the Sage’s Intent or the Gateway to
. Here is not the place to examine each of these, which
would take us into some rather arcane particulars. Still, although
many of these points enact scholastic in-fighting and might seem on
the surface to be doctrinal angel-counting, Sapaṇ’s
arguments generally present them as examples of larger concerns. The
interesting interpretive question for each, then, is how getting a
given idea wrong disrupts the essentials of the teachings, and what
this tells us about Sapaṇ’s approach to the doctrine and
the controversies of his time. Here I will focus on two critiques
and mention a third
I will discuss Sapaṇ’s view of
in the section on the Sage’s Intent. These are
interesting in themselves, and should be sufficient to introduce
Sapaṇ’s argumentative style and his philosophical approach
in this work. I have taken extra space for this section of the entry
to present
which is one of Sapaṇ’s most important arguments, and to
discuss the work’s important, repeating defense of moral

3.2 Distinguishing Great Vehicle from Disciples’ Vows

One point with which Sapaṇ opens the Three Vows provides
an elegant paradigm for what he means by the title’s
“Clear Differentiation” of the three vows, or
It is a case where Tibetans of his day have “mixed” the
Disciples’ vows with the Great Vehicle’s bodhisattva vows.
Now, it is clear that Tibetans undertaking monastic vows had commonly
paired the oral recitation that constitutes the adoption of monastic
vows with a mental component, the generation of a Great Vehicle
intention called bodhicitta—the altruistic desire to
achieve Buddhahood in order to save all beings from
Sapaṇ voices no complaint about this pairing of mental and
physical actions, but he rejects a mistaken conclusion about the
duration of the vows that some of his contemporaries apparently
derived from it.

Sapaṇ argues that Disciples’ vows (i.e., monastic vows)
last until death (when one’s body dies), whereas the bodhisattva
vows last beyond death, through subsequent rebirths—as long as
one’s mind persists. A counter-argument proposes that, if the
altruistic intention is in place when they are recited, the
Disciples’ vows should also continue for as long as one’s
In reply, Sapaṇ says that this contradicts authoritative texts
that distinguish between the different rites and rules for upholding
the Disciples’ and Great Vehicle
Furthermore, he says, if monastic vows lasted from life to life, then
gods and babies who were reborn from the mental continua of deceased
monks would still be monks. Yet not only are such beings violating the
rules of monkhood all the time, they are expressly forbidden from
becoming monks! Here we see a widespread mixture of practices leading
to an unacceptable doctrinal confusion.

This may seem like a clever analysis without significant practical
ramifications. After all, I have no way of knowing whether I took a
vow in a previous lifetime, and I cannot inform my future rebirth
about whether I have taken a vow in this life. But notice that the
vows systems are distinguished by indicating the specific causes and
results on the path to liberation. Sapaṇ’s basic point is
that Disciples’ vows and Great Vehicle vows operate differently.
The practical benefit from such a “differentiation”, then,
is the ability to articulate the different paths to liberation clearly
and accurately.

This general concern with the operation of the paths leads, in the
next section, to a broader definition of
karma—action-and-result—and its associated terminology.
Sapaṇ begins with the crucial distinction between actions, which
are produced and bring about happiness or pain as their result, and
the unconditioned, actionless, Realm of Reality or Dharmadhātu.
Since wholesomeness is a quality of an action that is determined by
the happiness or pain that the action causes, he says, the causeless
Dharmadhātu is neither wholesome nor unwholesome. This
consequentialism about wholesomeness or virtue, set against a backdrop
of an unchanging, literally “inconsequential” ultimate
reality, launches the most extensive, detailed argument of the work:
the argument against the ultimate reality of virtue.

3.3 Against the Ultimate Reality of Virtue

Like other arguments in the Three Vows, Sapaṇ’s
disproof of the ultimate reality of virtue is a targeted critique of
his Tibetan
In this case, the discussion revolves around a verse from the
Vajradhvaja Sūtra, in which there is a dedication of all
beings’ virtue in the three times (the quote is something like,
“as much as exists in the past, present and future”).
Ordinarily, in the Great Vehicle, one altruistically dedicates
one’s virtue (or merit)—what we today euphemistically call
one’s “good karma”—to all beings, in the hope
that one’s own benefits will ripen in them. In this oft-cited
scriptural passage, the speaker imaginatively maximizes this
intention, and dedicates all the good karma in the universe, for all
time, toward this altruistic purpose. Some, Sapaṇ says,
mistakenly consider this mass of virtue to be a thing,
self-established and eternal, and they say that it is equivalent to
the “Sugata-matrix”, the unelaborated ultimate reality.
What Sapaṇ believes, on the other hand, is that this idea that
it is possible to dedicate ultimate reality—and that, since one
only dedicates wholesome karma, the Dharmadhātu is a kind of
“existent virtue”—is an error that threatens an
essential dharma teaching.

On the surface, then, the argument is a tussle over how to read a
passage from scripture and its apparent, maximal dedication of merit.
Since the scripture contains the words to recite that enact the
bodhisattva vow, it is important from a ritual perspective that one
understand the intention behind it. After all, as he argues, the
mental intention is the true agent for the engagement of a vow. This
in itself would be enough to make the issue soteriologically
significant. But what merits extensive treatment is that the idea of
“existent virtue” violates a consistent norm in
Sapaṇ’s writings, which is the strict separation between
conventional and ultimate reality. We have seen this emphasis in his
approaches to epistemology and will see it in the doctrine of
emptiness as well, but here we see the practical, ritual-cum-ethical
application of this stance.

Sapaṇ begins the argument by quoting a wide range of
authoritative sources to show that the “Sugata-matrix” is
unchanging, that it is equivalent to the Dharmadhātu and the
Tathāgata-nature, and that these are all completely devoid of
evil and virtue, which are illusory
Near the end of the passage Sapaṇ recommends that the reader
study, in particular, the Dharmodgata chapter of the Perfection of
Wisdom in 8,000 Lines
(I.137; Rhoton 2002: 58). That chapter
teaches that suchness, Tathāgata and emptiness are all the same,
which is to say they are immobile and unproduced, unrelated to all
numbers (including one), unrelated to all concepts whatsoever, and yet
greater than—infinitely beyond—anything conceivable. If
the Dharmadhātu thus described does not change, it cannot go from
being undedicated to dedicated; which means that you cannot dedicate
it. Sapaṇ writes that the Vajradhvaja
expressions “as much as” and
“exists” (from “as much as exists in the past,
present and future”) could not possibly refer to the
Dharmadhātu: “As much as” appeals to the rejected
idea of number, and, as he cites many sources to show, it is false to
say of the ultimate that it either “exists” or “does
not exist”. Based on scripture alone, then, this passage could
not imply the dedication of the Dharmadhātu. The passage is just
saying that we dedicate the actions (the karma) of
all beings—just, whatever virtuous actions beings perform. This
keeps the dedication ritual firmly in the realm of conventional,
changing, illusory, reality.

Sapaṇ cites the possibility that the basis for the idea of
“existent virtue” is the Abhidharmasamuccaya of
Asaṅga, which does call the Dharmadhātu
“virtue”, distinguishing it from the evils of cyclic
existence, and using terms such as “natural virtue” and
“absolute virtue”. Sapaṇ considers this passage
merely figurative. It is like calling people whose hunger is sated,
“desireless”—when of course they still have other
desires. To call the Dharmadhātu “virtue” is only to
refer to the absence of evil—to emptiness itself. But the
Dharmadhātu is not itself the cause of well-being, which
is how virtue was defined. If the Dharmadhātu caused
well-being, all actions would be virtuous, since all things are
contained within it. Sapaṇ gives a similarly figurative reading
to the Uttaratantra’s discussion of an innately
existent Buddhahood; it cannot mean this literally, he says,
since otherwise it would be affirming a non-Buddhist belief in an
eternal soul.

Ultimate reality’s numberless freedom from conceptual
elaborations is, needless to say, a difficult idea to fathom. After
all, we could only fathom it by means of concepts. But the notion
allows Sapaṇ to reject a number of intermediate proposals, such
as the notion that perhaps the dedicatable Sugata-matrix refers only
to the animate portion of the Dharmadhātu. As he
replies, there are no distinctions and hence no “portions”
in the Dharmadhātu! That’s what it means to say that it is
free of elaborations.

3.4 Considering Wider Ethical Applications

These considerations bring Sapaṇ to some profound analyses that
subtly divide the conceivable, causal reality from the inconceivable,
and push the reader to contemplate his deeper message. One of these is
stimulated by an opponent’s proposal that even though
technically you cannot dedicate the Dharmadhātu, perhaps
there is no harm in saying that you dedicate it. This may
seem like an elegant appeal to the conventionality of conventional
reality, and the general Buddhist emphasis on the intention or the
aspiration as the source and cause of virtue. Yet it is just here that
Sapaṇ shows his exacting requirement that there be no
“mixing” of the Great Vehicle and Disciple’s paths:
“That dedication is harmful. Because it involves the perception
of an object, it will become a poisonous dedication” (I.111;
Rhoton 2002: 55). The point is that bodhisattvas have a different
understanding of the dedicatory ritual than Disciples, rooted
in the bodhisattva’s understanding that there is no real object
that can be dedicated. The compassion that motivates the
bodhisattva’s dedication of merit is a universal, ultimate
compassion whose nature is inseparable from emptiness. To imagine that
the Dharmadhātu as an object is a (non-empty) and hence
“dedicatable” thing is to turn a Great Vehicle concept
into an ordinary conceptual construction, and thereby poison the

Perhaps the most important “practical” ethical result of
this discussion appears in Sapaṇ’s clear advocacy of moral
contextualism. Different systems of vows require different
behaviors—and yet within each system, these behaviors are
morally significant and genuinely beneficial or harmful. The fact that
there are some eighteen different systems of monastic vows, which
differ among themselves about countless particulars, does not
undermine the validity of each system on its own terms, and does not
allow for impromptu mixing and matching. A resonant example
Sapaṇ cites is that whereas some systems consider the killing of
an unborn fetus an instance of the taking of a human life, other
systems do not. But the taking of a human life is one of the principal
downfalls (pārājika), an irredeemable infraction of
the monastic vows that causes immediate expulsion. And presumably, if
you have violated your vows in this way, you cannot simply move to
another monastery where killing a fetus is not considered having taken
a human life. But more importantly, Sapaṇ explains that the
vows, though they differ one from the other, are all approved by the
Buddha as sets that serve the function of monastic vows, which is to
prevent the vow-holder’s mind from straying into
infractions—like a fence around a field. Vows have morally
consequential effects upon the mind, and they consist in coherent,
Buddha-approved systems.

The final argument from the Three Vows I will mention is in
the chapter on Mantra vows, but is clearly connected with the topics
already discussed here. One of the issues most important to
Sapaṇ—he lists it twice in the final summary lists of
essential topics mentioned above, and he also treats it in the
Sage’s Intent—is the misuse of
Vajravārāhī (Vajra Sow) blessings as a
substitute for Mantric initiation. This, he says, is not taught in any
of the scriptures. You need a real initiation ritual to practice
Mantra—it’s as simple as that! You cannot substitute a
blessing for an initiation. He calls the alterations in the dharma
“the blessings of demons”—claiming not that his
contemporaries are demons, but that they have been deceived.

What irks Sapaṇ the most, it would seem, is what he sees as an
attempt to excuse carelessness by appealing to the fact that rituals
are only conventional constructions. He concludes the point by saying
that all rites belong to conventional reality: Disciples,
Great Vehicle, and Mantra rites. If you accept any of the systems, you
must accept them in their entirety; you must do all, or
none. There is no option to make a distinction between
essential and non-essential doctrines based on the distinction between
conventional and ultimate. The ultimate simply does not enter into the
consideration of whether a rite or ritual—or, for that matter,
any karma, any act—is
The separate systems have each been handed down through valid
lineages with their own integrity, valued and delimited
always by their conventional utility. The fact that
they are not ultimate is not an excuse to experiment or play fast and
loose with the rituals and their interpretation. Everything that we
can do, everything that we can say, is only conventional; but that
fact does not license the blurring of the lines between the effective,
well delineated paths taught by the Buddha that can lead us to
liberation if we follow them with care.

4. Preserving the True Path: Clarifying the Sage’s Intent

Clarifying the Sage’s Intent (D. Jackson 2015) is a path text, of the
genre called Tenrim (bstan rim), “stages of the
doctrine”, which lays out in detail the practices and
accomplishments for beings on the way from ordinary person to
liberated Buddha. It is an elegant and comprehensive approach to the
path of the bodhisattva, drawing from Indian sources—especially
the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra and
the Abhidharmasamuccaya of Asaṅga. Sapaṇ makes
creative use of these sources in a variety of ways, and the work is a
complex interplay of tradition and innovation. Yet for our purposes,
the most significant aspects of the work are not in his construction
of the path or his characterizations of bodhisattva practice, but in a
number of philosophical excurses. Unlike the Three Vows, the
Sage’s Intent is not primarily intended as a polemic
text; yet occasionally Sapaṇ feels it necessary to address
controversial issues relevant to topics that arise in the course of
his descriptions of the bodhisattva path.

As before, it is not possible to work through all of
Sapaṇ’s significant arguments, so I will limit myself to a
topic that was among his most extensively debated positions, and which
is an important theme in this work. The issue is the supposed
“White Self-sufficient Remedy”, often translated
“White Panacea”—a term used to describe the
meditation practice called “Great Seal” or
Mahāmudrā. Sapaṇ believes that this term for
Mahāmudrā represents a mistaken understanding of the
practice, which transmutes a legitimate tantric practice into a
misleading and pernicious, fallacious

In order to understand why Sapaṇ finds the Self-sufficient
Remedy doctrine particularly troubling, it will be useful to notice
how quintessentially it brings together so much that Sapaṇ
considers wrong with Tibetan Buddhism of his day. Recall that
Sapaṇ’s distinctive philosophical view rests upon an
unstinting categorical distinction between the conventional and
ultimate realities, and we have seen that this has important
consequences in his epistemology and his approach to the
interpretation of Buddhist ethics and the operation of karma. He often
criticizes an apparent knee-jerk decontextualization that others read
out of the doctrine of emptiness. Sapaṇ reminds us, again and
again, that emptiness does not mean that nothing really
matters, or that everything goes. The view of emptiness does not wipe
away the conventional. Ultimate reality not relativize all things
to it. On the contrary, it requires that actions be deemed
meaningful or not, real or not, by virtue of their effectiveness and
relevance within specifiable contexts. This is Buddhist

The target of Sapaṇ’s attack, then, is the notion that,
simply by means of the direct apprehension of the nature of the mind
called Mahāmudrā, one attains all of the accomplishments of
the path. This one attainment alone is a cure-all, a
“self-sufficient remedy”. We can see immediately that this
claim for this practice challenges and undermines the importance of
the many doctrinal details, practices and contexts of the Buddhist
tradition, paring it down to a single visionary experience. In
addition, Sapaṇ considers this view a Tibetan invention, not
attested in India, that resembles a famously rejected Chinese doctrine
associated with the monk Hvashang Mohoyen. The “White
Self-sufficient Remedy” is, he believes, an ignorant distortion
of the dharma that leads to a nihilistic decline of the teachings.
Furthermore, Sapaṇ considers the practice of Mahāmudrā
a tantric, not a general Mahāyāna practice, so he rejects
the non-tantric form of the teaching circulating in his day. There is
reason to believe that this particular “mixing” of general
Great Vehicle and specific tantric practices in fact had an Indian
precedent, but Sapaṇ seems to have assumed that Indian adepts
would have prevented this as a mistake (see Mathes 2008).

From a historical perspective, it is important to distinguish the
conceptual implications of the Self-sufficient Remedy claim from its
actual use. Not all adherents of the Self-sufficient Remedy view, most
likely followers of Gampopa, the founder of the Kagyu school of
Tibetan Buddhism, would have taught a practice that actually
dispensed with all other rituals and meditations in favor of bare
Mahāmudrā practice. On the contrary, Gampopa’s famous
five-stage practice includes the cultivation of Mahāmudrā as
the fourth stage in a practice that also included: the generation of
bodhicitta; deity visualization; guru devotion; and
dedication of merit. Gampopa’s is not an instruction on
abandoning all other aspects of the path. There were, apparently,
differences of opinion even among the adherents of the Self-sufficient
Remedy doctrine about whether this meant that Mahāmudrā on
its own substituted for all other practices, or Mahāmudrā
was in some way ultimately, essentially, equivalent to all other
attainments, as their culmination or their peak. If the latter were
the case, one might engage in many practices but from the ultimate
perspective only reach attainment through Mahāmudrā. In the
former case—the proper target of Sapaṇ’s
critique—one should only even try to attain
Mahāmudrā. Some of Sapaṇ’s contemporaries
understood the Remedy as Self-sufficient even to the point of saying
that the practitioner did not need to generate
bodhicitta or dedicate the merit (D. Jackson 1990: 28).

In the Three Vows Sapaṇ provides a kind of abstract
criticism of the logic of calling a practice
“self-sufficient” when it is part of a list of five. It is
perhaps in response to this point that Padma Karpo, a defender of the
Kagyu, called Sapaṇ’s argument a “childish
criticism”, depicting it as merely a worry about the meanings of
words (D. Jackson 1990: 37). He says that if this is why it is faulty
to say that Mahāmudrā is “singularly
sufficient”, then it is also faulty to speak of the standard
tantric practice as having the “two stages” of creation
and completion—presumably, because those two stages also require
preparatory bodhicitta generation and subsequent dedication.
This does seem to take down at least one, abstract and logical,
reading of Sapaṇ’s argument. It portends to give credence
to the (rather overblown) claim among Sapaṇ’s later
critics that he has read the Self-sufficient Remedy doctrine in bad

But Sapaṇ’s critique is not merely a matter of overly
literal numeric quibbles in the application of metaphors. In the
Three Vows it is primarily a critique of the claim that a
single practice can be causally effective, when in fact all
attainments depend upon multiple causes. In the Sage’s
Sapaṇ is expansive and detailed in his rejection of
many, specific errors. He criticizes the practice’s
adherents’ notion of resting in the mind as “original,
unaltered and relaxed” (D. Jackson 2015: 492ff). If the mind
were simply enlightened in its “unaltered” state, he
writes, then the Buddha would never have needed to teach the dharma.
Such an ideal, he says, is similar to the non-Mahāyāna
traditions of Disciples and Solitary Buddhas, or even simple
ignorance. It cannot be a Mahāyāna path, he writes, if it
fails to generate compassion and wisdom. He points out that study is
necessary to understand the proper target of a meditation on
emptiness. If the Mahāmudrā is attempted without prior
cultivation of merit and wisdom, he says, there is no way that simply
saying “I will meditatively cultivate
non-conceptualization” could be effective.

The point that links these various concerns is the overarching worry
about moral nihilism, which arises from the claim that all practices
can be reduced to one, combined with the unbridled confidence in
creative, doctrinal innovation. This allows the practitioner to forego
the long and difficult moral training of the bodhisattva in favor of
an easy, but delusory, instantaneous quasi-attainment. For fear of
prolixity, I will leave off from Sapaṇ’s argument, in
which he employs his distinctive approach to the doctrine of emptiness
and the two truths. Indeed, although Sapaṇ did not write any
works dedicated to the doctrine of emptiness, his view—that, in
brief, ultimate truth is beyond all conceptual elaboration—is an
important contribution that deserves further study. Suffice it to say
that his view is tailor made to prevent both the conceptual
reification of emptiness that he criticizes in the Treasury
and the nihilism that he criticizes in the Sage’s

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Sapaṇ’s critique
in the Sage’s Intent was his assimilation of the
non-tantric Mahāmudrā view to the doctrine of the famous
Chinese monk called Hvashang Mohoyen. Sapaṇ reiterates the story
told in the Testament of Ba (discovered among the textual
treasures at Dunhuang) that tells of how, during the imperial period,
the Chinese monk debated with, and was bested by, the Indian monk
Kamalaśīla. Mohoyen did not claim his view to be a
“Self-sufficient Remedy”, but he did believe in an easy
practice free of cognition that could, on its own, instantaneously
produce attainments. Sapaṇ has been criticized for being biased
and historically uninformed, but modern scholarship has uncovered
evidence of Chinese “Zen” sources for Tibetan views like
those he critiqued (D. Jackson 1990, D. Jackson 1994, Kapstein 2000:
75–78 and van Schaik 2015: 175–182).

5. A Buddhist Approach to Scholarship: The Gateway to Learning

In the sections above, we have seen Sapaṇ criticize his
contemporaries for their mistaken views and practices, which he
believed threatened the integrity and the effectiveness of the
Buddha’s teachings. As a result of these writings, he was
valorized as a great scholar with deep mastery of Buddhist doctrine,
but he was also often criticized and sometimes lampooned for being
stodgy, conservative, and self-satisfied. He certainly believed that
he had a clearer and more accurate view of the truth of the doctrine
than most Tibetans of his time. Yet he believed the reason he was
superior was easy to explain: He had studied and internalized the vast
intellectual traditions of India, the land of Buddhism’s source.
His learning provided him the means and the justification for
defending the dharma against other teachers whose understanding was,
by comparison, spotty.

In the Gateway to Learning (D. Jackson 1987 and Gold 2007),
Sapaṇ made his case for the importance of scholastic learning
for Tibetans, and provided a clear program of study so that anyone
with sufficient diligence could attain the expertise necessary to be a
defender of the dharma like himself. The work is a rare example of a
medieval treatise on the goals and means of education, and it is
articulated with philosophical precision from a Buddhist perspective
and with a remarkable awareness of the social- and
historical-locatedness of Tibet of Sapaṇ’s
time. The Gateway is divided into three chapters, each
dedicated to a category of scholarly learning: composition,
exposition, and debate. Over the course of these chapters, Sapaṇ
provides introductory sketches of and occasional excurses into the
topics that, in his view, make up the model of Indian
paṇḍityam and the most important practices of
scholarship. The work draws upon the Vyākhyāyukti
of Vasubandhu in the first two chapters and the
Vādanyāya of Dharmakīrti in the debate
chapter, and roughly follows an outline from the
Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra, but it
is unique in its scope, its Buddhist philosophical bent, and its
selection of topics precisely targeted to the needs of Tibetans.

Among the most original and significant analyses here is
Sapaṇ’s approach to translation and translation theory. A
key theme of Tibetan Buddhist self-understanding has always been a
keen sense of Tibet’s proximity to India as the source of the
dharma, but also its cultural and linguistic distance from India. This
is a reason that the great translators (and of course,
paṇḍitas) were venerated as a bridge to the
original source of the dharma in Sanskrit. Sakya Paṇḍita
was himself a translator and he was very much aware of various kinds
of shifts and transitions that took place when the dharma moved from
Sanskrit into Tibetan language. In the Gateway he explains
the choices made by the translators in a way that reveals just how
deep a Tibetan interpreter’s knowledge needs to be in order not
to be fooled by the translations. It is, in this way, an early
application of the cultural studies approach to translation studies
(see Bassnett & Lefevere 1999). In his analysis, the translations
are shown to embody the cultural distance between India and Tibet,
between the true dharma and its likely misinterpretation, which can
only be overcome by very precise linguistic expertise.

One example Sapaṇ notes is the use of the Tibetan translation
ye shes to distinguish the Sanskrit original
jñāna from prajñā. There is
nothing in the source term to reflect the ye, which means,
for Sapan, that it is a mistake to think of ye shes as
“primordial wisdom”—a common reading in certain
Tibetan schools. The dharma as translated is, in this way, a minefield
of interpretive problems. It is very easy to make mistakes that can
lead to false teachings. But it would be wrong to think that this
linguistic and cultural distance makes for an essential distinction
between the dharma as it originated in its unadulterated form from the
mouth of a Buddha, and the dharma as received by Tibetans. Such an
essentialization would be to reify linguistic entities in a way that
is non-Buddhist. The key to translation is not to uncover some
essential nature of meanings embedded in the words. Sapaṇ
therefore provides a Buddhist philosophical defense of the possibility
of translation.

Sapaṇ draws upon the epistemology of Dharmakirti discussed
above, and says that there is no essential relation between words and
meanings. Rather, meaning in language depends upon nothing but the
speaker’s intention, which is always context-dependent. In the
case of the dharma, that means the teacher’s intention to move a
particular set of beings forward on the path toward liberation. The
key in transmitting the teachings from generation to generation is to
preserve, as well as possible, the capacity of the teachings to have
that effect. And the only way to do that is to preserve an
understanding of the speaker’s specific intentions in
using language as expressed in the particular texts we have. Teachers
have to know just what the meaning was meant to be, when these words
were uttered. So, a detailed understanding of the language of the
dharma—the contexts of its origination in the forms that we have
it—is inseparable from the larger project of the sangha, to
communicate the teachings from generation to generation. The
translations, because they are vulnerable to misinterpretation,
require special handling and expertise. Sapaṇ says we need a
community of experts to protect the teachings and preserve their
proper interpretation. We need an interpretive community that can act
as a bulwark against the decline of the dharma. Every aspect of the
scholar’s toolbox—from elementary Sanskrit language study
to literary theory to the regulation of debate methods—is
provided with an explanation and justification of the norms of this
idealized Buddhist guard.

In the section on debate, Sapaṇ again explained a number of
points of particular interest to Tibetans of his time. Of great
interest here is his discussion of debate based on scripture, in which
he explains strategies for showing contradictions in the
Vedas while defending against critics who claim that the
Buddhist scriptures are inconsistent. These instructions cohere with
Sapaṇ’s stated understanding that debate proper is a
competition between adherents of different tenets. Of course, students
may practice debate to test their understanding of treatises, but the
real reason to engage in debate is to defend the dharma. Here we see
debate as a skill that is properly the culmination of the previous
trainings from Sanskrit language to poetics, all of which have as
their ultimate aim to defend the Buddha’s dharma against its
enemies, whether they be indirectly or unintentionally damaging it
through misreadings and misrepresentations, or attacking it openly in
the promotion of non-Buddhist doctrines. Sapaṇ envisions
Tibetans training for a translocal courtly stage, where traditions
lived or died by royal decree. Perhaps his own fame and skill as a
defender of the dharma contributed to Sakya’s attaining control
over a united Tibet under Mongol rule.


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