The Gathering of Intentions

A History of a Tibetan Tantra

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Jacob P. Dalton
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     2016.
     272 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231176002.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Jacob P. Dalton’s new book, The Gathering of Intentions, offers a surprising account of a seminal—but underappreciated—piece of Tantric Buddhist literature, The Gathering of Intentions Sutra (Tib. dgongs pa ‘dus pa’i mdo). Dalton’s ambitious aim of tracing an institutional history of Tibet’s eldest denomination (the Nyingma) through documenting the exegetical and ritual treatment of the Gathering of Intentions corpus is realized with great economy as this book provides a valuable, information-packed resource for the study of canon, institution, and ritualism in Tibet.

Dalton shows that the Gathering of Intentions Sutra’s enduring value lies in the ways it is responsible for much of how the Nyingma denomination came to understand its own canonical architecture. First composed to provide a doctrinal and doxographical structure for the myriad tantric systems arriving in Tibet in the eighth and ninth centuries, the Gathering of Intentions quickly became the resource to which Nyingma exegetes looked to in their ongoing efforts to clarify the boundaries between different genres and idioms of tantric literature—ultimately arriving at the normative system of “nine vehicles.” As the centuries passed, and as other tantric systems garnered exegetical attention, the elegant doctrines associated with the Gathering of Intentions fell into obscurity, while the architecture of the system persisted, encapsulated in a ritual tradition which underwent several major iterations between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. By the twentieth century (and into the present), the Gathering of Intentions had become, as Dalton shows, a mere signifier of Tibet’s tantric inheritance—its doctrines no longer expounded and rituals no longer practiced—but its influence still commemorated in a multi-day festival carried out in Nyingma institutions both in Tibet, and in exile.

At the heart of this book lies Dalton’s analysis of the Gathering of Intentions’ treatment by Tibetan exegetes in the context of shifting institutional pressures. Dalton shows how the design of the Sutra’s initiation ritual reflected specific institutions’ responses to dogmatic and patrilineal rivalries in Central Tibet, and how it became a centerpiece of late seventeenth century efforts to revitalize and consolidate Nyingma tradition at the monastery of Mindroling. Dalton thus charts a shift within the denomination towards the professionalization and publicization of ritual—a shift that mirrored the use of mass-participation ceremonies at the Dalai Lama’s stronghold of Ganden to express and configure state power. Mindroling’s re-invention of ritualism allowed for the export of Nyingma scriptural traditions to Eastern Tibet, where they continued to be upheld, albeit in increasingly truncated and ritualized modes, until the present day. Dalton concludes the book with a scintillating account of the tradition’s near loss and revival in the twentieth century, and the ways that an annual festival has become the sole vehicle for the preservation of the Gathering of Intentions tradition.

Dalton’s overarching focus is on how the shifting profile of a scriptural tradition reflects the concerns and needs of its handlers. In charting the permutations of the Gathering of Intentions and its ritual system, Dalton shows that each iteration “negotiated a perceived gap between the original tantra and the lived tradition” (.xv). That is, the Sutra and its rituals provided a resource that ecclesiasts could draw upon in meeting emergent institutional needs, thereby changing what the tradition in question thence entailed. Thus, the doctrinal dimensions of the Gathering of Intentions Sutra fell into obscurity while its ritualization persisted and evolved over several centuries, eventually resulting in the contemporary situation in which the Sutra, and specifically an elaborate public ceremony that celebrates it, serve as placeholders for the very idea of scriptural and institutional continuity. Dalton does not lament the Sutra’s drift to obscurity. Rather, he draws attention to the way that the Sutra has continued to subliminally operate as the source for the architecture that defines one denomination’s self-understanding. Dalton thus questions the normative criteria used to judge a scriptural system’s vitality in terms of whether its rituals are practiced and doctrines taught. In the case of the Gathering of Intentions Sutra, its legacy lies in how it has clandestinely configured the denomination’s sense of itself, and provided a resource for its institutions to author their identities and futures. Attending to such a ritual system over its iterations allows ritualism to be treated as a historical “document” reflecting the concerns, pressures, and reformative responses facing its adherents.

This book is organized around the themes of mytho-historical narrative (chapter 1: “Origins: Myth and History”), doxography and canon (chapters 2 and 3: “The Gathering of Intentions in Early Tibetan Tantra” and “The Spoken Teachings”), ritualization (chapter 4: “The Rise of the Sutra Initiation”), institutionalization (chapters 5 and 6: “Dorje Drak and the formation of a New Lineage” and “The Mindroling Tradition”), and preservation, transformation, and retrieval (chapter 7: “Returns to the Origin”). The book thus provides a thematic as well as diachronic survey of the reception history of this tantra, and its exegetical and ritual culture. In this, Dalton explores the weave of myth, doctrine, and practice that undergirds received textual and ritual tradition.

Like Dalton’s 2011 monograph, The Taming of The Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism (Yale, 2011), The Gathering of Intentions tells a story of Tibetan Buddhism’s foundations with impressive detail that manages not to overwhelm the reader. It could be noted that many of the heroes of Dalton’s Gathering of Intentions story were also deeply engaged in other self-cultivational, ritual, and mystical literatures that comprise Nyingma tradition, and the mutual influence of myriad systems in the exegesis of Nyingma ecclesiasts is worth exploring further. But Dalton’s research on this tradition provides something of a corrective to the ample attention that things such as revelation literature (Tib. gter ma), and Great Perfection (rdzogs chen) mysticism have garnered in scholarship. Overall, we might appreciate Dalton’s uncanny ability to tell such a detailed and significant story with methodological impact in so few pages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholas Trautz is a doctoral candidate in Sino-Tibetian religions at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
June 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacob P. Dalton is Khyentse Foundation Distinguished University Professor in Tibetan Buddhism in the Departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism.

Keywords: 

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