The Uttaratantra in the Land of Snows

Tibetan Thinkers Debate the Centrality of the Buddha-Nature Treatise

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Tsering Wangchuk
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , March
     2017.
     220 pages.
     $80.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781438464657.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Philosophical discourse on Buddhist soteriology––theoretically coherent ways of talking, writing, and thinking about how to transcend suffering––is structured around the metaphor of “the path” on which a person may move along a spiritual trajectory that is, in the end, removed from the otherwise unavoidable suffering of conditioned existence. Within the Mahāyāna tradition of Buddhism, “practicing the Buddhist path” means changing from an ordinary person naturally mired in suffering into an enlightened buddha, a being composed of perfect wisdom and compassion. At the heart of this idea is a paradox playing an important role in Buddhist intellectual history: if an ordinary being is conditioned by nature, and this conditioning constitutes a state of suffering, how is it that this conditioned state of bondage can transform into the unconditioned state of freedom and enlightenment of a buddha? Resolving the apparent contradiction at the heart of this essential Buddhist teaching is “buddha-nature,” a term used to describe the basic potential said to be inherent within all beings. It is our buddha-nature, then, that makes it possible to be transformed by the path from an ordinary person into an enlightened buddha.

Within Buddhist intellectual culture, philosophers have made good use of the ambiguities connected the concept of buddha-nature to foster one of the most important sites of philosophical discourse within the Buddhist religion. The premium on rational coherence in Buddhist philosophy means interested theorists must consider whether, and to what degree, over-emphasis on the distinction between the unenlightened being and the enlightened buddha evinces a unbridgeable gap; or whether over-emphasis on the immanence of enlightenment within an ordinary being—often spoken of in genealogical or genetic terms––collapses the foundational path/fruition distinction thus rendering the notion of the path meaningless. These issues have been central to Mahāyāna for more than one thousand years; and they form the backdrop to Tsering Wangchuk’s recently published study of the Tibetan reception and interpretation of one seminal Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist treatise on the topic, The Uttaratantra in the Land of Snows: Tibetan Thinkers Debate the Centrality of the Buddha-Nature Treatise.

The Uttaratantra, also known by the title Ratnagotravibhāga, is an important Mahāyāna treatise first transmitted into Tibetan in the eleventh century, where it is known by the title gyü-lama, or “The Sublime Continuum.” Its primary topic is buddha-nature. For the last one thousand years, Tibetan commentators have used the Uttaratantra and its discourse on buddha-nature as an important touchstone on a topic crucial to explicating the Buddhist path.

It is through this lens––through examining varying receptions and interpretations of the Uttaratantra––that Wangchuk guides readers through his welcome study of the agendas and ideas that have animated Tibetan philosophy with its interpretations of this seminal treatise. Moreover, in light of the sometimes byzantine hermeneutics at work within Buddhist intellectual culture that can make it difficult to assess the role and authority of a given text, Wangchuk’s study of “the crucial role that the Uttaratantra played in the history of Tibetan Buddhism” begins with an introduction to key questions driving his examination: is the Uttaratantra a definitive teaching, or does it require interpretation beyond its literal meaning? Where does it fit into the broader hierarchy of the Mahāyāna teachings? What kind of philosophical view does it represent? Does it propound a view of ultimate reality consonant with other authoritative texts, such as Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra? Also included in the introduction is a brief account of the key ideas and issues surrounding the buddha-nature doctrine and the transmission of the Uttaratantra to Tibet and beyond.

The remaining seven chapters and concluding remarks comprising Wangchuk’s study are divided into three parts. Part 1, chapter 1 focuses the early reception and interpretation of the text by two Kadampa luminaries, the translator Ngok and the sixth abbot of Sangpu monastery, Chapa. By comparing and contrasting their assessments and interpretations of the Uttaratantra, we learn how the text was framed in its early reception in Tibet, sometimes as a scholastic text on theory, sometimes as an evocative manual of contemplative meditation. Chapter 2 begins a more detailed exploration of the complex of social, institutional, and theoretical factors that gave rise to divergent assessments of the authority of buddha-nature and the Uttaratantra by figures such as Sakya Pandita, the third Karmapa, and others. Here, interested readers explore how the authority of a given text may be structured at the intersection of theoretical interpretation and inter-textual and symbolic association; and we learn how these moves seed the intellectual ground for future innovations and assessments in the buddha-nature discourse. Part 2, containing chapters 3 and 4, examines the increasingly important, and sometimes controversial, role played by the Uttaratantra in Tibet, beginning with its role in buttressing Dölpopa’s controversial theory of “other-emptiness,” and the strong polemical (and political) responses that interpretation elicited from scholars of various sectarian backgrounds who used the text to frame their interpretations of the ultimate nature of people and reality. Part 3 of The Uttaratantra in the Land of Snows, containing chapters 5–7, surveys the central concerns and ideas of renowned scholar-adepts such as Butön, Tsongkhapa, Rendawa, Gyeltsap and others, with regard to the Uttaratantra and other figure’s interpretations of its theoretical meaning and assessment of its scriptural authority. Those familiar with a “greatest hits” of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy will immediately recognize these names and appreciate the significance of their inclusion in this book. In the conclusion, Wangchuk synopsizes his study and offers some satisfying insights into the rhyme-and-reason driving the way Tibetans have used the Uttaratantra. In summary, Wangchuk delineates “four broad interpretive methods to make sense of the text” (111); and he describes how these readings facilitative new communities that animated varying interpretive strategies.

A critical component of Wangchuk’s study is his attention to the “political, social, and institutional changes” that animate the role of the Uttaratantra in Tibet. As such, Wangchuk’s diachronic treatment of this text goes beyond recording what a few important authors have written about the text to a consideration of the various socio-cultural contexts that have structured its reception and interpretation at a particular time, within a particular interpretive camp, by a particular author. Rather than attempting to determine which particular philosopher or community has the correct or accurate understanding of the Uttaratantra’s “original meaning”—whatever that is—the author directly connects these new and varied hermeneutical readings to the development and diversity of Tibet’s traditional Buddhist training and resultant contemplative experiences. “These readings,” he writes, “were not constructed by the sacred words or phrases encrypted in wooden block manuscripts; rather they were limitedly fluid and contingent upon a contemplative process that went through a stage of hearing (thos pa), pondering (bsam pa), and gaining meditative understanding (sgom pa) of the text, all within a particular lineage or community” (110).

Interested readers will also find a detailed primary and secondary source bibliography and index, plus detailed footnotes for the Tibetan passages throughout. If any complaints may be leveled against this book, they are few, minor, and mostly the concern of scholars; for example, an incomplete translation (140n72), or no translation at all (145n33). Perhaps the greatest criticism that can be made here concerns the author’s obvious erudition. As a graduate of the Buddhist Institute of Dialectics, Wangchuk has a mastery of the intricacies of Buddhist polemics, its inference points, tropes, intimations, and so on. At times, the reader may, perhaps, feel that the author has passed them by on the way to making a subtle philosophical distinction that eludes them. That said, Wangchuk’s book is a welcome contribution to the field and contains a valuable intellectual journey driven by a solid methodology for those interested in Buddhist philosophy, what Buddhist philosophers are doing when they interpret and innovate, and the factors that motivate them.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dominic Sur is assistant professor of religious studies at Utah State University.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tsering Wangchuk is assistant professor and Richard C. Blum Chair in Himalayan Studies at the University of San Francisco.

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