The Complete Nyingma Tradition from Sutra to Tantra, Book 14

An Overview of Buddhist Tantra

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Choying Tobden Dorje
Ngawang Zangpo
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Snow Lion Publications
    , November
     357 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Choying Tobden Dorje (1785-1848), the author of this book, is a Tibetan Yogi and scholar from North-Eastern Tibet in Repkong, located in lower Amdo. This work reflects Dorje’s orientation as a non-celibate, Tantric adept trained in the Nyingma sect. The present volume, Book 14, is one of twenty-five volumes detailing Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, practice, and ritual. It offers a fascinating summary of the major facets of Tantra. Covering the exoteric and esoteric versions of the defining practices, it gives meticulous attention to the symbols and meaning of deity yoga, empowerments, and vows. Dorje’s efforts to document diverse interpretations is apparent in the presentation of multiple versions of each of the major issues of tantra such as its origins, texts, and praxis.

Dorje structures the text in four formats that reiterate one another: an extensive commentary, root verses, an outline, and a concise commentary. Each of the four major topics is organized in a form typical to the genre according to the Nyingma sect’s doxographical categories. There are three sections devoted to exoteric Tantric systems, that of Rites, Techniques and the “Tantra of the Welcome of Our Genuine State” (commonly referred to with the Sanskrit terms as Kritya, Charyaand Yoga Tantra). These exoteric systems occupy 19% of the book. However, 51% of the book is devoted to esoteric tantra, “The Tantra of the Highest Welcome of Our Genuine State” (Skt. Maha Yoga). This category represents the primary system that defines Vajrayana Buddhist contemplation today and continues as the subject of volumes 15, 16, and 17 in this series. 

The book is intended for Buddhist adepts, who would make use of such detailed explanations only after having accomplished extensive preliminary practices. Yet the translator explicitly tries to render the text into accessible English that “your father” could understand (316). These translations of key terms are at times obscure when they dismiss translations that are already in common use. However, this is done in favor of more aesthetic renderings which provide accessibility to non-specialist audiences. As such, the book is a valuable work for an academic audience, as well as for readers interested in decoding esoteric details of Tibetan Buddhism. 

One of the most valuable resources Dorje presents is the selection of passages on deity yoga, the central defining contemplative method of Buddhist Tantra. Another valuable feature of this book is the section on Vajrayana Buddhist vows, rendered as “covenant of tantra” (112-79). This is one of the two largest sections of the text, occupying 17% of the total content. The author engages in more overt polemics in these passages than in any other sections, surveying refutations of Tantric ethical codes and various interpretations of those codes. 

Within the section on vows, Sexual Yoga is introduced and explained in great detail, in a manner customary in esoteric Tibetan literature. This includes how to choose a partner and how to manipulate the subtle body energies during the practice (111). A question that will burn in readers’ minds is how much of the ritual sexual activity described in the sections on empowerment (106) was practiced literally, as opposed to being accomplished symbolically. This is indeed a question debated by scholars.

In the explanations of esoteric vows, some fascinating passages make explicit the ethical danger zone for which Tibetan tantra is known. The range of possible hermeneutic frameworks for understanding transgressive Tantra’s reinterpretation of vows is defined by Dorje in three categories. These are: the inductive meaning for those who are familiar with realization, the definitive meaning, and the ultimate meaning. Take, for example, the section on the precepts against killing (118) in the context of exoteric Buddhist edicts opposing killing and harming beings. The author repeatedly demonstrates an attempt to exhaustibly describe all permutations of Tantric praxis. Therefore it should not be surprising when the author describes one extreme perspective where killing an enemy is not considered a crime because of the Buddhist teaching that there is no essential self. Because there is no “individual being” to kill, therefore no crime has taken place (118). However, the third (and therefore ultimate) interpretation described is that one must kill one’s own dualistic mind (118). The result of presenting diverse interpretations is that the author diplomatically accommodates historical variations. Yet the result for the reader is that antinomian and transgressive behavior is foregrounded without enough emphasis on the dangers of such interpretations. The author does consistently privilege a more conservative view as the “ultimate meaning.” These interpretations are more concerned with transgressing habitual impulses of one’s mind and feature such themes such as killing thoughts, stealing emptiness, and experiencing the “single flavor” of experience (120). Passages such as those on killing reveal why the text is traditionally restricted to an audience of adepts whose social mores and lived realities would clarify the non-literal nature of such antinomian rhetoric.

One of the many fascinating passages in Dorje’s book is the question of who is suitable for Tantric initiation. Proscriptions about worthy disciples and protecting these materials from the sight of unworthy disciples is a standard facet of Tantric literature. This is reiterated in Vajrayana vows against divulging “secrets to those who are not spiritually mature” (123). Literature and social realities contradict one another since Vajrayana ritual empowerments in Asia are public events. The author offers an explanation for this when he addresses the issue of who is worthy of initiation in more liberal terms. He quotes “The Indestructible Peak Tantra” (Tib. rdo rje rtse mo) to say that the master should not “overly examine the worthiness or lack of worthiness of candidates” (103). Instead, Dorje proclaims that the ritual initiations should be given quite freely, even to those who do not have faith, do not have stores of ennobling acts, or are not spiritually mature, and even to those who are uninterested! The reason given is that the ritual itself causes results in the path (103).

Overall, the author summarizes four Tantric systems in highly detailed, yet easy to read descriptions. The volume conveys a rich, multi-layered exegesis of Buddhist Tantra.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kali Cape is a doctoral candidate in Sino-Tibetian Religions at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
September 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Choying Tobden Dorje (1787–1848) was a brilliant Vajrayana master of eastern Tibet. His masterwork, The Complete Nyingma Tradition from Sutra to Tantra, remains the main text studied by Tibet’s Ngakpa lineages of lay Buddhist yogi-practitioners.

Ngawang Zangpo (Hugh Leslie Thompson) completed two three-year retreats under the direction of the late Kalu Rinpoche. He is presently working on a number of translation projects that were initiated under the direction of Chadral Rinpoche and Lama Tharchin Rinpoche. He has also contributed to Kalu Rinpoche's translation group's books Myriad Worlds and Buddhist Ethics.


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