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Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (Treasury of Metaphysics with Self-Commentary)  

Oren Hanner

The Abhidharmakośabhāṣya (Treasury of Metaphysics with Self-Commentary) is a pivotal treatise on early Buddhist thought composed around the 4th or 5th century by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu. This work elucidates the buddha’s teachings as synthesized and interpreted by the early Buddhist Sarvāstivāda school (“the theory that all [factors] exist”), while recording the major doctrinal polemics that developed around them, primarily those points of contention with the Sautrāntika system of thought (“followers of the scriptures”). Employing the methodology and terminology of the Buddhist Abhidharma system, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya offers a detailed analysis of fundamental doctrines, such as early Buddhist theories of mind, cosmology, the workings of karman, meditative states and practices, and the metaphysics of the self. One of its unique features is the way it presents the opinions of a variety of Buddhist and Brahminical schools that were active in classical India in Vasubandhu’s time. The work contains nine chapters (the last of which is considered to have been appended to the first eight), which proceed from a description of the unawakened world via the path and practices that are conducive to awakening and ultimately to the final spiritual attainments which constitute the state of awakening. In its analysis of the unawakened situation, it thus covers the elements which make up the material and mental world of sentient beings, the wholesome and unwholesome mental states that arise in their minds, the structure of the cosmos, the metaphysics of action (karman) and the way it comes into being, and the nature of dispositional attitudes and dormant mental afflictions. In its treatment of the path and practices that lead to awakening, the treatise outlines the Sarvāstivāda understanding of the methods of removing defilements through the realization of the four noble truths and the stages of spiritual cultivation. With respect to the awakened state, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya gives a detailed description of the different types of knowledge and meditational states attained by practitioners who reach the highest stages of the path.



John Powers

The Bodhisattva-bhūmi (Resources for Bodhisattvas) is part of Resources for Yoga Practitioners (Yogācāra-bhūmi), an encyclopedic treatise that was one of the most important works of the Indian Buddhist School of Yoga Practitioners (Yogācāra). It contains material relating to the doctrines and practices of both Mainstream Buddhists and Mahāyānists, mostly in condensed form. The Bodhisattva-bhūmi brings together disparate sources, and there is considerable overlap between the various lists it presents and the explanations of their contents. Contemporary text-critical scholarship has led to a broad consensus that the text available in the early 21st century is most likely a product of centuries of development during which material was compiled and edited, internal cross-references were provided to direct readers to similar discussions in other parts of the Bodhisattva-bhūmi and the Yogācāra-bhūmi, and a loose structure was imposed. It presents itself as a sourcebook of lore that can help both aspiring bodhisattvas and those who have embarked on the bodhisattva path to awakening (bodhi) in order to free sentient beings from suffering and guide them either to the peace of nirvana or to the ultimate attainment of buddhahood. Keywords: Buddhism, Yogācāra, bodhisattva, Asaṅga, Mahāyāna


Buddhism and Biography  

Ben Van Overmeire

The Buddhist religion has a long and rich tradition of biographical literature. This literature has functioned to unify distinct and often contradictory elements of Buddhist ritual, practice, and doctrine, adjusting these elements to specific historical situations. Scholarship on the function of literary characters in making narrative worlds coherent supports this argument: when readers engage characters, they draw together textual and non-textual data to construct beings that are similar to themselves. This connection of a specific situation with a larger whole, a connection that is at the same time an organization, can be observed in how Buddhist biographies are built. Biographies of Shakyamuni, for example, contain many traces of changes motivated by local conditions. The body of Shakyamuni is used to authorize these changes: the local is situated at the heart of Buddhism. Biographies of Chinese Buddhist saints attest to the same process, as can be seen in the shifting representation of Indian saints in China or the literary transformations of the Patriarchs of the Chan school. While these changing representations reflect changes in historical Buddhist communities, they can also produce attitudes and regulate behaviors. The debate on the portrayal and effects of women and animals in Indian Buddhist texts provides an illustration of this, as does scholarship on how saintly ideals regulate behavior. The case of Buddhist autobiography, a genre at times so closely connected to biography that it is nearly indistinguishable from it, provides a final example of how identity is structured in Buddhist biography.


Chöd: A Tibetan Buddhist Practice  

Sarah Harding

Chöd (gcod), “severance” or “cutting,” is a Tibetan term referring to a cycle of Tibetan Buddhist practice and to the lineage initiated by the Tibetan woman Machik Lapdrön sometime in the 11th or 12th century. It is primarily based on the teachings of the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) that represent the second phase of Buddhist texts that developed in India. In Tibet itself, Chöd was one of the many new sects that flourished in the second dissemination of Buddhism from India from 950 to 1350ce. Chöd has been classified as a branch of Zhijé (zhi byed) or “Pacification,” one of the eight great practice lineages that trace back to India, though no actual text on Chöd has been discovered in the early texts of Zhijé. Despite this quandary, its classification has afforded a kind of validation in being connected with the sources of Buddhism through the Indian master Dampa Sangyé. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Machik Lapdrön herself is the sole progenitor for the teachings and the lineage. This woman from the area of Lap in central Tibet was known as Lapkyi Drönma, “the Light of Lap.” The respectful title of Machik, “One Mother,” was added later and is shared with several other important women of the time, often leading to confusion. Lapdrön showed remarkable abilities from an early age, and later gained mastery of speed reading. This led to a job as a chaplain in a patron’s house, where she met her future partner, providing her biographers with a fascinating narrative revealing the problematic status of female masters in Tibet. The recitation of prajñāpāramitā sūtras also led to her epiphany around the parts on māra, “devil,” “demon,” or (spiritual) “death.” This, along with her visions of the bodhisattva Tārā and the important connection with the Indian master Dampa Sangyé, were the inspiration for what became one of the most widespread practices in Tibet. The early Chöd teachings represent aspects derived from both sūtra and tantra sources. The focus is on the understanding of emptiness that severs fixation on the reification of the self and the resultant conduct based on compassion for others. The impediments that prevent such realization, called māras in Sanskrit, were a point of departure. As time went on, specific techniques and methods of practice (sādhana) accrued to this philosophy. While the main practice has remained the cultivation of insight and the enactment of separating the consciousness from the body, the post-meditation practice known as lü jin (lus byin) “giving the body” developed elaborate visualizations and ritual accouterments that came to dominate popular practice. Renowned as a charnel ground practice due to the visualized offering of one’s corpse as food for demons and other beings in situations that are intended to provoke fear, it is this that has become known far and wide as Chöd. The sources for this aspect are obscure and may well come from the surrounding culture of the Tibetan plateau, harking back to Bön and other pre-Buddhist practices. Some elements associated with shamanic practices are enacted in the Chöd rituals, despite its Buddhist soteriological assertions. With its beautiful melodies and lurid visualizations, Chöd quickly became popular in Tibet for exorcism, healing, and other practical usages. Its followers did not establish monasteries, as the lifestyle of roaming mendicants was emphasized, but Chöd was incorporated into most other schools in Tibet. Their liturgies are drawn from the works of Lapdrön’s descendants, or from visionary experiences, or found as treasure texts (terma). As of the early 21st century, Chöd has gained popularity worldwide, with many iterations in 21st-century practice.


Dunhuang Texts  

Mélodie Doumy

At the turn of the 20th century, a small, walled-up cave was discovered by Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu王圆禄on the Buddhist site of the Thousand Buddha Caves, or Mogao Caves, located near Dunhuang (in the present-day Chinese province of Gansu). The room revealed a huge cache of manuscripts dating from the late 4th century up to the beginning of 11th century; the time around which it was probably sealed off. Although it also contained a smaller number of drawings, paintings, textiles, and other artifacts, the secret repository is popularly referred to as the “Library Cave” or “Cave 17” after the number that the explorer Marc Aurel Stein assigned to it. The oasis town of Dunhuang was once positioned at a strategic point on the Silk Road. The manuscripts found in Cave 17 reflect the multicultural nature of the region through the range of languages represented and the variety of subject matters covered. They were written in Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, and other ancient Central Asian languages. Although they are primarily Buddhist texts, there are also secular manuscripts, such as letters and contracts, along with a minority of manuscripts showcasing other religions. For these reasons, as well as the relative scarcity of materials surviving from the period, the Dunhuang manuscripts have revolutionized the understanding of medieval China and Central Asia. A whole academic discipline, Dunhuangology, or Dunhuang studies, has developed around them. They open a window into the wider religious and secular worlds of the Silk Road, constituting a major resource for various research fields, including history, Buddhism, linguistics, science, literature, and manuscript studies.


From Manuscript to Print in South and Southeast Asia  

Christoph Emmrich

The historical shift from manuscript to print is only one aspect of the relationship between the two media, yet it has attracted the most attention. Influential media historiographies have either stressed or downplayed the degrees to which this particular change impacted textual practice in Asia. Playing one medium against the other, however, hinders our understanding of how print and manuscript have been shaping each other since the emergence of Buddhism. A broadened understanding of print that comprises early dhāraṇī estampage and later Chinese and Tibetan block prints, as well as the European printing press, shows that technological innovations in the reproduction, preservation, and distribution of writing spread out of and moved back into parts of South and Southeast Asia, recurring in multiple waves and in diverse forms, with differing local solutions defying attempts at a comprehensive media-centric periodization. Clay as the earliest preserved medium for the printed reproduction of Buddhist texts was replaced by paper as South Asian Buddhism spread northwest into Central and East Asia, impacting script cultures in Vietnam and Tibet and facilitating a division of labor which ensured that prints resembled manuscripts and manuscript came to dominate entire genres and social niches in the economy of the book. In the southern Himalayas, Tibetan block print and South Asian manuscript culture intermingled freely, even after the introduction of the European printing press, with Western print in isolated but striking cases upholding the prestige and supporting the ongoing reproduction of manuscripts. Similarly, in Sri Lanka and Thailand it was the colonial impact of print that led to a retooling and reevaluation of manuscripts as the key commodity through which to justify publishing and archiving efforts at the service of the project to build the nation-state, leading to the emergence of a new genre in South Asia, the library catalogue. Burma and Cambodia, with their interrupted trajectories toward Buddhist nationhood, saw interplay between manuscript, print, and epigraphy, in one case, and the detachment from the larger Thai manuscript lineage by the creation of a new mixed manuscript and print tradition in the other. More recent Buddhist traditions never experienced any of the passages from manuscript to print, emerging in a textual environment entirely constituted by the European printing press. Yet, in this and in the general contemporary Buddhist environment too, the manuscript persists in novel forms, either as a preliminary stage in the ontogenesis of any published or unpublished material or in the myriad instances in which jotting down on slips of paper contributes to the organization of the Buddhist everyday.


Maritime Buddhism  

Andrea Acri

The spread of Buddhism across Asia has been studied mainly from a perspective focusing on the transmission through the overland routes popularly known as “Silk Roads” and emphasizing Central Asia as an important transit corridor and contact zone between South and East Asia. However, recent scholarship has increasingly recognized the significant role played by the sea routes or maritime “Silk Roads” in shaping premodern intra-Asian connectivity. This has paved the way for an appreciation of the important contribution of the southern rim of Asia—especially South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia—to the genesis, transformation, and circulation of various forms of Buddhism. Evidence of the long-distance transfer of Buddhism from its northeastern Indian cradle to the outlying regions of South India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and China via the maritime routes goes back to the early centuries of the Current Era. From the 5th century onward, written and material vestiges from the southern rim of Asia became more substantial, testifying to an efflorescence of long-distance maritime contacts that were to last several centuries. As is shown by textual, epigraphic, and art historical materials—including icons, ritual accoutrements, dhāraṇīs, manuscripts, and monuments—Buddhist cults, imaginaries, and ritual technologies flourished across the vast swathe of littoral, island, and hinterland territory that can be conceptualized as the sociospatial grouping of “Maritime Asia.” Buddhist vestiges recovered from the Indian Subcontinent littorals, Sri Lanka, the Maldives Islands, peninsular and coastal mainland Southeast Asia, and what are now called the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippine islands, speak in favor of the existence of pervasive and sustained multidirectional Buddhist exchanges among interconnected nodes linking South Asia and the Western Indian Ocean to China, Korea, and Japan through the maritime routes. A polycentric, geographically wide, and maritime-based approach is necessary to fully appreciate how religious, mercantile, and diplomatic networks acted as catalysts for transmission of Buddhism far and wide across Asia over nearly two millennia.


Narratives of Buddhist Relics and Images  

Stephen C. Berkwitz

Relics and images of the Buddha and of other awakened beings occupy important places in ritual practice throughout the Buddhist world. Their significance and sacrality are evidenced by the numerous written and oral narratives that have been composed by Buddhist authors and storytellers to describe how they were obtained and what makes them special. Buddhist narratives on relics and images are mainly found outside of the tradition’s canonical literature, either as discrete texts or as sections in larger works. These narratives often supply explanations as to why certain relics shrines and images are worthy of veneration and can be sites for authorizing power and political status. The written and oral narratives about these allegedly extraordinary objects typically include material concerning the origins of revered relics and images linked to the Buddha or other awakened saints, as well as narratives that prophesy and recount how such special objects were found in their present locations and came to be worshipped by devotees. Such textual sources also often associate particular relics and images with the authority of a ruler or a monastic community that possessed them. It seems clear that the more important a given relic or image is for a Buddhist community, the more likely that it will have a narrative that is used to help locate this object in time and space for devotees to understand and worship it properly. In sum, these narratives play a critical role in endowing relics and images with their extraordinary natures and important roles in the devotional and political spheres of Buddhist communities across Asia.


Pure Land Buddhism in Tibetan Contexts  

Georgios Halkias

Buddhist literature in India and Tibet abounds with literal and allegorical references to terrestrial, celestial, and transcendent realms. Of all celestial dwellings cast along Buddhist lines, the pure land Sukhāvatī holds a prominent place in the religious, cultural, and national imagination of the Tibetans. Many centuries before the first imperially sponsored Sanskrit to Tibetan translations of the long and short Sukhāvatīvyūha sutras, Buddha Amitābha and his western abode Sukhāvatī made headway in the cosmopolitan region of greater Gandhāra. Active in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent he emerged as an influential solar deity with his own paradise in Buddhist monastic circles and enjoyed unprecedented success in his subsequent transmigration to East and Central Asia and across the Tibetan plateau. Notwithstanding a Mahāyāna theological reading of Amitābha and his Pure Land, heliocentric metaphors and symbols informed Mahāyāna Buddhism in its encounters with Eurasian solar cults celebrating the vital force of the sun and its metaphorical transition into a spiritual life triumphing over darkness and death. Ritual invocations and creative visualizations of Amitābha-Amitāyus are noticeable in Indian Vajrayāna scriptures imported to Tibet during the postimperial transmission of Buddhism. This second wave of religious assimilation coincides with Amitābha rising to a position of retroactive primacy and exclusivity in narratives concerning Tibet’s conversion to Buddhism and in ancestral myths of the Tibetan race rescued, through his divine emissary Avalokiteśvara, from indigenous forces of malignancy. His overstated presence in Tibetan mythopoiesis bears witness to various soteriological instantiations and expressions of worship in religious art and esoteric registers. In his dual function as the lord of infinite light (Amitābha) and infinite life (Amitāyus), this Mahāyāna deity absorbed functions that had previously been attributed to a range of divinities. Over time, Amitābha and his celestial field inspired a distinct genre of Tibetan pure land literature, the demön, comprising for the most part aspirational prayers for rebirth in Sukhāvatī and tributes to his extraordinary salvific powers. Under the guise of attaining rebirth in the pure land, these popular supplications of devotional nature were supplemented by substantive commentaries elaborating on Mahāyāna practices and doctrines. Hence, the demön came to encompass a wide range of exoteric and esoteric scriptures including funereal rites, tantric rituals for extending life, and meditation manuals derived from visionary kratophanies of the deity. Sukhāvatī inspired a number of ontological possibilities, corporeal, incorporeal, and subtle interpretations derived from the pure land sutras, the tantras, and the revealed scriptures of the Nyingma school. The fusion of devotional praises, faith-based aspirations, and esoteric subtle-body practices had a profound effect in the soteriological formulation of the pure land in Tibet conceptualized simultaneously as an external after-death destination, an interiorized place of the subtle-body infrastructure culminating in the Vajrayāna practice of mind transference to the pure land, and as a sublimated state representing the immutable nature of the awakened mind.


Queering Buddhist Traditions  

Bee Scherer

Buddhist traditions intersect with queer lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, intersex, queer/querying (and more) subjectivities and belongings in a multifaceted way. Queer theory (QT) can enrich Buddhist thought and practices as well as Buddhist studies by inserting a challenging method of deconstruction, troubling and resisting oppressive and harmful socioreligious scripts with regards to, and beyond, sexuality and gender. There is a nascent reception of the queering impulses within Buddhist traditions, yet QT and foundational queer theorists lack comprehensive Buddhist appraisal: Queer “dharmology” has yet to be systematically developed. When discussing perspectives and practices regarding sexuality/ies and sex/gender in Buddhist thought and cultures, a distinct genealogy of nonheterosexual desires and sex/gender diversity emerges. Buddhist views on sexualities anchor on the psychology of desire and attachment in terms of religious philosophy and soteriology; at the social level, biopolitical regulations of Buddhist life focus on the dichotomy of celibate monastic vs. householder lay contexts. The variety of sex/gender subjectivities in Buddhist traditions include the historical stigmatized third and fourth sex/gender categories of the paṇḍaka (“gender-deficient,” usual thought of as “male-deficient”) and the ubhatobyañjanaka (“both-sexed”). However, neither category maps neatly onto contemporary queer and trans* subjectivities, leading to confusion, debate, and discretion in contemporary Buddhist cultures. The complex picture of both surprisingly pragmatic and inclusive as well as discriminatory and hostile paradigms emerges from Buddhist thought and practices in the divergent traditions of Theravāda, East Asian Mahāyāna, Tibetan Buddhism, and in ecumenic or demi-/post-denominational forms of Buddhism and Neo-Buddhism in the Global North (“Western” Buddhism), both historically and in contemporary global-glocal-local traditions. Queer (post)modern Buddhist subjectivities are increasingly emerging as powerful voices within constructive-critical and reflective emic modes of Buddhist thought and practice. A contemporary queer Buddhist “theology” or queer (/trans*-affirmative) dharmology can be successfully developed in a framework of five parameters: (1) reflexivity, (2) hermeneutics, (3) conceptualization, (4) signification, and (5) application. Focusing on the parameter of conceptualization, QT-immersed queer dharmology can start with the specific, “messy,” complex, contextual, ever-changing and conditioned human experiences, and interactional negotiations or be(com)ing and interbe(com)ing. A “this-worldly” (socio-saṃsāric) focus also averts the danger of spiritual bypassing and “dharma-splaining.” Instead, complex Buddhist notions such as karma and interdependence become powerful instruments of Buddhist queering, that is, challenging any normative societal script that causes suffering.


The Life and Works of Longchenpa  

Albion M. Butters

Longchen Rabjam (Klong chen rab ’byams pa, 1308–1363/1364) is regarded as one of the most important figures in the Nyingma (Rnying ma) school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is especially renowned for his writings on Dzogchen (Rdzogs chen), or the Great Perfection, and his revelations and codification of the various Nyingtik (Snying thig) or Seminal Essence cycles, penned in a clear, direct, and often poetic style. Longchenpa also wrote in depth on Buddhist philosophy, in particular exploring the nature of the two truths through a Madhyamaka lens, and the soteriological significance of the respective paths in the Buddhist tradition, from Sūtrayāna to Mantrayāna. His overall oeuvre, from which hundreds of texts survive, evidences a practical effort to provide students and readers with a wide range of entry points to awakening, depending on their respective inclination and ability. Longchenpa has historically been respected as both a scholar and a yogi, accorded by tradition with the rare title of Omniscient One (Kun mkhyen). He began his studies at an early age, studied with the great masters of his time at Samye (Bsam yas) and Sangpu Neutok (Gsang phu ne’u thog), and received ascetic tutelage from his guru Kumārādza (1266–1343). Through focus on the Vima Nyingtik (Bi ma snying thig) and Khandro Nyingtik (Mkha’ ’gro snying thig) cycles, receiving visions and discovering treasure texts (gter ma), his connection to his previous reincarnation as Pema Ledrel Tsal (Padma las ’brel rtsal, 1291–1315) was revealed. Even though the political tumult of 14th-century Tibet forced Longchenpa to leave for Bhutan, he was able to continue to write and build monasteries. Longchenpa returned home for the final years of his life, which were alternately spent in retreat or giving teachings to large audiences seeking wisdom from the famous master. Over the centuries, the majority of his literary corpus was preserved, and due to the attention of later Nyingma lamas such as Jigme Lingpa (’Jigs med gling pa, 1730–1798) and Mipam (Mi pham, 1846–1912), his legacy was ensured. The timeless writings of Longchenpa comprise a rich treasure for Tibetan scholars and Buddhist practitioners alike.


Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol)  

Casey Alexandra Kemp

Although in Tibet there is no single text directly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this English work is the primary source for Western understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. These understandings have been highly influenced by Western spiritualist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, resulting in efforts to adapt and synthesize various frameworks of “other” religious traditions, particularly those from Asian societies that are viewed as esoteric or mystical, including tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. This has resulted in creative forms of appropriation, reinterpretation, and misrepresentation of Tibetan views and rituals surrounding death, which often neglect the historical and religious realities of the tradition itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a prime example of such a process. Despite the lack of a truly existing “book of the dead,” numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies on this “book” continue to be produced by both scholars and adherents of the tradition, making it a focal point for the dissemination and transference of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. The set of Tibetan block prints that was the basis for the original publication of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878–1968) consisted of portions of the collection known in Tibetan as The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State or Bardo Thödol (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This work is said to have been authored by Padmasambhava in the 8th century ce, who subsequently had the work buried; it was rediscovered in the 14th century by the treasure revealer (gter ston) Karma Lingpa (Kar ma gling pa; b. c. 1350). However, as a subject for literary and historical inquiry, it is nearly impossible to determine what Tibetan texts should be classified under the Western conceptual rubric of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is due partly to the Tibetan tendency to transmit textual traditions through various redactions, which inevitably change the content and order of collected works. Despite this challenge, the few systematic efforts made by scholars of Tibetan and Buddhist studies to investigate Bardo Thödol literature and its associated funerary tradition have been thorough, and the works produced by Bryan Cuevas and Donald Lopez Jr. are particularly noteworthy. The Bardo Thödol is essentially a funerary manual designed to guide an individual toward recognizing the signs of impending death and traversing the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth, and to guide one’s consciousness to a favorable next life. These instructions provide detailed descriptions of visions and other sensory experiences that one encounters when dying and during the post-mortem state. The texts are meant to be read aloud to the deceased by the living to encourage the consciousness to realize the illusory or dreamlike nature of these experiences and thus to attain liberation through this recognition. This presentation is indicative of a complex and intricate conceptual framework built around notions of death, impermanence, and their soteriological propensities within a tantric Buddhist program developed in Tibet over a millennium, particularly within the context of the Nyingma (rNying ma) esoteric tradition known as Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). Tibet and other tantric Buddhist societies throughout the Himalaya have developed a variety of technologies for practically applying Buddhist understandings of death, and so this particular “book” is by no means the only manual utilized during the dying and post-mortem states, nor is it even necessarily included in all Tibetan or Himalayan funerary traditions. Nevertheless, this work has captured the interests of Western societies for the past century and has unofficially become the principal introduction not only to Tibetan death rites but also to Tibetan Buddhism in general for the West.


Transmission of Buddhist Media and Texts  

Daniel Veidlinger

Different media have been used to spread the teachings of Buddhism, and they have exerted a significant influence upon the development of Buddhist ideas and institutions over time. An oral tradition was first used in ancient India to record and spread the Buddhist Dharma, and later the Pali canon was written down in the 1st century bce. Writing was also conspicuously used to transmit Mahāyāna texts starting in the first centuries of the first millennium. Printing was developed in medieval China probably in connection with the Buddhist desire to create merit through copying the texts. Efforts to print Buddhist texts in Western languages and scripts began in earnest in the late 19th century, and Western printing methods were later adopted by Asian Buddhists to publish the texts in modern times. It is important to appreciate the intricate relationship between the medium that is used to transmit a text and the form of the text itself, as well as the commensurate effects of the texts and their ideas on the medium and its uses in society. The oral medium has many constraints that forced the early texts to assume certain forms that were amenable to oral transmission, and institutions arose to assist in the preservation of these texts as well. Even once writing came to be used, the common people generally did not read but rather heard the text recited by learned monks. Private reading is for the most part a modern invention and it, too, had a distinct influence on the development of Buddhism, leading to modern reformist movements that demanded less superstition, more meditation, and a closer adherence to the teachings found in the canonical texts. The Internet is also shaping the popular reception of Buddhism, as Buddhist teachings and texts proliferate on thousands of websites in a dizzying array of languages.


The Vajrakīla Tantras  

Martin Boord

Belonging to an esoteric corpus of Buddhist texts known as the teachings of secret mantra (Skt. guhyamantra), the tantras of Vajrakīla have been carefully guarded through the centuries and handed down from teacher to disciple under a strictly ethical code of conduct. Although the texts themselves often seem to advocate a violent and unrestrained lifestyle, under the skillful guidance of a suitably qualified guru, who must be seen by the disciple as none other than the Buddha himself, one who seriously engages in the systematic practice of their profound series of meditations becomes quickly and thoroughly purified in body, speech, and mind. The wrathful deity Vajrakīla is described in all the tantras that bear his name as the manifestation of heroic power for the overthrow of Māra. During times of peace he manifests as Vajrasattva, and his mind abides in tranquility. During times of activity he manifests as “Vajra of Total Destruction” (Skt. *Ativināśanavajra) and, when manifesting as a bodhisattva, he is Vajrapāṇi, “the One with a Vajra in his Hand.” With regard to his name “Vajrakīla”: vajra as a prefix is found everywhere within the Buddhist tantras. Originally meaning “the hard or mighty one” and referring in particular to the thunderbolt as a weapon of Indra, it subsequently became so intimately associated with the development of tantric ideas in Buddhism that the entire system of practice came to be known as the Vajrayāna or Vajra Vehicle. Indeed, as a symbol within the Buddhist tantras it is as pregnant with meaning as the very texts themselves. Characterized as abhedya, “unbreakable,” and acchedya, “indivisible,” the term may be said to represent nothing less than the full enlightenment of the samyaksaṃbuddha, who himself came to be referred to as Vajradhara, “Holder of the Vajra.” The Sanskrit word kīla means “nail,” “peg,” or “spike,” and thus Vajrakīla may be taken to mean “the unassailable spike” or, on a higher level, “(He who is) the nail of supreme enlightenment.” Introduced to Tibet during the 8th century ce, the Buddhist tantras of Vajrakīla were received with great enthusiasm and quickly became established as a vital element in the religious life of the Tibetan empire. Said to encompass every aspect of the ground, path, and goal, the Vajrakīla tantras present a coherent and complete system of spiritual practice that culminates in the attainment of perfect liberation from the round of rebirth. The roots of Kīla mythology, however, may lie buried deep within the pre-Buddhist religion of ancient India where, in the Ṛgveda, the story is told of the god Indra who slew the demon Vṛtra. It is said that, at that time, Indra stabilized the earth and propped up the heavens with a kīla and thus, at the outset, we have clearly discernible indications of a path along which a simple wooden stake might travel so as eventually to become deified as a terrifying god of awesome power, one by whom all demons are vanquished and enlightenment realized for the benefit of the world.