The Esoteric Community Tantra with The Illuminating Lamp

The Vajra Hermeneutics of the Tradition of Ārya Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva (John R.B. Campbell)

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The Vajra Hermeneutics of the Tradition of Ārya Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva


This volume is a translation of the first twelve chapters of the Great King of Tantras, The Glorious Esoteric Community Tantra (Śrī Guhyasamāja Mahā-Tantra-rāja, hereafter GST), along with the commentary called The Illuminating Lamp (Pradīpoddyotana-nāma-ṭīkā, hereafter PU), a commentary in Sanskrit on the former by the Buddhist intellectual and tantric scholar-practitioner Chandrakīrti in the second half of the first millennium CE. Regarded by Indo-Tibetan tradition as the esoteric scripture wherein the Buddha revealed the very psycho-physical process of his enlightenment, the GST is a preeminent text of the class of scriptures known to late first millennium CE Indian Buddhist writers as great yoga tantra (mahāyoga-tantra), and later to their Tibetan successors as unexcelled yoga tantra (*anuttarayoga-tantra). The PU presents a system of interpretive guidelines according to which the obscure meanings of the GST might be extracted in order to engage its ritual and yogic practices taught therein. Applying its interpretive strategies to the text of the GST, the PU articulates a synthetic, “vajra vehicle” (vajrayāna) discourse that locates tantric practices and ideals squarely within the cosmological and institutional frameworks of Mahayana Buddhism.

From the time Prince Siddhārtha went forth into homelessness and founded the monastic community, the ideal of “giving it all up for nirvana” was not only central to Indian Buddhist institutional structure but also a hallmark of its literary self-expression. From accounts of the Buddha’s former lives of austerity and self-sacrifice in avadāna and jātaka literature to the epic wanderings of the bodhisattvas in Mahayana sutras, the heroic tropes of worldly renunciation and emotional dispassion served to articulate core values of the monastic community in its canonical literature. However, 4the Buddhist mahāyoga tantras expanded the iconographic and literary representation of an increasingly crowded Buddhist pantheon to include celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas in erotic embrace, demonstrating the “great bliss” (mahāsukha) of their awakening (bodhi), while apparently advocating the transgressing of virtually all the most basic moral precepts of monastic and lay Buddhism as necessary on the accelerated path to complete awakening. In dramatic contrast to the abstinent mendicant and the tough-as-nails bodhisattva, the champions of these new scriptures and practice systems are represented in later hagiographic accounts as freewheeling and generally non-monastic adepts (siddha), the most celebrated among them having dropped out and gone forth (niryāna) from monastic life to seek enlightenment outside its supposedly rigid institutions and dry scholastic curricula.

The unexcelled yoga tantras thus represent a remarkable and startling addition to an ongoing — and apparently ever-expanding — process of Indian Buddhist text production in the second half of the first millennium CE. Over the past two decades, there has been an increasing scholarly interest in the great rise of Buddhist esotericism, long neglected in Buddhist studies. Matthew Kapstein has aptly observed how its radical and “dynamic vision of the Buddhist enlightenment . . . must be regarded as the last great creative movement within Indian Buddhism.”8 Indeed, the growing acceptance within segments of late first millennium Buddhist monasticism of practices foregrounding the indispensable role of the tantric master, initiation into a mandala, and the homologizing of sexual bliss with the bliss of awakening are among the most astonishing and poorly understood developments in post-Gupta Indian Buddhism.

A detailed commentary on the GST — itself regarded by the Indo-Tibetan tradition, it bears repeating, as a scripture revealing the psycho-physical process by which the Buddha attained enlightenment — the PU presents a system of interpretive guidelines of “seven ornaments” (saptālaṁkāra), interconnected strategies for extracting multivalent meaning from the “root” (mūla) scripture. In the concise style typical of classical Indian scientific treatise commentary, the PU begins with a highly technical yet lucid presentation of Chandrakīrti’s interpretive system, citing as doctrinal authority a set of revelatory “explanatory tantras” (vyākhyā/ākhyāna-tantra) delivered by the Buddha himself. The commentary goes on to assign to the 5statements of the GST multiple layers of simultaneous meaning appropriate to tantric practitioners at different levels of ritual and yogic expertise.

The PU seems to presuppose and even codify the acceptance within segments of the Buddhist educated community a complex set of advanced practices and symbolic systems seemingly at odds with normative Buddhist values and monastic codes of conduct. To judge by the pervasiveness of its distinctive terminology among tantric treatises in the Tibetan Tengyur, including six complete or nearly complete sub-commentaries of its own, undoubtedly it was widely known within learned circles in Buddhist India. From the time of its translation into Tibetan in the eleventh century, the PU had come to be regarded by many as a definitive presentation of hermeneutics for the unexcelled yoga tantras and as the foundation for studying and teaching the esoteric practice of “deity yoga” (devatā-yoga), through which a practitioner is said to be able not only to achieve liberation from suffering but also to actualize the “form bodies” (rūpa-kāya) of a fully enlightened buddha in a single lifetime. Its synthesis of Vajrayāna theories and aspirations within an exoteric Mahayana Buddhist path-structure is certainly characteristic of mainstream Buddhist orthopraxy by the time of such famous eleventh-century Indian monastic figures as Atisha Dīpaṅkarashrījñāna (c. 982–1054), Ratnākarashānti (fl. early eleventh century), and Abhayākaragupta (c. 1084–1126/1077–1119). As such, the PU is an exemplary work of Vajrayāna scholasticism and a key source-text for studying the momentous refashioning of North Indian monastic universities into centers of tantric practice and teaching, a trans-regional tantric Mahayana that came to typify much of Indian Buddhism from the second half of the first millennium until its institutional destruction in the early thirteenth century, and all Buddhism within the Tibetan cultural sphere afterward.

The Ārya Nāgārjuna School of the Guhyasamāja Interpretation

The author of the PU identifies himself with what has been called in English translation “the Nāgārjuna system” (Tib. ’phags lugs) of tantric exegesis and practice associated with Nālandā Monastery. The Tibetan shorthand is a coinage of early eleventh-century Tibetan intellectuals such as Gö Khugpa Hlaytsay (’gos khug pa blhas brtsas) and not attested in Indic sources. It reflects this Tibetan tantric tradition’s self-identification with the Centrist (madhyamaka) philosophical school of Ārya Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva, 6whom the Tibetan scholar-practitioners considered the same persons as the tantric scholar-practitioners, authors of the Five Stages (Pañcakrama) and Lamp that Integrates the Practices (Caryāmelāpakapradīpa). This completely opposes the modern dating schemes, which consider that there must be two Ārya Nāgārjunas, two Āryadevas, two Chandrakīrtis, etc. The Tibetans call the two “Ārya” individuals “the noble (ārya) father and son” (’phags pa yab sras), considering the philosophical and tantric personages as very much the same, the Centrist philosophy being the basis of the tantric practice. By his claimed direct affiliation with them, Chandrakīrti aligns himself with this lineage of the famous Centrists/tantrics Ārya Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva, and he himself also is understood by all Tibetan scholars to be the same author who wrote the seventh-century Lucid Exposition commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Wisdom: Centrist Root Verses. If the Tibetans are correct, this puts the date of the PU in the seventh century CE, centuries earlier than modern scholars assert. Since we cannot decide this here, we must bracket the dating controversies for the moment. However, we will refer to this particular tantric tradition as simply “the Nāgārjuna system” or “tradition” in order to dispel the implication that there is anything “ignoble” about any other system of interpretation.9

The earliest writings on the Nāgārjuna system in Tibet are those of Gö Khugpa Hlaytsay in the eleventh century, presumably around the same time as he revised the Tibetan translation done in the tenth century. The famous Tibetan translator Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (1012–1097) received lineages of GST practice from his teachers in Nepal but apparently not with the explicit nomenclature of the Noble (Nāgārjuna) system, although its content was definitely known to him. The Sakyapa hierarch Sönam Tsemo (1142–1182) wrote on the PU as part of his broader scholarship on “methods for explaining the tantras” (bshad thabs).10 The master scholar and editor of the Tibetan 7Tengyur, Butön Rinchendrup (1290–1364) wrote extensively on the Nāgārjuna system as well as the seven-ornament system.11

Strongly influenced by Butön’s writing, Tsong Khapa (1357–1419) would by the end of his life position the literature and doctrines of the Nāgārjuna tradition of the GST alongside those of Dialecticist Centrism (prāsaṅgika-madhyamaka) as the centerpiece of his distinctive interpretation of Buddhist philosophy and practice, forming the doctrinal foundation for the Gelukpa order.12 Tsong Khapa himself oversaw the production of the first books printed in Tibet at Ganden Monastery, none other than the GST and its PU commentary with his own extensive Annotations (ca. 1414) to the latter. According to the biography of Tsong Khapa by one of his chief disciples, Khedrup Jey, this printing project began late in the dog year (1418) and was completed in the pig year (1419), the year of the master’s passing.13 Tsong Khapa’s immediate successors in the early to mid-fifteenth century institutionalized the PU as the curricular foundation for esoteric studies in “tantric colleges” (sngags pa’i gwra tshang) of the monastic “seats” (gdan sa), the monastic universities of the Gelukpa order, with a curriculum modelled on what they understood to be that of the Indian monastic universities.14


The Seven Ornaments

The system of seven ornaments assigns to the statements of the GST multiple layers of simultaneous meaning appropriate to tantric practitioners at different levels of ritual and yogic expertise, aligning the entire tantric practice with non-tantric, Mahayana Buddhist practice and cosmology. In the concise style typical of classical Indian shastric commentary, the PU outlines hermeneutic categories that enable a tantric specialist to extract the root tantra’s encrypted, or “sealed” (mudrita) meanings, to align those with the esoteric practices detailed in the supplementary explanatory tantras and to apply these to the liturgical performances (sādhana) and psycho-physical yogas of the Nāgārjuna system. The seven ornaments thus describe both the ways in which the GST safeguards its meaning from inappropriate audiences as well as requires the hermeneutic system with which a qualified expert of the Nāgārjuna system can decode the meaning and practices of the GST as they have been purposefully distributed among the explanatory tantras, themselves also supposedly authored by Vajradhara Buddha.

Tsong Khapa wrote extensively on the Nāgārjuna system of interpretation and implementation of the GST. In his Annotations he provides an overview of the function and components of the famous seven-ornament system at the center of the PU and of the Nāgārjuna system exegesis. Tsong Khapa elucidates Chandrakīrti’s statement that the root tantra was deliberately encrypted by means of different types of linguistic expression alongside multiple levels of meaning for each statement of the GST. The rules of interpretation and implementation of the seven ornaments, mainly drawn from the Intuition Vajra Compendium explanatory tantra (JVS), are applicable also to all unexcelled yoga tantras other than the GST and can serve to disclose their inner meanings.

The ornaments themselves as presented in the first chapter of the PU are as follows:

1. Preliminaries (upodghāta): for locating the source context of the root and explanatory tantras.

2. Methods (nyāya): for engaging in both the exoteric and esoteric Buddhist paths of practice, modeled on the process by which the Buddha came to embody enlightenment. This ornament juxta-9poses the narrative of Shākyamuni’s exoteric biography with the distinctive narrative of the practitioner’s esoteric enlightenment biography, aligning the dispassionate practice (virāgadharma) of the bodhisattva and the passionate practice (rāgadharma) of the vajrasattva as complementary procedures.

3. Parameters (koṭi) of explanation (upadeśa): refer to different kinds of speech used in the root tantra. These semantic levels are familiar from non-tantric Buddhist hermeneutics and general Indian theories of language, including interpretable meaning (neyārtha) and definitive meaning (nītārtha) statements.

4. Programs (naya) of interpretation (vyākhyā): systematize the gradual decoding of successively more profound levels of meaning encoded in the text (literal, symbolic, implicit, ultimate) corresponding to the needs of students at progressively more advanced stages of study and practice.

5. Teaching Environment: specifies which modes of exposition and levels of interpretation are appropriate to public (satravyākhyāna) versus individual instruction (śiṣyākhyāna). This ornament limits the teaching of the advanced perfection stage practices to confidential, contractual relationships between preceptor and student, ritualized by consecrations.

6. Typology of Five Types of Person (pañca pudgala): to be taught, progressing from barely competent but nonetheless entitled, up to the perfect disciple. The typology lines up with the context of instruction (whether or not someone needs to be restricted to public teachings) and therefore to the semantic level of the explanation and the nature of the practice appropriate to each.

7. The Ornament of the Performance (sādhana) and fulfillment of the Nāgārjuna system’s highest practices of the Perfection Stage. This ornament describes the perfect union (yuganaddha) of the two realities (satyadvaya) of the clear light mind (cittaprabhāsvara) and the magic body (māyādeha).


Yoga of the Nāgārjuna Tradition

Tsong Khapa explains the GST as distinct among tantric scriptures due to its unique emphasis on facilitating the cultivation of the magic body (māyā deha) of the advanced-stage practitioner. Rejecting an earlier Tibetan threefold categorization into father, mother, and nondual unexcelled yoga tantras, he writes:

I explain following the explanation of the well-established opinion on the distinction of the unexcelled yoga tantras as wisdom (shes rab, prajñā) and art (thabs, upāya) of such scriptures as the Vajra Tent. . . . Although some distinguish based on the creation stage practice, the difference is actually in the perfection stage [of the various tantras.] If we take bliss and emptiness (bde stong) as art and wisdom (thabs shes, upāya-prajñā) respectively, individual scriptures cannot be differentiated; they all must be “nondual.” . . . This distinction is unsupportable. . . . When you distinguish between art tantras and wisdom tantras with respect to the emphasis of their perfection stages, then wisdom must mean “intuition of ultimate reality-great bliss” (paramārtha-mahāsukha-jñāna), while art must mean “conventional [reality] magic body” (saṁvṛti [satya] māyādeha.) The first of these points about the mother tantras is found in the thirteenth chapter of the Vajra Tent, which says, “prajñāpāramitā as means is called yogini; entry into union with reality is mahāmudrā; that is called yogini tantra.15


The gendered symbolism he invokes is a familiar feature of Vajrayāna scholastic commentary in India and is consistent with a similar alignment in exoteric Mahayana of ultimate reality voidness (śūnyatā) with “the mother of all buddhas,” with compassion (karuṇā) and art (upāya) of the bodhisattva and buddhas identified as her male counterpart. In the Nāgārjuna system, the preeminent compassionate art taught in the GST is cultivation of this “magic body” (māyā-deha), the achievement of which is essential for collapsing the three incalculable eons of rebirth normally required on the bodhisattva path into a single lifespan. This energetic “wind-energy body” (prāṇavāyu-kāya) is symbolized by the iconic vajra, the diamond-hard thunderbolt weapon of Indra, the ritual counterpart of the pristine subtle mind symbolized by the bell. The GST with its auto-commentarial explanatory tantras is thus distinctive and even unique from the point of view of the Nāgārjuna system in its emphasis on facilitating the practice of the magic body, the ultimate art revealed by the Buddha, contrasted with the mother tantras’ facilitation of the merging with the clear light mind.

Embedded within the seven ornaments are the interpretive categories “interpretable meaning” (neyārtha) and “definitive meaning” (nītartha), familiar from exoteric Buddhist hermeneutics. For the Mādhyamika, following the Teaching of Akṣhayamati Sūtra, the neyārtha/nītārtha dyad always pertains to the content of a statement, with only statements concerning the voidness of intrinsic reality of phenomena being considered definitive; a single statement can only be one or the other.16 Within the seven ornaments scheme, however, a single statement can carry both interpretable and definitive readings that refer each to the two yogic practice stages — the imaginative process of self-creation in a divine form while maintaining awareness of all forms as emptiness, and the process of perfecting the realization of a supersubtle magic body made of sheer energy with a mind of great bliss and merging it with the ultimate clear light reality again and again until there is a perfect communion (yuganadha) of bliss body and clear light mind in the great adept’s (mahāsiddha) tantric form of buddhahood.

The hallmark of the Nāgārjuna system is its use of Centrist metaphysics and appropriation of the latter’s terminology. Its most significant transvaluation of Centrist metaphysics and terminology is the aligning of the two realities (satyadvaya) of Centrist philosophy with, on one hand, the creation 12and perfection developmental stages referenced above and, on the other, the third and fourth of the five yogic stages of the perfection process. For the Centrist philosopher, it is only on the basis of conventional, superficial truth (vyavahāra-saṁvṛti-satya) that ultimate reality (paramārtha-satya) can be approached and realized. Creation stage practice of the Nāgārjuna system involves rehearsal and imitation of the multi-dimensional subjectivity of buddhahood by means of visualizing oneself as a perfected being and engaging in enlightened acts in the tantric mandala for the benefit of all suffering beings. Like a speech act that instantiates a new subjectivity, the creation stage is entirely conventional and relational. Through its repeated familiarization over time, however, one’s conventional reality is manifested in the ultimate reality realization of “union” or “communion” (yuganaddha), or tantric enlightenment.

The Logic of Commentary

The extraordinary interpretive ingenuity with which Chandrakīrti followed the writings of the Noble Nāgārjuna’s Five Stages has persuaded some modern scholars to assume a radical discontinuity between the community of practitioners who originally produced the GST and other mahāyoga tantras and the tantric treatises. On this reading, monastic and scholastic authors have engaged in hermeneutical backflips to dull the dangerous edge of the mahāyoga tantras and to domesticate their transgressive message. The Buddhist master Atisha, for example, was famously invited to Tibet by the princely rulers of Gugé in the early eleventh century in order to clear up deviant practices, particularly among members of the monastic community, resulting from misunderstanding of tantras such as the GST.17 It is not surprising, therefore, that as the esoteric systems increasingly made their way across cultural and linguistic borders, the PU and the seven ornaments received a great deal of commentarial attention due to a perceived need to correctly interpret the tantric literature and to organize the bewildering variety of esoteric practice systems for pedagogical purposes. Remarking on a commentary on the seven ornaments by the Kashmiri Shraddhākaravarman18 (fl. mid-eleventh century), Arenes suggests that such texts reflect the 13“double souci” of Indian Buddhist scholastic authors both to interpret the tantric literature and to organize the bewildering variety of esoteric practice systems for pedagogical purposes.19

But to assume such a total rift separating the unexcelled yoga tantras and their scholastic commentaries is to drive an artificial wedge between the dichotomies — arguably false dichotomies — of original revelation and exegetical innovation. Semantic explanation is co-extensive with and intimately bound to the very representation of revelation in classical South Asian knowledge systems. This is not just a post-structuralist’s fancy: in very real ways, Sanskrit commentary not only mediates but in fact creates meaning in a dynamic engagement with the text on which it comments. It is not an isolated oddity that the Manusmṛti (12.112) prescribes an etymologist and a ritual specialist to be present at any Vedic sacrificial assembly, suggesting a deep structural affinity between the execution of ritual and its analysis in Vedic practice. This sort of structural interdependence of transcendent revelation and local, semantic analysis is indeed the norm for Sanskrit scientific treatise traditions, including those of scholastic Buddhist Vajrayāna. It is most clearly demonstrated in the dialectic operating between the seven-ornament hermeneutic of the PU and the GST: explanatory tantras are decrypted and extracted by the tantric preceptor applying the seven ornaments, who then presents this as personal instructions (upadeśa) to the initiated practitioner, making possible the personal realization, which is none other than the sum total of the meaning and practices of the initial revelation.

A shared assumption among traditional Sanskrit commentators in India is that the proper role of commentary is to make manifest what is latent in the authoritative scripture under consideration. According to the grammarians, what is found in a vṛtti or vārttika must be considered to be present in the sutras themselves, and an explanation that is judged to go beyond the limit of the sutra (utsūtra) is normally condemned as unjustifiable and unacceptable.20 Deutsch has argued that by the time of the redaction of the first 14philosophical (darśana) commentaries of the early first millennium, when this commentarial approach had become standard practice, any opposition between “legitimate explication” and “creative innovation” was “basically nonexistent in Indian thought.”21 He writes about how central to traditional Indian understanding of philosophical text is the idea of philosophy as the “recovery” — rather than the “discovery” — of the fundamentals of a given tradition that were always established at the very outset of the founding of the discipline. It is the task of the tradition through history, then, to restate and explicate these fundamentals to successive generations in successive commentaries on the basic sutra and its assumed correctness.

Crucial to this Sanskrit commentarial logic, the recovery of meaning, is the notion of “indicating, hinting, intending” (jñāpaka and abhiprāya). Since a commentary must expose what is already available in the original, the operative hermeneutic is to extrapolate from what is being hinted at. Only a qualified master of a given system, a guru, having the requisite training and insight is able to tease out the meanings buried away in the root verses and sutras. In other words, the authenticity of a commentary derives from the fact that it lies dormant in the original revelation. And if meaning is always intended meaning (vivakṣitārtha), then interpretation is always an act of recovering what was originally meant. This presupposes that the Buddha (or whoever) was fully aware of the full range of possible implications, so there cannot be an authentic interpretation that was not anticipated in the revelation. If this sounds “esoteric,” it is because the esoteric traditions we know something about, like the Nāgārjuna tradition, operate upon precisely this dialectic of occultation and revelation, encryption and disclosure, hinting and discovering. Such a process was therefore by no means unique to tantric commentaries; rather, such discursive practices are the norm for traditional South Asian text communities, and esoteric systems had often internalized Sanskritic culture.

In the methodological imperative to find an “ur-text” that has guided Indology and Buddhist studies for most of the past two hundred years, this slippage is often discounted and the “validity” of individual interpretive streams is similarly blocked. The result has been, for the most part, an inability to grasp — or indifference toward — the discrete knowledge systems, texts, and institutions that actually make up human history. If the influence 15of tantric systems in South, Central, and East Asian histories is difficult to track and study, it is because their very terms — their vocabulary, iconography, cosmologies, and semiotics — are highly technical, idiosyncratic, and specific to individual systems. To make sense of the Vajrayāna literature in general and the Nāgārjuna tradition’s hermeneutic system in particular, it will be similarly necessary to consider such “local” factors that made viable the esoteric Mahayana discourse of the PU, through which mahāyoga tantric scriptures such as the GST could become not only tolerated but championed by Indian and Tibetan Buddhists of the late first millennium as the crowning glory of Shākyamuni Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma. Guided by these considerations, the translation team has undertaken this new translation of the GST as received by the PU.

State of the Field

The study of Buddhist tantra in South and Central Asia has only very recently begun to consider how such forms and literature were coherent to the people enacting and producing them. It has become an almost commonplace observation that the study of tantric Buddhism remains a neglected area in the field of Indian Buddhist studies generally. The great Belgian scholar Louis de La Vallée Poussin peevishly remarked how “most of the historians of Buddhism deliberately ignore this ‘annoying’ aspect of the Indian tradition; but this omission does not go without any serious inconveniences.”22 More recently, Davidson observed that historians of Indian political and social histories have characteristically neglected the study of early medieval India, considering it a messy and unruly period, untypical of the “classical” Indian imperial models of its “great empires” (Mauryan, Gandhāran, Gupta, and Vākāṭaka) while embracing the language of degeneration and decay for latter periods.23

There remain very few edited editions of the great number of extant Sanskrit manuscripts of tantric Buddhist texts. The vast collection of tantric works translated into Chinese and Tibetan remains largely untapped, and only a handful of modern language translations of tantric Buddhist works from any period have been published. The existent work has mainly been in 16the important area of editing some of the more famous works, but investigation into the historical, social, and intellectual environments in which these texts functioned has lagged behind.

Scholarly efforts have tended to focus on articulating broad, defining characteristics of Buddhist tantra. Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances” — in which a network of features contributes to a cohesive whole but no single feature is necessary or sufficient to constitute that whole — is often invoked to help organize an enormous variety of ritual media, practices, and theories. Such helpful works represent a huge advancement in the state of modern scholarship on tantric religion in general and its Buddhist form in particular, but they also by necessity fail to emphasize the important differentiation in specific traditions with respect to ritual practice, theory, and hermeneutics. This has frequently resulted in a homogenous response to “the tantric.”

While preparation of editions and translations of Indian Vajrayāna scriptures and their commentarial literatures is a necessary first step in the study of Indian Buddhist tantra, it is not at all clear that exclusive attention to text-critical work can much improve the understanding of esoteric Buddhism in South Asia without also placing them in the context of the traditions of study and practice that center on them. Nearly thirty years ago, Michael Broido commented that “the weakness of current Western work on the tantras is the almost complete neglect of the methods of interpretation which were used by the commentators and their teachers who interpreted them.”24 This translation seeks, precisely, to capture the reception of the Esoteric Community Tantra as mediated through Chandrakīrti’s commentary.

Just as the study of schools of Buddhism in India has become considerably advanced by painstaking examination of the hermeneutic principles critically outlined in commentarial traditions that guide the interpretation of their philosophical schools and the clashes between them, it is logical that a similar effort is anticipated in the context of the study and interpretation of tantric texts, rituals, and social practices. If Buddhist tantra is to be mapped, its legend is very likely to be available in the tantric commentaries of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions themselves. The picture of Buddhist practice that can be gleaned from a study of the PU is one of bodhisattva-oriented, monastic Mahayana alongside hallmark Vajrayāna 17rituals and theories, including esoteric initiation, performance (sādhana) of the self-creation (ātmotpatti) as a tantric buddha-deity, and the assurance that transformation of one’s normally defiled body, speech, and mind into those of a fully enlightened being is possible in a single lifetime. It effectively presents the case for the broadest range of Buddhist Studies scholars to recognize the seminal importance of the GST in the development of the tantric era of late first millennium Indic religions, and for Buddhist practitioners to recognize the practice of the Esoteric Community Tantra as clearly among the crowning glories of Shākyamuni Buddha’s teaching of the Dharma.


8. Kapstein 2001, 235.

9. The Tibetan terminology of “Nāgārjuna system” (’phags lug) may seem to indicate a hallowing of this interpretive and practical tradition as opposed to others, but it is more likely simply a Tibetan shorthand for “the Noble Nāgārjuna system” (’phags pa klu sgrub kyi lugs) and hence might be better termed in English “the Nāgārjuna tradition,” since the Tibetans believed him to be the source of that system of interpretation and practice of the GST. We have adopted this less sanctifying terminology in this work.

10. Especially in his rgyud sde spyi’i rnam bzhag. See Verrill, esp. 471–72.

11. dpal gsang ba ’dus pa’i ṭīkka sgron ma rab tu gsal ba. In gsung ’bum, ta, 20b2 ff. dpal gsang ba ’dus pa’i rgyud ’grel gyi bshad thabs kyi yan lag gsang ba’i sgo byed. In gsung ’bum, ta, 1a ff. Only the introduction of this latter work survives.

12. See Jinpa for a synthetic biography of Tsong Khapa, particularly chapters 9 and 12 for his groundbreaking coordination of sutra and tantra and emphasis on the GST. See also Thurman 2010 for the latter.

13. [khyi] o de’i gzhug nas thugs kyi dgongs pa dang sta gon mdzad nas / dpal gsang ba ’dus pa’i rtsa rgyud ’grel pa sgron gsal dang bcas pa par du brko ba’i sbyor ba nye bar brtsams te / ’bad rtsol med par phag lo’i nang du legs par mthar phyin par mdzad la/. Mkhas-grub Dge-legs-dpal-bzang (1983). Rje btsun bla ma tsong khapa chen po’i ngo mtshar rmad du byung ba’i rnam par thar pa dad pa’i ’jug ngogs. In the Collected Works of Tsong Khapa, Vol. 1. New Delhi. See Jackson 1990.

14. Geshe Lhundup Sopa explains that, after finishing their exoteric studies, monks from the great scholastic centers are expected to stay at a separate institution devoted to the study and practice of tantra, often one of the two tantric colleges of Lhasa, the Lower and Higher Tantric Monasteries, Gyumé and Gyuto (rgyud smad grwa tshang; rgyud stod grwa tshang). In their study of the practice and philosophy of tantra centered on the three meditation deities, Guhyasamāja, Yāmāntaka, and Cakrasaṁvara, they particularly study the Root Tantra of the Guhyasamāja (gsang ’dus rtsa rgyud); the Fourfold Commentary (’grel ba bzhi sgrags), which includes the PU and Tsong Khapa’s Annotations; and Sherab Sengey’s Commentary on the Root Tantra (gsang ’dus rtsa rgyud kyi ṭīkā), which is actually a commentary on Chandrakīrti’s text. See Sopa 64–65.

15. thabs shes so so’i rgyud kyi ’jog tshul la . . . gnyis pa rdo rje gur la sogs pa las gsungs pa la . . . legs par gnas pa’i phal pa’i khyad par yang ‘dod mod kyang gtso bor rdzogs rim gyi sgo nas khyad par gzhag pa dgos so // de yang bde stong gi thabs shes la ltos nas thabs shes re re ba’i rguyd du mi ‘jog par gnyis med kyi rguyd du ‘jog pa ltar yin la / de la bltos nas ni shas che chung gi sgo nas kyang gzhag tu mi rung ste / kye rdor sogs ma’i rgyud las bde ba shas cher bstan pa ltar ’dus pa las ma gsungs pas / kye rdor pha rgyud dang ’dus pa ma rgyud du gzhag dgos pa’i skyon du ‘gyur ba’i phyir ro // des na rdzogs rim gyi sgo nas thabs shes so so’i rgyud du gsungs pa’i thabs shes ni shes rab don dam bde ba chen po’i ye shes dang / thabs kun rdzob sgyu ma’i sku’o // de la dang po’i sgo nas rnal ’byor ma’i rgyud du ‘jog pa ni gur gyi le’u bcu gsum pa las / . . . /shes rab pha rol phyin pa’i thabs / / ’di ni rnal ’byor mar brjod do / phyag rgya chen po rab sbyor bas / / gang phyir de nyid la ’jug pa / / rnal ’byor ma yi rgyud ces bya // Sgron gsal dka gnas kyi mtha’ gcod rin po che myu gu [Precious Sprout] Tsong Khapa, gsung ’bum, ca, 25a.3.

16. See Thurman 1978 and 1984.

17. See Apple 2019, 24–49 for a brief account.

18. Ye shes rdo rje kun las btus pa’i rgyud las ’byung ba’i rgyan bdun rnam par dgrol ba = *Jñānavajrasamuccayanāmatantrodbhavasaptālaṅkāravimocana. (P. 2654, vol. 60). Translated into Tibetan by the author

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