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Indian Buddhist Pundits: From "Jewel Garland of Buddhist History"
Indian Buddhist Pundits: From “Jewel Garland of Buddhist History” – translated by
Lobsang Norbu Tsonawa (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives 1985, 2005)
This is a book of the history and lore of the Mahayana
masters of India.
Their stories and deeds, often miraculous, are recounted. Most of these masters
were monastics with many of them also trained in Tantra. A few, such as
Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, and Shantideva count among the 84 mahasiddhas as well. Through
Atisa, the Indian monasticism profoundly influenced Tibetan monasticism. Many
of the textual works of these Indian masters are key texts in the Tibetan
training today as they were in India
more than a thousand years ago. These stories are often contextualized in the
teachings of Tibetan lamas.
The introduction contains a concise classification of
Buddhist teachings according to Tibetan Buddhism. In terms of the Three
Turnings of the Dharma Wheel, it was said that Buddha gave three styles of
teaching: The first turning was the teachings on the Four Noble Truths given in
Varanasi to the
five ascetics. Other sutras as well as the Jataka tales are also attributed.
The second turning was teachings on emptiness
from the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra, given in Rajagriha at
Vuture’s Peak. The third turning was teachings on Buddha Nature, given in
Vaisali and other places, which became the basis of the Vajrayana (Tantra)
system. Of the four philosophic schools of Buddhism: Vaibhasika, Sautrantika,
Cittamatra, and Madhyamika, the first two are associated with the first
turning, Madhyamika with the second turning, and Cittamatra (aka Yogacara) with
the third. The four classes of Tantra were said to have been originally taught
by Sambhogakaya Buddha Vajradhara. The teachings on Vinaya (discipline of monastics),
Sutra (direct teachings of Buddha), and Abhidharma (psychology, cosmology)
comprise the Tripitaka, the Three Baskets of the Buddha’s teaching.
The first pundit is the famed Nagarjuna, often associated
with the early days of the Mahayana. Some say there are at least two Nagarjunas
as the times and teachers’ times don’t match. Some say there was Nagarjuna the early
philosopher and later Nagarjuna the alchemist and tantrika. Others say they are
different incarnations of the same being or even an immortal being. In any
case, Indian history is notoriously vague about dates and very big on legend
and magical feats. In this text Nagarjuna (the alchemist) was taught
Guyhasamaja and other tantras by Saraha, the great siddha. Manjusri was said to
be his cosmic guru and guardian(and the
source of his lineage) but he was also a devotee of Tara
and a mantradhara of Kurukuli. He utilized Mahakali and Mahakala as protectors.
Many of the deeds of these Mahayana masters beginning with Buddha himself
involve successfully debating with other Buddhists and non-Buddhists about
various doctrines and winning them over – as the custom was that whoever lost
the debate would be required to convert to the victor’s view. He was invited by
a virtuous group of Nagas to give teachings and to bring back the
Prajnaparamita teachings. Like many of the panditas he was known as a builder
of temples and stupas and an establisher of the Buddhist doctrine. Many texts
are attributed to Nagarjuna, including those original to the Madhyamika (Middle Way)
philosophy. He gave teachings on Vinaya, emptiness, and dharamadhatu (thus all
three turnings of the dharma wheel). Some of his main students were the
mahasiddhas Aryadeva and Nagabodhi and the pandits Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka,
and Asvagosha. Nagarjuna is a pivotal figure in the history of Buddhism and is
known as the Second Buddha. Nagarjuna appears in the lineage of Mahayana, of
the Mahasiddhas, and even in the lineage of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
Aryadeva had a legendary birth from a lotus flower, like the
later Padmasambhava. He was known for his naturally virtuous behavior and
became the main student of Nagarjuna. One of the stories is that a non-Buddhist
named Asvagosha was a master in debate having been granted a boon by Isvara. He
went to central India
to debate at Nalanda. The Buddhist monks there were worried about him so they
made a torma to Mahakala containing a letter to Nagarjuna, whose whereabouts
were unknown. A crow emerged and flew off with the letter to Nagarjuna.
Nagarjuna trained Aryadeva to be able to win debates from the Buddhist or the
non-Buddhist perspective. He said there would be an obstacle on the way – this
appeared as a malevolent spirit taking the form of a beggar asking Aryadeva for
one of his eyes which he gave readily and then noticed that the beggar smashed
it on a rock. After this he shouted that this was a shame and no one would be
benefitted – but this attachment of regret did not allow him to regain eyesight
in his one eye. It was a great debate with many details but Aryadeva won and
Asvagosha knowing he was defeated fled into the sky. Aryadeva chased him to the
limits of the universe curiously known as the “sword-energy zone” which
dissolves that which enters it. Aryadeva captured him and out of boredom he began
to study Buddhist texts and eventually Asvagosha embraced the doctrine and
wrote several famous texts.
Buddhapalita was another student of Nagarjuna and studied
both the Buddhist and non-Buddhist views. He wrote a famous commentary to
Nagarjuna’s text Root Wisdom which
clarifies the meaning of the Madhyamika view.
Bhavaviveka was another of Nagarjuna’s students. He wrote a
commentary that refuted the view of Buddhapalita’s commentary on Root Wisdom.
But since the usefulness of the various views of emptiness are dependent on the
beings to which they are taught – both texts are part of the taught tradition.
Candrakirti was the latest of Nagarjuna’s students. He also
excelled in the Buddhist and non-Buddhist teachings as well as the sutras and
tantras. He was accused of being a lazy monk and a non-Buddhist. He was known
for his magical acts and would even engage the Buddhist and Saivites to work
together on common problems such as magically repelling an invasion of Turks
(called Turuskas), the Buddhists supplicating the Three Jewels and the
non-Buddhists supplication Siva. Candrakirti was said to be aided by Manjusri.
He wrote many texts and commentaries clarifying Nagarjuna’s view as well as
commentaries on tantras such as the Guhyasamaja.
Candragomi was born as a rebirth of a previous pandit who
died in order to be reborn to demonstrate the process of rebirth. He was said
to be able to directly perceive Avalokitesvara and sometimes Tara. He studied
at Nalanda with Candrakirti. Magical stories abound in his life. He wrote many
texts, commentaries, and praises to Avalokitesvara and Tara.
The story of Asanga is a famous one. He was born and taught
all the sciences and the dharma, became a monk, then went off to meditate in
solitude on his chosen meditational deity – Maitreya. He meditated for 12 years
without a sign then after leaving his meditation found a female dog dying by
the road, full of maggots. While caring for the dog, the dog transformed into
Buddha Maitreya. Maitreya noted that he had always been there but only beings
with good fortune (fortunate karma) and/or great compassion could perceive
enlightened beings. Curiously, in this story as well as another, there appears
a woman who sells wine that was able to see parts of the enlightened beings or
at least perceive them in some way. Asanga desired to revive the Mahayana
doctrine so Maitreya took him to Tusita heaven for many years where he directly
heard teachings and experienced many types of samadhis. When he returned he
established a dharma school and retreat. Here were written the famed five works
of Maitreya and many other texts composed by Asanga. The lineage from Maitreya
to Asanga became one of the two major Mahayana lineages, the other being the
lineage from Manjusri to Nagarjuna. Even today these are the two lineages of
the Bodhisattva Vow – the Vast Conduct (from Asanga) and the Profound Emptiness
(from Nagarjuna). At the end of his life Asanga was said to have served as the
abbot of NalandaUniversity.
Vasubhandu was the brother of Asanga, from a Brahmin father,
as Asanga was from a Ksatriya father. Like Asanga, he was taught the sciences
and dharma first by his mother.
He extensively studied the Abhidharma (metaphysics) in Kashmir. Eventually, Asanga taught him the Mahayana.
After this Vasubhandu composed his most famous text, the Abhidharmakosa, a major explication of the Abhidharma that
incorporates the Mahayana view. Although his Hinayana teacher from Kashmir was skeptical of Mahayana he refused to debate
his teacher, apparently, as other stories confirm, a rule in debate. There are
other tales of the magical exploits of Vasubhandu and the spread of Mahayana.
He was said to follow his brother as abbot of Nalanda.
Sthirmati was a student of Vasubhandu. He first (as a pigeon
or dove) heard his master reciting texts while sitting in a vat of sesame oil.
After the dove died it was reborn as Sthirmati, a son of low-caste parents. He
found Vasubhandu and learned more. Eventually he composed several commentaries.
Dignaga was another of Vasubhandu’s students. He was a
master of debate and was able to champion the Mahayana view over that of the
Hinayana Buddhists and the non-Buddhists. Once he debated and defeated a
non-Buddhist named Sudurjaya, who directly perceived Isvara, and then
Ksrnamuni-raja. After Ksrnamuni-raja was defeated in debate, he challenged him
to a battle in magic – which often occurs – debate with words then battle with
magic. He was aided by Manjusri and praised the cultivation of Bodhicitta over
all intellectual and magical abilities. His most famous text is The Synthesis of All Reasoning, a
summarizing text of logic. After this composition he was adorned with many
perceptions and samadhis.
Gunaprabha was a student of Vasubhandu that excelled in the
Vinaya (discipline of monks). He learned all the Vedas and teachings of Buddha.
He became the guru of a king and composed important texts on the Vinaya.
Sakyaprabha was from the north and taught dharma in Kashmir. Not much about him except that he wrote a text
on the Vinaya and one called Possessing
Vimuktisena was another student of Vasubhandu who excelled
in the Perfection of Wisdom
teachings. He was also a student of Samgharaksita. He composed several key
texts and commentaries on the Perfection of Wisdom, uniting them with the
Madhyamika view of Nagarjuna.
Dharmakirti was born into the family of a non-Buddhist
Brahmin. He learned the Vedas and the sciences. After discovering Buddhism
Dharmakirti was expelled from the Brahmin community. He became a great debater
and even studied the secret teachings of the non-Buddhists. He was able to
convert many to the Mahayana. He was said to have such mental absorption that
he could debate ten opponents simultaneously. His most famous debate was with
Sankaracarya (I am not sure if this is the same Sankara famed as the reviver of
Advaita Vedanta or another). Sankaracarya was defeated and drowned himself in
the Ganges. He was reborn, grew up, debated
Dharmakirti again and lost and drowned himself in the Ganges.
A third incarnation of Sankaracarya with the ability to perceive Mahadeva arose
to challenge him but again was defeated and drowned. Finally a fourth
incarnation was defeated and accepted the Buddhadharma. Dharmakirti taught some
Kashmiri Brahmins who propagated his lineage there. He wrote many texts and
commentaries. He was said to have lived in the 7th century CE,
although time periods are often very sketchy in Indian history.
Santiraksita was a Sarvastivadin monk from Bengal.
Basalnang, a minister to the Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen, went to China to bring
back Buddhist texts. He also went to India to bring back texts and a
teacher. In Nepal
he found Santiraksita and invited him. After much difficulty he made it to Tibet and
taught the king but there were storms, floods, and sickness thought to be
conjured by spirits and demons of the area. Santiraksita suggested he invite
Padmasambhava, an expert in subduing wild spirits. When he came this was the
beginning of the establishment of Buddhadharma in Tibet. Santiraksita and Padmasmbhava
built the famous Samye Monastery. The king had many Tibetans train as
translators and other pandits such as Vimalimitra were invited from India. Thus was
the first phase of the large-scale transference of the teachings to Tibet.
Simhabadra, aka. Haribhadra, was a student of Santiraksita.
He specialized in Perfection of Wisdom studies and the tantric sadhana of
Maitreya Buddha. He wrote a famous commentary to Maitreya’s Perfection of
Santideva was said to be able to perceive Manjusri and
receive teachings directly from him as well as from Tara.
After serving a king, Santideva traveled to Nalanda where he became a monk. He
became known as Bhusuku – one who only eats, sleeps, and defecates. Some other
monks sought to discredit the lazy Santideva by having him recite the
Pratimoksha Sutra which he could not have memorized. They made a high seat that
he would not be able to get to – but he did magically. He asked if they wanted
that sutra or something they had never heard before. They said the latter so he
recited the Bodhisattva-carya-avatara
(The Way of the Bodhisattva) which he apparently composed the night before. This is one of the most revered
practical texts in the Mahayana tradition. At the 9th chapter on
emptiness he ascended into the air. Later he debated a non-Buddhist master and
finally subdued him through a contest of magical powers. Many other great deeds
are attributed to Santideva.
Atisa Dipamkarasrijnana was born in 980, the son of a prince
in Bengal. Throughout his life he was said to
be guided by the enlightened goddess Tara. He learned the teachings and became
proficient in the tantric teachings as well, attaining siddhis and samadhis. He
learned from the siddha Avadhuti and GuruRahula Gupta. In a vision Heruka told him to seek ordination. His
teacher Rahula taught him that siddhis and samadhis were not enough, that he
should learn and practice compassion and Bodhicitta with the help of
Avalokitesvara as a meditational deity. Therefore he sought the most famous
teachings on compassion and Bodhicitta. He discovered that Suvarnadvipa
Dharmakirti in Sumatra (Indonesia)
had such teachings so he made a dangerous voyage there. He studied there with
his guru for 12 years imbibing teachings on Bodhicitta and Transformation of
the Mind. I believe this is where he learned the famed Tong Len teaching of
exchanging oneself for others. Afterword he ended up teaching at VikramasilaMonasticUniversity in India.
Meanwhile in Tibet
there was a decline in dharma flourishing due to a king known as Langdarma who
did not tolerate Buddhist practice, especially those of ordained monks. After
this king was gone another king – Llalama Yeshe Od sought to revive the dharma.
The situation was such that those who practiced Vinaya and those who practiced
Tantra were separate. Apparently there was also lots of deception among
teachers of dharma, both Tibetans and Indians who traveled there. He was
invited to Tibet.
The details in this text are somewhat different from other versions I have
heard. He was aging but made the long journey after considerable deliberation.
At the request of Jangchub Od, the king – nephew of Yeshe Od, Atisa composed
the famous text Lamp on the Path to
Enlightenment so that the Tibetans could follow practical and easy
instructions rather than profound and difficult ones. He then met his disciple,
the non-monk Dromtonpa that he was told about in a vision by Tara.
Atisa was said to have given many teaching in Tibet and performed magical feats.
He taught sutras and tantras. He also taught that these different classes of
teachings should not be taught and practiced separately, as had become the norm
but together. Atisa was said to emphasize the Bodhicitta that he learned in Indonesia with
Suvarnadvipa Dharmakirti. Dromtonpa went on to continue the then secret Kadam
lineage which later became a famous lineage of mostly monks. Atisa remained in Tibet for 13
years and died in 1053 CE. According to the translator:
“In the religious tradition of the old and new KadamSchool,
the ethics of discipline is made the foundation of practice; the three vows (individual
liberation vows, Bodhisattva vows, and tantric vows) are combined into one
practice, and in dependence upon listening and contemplating the teachings, one
takes the essence of the practice. These methods of spiritual training are due
solely to the teachings of Jowo Atisa.”
At the end of the book there is a long list of texts
attributed to these masters. Unfortunately they are only in Sanskrit and
This text along with those by and about Padmasambhava, those
about the lore of the Mahasiddhas, and the much later sketchy histories by
Taranatha, are the key texts directly connecting the Indian Mahayana tradition
and the Indian Vajrayana practice lineages – which basically gradually perished
after the Muslim invasions- to the
continuing traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.