Tibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition
Sam van Schaik
Snow Lion, 2015
240 pp.; $21.95 (Paper) 

The dharma arrived in Tibet as a wedding present. Legend has it that toward the end of the 7th century, the royal families of China and Nepal offered brides to Songsten Gampo, the first of Tibet’s mighty kings to unify the country (and frighten its neighbors). These two princesses each brought with them an unusual dowry: a statue of the Buddha. Soon the great Jokhang temple in Lhasa was built to house these precious gifts, which are still proudly displayed in the Tibetan capital. And these two remarkable women are remembered as the matriarchs of Tibetan Buddhism, together planting the first seeds of Buddha’s teachings in the Land of Snows.

About a hundred years later, another king, Trisong Detsen, decided it was time to take this new faith even more seriously. He built Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery at the base of one of their holiest mountains and called it Samye, the Inconceivable.

A spirit of ecumenicalism pervaded Samye from the start. At its center stood a four-story temple designed to reflect the diverse architectural styles of all Tibet’s neighbors. Smaller chapels and stupas populated the grounds around it, creating a huge mandala within the monastery’s circular outer walls. Together these comprised a model of the entire universe, with every continent and ocean represented by the 108 separate structures. Buddhists from a variety of traditions were invited to teach there, and monks from both India and China soon took up residence.

It didn’t last. Perhaps inevitably, conflicts arose between the various Buddhist schools at Samye. As the noted English Tibetologist Sam van Schaik explained in 2011 in his masterful book Tibet: A History, the Indian tantric Buddhists “insisted on the need to combine meditation with rational analysis and the basic practices of ethical conduct,” while the Chinese Zen Buddhists felt that enlightenment only required that one “recognized the true nature of one’s own mind.”

In his newest book, Tibetan Zen: Discovering a Lost Tradition, van Schaik now revisits this famous, formative dispute in the history of Tibetan dharma. As he explains in his introduction, Tibetan scriptures have long included an account of how the Indian teachers brought “a graduated path in which tantric and sutric teachings were carefully laid out as steps to enlightenment,” while the Chinese masters taught “straightforward concept-free meditation.” And then, sometime in the 790s, according to traditional histories, doctrinal disagreements developed between Indian and Chinese Buddhists at the Tibetan court, and the Tibetan emperor called for the situation to be resolved in a formal debate. When the debate resulted in a decisive win by the Indian side, the Zen teachers were sent back to China.

This is what Tibetans call the Great Debate at Samye, said to have been held at the temple of Jampa Ling at the western edge of the monastery. From that point on, conventional wisdom says, “the popularity of Zen declined in Tibet, and its original texts were all but forgotten.” While Zen thrived in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and almost every other Mahayana country, in Tibet it effectively disappeared, and the unique path of Tibetan Buddhism evolved exclusively from the Indian tantric lineages.

Yet van Schaik’s new book vividly demonstrates that these one-sided accounts—including the earlier one in his own book—are not the whole story. In fact, Zen likely thrived in Tibet for several centuries, taught side by side with the tantric approach we now think of as Tibetan Buddhism.

Van Schaik proves this by translating for the first time several important Tibetan Zen texts found in caves outside the Chinese city of Dunhuang. This treasure trove of hundreds of Buddhist scriptures discovered in the early 20th century includes Tibetan writings from both tantric and Zen masters, alongside a seemingly haphazard collection of “notebooks, shopping lists, writing exercises, letters, contracts, sketches, and scurrilous off-the-shelf verses.”

In other words, the miraculous Dunhuang collection is less a curated library than a theological snapshot, a strange time capsule of everyday writings from the 8th to the 10th century. The presence of Zen and tantric texts there together proves that both had continued to be studied by Tibetans long after the usual dating of the Samye showdown. Also discovered in those sealed caves was an account of the Great Debate from the Chinese perspective. According to the Zen side, the debate was carried out by correspondence over several years, rather than in person at Jampa Ling—and the Chinese master won.

Many of van Schaik’s new translations will resonate with modern students of Zen. They can be simple and precise one moment, then descend quickly into some familiar paradoxes:

Cross your hands and feet. Straighten your back. Don’t move your body. Don’t say anything. Turn away without engaging the delusory six gates of the mind with their objects, and then look at your own mind. When you do, there is no substantiality to mind at all. So do not think of anything. Without engaging in the various emotional states, do not conceptualize anything. Once you have completely purified the mental sphere in this way, do not abide anywhere. Once you have sat for a long time, the mind will stabilize.

But in some cases the visiting Zen masters from China seem to be searching for a common ground, attempting to reconcile Zen’s emphasis on a single universal method and an instantaneous awakening with the Indians’ more varied teachings. Or at the very least, they seem eager to explain their approach without seeming to insult their dharma brothers:

Since it is important to train in the other stages, things like the eight meditations are not to be accomplished all at once; they are to be entered in succession. Purifying all the various concepts one by one is like trying to count all the grains of sand on earth. Yet if one does not know what the essence of the mind is like, there will be no benefit either from negating them instantaneously with a single antidote.

This is van Schaik’s most important contribution to the popular understanding of the Great Debate—the recognition that the two sides likely had more in common than we might imagine today. Buddhist scholars have already questioned the conventional Tibetan account for at least 50 years, noting, for example, that several Chinese texts were ultimately incorporated into the Tibetan Kangyur and Tengyur canons and that both gradual and sudden approaches to awakening are found in many of the most ancient Pali sutras. But Tibetan Zen is the first attempt to make the evidence accessible to nonspecialists.

The tensions in Tibet between Zen and tantric teachings echo debates as old as Buddhism itself. The question of whether enlightenment is a sudden or gradual experience is explored perhaps most famously within the Zen tradition, in the so-called Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the only Zen text typically given the elevated title of “sutra” despite being credited to a master who lived a thousand years after the Buddha’s death. Copies of this revered Buddhist manuscript were also found in the Dunhuang caves in China, and it too describes a contest between competing visions of practice and awakening. But in this case, the undisputed winner is the Zen patriarch Huineng and his “sudden doctrine” of inherent enlightenment.

Yet the central issue seems far from settled even today. Modern Zen and Tibetan teachings appear to offer differing approaches to the fundamental paradox of the buddhadharma: If we are all fundamentally enlightened, why don’t we feel enlightened? Why do we need to practice at all? And why is practice so hard?

As van Schaik thoughtfully explains, the two apparent alternatives of gradual and sudden enlightenment are in many respects a false choice, or at least not a choice that any surviving school of Buddhism has made cleanly. Zen Buddhism may have aligned itself with the “sudden” side, yet it too has developed a sprawling panoply of ritual, practice, and literature over many centuries. Tibetan Buddhism may identify with the “gradual” approach, but it too talks of moments of unexpected realization, chik charwa in Tibetan, which the American scholar David Seyfort Ruegg translates as the “innate spontaneity of Awakening.” And this muddying of the waters was even more apparent in the formative years of both traditions, from the 8th through 10th centuries, when the Dunhuang documents were written. Back then, Zen in China was borrowing from tantric traditions at the same time that it was helping inform such traditions in Tibet.

About 80 miles southeast of Lhasa, along a newly paved road that runs beside the sandy banks of the broad Yarlung River, the ruins of Jampa Ling still stand. Nestled within the rebuilt fortifications of Samye monastery, it seems more a construction site than a temple today. Its red stone walls are now caked with cinereous dust, and a makeshift wheelbarrow filled with rocks and debris stands guard at what was once the front door. Inside, the colorful frescoes of the present and future buddhas are draped in bedsheets for protection, and the intricate designs painstakingly painted on the tall wooden beams have all but faded with age. Dozens of Tibetan monks live in the newly renovated structures nearby, but few venture in. Pilgrims, put off by the rubble and mess, generally keep away.

Tibetans still recount with pride the victory of tantric Buddhism over Zen in the Great Debate at this modest spot, and van Schaik’s meticulous scholarship is unlikely to change this. Given the complex and uneasy relationship between Tibet and China over the centuries, it is not hard to imagine why they would want to emphasize their unique connection to India and proclaim the superiority of their own branch of the dharma. Like other native practitioners, most Tibetans are born into their faith. They don’t arrive at the tantric way after a dispassionate evaluation of all the Buddha’s paths. They accept it rather as their birthright, and as self-evidently true.

Here in the West, newcomers to the dharma are more likely to compare and contrast. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism often seem to stand at opposite cliffs of a great chasm, their myriad adherents staring incomprehensibly at each other like feuding families across a tumultuous sea. On one side, the austere simplicity of zazen, practiced in sober silence by somber monks. On the other, the colorful cacophony of the tantric universe, awash in a vast array of ritual and relic, overseen by a flamboyant pantheon of gods and demons. It can feel at times that we have little common ground beyond a few occasional Buddhist festivals—and perhaps a near-universal love for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, our one true pan-Buddhist celebrity.

But as van Schaik reminds us through his fascinating and important work, these two great Mahayana traditions were not always quite so far apart. We are more like estranged cousins, or even long-lost siblings. We shared a monastery once at Samye, in faraway Tibet, waking to the same brilliant dawn and walking the same dusty paths. We drank from the same well and were nourished by harvests of the same soil. We borrowed each other’s scriptures and tried for a few years to bridge the gaps between our teachings. With a little luck and understanding, we might share the same paths again

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