Bu Ston

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BU STON (12901364), also known as Bu ston Rin poche and Bu Lo tsā ba; properly, Rin chen grub pa; Tibetan Buddhist monk-scholar, translator, redactor, historian, and architect. In the annals of Tibetan Buddhism, Bu ston holds a singular position. He is renowned as the codifier of the Tibetan Buddhist canon and as the last great translator and systematizer prior to the fourteenth-century reformer Tsong kha pa. Considered to have been an incarnation of the Kashmiri saint Śākyaśrī bhadra (Tib., Kha che pang chen), Bu ston showed a precocious and prodigious talent for translation. Furthermore, he mastered certain aspects of the Tantras and became known as a chief authority on the Yoga Tantra cycles and on the Kālacakra system in particular.

Bu ston wrote one of the earliest authoritative histories of Buddhism, covering its development both in India and Tibet up to the fourteenth century. He also compiled and produced detailed catalogs of all Buddhist scriptures translated into Tibetan up until his time, retranslating many and editing out of the official canon texts deemed spurious. It was Bu ston who first organized the Tibetan canon into the now famed subdivisions of "Sūtra translations" (Tib., Bka' 'gyur) and "Śāstra translations" (Tib., Bstan 'gyur). Although the texts constituting the Bka' 'gyur were fairly well established by his time, it was due exclusively to Bu ston's incredible zeal and effort that the Bstan 'gyur came to assume its present shape.

Bu ston was born into an illustrious line of Tantric practitioners. From age seven onward, he studied the Tantras under the guidance of both his grandfather and the renowned Bka' brgyud pa master Khro phu ba. (Bu ston's biography claims that he came to possess such mastery of Tantric ritual that even as a child people sought him out in preference to his grandfather.)

At the age of eighteen Bu ston left home and became a novice monk. For the next several years he studied under learned masters from all traditions; his teachers are said to have numbered some twenty-eight. In 1312 he took full ordination. Thereafter, he devoted himself to mastering Candragomin's works on grammar, and subsequently, the various languages of east and west India, including Kashmiri and Sanskrit. Henceforth, he became famed as an unparalleled translator of Indian Buddhist scripture. During this period he also made an intensive study of the Kālacakra, later earning the reputation of being a master of this particular Tantric cycle.

At age thirty Bu ston was invited to assume the see of the Źwa lu Monastery of the Sa skya order. This monastery remained his main seat throughout the rest of his life. From it he expounded the Kālacakra and other Tantric cycles along with numerous exoteric scriptures; he gave innumerable initiations and composed commentaries on the Sūtras and Tantras. It was during his tenure at Źwa lu that Bu ston wrote his famous Chos 'byung (History of Buddhism ), completed about 1322. It was also at Źwa lu that Bu ston began to organize the first definitive Tibetan Buddhist canon. Applying his genius to systematizing the canon, Bu ston established a new method of classifying the scriptures. With regard to the Sūtra collection he introduced a threefold schema. He divided the collection philosophically and historically into what he called the "three dharmacakras," or "turnings of the wheel of the Law." Above all, he is revered for having given to the Tantra collection a fourfold schema, classifying these works into four distinct rgyuds, or classes: Kriya, Carya, Yoga, and Anuttarayoga. This method of treating the Tantra literature was later adopted and preserved by Tsong kha pa and his disciple Mkhas grub rje.

In addition to writing and teaching, Bu ston was an accomplished architect. In 1352 he composed a classic work on the construction of Buddhist stupas (reliquary mounds) called the Shape and Dimensions of the Mahābodhi Stūpa, and at the age of sixty-three he oversaw the construction at Źwa lu Ri phug of a stupa measuring almost thirty meters in height. This Ri phug stupa later served as the primary model for the great stupa raised at Rgyal rtse.

On reaching his sixty-seventh year, Bu ston handed on the see of Źwa lu. Still, for the next seven years he zealously continued to carry out the three chief activities performed by a true bla ma ("superior teacher")namely, to study, to teach, and to write. He died peacefully in 1364.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism; Tibetan Religions, overview article.


Bu ston. Chos 'byu. Translated by Eugene Obermiller as History of Buddhism, 2 vols. (Heidelberg, 19311932). An invaluable resource for both Buddhist history and literature to the fourteenth century.

Ruegg, David S. The Life of Bu ston Rinpoche. Rome, 1966. A fine translation of the "liberative life story" (Tib., rnam thar ) of Bu ston.

New Sources

Eimer, Helmut. Der Tantra-Katalog des Bu ston im Vergleich mit der Abteilung Tantra des tibetischen Kanjur. Bonn, 1989.

Luczanits, Christian. "The Sources for Bu ston's Introduction to the Acts of a Buddha." Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde Sudasiens und Archiv fur indische Philosophie 37 (1993): 93108.

Vogel, Claus. "Bu ston on the Date of the Buddha's Nirvana: Translated from His History of the Doctrine (Chos 'byun)." In Die Datierung des historischen Buddha, edited by Heinz Bechert, pp. 403414. Gottingen, 1991.

Janice D. Willis (1987)

Revised Bibliography