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KAMALAŚĪLA (c. 740795) was an Indian Buddhist scholar and monk, who was famed for his role in the legendary Bsam yas debate in Tibet and for his prolific writings on Buddhist philosophy and practice. A disciple of Śāntarakita (c. 725790), he is known for his strong commitment to inferential reasoning, his integration of diverse schools of Indian Buddhism, and his teachings on Buddhist meditation and practice. His many works, preserved mostly in Tibetan, include independent philosophical tracts, commentaries on Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtra s, and an encyclopedic commentary on Śāntarakita's Tattvasagraha ("Collection of Realities"). Although little is known of his life in India, later Tibetan sources indicate that Kamalaśīla was a preceptor at the renowned Nālandā monastic university in present-day Bihar.

The Debate at Bsam yas

Historical records show that Kamalaśīla did not accompany Śāntarakita to Tibet but was summoned there some time after his teacher's death. According to legend, near the end of his life Śāntarakita and his followers at the court of the Tibetan king Khri srong lde btsan (c. 740798) came into conflict with the followers of Hva-shang Mahāyāna, a Chinese Buddhist monk also resident at the court. At the heart of the dispute was the question of whether awakening (bodhi ), the ultimate goal of these Buddhist practitioners, must be obtained gradually, as Śāntarakita maintained, or whether it could occur suddenly, as held by the Chinese camp. Apparently Śāntarakita foresaw on his deathbed (c. 788) that the followers of Hva-shang Mahāyāna would gain ground in Tibet, and he therefore asked the king to invite Kamalaśīla from India to challenge the Chinese monk to a debate. Kamalaśīla arrived, and the debate (or debatesthe duration and precise nature of the event is unclear) was held in the presence of the king. According to Tibetan records, Kamalaśīla vanquished his opponent, and the king decreed that henceforth only Indian Buddhist practices and texts would be adopted in Tibet. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chinese sources claim Hva-shang Mahāyāna the victor. Despite the lingering uncertainties about the debate, however, it is certainly the case that the vast majority of the many Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan over the following centuries was translated from Sanskrit and not from Chinese.

Kamalaśīla is said to have died in Tibet, murdered by assassins who killed him by "squeezing" his kidneys. Because the dates of both the debate and the death remain somewhat murky, precisely how much time Kamalaśīla spent in Tibet is unclear. However, he did stay long enough to compose four of his most influential works: three texts all bearing the title Bhāvanākrama ("Stages of Meditation") and his magnum opus on Madhyamaka thought, the Madhyamakāloka ("Illumination of the Middle Way").

The Stages of Meditation

According to traditional Tibetan accounts, Kamalaśīla wrote the three Bhāvanākrama s after the Bsam yas debate at the request of King Khri srong lde btsan to clarify the stages of the gradualist (rim gyis pa ) path to awakening and to refute the doctrines of the suddenist (cig car ba ) approach. The emphasis in these works is on the proper way to cultivate one's mind to become a fully awakened buddha. Kamalaśīla articulates numerous steps, beginning with the generation of compassion and the altruistic aspiration to attain awakening for the sake of others. With compassion and altruism firmly in place, the practitioner next cultivates two distinct mental achievements: calm abiding and special insight. Calm abiding refers to the ability to easily rest the mind on a single object without distraction. Special insight is the wisdom that realizes that all things are devoid of any fixed identity or essence. Kamalaśīla's message in these texts is that neither calm abiding nor special insight alone will do; rather, the two must be united by taking the object of special insight, or "essencelessness" as the focus of single-pointed meditation (calm abiding).

One important consequence of Kamalaśīla's presentation is that it preserves a strong role for rational analysis and conceptual thought on the Buddhist path. That is, whereas calm abiding is generally understood to be a mental state that is free from concepts, special insight is brought about through the measured application of conceptual analysis. Although Kamalaśīla agrees that the ultimate state of transcendent wisdom attained in awakening is entirely free from conceptual thought, he nonetheless stresses that without conceptual analysis one cannot eliminate the negative mental states and primordial ignorance that are the roots of all the suffering in sasāra (the beginningless and involuntary chain of birth, death, and rebirth fueled by negative acts and ignorance). Kamalaśīla likens special insight to a fire produced by rubbing together the wooden sticks of conceptual analysis, which in the end consumes the very concepts that produced it. When calm abiding and special insight are united in meditation, the practitioner comes to have a nonconceptual experience of the essencelessness that had previously been determined through conceptual reasoning to be the ultimate reality of all things.

Kamalaśīla's presentation of the gradual path to awakening in the three Bhāvanākrama s has been very influential among Tibetans, who frequently see the texts as having been written especially for them. To this day, Tibetan lamas often advise students to implement Kamalaśīla's instructions on the generation of compassion and the integration of meditative concentration with the wisdom that realizes emptiness.

The Illumination of the Middle Way

The fourth text that Kamalaśīla wrote in Tibet is the Madhyamakāloka. This is an ambitious treatise on the Madhyamaka or "Middle Way," school of Indian Buddhist thought that seeks to demonstrate conclusively the negative thesis that things are devoid of fixed identity or essence (svabhāva ) by employing the tools of the Buddhist logical and epistemological traditions. In this, the text builds on Śāntarakita's Madhyamakā-lakāra (on which Kamalaśīla had already written a subcommentary), and indeed, Tibetan sources maintain that Kamalaśīla undertook the work due to his concern that his teacher's thought might be misunderstood or inappropriately criticized in Tibet. The Madhyamakāloka addresses a variety of objections to the Madhyamaka teachings and to the arguments that are intended to demonstrate their truth. Tibetans have frequently turned to this work as a resource for working through some of the difficult logical issues that arise when attempting to demonstrate essencelessness. This work is also probably the first Madhyamaka treatise to present a catalogue of five logical reasons that demonstrate that things are essenceless.

Later Tibetans classify Kamalaśīla, along with Śān-tarakita, as a member of the Yogācāra-Svātantrika-Madhyamaka school. In brief, this means that Kamalaśīla is understood, first, as accepting the basic Yogācāra position that objects of knowledge do not exist outside the mind and, second, as endorsing the use of autonomous (svatantra ) inferences, that is, inferences that operate independently of the positions held by the two parties in a debate. For many later Tibetans, such inferences are improper in the context of Madhyamaka, because they would require things to have essences to function. Instead, it is preferable for a Mādhyamika, a follower of the Madhyamaka, to use inferences that operate on the basis of positions accepted by the opponent alone, as is held to be the case in the so-called Prāsagika-Madhyamaka school. Although the terms Svātantrika (Autonomist) and Prāsagika (Consequentialist) were not used as doxographical categories in India, their Tibetan equivalents became axiomatic in discussions of Madhyamaka in Tibet. Although many Tibetans have expressed qualms about the so-called Svātantrika elements of Kamalaśīla's approach to Madhyamaka, he is still widely admired among Tibetans for his role in defending the gradualist path at the Bsam yas debate, his presentation of Buddhist meditation and practice, and the depth and subtlety of his philosophical thought.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Śāntirakita; Tibetan Religions, overview article.


Demiéville, Paul. Le concile de Lhasa. Une controverse sur le quiétism entre bouddhistes de l'Inde et de la Chine au VIIe siècle de l'ère chrétienne. Paris, 1952. Historical study of the Chinese and Tibetan records concerning the Bsam yas debate.

Dreyfus, Georges B. F., and Sara L. McClintock, eds. The Svātantrika-Prāsagika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Boston, 2003. Collection of articles on the Svātantrika-Prāsagika distinction, with several contributions touching on the Madhyamaka philosophy of Śāntarakita and Kamalaśīla.

Gyatso, Tenzin (the XIVth Dalai Lama). Stages of Meditation. Translated by Ven. Geshe Lobsang Jordhen, Ven. Losang Choephel Ganchenpa, and Jeremy Russell. Ithaca, N.Y., 2001. An excellent introduction to Kamalaśīla's teachings on Buddhist practice; includes a translation and Tibetan edition of the second Bhāvanākrama accompanied by a clear commentary by the Dalai Lama.

Houston, Garry W. Sources for a History of the bSam yas Debate. Monumenta Tibetica Historica. Sankt Augustin, Germany, 1980. Selections in Tibetan and English from a variety of Tibetan sources on the Bsam yas debate.

Jha, Ganganatha, trans. The Tattvasagraha of Shāntarakita with the Commentary of Kamalashīla. 2 vols. Baroda, India, 1937; reprint, Delhi, 1986. The only complete translation of the encyclopedic Tattvasagraha and its commentary; although valuable for gaining a sense of the work's overall structure and arguments, the work should be used with caution as the translation is, at points, deeply misleading.

Keira, Ryusei. Mādhyamika and Epistemology: A Study of Kamalaśīla's Method for Proving the Voidness of All Dharmas. Vienna, 2004. The first in-depth study in English of the Madhyamakāloka, Kamalaśīla's most important philosophical treatise; includes a translation and edition of sections of the work's second chapter.

López, Donald S., Jr. A Study of Svātantrika. Ithaca, N.Y., 1987. Exploration of the category of Svātantrika-Madhyamaka based principally on Tibetan (especially Dge lugs pa) sources.

Seyfort Ruegg, David. Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective: On the Transmission and Reception of Buddhism in India and Tibet. London, 1992. An important study of the philosophical concerns underlying the Bsam yas debate.

Tucci, Giuseppe. Minor Buddhist Texts, Parts 1 & 2. Rome, 1956; reprint, Delhi, 1986. Includes a Sanskrit edition, Tibetan edition and English translation of the first Bhāvanākrama, as well as an extended discussion of the debate at Bsam yas.

Tucci, Giuseppe. Minor Buddhist Texts, Part 3. Rome, 1971. Includes Sanskrit and Tibetan texts and English translation of the third Bhāvanākrama.

Sara L. McClintock (2005)