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Sakya Paṇḍita (Sa Skya Paṇḍita)


SAKYA PAITA (SA SKYA PAITA) (11821251). The religious culture of Tibet came to be characterized, from the thirteenth century on, by a remarkable emphasis not just upon Buddhist thought and practice, but also upon a broad range of Indian learning sometimes only indirectly related to the study of Indian Buddhism per se. The broadening of Tibetan cultural horizons that this entailed may be traced directly to the considerable influence of the renowned monastic scholar Sa skya Paita.

His Life

Sa skya Paita (the "pait from Sa skya"), whose proper name was Kun dga' rgyal mtshan (Kunga Gyaltsen), was born in 1182 as the son of Dpal chen 'od po, a scion of the ruling 'Khon family of the principality of Sa skya in southwestern Tibet. During the preceding century, his forebears had already established a reputation for Sa skya as an important seat of Buddhist learning and a major center for the promulgation of the esoteric system of the Tantras. He was accordingly educated in these traditions under the tutelage of his uncle, Grags pa rgyal mtshan (Trakpa Gyaltsen, 11471216), a renowned lay scholar and adept. During his mid-teens, he came to be regarded as a master of the familial legacy and, advised by his uncle, left Sa skya to continue his studies under a variety of masters of the major Indian Buddhist philosophical and doctrinal treatises, concentrating in particular upon epistemology and Madhyamaka dialectical thought.

In 1204 the Kashmiri master Śākyaśrībhadra (d. 1225) arrived in Tibet accompanied by an entourage of Indian scholars. Sa skya Paita was one of a number of up-and-coming Tibetan clerics who were inspired by this opportunity to learn directly from knowledgeable Indian teachers and he invited one of them, Sugataśrī, to return with him to Sa skya. For a period of three years (12051207), Sa skya Paita applied himself to mastering Sanskrit grammar and other aspects of Sanskrit linguistic and literary learning, a training that would lend a notably "Indological" perspective to his scholarship in later years. In 1208 he again met Śākyaśrībhadra and received the full monastic ordination of a bhiku from him, an event that traditionally is held to mark the inception of the Sa skya pa as a properly monastic order. For the next five years he continued to study a broad range of Buddhist textual traditions under Śākyaśrībhadra and the other members of his entourage. Following the death of his uncle Grags pa rgyal mtshan in 1216, Sa skya Paita came to be recognized as the leading successor within the religious tradition of Sa skya.

For the three decades that follow, the exact chronology of Sa skya Paita's life is obscure, though it is clear that it was during this time that he was most active as a teacher and author, achieving widespread fame in Tibetan learned circles. At some pointit remains unclear just whenhe traveled to the Tibet-Nepal frontier, where he is said to have engaged in debate and soundly defeated a Hindu ascetic named Haranandin. The story of their dispute, though only thinly documented in early sources, later became a popular tale of magical warfare in which Sa skya Paita had to call upon the services of a Rnying ma (Nyingma) pa sorcerer in order to vanquish his opponent, who was about to fly miraculously into Tibet.

A real threat to Tibet, however, did emerge during the last years of Sa skya Paita's life: the Mongol descendants of Chinggis Khan, having conquered much of Eurasia, began to direct their armies toward Tibet, where an incursion was made in 1239. Sa skya Paita's preeminence came to the attention of the Mongol ruler Godan Khan not long after this, and in 1244 the latter summoned him to the court, effectively to negotiate Tibet's submission. Traveling with his young nephews, 'Phags pa (Phagpa, who would later become the preceptor of Khubilai Khan) and Phyag na, he arrived in Liangzhou (in modern Gansu) in 1246 and met the Khan early the following year. Tibet, as a result, became one of the few lands to enter into the Mongol empire through negotiation, without subjection to the horrors of invasion, the Sa skya pa emerging as Tibet's rulers for the century that followed. These developments, however, occurring gradually over roughly two decades, were not the immediate outcome of Sa skya Paita's mission to Godan Khan, which nevertheless provided a precedent for the Sa skya pa-Mongol alliance.

Sa skya Paita passed away in Liangzhou in 1251. Besides the fame he enjoyed among later generations of Tibetans, the Mongolian peoples have also honored him as one of the first Buddhist masters to introduce them to the faith that in later times they adopted.

Major Writings

Sa skya Paita's writings are known today primarily through the standard, Sde dge (Derge) xylographic edition of his collected works in three volumes, published during the mid-1730s and containing a total of over one hundred individual texts ranging from short poems to extended systematic treatises. Though by no means a large corpus for an important Tibetan author, Sa skya Paita's oeuvre is nevertheless noteworthy for the diversity of the subjects treated, as for the unusual influence his major writings have had throughout much of Tibetan intellectual and literary history. Recent Tibetan bibliographical scholarship has revealed some additional works preserved only in manuscript that may be securely attributed to Sa skya Paita's authorship, while at the same time a number of texts included in the Sde dge edition have been shown to be pseudepigraphical. Most notorious among the latter is a substantial work, the Gzhung lugs legs bshad (Excellent exposition of textual traditions), that appears to have been inserted in the standard edition on the mistaken assumption that it was to be identified with Sa skya Paita's still lost treatise on Buddhist philosophical systems.

Among the many notable writings that are presently available, it is the Mkhas pa 'jug pa'i sgo (Scholar's gate) that comes closest to setting forth a general program representing Sa skya Paita's ideals of Sanskritic learning. He presents here the exposition of a trivium based upon the mastery of composition, rhetoric, and debate, and in the first chapter, on composition, he supplies a series of short, fine surveys of the elements of grammar and poetics, including the theory of designation and meaning, and a relatively detailed introduction to the topics of aesthetic sentiment and poetic ornament. His promulgation in Tibet of Indian literary conventions is further represented by his Legs bshad rin chen gter mdzod (Jewel mine of aphorisms), perhaps his most famous work, a collection of short verses, many of which were culled from Indian books of ethical and political admonition. Sa skya Paita's pithy Tibetan renditions have achieved proverbial status and even today are frequently cited from memory.

Indian traditions of logic and epistemology (pramāa ) figured prominently among his major concerns. Among his key contributions here was the final redaction of the Tibetan translation of Dharmakīrti's masterwork, the Pramāa-vārttika, henceforth the basis for all Tibetan scholarship in this field. His own synthesis of Indian Buddhist epistemology, the Tshad ma rigs gter (Treasury of epistemic reason), enjoys a singularly extensive commentarial tradition in later Tibetan scholasticism and is said to have been the sole Tibetan philosophical work ever translated into Sanskrit (though no proof of this has so far emerged).

Sa skya Paita's Buddhist doctrinal writings are represented by his Thub pa dgongs gsal (Clarification of the sage's intention), providing a comprehensive guide to the path of the bodhisattva according to the major scriptures and treatises of the Indian Mahāyāna. His Sdom gsum rnam dbye (Analysis of the three vows) is perhaps his most controversial work, in which he sets forth trenchant criticisms of doctrinal and exegetic developments in Tibet, organized according to the three major Buddhist ethical and disciplinary codes, those of the monastic Vinaya, the path of the bodhisattva, and the esoteric Tantras. His foremost target, considered in others of his writings as well, was the notion of an "immediate entry" (cig car 'jug pa ) into enlightenment, which he often characterized as the "Chinese Great Perfection" (Rgya nag Rdzogs chen), referring to the Chan traditions attributed to the eighth-century Heshang Moheyan. His remarks about this, together with his frequent critical asides, have earned Sa skya Paita something of the reputation of a pugnacious author of polemics. Nevertheless, given the restraint and the aesthetic refinement characterizing much of his writing, such an assessment appears overly to exaggerate the importance of just one aspect of his work.

The diversity of Sa skya Paita's interests is reflected by his Rol mo'i bstan bcos (Treatise on music), a rare example of musicological writing by a Tibetan Buddhist author. Its discussions of the Buddhist ritual use of the drum may offer some insights into now otherwise lost Indian Buddhist liturgical music. Others among his works offer contributions to Sanskrit lexicography and poetic meter, Tantric ritual and meditation, as well as several epistles responding to particular queries on the part of Tibetan contemporaries.

Intellectual Legacy

Sa skya Paita influenced the later development of Tibetan culture significantly. His studies of Sanskrit and Indian linguistic and literary learning convinced him, on the one hand, that there was an intrinsic value to such studies, which formed the basis of a classical Indian education. On the other hand, he believed that the Tibetans frequently erred in their understanding of Indian Buddhist works in Tibetan translation precisely because they had lost site of the cultural and linguistic context of the originals. Sanskritic learning, in short, was to be valued for its roles both in the cultivation of personal refinement and in the hermeneutics of the Buddhist religion. With variations, these guiding ideas would be taken up by later generations of Tibetan scholars, so that, for the most part, Tibetan learning from the late thirteenth century on distinctly bears Sa skya Paita's imprint.

Specifically, his interest in Sanskrit poetics provoked a virtual revolution in Tibetan literary style. Following the Tibetan translation by his disciple, Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan (Shongtön Dorje Gyaltsen, fl. late thirteenth century), of such Sanskrit literary classics as Kālidāsa's famed Meghadūta (Cloud messenger) and Dain's Kāvyādarśa (Mirror of poetics), the stylistic emulation of Sanskrit poetic ornament became a fundamental feature of Tibetan composition. Though contemporary critics have sometimes lamented the privileging of such work over and against more characteristically indigenous Tibetan modes of expression, echoes of Sa skya Paita's Sanskritizing voice may be found even among today's young Tibetan authors.

The emphasis on the full range of Indian learning that Sa skya Paita's project entailed found perhaps its greatest exemplification in the work of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (16171682) and his regent Sde srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (16531705), whose extensive efforts to codify in detail the full range of the arts and sciences (rig gnas ; Skt., vidyāsthāna ) known in Tibet explicitly acknowledge the contributions of Sa skya Paita as their precedent.


Bosson, James. Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels. Bloomington, Ind., 1969. Annotated translation of the Tibetan and Mongolian versions of Sa skya Paita's renowned collection of gnomic verse.

Canzio, Ricardo. "On the Way of Playing Drums and Cymbals Among the Sakyas." In Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, edited by Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi, pp. 6272. Warminster, U.K., 1980. Includes remarks on the Rol mo'i bstan bcos.

Jackson, David. The Entrance Gate for the Wise (Section III): Sa skya Paita on Indian and Tibetan Tradition of Pramāa and Philosophical Debate. 2 vols. Vienna, 1987. Textual study, introduced with important surveys of Sa skya Paita's life, work, and legacy.

Jackson, David. "Sa-skya Paita the 'Polemicist': Ancient Debates and Modern Interpretations," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 13, no. 2 (1990): 17116. On the contestatory dimension of Sa skya Paita's work.

Jackson, David. Enlightenment by a Single Means. Vienna, 1994. On the Tibetan debates concerning immediate realization, with particular reference to Sa skya Paita's contributions.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford, 2000. Includes an analysis of Sa skya Paita's methods of argument as represented in the Tshad ma rigs gte.

Kapstein, Matthew T. "The Indian Literary Identity in Tibet." In Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Sheldon Pollock, pp. 747802. Berkeley, Calif., 2003. Surveys his contributions to Sanskrit literary culture in Tibet.

Petech, Luciano. Central Tibet and the Mongols: The Yüan-Sa-skya Period of Tibetan History. Rome, 1990. Places Sa skya Paita's mission to the Mongol in its proper historical and political context.

Rhoton, Jared, trans. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions Among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems. Albany, N.Y., 2002. Annotated translation of the controversial treatise on the "three vows," with selected shorter writings.

Ruegg, David Seyfort. Ordre spirituel et ordre temporel dans la pensée bouddhique de l'Inde et du Tibet. Paris, 1995. Discusses in detail Tibetan views regarding the ordering of knowledge and the branches of learning.

Van der Kuijp, Leonard W. J. "On the Lives of Śākyaśrībhadra (??1225)." Journal of the American Oriental Society 114, no. 4 (1994): 599616. A review of the available Tibetan biographies of Sa skya Paita's foremost Indian teacher.

Matthew T. Kapstein (2005)

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