ŚĀNTARAKṢITA (c. 725–788 ce), an Indian Buddhist scholar and monk also known as Śāntirakṣita and the Great Abbott Bodhisattva, was renowned for his synthesis of diverse streams of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophical thought and for his seminal role in the early transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. Scholarly consensus and Tibetan tradition maintain that Śāntarakṣita made two visits to Tibet, both during the lifetime of the Tibetan king Khri srong lde btsan (c. 740–798). There, Śāntarakṣita supervised the construction of Bsam yas, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, where he ordained the first Tibetan Buddhist monks and taught Buddhist meditation, ethics, and reasoning to the king and his entourage. According to tradition, when the king and his court converted to Buddhism, local Tibetan spirits were upset and caused floods and other calamities throughout Tibet. Śāntarakṣita advised the king to invite an Indian Buddhist Tantric adept, Padmasambhava, to pacify the spirits. Padmasambhava arrived, and through his great spiritual power summoned the troublesome gods and demons, taught them the Buddhist doctrine of karma and rebirth, converted them to Buddhism, and bound them with oaths to protect the new state religion. As a result, King Khri srong lde btsan, the Great Abbot Bodhisattva Śāntarakṣita, and the Precious Guru Padmasambhava are very often depicted together as protectors of Buddhism in the monasteries and temples of Tibet.
Little is known of Śāntarakṣita's earlier life in India. Tibetan sources indicate that he was from Zahor—a locale identified variously by modern scholars with sites in Bengal, Bihar, and Pakistan—and that he had been the abbot of the famous Nālandā monastic university. Although this cannot be confirmed, there is no doubt that Śāntarakṣita was a remarkably erudite scholar who was deeply versed in a wide range of Indian dialectical traditions. The lengthy citations and refutations of non-Buddhist as well as Buddhist positions on epistemological, logical, and metaphysical topics in the verse treatise Tattvasaṃgraha (Collection of Realities), Śāntarakṣita's major work preserved in Sanskrit, reveals the extent of his learning. Drawing on the theories of his predecessors, Dignāga and (especially) Dharmakīrti, Śāntarakṣita in this work attempts to lead his readers through a series of arguments designed to whittle away at philosophical notions of essence or intrinsic identity (svabhāva ). To accomplish this aim, Śāntarakṣita employs the "sliding scale of analysis" (a technique used earlier by Dharmakīrti) whereby under certain conditions a philosopher may be rationally justified in arguing from diverse and even contradictory metaphysical premises within the confines of a single work. In brief, this technique allows for the construction of provisional arguments aimed at particular audiences with the understanding that certain premises of the arguments may be subsequently challenged at a higher level of philosophical analysis.
Most of the arguments in the Tattvasaṃgraha are adduced at the lowest level of analysis, identified by Śāntarakṣita's disciple Kamalaśīla in his commentary as Sautrāntika. This level of analysis operates with an ontology in which causally functioning real particulars, some of which exist outside the mind, produce mental images that are then known by awareness. Śāntarakṣita uses this level of analysis to advance arguments against various versions of intrinsic identity, including the notions of an unchanging creator God, a permanent self or soul, irreducible substance, and intrinsically existent relations. He also stays mostly on this level of analysis when explicating his interpretation of inference and perception, the two instruments of correct knowledge (pramāṇa ) accepted in the Buddhist epistemological tradition.
The shift to the next level of analysis occurs only once Śāntarakṣita has judged the reader to have been convinced of some basic Buddhist truths, namely, that all things are impermanent, that there is no creator god nor any soul, that words cannot refer directly to real things, and that viable religious teachings must be demonstrable through inference and perception. This next level of analysis, identified by Kamalaśīla as the Vijñānavāda or Yogācāra, operates with an ontology in which real particulars do not exist outside the mind. Images arise in awareness due to the causal functioning of an imprint or "seed" contained within the beginningless mind itself. The shift from the Sautrāntika to the Vijñānavāda is rationally justified because one can demonstrate that it is impossible to know particulars outside the mind.
A third level of analysis, the Madhyamaka, operates in an important sense with no ontology, in that neither the particular known nor the awareness that knows is held to be intrinsically real. Although this level remains only nascent in the Tattvasaṃgraha, it is fully developed in Śāntarakṣita's other famous work, the Madhyamakālaṃkāra (Ornament of the Middle Way) together with his own commentary on it. Here, Śāntarakṣita uses the sliding scale of analysis to integrate the Madhyamaka perspective he may have inherited from his reputed teacher, Jñānagarbha, with his logical and epistemological training, so as to create a place for philosophical analysis within a larger path that ultimately denies the validity of all instruments of knowing.
Later Tibetans classify Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla as followers of Yogācāra-Svātantrika-Madhyamaka. This classification indicates, first, that Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla accept as an accurate description of conventional reality the basic Yogācāra position that objects of knowledge do not exist outside the mind, and second, it indicates that, unlike the followers of the allegedly superior Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka of Candrakīrti, they fully endorse the logical apparatus of the Buddhist epistemological tradition, especially the so-called autonomous (svatantra ) inferences. For many Tibetans, this second element of their philosophical thought renders Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla inferior proponents of Madhyamaka, because it obliges them to accept a measure of intrinsic identity, even if they deny doing so. Despite this censure, however, many Tibetans, such as the nonsectarian (ris med ) scholar Mi pham rgya mtsho (1846–1912), have upheld Śāntarakṣita as a brilliant philosopher, model Buddhist, and national hero.
Blumenthal, James. The Ornament of the Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Śāntarakṣita. Ithaca, N.Y., 2004. Translation, edition, and study of Śāntarakṣita's Madhyamakālaṃkāra, together with a Tibetan commentary by rGyal tshab dar ma rin chen (1364–1432) of the Dge lugs pa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Doctor, Thomas, trans. Speech of Delight: Mipham's Commentary on Śāntarakṣita's Ornament of the Middle Way. Ithaca, N.Y., 2004. Translation and edition of the dBu ma rgyan gyi nam bshad of Mi pham rgya mtsho (1846–1912) of the nonsectarian (ris med ) movement of Tibetan Buddhism.
Dreyfus, Georges B. F., and Sara L. McClintock, eds. The Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika Distinction: What Difference Does a Difference Make? Boston, 2003. Collection of articles on the Svātantrika-Prāsaṅgika distinction, with several contributions touching on the Madhyamaka philosophy of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla.
Jha, Ganganatha, trans. The Tattvasaṅgraha of Shāntarakṣita with the Commentary of Kamalashīla. 2 vols. Baroda, India, 1937; Reprint, Delhi, 1986. The only complete translation of the encyclopedic Tattvasaṃgraha 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.
Kajiyama, Yūichi. "Later Mādhyamikas on Epistemology and Meditation." In Mahāyāna Buddhist Mediation: Theory and Practice, edited by Minoru Kiyota, pp. 114–43. Honolulu, 1978. This useful article presents a synopsis of the arguments in the Madhyamakālaṃkāra, Śāntarakṣita's primary Madhyamaka treatise.
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.
Wangdu, Pasang, and Hildegard Diemberger. dBa' bzhed: The Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of the Buddha's Doctrine to Tibet. Vienna, 2000. Annotated translation, study and facsimile edition of one version of an early Tibetan account of the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, the construction of Bsam yas monastery, the ordination of the first Tibetan monks, and the famous debate at Bsam yas.
Sara L. McClintock (2005)