Buddhism—Schools: Dge-lugs

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The Dge-lugs (pronounced "geluk") tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the tradition followed by the Dalai Lamas, traces its origins to the towering Tibetan philosopher and monastic reformer Tsong kha pa (13571419) and his two closest disciples, Rgyal-tshab (pronounced "gyeltsap") (13641432) and Mkhas grub (pronounced "kaydrup") (13581438), whose views have come to represent orthodoxy for the tradition. According to traditional hagiographies, Tsong kha pa studied with more than sixty of the greatest scholars in Tibet during his early life and went on to compose numerous treatises and commentaries on the entire spectrum of Buddhist thought and practice, leaving a set of collected works that numbers nineteen volumes. His philosophical works address virtually all the major topics in Buddhist philosophical discourse, including issues of ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, logic, soteriology, and hermeneutics, among others. Aided by historical and political conditions Tsong kha pa's works, those of his disciples, and the monastic and educational systems he initiated made the Dge-lugs tradition the dominant philosophical tradition in Tibet. Indeed, Tsong kha pa was such a powerful intellectual force in Tibet that all subsequent philosophers, including those who disagreed with him, felt compelled to acknowledge and address Dge-lugs-type criticisms that they anticipated their views might incur.

While there is much in common among Dge-lugs philosophers in terms of their philosophical positions and methods, it would be misleading to suggest that the Dge-lugs tradition and its notable philosophers are univocal in their philosophical presentations. Many lively debates and polemic directed at fellow members of the Dge-lugs tradition can be found in the works of the great thinkers of the tradition, including Tsong kha pa's direct disciples Rgyal-tshab and Mkhas grub, as well as later thinkers such as ʾJamdbyangs bzhad pa (16481721), Rje btsun Chos kyi ʾgyal mtshan (14691544), and Lcang skya rol baï rdo rje (17171786), among others. Despite this marked diversity of opinion, there is nonetheless a relatively standard Dge-lugs philosophical presentation that those in the tradition generally agree on. The intratradition debates tend to focus on lofty and quite subtle points, while the mainstream Dge-lugs philosophical worldview accepted across the tradition remains as the foundation for debates about such subtle points of contention.

Many significant features of Dge-lugs philosophy stand in contrast with other Buddhist traditions. Among the most significant is the marked emphasis Dge-lugs philosophers place on the study of the Indian Buddhist philosophical tradition they inherited and on what they understand to be the correct interpretation of that tradition. Thus any discussion of Dge-lugs philosophy must be approached through an examination of how the earliest Dge-lugs masters interpreted and represented Indian Buddhist philosophical history.

Dge-Lugs Madhyamaka

While the works of many Indian philosophers have impacted Dge-lugs philosophy, the Dge-lugs tradition traces its intellectual lineage most significantly through two important Indian philosophers: Nāgārjuna (c. first century C.E.) and Candrakīrti (c. 600650). Nāgārjuna, author of the The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mūlamadhyamakakārika ), among other texts, is considered the founder and systematizer of the school of Mahayana philosophical thought known as Madhyamaka or the Middle-Way School. Virtually all Tibetan Buddhist schools consider themselves to be Mādhyamikas, followers of Nāgārjuna's tradition in one form or another and the Dge-lugspas are no exceptions in this regard. The central idea that guides the thought of Nāgārjuna and the Madhyamaka School is the notion of emptiness (śūnyatā ). When Mādhyamikas such as Tsong kha pa use the term "emptiness," they mean that an object lacks a fixed or unchanging nature. To say that a pot, for example, is empty (metaphysically empty) is to say that it lacks a permanent nature or essence, an independent, intrinsic identity.

The Dge-lugs presentation of the middle way owes much to their reading of the history of their Indian Madhyamaka predecessors. When Dge-lugs philosophers and scholars study the history of Indian Madhyamaka, they begin by recognizing that Nāgārjuna and his student Āryadeva are considered authoritative by all subsequent commentators and interpreters of Madhyamaka thought. According to Tsong kha pa's assessment of the history of Indian Madhyamaka, an important philosophical split occurred in Madhyamaka discourse several centuries after Nāgārjuna when Buddhapālita (c. 470540?) wrote a commentary on Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. This was followed by a criticism of that treatise by Bhāvaviveka (c. 500570?) and a subsequent defense by Candrakīrti of Buddhapālita's position against those criticisms leveled by Bhāvaviveka. Much of this debate in the Indian tradition revolved around the appropriate form of reasoning to be utilized by Madhyamaka philosophers. With this point in mind, later Tibetans such as Tsong kha pa distinguished subschools of Indian Madhyamaka philosophy, in part on the basis of the form of reasoning that their proponents utilize.

Buddhapālita's commentary, simply titled (in English) Buddhapālita's Commentary on [Nāgārjuna's] "Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way" is a lucid exposition of Nāgārjuna's text that utilizes a method known as consequentialist argument (prasaga ). Much as in Nāgārjuna's text, Buddhapālita's form of argumentation examines the positions of philosophical rivals to reveal the absurd consequences of holding such positions. In other words, consequentialist arguments attempt to reduce the philosophical positions of opponents to absurdities. All philosophical opponents of Mādhyamikas maintain that some things are not empty, have a true nature or essence, and have independent, permanent existence. For all such contemporary opponents, Buddhapālita, like Nāgārjuna before him, attempted to reveal what he saw to be the absurd positions entailed by their various positions asserting true existence. Though the logical innovations of Dignāga (c. 480540) were beginning to make headway into Mahayana discourse, Buddhapālita avoided these innovations in logic, such as the use of independent argument (svatantrānumāna ), thus avoiding commitment to a counterposition when criticizing his opponents. Dge-lugspas have tended to presume that Buddhapālita was simply and faithfully following the method of Nāgārjuna.

Bhāvaviveka, in contrast, argued that Mādhyamikas must assert their own philosophical position. Simply to criticize others without establishing one's own position, the emptiness view, is inadequate. And to establish one's own position, Bhāvaviveka argued, one must use independent inferences. Thus, in Prajñā-pradīpa: A Commentary on the Madhyamaka Sūtra, his commentary on Nāgārjuna's Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Bhāvaviveka offers a pointed criticism of Buddhapālita's failure to establish a Madhyamaka thesis, as well as an exposition of the need to use independent argument (svatantrānumāna ) to fulfill that task. Accordingly, Dge-lugspas categorized Bhāvaviveka's particular brand of the middle way as Svātantrika-Madhyamaka. In contrast, Dge-lugs doxographers describe Buddhapālita and his defender Candrakīrti (described below) as Prāsagika-Mādhyamikas, because they insist on primarily using consequentialist arguments (prasaga ).

Candrakīrti (c. 600650) is the third important figure in this Indian Madhyamaka debate, according to Dge-lugs authors. Candrakīrti composed several philosophical texts, two which are important to Dge-lugs philosophers on the central issue of the appropriate form of reasoning for proponents of Madhyamaka views: his Introduction to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra ) and Lucid exposition of the middle way (Prasannapadā Madhyamakavtti. In these texts Candrakīrti philosophically defended Buddhapālita against the criticisms leveled by Bhāvaviveka. Candrakīrti argued not only that Buddhapālita was correct to use only consequentialist arguments, but also that using independent arguments are incompatible with Madhyamaka tenets.

In the Dge-lugs reading of this debate, there is a fundamental ontological problem with using independent arguments. Such usage implies acceptance of an inherent, absolute, or unchanging nature in phenomena, and this implication is utterly contrary to the most basic Madhyamaka tenetthat all phenomena are empty of just such a nature or essence. Dge-lugs philosophers such as Tsong kha pa argued that because one characteristic of an independent inference is a commonly appearing subject in the inference, the inference implies that the subject must have some sort of absolute existence. For example, in the independent inference "This book is impermanent because it is produced," the subject, this book, must appear in precisely the same way, in a way which is common to both the proponent and opponent of the argument. If it does not, then the two debaters are just talking past each other. If it does have a precise and common mode of appearance to both the proponent and opponent, then it must have some absolute mode of existence, some intrinsic identity, some sort of inherent nature.

Thus, the mere use of independent arguments runs utterly contrary to the Madhyamaka view, according to Tsong kha pa and his Dge-lugs followers. Although Tsong kha pa considered Buddhapālita to be a Prāsagika-Mādhyamika from his views and method, he considered Candrakīrti to be the "founder" of the Prāsagika-Madhyamaka view, since he was the first clearly to articulate the importance of using consequentialist arguments and the contradictions involved when Mādhyamikas use independent arguments.

An interesting feature of Tsong kha pa's middle way is that though he recognized the limits of language, he still insisted on rationality and the laws of logic in his investigations and conclusions concerning the ultimate. In this sense, notes Georges Dreyfus in The Sound of Two Hands Clapping, Tsong kha pa ought to be considered a realist. Śāntarakita, an eighth-century scholar who was a key figure in the early dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet, was a late Indian Mādhyamika who incorporated the logico-epistemological (pramāavāda ) innovations of Dignāga and, more prominently, Dharmakīrti (seventh century) into his particular brand of the middle way. Though Śāntarakita was considered to be a Svātantrika-Mādhyamika with whom he took issue on several counts, Tsong kha pa nevertheless preserved, and even intensified, Śāntarakita's emphasis on the role of reason in his Madhyamaka method. The particularities of how Tsong kha pa integrated the logico-epistemological tradition into Madhyamaka analysis are central to the insights that made his thought unique.

To turn now to the Tibetan Madhyamaka tradition, for Dge-lugs philosophers, an issue central to all Madhyamaka philosophical analysis and inseparably tied to the issue of an appropriate logic is the issue of the two types of truth: ultimate truth (don dam bden pa [Tibetan], paramārthasatya [Sanskrit]) and conventional truth (kun dzob bden pa, savtisatya ). Truths in this context are objects of knowledge. Hence it makes sense to talk of truths existing. Since its earliest formulation in the works of Nāgārjuna, Madhyamaka thinkers have used a presentation of the two types of truths as a primary marker against which they have delineated their positions on central Buddhist topics in ontology and epistemology.

Dge-lugs philosophers illuminated the distinctions they drew between ultimate and conventional truths by contrasting their positions as Prāsagika-Mādhyamikas with the position of their Madhyamaka rivals, the so-called Svātantrika-Mādhyamikas, such as Bhāvaviveka. This takes place in the treatises of Tsong kha pa and his direct disciples and also in a genre of philosophical literature prominent in monastic study and known as tenet-system texts or doxographies. In this literature, Dge-lugs authors present major systems of non-Buddhist and Buddhist philosophical thought in a hierarchically organized fashion. Each of the tenet systems (or at least the Buddhist systems) are presented in terms of a host of philosophical categories of analysis, such as the two truths, definitions of consciousness and objects of consciousness, delineation of the path, delineation of the fruits of the path, and so on. Consistency in analytic categories across the presentation of schools of thought facilitates easy comparisons between systems and usefully allows one easily to ascend a hierarchy of philosophical positions in a dialectical fashion by contrasting the present system with the less subtle and less accurate system just below it.

For example, one can easily compare all four Buddhist schools' definitions of ultimate truths, conventional truths, consciousness, and the like, by seeing that school x defines a conventional truth in one way, school y in another, and school z in yet another. Often the views presented in this literature do not precisely mirror those of any single Indian author, but rather are amalgamations of the views of several presumably like-minded thinkers and of unstated positions considered to follow logically from other stated positions. As mentioned above, for Dge-lugs thinkers, the highest and most accurate Buddhist philosophical description of the nature of reality is the Prāsagika-Madhyamaka. Just below that position in the hierarchy is the Svātantrika-Madhyamaka view. Thus, the Svātantrika view is most commonly contrasted with the Prāsagika-Madhyamaka position to help illuminate the Dge-lugs-Prāsagika view.

When Dge-lugs authors discuss the issue of the two types of truths, they employ a number of key technical terms. Jeffrey Hopkins mentions sixteen terms in his book Meditation on Emptiness, of which the six most commonly used are the following:

  • Ultimately established existence (don dam par grub pa )
  • Truly established existence (den par grub pa )
  • Existence established in reality (yang dag par grub pa )
  • Existence established by way of the intrinsic identity/characteristics of an object (rang gi mtshan nyid kyis grub pa )
  • Existence established by way of the inherent nature of an object (rang bzhing gyis grub pa )
  • Existence established from its own side (rang ngos nas grub pa )

According to Dge-lugs philosophers such as Tsong kha pa, all Mādhyamikas, including the Prāsagikas and the Svātantrikas, held that the first three terms on the list accurately describe ultimate truths, since such truths lack (are empty of) ultimately established existence, truly established existence, and existence established in reality. An example of an ultimate truth for either a Svātantrika-Mādhyamika or a Prāsagika-Mādhyamika would be the lack of any ultimately established existence or truly established existence in this book, for example. The lack of ultimately or truly established existence refers to the absence of any objective existence, any independent absolute mode of being, any fixed independent essence, within this book. Thus far, according to Dge-lugs thinkers, both subschools of Madhyamaka thought are in agreement.

The disagreement between the two subschools concerns their positions on the ontological status of conventional truths. According to Dge-lugs thinkers, while all Mādhyamikas, when presenting ultimate truths, argue that phenomena lack an ultimate nature, the Svātantrika-Mādhyamikas accept that conventional truths exist in the latter three ways listed above; that is, they exist by way of their own intrinsic identity, by way of inherent nature, and from their own side. This, according to Dge-lugspas, is how the Svātantrika-Mādhyamikas could view their position as maintaining a middle ground between absolute permanence and absolute nonexistence, or nihilism. They avoid the extreme of permanence by saying that phenomena ultimately lack true existence. They avoid the extreme of nihilism by claiming that phenomena conventionally exist by way of their own characteristics, by way of their intrinsic nature, or from their own side.

In relation to the logical issues discussed above, because phenomena conventionally exist from their own side or by way of their own intrinsic identity/characteristics, objects such as books and tables can serve as commonly appearing subjects in independent inferences. An inherent nature or intrinsic characteristics on the side of the book, for example, cause an ignorant, unenlightened consciousness to recognize that object and correctly impute the conventional designation "book" on the basis of a nondefective conventional cognition. Such an imputation has a referent as object, to which it correctly points with a conventional designation ("book").

Dge-lugspas found this position, which they attributed to Svātantrika-Mādhyamikas, highly problematic. They argued that all six technical terms mentioned above to describe the ontological status of things are coextensive. If an object can be described in one of the six ways, it can be described in all six ways. Dge-lugspas thus argued that ultimate truths and conventional truths do not exist in any of the ways described above. They argued that if objects are established by way of their own intrinsic identity, by way of some sort of inherent nature of their own, or from their own sides, even conventionally, then objects must have some sort of ultimate nature. Dge-lugspas would criticize their Madhyamaka opponents by arguing that although they claim that some objects exist only conventionally, if they assert that the objects inherently possess some nature of their own in any way, even conventionally, this is really just a masked way of continuing to cling to some independent essence or nature in the objects ultimately. For an object to cause a conventional consciousness to correctly recognize and label it, there must be something true or absolute in the object. Thus in the Prāsagika-Madhyamaka position held by Dge-lugspas, both ultimate and conventional truths lack all six criteria (sixteen as listed by Hopkins) of ultimate and conventional truths.

While Svātantrikas accept that conventional truths exist inherently, by way of their own characteristics, and from their own sides, Dge-lugspas, such as the Prāsagikas, reject the idea that even conventional truths are established in this way. Conventional truths are actually falsities. There is nothing true about how minds under the sway of ignorance conceptualize these falsities. This is not to say that the world does not exist out there. It is just to say that we are utterly deluded when we engage with the world because we impose fixed essences in things when no such essences exist. And this is what Svātantrikas are doing when they claim that even mere conventional truths inherently exist. For Dge-lugspas, such as the Prāsagika-Mādhyamikas, conventional truths are true only for a consciousness for which the actual nature of reality is obscured. They do not exist as they appear to a conventional consciousness. Dge-lugspas such as Tsong kha pa held that they avoided the extreme of nihilism by accepting the functionality of conventional phenomena despite the falsity of their appearances.

It is important to keep in mind that this is a standard Dge-lugs presentation of this history and these ideas. While Dge-lugs authors associated specific Indian Madhyamaka thinkers with these subschools of Madhyamaka thought, there does not appear to be evidence in Indian sources before the twelfth century of any explicitly named subschools of Madhyamaka thought. Prior to this time, the thinkers discussed here and labeled "Prāsagika-Madhyamaka" or "Svātantrika-Madhyamaka" in the Dge-lugs literature identified their own views as simply Madhyamaka.

The Dge-Lugs Curriculum and Scholastic Methods

Any discussion of Dge-lugs philosophy must move beyond ideas and also discuss the curriculum and methods employed in Dge-lugs institutions, which direct a significant amount of their focus to philosophical study. Tsong kha pa initiated a scholastic approach to Buddhism that, although presented to lesser degrees before him in Tibet, marked a significant departure from the mystical gnosis of individuals as sources of authority for the tradition before him. Tsong kha pa emphasized reasoning, which could be learned, in time, only in monastic universities, thus advancing a shift in authority from individuals to institutions and a wholesale reform of monastic culture, which he saw as deteriorating in Tibet during his time. As time went on and the monastic colleges grew, the degree of scholasticism grew with it. Key figures from the Dge-lugs monastic colleges began to compose textbooks (yig cha ) as manuals for study in attempt to present coherent, consistent, totalizing systems of thought immune to critique, especially internal contradiction. This move toward scholasticism certainly reinforced institutional authority, but the importance of mystical gnosis of expert scholar-adepts was far from lost in the Dge-lugs tradition, though the reins on the careers of independent yogis were significantly tightened in this tradition.

The Dge-lugs tradition maintains a large monastic component that includes three major monastic seatsSera, Drepung, and Gandenand several colleges within those monastic seats. Traditionally, the monastic seats housed between 5,000 and 10,000 monks in each, with good portions of the monks engaged in the philosophical curriculum of one of the monastic colleges. Even in exile in south India, Sera and Drepung each had more than 5,000 monks in residence in 2005. The colleges of the three monastic seats all have a similar curriculum that culminates in a degree known as "geshe." A geshe degree is somewhat akin to a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. It generally takes somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five years to complete the curriculum, which includes study and memorization of all the major philosophical texts of the tradition, extensive periods of debate (usually four to six hours a day, six days per week), and study of the major commentaries and textbooks of the college, which serve as the interpretive frame through which to engage the major treatises of the Indian and Dge-lugs traditions. Though most monks at Sera, Drepung, and Ganden begin the geshe training, only a small percentage successfully complete the degree because of the difficulty of the subject matter and the rigors of the curriculum, again, much like a doctoral program in the West.

Each of the monastic colleges cover the same basic subjects, though they use different monastic textbooks (yig cha ), commentaries that present the interpretive frameworks of their particular colleges. Here in the monastic textbooks one begins to find differences in interpretation on subtle philosophical points between authors within the Dge-lugs tradition. Often scholars from the different monastic colleges will take great pride in the monastic textbooks of their particular colleges and the interpretive framework they employ for understanding the philosophical views of Tsong kha pa, Candrakīrti, and other great philosophers. Within the curriculum there are preliminary subjects covering the basics of topics such as the forms of reasoning and debate, soteriological grounds, and paths; types of minds/consciousnesses according to the Buddhist tradition; the philosophical tenet systems of the four Indian Buddhist schools; and so on. Once these preliminary subjects are successfully completed, the Dge-lugs scholar progresses on to the five subjects of the geshe curriculum, which include the perfection of wisdom, maplike descriptions of states of consciousness as the practitioner removes obstacles to enlightenment and progresses along the Buddhist path, logic and epistemology, Madhyamaka philosophy, cosmology, and monastic ethics. These five subjects include topics on ethics, metaphysics, ontology, hermeneutics, karma, and personal identity among others. For each of these subjects, years are dedicated to primary philosophical texts, which are memorized and then studied intensively with a teacher, who gives the students informed oral explanation on the texts. Students then debate the ideas and fine-tune their understanding in the debate courtyards. Progress exams are given regularly, and the final exam includes a multi-day public debate with top scholars in the tradition.

Many of those who complete this geshe curriculum successfully go on for a sort of postdoc for one to three years at one of the two major tantric colleges, Gyume or Gyuto. Here they study the theory and practice of the major tantric meditational cycles in the Dge-lugs tradition. Completing all these requirements usually qualifies the student as a teacher. Thus, authority is granted primarily through institutions, though this curriculum ideally cultivatesand indeed, was constructed to cultivateexperiential/gnostic authority as well.

The Dge-lugs tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is perhaps the most scholarly and philosophical of all the world's Buddhist traditions. As a living Buddhist tradition, it makes for a fascinating area of investigation, not only for those interested in the history of Buddhist philosophy in general, but also and particularly for those interested in understanding the ideas and structure of a living Buddhist tradition, and understanding how philosophy and philosophical study are integrated with a larger human path.

See also Buddhism; BuddhismSchools: Madhyamika; BuddhismSchools: Yogācarā.


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James A. Blumenthal (2005)