Sa Skya Pa??ita (Sakya Pa??ita)

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Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga' rgyal mtshan (Sakya Paṇḍita, 1182–1251) was revered as the greatest early scholar of the Sa skya (Sakya) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. He is accorded the distinction of being the fourth of the five great Sa skya teachers, and is noted for his conservative polemics against what he saw as unwarranted Tibetan innovations.

Precocious as a youth, Sa skya Paṇḍita was identified early to follow in the footsteps of his 'Khon clan predecessors. His great-grandfather, 'Khon Dkonmchog rgyal po (Khön Könchok gyelpo, 1034–1102) had founded Sa skya Monastery in 1073 c.e., and the edifice had increased in fame and fortune under succeeding teachers. Sa skya Paṇḍita's uncle, Grags pa rgyal mtshan (Drakpa Gyeltsen, 1147–1216), directed much of his early education and was concerned mostly with the tantric system. In distinction, his nephew's interest clearly moved toward the scholastic texts that had gained much currency and authority in Tibet throughout the twelfth century. Accordingly, Sa skya Paṇḍita was sent to Central Tibet in 1200 c.e. to study with Tibetan teachers who emphasized the texts of YogĀcĀra school idealism, the philosophical works of the Madhyamaka school, and the works on logic and epistemology of DharmakirtĪ (ca. 650 c.e.) and his followers. The greatest influence, though, on Sa skya Paṇḍita was destined to come through his meeting with the Kashmiri master Śākyaśr bhadra (1140s–1225) and his retinue of Indian and Kashmiri teachers fleeing the Muslim persecution of Buddhism taking place in India at the time.

Together with the other scholars, ŚākyaŚrībhadra instructed Sa skya Paṇḍita in the Sanskrit curriculum employed in the great Indian monasteries of the period. The topics emphasized the scholastic syllabus (abhidharma, vinaya, PrajÑĀpĀramitĀ literature, Madhyamaka, logic and epistemology, etc.), as well as a well-rounded education in the literature and, especially, poetics current in India. Scholastic pedagogy emphasized the memorization of texts and the debate of their contents, so that the learned were expected to become expert in the defense of specific propositions.

In the more than one hundred compositions of his received œuvre, Sa skya Paṇḍita demonstrated his commitment to Indian scholastic Buddhism. David Jackson in his 1987 book The Entrance Gate for the Wise (vol. 1, pp. 39–48) identifies five works of special influence:

  1. Mkhas pa rnams 'jug pa'i sgo (Entrance Gate for the Wise) is a pedagogical text that instructs the student in the primary skills—composition, exposition, and debate—of late Indian monasteries.
  2. Legs par bshad pa rin pa che'i gter (Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels) is a delightful collection of homilies and remains Sa skya Paṇḍita's best known work; it is still memorized by Tibetans and establishes a common discourse for much of Tibetan culture.
  3. Tshad ma rigs gter (Treasury of Epistemology), with its autocommentary, is Sa skya Paṇḍita's major statement on epistemology; it is dedicated to the refutation of the innovations of Tibetan scholars, especially Phywa pa Chos kyi seng ge (Chapa Chökyi Sengé, 1109–1169).
  4. Thub pa'i dgongs gsal (Clarifying the Sage's Intention) is dedicated to the bodhisattva path as understood in late Mahāyāna scholasticism.
  5. Sdom gsum rab dbye (Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes) is a synthetic work on the vows of the monk, the bodhisattva, and the tantric practitioner.

Through these and other works, Sa skya Paṇḍita challenged what he perceived as non-Indian innovations, especially those he identified as coming from Chinese influence or indigenous Tibetan sources.

Sa skya Paṇḍita's reputation for learning and sanctity eventually drew Mongol interest, and he was ordered by Göden Khan to the Mongol camp in 1244 c.e. He spent his last days in Mongol hands, instructing his nephew, 'Phags pa (Pakpa, 1235–1280), who was destined to become the first monk ruler of Tibet and the fifth of the five great Sa skya teachers.

See also:Tibet


Bosson, James E. A Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels: The Subhasitaratnanidhi of Sa Skya Pandita in Tibetan and Mongolian. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications, 1969.

Jackson, David P. The Entrance Gate for the Wise (Section III): Sa-skya Pandita on Indian and Tibetan Traditions of Pramāṇa and Philosophical Debate, 2 vols. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 1987.

Jackson, David P. Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the "Self-Sufficient White Remedy." Vienna: Der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1994.

Kuijp, Leonard W. J. van der. Contributions to the Development of Tibetan Buddhist Epistemology from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Century. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1983.

Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyaltshen. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems, tr. Jared Douglas Rhoton. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Stearns, Cyrus. Luminous Lives: The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam 'Bras Tradition in Tibet. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.

Ronald M. Davidson