Saturday, 6 May 2017

Authenticism in Buddhism

Dream doctrines (rmi lam gyi chos) is usually frowned upon, if not outrightly rejected. But so are revealed treasures (gter ma). The authenticity issue of scriptures and doctrines continue to fascinate me. I do not wish to go into the details. But I have once suggested that two kinds of authenticity criteria have been presupposed by Tibetan scholars, namely, what I am wont to call a “genetic” criterion and a “generic” criterion. According to the genetic criterion, only those scriptures that have been genetically transmitted from India (i.e. in form of Sanskrit manuscripts) and eventually in some form from the historical Buddha himself can be considered authentic. Strictly speaking, many Buddhist scriptures might fail to fulfill this criterion, although each tradition would take for granted that its scriptures somehow stem from the historical Buddha himself. According to the generic criterion, any teaching that is generically “well-expounded” (subhāṣita/sūkta) should be acceptable as “Buddha-expounded” (buddhabhāṣita/buddhokta). That which is well-expounded is to be understood as that which teaches beneficiality (phan pa) and verity (bden pa). To be sure, “beneficiality” is a word that I have created myself. I personally think that while the first criterion, if fulfill-able, is ideal, we should also admit the second criterion. Some Tibetan scholars in fact did. Neither of the two criteria seems to be without problems. Let us, for the time being, skip the first criterion, and issues such as why, and to what extent it has been used in Tibet. The second criterion is my concern now. It seems that there are two interpretations of the commonality or similarity of certain ideas or doctrines that might occur in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, namely, a rejective and a receptive one. According to the rejective interpretation, the similarity of certain Buddhist ideas or doctrines is sheer coincidence just like a woodworm’s creation of the shape of the letter “A” and has no value whatsoever. According to the receptive interpretation, anything that is subhāṣita/sūkta should be accepted as buddhabhāṣita/buddhokta. Such commonality or similarity of beneficial and true doctrines is, however, said to be owing to the beneficial influence of the Buddha. One of my professors gave me one more insight. According to him, some Buddhists might have believed that a teaching that appeared to them so inspiring could have only been taught by the Buddha. Such an explanation might not have an epistemic value, but it certainly seems to have a positive instrumental value insofar as it would help Buddhist thinkers to focus on the objective content of any teaching regardless of its spatial and temporal provenance and help them to be perceptive and receptive to and appreciative of any idea that seems noble. Nobility, again, is to be defined by beneficiality (phan pa) and verity (bden pa). From the perspective of the history of ideas, it seems that the teachings taught by the Buddha (buddhabhāṣita/buddhokta) have initially been eulogized as “well-expounded” (subhāṣita/sūkta). Such an idea seems not far away from the idea that if A is X, why can’t X be A. Thus, if all that is buddhabhāṣita is subhāṣita, then all that is subhāṣita must also be buddhabhāṣita. In short, I personally think that both genetic and generic criteria should be applied while trying to investigate the authenticity of Buddhist scriptures and doctrines.
         This small essay was triggered by a small passage in the rJe tsong kha pa’i rnam thar chen mo by Cha-har-dge-bshes Blo-bzang-tshul-khrims. rJe dGe-’dun-grub (1391–1475), one of the foremost disciples of Tsong-kha-pa (1357–1419) and who is retrospectively called the first Dalai Lama and who also founded bKra-shis-lhun-po monastery, once dreamt a dream. In the dream, Tsong-kha-pa appeared to him and said: “dGe-’dun-grub, are you practicing bodhicitta which involves [meditatively] switching [the identities of] oneself and others?” He replied: “Yes, I am.” Thereupon rJe-btsun Shes-rab-seng-ge (1383–1445), another disciple of Tsong-kha-pa, in the physical form of Tsong-kha-pa, gave him two swords, and said: “The ultimate dharma is the generation of bodhicitta. The ultimate view is the [view of] śūnyatā. The ultimate tantra is the Guhyasamāja.” This small anecdote made me pause and reflect. Isn’t this a beautiful thing? Isn’t this inspiring? Admittedly this was only a dream. But what difference does it make whether these statements were made and heard in a dream or whether these statements were made and heard in a wake state? Should one accept this dream doctrine as authentic? If not, why not? What is wrong with it? Can we consider this teaching as dGe-’dun-grub’s? Or Tsong-kha-pa’s? Or perhaps rJe-btsun Shes-rab-seng-ge’s? Can one consider this teaching to be precious? If so, why not consider de facto a treasure? Theoretically rJe dGe-’dun-grub could claim that he received this teaching from Tsong-kha-pa or from rJe-btsun Shes-rab-seng-ge. Should we say he did not? What if he were to say he discovered this teaching in a dream or in his mind? Should we say that he did not and ridicule him? Should we accuse him of being a charlatan and this particular teaching as bogus? Does such a teaching have any spiritual or soteriological value? Does it really matter who taught this teaching, how, and where? What if one were to take, for example, these bodhicitta and śūnyatā teachings seriously and practice them diligently, thereby observing immense and direct benefit such as an obvious decrease of one’s intellectual-emotional defilements (kleśa) and an increase of one’s compassion (karuṇā) and discriminating insight (prajñā)? I think one of my Tibetan mentors has maintained that within the bounds of efficient strategies (upāya) and discriminating insight (prajñā), there is no limitation or restriction with regard to what can be employed as soterical means and what not. To those of us who are not endowed with upāya and prajñā, even dharma or medicine may turn out to be detrimental to one’s wellbeing. To those of us who are endowed with upāya and prajñā, even adharma or poison may turn out to be beneficial to one’s wellbeing. The key from the standpoint of special Mahāyāna is therefore not to ignorantly and arrogantly waste one’s life trying to label other people’s teachings as false and bogus but to ensure that one is capable of making use of both medicine and poisons as means of one’s curatio et salvatio.

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