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Authors, plagiarists, or tradents?

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Time and again in modern studies of Tibetan literature of whatever sort, whether histories, technical treatises, tantric commentaries or treasure texts, we find the blithe, unreflective use of words like ‘author’ or ‘revealer’. Such words are a natural part of our modern lexicon, and at first glance they seem to be implied by Tibetan conventions too, for example in colophons or catalogues. Little wonder that we use them so freely. We happily say Lama so-and-so ‘wrote’ a history, Khenpo so-and-so ‘composed’ a commentary, or Terton so-and-so ‘revealed’ a scripture. Yet on reflection, this is a rather hazardous way to talk about Tibetan literature, because Tibetan notions of literary production of any sort, be it of conventional compositions or prophesied revelations, can differ so markedly from the presuppositions of such terms in popular modern usage. It’s high time these differences were systematically investigated.

Anyone who has read much Tibetan literature will be familiar with one of its most salient differences to our own modern conventions: the ubiquitous verbatim repetition of phrases, sections, literary structures, and even entire chapters, across many different texts. Such repetition is commonplace even where these many different texts are written by ostensibly different authors. Some modern scholars have rather condescendingly (and stupidly) characterised this as ‘plagiarism’. They have entirely missed the point. Others avert their gaze in embarrassment from such features, and instead try to emphsasise the aspects of Tibetan literary culture that chime with our own values: originality, innovation, sceptical inquiry, and so on. But they have also missed the point to some extent, because although there is absolutely no doubt that such values do show themselves in Tibetan literature, whether in individual creativity or in the cultural generation of new genres, they occur against an established backdrop of quite different traditional literary norms.

What are these traditional norms? First of all, Tibetan religious literature, including Treasure, is sometimes (not always!) de facto collectively rather than individually produced: close inspection reveals that the final product has the input of more persons than the nominal ‘author’, often extending backwards (and even forwards) over considerable stretches of time. Much is also recycled, within a literary culture that normatively envisions contributors as tradents rather than innovators: in other words, the person producing a text sees himself as passing on existing knowledge, rather than creating new knowledge from nothing (I will elaborate further on the term tradent below). Texts can be substantially modified by other hands in subsequent re-publications, even while still retaining their original authorial (or revelatory) attribution. At other times, modification can be generated silently and less deliberately via the subtly transformative medium of memorisation: we must recall that Tibetan scholars carry huge tracts of literature around in their minds, which they can access instantly without recourse to a written book, but sometimes it comes out in a form ever so slightly different from other or previous iterations. I think one can even say that the Buddhist tradition often understands authorial attributions as a conventional shorthand indicating the accepted presiding spiritual authority in a given literary instance, rather than as the sole or exclusive literary agency that created it.

All this bears little resemblance to modern literary ideals, in which the author is constructed somewhat heroically as an individual creative source. Yet despite a vague general awareness of such differences, Tibetologists have never systematically addressed the issue, and we now have numerous detailed studies of works traditionally attributed to famous Tibetan sources, without further investigation into what such attribution might actually entail in each individual case. I have often felt that the time is long overdue for a new analysis of Tibetan religious authorship, and some new items of vocabulary to describe it.

After some years vaguely wondering how exactly to articulate such an approach and vocabulary, in May 2008, I was rewarded with an answer. I invited Jonathan Silk to give a guest lecture, and aware of my interests, he obliged by delivering a wonderful paper entitled What Can Students of Indian Buddhist Literature Learn from Biblical Text Criticism? Although aimed at Sanskritists, it was obvious that what Jon was saying also applied to Tibetan studies. Suddenly, I came to the realisation that right here under my nose, in my own Wolfson College, Talmudic scholarship had already articulated much of the approach and vocabulary I needed – and yet I had not been aware of it![1]


Talmudic scholars no longer depend on the conventional modernist language of ‘authorship’ and ‘work’. Instead, they can speak of ‘tradents’, who ’re-anthologise’ existing ‘lemmata’ and ‘microforms’, sometimes anonymously, within the context of a culture of extraordinary textual memorisation and the ubiquitous synchronous interactions of written and oral modes of text. We have a lot to learn from them, because Tibetan religious literature is in some important respects closer to Medieval Hebraic literature than to modern literature.

What do these terms mean, and why are they useful for us? Obviously, I can only give very brief answers here. Firstly, the word ‘tradent’ indicates a producer of text who sees as his main project the passing on of existing spiritual truths, rather than the invention of new ones ex nihilo. Since he is largely engaged in passing on existing truths, he tends to seek out existing materials of proven Dharmic worth, to use as building blocks with which to construct his new text. At the most elemental level, these building blocks comprise well established fundamental Dharmic categories, such as ‘The Three Jewels’, ‘The Four Activities’, ‘The Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities’, and so on. Some Hebraists call such fundamental categories ‘lemmata’. Longer passages, such as a paragraph or chapter comprising composites of such lemmata, are also legitimately reproducible either approximately or verbatim, according to Tibetan norms. Some Hebraists would call such reproducible composites that are not yet a complete work ‘microforms’. Finally, a complete work, such as the Guhyasamāja tantra, or a commentary upon it, is called a ‘macroform’. The way such literary constructions are put together resembles an ‘anthological’ model: tradents select existing lemmata and microforms and re-anthologise them to make new wholes.

I cannot agree with those modern scholars who find such literature lacking in creativity. A good analogy is Lego: imagine if you ask two persons to make a square palace out of Lego bricks, one a great sculptor and architect, the other just an ordinary person. Clearly, the results would not be the same in quality, notwithstanding the restriction placed on the materials used and the outcome required. In the same way, some Tibetan tradents can produce works of astonishing subtlety and brilliance, while others can be unremarkable and predictable (of course, if they follow their cultural template accurately enough, both will at least produce a work of some value).

Literary production in Tibetan Buddhism, as anywhere else, is a process, and in order to understand it, we need to track its processes minutely, step by step, bit by bit, stage by stage. Fortunately, we have been awarded funding from the AHRC[2] to do just this, in an international project based here at Oxford. Our local personnel are Vesna Wallace and Cathy and myself, while our international partners and consultants include Janet Gyatso, Sarah Jacoby, Matthew Kapstein, Jonathan Silk, Lopon P. Ogyan Tanzin, and Antonio Terrone. Part of the project is simply to minutely track all the processes, over several generations, that gave us some of the Terma literature we know so well today, while another part will be to achieve critically-aware knowledge transfers from Hebrew studies and the English medievalists into Tibetology. Through this, we aspire to help catalyse a broader debate on what authorship really means in Tibetan religious writing as a whole, in other genres beyond Terma, so that our analysis might contribute to the understanding of Tibetan religious writings as a whole. I hope it will be a rewarding study for all concerned.


[1] Peter Schaeffer wrote much of his most important work at Wolfson, while I was a graduate student there, yet I never encountered it at the time. Jacob Neusner, Martin Jaffee and others working in medieval Hebraic literature have of course contributed equally to the debate.

[2] The Arts and Humanities Research Council, the main source for Humanities research in the UK.