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Shen Weirong : Sixty Years of Tibetan Buddhism Research

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Tibetan Buddhism inherited and developed all traditions of Indian Buddhism, in which the Tantric tradition, though originated in India, has developed far beyond the original Indian one and become the most significant contribution of the Tibetan people to the world culture. There have been many outstanding Tibetan scholars, whose comments to Buddhist doctrines, especially whose creative view and development the philosophical thinking from India such as Madhyamika, Chittamatra and Tathagatagarbha; whose inheritance and development of Hetuvidya as represented by Dharmakirti the Indian Buddhist guru in the 7th century and whose shentong view of extrinsic emptiness upheld by Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism remarkably enriched the philosophical thinking of Indian Buddhism. In a word, Tibetan Buddhism is the essence of Tibetan civilization, and its study one of the most important component in Tibetology.

Tibetan Buddhism began spreading in the Central Plains of China in Western Xia period, and continued through Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. However, since Yuan Dynasty, ethnic Han scholar-bureaucrats, influenced by Chinese texts from Yuan Dynasty about “sexual ecstasy”, had been holding a deep prejudice against Tibetan Buddhism. Although many people practiced Tibetan Buddhism, both inside and outside Imperial Court, no one became celebrated for his dedication to the study of Tibetan Buddhism. Not until the Republic of China, with the beginning of Buddhist modernization, did Chinese Buddhism have any exchange with Tibetan Buddhism; some ethnic Han monks went to Tibet to study Tibetan Buddhism and translated and preached Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. Among such translators and preachers, Master Fa Zun was the most famous and he contributed most. By his numerous translated works, Tibetan Buddhism, especially Buddhist works and doctrines of Gelu sect lamas, mostly those of Master Zongkaba, began to spread among followers of Chinese Buddhism. Master Fa Zun’s contemporary and Buddhist scholar Lv Che is an outstanding figure in the history of Buddhist studies in China for his study of the origin and different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and of history of exchange between Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism and between Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Another person noteworthy is Esthonian baron Alexander von Stael-Holstein, who lived in exile in China and organized a research institute of Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism in Beijing in 1920s-1930s, hoping to restore Indian Mahayana by using living traditions of Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian Buddhisms existing in Beijing. He was assisted by a group of outstanding Chinese scholars, including Chen Yinke, Yu Daoquan, Lin Liguang, and together they made in-depth study on Tibetan Buddhism from different perspectives and achieved remarkable success. In addition, based on his anthropologist survey at Labrang Monastery, Gannan in 1930s, anthropologist Li Anzhai wrote in both Chinese and English a series of reports which were later compiled into “An On-The-Spot Investigation of Religious History of Tibetan People”, “Labrang---Li Anzhai’s Investigation Report”, etc.


During the sixty years following the founding of the People’s Republic of China, increasingly strong emphasis was given to study of Tibetan Buddhism, and a number of impressive achievements witnessed, including Wang Sen’s “A Brief History of Buddhism in Tibet”, Ya Hanzhang’s “The Biographies of the Dalai Lamas” and “The Biographies of the Panchen Lamas”, Living Buddha Donggar’s “A Dictionary of Tibetology by Donggar” and “The Institution of Combined Political and Religious Power in Tibet”, etc. These works have become basic text-books for the audience to obtain a comprehensive understanding of history and religious doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism, and laid a foundation for other scholars’ further study in later years of different sects of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, “An Archaeological Study of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries”, a classic of high scholarly worth written by Su Bai on the basis of his early 1950s investigation report on cultural relics in Tibet, provides invaluable information and accurate research results about the looks of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries before the Cultural Revolution. And Huang Mingxin’s works on Tibetan calendar and catalogues of Buddhist scriptures in Chinese and Tibetan are also classics among the literature on Tibetan Buddhist study in China. Huang’s comparative study of “A Zhiyuan Collated General Catalogue of Tripitaka” and “A History of Buddhism in Chinese-Inhabited Regions” from Yuan Dynasty provides preliminary work for us to collated Buddhist scriptures in Chinese and Tibetan. Wang Yao’s study of Buddhist history in Tubo period and his translation and introduction of Buddhist texts in ancient Tibetan found at Dunhuang provide invaluable documents and information for us to get access to the history of Tibetan Buddhism during former prosperity period. In addition, the large number of Buddhist works translated from Tibetan by Liu Liqian, Wang Yinuan, Guo Heqing, Chen Qingying, Huang Hao, etc, including “A Mirror of Genealogy of Kings; Records of Tibetan Royal Lineage”, “Tibetan Kings and Officials” “Red Annals”, “Blue Annals”, “History on Buddhism by Purdain”、“A Collection of Han and Tibetan Histories”, “A History of Sakya Sect”, “A Happy Feast of the Sages”, “New Red Annals”, “The Initiation of Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Thukvan III”, and biographies of Dalai Lamas and Panchen Lamas, have become basic documents for ethnic Han scholars to begin study of history of Tibetan Buddhism.


The progress in Tibetan Buddhist study has been impressive in the past 20 years, especially as shown in the following aspects: 1) Remarkable success has been achieved in the compilation and publication of Tibetan Buddhist texts. Firstly, the successful collation, compilation and publication of “Tibetan Tripitaka”. Secondly, persistent efforts in the collection and publication of ancient Buddhist texts in Tibetan made by the Tibetan Ancient Books Publishing House and ethnic publishing houses of Tibet and of other five provinces or municipalities. Many Buddhist texts in Tibetan that had been lost were recovered; a large number of religious literature from different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, including “Complete Collection”of lamas, “Bibliography” of temples, and commentaries, rituals, and collections of essentials, were reprinted. All these efforts ensure great convenience to in-depth study of history and religious doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang preserved in France were published by Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House in photocopy in recent years, thus many first-hand texts and documents necessary for study of history of Tibetan Buddhism during former prosperity period, and history of early exchange activities between Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism were recovered. With active efforts of international scholarly circle, study of Sanskrit pattra-leaf sutras discovered in Tibet has made substantial progress in recent years. As a research team mainly composed of Sanskrit specialists from China Tibetology Research Center and Oriental School of Peking University is growing, interpretation and study of these valuable classic Sanskrit scriptures will not only contribute significantly to the development of Tibetan Buddhist study, but will become a strong driving force to world Buddhist study.

2) The compilation and publication of a large number of Tibetan Buddhist texts have enabled us to easily apply them for a thorough study of some topics. For example, Tsering from Northwest University for Nationalities, by taking advantage of his participation in the compilation and publication of Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang preserved in France, discussed in detail the interaction between translated Chinese and Tibetan texts of Buddhism during Tubo period, and the history of exchange between Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism. Shen Weirong from China Renmin University began to study the history of Tibetan Buddhist spreading in northwestern regions and the Central Plains by using the large number of translated Chinese texts of the Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism discovered in Khara-khoto manuscripts preserved in Russia, and other Tantric texts discovered elsewhere of Tibetan Buddhism that are translated during Western Xia Dynasty and Yuan Dynasty, mostly Lam Drey preached by Sa-skya-pa.

3) Impressive achievements were made on study of history of Tibetan Buddhist art. For example, study by Professor Xie Jiesheng of Beijing Normal University on Tibetan Buddhist artworks discovered at Khara-khoto and on mural paintings in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Gansu, Qinghai, and Mongolia provinces draw attention from scholars of other countries. Xiong Wenbin of China Tibetology Research Center achieved brilliant success in study of Tibetan Buddhist art during Yuan and Ming dynasties, including texts, images and artistic styles. And Luo Wenhua of The Palace Museum, by taking advantage of his easy access to abundant texts and artworks, made outstanding achievements in his study of Tibetan Buddhist artworks in Imperial Palace of Qing Dynasty.

4) Specialists, especially those of China Tibetology Research Center, conducted a series of anthropologist, social or economic studies on Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and society. Their works published have helped us with a comprehensive understanding of organizational structure and economy of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, life of Buddhist monks, living Buddha reincarnation system, influence of Tibetan Buddhism on Tibetan’s living, etc.

It is undeniable that the efforts we put in the study of Tibetan Buddhism in the 60 years since the founding of People’s Republic of China is far less than that in the study of history of ethnic Tibetan; thus achievements made in the former are not as many as in the latter. Many areas of Tibetan Buddhist study are still blanks that have still to be filled or have just begun. For example, we are weak in the study of Tibetan Buddhist doctrines. There had been no monographs on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy until the publication in recent years of such works, e.g. by Panpan Dorje of Central University for Nationalities; and there have been no monographs of high scholarly worth on such representative Tibetan Buddhist philosophies as Madhyamika, Chittamatra,Hetuvidya,Tathagatagarbha,shentong view of extrinsic emptiness and etc. And our study of the Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is far behind that in western countries and Japan, and our study of anurrara yoga tantra is almost empty. In the past, we paid less attention to religious doctrines and rituals while studying history of different sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

In addition, most scholars of Tibetan Buddhist study have received no basic philological training which is valued in Western academic tradition, and cannot read Sanskrit texts, thus they are unlikely to handle the huge number of valuable Tibetan Buddhist texts in accordance with international academic standard. In sharp contrast to the situation of Tibetology in China, Tibetan Buddhist study has become one of the biggest branches of international Tibetology. International Tibetan Buddhist studies had placed much emphasis on history and language of Tibetan people and on texts in ancient Tibetan before 1980s, if ever, study of Tibetan Buddhism has enjoyed indisputable dominance in Tibetology since 1990s, as shown particularly in the US and Japan. Works about Tibetology published in recent years are mostly about Tibetan Buddhism. Currently in China, we are most short of study on philosophical thinking and practicing rituals of the Tantric tradition of Tibetan Buddhism; ironically, such areas turn out to be where overseas Tibetology has achieved most. Borrowing and application of such overseas achievements should become a starting point for our strengthened efforts in the study of Tibetan Buddhism.

Editor:Wenjuan Huang