The Dynamics of the Evolution of Tantric Traditions in Tibet

Buddhist Monks

Dr. Yael Ben Tor

The creation stage of the Guhyasamāja Tantra

The main objective of my research project is to better comprehend the way the tantric traditions in Tibet crystallized during their classical period.  So far no in depth investigation of the inner logic, coherence and discontinuities of Tibetan tantric traditions during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries has been carried out.  This was the epoch of the systematization of Buddhist thought and practice in Tibet, the peak of exegetical writing activity, when Tibetan scholarship had gained the confidence to assert their own understandings of Buddhist culture imported from India, and to form their own styles of Tibetan Buddhism within the frameworks of a number of schools.  My purpose is to understand the factors that stimulated the creation of coherent and comprehensive systems of thought, specifically in the area of Tantric Buddhism—much less studied than the area of Buddhist philosophy, although these two areas cannot always be neatly segregated. 

The focus of my research is on the creation stage, the Buddhist tantric meditation par excellence, said to transform the yogi into an enlightened being, a Buddha.  In particular the research concentrates on the tantric cycle of the Guhyasamāja Tantra, since it offers the main hermeneutic methods that are applied to other Tantras as well.  I am looking at the works of Tibetan scholars from the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries belonging to different schools on the subject of the soteriological path of the creation stage, and in particular at their conversations—conversations that at times turned into disputes. Among the key figures participating in the movement towards a coherent understanding of Tantric Buddhism systems were the Zhwa-lu-pa Bu-ston, the Sa-skya-pa-s Red-mda'-ba, Rong-ston, Ngor-chen Kun-dga'-bzang-po and Go-rams-pa as well as the Dge-lugs-pa-s Tsong-kha-pa, Mkhas-grub-rje, Nor-bzang-rgya-mtsho and Paṇ-chen Bsod-nams-grags-pa.  Just a few years ago the complete writings of some of these Tibetan scholars were unavailable, but nowadays thanks to the publication of numerous Tibetan books, new areas of research are made possible.  The expected significance of this project is a better understanding the fascinating process of the crystallization of the branch of Buddhism we know as Tibetan tantric Buddhism.