The Canonization of Philosophy and the Rhetoric of Siddhānta in Tibetan Buddhism

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The Canonization of Philosophy and the Rhetoric of Siddhānta in Tibetan Buddhism
Citation: Cabezón, José Ignacio. "The Canonization of Philosophy and the Rhetoric of Siddhānta in Tibetan Buddhism." In Buddha Nature: A Festschrift in Honor of Minoru Kiyota, edited by Paul J. Griffiths and John P. Keenan, 7–26. Tokyo: Buddhist Books International, 1990.

Article Summary

In a provocative essay entitled "Sacred Persistence: Toward a Redescription of Canon"[1] Jonathan Z. Smith describes the process of self-limitation that occurs when a tradition comes to define for itself (and to define itself in terms of) a canon. There he states that "the radical and arbitrary reduction represented by the notion of canon and the ingenuity represented by the rule-governed exegetical enterprise of applying the canon to every dimension of human life is that most characteristic, persistent, and obsessive religious activity."[2] Perhaps the most important shortcoming of what is an otherwise masterful essay on the subject of religious canons and their interpretation is Smith's apparent lack of concern with the causal processes underlying the formation of canons and specifically with the social implications of the exclusion of texts or other religious elements from a canon. Contrary to Smith's claim, it has become quite clear, especially in the scholarship of the past decade, that the "reduction" involved in the process of canon-formation is never, as he suggests, "arbitrary". Instead, religious texts come to be considered canonical usually at the expense of other texts that are consciously excluded and thereby denied normative status. To say that the decision to exclude a particular work is conscious and not arbitrary is to point out that it is ideologically motivated (at times only implicitly so), that it arises within a specific historical and sociocultural context and, perhaps the most significant point, that it is an act of the religious hegemony.[3]

This question aside, seeing the canon as a predicament, i.e., as a tradition's self-imposed limitation, and viewing the exegetical enterprise as the means whereby a tradition extricates itself from this predicament, is indeed a provocative way of formulating the problematic of religious canons. In this essay I intend to employ Smith's notion as a springboard for discussing the Indo-Tibetan concept of siddhānta (Tibetan grub mtha', literally 'tenet'), a concept that represents on the level of philosophical ideas this same process of self-limitation. I will maintain that the adoption of such a schema serves functionally to "canonize" philosophy in much the same way as the collection of accepted scriptural texts creates a norm for what is textually canonical. I shall also examine some of the rhetorical strategies involved in utilizing and upholding the validity of the siddhānta schema. In particular, in the latter part of the essay I will turn my attention to the exegesis of the Tibetan dGe lugs pa school and shall examine how this brand of Buddhist scholasticism deals with the problems that arise out of the self-limitation that occurs in the course of canonizing its philosophical tradition. As might be expected, the examples that best illustrate the unique dGe lugs pa exposition of siddhānta have to do with points of controversy, and among these some of the most controversial have to do with the theory of Buddha Nature. Hence, much of the material that we shall consider will in one way or another have to do with the notion of tathāgatagarbha.

In what follows I shall urge, first of all, that in the scholastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, especially in the literature of the dGe lugs pa sect, the siddhānta schematization served as a de facto canonization of Buddhist philosophy that came to defme what was philosophically normative.[4] Secondly, I shall maintain that, despite the fact that Tibetan exegetes have arrived at only a tentative consensus[5] as to the nature of the textual canons,[6] the determination of whether or not a doctrine was normatively Buddhist (and if so either provisionally or unequivocally true)[7] involved to a great extent a rhetoric that had as its basic presupposition the validity of the siddhānta schema. Put in another way, philosophical discourse (and particularly polemics) was based as much on the siddhānta classification scheme as it was on the physical canons, the collection of the "Buddha's word" and the commentarial literature whose creation it spurred. In many instances the siddhānta schema that formed the doctrinal or philosophical canon came to supersede the physical canon as the standard by comparison with which new ideas or texts came to achieve legitimacy.[8] (Cabezón, "The Canonization of Philosophy," 7–9)
  1. In Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago, 1982).
  2. Ibid., 43.
  3. Some recent studies have dealt with the question of canonization in historical context, most recently Matthew Kapstein's excellent essay "The Purificatory Gem and its Cleansing: A Late Tibetan Polemical Discussion of Apocryphal Texts," History of Religions 28/3 (1989), 317-344. However, the fact that the canon is a sociocultural construct and the implications of this for the groups that have become marginalized by exclusion has, in the field of religious studies, with few exceptions been the exclusive insight of feminist criticism; and here it is primarily the works of Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether that come to mind. The problematic of canons in its more sophisticated and complex form has been a focus of attention in a variety of other disciplines such as literary theory and sociology. See, for example, John Guillory, "Canonical and Non-Canonical: A Critique of the Current Debate," English Literary History 54 (1987), 483-527; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, The Claims of a Common Culture: Gender, Race, Class, and the Canon," Salmagundi 72 (1986), 131-143.
  4. I am here using the word "canon" in a broader Greek sense, referring to norms or standards rather than to a specific collection of texts. See Gerald T. Sheppard, "Canon," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York, 1987), 11. 62-67.
  5. As Kapstein has recently shown ("Purificatory Gem") it is not clear to what extent a complete consensus was ever reached. Nevertheless, certain texts of the rNying ma pa school (selected gter ma) whose authenticity was questioned by the hegemonious dGe lugs pa school, were never incorporated into the rNying ma pa version of the Tibetan canon but continued to be studied by the rNying ma as a separate body of works ancillary to the canon itself. So, for several hundred years, all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism have held the bka' 'gyur and the bstan 'gyur in common as the de facto canon of Buddhism. On the Tibetan canon see Kenneth Ch'en, "The Tibetan Tripiṭaka," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 9 (1946-47), 53-62, and see the following note.
  6. I use the term in the plural because it seems to me that besides the collection of scriptures that were considered to be the Buddha's actual words (bka'), known as the bka' 'gyur, the corpus of commentarial and ancillary treatises (bstan bcos) known as the bstan 'gyur achieved a canonical status far above the status of the equivalent texts in the West (this modulo (sic) Kapstein's recent claim that "large portions of such hallowed collections as the Tibetan Tanjur will have to be regarded as being in some sense extracanonical," where "few of the works and authors represented therein [were] generally thought to be so exalted as to be accorded the authoritative status otherwise reserved for works described as buddhavacana." ["Purificatory Gem," 219]). If there is one principle that seems to describe the process of canon formation in Tibet it seems to be that of "inclusion"; this is to say that it was considered far more important to err on the side of including marginally canonical material than on the side of failing to include a truly "canonical" work.
  7. On the doctrines of provisional and definitive (drang nges) meaning see my, "The Concepts of Truth and Meaning in the Buddhist Scriptures," Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 4/1 (1981), 7-23; and, A Great Dose of Emptiness (Albany, New York, forthcoming). In this latter an up-to-date bibliography on the subject is to be found.
  8. Although this is not the place to pursue the point in detail it is worth mentioning in passing that much of Jürgen Habermas's work on "legitimation" in a social-scientific setting may, at least on the level of theory, be a fruitful methodological tool for approaching the issues under discussion here. In particular, his notion that the West has passed through certain distinct phases in which political institutions have achieved legitimacy in different ways makes one pause to wonder whether, in regard to religious texts, ideas, or institutions, such phases might be identifiable, and if so how they may compare crossculturally. See Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston, 1975), and "Legitimation Problems in the Modem State," in Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston, 1979), 178-205. See also Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985), 358-386.