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Theses Doctoral

Tsongkhapa’s Coordination of Sūtra and Tantra: Ascetic Performance, Narrative, and Philosophy in the Creation of the Tibetan Buddhist Self

Arnold, Edward Allen

The dissertation examines the life narrative of Tsongkhapa Losang Dragpa (1357-1419), the influential founder of the Ganden school of Tibetan Buddhism, primarily through the lens of the bodhisattva path to enlightenment, a topic that animates much of Indian Buddhist literature and Tsongkhapa’s own writings. Over the course of five chapters, the dissertation (1) contextualizes Tsongkhapa’s social, political, and historical circumstances, the limiting factors for that narrative; (2) explores the social nature of life narratives themselves, particularly Tibetan Buddhist ones, and the many sources on which Tsongkhapa drew in creating a self in relation to the bodhisattva ideal; (3) analyses the topic of asceticism as a constellation of practices that embody traditional ideals, which the dissertation uniquely relates to both monastic and, perhaps surprisingly, tantric discipline in the construction of a bodhisattva/would-be buddha self; (4) synthesizes several themes within Tsongkhapa’s oeuvre in relation to the bodhisattva path to enlightenment, highlighting the irreducibly social nature of embodied enlightenment; and (5) proposes that Tsongkhapa’s social activities, specifically his so-called Four Great Deeds, instantiate the ideal of the enlightened self’s acting within society, specifically his context of fifteenth-century Central Tibet. The dissertation relies primarily on Tsongkhapa’s brief intellectual autobiography, Excellent Presence, his earliest biography, Haven of Faith, a number of Tsongkhapa’s systematic writings, and a variety of primary and secondary sources that contextualize elements of the historical, sociological, religious, and theoretical analyses presented throughout the five chapters.

In biographies of Tibetan Buddhist figures, emphasis on the hagiographic tends to obscure the social, political, and historical contexts in which their subjects act, which in turn tends to reinforce the Weberian notion of Buddhism as an individualist path. Emphasis on individual achievement (simultaneously including yet excluding lineages, practices, philosophical positions, and so on) tends to reinforce the inverse, Foucauldian notion that this is a deliberate attempt to obscure various power struggles that actually define religious actors and institutions. In the case of Tsongkhapa, modern scholarship has tended to present the remarkable success of his Ganden school either to his individual genius in advancing (allegedly) unique philosophical positions or to social facts (e.g., his efforts at monastic reform), political facts (e.g., Phagdru dominance over rival Sakya), and historical facts (e.g., Mongol allegiance to his successors) largely unrelated to his personal charisma, erudite scholarship, or social impact.

As a sort of middle way between these extremes, it is possible to locate within these contexts the specific achievements of the individual who is—according to both general Buddhist understanding and contemporary theorists in philosophy, psychology, literary studies, and sociology—deeply socialized. As social documents, life narratives, inclusive of biography and hagiography, function as indices of tradition, just as do practices of monastic and tantric asceticism, all with goals of embodying the principles articulated in the systematic literature within the social, political, and historical contexts to be transcended. This ideal, then, proves to be fully situated within social contexts, and Tsongkhapa’s Four Great Deeds instantiate it in relation to both individual achievements of asceticism and the institutionalization of communal and educational capacities to replicate the processes engendering this ideal, buddhahood. In sum, Tsongkhapa’s life narrative expresses the expectations and ideals of Tibetan Buddhist culture in a way that proves complementary to systematic presentations and to “lived” practices of monastic and tantric asceticism.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Thurman, Robert A. F.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 15, 2021