Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Freedom from Extremes - Introduction

Gorampa’s “Distinguishing the Views” and the Polemics of Emptiness


The Indian and Tibetan Buddhist sources tell us that the purpose of life is to attain enlightenment for the sake of others. But ignorance—the misunderstanding of reality—stands in the way of achieving that goal of enlightenment. One of the more urgent aims of Buddhist practice, then, is to overcome ignorance by cultivating an understanding of reality, the ultimate truth, the final nature of the self and the world. The Mahāyāna sūtras use a variety of terms to designate this profound truth: the sphere of dharma (Skt. dharmadhātu; Tib. chos kyi dbyings), phenomena in themselves (dharmatā; chos nyid), reality or thusness (tathātā; de bzhin nyid), and of course emptiness (śūnyatā; stong pa nyid). The Madhyamaka (dbu ma), or “Middle Way,” is the name of the Buddhist philosophical tradition whose chief concern is the view or theory (lta ba) of that reality known as emptiness. The Middle Way is so called because it is said to be a middle ground between two false extremes—the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Some of the greatest minds in the history of Indian Buddhism have devoted a good deal of philosophical writing to delineating

this Middle Way.

When the Tibetan court officially “adopted” Buddhism as the state religion, the Madhyamaka quickly became a part of the Tibetan intellectual landscape. Several accounts tell us that when king Khri srong lde’u btsan (eighth century) opted for the Indian over the Chinese form of Buddhism as the model of Buddhism that Tibetans would follow, he specifically mentioned the Madhyamaka as the school of thought that should be propagated.Although there are some indigenous Tibetan works dealing with the subject of Madhyamaka that date from the “early dissemination period” or snga dar (seventh to mid-tenth centuries), it is not until the so-called “later dissemination period” or phyi dar (mid-tenth century onward) that Madhyamaka really emerges as a distinct field of Tibetan philosophical speculation. And even then, it is not until the fourteenth century that Middle Way philosophy becomes incorporated into the curriculum of the great monastic academies.

As was the case in India, Tibetans were not of one mind concerning the interpretation of emptiness, disagreeing—at times vehemently—over what constitutes the Middle Way. These arguments usually took place on the debate grounds of the great monasteries. As oral exchanges, these debates have been for the most part lost to us,but at times the disputes made their way to the printed page. Those that did represent one of our most important sources for understanding Madhyamaka thought. Distinguishing the Views (Lta ba’i shan ’byed), by the great Sa skya pa scholar Go bo Rab ’byams pa Bsod nams seng ge (or Go rams pa; 1429–89), is one of the most renowned and important works of Tibetan Madhyamaka. It is a work that highlights these differences in interpretation, and a work that therefore belongs to the genre of polemics, representing one of the highpoints in the history of this genre.

On Polemics

All knowledge—and this includes philosophy—is polemical by nature.

Johan Huizinga

The great German Indologist Max Mueller once wrote, “To know one is to know none.” For Mueller, knowledge is comparative. To know a thing—a text, a practice, a culture—it is necessary to see how the thing relates to other things. It is by understanding the nexus of relationships between things that knowledge arises. And if, as Peirce puts it, “a thing without oppositions, ipso facto, does not exist,” then one can only conclude that knowledge not only has a positive (cataphatic) aspect, but also a negative (apophatic) one.T o know something requires that one understand both what a thing is and what it is not. Comprehension is a relational act. It requires that one be able to relate a given thing to other things that are similar, but also that one have an awareness of the way in which a given thing differs from other things. Knowing things in themselves—as isolates—is an incomplete form of knowledge. “To know one is to know none.” If something is to be fully known, it is necessary to understand how it relates to other things. More specifically, true knowledge requires the ability not only to chart similarities, but also to notice differences and contrasts.

Just as in the field of epistemology (the theory of knowledge), so too in the field of literary studies. Some types of writing tend to approach their subject matter cataphatically, focusing on a given subject and treating it as an isolated, self-enclosed, discrete subject matter. Connections may be made to other areas, but only insofar as they contribute to understanding the thing that one is analyzing. In this mode, resemblance is the guiding principle of interpretation. Other texts may be referred to, but the emphasis is on proof texts—works that positively support the position that one is trying to defend. The goal is to get at what the thing is by charting similarities rather than by noting differences. Expository commentary is a good example of cataphatic literary discourse. The focus in a commentary is on a given text as a self-enclosed, discrete whole. The goal is to explain the meaning of the text by glossing words and passages using words that resemble (that is, that are synonyms of) the ones in the text itself. Commentators do look to other texts, but they are concerned with them chiefly to the extent that they support their own interpretation. The emphasis is on charting similarities. The tone is irenic.

Apophatic forms of literary discourse focus on differences. Here the goal is to get at the thing by contrasting it to what it is not. To that end, literary apophatists are more interested in the texts and traditions that do not resemble their own. This form of discourse must, of necessity, look outside of itself, to texts and doctrines that are different. Views that are dissimilar to one’s own are carefully considered so as to create a stark contrast between self and other. The truth is arrived at through the negation of what is false/other. Apophatists are masters of negation and contrast. They have a keen eye for what is different, they are skilled in the techniques that bring out those differences, and they are accomplished in the logical strategies that repudiate what is other so as to make the self/same emerge as the only viable possibility. Polemics is a good example of apophatic literary discourse. In a polemical treatise, the object of analysis is the heterodox: the views (and sometimes practices) of others. These views are rhetorically constructed in a way that makes them easy (or at least possible) to refute. A variety of rhetorical strategies are used to repudiate opponents’ views, and in the end the reader is left with the polemicist’s own position as the only plausible alternative. The emphasis in polemical discourse is on differences. The tone is agonistic.

Now cataphatic and apophatic forms of literary discourse as we have just characterized them are what Max Weber would call ideal types. They are purely formal distinctions that exist only in the space of theory, and not in the real world of historically situated texts. No real-life literary work is purely cataphatic or apophatic. Rather, as ideal forms, the cataphatic and the apophatic occupy two poles on a spectrum; real-world literary texts always fall somewhere in between the two poles. Having said that, it is clear that some texts lie closer to the cataphatic end of the spectrum, while others are closer to the apophatic extreme. In this study, we are concerned with polemics as a form of apophatic literary discourse. Polemics is one of the most lively and interesting forms of religious-philosophical literature, and one of the most well known. Of the tens of thousands of volumes that constitute the Tibetan literary canon, the few dozen (or perhaps few hundred) works that are principally polemical are among the most popular.

What makes a polemic memorable? What makes it have an importance to a degree disproportionate to the space that works of this genre occupy within the literary canon? At least part of the reason has to do with who authored these works. Often the great luminaries of a tradition are its polemicists. Moreover, polemical works concern themselves for the most part with issues that are of central concern to a tradition. Even if polemicists sometimes get distracted by trivialities once they get going, what sets them on the path of polemics in the first place is inevitably an issue whose resolution is seen as vital, a rival’s position that is seen as a threat. This fact has led some scholars to conclude that polemics—and not imitation—is the sincerest form of flattery, for why argue against someone over an issue that one deems insignificant, or—despite the rhetoric that polemicists often use—a position that one considers truly indefensible. We might also add that the scholars who are the holders of these “false and dangerous” views—the polemicist’s opponents—are themselves usually major players in their respective traditions. Once again, why expend energy battling an opponent one believes is incapable of influencing others? Polemics is spectacle: the greats in conversation with the greats about issues that are central to a tradition.

Just as in the contemporary Western academic world, in Tibet reputations were made by attacking the views of a renowned scholar, whether on the debate ground (the professional meeting) or through the written word (the review). That Western academics have their own way of playing the game of polemics is witnessed by the way that careers are sometimes launched or buttressed on the basis of critical reviews of the work of others. In some circles this is even a rite of passage for the scholar. Of course, there is always a price to pay, for when polemicists are successful, they will always cause someone pain, even if—as they usually declare at the beginning of their works—their intentions are honorable, even if their criticism is directed at a specific view and not at the tradition as a whole, aimed at the position and not at the man, at the sin and not at the sinner. For the fact is that it is difficult—especially for philosophers, and especially when they are the target of the polemicist’s pen—to think that one is not one’s views. Part of it is simply human nature: our intense aversion to criticism. But it also has a lot to do with the public nature of polemical criticism. It is one thing to disagree with someone in the context of a private conversation, and quite another to make one’s disagreement known publicly and in print. Joseph Agassi, in the introduction to his collected reviews, The Gentle Art of Philosophical Polemics, recounts the way in which he became estranged from his mentor, Karl Popper, precisely on these grounds:

It must be seen that polemics is a ramification, in public, of criticism which may very well be offered in private. I report that many a time I had occasion to criticize publicly and did so privately—with the resultant gratitude, at times indicated or hinted at, at times expressed quite explicitly. I can also report that Popper’s enormous annoyance at my public criticism of his ideas is rooted in his opinion that I should have offered him the criticism in private.

But polemicists’ estrangement from others, their regret at having caused others pain (Agassi: “to the extent my criticisms…have caused pain, I do sincerely express my genuine regret”)—all of this obviously causes them distress and uncertainty (Agassi again: “Was I in error causing the pain that I caused? Was it avoidable? I do not know.”). But in the end, it would seem that estrangement does not cause polemicists so much distress as to prevent them from continuing to write in this vein. Most polemicists publish more than one polemical work; they are “repeat offenders.” (In Agassi’s case, his uncertainties did not prevent him from republishing his polemical reviews in the aforementioned volume!) Is polemicizing a compulsive activity? Whether or not it is pathological, it certainly appears to be an activity that causes the polemicist some anguish. Even the great Tibetan scholar Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga’ rgyal msthan (1182–1251) feels this:

When I announce [my views] publicly, those who do not know the Tantras become angry. Who is right, those angry ones or I? O Conquerors and their Sons, I pray that you consider [this].

It is simply a fact of the matter: polemics is criticism, criticism is painful, pain causes anger and resentment, and this causes estrangement. It takes a certain amount of mental fortitude and stamina on the part of the polemicist to withstand the kind of backlash that usually results from their writing, but then polemicists are strong-willed people, and they can usually stand the heat. In any case, whatever rift might ensue between polemicists and their opponents is usually made up for by the status that polemicists gain within their own communities—that is, among those who are partisan to their views. Indeed, many religious polemicists see their work as an act of devotion (to the founders of their traditions, to their present communities, and to future generations).

Yet another reason for the genre’s popularity, therefore, has to do with the role that it plays in forming and nourishing a sense of identity and belonging. Polemics is both the parent and the child of sectarian identity-formation. When such an identity becomes important to a culture—as it did in Tibet during the “later propagation period”—scholars will often resort to polemics to create a sense of distinctiveness for their particular school. Followers of that school will in turn look to polemical works to give them a sense of identity: to show them how their school differs from and is superior to that of their rivals. Polemical literature is extremely effective in this regard for, as a form of apophatic discourse, its emphasis is precisely on differentiation. It makes sectarian distinctions real by introducing actually instantiated alternative views, but also safeguards sectarian identity by undercutting the alternatives that it introduces. Thus, it provides the partisans of a given theory or school with exposure to opponents’ views; but because it embeds those views in a larger context that includes their refutation, it becomes a “safe haven” in which to explore alterity. All of this is to say that polemics is an important factor not only in “the invention of tradition,” but also in perpetuating tradition.

It would be misleading, however, to see polemics as invariably directed externally—that is, outside of a given tradition. Not all polemics are inter-sectarian. One has only to think of the intra-disciplinary disputes that exist within the Western academy, or the schisms that have plagued the Buddhist tradition since its founding, not to mention the battles that have been waged (or are still being waged) within many of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism to see that polemics—and sometimes the most bitter polemics—can be intra-sectarian. And one wonders, for example, if there are specific historical, political, and economic conditions that favor the emergence of interversus intra-sectarian polemics. Although it is tempting to think that intra-sectarian polemic always postdates the intersectarian variety, this does not seem to be the case, given that there are frequently bitter squabbles that arise in the very formation of religious sects. But despite the fact that controversy is rampant within religious traditions—during, but not limited to, the time of their founding—the occlusion of controversy (for example, the suppression of intra-sectarian polemical texts) can also be an important strategy in the formation and preservation of sectarian identity. If there is a generalization that can be made here, perhaps it is that inter-sectarian polemical literature is more likely to become public and to survive as a cultural artifact than its intrasectarian equivalent, for no other reason than that traditions are loathe to hang their dirty laundry out to dry.

Let us digress for a moment to ask a question that is most urgent. Is sectarian differentiation really such a good thing? Should a literature that encourages sectarian distinction be promoted, either in its own right or indirectly, by making it into the object of the scholar’s gaze? What of intersectarian strife? We would argue, stipulatively, that there is a difference between “sectarian differentiation” and “sectarianism.” The former is simply an inevitable historical development that arises out of human beings’ desire to create and nurture social and institutional structures of belonging—intellectual and spiritual homes, places where we share common goals and a common language—in a word, traditions. Sectarianism, by contrast, is a pathological outgrowth of sectarian differentiation wherein traditions become static and reified, and wherein dogmatism prevails. Here dialogue gives way to monologue. In its more extreme form, raw forms of power (legal, military, etc.) are used to enforce the will of the hegemony. True, sectarian differentiation often gives rise to sectarianism, but the latter is not an inevitable outcome of the former. As we shall see below, Tibetan culture has seen periods where sectarian developments have been a condition for tremendous intellectual and spiritual flourishing. It has also seen periods when the society has been ravaged by sectarian violence and bloodshed. In large part due to the catholicity of the present Dalai Lama, the ethos in the Tibetan religious world today is one of relative harmony and mutual tolerance. Bon (Tibet’s indigenous religion), Tibetan Islam, and the “canonical” schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Rnying ma, Bka’ brgyud, Sa skya, and Dge lugs) have been relatively successful at recouping their respective cultural legacies, both in the diaspora and (to a lesser extent) in Chinese-occupied Tibet. While these traditions retain a strong sense of identity, they live side-by-side in relative harmony. Sometimes there is dialogue and cross-fertilization although, as the Dalai Lama frequently points out, perhaps not enough. Of course, there are always occasions when the peace breaks down; but if nothing else, the present ecumenical climate shows us that strong sectarian differentiation need not always culminate in the social pathology of sectarianism.

Let us grant that polemical literature is important in sectarian identity-formation. Is this the most relevant reason for the genre’s popularity? In the final analysis it may be style more than anything else that explains the disproportionate appeal of such works. Polemical literature has glitz. It is to philosophy what action movies are to the film industry. A polemical work entices by titillating. It uses caricature, exaggerating the boundary between good and evil. It employs invective, insult, and at times even overtly violent language. And in the end the “bad guys” get reduced to dust. Is it not the case that the instinct that keeps us glued to the screen when we are watching Mad Max or The Terminator is the same instinct that also makes us enjoy a good polemical tract?

Socio-historical and psycho-analogical explanations for the popularity of the genre notwithstanding, there are good philosophical reasons for why polemics has been (and should continue to be) at the forefront of our study of Buddhist thought. So obvious that it may go unnoticed is the fact that polemical discourse is dialogical. It introduces the voice of the other, and not just any other, but an other that occupies the position of challenger. Of course, not all polemical writing actually identifies the opponent by name. Keeping one’s rivals anonymous is a well-known rhetorical strategy for denying them power and intellectual plausibility. (It is always easier and safer to dismiss an unattributed view than it is to reject the position of a known scholar who has a reputation.) But even when the opponent is not named, a polemical work by its very nature shows us that there is more than one side to a given issue, that things are not quite as simple as they appear to be on the surface, that there are others in the world who hold views different from the author’s own, and that they have their reasons for doing so. True, the opponent is portrayed for the sake of being refuted, but a polemicist does not have a completely free hand in the way he depicts his adversary. Polemicists must tread a fine line, for if they caricature the opponent’s stance—if they paint a picture of their opponent that is inaccurate and extreme—the intelligent reader will pick up on this. The refutation of straw men quickly turns philosophy into farce. So the position of the polemicist’s opponent must always seem plausible, at least plausible enough that it appears worth refuting. Otherwise, why compose the work in the first place? Of course, polemics is also dangerous and risky. When confronted with plausible opponents, there is always the chance that readers will side with them, and that they will find the arguments offered by the polemicist to fall short of their mark. And this, as we know, is the one of the reasons why polemics is a controlled genre, why polemical works are frequently banned, why students are discouraged from reading such tracts until they are “intellectually well-formed” and until sectarian identity has been firmly inculcated in them. Polemics, therefore, is a literature that is intended “for mature audiences only.”

Good philosophers are like good chess players, and much of philosophy unfolds in the way that an imaginary game of chess does. The scholar makes a move in his mind, always anticipating how an opponent will react, constructing hypothetical objections and dispatching them. But of course not every imagined countermove will be made in a real game. In the end, the imaginary game may turn out to be just that—the playing out of possibilities that will never occur in a real-life confrontation. When the game of philosophy (or chess) is played out in the mind of a single individual, there are no constraints, nothing to curb the imaginative (some would say “paranoid”) impulse. It is this, in part, that has led to the charge that much of philosophy is nothing but mental masturbation. But polemics is a different kind of philosophy from the one just described. Polemics is more like playing a real game of chess, since it engages a real-life opponent. Here the philosopher/player is responding to views/moves that are actually instantiated by a real opponent in history. And even if the polemicist’s opponent/interlocutor has long since passed away, the disputant can expect a response from the latter-day followers of his adversary. This grounds polemics and gives it an air of reality that is missing from more speculative, monological forms of philosophical discourse.

The rhetoric of a polemical treatise also engages the reader in a more active fashion than simple expository and speculative prose. Polemics demands a more immediate response from the reader. It constructs a world in which there is a sense of urgency, a real need for evaluation: “You are either with us or against us. Decide now!” All of this gives it an immediacy lacking in other forms of philosophical prose.

Of course, polemicists are often given to excess. They sometimes do caricature their opponents’ positions. They exaggerate, and at times even misrepresent, their rivals. In their exuberance to “neutralize” the views of their opponents, their logic is sometimes less than flawless. And the motives of polemicists are in many cases far from noble. A desire for reputation, patronage, power, and followers is in some cases more evident as the driving force than a desire for the truth. All of these facts—none of which, of course, can be denied—have led some scholars to paint a bleak picture of the genre. The words of Dan Martin are not atypical of the critics of polemics:

…polemic is extreme testimony produced under a state of duress and usually put forward to induce a state of duress. Polemic does its best to undo the background and authority of a tradition as it understands itself, and in various ways remake that background into something disreputable and unworthy of further interest. Seeing this delegitimating motive behind polemics, we may yet at times find truths in them, but they should hardly be our primary sources of truths. At best they can only occasionally, and that despite their designs, supply some useful points of secondary verification. In any case, we will keep polemics filed away in a folder clearly marked with the words “hostile testimony.”

Martin’s somewhat hyperbolic rhetoric—his polemic against polemics, as it were—is, if nothing else, at least consistent with his view of what polemics is, and of how it should be done. But the bleak picture that he paints of the genre is of course a caricature. There is obviously bad polemical literature but there is also, happily, a more noble variety. At its worst, polemics exaggerates and misrepresents. It is sophistic and at times even petulant. Instead of bringing about positive change, it causes views to become entrenched, and is therefore counter-productive. It is all of the things that Martin says it is in this passage, and more. But there is also a more dignified variety of the genre: polemics that is truly motivated by the desire to know the truth, that is fair to the opponent, that is concerned with the issues and not with ad hominem attack, that relies on sound logic and arguments that are subtle and even convincing. But in the end, perhaps the truth lies somewhere between Martin’s view and my own. Idealistic portrayals of a genre (whether as good or as evil), while useful heuristically, always fall short of the mark if our goal is to understand real historical examples. And it may be that polemical literature, like all things human, probably has something of both the demon and the angel in it. But even in its more demonic forms, we would maintain, polemics is an unprecedented source for exploring religious-philosophical thought, for it is always possible, as Martin reminds us, that even in the worst of cases, “we may yet at times find truths” in these texts.

Religious Polemics in Tibet
As one of the world’s great religious-philosophical systems, the Tibetan tradition is sufficiently rich that its literature spans the entire cataphatic-apophatic spectrum. At the cataphatic end, we find expository works epitomized by the genres of word-commentary (tshig ’grel) or commentary qua annotations (mchan ’grel), which, as the names imply, provides the reader with glosses of a classical (Indian or Tibetan) text, elucidating the internal structure of a work, analyzing its terminology, providing definitions, expanding on arguments, and providing additional proof texts. At the apophatic end of the spectrum are polemical works whose primary goal is to refute opponents (on which, see below).And then, of course, there is much that falls in between: works that have dual agendas—to set forth one’s own system, but in the process to repudiate the views of philosophical competitors, or to respond to their objections. An example of this latter, mixed-genre is the so-called Collected Topics (bsdus grwa) literature, which actually codifies both the apophatic and cataphatic elements into the very structure of the text. In Collected Topics texts, each subject is treated in three modes: through the refutation of others’ positions (gzhan lugs dgag pa), through the establishment of one’s own position (rang lugs gzhag pa), and through the rebuttal of others’ objections to one’s own position (spong ba). Despite the clearly apophatic dimension of the Collected Topics texts—the truth is partially arrived at by engaging and repudiating what is false—the genre is not, strictly speaking, polemical. In its post-fifteenth century Dge lugs form, which is the main form of this literature available to us today, it is a pedagogical genre used to teach students the art of debate. In most instances, the “others’ positions” are considered not so much because they represent the positions of real opponents, but because they are heuristically useful to the overarching goal of giving students an overview of the important topics of Buddhist doctrine and of training students in the art of doctrinal disputation.

Since the text of Go rams pa translated here is a polemical work, we now turn to considering Tibetan polemics in more detail. Our purpose is to contextualize Go rams pa’s work by situating it within the broader field of literature to which it belongs. We begin with a general, synchronic discussion of polemics as a genre of Tibetan literature, discussing some of the nomenclature used in the titles of these texts, as well as some of their structural features and rhetoric. In the following section we consider Tibetan polemics from a more diachronic perspective, offering a brief (and admittedly impressionistic) historical overview of the genre.

The corpus of Tibetan polemical writings appears to be relatively small. A search of the most complete digital bibliographical database of Tibetan literature yet compiled, that of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), reveals that of the more than 28,000 volumes listed, less than one percent of the works can be considered overtly polemical based on their titles.Of these about half are philosophical, and about one quarter deal with tantra. The rest range across all fields of Tibetan learning, from monastic discipline to medicine to grammar.

Despite the relative paucity of polemical texts in the Tibetan literary corpus, however, the genre is one of the most important and popular. Some of the most significant and renowned texts in Tibetan literature are polemical. And mixed-genre works—texts that are only partially polemical—are often remembered more for their polemical than for their irenic prose. We shall consider some of the more important examples of the genre in the following section. Here, we are concerned with the more general features of such works.

Polemical passages can be found in a variety of texts of different genres. And sometimes we find an entire work of a genre that is otherwise nonpolemical used for polemical ends. For example, the ordinance (bka’ shog), the epistle (spring yig),and a genre known as “replies to questions” (dris lan, zhus lan) have all been used to launch broadsides against opponents. But there is a class of texts in Tibetan literature that might be termed “polemics,” even if Tibetan authors use a variety of different words to refer to it. The indigenous Tibetan nomenclature used to designate a literary work as polemical is twofold: (a) terms that are used to refer to works that bring forth charges (of inconsistencies, fallacies, etc.) against opponents, and that therefore initiate polemical exchanges, and (b) terms that are used to refer to works that respond to the charges made by others. As examples of the former—what we might call the accusatorial moment that initiates a polemical exchange—we find terms like “debate/dispute/argument” (rtsod pa), “disputational document or record” (rtsod yig),“refutation” (dgag pa), “record of a refutation” (dgag yig), “adversarial speech” (rgol ngag), and “critique/repudiation” (sun ’byin). As examples of the latter terms—the terms used to designate the responsorial moments in polemical exchanges—we find words like “response to a dispute/argument” (rtsod lan), “countering/overturning an argument” (rtsod spong, rtsod bzlog), “response to a refutation” (dgag lan, honorific gsung lan), and “rebuttal” (brgal lan). To use the analogy of warfare, the first type of text—the one that initiates an exchange—might be likened unto an offensive, while the second type is more defensive. The fact that polemics as a genre is bifurcated in this way means that Tibetans view polemics chiefly as exchanges or dialogues, not unlike the exchanges that take place in oral debates. A polemicist will initiate an exchange by writing a text that is critical of a particular figure, of the texts that that figure follows, and/or the views that he holds. Later followers of the scholar being attacked will respond. Each moment in the exchange may be separated by centuries and the subsequent responses and rebuttals may go on for hundreds of years—indeed, indefinitely.

In general, the titles of indigenous Tibetan literary compositions have two parts. The first part is usually informational. It provides the reader with the gist of the subject matter of the text. The second part of a title is more poetic, a flourish that, despite its being encoded in the language of metaphor, nonetheless gives one an indication of the subject matter and genre of the work. In the case of polemical texts, the words just mentioned—“argument,” “refutation,” “rebuttal,” “confutation,” etc.—are frequently found in the informational portion of the title. For example, a polemical work on pilgrimage written in 1617 by Rig ’dzin Chos kyi grags pa (1595–1659) is known under two titles. The longer one reads An Eloquent Disquisition Aimed at Destroying Another’s Adversarial Claim: A Necklace for Those Who Preach Scripture and Reasoning (Gzhan gyi rgol ngag ’joms pa’i legs bshad lung rigs smra ba’i mgul rgyan). The alternate title condenses the first (that is, the informational) part of the longer title, and reads A Response to a Refutation: A Necklace for Those Who Preach Scripture and Reasoning (Dgag lan lung rigs smra ba’i mgul rgyan). From the informational part of the title, then, the reader gleans that this is a polemical text and, more specifically, that it is a work belonging to what we are calling the second (responsorial or defensive) moment in a polemical exchange. In the informational part of a title, we often find opponents’ views characterized as exemplifying ignorance (ma rig), error (’khrul pa), evil (ngan pa), falsity (log rtog), and lies (log smra). The polemicist’s text is then characterized as what overcomes (’joms) or destroys (tshar gcod) that error.

The poetical or ornamental part of the title of polemical works can also be indicative of their genre, though in this case one gleans this through metaphorical allusions in which the opponent’s views are likened, for example, unto darkness (mun pa) and the polemicists’ treatise is portrayed as a lamp that clears away that darkness (mun sel sgron me). Throughout history, Tibetan polemicists have been fond of portraying themselves as fierce animals—lions (seng ge), dragons (’brug), etc.—who can easily subdue their prey, and whose roar brings fear into the hearts of all who hear it. And they have used a wide variety of metaphors for their texts, calling them “diamond scepters” (lag nyal), “diamond particles” (rdo rje gzegs ma), “diamond weapons” (pha lam rdo rje’i mtshon cha), “meteors” (gnam lcags), “lightning” (me char), “thunder” (’brug sgra), “large drums” (rnga chen), and so forth— all of which are seen as having the capacity to destroy opponents’ views, or to drown out their speech. Take, for example, a defense of the Rnying ma tradition against its critics written by ’Gyur med tshe dbang mchog grub (1761–1829), A Meteor that Overturns [The Views of] a Critique: The Roar of Wild Laughter of a Hundred Dragons (Rtsod bzlog gnam lcags ’brug brgya dgod pa’i nga ro). While the author resorts to a variety of metaphors—indeed, to more than do most texts—the reader will get a sense of how poetic images are used to convey the agonistic character of a polemical text. Of course, not all polemical works contain such metaphors. For example, the work of Go rams pa translated here is entitled Distinguishing the Views: Moonlight [to Illuminate] the Main Points of the Supreme Path (Lta ba’i shan ’byed theg mchog gnad kyi zla zer). So while it is true that many polemical texts inscribe their genre into their title, we should not think that this is an invariable rule of the genre.

Turning now from the title to the body of polemical works, it is not uncommon for polemicists to begin (or end) their works by expressing a certain degree of trepidation at the task that is before them (or the task that they have just completed). They often bemoan the condition of the world in which they live. It is the degeneration (snyigs ma) of the present age that has caused false views to arise, they tell us, for we live in “an evil time, a time of disputatiousness” (dus ngan rtsod pa’i dus). While reluctant to engage in the task of refuting “false views,” thereby adding to the contentiousness that already exists in the world, it is nonetheless the polemicist’s duty, or burden (khur), to do so. Put another way, a certain rhetorical ambivalence or hesitation is required on the part of the polemicist, lest it appear they enjoy their work. This usually gives way to a discussion of motivations. Polemicists are all too aware of the fact that not everyone who engages in controversy is operating with the best of intentions. Listen to the warning of Bu ston Rin chen grub:   

Those who, desiring one’s own fame at the expense of others, Who with craft, deceit, harsh words and evil intentions,
Engage in various forms of prattle that hurts the minds of others— Polemics of this kind are the cause [to be reborn in] hell.
Is publicly challenging the views of others then worth the risk? Chag lo tsā ba believes that it is, because, as he says,
…there is great purpose in doing so. Not out of jealousy or pride, or to vanquish others, but so as to protect the teachings of the Buddha, so as to make the Dharma flourish, so as to repudiate false and impure doctrines, and so as to clear away the veil of misconceptions.

Another author tells us that “it is out of compassion for sentient beings that we have spoken up.” If left unchallenged, wrong views will proliferate, especially among those of inferior intellect (blo dman). Altruism is therefore the polemicists’ ostensible motivation, but of course we know that there are always other motives—political, economic, etc.—also at work. Tibetan polemicists rhetorically construct their audience as being very broad—all sentient beings, all Tibetans, all “holy beings” (skyes bu dam pa), and, on one occasion at least, all Buddhas and bodhisattvas—but it doesn’t take a great deal of discernment to see that their audiences are really much more local than their rhetoric suggests. Sometimes polemicists write to their opponents in the second person, directing their criticisms at a specific person or school: “You claim (or you do) X, but this is not right for Y and Z reasons.” But as often as not, they will simply deal with issues impersonally: “X is false for Y and Z reasons.” This does not mean, however, that Tibetan polemics operates with an abstract notion of truth, the way that post-Enlightenment Western philosophy does .As Stephen Toulmin reminds us, a nowhere-situated reasoning that is in search of an abstract, disembodied truth is a relatively recent development, even in the history of Western thought; and as Talal Asad has shown, this model of reasoning is hardly the model that is operative in all cultures. Closer to the concerns of this volume, as Georges Dreyfus has observed, because the Tibetan scholastic tradition is heavily commentarial, “any philosophical elaboration must be presented as a commentary on an authoritative text” so that “views could never be presented on their own philosophical merits but only as authoritative commentary.” This is an important point to keep in mind, especially as we turn to the work of Go rams pa. Classical Tibetan scholars were operating with a set of assumptions—and were bound by a set of rules— that are different from those of modern Western scholars. For example, most of the Tibetan debates presume as a ground-rule the validity of Indian Buddhism, even if what Indian Buddhism is is often up for grabs. This is understandable, given the widespread Tibetan assumption (at least from the eighth century on) that Indian Buddhism is the traditio franca, the common source of all true doctrine and praxis. The point is that “truth,” “reasoning,” and “argumentation” simply mean different things in a tradition that is committed to working within the bounds of a religious canon. But this insight must be tempered through some further observations, lest it be thought that Tibetan polemics is nothing but dogmatics. First, we must bear in mind that the Tibetan canon is vast. A wide range of views are to be found within its thousands of texts. Scholars could therefore find scriptural warrant for many different positions, and they did. Second, the Tibetan imagination is subtle and profound. Trained exegetes could always find clever ways of creatively “interpreting” texts so as to bend them to their will, a project that has sometimes been called eisegesis (“reading into”) as opposed to exegesis (“reading [the meaning] out of [the text]”). So even if truth always had to be presented in a way that was responsive (and responsible) to the tradition, there was a great deal of wiggle-room. This also allowed for innovation and, inter alia, for the radically divergent views that the reader will see presented in texts such as Go rams pa’s. Finally, we must not forget that for Tibetans “religious experience” (nyams pa, nyams rtogs) came to be considered another way of legitimating innovation. While the tradition may be loathe to admit that experience is a way of injecting novelty into the system, it is nonetheless the case that Tibetan thinkers have often resorted to visionary and other forms of “mystical” experience to validate new intellectual agendas—to create theories and practices for which it would be difficult to find canonical warrant. All of this is to say that while it is true that the canon serves as the rhetorical boundary for Tibetan polemical speculation, there existed mechanisms for transcending that boundary.

In the following section, the reader will get a sense of the range of topics debated by Tibetan polemicists. Here we simply note that Tibetan religious polemics has three major foci: practices, texts, and doctrines. Debates center, for example, on whether certain practices (both ritual and meditative) are truly Buddhist, or whether they have been “adulterated” or influenced by non-Buddhist (chiefly Bon and “Hindu”) customs or traditions. Textual disputes are concerned with the authenticity of specific literary works (chiefly, though not exclusively, tantras), and with questions of interpretation. Doctrinal controversies focus on the question of whether certain doctrines are consistent (internally consistent, consistent with our experience of the world, with the teachings of Buddhism, etc.).While it is true that Tibetan religious polemics is mostly issue-focused, we do not want to paint a picture of polemics as a lofty and objective exchange between two parties. Passions were involved, and not infrequently authors succumbed to the temptation to attack their opponents ad hominem, or to engage in any one of a number of forms of argument that in Western logic are classified under the rubric of informal fallacies. There is plenty of unconvincing argumentation that takes place in these texts, and plenty of name-calling. In fact, there are probably few cultures that have mastered the art of the polemical insult to the extent that Tibetans have. And this undoubtedly is part of what makes the genre a spectacle, and therefore what makes it popular. Tibetan polemicists sometimes claim that their opponents are under the influence of drugs, or of various diseases, or worse, that they are possessed by demons—for why else would they be babbling nonsense. They compare them to dumb animals (sheep is the preferred species). They accuse them of pride, but too stupid to know even how to boast, they do their “dance” with “the decapitated head [rather than the tail] of a peacock hung from their behinds.” Consider these lines by one of the great masters of invective, Mkhas grub Dge legs dpal bzang (1385–1438):

Your sophistry…has spoiled the Conqueror’s vast teachings. It is the banner of demons, the messenger of evil spirits…
But you, thief of the doctrine, who spread your demonic words in all directions,
Cannot resist the profound doctrine, which, like a diamond, I now use to pierce your heart.
Perpetually drunk on the evil fluids of jealousy,
You give yourself over to the recitation of spells that harm the holy ones.
Fooled by devils, mistaken are those poor beings
Who consider such prattle to be the advice of a virtuous friend.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg! Even as serious a scholar as Go rams pa cannot resist suggesting, for example, that Tsong kha pa’s supposed conversations with Mañjuśrı may have been a dialogue with a demon instead. Obviously, comments like these ruffled feathers, especially when they were directed at the great saints or founding figures of a tradition. But from their years on the debate grounds of Tibet’s great monasteries, Tibetan scholars also learned to take such comments in stride. All that said, if one generalization can be made about the historical development of Tibetan polemics, it is probably that there is an increasing tendency to focus on issues. This is not to say that name-calling—polemics as vilification—ever ceases. If anything, it becomes more refined and vicious over time. It is to say that, in the words of the old Buddhist adage, scholars increasingly “focus on the issue (chos) rather than on the person (gang zag).” As this happens, the genre becomes increasingly more rationalistic. This will become clear in the following section, as we turn to a historical overview of Tibetan religious polemics. A word of warning, however: Tibetan literature is vast, and Western scholars have barely begun to scratch the surface of this rich corpus of writings. The overview that follows, then, is of necessity impressionistic. Still, it will give the reader a general idea of the way that polemical literature has evolved over the centuries in Tibet. It is meant to provide a context for understanding Go rams pa’s own work as one of the highpoints of the genre.


How to cite this document:
© José Ignacio Cabezón, Freedom From Extremes (Wisdom Publications, 2007)

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