Profound Meanings and Dubious Buddhas: Reading the Tantric Polemics of Early Fifteenth-Century Tibet

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This article considers what it means to take Buddhist authors “seriously” by critically investigating the choices available to Buddhologists interpreting tantric polemics. This genre fuses conventions of philosophical debate and of tantric commentary, presenting a rich array of issues of interpretation and practice, along with broader philosophical questions. In Tibet, it is common for centuries to pass before a reply to a critique is issued, often raising one simple question for scholars: Why now? Scholars of tantric polemics therefore negotiate between choices to abstract or to contextualize these arguments, as well as between interpretive dispositions of good faith and the hermeneutics of suspicion. The Sakyapa monk Ngor chen Kun dga’ bzang po composed a text and commentary on Overcoming Objections to the Three Tantras in 1406 in response to a charge that threatened the foundations of his tradition’s approach to both sutra and tantra. The problematic claim is that the Hevajra Tantra embraces the philosophy of Cittamātra. The article evaluates the undesirable consequences that would result if his opponent’s claims were valid, with particular attention to Ngor chen’s use of contradiction, absurdity, and the tendency to “get personal.” I explore the role of one opponent, Red mda ba’ (Gzhon nu blo gros), and the challenges he poses: the cross-contamination of lineages and inconsistency in interpretive stance. Through this analysis of Ngor chen’s approach in Overcoming Objections to the Three Tantras, I demonstrate how tantric polemical texts demand tempering “pure philosophical questions” with concerns with human and institutional relationships, ritual, and exegesis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-48
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Religion
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies


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