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Tibetan Buddhism has an estimated ten to twenty million adherents worldwide, and yet people generally know little about the tradition apart from recognizing its head, the Dalai Lama, and its rough recent history since communist China invaded Tibet in 1950. Even among scholars of Eastern traditions, many thinkers consider the vajrayana aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, from the artwork to the ritual practices to the unique material culture, to be the features that render Tibetan Buddhism distinctive in character from other lineages of Buddhism. In his new book, The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism, Sam Van Schaik, a leading researcher on Tibet, unfolds a much richer bedrock of difference that gives Tibetan Buddhism its distinctive flavor. Van Schaik unfolds a fascinating history that demonstrates that the Tibetan practitioners and scholars did not so much depart from earlier Mahayana traditions as extend those traditions in distinctive and colorful ways. Their great success, argues Van Schaik in this study, was to integrate the tantric practices of the vajrayana with the aims and philosophy of Mahayana, forging new coherent systems of practice or “paths” that originate at the initiation of spiritual practice and culminate in the state of enlightenment. The Tibetans, Van Schaik explains, were the first to come up with an integrated practice that leads through developmental stages of secret mantra and other spiritual practices to ultimate perfection, set out in a clear and coherent path that leaves nothing behind along the way, since each new stage includes and builds upon the last, adding ever more subtlety and depth.
Another intriguing aspect of Tibetan Buddhism of which many people remain unaware is the vital role that history plays in the way that Tibetans understand their tradition and their practice. When we learn of the harsh landscape of Tibet, one might imagine that a culture raised up against such a backdrop might remain focused on the practical concerns of survival, rather than on academic pursuits. However, it turns out that Tibetan Buddhist scholars have been rigorous historians of their religion since at least the tenth century of the Common Era. Over a millennium of historical writings testify to the rich history of this tradition of practice. For Tibetan Buddhists, reading and writing about these histories is also a form of spiritual practice so the histories do not merely sit on shelves of some dusty vault, for scholars alone to consult, but they serve daily functions in the lives of practitioners.
Van Schaik demonstrates how this love of history has played out across the development of this unique tradition: every teacher and every practice forms part of an unbroken chain of the historical lineage. When a Tibetan begins her spiritual journey, she begins by assessing prospective teachers, then identifying and examining a teacher for herself. Then she develops an attitude of devotion toward both the teacher and the lineage so that she may begin to emulate them, and follow their tradition of practices through realization of enlightenment. Histories are written partly to serve the function of supporting a student’s respectful attitude towards teachers from her own practice lineage and toward her teacher as a representative of the lineage. There are five distinct lineages in Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kadam, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. However all Tibetan lineages trace their line from the Buddha Shakyamuni in India and share the abhidharma accepted by all schools of Buddhism.
After a thorough accessible and authoritative introduction, Van Schaik sets out the chapters of the remainder of the book as steps along the path of Tibetan Buddhist practice, examining its key texts, beginning from the basic ethical code shared by all Buddhists and proceeding to the self-awareness and transformative practices of the Mahayana tradition, unfolding the role of philosophical investigation along the path, and then to the vajrayana practices. Finally, Van Schaik introduces the function of prayer and other rituals, as well as giving the reader sample biographies of several revered masters used to focus devotion and inspiration. Each chapter draws upon historical texts to demonstrate each stage along the path, but is introduced by the author to give coherence and clarity. Thus the whole work offers the reader a deep sense of the historical progress and evolution of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition over more than a millennium.
This book is written as an introduction for those new to the topic, but seasoned scholars of Buddhism will appreciate the great detail of this work and the wealth of original text provided here. The book is rich in content but remains accessible to any educated reader interested in understanding the unique path of the Tibetan Buddhist.
© 2016 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy), North Carolina A&T State University.