India Report: the Tibet Debate

Snakes and Ladders (Game of Heaven & Hell). Credit: Wellcome Collection

India’s rapidly evolving relationships with its neighbouring countries have been much in the news lately.  Readers will be aware of the many high-profile visits to Lhasa recently made by Indian scholars, and in particular the many trips by the former head of the elite Nalanda University, Śāntarakṣita.  As we all know, it is his successor, Kamalaśīla, who was selected to take part in the important debate held at Samye temple.  His formidable interlocutor has been the experienced Chinese Mahāyāna scholar Héshang Móhēyǎn, who has long been promulgating his own teaching at Samye, and the debate sessions were presided over by King Trisong Detsen himself.

We can now report that, after two long years of dialogue and deliberation, this debate is now concluded.  There have been conflicting accounts about the outcome of the debate, but according to our well-placed source, the position of Kamalaśīla has been accepted in full.  As the debate is likely to have immediate as well as long-term ramifications for India-Tibet relations, a short review will be provided.

The topic of the debate could hardly be more important for the theory and practice of Buddhism in Tibet, and a wider impact may perhaps be felt.  It is, of course, the question of whether enlightenment is instantaneous or gradual.  According to the advocate for the former view, the subitist, enlightenment occurs through some kind of Zen-type experience.  But according to the latter, the gradualist, it is instead a slow and laborious process, involving the successive apprehension and quietening of different mental dispositions.  Explicating the gradualist view, many recent philosophers have talked of the need for hearing the teaching, studying the teaching, and finally, deeply meditating on the teaching.

Though both positions were originally formulated here in India, the subitist view has gained rather greater popularity in China, whereas the gradualist view is now quite popular here.  In the view of this publication, it is unfortunate that this debate has become rather overlaid with geopolitical considerations, and somewhat polarised between these two opposing camps.  A more impartial evaluation may suggest that there is much to learn from both approaches.

For, on the one hand, we are quite accustomed to depicting the quest for enlightenment through the game of mokṣapattam, or snakes and ladders, as an arduous journey complete with unexpected gains and setbacks.  On the other hand, poets since Vālmīki have been testament to the primary role of spontaneous intuition, or pratibhā, in all creative moments, camatkāra, of which both aesthetic experience and spiritual experience are but the two forms.

According to a spokesperson for Nalanda University, a Tibetan delegation is shortly expected to visit and to take delivery of some recent works on gradualism.

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