Back to the future

Back to the future

From the history of Vajrayana, I have learned a lot about its present and future.

  • History helps explain why Vajarayana is as it is now. Many aspects of modern Vajrayana do not make sense in religious terms. They do make sense when Vajrayana is understood as partly the product of cultural, social, and political processes over centuries.
  • History shows that Vajrayana can be far more diverse than it appears today. The differences between the modern Schools of Vajrayana are much smaller than the differences between modern Vajrayana and past Vajrayana. At each stage in its development, Vajrayana has adapted to changing cultural circumstances. Accepting these many past versions of Vajrayana as legitimate opens the possibility of very different, legitimate forms of Vajrayana in the future. Because circumstances are changing especially rapidly now, Vajrayana will probably need to look quite different in a hundred years if it is to survive.
  • Some past forms of Vajrayana may be better for the 21st Century than the main forms now practiced. I will give an example at the end of this page.

Innovation and tradition

Modern Western culture is based on a fundamental confidence: the belief in innovation and progress. It mostly assumes that whatever is newest is best.

Buddhist culture is based on a fundamental lack of confidence: the belief in degeneration from a glorious past. It mostly assumes that no one can come close to the accomplishments of ancient masters. Innovation is not allowed. Whatever is oldest is best. To count as “authentic,” a doctrine or practice has to be traced back to a mostly-mythical Golden Age.

So the main reason to write history, in traditional Buddhist culture, was to prove that Buddhism, as practiced by the author’s sect, was exactly the same as taught by an unquestioned saint of the distant past. Only then could current practice be considered authentic.

traditional history obscured innovation

As understood by current Western historians, the history of Buddhism mainly concerns power struggles between competing, innovating sects. Each sect had to use history to demonstrate that its new version of Buddhism was the ancient and therefore authentic one. So a main function of traditional Buddhist history was to obscure what actually happened. As each innovation occurred, imaginary history had to be constructed to prove that it was not, in fact, new. Also, Buddhism as previously practiced often had to be hidden, or explained away somehow.

Fortunately, because of Buddhist respect for texts and the past, many histories were preserved, from many periods of the development of Vajrayana. These each tell quite different stories. Because that was inconvenient, older histories were rarely if ever read—but they survived.

Vajrayana has been far more diverse over time

Western historians have been using them to reconstruct a more objective history. This is work-in-progress, with key discoveries in the last decade. Many questions are still unanswered. However, what is now known is quite enough to demonstrate that past Vajrayana was constantly changing, and has been far more diverse over time than at present.


The rest of this page discusses some starting points if you are interested in learning more about Vajrayana history yourself.

I have to start with several warnings:

  • Much of the objective history of Vajrayana is ugly. As a practitioner, you will probably find it upsetting. To the extent that your devotion to Vajrayana is based on stories of saints with pure motivation, your faith will be shaken. It did significantly harm my practice for a while. You may not want to risk that. Please take this seriously, and consult your teacher if in doubt.
  • With one partial exception—Samuel’s book, described below—the Western history of Vajrayana is in academic form. It is written for professional historians. (Perhaps someday there will be a popular overview written for practitioners.) If you are not used to academic style, it will be hard going. You will also need a fairly complete understanding of modern Vajrayana, because doctrines and practices are named, not explained. Some familiarity with the Tibetan language is very helpful.
  • Knowledge is developing rapidly, and the interpretations in older works may be overturned by current or future works. Below, I discuss book-length works, which lag the journal literature. Journal articles usually focus on tiny points, however.

Starting points

The best introduction is Geoffrey Samuel’s 1993 book Civilized Shamans. It is written for a general educated audience, rather than professional historians, so it is less difficult than the other works below.

Samuel’s main aim was to describe the diversity of Tibetan Buddhism both over time and across sects. He focuses particularly on an opposition between the monastic, scholastic, sutric, urban, “civilized” strain of Tibetan Buddhism and the non-monastic, yogic, tantric, village, “shamanic” strain. These have been in creative tension from the beginning. Much is now known that was unknown in 1993, so some of Samuel’s interpretations are incomplete or even incorrect, but overall it’s a great book.

Ronald Davidson’s two books form the most up-to-date overview of Vajrayana history. Indian Esoteric Buddhism (2003) covers the period up to Tantra’s introduction into Tibet; Tibetan Renaissance (2005) describes its subsequent development. I found various parts of these frustrating, upsetting, boring, exciting, and fascinating.

Samuel and Davidson cover general Vajrayana history. As a Nyingmapa, I’m particularly interested in the history of the Nyingma school. The following works are good starting points for that.

For a general history, Dudjom Rinpoche’s 1991 The Nyingma School is invaluable. It is the definitive statement of the modern Nyingma tradition’s understanding of itself. It is a mixture of visionary and objective history, however. This is not a criticism, but if it is important to you to know which is which, the book won’t always help.

Jacob Dalton’s 2002 PhD thesis is a history of the Nyingma tradition in relationship to a single key document, the Sutra of Gathered Intentions. Actually a tantra, not a sutra, it is officially considered the root text of Anuyoga. It is, therefore, officially, one of the three most important Nyingma texts—together with the root tantras of Mahayoga and Atiyoga. However, it was not originally an Anuyoga text at all; and for most of its existence it has not actually functioned as one, either.

Dalton’s work is exceptionally interesting in showing the ways that this text has been repeatedly re-interpreted in order to suit changing cultural, social, and political circumstances. Because of its supposedly central role in the Nyingma tradition, these re-interpretations reflect central concerns of the tradition at each stage in its history.

Along the way, we find answers to puzzling questions about modern (post-1900) Nyingma practice. For example, why is the main modern function of the empowerment ritual entirely unrelated to the function prescribed for it in scripture? Why is it that almost no one actually practices Anuyoga any longer?

Samten Karmay’s 1988 The Great Perfection was a breakthrough history of Dzogchen. It was effectively the starting point for separating objective and visionary history. It’s still the only book-length overview. However, many important documents have been found since 1988 that give a much fuller understanding of how Dzogchen changed over time. Unfortunately, this understanding has not yet been summarized, and is scattered across numerous journal articles and PhD theses.

The current consensus of Western historians is that Dzogchen developed gradually in Tibet. It was not imported from India or Uddiyana (other than, possibly, in seed form). Dzogchen tends now to be taught as though it were a single, coherent, homogeneous system that differs only in detail between lineages. The historical perspective is that what counted as “Dzogchen” changed dramatically and repeatedly over time, and was often a matter of intense political controversy.

The closest we have to an up-to-date synthesis is David Germano’s long 2005 article “The Funerary Transformation of the Great Perfection.” It contrasts earlier and later Dzogchen. The early “pristine” Dzogchen was highly varied, and was concerned with the philosophy of non-duality and with extremely simple meditation practices. Later Dzogchen became increasingly uniform, and increasingly concerned ritual performance, in the style of Mahayoga. (I have described this as “yana slip” earlier.)

back to the future

As I mentioned early on this page, I think some earlier forms of Vajrayana may be more appropriate to 21st Century circumstances than are the current dominant forms. This is an example. Ritualized Dzogchen is probably less useful now than the older, “pristine” form. In fact, if Germano’s account has a hero, it is Nyangrel Nyima Özer. In the 1100s, he resisted the ritualization of Dzogchen. He was probably responsible for the Chiti teachings, which may be the high point of the “pristine” tradition.