Visionary and objective history

Visionary and objective histories of Tibet

The histories written in Tibet are entirely different in principle and function from modern Western history. They describe different types of truth, and are based on different types of evidence. Tibetan history describes visionary truth. It relies on sources such as visions, dreams, and past-life memories. Western history tries to find an objective truth, relying on objective evidence.

One main function of Tibetan history is inspiration. Tibetan histories consist largely of descriptions of miracles and exciting encounters with gods and demons. These may motivate us to greater effort in our practice. Another function is validation. Miraculous or visionary events are a main form of evidence for the sacredness and authenticity of texts, practices, teachers, and lineages.

One main function of Western history is to understand current ideas, events, people, and social groups by understanding similar past circumstances.

As I explained earlier, we do not need to choose between the visionary and objective concepts of truth. We also do not need to choose between visionary and objective histories. This is despite the fact that Tibetan and Western histories are in direct contradiction in many (perhaps most) cases. Both are valuable, if we have the skill to know which one to use for which purposes.

“Tibetologists” are Western academics who study Tibetan history, culture, society, and religion. They face a dual political problem. Until recently, most had to pretend to reject one form of history or the other. They could only be accepted by Western historians by swearing allegiance to the objective truth, and dismissing all visionary sources as superstitious falsehoods. They could only be accepted by Tibetan Lamas by swearing allegiance to the visionary truth, accepting history as written by Tibetans at face value, and rejecting Western standards as reductive materialism. Since it is important for Tibetologists to work with both Western and Tibetan experts, this is difficult.

It appears that this dilemma has eased somewhat in the past decade or so. (I am not a Tibetologists, just an amateur observer. I would gratefully accept corrections here from professionals.) The work of Samten Karmay may be central. Born in Amdo (Eastern Tibet), he has both a Geshé degree from Drepung University in Lhasa and a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. So he has a thorough understanding of both cultures’ concepts of truth and history. His breakthrough 1988 book on the history of Dzogchen acknowledged that very few, if any, of the Dzogchen texts attributed to Padmasambhava were objectively written by him. But Karmay is a Dzogchen master. His interest is not in disproving Dzogchen, but in better understanding it through objective history.

Perhaps because the taboo was broken by an ethnic Tibetan, it seems increasingly possible for Tibetologists to come out of both their closets. They can acknowledge to their Western colleagues that they are practicing Buddhists who are unwilling to reject visionary truth as mere superstition. They can also acknowledge to their Tibetan colleagues that they are committed to Western standards of scholarship and unwilling to gloss over absurdities, contradictions, and political fabrications as unquestionable divine revelation.

This remains a minefield, however. On the Tibetan side, it is particularly sensitive due to Tibetan history’s function of sacred validation. For example, it is clear by Western historical standards that the “outer” understanding of terma texts (as physically hidden by Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyal) is almost always false. Objectively, they were written at about the time they were revealed by the terton—presumably by the terton himself or herself. Saying this, however, seems to play into the hands of Tibetan conservatives. They have always rejected terma for exactly this reason. That has been the basis of a thousand years of ugly political power struggles. However, the conservatives are on equally shaky ground. The visionary histories of their Indian scriptures are in many or most cases also untrue by objective Western standards. Western scholarship potentially threatens to shift Tibetan power relationships based on lineage histories.

This worry would fail to understand the compatibility of visionary and objective truth, however. It is true that the origins of scriptures are obscured in order to authenticate them as received from gods in ancient times. But this is not the only or whole truth. It is also true that the same termas are not written by tertons, and are received from gods. David Germano seems to express this dual point of view in an article on the history of the Nyingma tantras:

It may be useful to speak of visionary translation, visionary authorship, visionary readership, and visionary editing within the broader context of a visionary canon marked by visions, reincarnations of past saints, and emanations/incarnations of past, present and future Buddhas. In this way we can bibliographically and interpretatively acknowledge the tradition's own self-understanding and self-representation, but also make useful distinctions with more conventional notions of translation, authorship, readership and editing that were as familiar to Tibetans as they were to Westerners.

It may be relevant that non-religious creative works are often experienced as “received” rather than “authored.” There are many famous cases of this, such as Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan; Tchaikovsky’s description of symphonic composition; Kekulé’s discovery of the structure of benzene; and the extraordinary mathematical theorems that were whispered in Ramanujan’s ear by the goddess Namagiri. But this is common for entirely ordinary people too. When taking an art class, I once suddenly experienced my hand being “guided,” and without my effort or intention, it produced a painting that was better than I could have done myself. (I have no artistic talent, and the result was still not good; but I couldn’t do anything like it.) I have had both essays and mathematical theorems “appear in my mind,” suddenly and apparently out of nowhere, more-or-less complete. I mention these mundane experiences only to show that this is not mystical, or contradictory to objective truth. Such experiences are not terma, because they involve only ordinary mind. However, the reception of terma may be similar—except that it occurs in enlightened mind rather than ordinary mind.

As Western Tibetan Buddhists, we all straddle two cultures. Probably we couldn’t give up our grounding in Western notions of objective truth, even if we wanted to. I think we shouldn’t, even if we could. The Western understanding of truth and history has great value. On the other hand, we also must accept the visionary reality of Tantric history.