"Simplicity and Elaboration in Buddhist Theory and Practice: Points of Friction in the Tantric Profile of the Great Perfection"
From the vantage point of many contemporary Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the non-dual nature of intrinsic awakened cognition—or buddhanature—serves as the pristine ground and culminating realization of the elaborate mainstream tantric visualizations, baroque ceremonials, and demanding physical postures connected with deity-yoga and subtle-body practices. Yet the presumed symbiosis between the simplicity of just letting go into intrinsic awakened cognition and the elaboration of standard tantric practices stands at the end of historical processes which have often given voice to tensions between these two currents of Buddhist thought and practice. This presentation will explore these points of friction through analysis of a revelatory cycle rediscovered by the famous Treasure revealer Sangyé Lingpa (1340–1396) called The Buddha’s Only Child (Sangs rgyas sras gcig). This cycle brings together the Great Perfection contemplative practices of recognizing intrinsic non-dual awareness and enabling spontaneous visionary experiences, with the standard tantric practices of detailed visualization, ritual practice, and material religion, prescribing the manufacture of the cycle’s basic text into circular diagrams and their distribution as amulets. This combination of features—at once discursive and material, contemplative and ritual—can, it will be argued, throw into particularly sharp relief the deeper tensions—both problematic and productive—between the opposing tendencies toward simplicity or elaboration in Buddhist traditions as a whole.
James Gentry is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. He specializes in Tibetan Buddhism, with particular focus on the literature and history of its Tantric traditions. He is the author of Power Objects in Tibetan Buddhism: The Life, Writings, and Legacy of Sokdokpa Lodrö Gyeltsen, which examines the roles of Tantric material and sensory objects in the lives and institutions of Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhists. His current projects include a study of the reception in Tibet from the 9th century to the present of the “Five Protectors” (Pañcarakṣā)—a set of five Indian Tantric Buddhist texts that have been among the most popular scriptures used for pragmatic purposes throughout the Buddhist world.
Co-sponsor: Tibetan Studies Initiative