Compassionate Violence?: On the Ethical Implications of Tantric Buddhist Ritual
Buddhism is often presented as a non-violent religion that highlights the virtue of universal compassion. However, it does not unequivocally reject the use of violence, and leaves open the possibility that violence may be committed under special circumstances by spiritually realized beings. This paper examines
several apologetic defenses for the presence of violent imagery and rituals in tantric Buddhist literature. It will demonstrate that several Buddhist commentators, in advancing the notion of “compassionate violence,” also advanced an ethical double standard insofar as they defended these violent actions
Violence and Compassion in Mahāyāna Buddhism
Buddhism has typically been portrayed, by both insider advocates and outside observers, as a peaceful religion, one which condemns violence and seeks rather to cultivate, internally, states of mental calm and clarity, and externally, a compassionate mode of engagement with others.1 This portrayal is
supported by the fact that most Buddhist traditions emphasize the cultivation of compassion and loving-kindness as indispensable aids to spiritual development. Yet despite this important focus, violence has not been completely repudiated within many Buddhist schools of thought. Rather, it is left open
as a possible mode of action, albeit an exceptional one, to be used by exceptional beings under exceptional circumstances. This caveat supported the development of an ethical double standard,2 in which behavior that is normally condemned, especially when committed by members of other religious or ethnic groups, is portrayed as justifiable when committed by members of one's own group. In this paper I will seek to examine this ethical tension as it arises in tantric Buddhist ritual literature, a genre that challenges Buddhist self-representation as peaceful and non-violent through its description of ritual
procedures that are believed to yield violent results. Buddhists generally condemn violent behavior, and uphold instead the virtues of loving-kindness (maitrī) and compassion (karuṇā), which are powerful inclinations to augment the happiness and minimize the suffering of others, respectively, often at the expense of one's own self-interest. The virtue of compassion was given a central role in Mahāyāna Buddhist soteriology, as an indispensable aid to the achievement of Buddhahood.3 On the popular level, the virtues of compassion and generosity were highlighted in narratives such as the Jātaka tales, which relate the Buddha's
past lives. These themes are dramatically illustrated in stories such as the Bodhisattva's self-sacrifice to feed a hungry tiger family, or in the stories of King Śibi, who sacrificed his own eyes at the request of a beggar, as well as his own flesh to save the life of a pigeon. The importance of these
Mahāyāna Buddhists advocate universal compassion, which is nondiscriminatory and active in all contexts. This, naturally, reflects a distinctive worldview. As Charles Taylor argued, moral reactions "seem to involve claims, implicit or explicit, about the nature and status of human beings . . . a moral reaction is an assent to, an affirmation of, a given ontology of the human" (Khoroche1989:5). Universal compassion, as understood by Mahāyāna Buddhist scholars such as Śāntideva, implies underlying beliefs about the nature of the self. In their view, ordinary individuals' moral reactions are discriminatory, and as a
consequence their compassion is limited in scope, typically restricted to friends and family. This is because they adhere to a limited view of the self as an isolated and independently existent entity. Universal compassion, on the other hand, arises from the realization of selflessness and interdependent origination. On the basis of this realization, the Bodhisattva, or person dedicated to the attainment of awakening, realizes the interdependence of all living beings, a realization that necessitates compassionate moral reactions in all contexts.5
Despite their emphasis on universal compassion, some Mahāyāna Buddhists did not, and do not, unequivocally rule out the practice of violent actions such as killing.6 Several Mahāyāna scriptures permit killing under exceptional circumstances as an exercise in expedience or "skillful means."
For example, the Upāyakauśalya Sūtra relates a famous episode in the past life of the Buddha. According to this scripture, the Buddha was previously a captain named "Greatly Compassionate," Mahākaruṇika,7 who was transporting five hundred merchants on a journey. He became aware that a notorious bandit was
planning to attack and kill the merchants. He realized that he had three possible courses of action, to, first, do nothing, and allow him to kill the merchants, which would be terrible for all involved. Secondly, he could warn the merchants, who would then preemptively kill the bandit. This would result in the merchants suffering the karmic consequences of killing. Thirdly, he could kill the bandit himself, and take the karmic burden onto himself, sparing
both the bandit and the merchants. He chose the latter action.8 This story presents an ethical dilemma, especially if one believes in karma and rebirth. It narrates an instance of "compassionate killing," in which a spiritually advanced being, a Bodhisattva, engages in violence as a last resort. It makes very clear that his underlying motivation is not anger or hatred,
but rather compassion for all involved.9 This is plausible within the scope of Buddhist ethics, because Buddhists have long privileged intention as the key feature for ethically evaluating an action (Harvey 2000:52-58). The Buddhist focus on intention permits considerable ethical flexibility. This focus shifts emphasis away from outward adherence to rules of morality, and promotes the view that the individual is an ethical agent engaged in what Michel Foucault
termed "ethical work," in which one strives "not only . . . to bring one's conduct into compliance with a given rule, but to attempt to transform oneself into the ethical subject of one's behavior."10 As an agent who is a locus of a complex and ever changing social network, the Bodhisattva's goal is to act so as to maximize benefit for all involved, but because these decisions to act are purely contextual, it is
Tantric Visions of Fierce Compassion
Mahāyāna Buddhists' equivocal attitudes toward violence persisted, and were in fact greatly heightened in the tantras. This is partly due to the general philosophical continuity between early Mahāyāna thought and its later phase of development, which is tantric.11 Tantric Buddhist thinkers advanced the
proposal that Bodhisattvas, on account of their underlying compassionate orientation, are exempt from ordinary ethical norms. An extended defense of the seemingly unethical behavior of Bodhisattvas was undertaken in a work attributed to the eighth century Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita, the
Tattvasiddhi.12 In this work, he quotes from a number of sources to support the view that Bodhisattvas transcend conventional rules of morality. He claims that "As it is stated in all of the Yogatantras such as the Guhyendutilaka, 'for the mind endowed with wisdom and expedience, there is nothing which should
Āryadeva explained that "From the perspective of bodhisattvas, virtue and non-virtue are all conceptions." Taken in terms of this, they attain the distinctive fruit on account of the fact that these are conceptual distinctions that result from distinguishing things in terms of merit and demerit, which are conceptual constructs, and also because they are distinctions made with regard to form, etc. Thus this position must be admitted even by those who do not hold it.14
This argument, that human ethical codes are conventional and hence lack any basis in ultimate reality, is, from the Mahāyāna Buddhist perspective, the strongest argument that can be mustered in defense of the position that a Bodhisattva must, when dictated by compassion, violate these rules, for
compassion is the dominant moral value in Mahāyāna Buddhist ethics, which trumps all other considerations. This debate was not entirely restricted to the realm of philosophical discourse, but had a serious impact on tantric Buddhist practice. For there is a significant body of tantric Buddhist literature that evokes violent imagery or describes violent ritual practices. These passages are problematic even
within the tradition, for although Mahāyāna Buddhists saw violence as ethically justified in exceptional circumstances, Buddhists had a long history of resisting ritual violence, and Buddhist identity was in part defined vis-à-vis the Vedic ritual tradition that they rejected on these grounds (Gray 2005). Violence in tantric Buddhist ritual literature thus inspired fascinating commentarial responses. I will look at two genres of Buddhist ritual literature.
First, I will explore the violent imagery found in Buddhist meditation manuals, with a particular focus on the commentarial treatment of this imagery. Secondly, I will examine the debates concerning the use of violence, in this case, ritual violence, centering on the abhicārahoma or fire sacrifice performed in order to kill one's foe or foes.
My first example concerns the deity Heruka, a prominent tantric Buddhist deity. Like many other fierce tantric deities, his ferocity is mirrored in the myths of his violent origins. These accounts relate that he is a nirmāṇakāya emanation of the cosmic Buddha Mahāvajradhara, who manifested in the world in Śaiva garb in order to subdue the Hindu deity Bhairava. This itself is portrayed as a paradigmatic act of compassionate
violence, for the Hindu deity and his followers are accused in the myths of being guilty of acts of violence. These accounts were almost certainly written in reaction to the Hindu myths in the Purāṇas that demonize Buddhists. These myths relate the descent of deities such as Viṣṇu and Śiva into the world to
combat the pāṣaṇḍas or heretics, a loose category often applied to Buddhists (O'Flaherty 1983). The Buddhist myths, in turn, demonize the Hindu gods, portraying them as heretical on account of their alleged penchant for violence. Ironically, the "solution" to this problem is their violent subjugation. As these myths have been treated at length elsewhere (Davidson 1991; Gray 2007:40-54), I would like to turn to a justification for Heruka's fierce persona
authored by an important tantric Buddhist scholar, Buddhajñāna. Active during the late eighth and early ninth centuries, he is the author of numerous works, and also the founder of an important school of tantric exegesis (Davidson 2002:309-316). He composed two works on the fierce deity Heruka, a meditation manual (sādhana) and an autocommentary on it. His Śrīherukasādhana contains the following passage: "[[[Visualize]]] a vajra15 generated from [the
seed-syllable] hrīḥ, which blazes like a destroying fire. From that the compassionate fierce one is born, the great terrifier (mahābhairava) bearing a skull garland."16 Buddhajñāna comments on this as follows: If ferocity (krodha) is a virtue that arises in the compassionate mind, yet as it is a subsidiary affliction (upakleśa) classified with anger, how can he
be called the compassionate fierce one? It is generated preceded by compassion, just as the son is of the mother. Thus, it is prescribed as a method of anger which is an effect proceeding from the cause which is compassion, and it is like fire. As for the other, it
arises from the cause of the "me" and the "mine," and it is an effect that manifests in having an afflicted mind, in the manner of good and bad fortune.17 It is on account of this that it is said that he blazes like a destroying fire, for he manifests the appearance of that. He is a terrifier because he
Buddhajñāna advanced what would become a very popular interpretation in tantric Buddhist circles.19 Buddhist deities such as Heruka appear in fierce forms, but their ferocity is not believed to be a manifestation of mental afflictions such as anger. Rather, tantric Buddhists such as Buddhajñāna claim that these deities' ferocity is rooted in compassion, and hold that their fierce demeanor is an exercise in expedience. This accords with their emphasis on intention in ethically evaluating an action.
Evidently, tantric Buddhists either imagined or experienced themselves beset by hostile forces. They portrayed fierce deities, such as Heruka, as protectors of the Buddhist community against "demonic" forces, which often included Hindu gods and their devotees. They also devised ritual practices to
protect themselves from these forces. These include the ubiquitous defensive rituals that accompany most major tantric ritual practices, such as the construction of a mandala. These rituals "purify" the ritual arena, and establish protective barriers designed to thwart the encroachment of hostile influences.20 They also involve the invocation of protective deities, who are called upon to suppress and destroy the demons present with the ritual arena,
Buddhaguhya's argument is thus a defense of the violence or threat of violence posed by fierce deities such as Heruka. Perhaps due to the success of this argument, the vast majority of Tantric Buddhist commentators from the ninth century onward did not consider such ferocity to be worthy of commentary. There
were, however, exceptions to this pattern. These include Atīśa Dīpaṅkarajñāna (982-1054 CE), a Bengali tantric Buddhist scholar who was active at Vikramaśīla monastery during the early eleventh century. He discussed this issue in his Abhisamayavibhaṅga, a commentary on an important Cakrasamvara meditation manual attributed to the great saint Lūipa.21
Like many tantric meditation manuals, this text begins with a visualization of the mandala. The text instructs the meditator to visualize the rituals for the establishment of a mandala, including the rites of purification and pacification. These rituals assuage the threat posed by a hostile universe, in order to create a safe space for the manifestation of the ideal vision of the enlightened cosmos that the mandala represents.22
When the manual reaches the section dealing with the fierce protective deities and their elimination of the demons, Atīśa makes a unique commentarial move. Although the other ten commentators on this text either do not comment on them, or merely describe their appearances,23 Atīśa reflects upon the ethical implications of these deities, whose role is to crush any interlopers into the mandala's sacred precincts. This strongly suggests that this text was
written by Atīśa, who was a subtle thinker deeply concerned about ethical issues, and troubled by the apparent breaches of ethical norms in the tantric praxis of his day. He begins with a quote from the Yoginīsaṃcāra Tantra, a text on which Lūipa's sādhana is based: "Krodha Vijaya and so forth make effort for the sake of beings by the expedience of diverse disciplines, at the doors and in the quarters."24 In Atīśa's commentary we learn that the expression
"expedience of diverse disciplines" is a euphemism for violent action, a euphemism that is quite ancient, because the concept of expediency was long offered as an apology for violence in Buddhist literature. What the guardians really do, Atīśa informs us, is "plant their spikes in order to expel all of
the demons, and utter oṃ gha gha, etc. Then they beat them with mallets."25 He continues with the following justification for this behavior: Thus, in order to separate and analyze them with the indestructible characteristic and action of discerning wisdom (prajñā), and also isolate and burn them, there are, [respectively,] the vajra and fierce fences, and the wall of fire. It is not that they strike out of an upsurge of anger, however (AV fol. 188a).
Atīśa also holds that anger is not the underlying motivation for the instances of violence imagined in or implied by Buddhist meditation and ritual. He then explores the reasoning underlying the claim that violence is acceptable under certain conditions. He wrote that "Thinking that conventionally there is
no one injured nor an injurer is to revile [the doctrine of] cause and effect" (AV fol. 188a). Here he evokes and rejects the famous argument advanced in Hindu scriptures such as the Kaṭha Upaniṣad and the Bhagavad Gīta, that ultimately there is no killer or killed, because the true basis of the self, the ātman, is indestructible.26 But if Atīśa rejects this argument in favor of justifiable violence, how does he legitimate such actions? Even the demons that
haunt the periphery of the mandala are understood to be sentient beings by those who believe that they exist, and they are thus deserving of the universal compassion that Mahāyāna Buddhists advocate. He continues as follows:
Although there is no lack of causality conventionally, it is not, however a matter of getting rid of them through the application of actions motivated by anger, because conventionally one also has the armor of love, etc., and, ultimately, knowledge of birthlessness. Why is that? Conventionally all things are
none other than mind alone. Thus the very wavering astray of mind is Māra and the demons. Furthermore, insofar as the mind wavers astray into the path which leads to the wrong way, to just that extent can Māra operate. So it is said. The very straying of mind from its medicine is Māra and so forth (AV fol. 188a,b).
Atīśa here invokes the Yogācāra theory of the baselessness of imputations of independent existence to phenomenal reality in order to deny the external reality of the demons that are the targets of the ritual violence described in the text. This is an old defense, invoked, for example, in the seventh
century Mahāvairocana-abhisambodhi Tantra, which states: "Obstacles arise from your own mind, due to previous indulgence in avarice. In order to destroy their cause I teach the spirit of awakening (bodhicitta)" (Hodge 2003, 153). This text then lists a number of violent rites for destroying demonic
Atīśa then turns to an examination of authoritative statements on this subject. He continues, arguing: Now, it is well known to everyone that there is no one more knowledgeable than the Buddha. Did he explain this in a tantra? While this is so, there are no literally interpretable passages [to this effect]. Thus it says in the Abhidhānottara [[[Tantra]]], "There is no
killing nor non-killing by those who have controlled their minds. Yet those whose minds are bound kill one another." And also "Wearing the armor of love is the armor of the dharma of compassion. Those who have the sword of wisdom eliminate the demons of the afflictions. The wheel of authority28 is the great
protection, and with the stake one succeeds without demonic interference. With these rites of defense, awakening is bestowed upon the adept, and he is caused to take up the authority of the Lord, and wherever he abides is seen as being free of all demonic interference." One who is not like this, who has a wrong understanding of that authority, who is headed toward lower modes of existence through the actuality of evil actions, who is bound by the noose of
the afflictions, etc., cycling like a water-wheel, and who lacks distinction—such a person is not a yogī who abides on this path (AV fol. 188a,b). Atīśa finds solace in the formula propounded in the Abhidhānottara Tantra, namely that "killing" is a conventional phenomenon that the awakened transcend. However, he carefully accords this passage provisional rather than ultimate status, because he seems uncomfortable with the denial of ethical causality
that such passages imply. This justifies violence by those who have controlled their minds, and are thus not motivated by the passions. Rather, they are motivated by the cool calculus of compassion, which calls for violence as a defensive strategy, that is, as a way of preventing evil doers from committing greater acts of violence. This denial of the reality of violence differs somewhat from the earlier Mahāyāna Buddhist view, in which the negative ethical impact of violence is not denied, but rather embraced as a manifestation of the Bodhisattva's selfsacrifice.
The tantric Buddhist tendency to downplay the negative consequences of necessary acts of violence was rooted in the imperatives of praxis. Buddhists did not just abstractly debate the possible use of violence for defensive purposes. They actually created ritual techniques that were thought to effect the
"pacification" or outright elimination of evildoers who threatened the teachings, institutions, and well being of Buddhists. The most infamous of these was the abhicāra-homa, or the rite of fire sacrifice deployed for destructive purposes. The abhicāra-homa is a subset of a larger class of homa rituals employing a sacrificial fire. This ritual is a modified Buddhist version of the archaic Indian homa rite that formed the cornerstone of the Vedic ritual system.29
This rite occurs in the early strata of esoteric Buddhist literature, such as the Mahāvairocana-abhisambodhi Tantra. This text makes a brief reference to it, namely "When subduing hated foes, one should employ the fierce fire."30 This inspired the following commentary by Śubhakarasiṃha and Yixing, writing during the early eight century in Chang-an, China:31
Regarding the fierce (krodha, 忿 怒) [[[fire]] sacrifice], fire becomes the basis that gives rise to things. This basis is the mind. It is said that there are conditions that compel one to do hostile things in order to subdue people. It is from within the mind that anger arises. This anger is not like the anger of worldly people. It is said that the true nature of anger manifests from a mind of great compassion. Moreover, it is generated as an expedience in order to subjugate evil teachings.32
These authors are not unusual in rooting this practice in compassion. Although the abhicāra-homa is intended for the purpose of killing one's foe or foes, it is to be employed as an expedience for the purpose of "subjugating evil teachings," that is, eliminating those who propound them.
The performance of hostile rites was considered legitimate by some Indian Buddhists, such as Bhavyakīrti, a scholar active during the early tenth century. He was an abbot of the Vikramaśīla monastery in Eastern India.33 He makes this clear in his commentary on chapter thirty-one of Cakrasamvara Tantra, which describes a fierce homa rite for the purpose of subduing a rival kingdom, as follows:
Then the destruction of all, arising from the vajra, is held [to be accomplished] with the great meat. It is the dreadful destroyer of all the cruel ones. Should one thus perform without hesitation the rites of eating, fire sacrifice (homa), and sacrificial offerings (bali) with the meats of dogs and pigs, and also with [the meat of] those [chickens] that have copper [colored] crests, everything without exception will be achieved, and all kingdoms will be subdued.34
The rite is thus doubly violent in both its end and means, because its performance requires the meat of several animals, including possibly a human being.35 Bhavyakīrti acknowledges the transgressive nature of this rite, but resolves it by claiming an ethical double standard, as follows: Regarding dogs, etc., some claim that [[[Wikipedia:killing|killing]]] them, except in cases where their appointed time [of death] has arrived, is to undertake a great sin, that desire to perform this sinful action is difficult to alleviate, and that these are cases of oneself committing murder. The ten non-virtuous actions,36 however, are not necessarily
downfalls for [those who have realized] the reality of selflessness. Moreover, the Śrī Guhyasamāja states "Bereft of gnosis, they undertake the ten virtues and the paths of action."37 And [someone] stated: "Enduring my own suffering, risking38 [myself] for the suffering of others, I proceed to the Avīci Hell."39 Being endowed with great compassion and having realized the reality of selflessness, one will not fall even if one practices the ten nonvirtues
for the sake of beings. According to Śāntarakṣita, Bodhisattvas endowed with expedience and wisdom, including those who are on the paths of the ten non-virtuous actions, will achieve distinctive results. With regard to the [question of] this distinctive group giving rise to distinctive results, one cannot say that this is not the case, as these [[[ethical]]] conventions all arise from mental distinctions.40
Furthermore, it is well known that if those who are not yogīs consume poison without understanding the reality of poison, they experience the cause of death. But yogīs who understand the reality of poison rely on the excellent cause of alchemy and transform it to ambrosia. What objection could there be to these ten non-virtues giving rise to distinctive results for those who have a mentality that unifies emptiness and compassion, who have no regard for their
own happiness, and who are extremely apprehensive about the suffering of others? Rudra destroyed the Triple City, and the army of Viṣṇu demolished eighteen massive armies,41 and even naked [[[ascetics]]] destroy subtle life forms through a mere touch . . . [There was also] a sage (ṛṣi) whose mind burned with the fire of wrath, who incinerated like wood the king's army with the fire of malediction. These heretics, because they kill, give rise to the suffering of the
hells and so forth. This is because their non-virtue arises from previous tenacious attachment to the 'me' and the 'mine.'42 This is a fascinating example of what J. Z. Smith calls "rationalization," an attempt to accommodate the discrepancy between Buddhists' nonviolent self-identity and the violent elements present in their scriptures and rituals.43 In his attempt to reconcile these, Bhavyakīrti deploys both rational and
mythic discourse. Like Śāntarakṣita, he advances a double standard, allowing Bodhisattvas to engage in behavior that is otherwise prohibited. He also evokes the old idea that they do so as an act of compassionate selfsacrifice, even though willingly taking on the evil karma of violent actions might plunge them into the Avīci hell, the lowest hell of "no respite" into which the worst sinners fall.
His apology then proceeds with a series of examples from Hindu mythology in which deities or sages are portrayed as engaging in violence. He specifically refers to the myth of the destruction of the Triple City (tripurāntaka), several versions of which were powerful anti-Buddhist polemics.44 This, along with his reference to the myths of Viṣṇu's military exploits in several of his avatāras, indicates that Bhavyakīrti was familiar with this genre of Hindu mythic
literature, which, just like the legend of Mahākaruṇika, could be interpreted as a justification for necessary violence.45 Moreover, his statement that "even naked [[[ascetics]]] destroy subtle life forms through a mere touch," implying that violence is an inescapable element of worldly existence, evokes the argument propounded in chapter three of the Bhagavad Gītā, namely, that action is intrinsic to all living beings,46 but he goes further than the Gītā, using this as a justification for violence. Yet Bhavyakīrti condemns the violence allegedly performed by
non-Buddhists, even as he defends the use of ritual violence by Buddhists. He thus evokes the ethical double standard in a highly sectarian manner, failing to observe that some Hindus might justify exemplary violence in the same way that he does. He justifies this by making the typical Buddhist claim that the practice of morality is necessarily rooted in a realization of selflessness, but this is a divisive claim that non-Buddhists would not accept. This reflects the contentious religious atmosphere in Northern India at this time, an atmosphere that was conditioned by the political divisiveness of this era.47
What were the historical consequences of this permissive attitude toward ritual violence? This ethically troubling position clearly hindered the dissemination of tantric Buddhism. Many Buddhists found texts that advocated violent rituals such as the abhicāra-homa offensive or threatening. Only a
fraction of the texts that contained these practices were successfully transmitted to East Asia, and those that were tend to be bowdlerized, with the offensive passages ambiguously translated or eliminated entirely.48 There is also evidence suggesting that tantras containing violent rituals were selectively translated or censored in Tibet during the late eighth and early ninth centuries, when Indian Buddhist literature was being translated with
imperial support.49 Later, during the tenth and eleventh centuries, Tibetan rulers such as Lha Lama Yeshé-ö (circa 959-1036 CE) and his descendents in Western Tibet attempted to control the translation and dissemination of the new influx of transgressive tantric texts.50 Their efforts were ineffective, probably because they lacked hegemony within a politically fragmented Tibet. Moreover, their fears concerning the misuse of violent rituals were apparently
justified. Chinese sources indicate that several centuries later, the Mongols employed Tibetan lamas for magical assistance in battle. This assistance entailed performing rites focusing on fierce deities such as Mahākāla for the purpose of destroying enemies (Sperling 1994).
The Tibetans, however, were not unequivocal advocates of ritual violence. Although Lha Lama Yeshé-ö could not regulate the dissemination of tantric texts and practices, he was so concerned about the ethical implications of these that he went to great lengths to bring Atīśa to Tibet, largely on account of
Atīśa's reputation as an ethically sophisticated Buddhist scholar.51 Doing so in no way advanced a program of censorship— Atīśa was an accomplished tantric practitioner, and aided in the translation of several texts, including the transgressive Abhidhānottara Tantra. But he was nonetheless concerned with the ethical implications of tantric practice, and this was a major influence on the thinking of his disciple, Dromtön (1005-1064 CE), who founded the Kadampa school that highlighted the moral precepts. And although this school did not reject the study and practice of the tantras, it sought to regulate them.52 The legacy of the school that inherited the mantle of the Kadampa, the Geluk, whose name literally means "the virtuous system," is somewhat mixed. The founder of the Geluk school, Tsongkhapa (1357–1419 CE), was famed for his efforts to reform Buddhist practice. Yet he was strangely unconcerned about the
Then, after the thirtieth chapter, I will explain the thirty-first, that is, I will explain without deception the fire sacrifice, arising with the vajra [accomplished] with the great meat, i.e., human meat, etc., which destroys the life force of all the cruel ones. It is also explained that these [[[rites]]] are performed with the gnosis that is inseparable
from the vajra, that is, by the concentration of the body of Vajradhara which is generated from that. This human flesh fire sacrifice is described as the dreadful, i.e., powerful, destroyer of the life force of all the cruel ones. Is human flesh the sole requisite? In the same manner as human flesh, the
cruel ones are destroyed even if one offers fierce fire sacrifices (homa) and sacrificial offerings (bali) to the deity with the meats of dogs and pigs, and also with chickens that have copper [colored] crests. However, here the power of human flesh is greater. In order to undertake these three,53 one is primarily engaged in left-handed conduct. If in doing this one does so having realized the natural clear light without consideration of whether this is
proper or not, one will attain all of the great powers (mahāsiddhi) such as the sword and so forth, and the state of Buddhahood in which there are no remaining powers [to be attained], and you will attain all kingdoms as a universal (cakravartin) or regional (dikpāla) monarch. It is also held that these fleshes are not produced by killing them oneself.54
The juxtaposition of Bhavyakīrti's and Tsongkhapa's commentaries on this same textual passage is striking. Although Bhavyakīrti's commentary is purely apologetic, Tsongkhapa appears completely unconcerned with the text's ethical implications; his vision of tantric practice here seems quite amoral. If we take this commentary out of context, we would be forced to conclude that, for Tsongkhapa, Buddhahood might be attained through violence, rather than
His lack of concern here is understandable in light of the different social contexts in which these commentaries were written. Both Bhavyakīrti and Tsongkhapa were influential figures in important Buddhist institutions. Tsongkhapa was a respected scholar and institution builder, while Bhavyakīrti was
an abbot of the important Vikramaśīla monastery. However, during the early tenth century when Bhavyakīrti was active, the status of transgressive tantric texts such as the Cakrasamvara Tantra as authentic Buddhist scripture was a hotly debated issue, and significant numbers of Buddhists considered it heretical on account of its descriptions of ritual violence, as Bhavyakīrti indicated elsewhere in his commentary (Gray 2005:66-67). His apologetic stance
is thus understandable. However, by the time Tsongkhapa was writing in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in Tibet, the authenticity of tantras such as this one was no longer contested.
Another factor was undoubtedly the institutionalization of tantric studies in Tibet. The treatise in which this commentary occurs, his Illumination of the Hidden Meaning, was not intended for public dissemination. Texts such as this were traditionally restricted to an elite audience of well-educated monks in
the Geluk tradition. This implies that the ethical double standard was institutionalized in the Geluk school, which emphasizes conventional Mahāyāna ethics for the laity and lower clergy, and restricts the texts and practices that challenge this moral system to the higher clergy, who are presumed to possess the hermeneutical tools to properly understand them.56 There is also some evidence suggesting that advanced monks are believed to be exempt from
conventional moral precepts under certain exceptional circumstances, on account of their superior training.57 But here we should also note the last line of his commentary. Tibetan Buddhists do not employ the flesh of living beings in any of the rituals that call for these, but use
instead carefully constructed simulacra, usually elaborate bali or gtor-ma offering cakes that are designed to simulate these substances.58 But insofar as these rites are performed, this does not mitigate their ethical impact, given the fact that their intended result is murder, which is ethically problematic given the Buddhist ethical focus on intention.
This paper has largely focused on a "high scholastic" genre of Indian and Tibetan commentarial literature. One might wonder whether these debates were purely theoretical, or if they actually reflect ethically complex situations faced by Buddhist practitioners. The historical record makes it clear that
these debates were rooted in practice. Although there is a paucity of historical sources concerning Buddhism in India,59 there is ample historical evidence indicating that destructive abhicāra rites were performed by Tibetan lamas in support of defensive and offensive military campaigns. Seventeenth century Tibet was a rich period for the performance of violent rituals. This is undoubtedly due to the political instability of the period, which saw the King of
Tsang in Western Tibet in conflict with the Mongol supporters of the Fifth Dalai Lama, based in Lhasa. Autobiographical and biographical sources indicate that the Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso (1617-82 CE), deployed fierce rites to suppress the armies of the King of Tsang in 1641 CE (Ahmad 1999:261; Karmay 1988:4, 15). His efforts were opposed by Yolmo Tenzin Norbu (1598-1644 CE), who deployed abhicāra rites against the Mongols in support of the King of Tsang (Bogin 2005:58-59, 232-233).
The practice of these destructive rites was not restricted to Tibet during the medieval period. Chinese rulers employed Tibetan lamas for their magical defensive services as late as the early twentieth century, during the Republican period (Tuttle 2005:79-81). The Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism
became embroiled during the late 1990s in a debate regarding the status of the "protector" deity Dorje Shukden, who has a fearsome reputation as a fierce deity who could be, and sometimes was, invoked in inter-sectarian disputes. The Dalai Lama recently prohibited the public practice of Dorje Shukden's rites
in Geluk monasteries. His supporters, however, have resorted to violence in an attempt to silence and intimidate the Dalai Lama and his supporters (Dreyfus 1998). Tibetans were not alone in seeking magical means to conflict resolution; destructive fire sacrifices were also deployed in medieval Japan as a method of dealing with military foes.60
I would like to conclude by noting an obvious point. Buddhists are not alone in struggling with the issue of the ethical implications of violence. Although some of the texts included herein did and still may seem repugnant to some Buddhists, as disgraceful examples of a fall from the Buddhist ideal of
universal compassion, they reflect attempts by Buddhists to navigate the complex and sometimes violent field of social practice. Tantric Buddhist ritual, in its violent manifestations, appears to be a response to a certain sense of discrepancy, namely the discrepancy between the hierarchical cosmos as imagined by tantric Buddhists, which naturally privileges the tantric Buddhist worldview, and the lived social world of these Buddhists, a context in which
their world-view was challenged from both within and without. From a certain perspective, the history of religions is a history of the very human attempts to reconcile the high and sometimes contradictory dictates of religious ideals with the messy realities of political life. Tantric Buddhists sought to reconcile these spheres in a rather ingenious way, but like all attempts of this sort, it was not perfect, but problematic, due to the very fact that the ethical double standard that it creates implicitly supports a social hierarchy, which, like all such hierarchies, was potentially hegemonic in practice. Notes 1. This portrayal is common in popular literature on Buddhism. Some authors, such as the current Dalai Lama, have gone as far as to advance Buddhist ethics as a remedy for many of the contemporary world's problems. See his Ethics for the New Millennium (1999). 2. I use the term "double standard" in the
sense of "a rule, principle, judgment, etc., viewed as applying more strictly to one group of people, set of circumstances, etc., than to another" (The Oxford English Dictionary 1989:vol. 4, p. 973, col. 1). I will argue that several of the tantric Buddhist authors discussed below have propounded a double standard with respect to violence in precisely this sense, insofar as they argue that advanced Buddhist practitioners are exempt from the general Buddhist
prohibition against violence. 3. For an overview of these virtues as understood and advanced by contemporary Buddhist traditions see King (2006). 4. For example, a number of jātaka narratives, including the vyāghrī and śibi narratives, were illustrated in the Ajanta cave complex. For an excellent study of these illustrations and their connections to the narratives see Schlingloff (2000). 5. For an excellent overview of Śāntideva's moral theory see Clayton
(2006). For a discussion of the importance of the concepts of selflessness and/or emptiness, and interdependence in contemporary Buddhist ethical thought, see King (2006:12-27). 6. For examples of contemporary Buddhist leaders' equivocal attitudes toward violence see King (2006:164-201). The possibility of "compassionate violence" was not accepted by all Buddhists; the early Buddhist tradition represented by Pāli sources appears to have rejected the notion
that an act of violence could be compassionate (Gethin 2004). 7. The name mahākaruṇika is a hypothetical reconstruction from the Tibetan snying rje chen po dang ldan pa (Sarvabuddhamahārahasya-upāyakauśalya-jñānottarabodhisattvaparipṛcchā (To. 82, D dkon brtsegs vol. cha, fol. 60b). 8. For a translation of this passage see Tatz (1994:73-76). 9. For an analysis of this and related scriptural passages see Harvey (2000:135-138). 10. Foucault (1990:27). For an
application of Foucault to Mahāyāna Buddhist ethical thought see Mrozik (2004). 11. "Tantric Buddhism," also known as the vajrayāna, is usually understood to be a branch of the Mahāyāna tradition. It is differentiated from the classical Mahāyāna by
means of methodology. In traditional terms, it is the "way of mantra," mantranaya, an esoteric system of praxis emphasizing complex systems of ritual and meditation. For a discussion of the continuities and discontinuities between the early Mahāyāna and its later tantric forms see Snellgrove (2002:117-134).
12. The Tattvasiddhi is an important but still unedited text that attempts to prove that tantric practice leads to the achievement of great bliss. It is attributed to Śāntarakṣita, and an eighth century date does not seem out of the question; the text mentions by name a number of early tantras belonging to this era. Christian Lindter (1997:192-197) accepts this attribution, but Ernst Steinkellner (1999:355-359) has cast serious doubt upon it. Bhavyakīrti,
writing in the early tenth century, refers to this text and attributes it to Śāntarakṣita, as noted below. This attribution is thus quite old. 13. My translation of the Tattvasiddhi, from the Tibetan translation (To. 3708, D rgyud 'grel vol. tsu, 27b), and a Sanskrit manuscript (IASWR ms. MBB II-248, 3a.4-5). 14. Tattvasiddhi, (D 29b, IASWR ms. MBB II-248, 5b.5-6a.2). 15. The term vajra, literally "thunderbolt" or "diamond," here refers to a tantric Buddhist ritual scepter that symbolizes expedience (upāya). It is the weapon of choice of fierce deities. 16. My translation from Buddhajñāna, Śrīherukasādhana (To. 1857, D rgyud 'grel vol. di, fol. 43a). 17. Buddhajñāna's text here reads sva sti dang a ri sha lta bu'o (45a). I read a ri sha as an attempt to transliterate ariṣṭa, "ill-omen," "bad luck," "misfortune," etc., which is the opposite of svasti. His point here may be that an afflicted mind,
due to failure to apprehend causality, is obsessed with good and bad fortune, and experiences the ups and downs of "fortune," which is really, in the Buddhist view, the unanticipated and misunderstood effects of past actions. 18. Buddhajñāna, Śrīherukasādhanavṛtti (To. 1858, D rgyud 'grel vol. di, fol. 45a). Note that in my translations of commentaries, both here and below, the text that is being commented upon is displayed in bold lettering. 19. This is
not to imply that Buddhajñāna, writing in the late eighth or early ninth century, invented the notion of "compassionate anger." As noted below, the idea is also present in an early eighth century commentary by Śubhakarasiṃha and Yixing. This idea is a development of the early Mahāyāna concept of expedience (upāya).
20. These ritual procedures fall within the well-know ṣaṭkarmīṇi, the "six [classes of] ritual actions." These include the śāntika, pacification rituals designed to placate hostile or obstructive powers, and the abhicāra, destructive rituals designed to eliminate enemies (Bühnemann 2000). Regarding the
defensive nature of śāntika rites see Goudriaan (1978:388). For a discussion of mandala rituals see Boord (1998). 21. That is, Lūipa's Śrībhagavad-abhisamaya (To. 1427, D rgyud 'grel vol. wa, 186b-193a). 22. For an idealized portrayal of the Buddhist mandala, see Tucci (1961). 23. The seven additional commentaries occur at To. 1465, 1492, 1498, 1509, 1510, 3795, and 3796. Three additional ones occur at PTT #4659, 4660, and 4661. 24. My translation of
Yoginīsaṃcāra Tantra 17.4c-5b, as edited in Pandey (1998:148). This text is quoted by Atīśa in his Abhisamayavibhaṅga (AV) (To. 1490, D rgyud 'grel vol zha, fol. 188a). 25. AV fol. 188a. Note that although it is the stakes that are being beaten, this operation is understood to kill the obstructive demons. For a description of a contemporary Tibetan version of this ritual operation see Kohn (2001:73-86). 26. See Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.18-20, edited and translated
in Olivelle (1998:384-387). See also Bhagavad Gīta 2.11-24, translated in Sargeant (1994:96-109). 27. Richard Kohn reported that a contemporary Tibetan practitioner of rituals of exorcism of this type, Trulshik Rinpoche, defends this practice not by denying the reality of the demons, but by asserting his ability to transfer their spirits to the Buddhist paradises, which implies both a compassionate motivation and the extraordinary spiritual capacity of a
Bodhisattva (2001:81-82). 28. The adhiṣṭhānacakra, also known as the samayacakra, is the outermost wheel in the Cakrasamvara mandala containing the fierce goddesses who guard the mandala's periphery. 29. For an overview of Buddhist forms of the homa rite see Payne (1991). Regarding the destructive abhicāra rites see Türstig (1985). 30. T.848.18.43a29: 降 伏 怨 對 時。 當 以 忿 怒 火. Note that the Tibetan preserves a different reading, "The Fierce Fire is
famed for all violent procedures." (To. 494, rgyud 'bum vol. tha, 227b: drag shul spyad pa thams cad la // khro bo'i me ni rab tu bsgrags). 31. Regarding Śubhakarasiṃha (善 無 畏) and his disciple Yixing (一 行), see Chou ( 2006).
32. T.39.1796.782a.3-8. Many thanks to Dr. Nanxiu Qian for her assistance translating this passage. 33. Regarding the dating and vocation of Bhavyakīrti, see Gray (2007:22). 34. My translation from my forthcoming edition of Cakrasamvara Tantra 31.1a-3b. For an annotated translation see Gray (2007:297). I am
indebted to Dr. Alexis Sanderson for his assistance in translating this passage. 35. In this literature the term "great meat," mahāmāṃsa, is a euphemism for human flesh. 36. This is a traditional Buddhist list of sins, the first of which is killing. 37. Guhyasamāja Tantra 17.15: daśakuśalān karmapathān kurvanti jñānavarjitāḥ, ed. in Matsunaga (1978:97). 38. Here I read bsdar as bsdos. 39. Avīci is the lowest hell in the Buddhist cosmology, into which fall
the greatest sinners. 40. Bhavyakīrti here summarizes Śāntarakṣita's argument in his Tattvasiddhi, which is translated above. 41. The Tibetan translation reads a kṣo hi, a transcription of akṣauhiṇī, an army consisting of 21,870 elephants, 21,870 chariots, 65,610 horse, and 109,350 foot soldiers . See Monier-Williams (2002:4 col. 1). 42. Bhavyakīrti, Śrīcakrasamvarapañjikā-śūramanojñā-nāma (To. 1405, D rgyud 'grel vol. ma, 29b-30a). 43. See J. Z. Smith,
"The Bare Facts of Ritual," in Smith (1982:53-65). See especially pp. 62-63. 44. Regarding this myth see O'Flaherty (1976:180-211). 45. Regarding the flexibility and contextual orientation of traditional Hindu ethics, see Crawford (2003:19-30). 46. See Bhagavad Gītā 3.5, translated in Sargeant
(1994:162). 47. Ronald Davidson argues that this was a major factor influencing the development of tantric Buddhism. See his Indian Esoteric Buddhism (2002), especially chapters 2-4. 48. See Charles Willemen's comments on this in his The Chinese Hevajratantra (1983:2732). 49. Bu-ston Rinpoche reported that the early kings were concerned about the transgressive elements in the Mahāyoga tantras, and ordered that they could only be
translated with royal permission. See Gray (2007:81-82). Leonard van der Kuijp has identified an instance of bowdlerization in an early dynastic translation of one of the tantras (1992:116). 50. Regarding this see Samten Karmay's "The Ordinance of Lha Bla-ma Ye-shes-'od" (1980: 150-162), as well as
his "An Open Letter by the Pho-brang Zhi-ba-'od," (1980:228). 51. Regarding the history of this invitation see Chattopadhyaya (1981:279-366). 52. This concern went so far that the Kadampa, in collecting and disseminating the works of their founder, Atīśa, tended to downplay his tantric works and highlight
his sūtric and philosophical works. None of the former are contained in the "Key Texts" category translated by Richard Sherburne in his misnamed work, The Complete Works of Atīśa (2000). 53. This refers to the three "rites of eating, fire sacrifice and sacrificial offerings," which are mentioned in the root text. 54. My translation from Tsongkhapa's bde mchog bsdus pa'i rgyud kyi rgya cher bshad pa sbas pa'i don kun gsal ba, in the rJe yab sras gsung 'bum, bKra-shis Lhun-po edition (repr. Delhi: Ngawang Gelek Demo, 1980), vol. nya, 170a,b. 55. For example, he wrote extensively on these topics in his famous
lam rim chen mo. See the three volume English translation of this work (Cutler 2000, 2002, 2004). 56. For an analysis of how tantric ritual reinforces a clergy-laity hierarchical distinction in contemporary Geluk Tibetan practice see Mills (2003:129-136). 57. For example, there appears to be some
indications that certain exemplary monks were believed to be suitable for karmamudrā sexual yogic practices, despite the fact that such practices would entail a violation of their monastic vows. See Mullin (1996:70-71, 249 n. 17). 58. These are typically composed of a mixture of roasted barley flour and
butter. For the fierce rites, they are often dyed red, and shaped so as to simulate the body parts of a sacrificial animal or person. For descriptions and depictions of them see Kohn (2001:119-134). 59. Although I know of no historical evidence supporting the hypothesis that destructive abhicāra rituals were
employed by Indian Buddhists, aside from the very large number of Indian Buddhist texts that describe these rites, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting this. For example, an account of the Indian master Atīśa’s journey
rites for the "pacification" of enemies. The text thus implies that his departure to Tibet in 1040 CE opened the door to the Turkish invasion of Northern India, which began in earnest during the eleventh century. Regarding this see DeCleer (1997). 60. See Allan Grapard’s description of the Shijōkō fire ritual (1999:539-541). See also Kleine (2006).
D Derge (sde dge) Tibetan canon
To Tōhoku catalogue of Derge canon
PTT Peking Tibetan Tripiṭaka
T Taishō Chinese Tripiṭaka
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