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Luminous Bliss (A Religious History of Pure Land Literature in Tibet)

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Item Code: NAJ881
Author: Georgios T. Halkias
Publisher: Dev Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789381406328
Pages: 366
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch X 6.5 inch
Weight 680 gm
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About The Book

Pure Land Buddhism as a whole has received comparatively little attention in Western studies on Buddhism despite the importance of “Buddha-fields” (pure lands) for the growth and expression of Mahayana Buddhism. In this first religious history of Tibetan Pure Land literature, Georgios Halkias delves into a rich collection of literary, historical, and archaeological sources to highlight important aspects of this neglected pan-Asian Buddhist tradition. He clarifies many of the misconceptions concerning the interpretation of “other-world” soteriology in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and provides translations of original Tibetan sources from the ninght century to the present that represent exoteric and esoteric doctrines that continue to be cherished by Tibetan Buddhists for their joyful descriptions of the Buddhist path. The book is informed by interviews with Tibetan scholars and Buddhist practitioners and by Halkias’ own participant-observation in Tibetan Pure Land rituals and teachings conducted in Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

Divided into three sections, Luminous Bliss shows that Tibetan Pure Land literature exemplifies a synthesis of Mahayana sutra-based conceptions with a Vajrayana world-view that fits progressive and sudden approaches to the realization of Pure Land teachings. Part I covers the origins and development of Pure Land in India and the historical circumstances of its adaptation in Tibet and Central Asia. Part II offers an English translation of the short Sukhavativyuha-sutra (imported from India during the Tibetan Empire) and contains a survey of original Tibetan Pure Land scriptures and meditative techniques from the dGe-lugs-pa, bKa’-brgyud, rNyig-ma, and Sa-skya schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Part III introduce some of the most innovative and popular mortuary cycles and practices related to the Tantric cult of Buddha amitabha and his Pure Land from the Treasure traditions in the bKa’-brgyud and rNying-ma schools.

Luminous Bliss locates Pure Land Buddhism at the core of Tibet’s religious heritage and demonstrates how this tradition constitutes an integral part of both Tibetat and East Asian Buddhism.


About The Author

Georgios T. Halkias specializes in Tibetan and Himalayan religions and history and has held research posts and fellowships in the United Kingdom at the Warburg Institute, the University of London, and the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies; in Germany at the Ruhr-Universitat-Bochum; and the Jodo-Shinshu Otani-ha foundation in Kyoto. His publications include a number of articles on Tibetan and central Asian Buddhism, Himalayan history, and interdisciplinary studies in religion.



Religious texts are as much about the circumstances of their production as they are about their interpretation and contemplative application. In this study, I tried to anticipate some historical aspects in the constitution of Tibetan Pure Land literature and signal, when possible, the dynamic relation between soteriology and contemplation and their impending synthesis in Buddhist orthopraxy.

In Buddhist traditions a detached reading of religious texts and sober analysis of doctrines are not valued as an end in themselves. This approach ultimately tallies with Buddhist practice as a cognitive process with psychological reverberations and physiological repercussion that supersede the literary and theological redaction of religion to a disembodied collection of texts and tents. Buddhist texts are not simply testimonies of doctrine but serve as diagrams of soteriology reflecting a constant struggle between silence, the highest embodiment of the Buddha’s teachings, and the limitations of the written word. As manuals for unlocking and shaping our inner worlds of intentionality, they trigger occasions for liberation that cannot be conveyed by language registers; they resort to reason, analogy, and illustration to transcend ;the very act of reading as a vindication of perfunctory understanding. Internalizing the contemplation of the Buddha is said to induce subtle insights into the acategorical configurations of reality, and to challenge false identifications with the self taken as a substantive, self-referential center of consiciousness. The cultivation of the realization of “no-self” (a doctrinal pillar of Buddhism) precipitates a process of deindividualization and a progressive manner of loss that culminates in a new situationality whose very irreversibility offers a view into the timeless expanse of the present moment.

Awakening with one’s senses to the insubstantiality of phenomena is a systemic process, a body-mind and time-space adaptation that does not reside in the statements that express it, nor in the visibilities that fill it. Nevertheless, it may be indexed along “four reliances” or hermeneutic guidelines that articulate a new species of awareness: rely on the teaching, not the teacher; on the meaning, not the letter; on the definitive meaning, not the interpretive meaning; and on wisdom, not consciousness.



This book is written as a record of the religious literature as inspired by an impressive solar deity, which emerged from a Mahayana polytheistic universe and attained over the centuries trans-local eminence and unequivocal soteriological authority. Its transformation into a pan-Asian religious phenomenon, known as Pure Land Buddhism, is closely linked with the astral legends of buddha fields (Skt, buddha-ksetra), or pure lands. Despite the salient role of pure lands for the expression of Mahayana Buddhism in India and its growth beyond, for the most part their cultic legacy has had little impact on Western academic studies of Buddhism, which, if they dealt with the subject at all, have been preoccupied with the advent of Buddha Amitabha and his Pure Land in China and Japan.

There are several explanations for this neglect and lack of emphasis. To start with, there are regrettably few accurate and readable translations of indigenous Pure Land scriptures currently available in Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan-a reality of the scholarly world that reflects a lack of academic curiosity in a tradition that superficially resembles monotheism.' Moreover, the obscure origins of buddha fields and their insignificant presence in Sravakayana Buddhism have led a number of scholars and proponents of a European construction of a "pure and original Buddhism" to adopt a condescending or dismissive attitude toward the soteriology of pure lands, which is often disparaged as the wishful thinking of simpletons grasping for a better life in heavenly realms after death.

A serious charge raised by purists against the doctrine of future birth in a pure land is that it appears antithetical to the strict codes of self-reliance promulgated in Sravakayana Buddhism. Furthermore, failing to appreciate the various degrees of nuance concerning pure lands may seem to challenge the Mahayana ideal of bodhisattvas, whose foremost intention is to endure countless incarnations and personal trials in order to bring liberation to others in this world. To this list of reservations we may add the denigration of Pure Land traditions for being merely "devotional," as if devotional religion is a category different from and subordinate to Buddhism. In response, Galen Amstutz rightly contends, "All Buddhism is devotional, [for] it deals with experiential transformations which in all cases pose ideals empirically 'external' to the starting status of the devotee" (1998,72-73). This is as much a truism in Mahayana as it is in so-called Theravada Buddhism.' Peter Bishop expands upon these concerns:

The one-sided technocratic fantasy about Tibetan Buddhism can also be seen in the comparative failure of Pure Land Buddhism to stimulate the Western imagination. Despite the overwhelming popularity of Pure Land beliefs in Tibet (and in all other Mahayana countries), it has received very little emphasis in Western commentary. This may be because such Buddhism is not readily reduced to a technique, nor is it conducive to scientific status, and in addition it relies almost totally upon faith. Hence Pure Land beliefs do not easily fit the dominant scientific image that the West seems to want of Buddhism. (1993, 87)

Bishop, however, may be guilty of the very stereotypes he critiques if he is suggesting that Pure Land soteriology has not been subjected to a discerning and prodigious interweaving of Mahayana doctrines and contemplative prescriptions by many Tibetan and East Asian scholars of Buddhism.' Moreover, Western commentators have not been blind to the importance of Pure Land literature in Tibetan Buddhist contexts, as signaled in the works of Matthew Kapstein (2003), Tadeusz Skorupski (1995), and Peter Schwieger (1978).

It is my aspiration that this work, a religious history of Pure Land literature in Tibet, will illuminate and problematize some salient aspects of this neglected tradition and clarify many of the misconceptions concerning the soteriological orientation of pure lands in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. This work has had a long gestation; an earlier version was submitted as a doctoral thesis at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, in 2006.5 Its present incarnation incorporates substantial revisions and new material, which may be attractive to a wider readership interested in the Indian origins and Tibetan developments of the genre of Pure Land literature known as b De-smon (pron. demon). Broadly defined, the b De-smon encompasses a wide range of scriptures, such as Pure Land aspirational prayers, commentarial literature on Pure Land theology, and Vajrayana forms of devotion to the deity, which articulate a shared typology of liberation and faith in the buddha field of Buddha Amitabha,

There are, of course, many meaningful ways of handling the textual material with which the present study will not be concerned. This book will not address the various ways of reception of these narratives: their social, philosophical, and anthropological articulation across different times, places, and cultural locations. Nor will it offer a comprehensive study of the literary genres in which pure land narratives are inserted, any more than providing a structural examination of these narratives as myths, psychoanalytic categories, or objects of cross-cultural comparison.

Arguably, a religious history of Buddhist traditions in Tibet should attempt to strike a balanced representation of traditional Tibetan references (i.e., literary, political, doctrinal, and so on) and current academic research, which may question the veracity of historical narratives composed for and by Tibetans. In Tibet as elsewhere, collective memory may not always be historically credible, but since both sides of articulation serve to instantiate positions drawn from an inventory of possibilities-idealized representations of religious sentiments as history on the one hand, and the reduction of religion to the material conditions of its appropriation on the other-they are given elaboration in this book. Pure Land Buddhism in Tibet is as much about the ways in which it is traditionally configured as a syncretism of tenets, motifs, and rituals as it is as a subject of critical inquiry into the historical circumstances of the cult's categorization and persistence. The question is not whether myth and history can coexist side by side, but the ways they do coexist in Tibetan traditionalism with its specific forms of fidelity to- ward narrative continuity and wholeness against the foreclosing literary rationalization and reduction of contemporary historiography.

The writing of any religious history of texts is an eclectic process of differentiation and selection, and I have taken special care to substantiate visibilities of religious creed in Tibetan texts representative of Sukhavati's cui tic and theological coherence. Hence, the present variety of literature is in agreement with what the Tibetan commentarial tradition considers its major and most admired works of the genre. Furthermore, the choices in this book draw from canonical and paracanonical sources, scriptural collections, and ritual cycles of teachings from all major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and represent for the most part institutionalized exoteric and esoteric traditions of Tibetan Pure Land spanning from the ninth century to the present. Interviews with Tibetan Buddhist scholars and practitioners, as well as my own participation in Pure Land rituals and teachings conducted in India, Germany, and Greece from 1999 to 2011, informed a wider frame of religion not limited to the subtleties of Mahayana doctrine but also in relation to more arresting kratophanies, the manifestations of the deity's alleged power-its capacity for providing protection, healing, prophecy, and spiritual success in this world and in the afterlife.

It should be clear from the start that the term "Tibetan Pure Land Buddhism" is employed both as a generic term for useful comparisons with analogous developments in India and China (i.e., Pure Land Buddhism vis-a-vis the Mahayana "cult of the book"), and as an empirically specific category for differentiating other Tibetan cults linked with their own divinities, collection of rituals, scriptures, communities, and so forth. Nothing in the material presented in this book can be seen to imply or remotely suggest that there has ever been a sectarian, self-conscious movement of Pure Land Buddhism in Tibet. Nor can we speak in any meaningful way of Tibetan Pure Land orientations independently of the doctrinal and contemplative aims of Buddhism in Tibet at large. Therefore, there has been no conscious effort to sustain an argument that binds the textual sources in an overarching notion of historical contextualization, while I have refrained from elaborating over the construction and deconstruction of the terms "Tibetan," "Pure Land," and "Buddhism," as these are merely designations that derive their sense and meaning in comparative and historically embedded contexts.

Given the diversity of ritual, credal, and literary redactions of Pure Land literature and its relation to the many subdisciplines of Tibetan studies, I often delved into several other areas, such as history, politics, art, archaeology, and textual studies, but I have refrained from lengthy discussions in the main text concerning the latest interpretations and academic debates. I have utilized endnotes in several ways, resulting in informative but often lengthy sub-texts. Some readers may wish to skip the notes, bearing in mind that they are intended for those who will find the bibliographical references, clarification of concepts and terms, allusions to scholarly discussions, and suggestions amenable to future comparative and general research.

The sections of this work form independent readings that are related to each other in instructive ways; however, it is assumed that this book will be read sequentially to encourage progressively more informed approaches to the interpretation of the Tibetan sources, and often clarifications offered in earlier sections are not repeated in later parts. Luminous Bliss is arranged in three sections. Part One, "Early Pure Land Traditions in India, Tibet, and Central Asia," is divided in two chapters. It deals with the formulation of Pure Land soteriology in India and the circumstances of its adaptation in Tibet and Central Asia. Part Two, "Pure Land Texts in Tibetan Contexts," also in two chapters, offers an English translation of the short sukhavativyaha-sutra imported from India during the times of the Tibetan empire and concludes with a survey of Tibetan Pure Land texts in the dGe-Iugs-pa, bKa' -brgyud, rNying-ma, and Sa-skya schools of Buddhism. Part Three, "Pure Lands and Pure Visions," again in two chapters, presents a translation of some of the most innovative tantric practices related to the Tibetan cult of Sukhavati from the Treasure tradition.

The work is thus organized into ix chapters. "chapter One: Indian Mahayana Origins and Departures" sketches the soteriological functions of buddha fields in Indian Mahayana literature, followed by the different epithets, features, localities, and forms of the deity and its abode in the literary and archaeological sources. After an overview of Tibetan representations of Buddha Amitabha, the chapter concludes with an introduction of two authoritative Pure Land commentaries in East Asia that were allegedly composed in India but are unknown in Tibet.

"Chapter Two: Pure Lands and the Tibetan Empire" outlines the avenues through which Buddhism was transplanted to Central Asia. The competitive encounters between the Tibetan empire and the Tang dynasty serve as historical background to the presence of the Tibetans in Central Asia and their propagation of Tibetan forms of Buddhism in the colonies of Miran, Turfan, Khotan, and Dunhuang. This chapter situates the importation of Sukhavati beliefs in Tibet as part of a widespread transmission of Indian Mahayana traditions and their adaptation as the official religion of the Tibetan empire.

"Chapter Three: The Dharma That Goes against the Ways of the World: The Short sukhavativyaha-sutra with an English Translation from Tibetan" is dedicated to the short Sukhavativyaha-sutra, a core Pure Land text widely read in Tibet and East Asia. This chapter introduces the contents and Tibetan editions of the sutra translated in Central Tibet from Sanskrit sometime in the ninth century CE, and concludes with an annotated English translation. A critical analysis of the sutra is presented in Appendix I.

"Chapter Four: Tibetan Pure Land Commentaries" opens with a discussion of the causes for taking birth in Sukhavati and introduces the Tibetan genre of Pure Land Buddhism, the bDe-smon. Texts of this genre include prayers of aspiration for taking birth in Sukhavati (bde-smon) and commentaries ('grel-ba) composed by eminent Tibetan Buddhist scholars that reflect a typical synthesis of Mahayana sutra-type ascriptions and the ritual observances of the deity endorsed by the esoteric traditions.

"Chapter Five: Tantric Transfer in Sukhavati" examines Vajrayana rituals devoted to Buddha Amitabha and Amitayus. The chapter centers on a unique contemplative practice from the Treasure tradition, the technique of transferring one's consciousness to the buddha field Sukhavati ('pho-ba), and concludes with a brief history and English translation of The Standing Blade of Grass composed by Nyi-zla sangs-rgyas in the fourteenth century, which details instructions for the method of transference to Sukhavati,

"Chapter Six: The Celestial Treasures of Buddha Amitabha" focuses on Pure Land texts and contemplative instructions drawn from the Treasure literature of the rNying-ma and bKa'-brgyud schools. The chapter high- lights the importance of the liturgical collection of the Celestial Teachings derived from the pure visions of gNam-chos mi-'gyur rdo-rje (1645-1667). The chapter concludes with an English translation of Mi-'gyur rdo-rje's Celestial Treasure, Sukhavati Sadhana: Empowerment and Oral Instructions, followed with a translation of Invoking the Guardians of Sukhavati, a unique visualization and invocation ceremony of Sukhavati Protector deities com- posed by the renowned Tibetan scholar Karma chags-med (1613-1678).

Following the Epilogue, "From Sukhavati to Tibet and Back," are three appendices: "Appendix I. A Critical Analysis of the Orgyan-gling Gold bDe-mdo" offers a diplomatic study of the short Sukhavativyaha-sutra utilizing as its root text the Orgyan-gling gold MS. "Appendix II. Means of Attaining the Sukhavati ksetra: Editions and Liturgical Texts" introduces some known editions and scriptures of the gNam chos bde chen zhing sgrub collection. "Appendix III. An Anthology of Pure Land Texts from the Treasure Tradition" lists some representative "revealed" texts of the Pure Land variety.




  Preface by Series Editor ix
  Acknowledgments xiii
  Buddhisms and Other Conventions xvii
  Abbreviations xix
  Preface xxiii
  Introduction xxv
Part I Early Pure Land Traditions in India, Tibet, and Central Asia  
Chapter One Indian Mahayana Origins and Departures 3
  The Soteriology of Buddha Fields 3
  Pure Lands as skillful Means 7
  The Emptiness of Pure Lands 9
  The Sutras of Pure Land Faith 12
  Unending Luminosity and Life 15
  Archaeological and Literary Records 18
  The Mahayana Past of a Solar Deity 20
  In the Garden of the Gods 24
  Arnitabha in Tibetan Representation 27
  Indian Pure Land Commentaries in East Asia 32
Chapter Two Pure Lands and the Tibetan Empire 35
  The Tibetans and the Tang Dynasty 35
  Indo-Sino- Tibetan Trends 38
  Central Eurasian Markets of Knowledge 49
  The Buddhist Emperors of Tibet 52
  Soteriological Conflicts at b Sam-yas 57
  Imperial Registers and Their Texts 61
  The Sukhavatl Sutras in Tibetan Translation 63
  Pure Land Literature in Early Tibet 66
  An Aspiration Poem from Dunhuang 75
Part II Pure Land Texts in Tibetan Contexts  
Chapter Three: The Dharma That Goes against the Ways of the world: The Short Sukhiivativyiiha-siitra with an English Translation from Tibetan 87
  Editions of the Sukhiivativyiiha-siitra in the Kanjur 87
  Contents and Divisions of the Sutra 92
  An Annotated English Translation of the bDe-mdo 94
Chapter Four Tibetan Pure Land Commentaries 101
  Birth in Sukhavati and Its Four Causes 101
  The Tibetan Genre of Pure Land Literature 103
  Eulogies of the dGe-Iugs-pa School 104
  Tsong-kha-pa blo-bzang grags-pa 105
  Panchen Blo-bzang chos-kyi-rgyal-mtshan 108
  skya ngag-dbang blo-bzang chos-Idan 111
  The bKa'-brgyud Yogis of Sukhavati 112
  Karma chags-med (1613-1678) 113
  Glag-bla bsod-nams chos-'grub (1862-1944) 116
  Commentaries from the rNying-ma School 120
  dPal-sprul o-rgyan 'jigs-med chos-kyi-dbang-po (1808-1887) 120
  Mi-pham 'jam-dbyangs rnam-rgyal (1846-1912) 121
  rDo-grub-chen 'jigs-med bstan-pa'i-nyi-ma (1865-1926) 131
  Dream-Yoga to the Pure Land from Sa-skya 134
Part III Pure Lands and Pure Visions  
Chapter Five Tantric Transfer in Sukhavati 139
  Pure Lands in the Tibetan Canon 139
  The Dhiirar;ti of the Essence of Aparimitiiyus 141
  Aparimitayus Lineages 142
  Amitayus Longevity Rituals 145
  Tantric Genres and Techniques of Bliss 146
  Transferring Consciousness to a Buddha Field 150
  The Great Drikung Festival and Public Ceremonies of phowa 154
  The Standing Blade of Grass 155
Chapter Six The Celestial Treasures of Buddha Amitabha 165
  The Treasure Literature of the Ancients 165
  Celestial Encounters with Buddha Amitabha 167
  The Pure Vision of gNam-chos mi-'gyur rdo-rje 169
  Attaining the Sukhavati ksetra from the Celestial Dharma 170
  Sukhavati Realized: Empowerment and Oral Instructions 174
  The Wrathful Protectors of Sukhavati 179
Epilogue: From Sukhavati to Tibet and Back 187
AppendixI A Critical Analysis of the Orgyan-gling Gold bDe-mdo 193
AppendixII The Means of Attaining the Sukhavati ksetra: Editions and Liturgical Texts 209
AppendixIII An Anthology of Pure Land Texts from the Treasure Tradition 213
  Notes 215
  References 293
  Index 323


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