The Great Council of Lhasa
The Council of Lhasa, also known as the Great Debate at Samye, was a famous debate, between the Chinese Buddhist monk Moheyan and the Indian Buddhist master Kamalashila, held in Tibet around 792 CE. Initiated by King Trisong Detsen (742-797 CE), considered to be an emanation of Manjushri, the debate is said to have spanned a two year period. In essence the debate was between the Chinese and Indian Buddhist traditions as they were transmitted to Tibet. The master who won the debate would be endorsed by the Emperor, and the tradition the master belonged to would be able to take firm root in Tibet.
Three Dharma King
King Songtsen Gampo
King Songtsen Gampo was the first of the three Dharma Kings of Tibet. He introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 7th century. He unified several smaller Tibetan kingdoms, and sent his minister Thonmi Sambhota to India in order to learn Sanskrit and create a written form of the Tibetan language in order to translated various Buddhist texts.
King Trisong Detsen
King Trisong Detsen ruled Tibet from 755 CE until 797 CE. He was the second of the Three Dharma Kings of Tibet and played a crucial role for the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, by commissioning further Buddhist texts to be translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan.
He invited many great Indian masters to Tibet such as the tantric adept Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche; the master and abbot of Nalanda monastic university in India, Santarakshita, who would establish the monastic order in Tibet; and the eminent scholar Kamalasila. It was through the efforts of the Kings and these masters that the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma, came into existence.
King Trisong Detsen hosted the Council of Lhasa in order to conclude which tradition of Buddhism be allowed to take root in Tibet. He is also associated with the construction of the Boudhanath stupa in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.
The third great Dharma King was Tri Ralpachen, who reigned between 815 CE and 838 CE. Under Ralpachen’s reign the Tibetan Empire reached its zenith, spreading to parts of China, India, Nepal and almost the entire of East Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang. He promoted Buddhism throughout Tibet and also commission even further translation of Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language.
Samye monastery was the first monastery built in Tibet and still exists today. It was constructed between 775-779 CE under the patronage of King Trisong Detsen. It located around 3½ hours bus-ride away from Lhasa, in Dranang, Lhoka Prefecture. The monastery layout mirrors a large mandala, and the main monastic building was inspired by the temple of Odantapuri, an ancient Buddhist university of India, located in Bihar.
After being invited by King Trisong Detsen, the abbot of Nalanda monastic university, Santarakshita, found the site auspicious and began to build. At a certain stage however, the building would collapse again and again. The cause for this was said to be the native local spirits. When Padmasambhava, a contemporary of Santarakshita arrived from north India, he subdued the local Gyalpo spirits, which allowed the construction of the monastery to continue. Padmasambhava accomplished this through the practice of the Vajrakilaya dance and the rite of namkha to clear away obscurations and hindrances. The namkha rite, also known as ‘sky-weaving’ involves the creation of a thread-cross composed of wool or silken threads in colours related to the five elements. The subjugation of the Gyalpo was commemorated by the construction of various Vajrakilaya stupas, located at cardinal points throughout the monastery.
One of the main local deities subdued by Padmasambhava is known as Gyalpo Pehar. Gyalpo means ‘king’ in Tibetan. The other local deities and spirits were also subdued and put under the control of Gyalpo Pehar, who was oath-bound by Padmasambhava to become a Dharma protector. Gyalpo Pehar was then charged with being the main guardian deity of Samye monastery. Later, Gyalpo Pehar’s main minister, Dorje Drakden began to communicate with the Tibetan government and its subjects through the medium of the Nechung Oracle, who became the State Oracle of Tibet, in order to give advice regarding the country’s governance.
A tradition arose in Tibet to commemorate and retell the story of the Council of Lhasa and the subjugation of the Gyalpo Pehar. It is performed yearly to this date at the Kumbum monastery in Qinghai. It is considered a sort of meditation and also an offering to the gods. These Cham dances are also performed during the Monlam Prayer Festival in Tibet as well as in India, Sikkim, Dharamsala and Ladakh.
The Great Debate
King Trisong Detsen aimed to revitalize Tibetan Buddhism, and as such held a debate between Moheyan and Kamalashila. He had suspected that Moheyan, also known as Hoshang, a Mahayana monk from the Chinese Chan tradition was not teaching the genuine Dharma. Therefore, he arranged a debate with Kamalashila, a scholar-pandit from India. Kamalashila travelled to Tibet from India in order to debate according to the Vajrayana teachings.
The debate centered around the attainment enlightenment, also called ‘Bodhi’. It was either attained through activity, as proposed by Kamalashila or if it was attained spontaneously without activity, as proposed by Moheyan. Moheyan represented the Easy Mountain Teachings, also known as the ‘Northern School’ Chan tradition of China. At the time of the teaching is Tibet Moheyan was already actively teaching and had many disciples. His teachings propounded a nihilistic view that did not follow the teachings as set out in the sutras.
Quotes from: ‘Chapter 18 – “Gradual” and “Sudden” in the Lhasa Debate’, Wisdom in China and the West by Simon Man Ho Wong.
(1) One cannot become a Buddha by practicing good acts and speeches; and (2) “the only way is to become a Buddha is by no-thought and no-examination.”
On the other hand, Kamalashila promoted teachings based on the sutras upon Nagarjuna’s teachings as well as the ten rules of behavior of Buddhist ethics, the Mahayana Sutras, and the six Paramitas.
“The reason of Kamalashila’s disagreement is that if one engages oneself in a state of “no-thought” at all, he or she will not practice right discrimination (or correct examination), which is the prerequisite for obtaining the “supramundane insight” into the reality of all existences. For him, right discrimination is necessary for all Buddhist practitioners.”
“As for the point of not engaging in virtuous practices, he also has a strong opinion: “When one says, “One should not engage in such virtuous practices as giving, “ he rejects the giving, etc, which constitute the means (upaya), the major portion of the perfections (paramita).
“To be attached to a state of “no-thought” would never enable one to attain insight, whereas refuting virtuous practices would imply the rejection of the means, which is a necessary outcome of the compassion of Bodhisattvas. Because “insight” and “means” are the essential elements of Mahayana Buddhism, the absence of them will produce disastrous effect on the way towards becoming Buddha. This is why Kamalshila describes the teaching ascribed to Mo-ho-yen as poison and rebuts it, and it is seldom evaluated favorably by subsequent Tibetan scholars.”
“Mohoyen argues that not only false thoughts and conceptualizations but all thoughts are illusive. The problem of having illusive thoughts is that one is bound to the cycle of transmigration. This is stated more clearly in the following:
Question: What is so wrong with conceptual thought? Reply: The problem with it is that is carries omniscience away from all living beings, and obscures it. It is also a problem in many other ways, such as being the cause for rebirth in the three evil destines, and for prolonged transmigration. The Vajraccedika also says: “Abandon conceptual thought.”
“Thus no-thought and no-examination are really the central teachings of Mo-ho-yen. He explicitly declares that, as a Chan Buddhist, his belief is that discerning reality is to abandon all forms of speech and conceptualizations of the mind.
As for the rejection of virtuous practices, Mo-ho-yen argues:
The Buddha said: If a Bodhisattva does not practice any conditioned dharma, nor (does he or she) practice any unconditioned dharma, nor any unvirtuous dharma, nor any mundane dharma, nor any supra-mundane dharma, nor any dharma that carries sin, nor any dharma that does not carry sin, nor any impure dharma, nor any pure dharma, nor any causative dharma, nor any non-causative dharma, nor the dharma of nirvana, nor the dharma of seeing, nor the dharma of hearing, nor the dharma of awareness, nor the dharma of knowing, nor the dharma of giving, nor the dharma of indifference, nor the dharma of discipline… (He or she does) not practice patience, nor goodness, nor dharma, nor willpower, nor meditation, nor Samadhi, nor wisdom, nor practice, nor knowing, nor attainment. If a Bodhisattva practices in this way, the Buddhas will predict (the future of him or her becoming a Buddha.).”
“Kamalashila said, “Now, here not applying the mind does not mean mere absence of mental application (or activity). Because the mere absence of something, lacking as it does any reality is not fit to be the real cause of anything.” In other words, absence of mental application cannot in itself be the cause for such an absence. Otherwise the process would be circular, therefore logically and practically impossible.
When we speak of the thought process moving spontaneously upon its object, free from any strenuous or purposeful bending of the mind towards its object, we refer only to the highest stage of signlessness. This condition, in the first place, is attained by the development of very specific mental states, which may be described as *non-application of mind” only in the sense that they are antidotes or counteragents to the unwholesome and misdirected fixing of the mind upon mental representations or imprints of the own-being of the aggregates of grasping.”
The Result of Debate
Almost all Tibetan sources state that the King Trisong Detsen decided that Kamalashila was the winner of the debate, however many Chinese sources actually name Moheyan as the victor. In any case, Moheyan was asked to leave Tibet and his teachings were gathered and respectfully disposed of as it was decided only the teachings stemming directly from India would be taught and practiced in Tibet. The Council of Lhasa is an important event in Tibetan history and shaped the practice of Buddhism in Tibet up until today. From this point on Tibetan Buddhism took on the flavour of Indian Buddhism. As a result of this, Tibetan Buddhist practices, texts and commentaries draw their sources from and are entirely shaped by Indian Buddhism. It is due to the great Council of Lhasa that Buddhism in Tibet was established to follow the traditions and practices from the land of its source, India.
For more information:
- The Seventeen Pandits of Nalanda Monastery
- All About Manjushri
- Lam Rim Lineage Surprise!
- Main Assistants of the Dharma King
- Padmasambhava Meets Tsongkhapa
- Puja at Naropa’s Cave, Kathmandu, Nepal
- Fantastic Oracle Film
- 700 Meet a Buddha
- Gaden Sumtseling Monastery
- Vajrayana Meditation Techniques Can Enhance Brain Performance
- Paramita/Parami (Perfections)
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