Authentically Buddhist, Distinctively Nyingma: Gyelse Shenpen Taye (rgyal sras gzhan phan mtha yas, 1800-1855) and the Formation of the Modern Nyingma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism

Hiebert, Christopher, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Germano, David, AS-Religious Studies, University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates the life and works of the 19th-century Tibetan scholar, Buddhist monk, and pedagogue Gyelsé Shenpen Tayé Özer (rgyal sras gzhan phan mtha’ yas ‘od zer; 1800–c.1855). Shenpen Tayé has long been referenced in both Tibetan literature and Western academic studies as one of the most important Tibetan scholars and monastic reformers figures of the 19th century and is perhaps best known as the founder of the modern shedra (bshad grwa) system of Tibetan monastic education. A member of the Nyingma (rnying ma) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism—known primarily for their non-monastic, tantric cycles and lineages—Shenpen Tayé chose to take full monastic ordination and worked to encourage and support the uptake of Buddhist monasticism among other Nyingmapas. Above all, Shenpen Tayé was renowned among his contemporaries and remembered by later generations of Nyingmapas as one of the greatest textual scholars of his generation. He famously collected, edited, and published the first collection of the Nyingma kama (bka’ ma; “Transmitted Precepts”), which subsequently served as the basis for the successively more expansive kama collections published in recent decades. Shenpen Tayé was known not only for his scholarly acumen, but for giving lucid and precise teachings and explanations, many of which survive and are still in use today in the form of textbooks, scholastic commentaries, and works of personal advice.
Utilizing a number of contemporaneous texts and documents that have recently become available, this dissertation provides the most detailed study of Shenpen Tayé’s life and works to date. The chapters comprise: (i) a background chapter detailing source materials and historical background; (ii) a detailed analytical biography of Shenpen Tayé, based primarily on sources written during Shenpen Tayé’s lifetime; (iii) a study of his extant literary output, which includes translations of selected passages from a range of his writings, and comparative catalogs that map four of the major recensions of his collected works; and chapters devoted respectively to three of Shenpen Tayé’s most influential projects: (iv) the founding and early development of Śrī Siṃha shedra (monastic college), which was to serve as the model for virtually all Nyingma shedras today; (v) the publication of the first comprehensive collection of Nyingma kama texts; and (vi) his relationship to, and promotion of, Buddhist monasticism among the Nyingma.
Throughout the study, I demonstrate how all of Shenpen Tayé’s various activities were directed towards articulating and advocating for a particular vision of what the Nyingma tradition was, and should be. This vision was grounded in a gradualist paradigm, which emphasized the need for the esoteric, unique (thun mong ma yin pa) tantric practices and teachings of the Nyingma to be preceded by, and grounded in, then exoteric, shared (thun mong) practices and categories of the wider Buddhist tradition. Concomitant with his emphasis on the shared Buddhist practices, we see a notable elision in Shenpen Tayé’s teachings, curricula, and writings, of huge swaths of the specialized lineages and textual heritage of the Nyingma tradition—most notably of the massive and diverse body of Nyingma terma (gter ma; “revealed treasure”) literature. I argue that although Shenpen Tayé’s stripped-down and cleaned-up vision of the Nyingma tradition did not gain wide purchase among Nyingmapas, his major projects and activities provided invaluable institutional and textual supports for subsequent projects of reform and renewal among Nyingmapas in Tibet and beyond.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma, Tibetan monastic education
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