Early bKa’ gdams pa scholasticism: Phya pa Chos kyi seng ge’s contribution to Tibetan epistemology

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Based on the investigation of recently surfaced materials, this study intends to shed light on a crucial but as yet largely uncharted period of Tibetan scholasticism. The first centuries of the Later Diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet, i.e., from the end of the 10th through the 13th century, constitute a fundamental stage in the development of Tibetan philosophy with regard to the methods of textual study and the exegetical directions that developed in various areas of Buddhist learning. The contributions from this period also shed light on the process through which Indian Buddhism was appropriated by Tibetan scholars. They are indispensable touchstones for fully appraising the subsequent Tibetan Buddhist tradition, its developments and internal debates, through the classical period and up to the present day.

My project takes as its focal point the contribution of Phya pa Chos kyi seng ge (1109–1169), a famous Buddhist thinker linked to the monastery of gSang phu Ne’u thog in central Tibet who stands out as a foremost figure in the fields of epistemology (tshad ma) and Madhyamaka philosophy (dbu ma). Phya pa’s innovative, but not uncontroversial views left a deep mark on subsequent developments in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Fortunately, a number of Phya pa’s works became available in 2006 within a vast collection of texts of the bKa’ gdams pa school. My project focuses on two of his epistemological works: a summary of epistemology and a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇaviniścaya, and secondarily investigates relevant portions of his Madhyamaka works. Phya pa's views are examined from the standpoint of several interacting planes, considering notably their place in Phya pa’s philosophical system taken as a whole and their place in the gSang phu (and gSang phu-related) tradition and more broadly in Tibetan intellectual history. My investigation addresses the specific interaction between Madhyamaka philosophy and epistemology, two fields of Buddhist learning that are intermingled in Phya pa’s works. It situates Phya pa’s views in relation to the Indian tradition, the Tibetan developments predating Phya pa (in particular by rNgog Blo ldan shes rab and Phya pa’s teacher rGya dmar ba Byang chub grags), to contemporaneous Tibetan developments and to the later Tibetan tradition (considering both scholars who claim to be inspired by Phya pa and those who criticize him).

By systematically examining a selection of the most representative aspects of Phya pa’s thought, continuing the line of research I have taken in several earlier papers, I aim at contributing to a pioneering, broad-angled understanding of this author and the intellectual context in which he lived. This study will be of relevance to scholars in the fields of Tibetan studies and Buddhist studies, as well as historians of philosophy and philosophers.

The publications resulting from this research as well as materials for the study of Phya pa Chos kyi seng ge are available for download here.

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