Shentong madhyamaka and via negativa, a buddhist and a christian approach to the absolute
SHENTONG MADHYAMAKA AND VIA NEGATIVA, A BUDDHIST AND A CHRISTIAN APPROACH TO THE ABSOLUTE; WITH SPECIAL EMPHASIS ON THE TEACHINGS OF THE BLESSED ANGELA OF FOLIGNO (1248/49-1309)
AND THE OMNISCIENT DOLPOPA SHERAB GYALTSEN (1292-1361)
A thesis by
The Faculty of the
Graduate Theological Union
in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii
A. In Search of a Common Language . . . . . . . . . . . 1
B. Perennialists and Constructivists 4
C. The Role of Mystics and their Teachings 16
THE CHARACTER AND HISTORICAL ROOTS OF VIA NEGATIVA
AND UMA SHENTONG 24
A. What Is Via Negativa? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 B. What Is Shentong Madhyamaka? 31
C. The Development of Via Negativa 42
1. Biblical Roots 42
2. Hellenistic Roots 47
3. Negative-Mystical Theology During the First
500 Years 55
4. The Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus 62
5. Via Negativa in the European Middle Ages 65
D. The Development of Uma Shentong 78
1. In Search of a Positive Nirvana 78
2. Tathagatagarbha and Anatman 86
3. Buddha-gotra, Family of the Buddha, or Arya-
gotra, Noble Family 90
4. Tathagatagarbha and Madhyamaka 93
5. Madhyamaka and Yogacara 99
THE HISTORICAL AND RELIGIO-CULTURAL SETTING OF
ANGELA AND DOLPOPA 111
A. Angela 111
1. Her Time . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .111
2. Her Religious Inheritance 116
a. Generally Catholic 116
i. The Medieval Women's Movement 116
ii. Union with God 121
iii. Christian Silence 124
b. Her Franciscan Inheritance 129
i. Poverty 129
ii. Penance and Mortification 132
3. Her Person 134
4. Her Position as a Woman 137
5. The Impact of Her Work 145
B. Dolpopa 148
1. His Time 148
2. His Religious Inheritance 152
a. Tantra in Tibetan Buddhism 152
b. The Sakya and Jonang Schools 156
c. Buddhist Silence 158
3. His Person 161
4. His Position as an "Omniscient" Male Lineage
5. The Impact of His Work 169
THE BASIC TEACHINGS 177
A. The Textual Sources 177
1. Angela's Works 177
2. Dolpopa's Works 188
B. What Angela Says About God 191
1. Identity of Soul and God 196
2. Nothingness of Soul and God 202
3. God is Nothing and Everything 205
4. Is God Inexpressible and Inconceivable? 206
C. What Dolpopa Says About Buddha Nature 209
1. Buddha Nature Is Absolute and the Ultimate
Meaning of Buddha's Teachings 209
2. Buddha Nature Has Inseparable, Uncompounded,
and Inconceivable Qualities 212
3. The Wisdom of Buddha Nature or: Buddha Jnana . .221
4. The Compassion of Buddha Nature or:
Buddha Activity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .224
5. Buddha Nature Is No Other than Form 226
COMMONALITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN DOLPOPA'S BUDDHA
NATURE AND ANGELA'S GOD. 232
A. How Angela's Teachings Match Shentong Philosophy 234
1. The Nothingness of Things 234
2. The No-thing-ness or Inconceivability of the
3. The Qualities of Buddha Nature and God 241
a. Absolute Wisdom 242
b. Unborn, Uncreated Love 248
B. How Buddhism Could Help Angela 252
C. How Angela Could Resolve Buddhist Debates 256
D. Public Logic Versus Private Intuition 259
E. Angela's Silence and Buddhist Non-conceptuality 262
ABBREVIATIONS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .276
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY 277
"Qui nescit orare non cognoscit Deum." Gil of Assisi ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Thanks be to the One who transcends one and many, for inspiration and sustenance.
Thanks also to Shenpen Hookham, my unknown sister in the Dharma, for her faithful and thorough research without which this thesis would have been impossible.
Thanks to my advisors for tolerating my stubbornness and a thesis they agree with only partially.
Thanks to my parents in law, Kathryn and Walter Rozett. During the last phase of writing, they kept my body from illness or starvation, my mind from insanity, and my thesis from the most grave mistakes and crude language.
A Moroccan once told me that Muslim carpet manufacturers purposefully leave one mistake in their pieces of art in order to acknowledge that only God can do anything perfectly. I am so taken with that idea that the reader will most likely find many mistakes in this thesis - the sole purpose being, of course, to remind us just how limited the human intellect is and how unable to portray spiritual matters appropriately.
The objective of this study is to help dispel the widespread view that Buddhism and Christianity are irreconcilable. To this end Christian-Buddhist dialogue has already accomplished a lot. Hence it may no longer be difficult for many people to concede that there is a kinship between the two religions as far as their basic emphasis on ethics, compassion, and spiritual rather than worldly values is concerned. But when it comes to the core, namely how does each religion think of the absolute and consequently of reality as a whole, most people still think that Buddhism and Christianity are incompatible.
It is true that much of Christian and Buddhist theologies and philosophies are indeed quite distinct. One generally affirms a real God who created a real world. The other negates a creator-God and often also the reality of this world. Buddhist philosophy calls this absence of any reality that could be grasped as truly existent "emptiness".
However, even in regard to the absolute there are Buddhist and Christian schools of thought that are very much akin. This thesis seeks to show that Shentong Madhyamaka and Mystical-Negative theology are one example. Although Shentongpas do not negate the validity of emptiness, they nonetheless affirm (in a certain way) positive characteristics of the absolute such as existence, wisdom, compassion, and even form. And although Mystical- Negative theologians do not negate the usefulness of thinking of God as the Creator, they also speak of an absolute reality that transcends all human concepts of existence and non-existence, Creator and created.
It is obviously not my intent to add arguments to the rhetoric of those who would prove Shentong Madhyamaka "unbuddhist" because of its similarity to theism, or negative theology "unchristian" by pointing to its kinship with Eastern thought. On the contrary, my hope is that religious people around the world can learn to rejoice in their commonalities without fearing a loss of identity. Hopefully it will become clear that in spite of all commonalities the Blessed Angela of Foligno, one of the greatest medieval mystics, is very Christian; just as the Omniscient Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, who systematized the Shentong Madhyamaka, is very Buddhist.
Hence, other preconceptions I would like to help dispel are those concerning what the "mainstream" or "majority" of Christians and Buddhists believe or do not believe. Narrow views of what it means to be Christian or Buddhist are often held not only by outsiders of different faiths but equally by masses of insiders who think of their particular species of tradition (or denomination) and school of thought as the standard for their whole family of religion. Yet it would seem that two thousand or more years after their founders left their bodies, it is time to concede that each and every Christian or Buddhist sect is but a variation on a theme. Unless we want to continue a tradition of religious intolerance, wars and persecutions, we have little choice but to accept that neither religion has produced only one "mainstream" or "true" form of its tradition. Both religions include such a plurality of distinct teachings, practices, approaches and denominations that one may even dispute the propriety of referring to Buddhism or Christianity in the singular.
If we can embrace all Christian and Buddhist traditions (as well as other religions) as true and authentic, it then becomes meaningful for dialogue to find parallels between certain traditions, even if inevitably others do not consider them "mainstream". For if all schools can be respected by other schools within that religion then, in order, for example, for one particular Buddhist concept to be respected by Christians, it no longer has to match all of Christian doctrine and practice; it suffices if it is akin to one particular Christian school of thought.
Naturally I have other presuppositions that are bound to color my work. While objectivity remains a worthwhile guideline, the academic community has begun to acknowledge that it is impossible to achieve. Therefore it is a matter of academic honesty and accuracy for me to disclose the religious institutions that have framed my thinking.
I was brought up Protestant in Germany. Since 1983 I consider myself a Christian Buddhist. I practice Tibetan Buddhism. My guru, the late Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989), was not only the head of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage but also one of Dolpopa's Jonang lineage holders. Under normal circumstances this would mean that Dolpopa's practices and teachings have been transmitted to him via an uninterrupted line of masters and disciples (Sanskrit, hereafter Skt., parampara) going back all the way to Sherab Gyaltsen himself. But since the Tibetan government banned the Jonangpas in the second half of the seventeenth century, the transmission that reached Kalu Rinpoche, while authentic, was apparently not as complete as it should have been.
Since I am mystically inclined, and since Tibetan Buddhism has much more in common with Catholicism than with any other Christian denomination I am personally familiar with, my Christian parts feel most at home in the Catholic church.
According to constructivist thinking, which will be elucidated in the introduction, I could never be sure whether I understand what Dolpopa (or, for that matter, any other ancient Buddhist master) tried to say. And I must admit that my knowledge of Sherab Gyaltsen's philosophy is quite limited. I am not Tibetan; my Tibetan language skills are extremely limited; and, as will be explained in section IV.A.2. "Dolpopa's Works", Western knowledge of his teachings in general is quite scarce. On the other hand I am a practicing Buddhist who has been steeped in Shentong thought by a master who was just about as closely linked to Dolpopa as anyone could be in our era. Furthermore I am relying, to a great extent, on the accounts and translations of excerpts given by Shenpen K. Hookham. She is a very serious Buddhist practitioner and also received teachings on the subject from Jonang lineage holders. Moreover Cyrus Stearns, a Western authority on Dolpopa, has confirmed during a conversation that my understanding of the master's thought was good. Hence I believe that while my grasp of Shentong doctrine is limited, it is reasonably accurate.
A note on methodology: Within the framework of this thesis it is essential to investigate the philosophical, historical, and social background of Dolpopa's and Angela's teachings. Without such work they would be difficult to evaluate, especially because very little of Dolpopa's teachings are directly available to me and because Angela's words were edited to a great extent as soon as they were spoken. On Angela's side this requires some feminist analysis of her tradition, time, and sayings. By taking such factors into account, one can begin to sift out which statements best reflect the core of their experiences.
My approach is based on the perennialist view which allows me to be "interreligiously engaged". I do not believe in the myth of neutral scientific research. The eerie regularity with which "neutral" academic studies have been used for destructive ends compels me to be quite frank about my socio-political goals: I want Buddhists and Christians to know, respect, and help each other.
As much as possible, I will try to refrain from interpreting Angela's revelations from a Buddhist perspective. It may at times seem to Christian readers as if I were superimposing Buddhist structures onto Christian thinking. In determining whether this is really the case, one must remember that Mystical Theology by definition transcends ordinary theology as Christians know it. Thus it is conceivable that Christians, even more so than Buddhists, may be prone to read their own presuppositions into Negative Theology.
As appropriate for inter-religious dialogue, I will depict events in an emic (insider) rather than etic (outsider) fashion, analyzing what occurrences mean to those experiencing them, not how outsiders might interpret them.
Sanskrit words that are not printed in italics and bear no diacritical marks can be found in Webster's Third New International Dictionary and can therefore be considered English words. Regrettably the dictionary we are following, leaves the diacritical marks out without changing the spelling so as to reflect proper pronunciation. May the reader be advised that c is always pronounced ch and s is often pronounced sh, for example sunyata is read as shunyata.
Comparing the teachings of Angela, a Christian woman, and Dolpopa, a Buddhist man has the added advantage of revealing how gender has influenced philosophical expression. The disadvantage, in this case, is that all the inescapable feminist critique is directed against Christianity, while Buddhism is spared that embarrassment. To avoid a wrong impression it should be noted that the situation of Buddhist women was comparable to that of their Christian sisters. Their only advantage was that they were never physically persecuted and slaughtered as witches or heretics, as were Christians. But in their spiritual development Buddhist women probably received less support than Christian women did. When all is said and done it is probably safe to remark that Buddhist women have been just as oppressed as their Christian sisters. It took, however, much more effort on the Christian side to secure women's subordination. Let me briefly explain, for these issues play an important role in this study.
Jesus threatened patriarchy far more than Buddha Shakyamuni did. Judging by the sutras, Gautama was a sexist who had to be persuaded by his favorite disciple to allow the ordination of women as nuns. He only agreed to this wish after fixing women's subordination in the rules of the order and predicting that because of women's presence it would last only five hundred instead of one thousand years. He made it quite clear that spiritual truths were not to interfere with the social hierarchy. No matter how enlightened a woman was, she was socially inferior to the youngest monk. And no matter of what cosmic significance it may have been to join the Buddha's order, one was not allowed to do so without the permission of parents and kings. In short, patriarchs had nothing to fear from the Buddha.
Jesus on the other hand was much more subversive. To follow him explicitly meant to break with all hierarchy of gender, classes, and personal interaction. He constantly went against social customs that were discriminatory against women, the poor, or any detested group. And he demanded from his disciples that they not abide by customs that stood in the way of following him immediately and one- pointedly. No wonder women were drawn to him and his teachings in great masses, probably outnumbering the men. For at least three hundred years their lot was significantly improved and they probably never expected this development to reverse.
To "re-establish order" in the patriarchal sense took great effort on the part of church men more than once in the history of Christianity. It required not only the intimidation, persecution, and murder of women but also the suppression of many Christian teachings and practices, including the Via Negativa.
That is why the subordination of women is to be dealt with in this thesis. It is heart breaking and representative of the suppression of humanity all over the world. I say 'humanity' because in order for men to suppress women they also have to suppress other things, including great parts of themselves. The Catholic church is an example, not an exception in this.
A.In Search of a Common Language
Each religion has created its own jargon some of which is easily translated into the language of other traditions while other portions are not easily transferable. Part of the task of interreligious dialogue is to find a language that all conversation participants can accept. In this thesis, and perhaps in all interreligious dialogue, one of the most important tasks is for dialogue partners not to be disturbed by each other's terms for the absolute. Many Buddhists, for example, are very uncomfortable with the thought of addressing the ultimate as "Lord" or "divine". Yet the Buddhist tradition knows many Lords. For example the Lord Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: jo bo spyan ras gzigs), who embodies the love and compassion of all buddhas. Buddha Shakyamuni as well is often referred to as Bhagavan Buddha, which literally means "the Sublime" or "Holly" and is a Hindu appellation for God. He is also said to possesses "the divine eye" and "the divine ear". Not altogether unlike the Christian God, the Buddha came to embody
absolute truth or reality, and many seekers of enlightenment interpret everything they meet with as "the blessing of the Buddha". Of course I do not mean to say that there is no difference between the Christian and Buddhist Lords. But one need not be overly sensitive; and foreign words should not detract from possible commonalities.
Particularly Western Buddhists often overreact to language they consider loaded with Christian thinking. A good example is Alex and Hideko Wayman's use of the term "uncreate (reality)" rather than "uncreated". Apparently they prefer using a grammatically incorrect word to a Buddhist term that might be shared with Christians. Others may insist that there is a tremendous difference between Absolute and absolute, one designating a more reified or personalized reality/being, the other an abstract variable.
In the search for the most correct and acceptable words one would do well to remember that there is probably not one important Christian or Buddhist term that is used and interpreted consistently within its religion or even within any one denomination; not the absolute, or God, or divinization, enlightenment, or emptiness, or buddha nature. Any one of such terms has been filled with a wide variety of meaning in its own tradition, why should one cast one of them in concrete when entering dialogue? Interreligious encounter would certainly be easier if all participants could admit that their own religion has not come to an unanimous agreement concerning definitions within their own language.
So when I use lower case for words like 'the ultimate', this does not mean that it would be inappropriate to regard the designated reality with great respect, awe, or love. For example, when many people agree that Belgium is a country in Europe, this does not mean that they all have to feel the same way about it or have exactly the same information about it.
In an effort to use the most neutral terms available, I will call 'the absolute' unconditioned, ultimate, or uncreated when describing it in a way relevant to both Christian and Buddhist traditions. When the word "reality" is used in conjunction with these terms, it refers to the absolute as viewed from an ordinary, relative viewpoint. When it stands alone, it reflects the view that "relative reality" is not separate from, but an aspect of the ultimate.
Furthermore, I have not put terms that are only used within one religion and perhaps not condoned by the other (like God, Spirit, or buddha nature) in quotation marks so as to accommodate those who would doubt the adequacy of these words for describing the relevant reference. For example, I will not question whether in each one of Angela's visions it is truly God who speaks to her. As long as it is consistent with her own tradition to say that the things she sees or hears stem from the Holy Spirit, that should be an acceptable way, within interreligious dialogue, of expressing the occurrence.
B. Perennialists and Constructivists
Elucidating, as I do in the second half of chapter V, how Buddhist and Christian teachings could help each other overcome some of their own limitations, presupposes that representatives of both religions can and frequently do experience the same reality and are able to realize highest enlightenment.
This is what modern religious studies scholars call a "perennialst" view. For decades Western thinkers have debated the character of cross-cultural mystical experiences. Two camps have evolved, the "perennialists" and "constructivists". Their controversies deal with the following issues:
(1) Is there one absolute reality that permeates and transcends all cultures and religions?
(2) Can it be experienced in a pure, unmediated way or is (as constructivists maintain) all experience of reality colored, shaped or constructed by the cultural, religious, linguistic, historical, and conceptual biases of the experiencing subject?
(3) Even if people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds had the same experiences, could they ever ascertain this, or can a person from one cultural- linguistic background never be sure that s/he correctly understands a person from a different background?
(4) Some constructivists combine the first two questions and maintain that since what is perceived as absolute truth varies and depends on the practices and views of the individual, one cannot speak of one absolute truth but must acknowledge a plurality of relative truths that only seem to be absolute.
My first reason for adopting a mostly perennialist perspective is that it appears to be the view best suited to support religious tolerance and a profound kind of interreligious dialogue that goes beyond just getting to know each other. Only on the basis of acknowledging a common ground to all human experience in general and to mystical experience in particular, can dialogue lead to deep mutual respect and to a positive transformation of all partners. Some are afraid of such transformation because they worry about the purity of their faith and the possibility of syncretism. Others stress that in the present state of our world, religious institutions must take some risks and acknowledge their responsibility for promoting world peace by bringing peace to interreligious relations.
Another reason why I lean towards perennialist views is that I find constructivist arguments alienated from human realities, perhaps in a typically "academic" way. If it were true that "language itself constitutes the encompassing horizon of life and thought" and that "there is no experience independent of language", would that not mean that babies and toddlers do not experience reality until they are able to speak? Surely psychology would prove such a notion wrong. (Or does body language, laughing and crying in different intonations count as language?) If language and culture determined how we experience reality to the point where one could never truly understand statements made in a foreign language, why do we study different languages, cultures, and history? Would this not be a futile and meaningless endeavor?
I wonder how much time the leading constructivists have spent in other countries and how well they speak foreign languages. Have they ever immersed themselves in a foreign culture and experienced the clarity with which one knows whether one understands the other not at all, partially, or quite fully? Based on my own experience of having spent years in foreign countries and being fluent in four languages, I can report that humor is one good indicator of how well one understands a foreign culture. It took me two years of living in the USA before I could find at least some American news paper comics funny. On the other hand in India it took me less than a month to be just as entertained by watching Westerners as my Indian friends were.
Furthermore, if language is the all-decisive factor in human reality, how would one evaluate dialects. German dialects for example vary to such a degree that people from Southern, Central, and Northern Germany cannot understand each other when they speak in their respective tongues. And although I know the dialect of my hometown to some degree, when it is spoken in its pure form, I understand less than if someone spoke to me in French. Nonetheless one could not deny that all Germans, and especially the people of Cologne, share much of the same cultural reality.
Moreover, if all our experiences were constructed by biases, could we ever be surprised? How would one explain the frequent shock and disbelief of mystics when they reflect on their experiences? How would one interpret Angela's statements that things were revealed to her of which she had never heard before, which were not taught in churches, and which preachers would not understand?
I would conclude that it is possible to experience reality immediately. I also believe that one can learn enough about a foreign language, culture, and historical epoch to understand what its natives are trying to communicate. In John C. Maraldo's opinion, understanding a spiritual tradition requires learning its "language" by practicing it. He says:
Part of the way we transform the chaos of sounds in a foreign language into meaningful utterances is by actually venturing to speak in that language. We learn to hear clearly by practicing speaking. Sometimes a religious tradition appears to speak in a foreign language, and we learn to translate by practicing within that tradition.
According to such reasoning, practicing two religions (as I do) should be a hermeneutical advantage in comparing them.
The most significant reason, however, for basing this thesis on at least some degree of perennialism is that without such an attitude neither Buddhism nor Via Negativa make any sense. Neither Buddhist nor Christian schools usually question the existence of one absolute reality. Buddhists may say that it is not graspable in words or concepts and that any comprehensible reality is an illusion, yet they always presuppose the ability to awaken to the one true reality. If Buddhists did not believe that humans are able to deconstruct all their gross and subtle biases and realize one ultimate reality, they would have to renounce enlightenment, the very core and raison d'etre of their religion. At times it may seem as though they did just that. But even when some masters say that there is no such thing as enlightenment, they do not hold their own words to be true to the point where one should act on them, for they are only a partial truth. When it is taught that nirvana is an illusion, it does not mean that monks should go home and stop meditating; it is taught precisely for the purpose of reaching (an ineffable) nirvana. As Nagarjuna says: "Without dependence on everyday practice (vyavahara) the ultimate is not taught. Without resorting to the ultimate, nirvana is not attained."
Similarly the Via Negativa depends on the presupposition that wo/man is able to forget all cultural and linguistic biases or to cover all s/he has learned with a "cloud of unknowing". Again we find here the statement that the deconstruction of all presuppositions is possible (even if rare and difficult) and constitutes the path to perfect, unmediated union with the Uncreated. Furthermore many mystics insist that their experience of the absolute transcends all possibilities of verbal description.
Hence the Buddhist as well as Christian mystics who will be encountered in this thesis have strong perennialist tendencies. To discount their accounts one would have to question either the very validity of mysticism (which aims at direct, increasingly less mediated, encounters with the absolute) or the mental health of many of the greatest mystics. This is not the place to argue the case of mysticism. It must suffice to say that many Christians as well as most Buddhists generally accept mystical insight as a "valid means of cognition". As far as the mental health and intelligence of mystics is concerned, it was never taken for granted. Both Dolpopa and Angela were suspected, questioned, and challenged. Yet, although people at times disagreed with their views, their contemporaries certified, after thorough investigation, that they were neither possessed by the devil, nor crazy, nor stupid. Rather, as their titles clearly point out, the Omniscient and the Blessed were acknowledged as personifying the pinnacle of human development.
Thus, unless one is strongly predisposed against all forms and expressions of mysticism, I see no reason to believe that in comparing Angela of Foligno and the Via Negativa with Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen and Shentong Madhyamaka one is relating two comparable delusions. Nor, since both come to very similar conclusions, would it make sense to declare one completely mistaken but not the other.
Nonetheless it must be acknowledged that many Christians as well as Buddhists who display strong perennialist tendencies might, for various reasons, also sympathize with constructivist notions.
Many might like the idea that one cannot ascertain that mystics from different religious backgrounds experience the same reality. Such an argument appears to accommodate the claim of so many Buddhist and Christian schools that only they lead to the highest goal attainable. It seems to be common among exclusivists to explain the experiences of followers of other traditions as being constructed by biases and therefore not absolutely true. Meanwhile their own biases are excluded from such a constructivist critique and are taken to be absolute or at least uniquely true.
Furthermore, Buddhists may be drawn to constructivism because they have a strong millennia old tradition not only of perennialism but also of deconstructing reality by means of logic. As we will see, many Buddhist schools have embraced a combination of what might be termed perennialism and constructivism. For example, Shentong Madhyamikas and their predecessors speak of two nirvanas, two buddha- gotras (buddha family), or two purities. One set is relative and conditioned; it is reflected in the constructivist view. The other set is absolute and changeless; it is mirrored in the perennialist position.
Angela of Foligno and Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen also both transcend the constructivist-perennialist controversy when they speak of an absolute reality that is at once one and a union of many, one reality with many modes or qualities.
To conclude this debate, I am inclined to agree with John Cobb Jr. when he says that: "both [perennialists and constructivists] are correct in fundamental ways, although wrong in excluding one another." In my opinion neither one of these camps, when taken to an extreme, nor Lonergan's "Interiority Analysis", represent satisfying theories; they tend to be one-sided. I think Queen Srimala's proposition of a constructed and an unconstructed conventional as well as ultimate reality (samsara and nirvana) is a very intriguing concept that Western scholars would do well to explore in greater depth.
C. The Role of Mystics and their Teachings
Comparing, as this thesis proposes to do, teachings on the essence of absolute reality is a delicate matter. In doing so, one is dealing with something that lies beyond ordinary perception and human concepts; something that cannot adequately be described in words. What then can mystics say about uncreated reality that will at least point our gaze in the right direction? For something must be said. How many mystics tried to be silent because they found the truth to be inexpressible but were commanded to speak anyhow? When the Buddha thought it would be useless to speak about the reality he had awakened to, because no one would understand it, the Hindu god Brahma Sahampati appeared before him, imploring him to teach. Similarly, many Christian women mystics were commanded by God or the angels to speak though they tried everything to remain silent.
Some mystics' role is to confirm the existing tradition. But the greater ones, in my opinion, are in the dual position of affirming as well as negating their religion. It is their function to be outrageous, to burst through the limits of their religion in order to be more true to that which is limitless. As Raoul Mortley says, what the Via Negativa negates of God is "parasitic on prior affirmations [the negations] cannot invent themselves." I.e. Negative theology negates not just anything, but precisely what was first affirmed. Nor would it negate certain characteristics if they were not generally established as positive truth. Correspondingly, what Shentong Madhyamaka affirms of the absolute is parasitic on prior Madhyamika negations.
Both traditions are rooted in agreement with their religion but also point to their limitations and try to overcome them. That is why mystics of the Via Negativa are drawn to negate God, while Shentong Madhyamaka type mystics are drawn to affirm a quasi theistic absolute. But these teachings cannot be independent; they draw their life blood from a tradition which they transcend. If they come to be understood as autonomous they lose their initial purpose. Then they will exchange positions; the former parasite will become the host and vice versa. In Buddhism this happens more easily than in Christianity because there is no strong centralized institution that freezes the status of host and parasite.
The way this dynamic is played out in a religion is in the relationship between exoteric and esoteric, or public and "secret", "hidden", "special" teachings, or between officially established doctrine and freely improvising mysticism. And if what has been said sounds confusing, it is precisely because in the history of both Buddhism and Christianity this relationship has been anything but clear. In both religions there is conflict as to whether or not there should be graded teachings. The Catholic church has long accepted a difference between teachings and practices for the laity and for the ordained, but has never openly acknowledged the existence of esoteric teachings. And this although the Bible contains quite a few references to graded teachings corresponding to the understanding of the audience or to teachings whose mystical depths will be understood by some while others may hear the words but not grasp any of the more subtle meaning. There is also mention of spiritual secrets that will be revealed to some but not to others. Clement of Alexandria (second century) speaks of secret teachings that were transmitted from the time of the apostles and hidden in scripture under symbols and allegorical language.
There has been wide-spread agreement in the Christian world that the Negative Way is not suited for beginners. But whether or not it should be the pinnacle of the contemplative way has never been clearly decided.
In Buddhism the situation is even more controversial. Nikaya-Buddhism generally does not acknowledge any esoteric instructions. Yet, most of traditional Mahayana Buddhism explains its very existence as secret teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni to especially advanced disciples. But once the Mahayana had become established as public, another layer of special oral instructions was added to it. Of what these consist or even if there are any at all, varies from school of thought to school of thought. As will be explained in section II.B.4. "His Person", Dolpopa's revolution consisted of little more than an attempt to change the status of "special instructions" to that of public normative doctrine.
What further complicates the issue of esoteric teachings is that religions keep certain teachings secret for a multitude of reasons. There are spiritual considerations for the development of individuals, but there is also concern for the identity, establishment, and expansion of religious institutions. And finally there are connections between these institutions and worldly powers that make churches of all religions seats of political power. Once they have become entangled in worldly struggles for control, it is often difficult to sort out purely worldly from spiritual motivations.
As we shall see in the cases of Via Negativa and Shentong Madhyamaka, their health, status, and expansion, or as the case may be, suppression, were rooted in all these areas of religious life: personal, institutional, and political affairs of state. What Dolpopa and Angela communicated of their visions always took the status of their more hidden tradition into account. In Angela's case this meant silence in order to comply with official church doctrine. In Dolpopa's case it meant rebellion and abundant writing in the effort to prove his orthodoxy.
When contemplating the spiritual reasons for regulating access to certain teachings, expounding on what has been kept a secret so diligently seems inappropriate. But when considering that the Via Negativa has been so hidden within the Catholic church that few know about it and even fewer are able to connect with it as a living tradition, it seems desirable to proliferate knowledge of it more widely than would be advisable under different circumstances. In so doing, hopefully a balance can be regained between the faithful knowing of its existence and not being able to explore all the details without spiritual direction.
On the Buddhist side the situation is different. So long as teachings contrary to the normative doctrine were treated as secret instructions, the powers of church institutions and state were not bothered by their contents. Thus Dolpopa's teachings survive as a practiced tradition, even if kept a little more hidden than he had perhaps intended. Today much of his thought is openly shared, except where it enters Tantric territory, which is generally secret. Though I have tried to persuade three great lamas to explain certain mysterious issues, they revealed very little.
And so this thesis will treat some of what Angela and Dolpopa shared of their treasures though for many reasons much of their revelations remain secrets.
As a perennialist I believe that these mystics can help us gain a fuller image of reality. I also hope that their findings can be expressed in a language that facilitates Christian-Buddhist communication.
THE CHARACTER AND HISTORICAL ROOTS OF VIA NEGATIVA
AND UMA SHENTONG
A. What Is Via Negativa?
Via Negativa is a way of approaching God by denying self, the world, and finally the ability to conceive God. When it is expressed in theological terms it is called Mystical or Negative theology and professes that one can only say what God is not, not what God is. Even merely stating that God always remains a mystery that no one can comprehend completely and that no words can describe adequately, is often considered "Negative theology". Though many people use these terms interchangeably some distinctions can be made.
When facing the divine mysteries, even scholastic theology admits that its talk of God is only an approximate analogy, not a true description. "In this sense negative theology is an essential element of the theology of all times" , though some thinkers have stressed it more than others.
Via Negativa, which is a prime focus of this study, is more radical in its denials and the mystical sibling of scholastic Negative theology. Both posit God's ultimate transcendence and inconceivability, but they do so from different points of view and draw quite distinct conclusions.
Scholastics approach God from an intellectual point of view and thus his unknowable nature presents to them a final and insurmountable gulf between wo/man and God. They conclude from this gulf that humans will in essence always be separate from God and that they have no inner tool whatsoever for knowing him directly and empirically. Thus, in their view, any human knowledge about God depends exclusively on what is revealed and recounted in scripture about the incarnate Word. Furthermore, supposing wo/man's incapacity to know God directly, salvation comes to depend completely on the mediation of the Church and its officials.
On the other hand, when the mystic says that God is inconceivable and "unknowable", s/he is coming from a direct experience of the divine that shattered all s/he thought s/he knew. Now s/he no longer knows the God of scripture intellectually but s/he has become one with a completely transcendental unnameable reality. As St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-395) puts it: "The Lord does not say that it is blessed to know something about God, but rather to possess God in oneself." Here God's transcendence of the human intellect does not make him inaccessible, it just warrants a specific approach if one is to become one with him. More than a theology, the Via Negativa is a method of contemplating the divine stripped of ideas and bare of any human concepts yet full of a loving yearning that knows neither object nor subject. As Dionysius the Areopagite says, one is to strive for complete "unity in unknowing fashion with the one superior to all being and knowledge." Such "unio mystica" brings the soul so close to God that there is no room between them for any dogmas, theologies, beliefs, or even the Church. Then the soul becomes "divinized", i.e. one with God with very little or no distinction, depending on whose teaching one follows. At this highest stage of union there is consciousness and things are "seen", but Christian mystics sometimes call it "unknowing" , because in this state the soul knows of neither world, nor soul, nor God. What it experiences is inexpressible.
Yet what is revealed during union with the absolute often demands to be communicated. When the contemplative obeys, the result is not a teaching based on studying books, but an "infused theology" (inspired by the Holy Spirit) that stresses all the things God is not. It is quite radical in that it negates in a transcending way, most everything that is said in the Bible. For example Denys says:
The cause of all things intelligible in its pre-eminence is not any of the intelligible things. . . . It is not life, nor being nor eternity. . . . It is not truth, nor kingship, nor wisdom; not one, nor unity or goodness; nor is it a spirit as is visible to us, not sonship, not fatherhood. . .
Yet "infused theology" does not render the Scripture useless. Rather, it follows the regular path to holiness as it is laid out in the Bible. Only when the apostolic ideals are realized can the affirmative way be transcended for the sake of indistinguishable unity with the divine. The Bible contains the most holy part of all human concepts within "created reality". Nevertheless no intelligible thing is relevant in regards to the "Uncreated". Within created reality God's qualities are celebrated, but when speaking of the Uncreated, even God's existence cannot be affirmed. Instead, as Denys puts it: "the cause of all things intelligible . . . is beyond affirmation, and beyond all denial."
Denys indicates that these teachings were meant for those who had been "initiated" into the divine mysteries by having been baptized not only with water but also with the Spirit. The Via Negativa was a method for those who had dedicated their lives to striving for union with God by way of asceticism and contemplation. As Lees explains, much of the Negative theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa "was directed to furnishing the newly-founded monastic movement in Cappadocia with a substantial literature expounding the theological basis for the contemplative life." It was a theology that was congruent with individuals making every effort to uncover the divinity that lay hidden inside or underneath their souls. (Depending on whom one follows.)
The distinction between scholastics and church men on the one hand, and mystical hermits on the other is, according to Louth, a later invention of the West where spirituality became separated from dogma. He states that: "in the Fathers, there is no divorce between dogmatic and mystical theology;" Even much-later theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274) managed to maintain for themselves a mystical side. Nonetheless, the fact that mysticism and dogmatism were not "divorced", does not mean that they were indistinguishable. It seems to me that the early church Fathers struck a different tone, depending on the function they were fulfilling: mystic or church man. Some of the confusion about Negative theology seems to stem from the fact that their mystical teachings changed just a little when they tried to accommodate the concerns of the church institution. Those slight alterations unfortunately had tremendous consequences which the Fathers may not have foreseen.
Thus we have not only a mystical Via Negativa and a scholastic Negative theology but also a grey zone between the two, marking an ongoing meeting point as well as an historical transition. Sometimes the distinction lies only in the motivation or the inner experience of the author. That's why it is at times difficult to discern which spirit speaks through a Negative theologian: the mystic or the church bureaucrat. And thus it happens that great contemplatives like Athanasius (295?-373) and Gregory of Nyssa are at times accused of rejecting mysticism.
So in spite of the importance of distinguishing between Via Negativa or Mystical theology on the one hand and purely scholastic Negative Theology on the other hand, I use the term Negative Theology interchangeably with Via Negativa or Mystical theology, although the first two expressions will be reserved for the more mystical sibling.
B. What Is Shentong Madhyamaka?
Madhyamaka (Sanskrit) means "of the middle". It is translated into Tibetan as uma (dbu ma = middle). Since the "Middle School" is known in the West by its Sanskrit name, either term is used in this thesis, depending on whether the reference is to the Indian or the Tibetan context.
Madhyamaka is the name by which the Indian master- philosopher Nagarjuna (second/third century) called his philosophy, referring back to Buddha Shakyamuni's Middle Way of avoiding extremes (Madhyama-Pratipad). Nagarjuna's teachings can be summarized as expounding that all phenomena, including any kind of "Absolute", are empty of a conceivable existence as well as a graspable non-existence. Things appear in a relative way, but they are free from an independent, real self that can be established, i.e. "self- empty" (Tibetan: rang stong, hereafter 'rangtong'). Since nothing correct can be said about reality, the only flawless position to take is to not take any at all. In his Madhyamakakarika 13:8 Nagarjuna explains that emptiness is taught as an antidote to all views (Skt. drsti), not as a view itself. He declares grasping at emptiness as though it were a philosophical position the most difficult view to remedy. (This did not keep Madhyamikas from spending much time and effort refuting everybody else's position. And it has been argued from early on that this in itself constitutes a position. )
The Tibetan word shentong (gzhan stong) means 'empty of other'. Uma shentongpas agree with the statement that all phenomena are self-empty, but they do not agree with Nagarjuna's (as well as Tibetan Rangtongpas') position that ultimate reality is empty of self-being just like any other phenomenon. Rather they profess an absolute which transcends phenomena, truly exists and is full of real qualities. It is empty only of any accidental defilements or qualities that are other than its very nature, that is to say anything not absolute like defilements, dualistic perception, and graspable qualities that could be separable from its essence, etc.
Tibetan Shentongpas and their Indian predecessors refer to this ultimate reality as tathagatagarbha (or Tib. de bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po). This term is alternately translated as: buddha-embryo, -seed, -womb, -storehouse, - nature, -essence, or -core. Buddha nature is a rendering that only became acceptable in China because it implies a quasi substantial essence that pervades not only all sentient beings but the whole universe, including matter. More often than not, Indians shied away from such a use of the term. But it is implied and in some cases even explicitly stated in a number of Indian texts. Therefore I use the term "buddha nature" when describing Indian ideas wherever this seems appropriate.
In how far it is justified to call Uma Shentong a Madhyamika system, is a complex and much debated issue that is dealt with in later chapters.
The Philosophical Category of Shentong Thought
As opposed to Negative Theology, the Shentong school of thought enjoyed centuries of public recognition and support, though it was never unrivaled. Rather, the debates involving its Indian forerunners continued in Tibet and still excite people to this very day. The controversy has been carried out in public with heated enthusiasm but most of the time also with a decent measure of good will and tolerance towards the opponent. This led to Shentongpas developing perhaps a little more of a philosophical footing than their sisters and brothers of the Via Negativa did.
Nonetheless, Michael Broido seems to maintain that Dolpopa never aspired to compose philosophy but merely recounted his own personal experience. He emphasizes the distinction between siddhanta (grub mtha') and darsana (lta ba). According to the "Lexikon der östlichen Weisheitslehren" a siddhanta is "the opinion [or view) of an Indian philosophical school that is fixed by written transmission and argumentation and collected in a compendium." Darsana on the other hand means "seeing". In Buddhist contexts it denotes:
a realization that is based on reason and able to extinguish intellectual passions, wrong views, doubt, and attachment to rituals and rules. The path of seeing (darsana-marga) leads from mere faithful trust in the Four Noble Truths to actually realizing them.
According to Broido, Dolpopa reserves the term siddhanta for Rangtong Madhyamaka and never intended to present Uma Shentong as a fixed philosophical system. Broido stresses the different areas siddhantas and darsanas cover, one referring to philosophical systems, the other to the experience of seeing the way things really are. He seems to think that siddhantas are something higher or more real than darsanas and that Dolpopa never intended to elevate the account of his realization to the level of philosophy. He accuses "modern Shentongpas" of not maintaining the master's clarity and instead confusing accounts of mystical experience and epistemic teachings on how to acquire insight with a philosophical system. By doing so, Broido maintains, they read an ontology into his Madhyamaka teachings that is not there. But can he, on the one hand, profess to understand Dolpopa better than modern Shentongpas do when he, on the other hand, denounces the master's teachings on absolute form as an "absurd ontological view"? What he fails to recognize, in my opinion, is that to the mystically inclined Shentongpas direct experience seems far more able to reveal the truth than "a fixed philosophical position based on axioms and set rules of argument". To a Shentongpa, the latter will by its fixed nature always be dualistic. As Hookham explains in her section on "Direct Experience as Valid Cognition", in order to determine which means of cognition is most suited for which object of cognition one has to analyze the characteristics of the means and the object. Then it becomes apparent that reason and inferential logic can only know concepts but not the true nature of reality. Since the latter lies beyond the conceptual mind, only direct yogic awareness (Skt. yogi pratyaksa) represents a valid means of cognizing ultimate reality.
Nonetheless, a darsana is not incapable of philosophy. As the Lexikon says it is based on reason and leads to the realization of all that can be realized and to the eradication of wrong views. But perhaps it is not stuck in fixed philosophical rules. Shentong Madhyamikas strive to encompass the purpose of Madhyamaka and to transcends it.
In this context it is important to consider that to divide Buddhist teachings into Western categories of philosophy, epistemology, ontology, soteriology, pedagogy, etc. is most often a superimposition. The results are misunderstandings and accusations such as Broido's: "Note Kong-sprul's typical confusion of epistemology with ontology." Is Jamgon Kongtrul the Great really confused? I think the problem is that Western scholars like Broido sometimes forget that in a system where what ordinary people call "reality" is seen as a mere misconception, an illusory projection of the mind, there is no distinction between "epistemology" and "ontology". (This is true for all schools of thought that were influenced by Cittamatra thought, including many Madhyamika thinkers.) Dolpopa backs his view that different realities are merely different ways of perception or different levels of realization with the following quote from Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakavrtti Akutobhaya:
(Seeing that circumstances arise is called] worldly samvrtisatya" . . . ; it is the relative truth (samvrtisatya) because of the two (truths) it is the one which is true in the relative sense. Seeing that circumstances are free from arising, . . . is called "paramarthasatya"; it is the absolute truth because of the two it is the one which is true in the absolute sense.
It is in keeping with Rangtong critique to judge Uma Shentong as too ontological to constitute Madhyamaka. Yet Indian pramana (=proof) literature accepts direct or yogic perception as a valid means of cognition. And does something being correctly perceived and validly cognized not allow the inference of its ontological status to be existence? For how can something be validly cognized if neither a cognizer nor a cognized exist? According to Paul Williams, even "Tsong kha pa observes that if the ultimate truth doesn't exist then there is no way it could be eventually cognized and the holy path would be pointless." Nevertheless he continues to show that: The formal difference between the dBu ma rang stong and the dBu ma gzhan stong marks the situation of Madhyamaka anti-ontology in opposition to the felt needs of the mystical as a content-bearing experience.
In short: shentong doctrine is the account of the shared experiences of many masters who have validated their encounters to reflect an inconceivable but existent reality. It contains descriptions of mystical encounters with the absolute formulated, as much as possible, in accordance with philosophy. It also encompasses psychological explanations of what is helpful on the path to realizing ultimate reality. Broido may call it a "frequently made ridiculous claim" that the contrast between Uma Rangtong and Shentong lies in relying on reason rather than faith as the primal force to guide one to enlightenment. It is nonetheless true and in accordance with much of the tathagatagarbha tradition. For example in the Srimaladevi Sutra the Buddha says: Queen, whatever disciples of mine are possessed of faith and [then] are controlled by faith, they by depending on the light of faith have a knowledge in the precincts of the Dharma, by which they reach certainty in this.
The Ratnagotravibhaga, summarizing this sutra and the Mahaparanirvana Sutra, echoes: "This, the Absolute, the Self-Arisen One, is realizable through faith. The disc of the sun blazing with light is not visible to those without eyes."
Williams summarizes the Jonangpa position very well: When one goes beyond reasoning one realizes something new, a real, inherently existing Absolute beyond all conceptualization but accessible in spiritual intuition and otherwise available, as the Tathagatagarbha texts stress, only to faith.
C. The Development of Via Negativa
Wherever Christian mysticism was allowed to flower, one of its blossoms was the Negative Way. Correspondingly, whenever it was strictly regulated or suppressed, the Via Negativa was the first to wilt and die, until its next spring. Thus, the history of Via Negativa is the history of Christian mysticism.
1. Biblical Roots
Two Biblical elements contributed to the development of Via Negativa: On the one hand, God's absolute transcendence and ineffableness, and on the other hand, the ability of the human soul to reach perfect union with God in spite of his incomprehensible nature.
Before looking at Judeo-Christian scripture it should be observed that to Jews as well as Christians, most Biblical stories have represented not only outer historical occurrence but also revelations about the characteristics of absolute reality whose symbolism was meant to be contemplated. Since Origen of Alexandria (185-253) theologians have formally distinguished "four interpretations of the Holy Scripture": the literal, semantic, allegorical and anagogical (leading the initiated towards seeing God).
In Exod 3:14 God seems to introduce himself to the Children of Israel by identifying himself as Being as such. He gives his name as: "I am that I am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." His being is near as well as far; it fills heaven and earth (Jer 23:23-24), and goes beyond it all such that " the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee". (1 Kgs 8:27) God is so far beyond the limits of everything humans know that it is prohibited to depict him using any image whatsoever from our cosmos. (Exod 20:4)
In the Hebrew Bible JHVH does not show himself directly to anyone. When he speaks to his prophets, he hides in a dense cloud and/or in fire (Exod 19:9 and 18), or else in darkness, as in Exod 20:21: "And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where[in] God was." This passage is important to remember because of the mass of scholars who maintain that when Denys and other mystics talk about divine darkness they use Platonic language; yet in reality they refer explicitly to this passage in Exodus. Another important episode is described in Exod 24:15-18. God appears on Mount Sinai in a cloud. To the Israelites he looks like "devouring fire on the top of the mount". Nonetheless God calls Moses and the prophet enters "into the midst the cloud", climbs the mountain and stays there "forty days and forty nights" (which is symbolic of a very long time).
Traditionally, two reasons are given to explain why God veils himself in fire, clouds, and darkness: Either that he is invisible (1 Tm 1:17 and 6:16, and Col 1:15) or that to see him face to face is to die. (Exod 33:20) Those who are pure and whom God chooses however, are permitted to see him indirectly or in passing.
In this latter episode God's glory passes by Moses; the Lord protects him from viewing his face but he allows him to see his back as his glory disappears. Isaiah is another prophet who is granted a glimpse of God. After having seen him, he fears that he will die because he was impure when he saw the Lord. But an angel purifies him and he lives. (Isa 6:1-7) At the occasion of sealing the covenant between JHVH and the Israelites, God even grants seventy four elders at once to see him from a distance (only Moses is allowed to approach). (Exod 24:9-11)
Thus even in the Hebrew Bible God's nature does not prevent all humans from being able to see him. There are, however, stringent prerequisites for being allowed to behold the divine. And even then the image resists grasping, for it presents itself only in passing. Osborn paraphrases Philo as explaining Moses' view of God's back thus: "From here it [the soul) comes to the greatest good of all, to grasp that the being of God is beyond the grasp of every creature ... To see him is to know that he is invisible."
The New Testament goes a step further. Rather than merely granting a rare chosen one a glimpse of the Lord, it talks about an intimate and ongoing, at times complete union of the believer with the divine in an inner kingdom of God. Through Jesus, it is said, the faithful can become children of God (Rom 8:14) who are born 'not of the flesh but of God'.(Jn 1:12-13) Then they are able to fulfill his command: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Mt 5:48) Jesus assures his disciples that not only will God's spirit be with and in them, but: "I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you." (Jn 14:20) This is how Christ wants it to be, for: "He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit." (Jn 15:5) St. Paul fulfills his wish and the result is his famous exclamation: "I live, yet not I, Christ lives in me." (Gal 2:20) Starting with Athanasius, many Christian mystics have summarized the Good News by proclaiming: "The Word became man that we might become divine."
Putting the Old and the New Testaments together, one ends up with many children of God who strive to follow and become completely one with a God who became man, but whose divine nature is utterly ineffable and transcendent. It seems that the natural result of such endeavors is Via Negativa. For, like Moses, Christians are called to purify themselves and enter the dark cloud wherein the inconceivable God is found. Will they not talk about the meaning of this cloud? And will they not share their experiences of how they managed to enter it and what they experienced therein?
2. Hellenistic Roots
Although the Bible supports the development of Mystical theology, many theologians over the centuries have spoken of the "Pagan" (i.e. Hellenistic) roots of abstract Christian contemplation and the corresponding teachings. Indeed, it has to be admitted that Greek culture had a tremendous influence on Christianity. This is quite obvious not only in the Gospel according to St. John but also in many other Biblical passages.
Exploring all the tenets of Greek philosophy that are said to have helped shape Christian thinking is beyond the scope of this study. Suffice it to say that some Greek schools of thought, particularly Platonism, know of an impersonal divine. It is sometimes called the One and constitutes the essential nature of wo/man's soul. Through initiations into divine mysteries and introspection the spiritual nature of the mind (nous) can be realized. But there were many variations of Platonism as well as many individual Platonists whose statements vary. While some affirm the divinity of the mind, others speak of transcending any concept of individual souls.
Supposedly such terms as the negative way, the mystic way, the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways were all introduced into Christianity from Neoplatonism. Nevertheless one should not conclude that they are un- Christian, as perhaps especially Protestant theologians are prone to think. For how was Christianity born? Jesus did not found "Christianity". He was a Jew and the head of a Jewish movement which was rejected by the vast majority of his own people. In order to survive, the sect depended on a fusion with Greek culture. This was possible because his teachings already contained many elements that were akin to Hellenistic thinking. One must not forget that the two cultures shared the same territory. Thus the more Hellenistic Christians were able to expand upon certain teachings of Jesus without introducing anything completely alien. Perhaps one can characterize Christianity as the marriage of a certain Jewish movement with Greek thought. Without Judaism and Greek philosophy it is doubtful whether "Christianity" would have ever been born. The Jesus sect would probably have been just another Jewish movement that came and went, much like the Essenes.
A good example of the role Hellenism played for the Via Negativa is the development of the idea of the soul's divinization. One thing all Negative Mystics have in common and the reason why many discover the Negative Way even if no one tells them about it, is that they strive for the perfect divinization of their souls.
Where did this idea come from? Many theologians would agree with Irénée-H. Dalmais: "The vocabulary of divinization is foreign to Biblical language, which is concerned about preserving the divine transcendence as an absolute." Dalmais goes on to express amazement that the idea even arose in Christianity. To explain why it did and was able to stick, he proceeds to quote one Biblical passage after another that proves his opening statement utterly wrong. These quotes fall into three main areas:
(1) There is the passage in Genesis where God "created [wo/]man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." And when they have eaten of the tree of wisdom they are expelled from the garden of Eden because: "Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden". (Gen 1:27 and 3:22-3) Yet, some time later, God does not seem to mind company in his divinity for he sends his son to grant believers precisely the eternal life which would make wo/man completely "as one of us". (Nonetheless Dalmais asserts that it is a characteristically Greek idea to think that possessing eternal life makes one divine.)
(2) The Bible has much to say about Christians being God's adopted children and heirs to his kingdom, not unlike Jesus being God's son. (Gal 4, etc.)
(3) There is Jesus' command: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Mat 5:48)
It is a widespread opinion among Christian theologians that the Greek Fathers were more mystical than the Roman Fathers. But that does not mean that they introduced foreign concepts. As far as I can see, Hellenistic Christians did no more than three things:
(1) They recognized these teachings for what they were: the proclamation of the soul's capacity to become completely divine.
(2) They placed these teachings in the very center of their faith, regarding them as the goal of a Christian life and the only end which could satisfy wo/man's spiritual nature. The Roman Fathers on the other hand, pushed divinization as much to the background as they could. Instead they stressed a saintliness of strictly human ethics and the Jewish roots of Christianity. As will be explained below, divinization did not fit well with their concerns. So they termed the idea "pagan" and dispensable because it matched Hellenistic philosophy. Nonetheless the Church could not ban the concept completely because it is unmistakably rooted in the Bible. Instead theologians distorted its content to the point of rendering it unrecognizable. They invented an indissoluble difference between divinity by nature (as in God) and by gift or grace (as in humans). Yet, even if eternal life and divinization were a free gift, it is by definition for ever and cannot be revoked; i.e it becomes one's nature. The Bible itself likens it to a fruit that one eats, that is absorbed into one's body and changes everything irreversibly. Whether one steals the fruit or it is given, does not seem to change the outcome.
I would conclude that Hellenism enabled Christians to accept Biblical teachings which the Roman Fathers later distorted.
(3) It seems that Hellenistic Christians were much less afraid than their Jewish brethren to share their revelations. While St. Paul and many others before and after him remained silent about much that was revealed to them, Greek influence may have encouraged others to speak their truth. For the Greeks had at this point a great tradition of seeking verity at all cost and in a very public manner. They were not ruled by a wrathful God who drew a strict boundary around the secret of his being and who promised to kill anyone who would willingly or accidentally penetrate his hiding place. (Cf: Exod 19:12-3)
Nor does it seem like Greeks were afraid of how truth might impact their social structures. They had already learned to appreciate some degree of democracy and, in Egypt, of women's equality. Since the earliest centers for Christian learning were Alexandria and Athens, not just Greek but also Egyptian culture had an enormous influence on early Christianity. Perhaps these factors made "Egypto- Hellenistic" Christians less afraid when finding a truth that divinized the soul, whether male or female, and made God inaccessible to human concepts and categories, as it were, lifting the Uncreated out of human control or monopoly.
That such a truth has repercussions on the social aspect of the Church becomes quite evident in church history. Where and when ever such truth was allowed to be sought and expressed, it immediately inaugurated an emancipation of women. Christian Via Negativa was born at a time when women studied the scriptures in classes with renowned teachers and were allowed to express themselves as deaconesses and other church officials, prophetesses, teachers, missionaries, nuns, hermits, lay recluses in their homes, etc. But the more Roman the Catholic church became, the more it strove for a powerful, centralized, institution and an orderly all male hierarchy. That meant that mysticism and women (whom Christian mysticism tends to liberate) had to be kept in their "orderly" place, i.e. clearly subordinated to the male institution. To achieve this truth itself had to be controlled and guarded jealously.
3. Negative-Mystical Theology During the First 500 Years
It took a few centuries and the help of the Roman empire to achieve the goal of women's "orderly" subordination. First of all the egalitarian Greek influence had to be relegated to a decorative position. Instead of it the Jewish roots, which were far more conducive to maintaining a patriarchal power structure, were declared to be the only true Christian heritage. Yet "Christian Platonism" was not easily eradicated for it was justified by too many Biblical passages.
Mystical theology, suffered its first major defeat at the Council of Nicea in 325. Here it was decided that God created the world ex nihilo. This was a direct rejection of the Platonic teachings about an essential kinship between the divine and the soul which is realized in contemplation. In contrast to this, the patriarchs sought to maintain an essential indissoluble gulf between God and his creation. This had direct repercussions on Christian practice. The soul was no longer expected to become completely divinized by contemplating God and finding him to be one's true nature. Instead the believer was to strive for ethical perfection and become an immaculate image of the selfless, suffering, obedient Jesus. It was no longer said that God had become human so that humans could become divine. Rather it was asserted that people could not become any more divine than imitating God's human incarnation. Louth describes the theological development that the council of Nicea inaugurated as being clearly anti- mystical. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that the emperor Constantine called it not for mystical reasons but in order to achieve uniformity of doctrine throughout the empire which would serve as a basis for the centralization of the Church's power.
St. Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, played a major and somewhat schizophrenic role in this development from free mysticism to orderly institutionalization. He was not only a very influential man in the Church but also symptomatic of what was going on in the fourth century. Being quite conscious of the discrepancy between Christianity's Jewish and Hellenistic roots and its dependency on both, he sought to find a compromise between them. His mystical side was drawn to Christian Platonism. But, as Lees puts it, his church functionary side saw in it "an immediate threat to the consolidation of the Christian church".
His theology was to influence all future mystical theologians and it reflects many of the conclusions the Blessed Angela came to. The teachings of the bishop of Nyssa are by no means anti-mystical but they transcend neo- Platonism in a "negative way", much like Buddhist sunyata (emptiness) transcends Hindu atman-brahman (God-soul). The Platonic Christian soul is divine and able to know the transcendent God in a definitive and final way. It can actively work towards such knowledge by uniting so to say its "inner" divinity with God's "outer" divinity in contemplation. To St. Gregory on the other hand, the soul is not part of God but part of creation. As the whole universe, it is not only created out of nothing, in the last analysis it is nothing. In speaking of Moses' meeting with God in the burning bush (Exod 3:2) Gregory declares: It seems to me that at the time the great Moses was instructed in the theophany he came to know that none of those things which are apprehended by sense perception and contemplated by the understanding really subsists, but that the transcendent essence and cause of the universe, on which everything depends, alone subsists.
It cannot be said much more clearly: the soul and the world have no real own being and if one desires to see absolute reality, one has to leave behind all one can contemplate, which includes God's existence. "For as much as the stars are beyond the grasp of the fingers, so much and many times more does that nature which is above all human minds transcend our earthly thoughts."
Clearly these teachings are not the first thing people need to hear about God and the world. The Christian path does not start out with an ever deeper penetration into divine darkness until one sees the incomprehensible God whom no soul can see because no soul truly exists in the first place. So Gregory shortens his mystical theology and the result is an anti-mystical theology that sounds like this: The soul is a created thing, defiled by sin. God is beyond wo/man's reach, except in his human form, Jesus. All humans can do to approach God is emulate his son. Complete union with God is impossible.
This is the part of Gregory's teachings that allowed the church institution to take Christianity out of the hands of the people and deposit it into official controllable shrines. He does so at a time when many Roman citizens convert to Christianity for no other reason than that it is the preferred religion of the emperor. Since the prosecutions have stopped; becoming a Christian is no longer a question of life and death. The parishes and the church institution are becoming much more worldly. From this point on those who want to dedicate their lives to God leave the cities and retreat to the desert. There they seek the same austerities to which they were formerly exposed in the towns. Thus the Christian community becomes split between worldly lay followers and more earnestly dedicated renunciates. Before then there was one unified theology for all, of which all Christians were worthy by virtue of risking their lives for it. But now there arises the possibility of Roman citizens converting for personal gain. They are proud already and not in need of deifying their egos. It seems that St. Gregory does not want to throw the pearls of the Kingdom of Heaven before the swine of merely nominal Christians. And so he develops two strands of theology which might rightly be called 'exoteric and esoteric'. The real treasure is meant only for earnest seekers of God. These he encourages not to take his anti- mystical teachings too seriously:
All you mortals who have within yourselves a desire to behold the supreme Good, when you are told that the majesty of God is exalted above the heavens, that the divine glory is inexpressible, its beauty indescribable, its nature inaccessible [all things he teaches] do not despair at never being able to behold what you desire. For you do have within your grasp the degree of knowledge of God which you can attain.
To the true children of God the fact that the soul is a created and defiled entity that will never become God does not mean that they cannot be united with God. It means that mystical union will be achieved in an ecstasy that is not only an out of body experience but also, so to say, an out of soul experience. Or, as Lees puts it: "the soul's abandonment of self is at once an initiation into a higher state of perfection." Because the soul is not God, and the Absolute is not any of the human ideas about it, all human concepts of soul as well as God have to be transcended in order to become united with the Uncreated.
Similarly, that no final and complete union with God is possible does not mean that the soul cannot be completely divinized. It just means that its divinization will never come to an unsurpassable end because there is no end to the absolute. Paradoxically, God's unchanging eternal nature does not preclude it from enormous dynamics. Since it is infinite, there is always more to see in God. And thus the divinized soul's curiosity and desire to expand will never come to an end. Rather: "...the bride [i.e. the soul) realizes that she will always discover more and more of the incomprehensible and unhoped for beauty of her Spouse [i.e. God) throughout all eternity."
The tragedy is that during the next couple of centuries church functionaries blew anti-mystical theology out of proportion while hiding the Via Negativa even from monks, nuns, and ascetics. Though waning, it managed to survive uninterrupted publicly from Clement of Alexandria to Pseudo-Dionysius and then, for all we know, it lay as if dead for about 400-600 years!
4. The Pseudo-Dionysian Corpus
Since it played a special role in the eventual revival of Via Negativa, a few things must be said about this collection of texts. To this day nobody knows who really wrote the works that were spuriously attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. The latter is mentioned in the Bible in Act 17:34 as one of the Greek philosophers whom St. Paul converted while preaching on the Areopag, the hill of Athens' tribunal which was famous for its justice. 'Areopagite' denotes Dionysius' membership in that council. Since no works of the real Dionysius are transmitted, whenever writers refer to him, be it as Dionysius, Pseudo- Dionysius, or Denys, they mean the anonymous author who used that pseudonym. The works have been dated to stem from the late 5th or early 6th century. More or less from the start their authenticity was questioned, but they were only irrevocably proven spurious in the 19th century when it really did not matter anymore because they had already left an indelible imprint on Christendom.
The pseudonym that was chosen for the Dionysian corpus, and the care that was taken to support the claimed author, indicate that the name was picked for good reason. It points to somebody's expectation that the work together with the whole stream of theology it represents, will not be given the attention and respect it deserves. And rightly so, for already in 533 the orthodoxy and authenticity of the Dionysian corpus were doubted and by the end of the century this particular style of Christian Neo-Platonism had been silenced in the Church. Yet the forgery was so successful that it forced the same theologians who were fighting parts of its content, to defend the work's righteousness. It was also defended by John of Scythopolis (early 6th century). Interestingly, Hans Urs von Balthasar thinks that this John might have been a member of the circle around Dionysius and even might have known of the forgery. It is also regarded as probable that one or more later editors added passages to the original in order to adapt it more to church standards.
That is to say, already in the fifth century mystics who experienced God's radical transcendence of human concepts felt so threatened that they invented themselves a patron saint, Dionysius the Areopagite. In him all future mystics of the Via Negativa had indeed a powerful protector. Without him, I am convinced, people like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Angela of Foligno, and many more, would either never have experienced what they did, would not have dared to talk about it, or, if they had shared their realizations, would have immediately been burnt at the stake. But a well planned and executed lie that provided an unknown mystic with a quasi-apostolic status, saved the tradition of the Via Negativa for all of Christendom!
5. Via Negativa in the European Middle Ages
Except for John Scottus Eriugena (c. 810-880), modern Christianity knows of no negative theologian between the Patristic period and the 12th century. Even of cataphatic mystics we know only few by name. As Evelyn Underhill points out: "We need not suppose from this that the mystical life died out, but merely that its experiences were seldom registered." (i.e. neither fostered nor valued by the Church.)
Yet the church institution could not delete the scripture. No matter how much the preachers spoke of God's humanity, the Bible still was full of his transcendence. No matter how much they dwelled on human sinfulness, the Bible still said that God created humans in his image (Gen 1:27). He produced them not out of nothing, but of earth and his very own breath of life. (Gen 2:7) No matter how often they assured the people that the Church should be rich and powerful, the Biblical Jesus was still poor and powerless in the worldly realm. The clergy sought to impose its dogma by trying to control who read the Bible, when, and how. Then as to this day, it was proclaimed that only official ministers were able to interpret correctly what each passage meant. Yet then as now, the Church was unable to keep people from reading the Holy Scripture and recognizing its truths.
The more the Church became rich and powerful, the more obvious became its discrepancy to Jesus' example. So people turned to the scripture and the early church fathers for guidance rather than to the preachers. Soon a movement swept over all of Europe, demanding a return to the apostolic roots of Christendom. Part of what was rediscovered amongst the ruins of the early Church was Mystical Theology and Dionysius the Areopagite.
Hugo and Richard of St.Victor (12th century) were the first to popularize the Via Negativa in the West. Yet it was not easily reintroduced. The same political factors that had led to its demise were still in full swing and were to keep all mysticism in check, not just the Negative Way.
Moreover, Christians had been fixated for so long on God being knowable and approachable only in his humanity, that they were no longer used to facing his transcendence. It terrified them. Many scholars have commented on the difference between Patristic and medieval expositions on the Via Negativa. Lossky, Lot-Bordine, and von Ivanka all remark how, compared to antiquity, the medieval mystics' approach of God's transcendence is much more dramatic and tortured. The contemplatives of the Dark Ages speak of a horrifying "dark night of the soul", a term which the early Fathers did not know. The scholars explain this distinction with differences in style, genre, emphasis, and culture. Hausherr argues fairly convincingly that the "Greek Fathers" suffered just as much as their later brethren for the sake of the beatific vision. He calls it an utopia to think that anyone will reach the Promised Land without passing through a desert, and, paraphrasing the Bible, he affirms that no one will be reborn (as a new wo/man in Christ) unless s/he has first died a spiritual death. I would not disagree with him on this point, but it seems that he draws some incorrect conclusions.
Hausherr analyzes the sum of suffering necessary for enlightenment in the early Church and then compares it to the amount of suffering during the medieval "dark night of the soul". The problem is that he summarizes St. John of the Cross' dark night as a general active and passive purification of reason and spirit. Yet the saint only speaks of those last layers of purification of reason and spirit which "cause in the soul the said negation of itself and all things." Hausherr is quite possibly right that the Greek Fathers (and Mothers) suffered as much as their later brethren for the sake of divine union. But here the issue is only one very specific kind of anguish, namely that which is experienced when the "dark night of the soul" forces one to negate the self and all things, including God.
As St. John of the Cross says, during the dark night of the soul a person is confronted with God's absence until s/he comes to love the darkness (of his inconceivability and nothingness). ("Nothingness' is the term St. John of the Cross, Marguerite Porete, Master Eckhart, and others employ.) Here the soul is forced to let go of everything it ever thought God (and anything else) was. Dealing with this realization is, as far as I can see, what "death and resurrection" refers to within the context of Via Negativa.
Johnston compares the Christian "dark night" with "the great death" in the Zen tradition where the practitioner also "loses" everything s/he thought was real. Yet here, with the right guidance and support, death is not traumatic.
If a similar "death" in the context of the medieval Church leads mystics to a specific and horrendous kind of suffering, it is for a specific reason. It seems that the amount of psychological pain is proportionate to a contemplative's connection with the Negative tradition. If the mystic is surrounded by guides who are trained in the Via Negativa and by a community that understands and embraces where Mystical Theology leads, the experience does not have to be traumatic. But if s/he is cut off from the Negative Way, often not even knowing such a thing exists, much suffering ensues.
There are many accounts of great women mystics who are not only completely isolated in their quest for perfect union, but whose every step is questioned or opposed by their "guides". St. Teresa of Avila describes the torments women will frequently be led into by "a confessor who is so discreet and has so little experience that... he fears everything and finds in everything something to doubt." She describes in great detail the "almost unbearable" suffering these women are plunged into when: "Everything is immediately condemned as from the devil or melancholy." The soul is incapable of explaining the facts to the confessor and, overwhelmed by his condemnation, eventually loses sight of the truth itself. In the end it believes that it is rejected by God. Not all the devils together torment the soul as much as such confessors. And there is no remedy other than to wait for the mercy of God to calm the tempest and to hope that meanwhile one will not lose one's mind.
The clerics are trying to "discern the spirits". They are taught by the Bible, and especially by their patriarchal tradition, to distrust any spiritual experience. Paul as well as John already admonish the earliest Christian communities to appreciate influxes of the Holy Spirit, but also to test every one of them in order to ascertain that they do not stem from an evil spirit. Paul in particular, warns that Satan can "masquerade as an angel of light". But why did the Church take these warnings so much more seriously than many others? And why were so many clerics apparently completely unable to judge women's experiences correctly? Because it fit their agenda and their millennia old tradition of misogyny. They took men to be the norm and everything characteristically feminine to be deviant and suspect. St. Teresa is well aware of this. She mourns the fact that women are intimidated:
. . . so that we may not do anything worthwhile for You (God) in public or dare speak some truths that we lament over in secret". [Invoking Christ who, as opposed to the men of her time, does not despise women, she continues:] "You are a just judge and not like those of the world. Since the world's judges are sons of Adam and all of them men, there is no virtue in women that they do not hold suspect.
Angela of Foligno suffers in much the same way from the suspicion and ignorance of her confessor. She says that at times she tries to communicate things which she has never heard any mortal speak of. Yet, more often than not she remains silent even though it is painful, because she knows from experience that she will not be understood. What is striking in her case is that she is actually in contact with people who understand and approve of her experiences. Her unofficial inquisitors, amongst whom is a Cardinal, seem to be familiar with the Via Negativa. This certainly seems to put her in a better position than the one St. Teresa describes. But Angela does not seem to receive any guidance from these other men. They do not share information about former Negative theologians with her. All they grant is an affirmation that so far she is not a heretic. Her "spiritual direction" (if one can call it that) rests entirely in the hands of her inept confessor.
This brings us to an important point. In some traditions, like Buddhism or even Russian Orthodox Christianity, people are free to travel around and choose their soul guide from any monastery or parish they like. But Roman Catholic practitioners are generally expected to be content with a local parish priest. And, perhaps especially for a woman, it would be regarded as inappropriate to seek guidance from another, especially a higher ranking man. Since women were not regarded as independent individuals but always as proprietary to one man or another, a religious woman was probably seen as the domain of her confessor. This would be one explanation why other, more understanding men did not actively help Angela. Another is that men did not want women to develop their individual potentials in any way, spiritually or otherwise. St. Teresa recounts men's objections to female spirituality:
You will hear some persons frequently making objections: "there are dangers"; . . . "it's harmful to virtue"; "it's not for women, for they will be susceptible to illusions"; "it's better they stick to their sewing"; "they don't need these delicacies".
What does all this have to do with the position of the Via Negativa in the European Middle Ages? It means that the Church did everything in its power to keep the Negative Way as contained as possible and to hide it away especially from women and the laity. When mystics discovered it anyway, it was due only to the official status of the Greek Fathers and especially Dionysius that they were not condemned.
Some Christian mystics did use the language of Negative Theology because they had read the relevant literature. The famous male negative theologians, such as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross, are known to have read Dionysius the Areopagite. Through them Denys' theology spread amongst the Carthusian, Carmelite, and other contemplative orders who guarded it for an elect few in the manner typical of esoteric teachings. Yet others shared the same negative mystical language simply because they used basically the same methods within the same tradition. This was particularly true for many lay women like Angela of Foligno, who had no theological training, usually no access to books other than the Bible and whose confessors or parish priests probably would not have discussed the highest divine secrets with them, even if they had known of them.
Angela confirms that Mystical Theology was revealed to her without her having any knowledge of it as a tradition within the Church when she says: "The soul speaks about these things, though it never heard them spoken by any mortal, and understands them with such great clarity that to be silent about them is painful." She also lets us know that the entire source of her "theological education" is the sermons and admonitions of ordinary parish priests. One day, when she experiences an ecstacy that makes her forget the world and herself, she affirms: "with the utmost certainty, that nothing of these delights of God is being preached. Preachers cannot preach it; they do not understand what they preach." Her ignorance of higher theology is probably representative of the vast majority of medieval women mystics. It was the direct and intended result of church policies.
Some scholars point out that the noble women of the feudal system were almost as learned as the men. They maintain that not only nuns but even beguines (female lay ascetics) of the upper classes were endowed with much literary as well as spiritual culture and were "inspired by the Greek Fathers". However for the majority of less fortunate women mystics this was certainly not the case. And even for the richer ones things changed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. If during the preceding era religious women were encouraged to study theology, they were now dissuaded, and any in depth study became the exclusive privilege of ordained men.
Hence, class and education (they go together), gender, and being born at the right time were the decisive criteria for access to Greek thought and Mystical Theology. Often the same ideas that were shared amongst those who knew Greek and Latin were regarded as extremely dangerous if they were to get out to the masses. It would be worthwhile investigating how many thousands of people the Church ordered killed because they shared in the vernacular and with the lower classes what educated men could read about in monastic libraries.
So while the Greek Fathers never directly reached masses of mystics who would have greatly appreciated their help, their writings did spare some from condemnation and death.
D. The Development of Uma Shentong
In the Grub mtha' shel gyi me long (History of Philosophical Doctrines) the first argument made for "proving" that Shentong doctrine is "wrong" consists of showing how similar or identical it is to Hindu Samkhya philosophy. According to this logic Shentong thought could not possibly be Buddhist if it is almost identical with a Hindu school of thought that Madhyamikas already consider "refuted". Since many Western scholars have been influenced by such anti-Shentong polemics, it might be helpful to trace the Buddhist roots of this school.
1. In Search of a Positive Nirvana
The history of Buddhism as a religion started with Buddha Shakyamuni's enlightenment. Ever since then Buddhists have asked themselves what the characteristics of this enlightenment were. Both de La Vallée Poussin and Schmitthausen argue that early canonical texts reveal a struggle concerning how to define enlightenment. The scriptures try to reconcile an "open antagonism between the followers of the 'positive-mystical' current and those of the 'negative-intellectual' one." While the former stressed what is revealed in meditation, the latter trusted more in wisdom gained from intellectual analysis. To appease the two groups Anguttara, III, 355 calls samadhi and prajna "the two wings that are necessary to fly out of transmigration". The basic questions are: is nirvana really the mere extinction of one individual by the cessation of suffering and its cause, and is it enough to realize such an extinction intellectually through prajna? Or does enlightenment consist of something inconceivably positive that one "physically" experiences in this life? (The scriptures speak of "touching nirvana with one's body")
It is true that talk about nirvana (literally: extinction) often uses exclusively negative and apophatic language. (Negative in respect to samsara, apophatic in respect to nirvana.) In the Pali canon the highest meditational state, the one that actually comes into contact with nirvana, is called nirodhasamapatti, which de La Vallée Poussin translates to "recueillement de la déstruction" (concentration of destruction). According to the Mahavedalla Sutta it is a state similar to death.
Of course nirvana as the ultimate good was also described in positive terms as arising by awakening and "having seen the truths" (Skt. drstasatya). It is called permanent, eternal, the highest, calm, secure, existent, the immortal element (Skt. amata dhatu), peace, bliss, etc. Yet at this time the defining characteristic of Buddhism - that which set it apart from Hinduism - seems to have been the negative and apophatic approach.
Yet there were three things all Buddhists held to be positive without qualifications: the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha. With the help of these Three Jewels, positive- mystical elements quickly gained importance. Of these the Buddha was considered most important, since without him there would have been neither Dharma nor Sangha. And what was the Buddha? He was the Awakened One who had achieved realization of the absolute and gave expression to it. His enlightenment made him the personification of ultimate reality and eventually he came to be seen as no other than the Absolute. This development started with his passing into utter extinction or parinirvana. The problem was that since 'nirvana' meant complete extinction, there could be no absolute that was in any way accessible, benevolent or helpful to the unenlightened. This is the position stated in such texts as the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali canon. Here the Buddha leaves his disciples behind without any promise of continued presence or even a successor. He admonishes his followers: "you should live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge." But were his "questing disciples" ready to be islands unto themselves when for the past almost half a century of the Buddha's activity in the world, the quintessence of being a Buddhist had been taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and sangha? Could one of the Three Jewels suddenly be wiped out without a trace, leaving Buddhists with only two refuges, the Dharma and the sangha? Apparently some were able to accept that and they carried the negative-analytical tradition on. But many were not, and they concentrated on the Dharma's positive-mystical aspects.
The Buddha had stated: "Verily, seeing the Norm, [others translate 'Dhamma'] Vakkali, one sees me: seeing me, one sees the Norm." The Buddha's teachings were not just his personal opinion, rather he himself regarded them as a timeless truth that he had discovered just like all other buddhas had and would discover it. On one level his words were the Dharma, but on another level, as the Ratnagotravibhaga explains, the Dharma "cannot be speculated upon and is beyond explanation, but is revealed by introspection". Such approaches to the Buddha and the Dharma led to their identification with ultimate reality. Henceforth one of the names by which the absolute was known was 'Dharmakaya' - the 'Dharma-body' of the Buddha which did not vanish in nirvana but revealed itself to people in meditation.
Another positive-mystical way for staying in touch with the master's presence after his parinirvana was worshipping him at the stupas containing his remains. A whole sutra (Adbhutasutra) was composed "whose main subject is the admiration of merits of the Stupa worship as the highest observance of Buddhist(s)." What did people do at the stupas? They performed the customary Indian rituals for the burial grounds of very important people and they sang eulogies to the Buddha by reciting his epithets. Here, the Buddha (and thereby enlightenment as such) was, without qualifications, praised as something positive. He was lauded as the perfection of wisdom, physical form, and manner, he had attained "the summit of the world", he was the mahapurusa, the great cosmic person, the cakravartin, the Lord bhagavan, the teacher of gods and humans, the Blessed One, the caravan leader, the Omniscient, the Fearless, the Incomparable, etc. Not all monks accepted this kind of worship as properly Buddhist but eventually they had to recognize that there were several categories of enlightened people: pannavimutta, saddhavimutta, and ubhatobhaagavimutta (Pali: those freed by wisdom, those freed by faith, and those freed both ways). For those who were drawn to the path of faith a method of visualization was developed that consisted of contemplating the epithets. This became an important practice in the lay as well as monastic Theravada communities. Hence, faith in a powerful positive entity as one possible vehicle to liberation became rooted in the Buddhist tradition.
Takasaki claims the proposition that enlightenment is attained by the purification of accidental obscurations (agantukaklesa) on the essential nature of the mind (cittaprakriti) as the basis for positive assertions about the Buddha. Both terms are found in the Pali canon and form, according to him, the starting point of the garbha theory. Though most schools did not agree with such a view, at least some did. The Theravada of Ceylon, certain Vaibhasika of the southern sects, the Vatsiputriya, and the Mahasanghika schools held that consciousness is intrinsically luminous and pure and defiled only by adventitious defilements.
So at this point in the development, Buddhist thought as a whole did not agree upon but did include the idea of an essentially positive nature of consciousness and of the absolute as dharmakaya. It would seem that within the Indian framework only a very small intellectual step would have been necessary to put dharmakaya and an essentially pure nature of consciousness together and come up with buddha nature. But there was an obstacle in the way called "anatman".
2. Tathagatagarbha and Anatman
No-self (anatman) was one of the most central doctrines of Buddha's teachings. It was not only one of the three marks of existence (trilaksana: suffering, impermanence, no-self).
Indeed, 'seeing no-self' is said to be the opposite of the cause of suffering, (Pramanavarttika II.136b) and hence itself the most important single method for achieving liberation; . . . all subsequent commentators simply equate it with the path.
According to the Sariputrabhidharma "Liberating insight consists in a realization of all the four Noble Truths under the aspect of "Lack of Self" (anatman)" Clinging to atman, a Hindu concept, on the other hand was considered one of the greatest obstacles to liberation.
Thus "lack of self" (which includes a lack of God) became the main point of reference for determining whether something was Hindu or Buddhist. Other than that the two religions had so much in common that Buddhism could easily be taken as a reform movement within Hinduism. Indeed, it has been seen as such by Hindu as well as Western scholars. In my opinion anatman became singled out to carry the burden of Buddhist identity. This is not the place to fully prove my point. Suffice it to say that Snellgrove confirms that Buddhism was always open to the influence of other Indian philosophies and practices so long as they had proven to be effective in producing wholesome results. Therefore, he says, it became essential for Buddhists to hold fast to the central doctrines (in my opinion especially anatman) in order to separate Buddhism from other Indian religious systems. Buddha nature, it seems, was perceived as betraying anatman and thereby Buddhist identity as a whole. To this day the question whether buddha nature is a Hindu or a Buddhist concept occupies a central position in controversies about this subject. Sallie King found it necessary to make one of three goals of her book "Buddha Nature": to grapple with the common charge that the notion of Buddha nature (or tathagatagarbha) introduces into Buddhism the non-Buddhist, crypto-Hindu element of atmavada . . . . I will explore the extent to which it is possible to defend the Buddha nature concept from a purely Buddhist perspective, in terms of purely Buddhist philosophical principles.
It is questionable whether there are very many "purely Buddhist perspectives" in Buddhism. Yet there is a tendency to reject buddha nature thought, simply on the grounds that it is perceived as too Hindu, while many other concepts are accepted as Buddhist no matter how blatantly Hindu their origin. In order to maintain a Buddhist identity it appears that the line of what was acceptable Hindu influence and what was not, had to be drawn somewhere. And in India many felt that atman-brahman seemed like an appropriate place to draw it, even though Nagarjuna points out that one should not cling to any teaching no matter what it is. For, he admits,: "Both 'The self exists' has been expounded and 'The self does not exist' has been taught too. And 'Neither self nor non-self exist' has been taught as well by the Buddhas."
In China, far away from Hindu surroundings, tathagatagarbha was finally translated into words that represent what many people already took it to mean: buddha nature (Chinese: hsing). While Indians had to avoid saying that buddha nature pervades the whole universe (not just all beings) in order to be acceptable as Buddhists, the situation in China was exactly the other way around. Here, just as in India, statements as to an absolute essence pervading all things were in agreement with the indigenous religions and matched the cultural preference. Yet in China, far from this being an obstacle, the acceptance of Buddhism depended on the Dharma having at least something in common with the local traditions. As opposed to India not much else was shared.
How important a sense of identity and belonging must have been to most Buddhist practitioners is elucidated by the term used for that concept which marked the next step towards the naming of tathagatagarbha: buddha-gotra.
3. Buddha-gotra, Family of the Buddha, or Arya-gotra, Noble Family
Like many other Buddhist expressions, the term buddha- gotra underwent a significant development and many variations were established. Since Buddhism embraces the possibility of valid Dharma revealing itself to practitioners in meditation, one cannot expect to find monolithic definitions.
While not appearing in the Pali canon, Buddha-gotra is nonetheless a concept that originated before the Mahayana. This term denotes "a pure lineage or family to which all knowledgeable beings belong". It also represented the essential characteristic of a saint which enabled her/him to attain arhatship. The Abhidharmakosa and the Vaibhasikas define it as the element of absence of desire. To the Sautrantikas it is a special force (one of the 'pure forces', viprayukta-samskara) that governs the element of consciousness. This element is said to be inherent in sentient beings from the outset, but only at the time of enlightenment does it give rise to primordial wisdom.
In the differences between these definitions one can again detect the thread of negative, analytical, psychological versus positive, mystical tendencies that run all the way from the first characterizations of enlightenment to the last rangtong versus shentong explanations of tathagatagarbha. And along with it run the efforts to try and harmonize those two poles. One example of such compromise is the Yogacarins' (Skt.: practitioners of yoga) proclamation that sentient beings have two kinds or aspects of Buddha-gotra. One that they posses by nature, a primordial immutable force that constitutes the seed of enlightenment, and an other which is active, mutable, and undergoes a process of development.
Statements like these bring Buddhist thought once more very close to affirming a buddha nature. But probably perceiving the "dangerous" affinity of such ideas to Vedanta philosophy, thinkers resist and confirm instead that while the gotra is an outflow of the absolute, it is not identical with it and is instead annihilated at the time of final nirvana.
In the Kasyapa parivarta and the Dasabhumika sutra, the gotra represents a potential for supreme enlightenment due to one's belonging to the Buddha's family-lineage and being "knowledgeable" which is actualized at the eighth bodhisattva bhumi. This seems to imply an elitist approach which makes liberation available only to those belonging to the right tradition. Yet, counteracting such tendencies, the Kasyapa parivarta also affirms a radically egalitarian view by defining the arya-gotra as "the lineage in which one realizes the equality of all dharmas. In this lineage there also is no distinction of inferior, mediocre, or superior. That gotra is equal to space in its nature." The text even describes the noble lineage, as unconditioned, immaculate, permanent, and real, perhaps pre-figuring the four guna-paramitas in the Srimaladevi sutra.
4. Tathagatagarbha and Madhyamaka
Despite periodic attempts of reconciliation, the old disharmony between "mystics" and "logicians" has never been permanently attuned. In the second/third century C.E. the Madhyamaka arose and took a strong stance on the negative- intellectual side. (Although they characterize their approach as "not taking a stance".) Calling their teachings "of the Middle" meant to denote a faithful return to Shakyamuni's original Middle Way (Madhyama Pratipad). The Madhyamikas' most important representative, Nagarjuna, was regarded as so brilliant and powerful that no one could escape having to subject their own views to his dialectics. Such investigation was to determine whether one was still in the Middle or "Madhyamika" and thus faithful to the Buddha's teachings. There is evidence that something like a philosophical cleansing campaign might have swept the Buddhist world. Sallie King makes clear just how great the challenge was. She paraphrases the Yogacarins as saying that "Madhyamaka drove people from the Dharma". . . [because] "literary or logical perfection was not sufficient for most religious practitioners." Most likely, this was not just polemics. Given the fact of Hindu presence all around the Buddhists, it is not at all unlikely that people were prepared to leave if they couldn't be true to Buddhism and to their own religiosity. Kuijp comments on the difference in religious-psychological disposition between the later Madhyamikas and (what some call) Yogacara-Madhyamikas. He suggests that these two schools are not only rooted in different texts but also in a different "sort of relationship with the religious or mystical experience". Ruegg even speaks of the negative- analytical current as it came to be represented by Uma Rangtong and the positive-mystical one, later represented by Uma Shentong, as "belonging to distinct universes of religious-philosophical discourse". (Micro-universes, to be precise, as they could be found in neighboring monks' cells.)
The mystics reacted strongly to the intellectual Madhyamikas. Rather than becoming more careful in their statements at least some paid no more heed to how Hindu, i.e. un-Buddhist, they may have sounded. Rather they echoed the Prajnaparamita's list of characteristics of "wrong view", only this time calling them the "four perfect transcendental qualities (gunaparamita as opposed to prajnaparamita) of the tathagatagarbha: Nitya (permanence), sukha (bliss), atman (self), and subba (purity).
Venting age-old aversions, the positive-mystical current attacked the very root of the scholastics' arguments: nirvana as extinction. Sallie King confirms that the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana sutra "emphasizes the eternity of the Buddha, implicitly criticizing the idea that nirvana means extinction, and linking this belief with the idea of the tathagatagarbha." Yogacarins and related thinkers were quite frank in their assessment that enlightenment needed to be presented as a positive goal worth striving for and that freedom from suffering was not enough unless it meant freedom to see a positive Truth.
Nevertheless buddha nature thought was kept in check by the Madhyamaka and toned down quite a bit. There is an almost complete absence of Indian commentaries on tathagatagarbha texts. Nor did this group of sutras manage to give rise to an established school of thought with its own name.
It seems that a sort of truce or compromise was established between the mystics as they came to be represented by the Yogacara schools and the scholastic Madhyamikas. Eventually everyone accepted emptiness and tathagatagarbha, only with differing interpretations. The mystics claimed that all appearances (characterized as stains on the pure mind) were indeed empty, but not the womb of the Buddha. It was the one truly existing essence of all dharmas. The logicians on the other hand maintained that all beings did posses tathagatagarbha, but only in the form of the potential to reach buddhahood. It was just as empty as all other dharmas.
The teachings of the logicians are called the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma (dharmacakra). While most tathagatagarbha scriptures belong to the third Turning of the Wheel. Since all three turnings described reality a bit differently, people wanted to determine which teachings were to be regarded as definitive and absolute (nitartha) and which were preliminary (neyartha) teachings whose temporary purpose would ultimately be interpreted and superseded by higher teachings. From very early on all Buddhist schools (except for the Mahasanghika ) accepted this distinction of preliminary and ultimate meaning. Yet not many schools agreed on which teachings fell into the "absolute" category, each feeling their view was the ultimate. Katz summarizes the three wheel theory in conjunction with the two meanings (artha) as propounded by the Sandhinirmocana sutra thus:
the first turning of the wheel was the Buddha's hinayana teachings which consisted of naively positivistic statements, his second turning was the Madhyamaka which negated the first turning on an ultimate level, both of which it [the Sandhinirmocana-sutra) considered neyartha because they were extremes, that is, their positions were defined by each other. The third tuning, that which proclaims what was really intended in each of the first two, is the only set of doctrines to be considered as nitartha and is best exemplified by the Sandhinirmocana and related texts. This real intention, or samdha bhasa, speaks of the ultimate as non-dual, of one taste, and of having been affirmed by the Buddha.
The Madhyamaka is often presented as a unified philosophy which all Buddhists regard as the highest teachings. But this is not a very realistic view. Many who accept it as the highest logic nevertheless do not regard it as the ultimate teaching.
5. Madhyamaka and Yogacara
Even within the Madhyamika school there was controversy as to what the "highest teaching" was. Soon after Nagarjuna's passing the Madhyamikas began to be challenged by other schools of thought, especially by the Yogacara. Based on distinct methods of dealing with such outer criticism, two kinds of Middles arose. Much later Tibetans would name them after their defining characteristics: Prasangika-Madhyamaka and Svatantrika- Madhyamaka. Prasangikas (literally: "using inferences") refuted other positions by merely logically leading their tenets ad absurdum, without positing any proper stance. But Svatantrikas (literally: "self-sufficient") felt it was possible and necessary in order to avoid nihilism, to affirm one's own logical conclusions. Then, under the influence of Bhavaviveka (c. 490-570 C.E.), Yogacara thought was permitted to enter Madhyamika schools and form a synthesis. Now, in addition to the two former sub- schools, we find a third, called Yogacara-Svatantrika- Madhyamaka, or simply Yogacara-Madhyamaka.
Since Uma Shentong is often equated with Yogacara- Madhyamaka, it would be helpful if a clear definition of that school could be found. Unfortunately this is impossible for several reasons.
(1) As mentioned above, Madhyamikas and Yogacarins shared many cycles of controversy, rapprochement, truce, and renewed controversy. Hence there are authors and evidence that support regarding these schools of thought as separate as well as mingled.
(2) One should keep in mind that these are not denominations or any other kind of group to which one commits with some sort of ritual. Rather they are loosely assorted clusters of ideas all of which are bounced around in the Buddhist community. Even "schools of thought" is too stringent a term, although perhaps the best available. Anyone is more or less free to combine these clusters as they like and to call themselves whatever they please. Thus it often becomes impossible to pin down what exactly it means to think as a Madhyamikan, as a Yogacarin, or as any combination thereof.
Rather than providing clear-cut definitions of schools, one can only list possibilities of what it meant to be a member of those currents, and which of those possibilities most closely matches Dolpopa:
(1) As was explained above, Nagarjuna equated his particular system of dialectics with a return to Gautama's 'Madhyama Pratipad' or Middle Way. But no school could lay an exclusive claim on the term. And since everyone felt the need to be "of the Middle" a variety of "Madhyamikas" arose. The minimum requirement to pass as some kind of Mahayana Middle school seems to be to hold all dualistically grasped phenomena to be empty of inherent independent existence.
(2) The minimum of what it means to be a Yogacarin is to regard all conventional phenomena as mere projections of the mind, or as 'Mind Only' (Skt.: cittamatra), a synonym for this cluster of ideas. Cittamatrins deny that "outer" objects ever arise. They affirm non-dual consciousness in which there is no distinction between subject and object as truly existing. Maitreya and the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu are usually regarded as the founders of Yogacara.
(3) Tathagatagarbha is, so to say, a wild card that can be combined in different ways with many clusters of ideas. There is Madhyamaka as well as Yogacara without tathagatagarbha or with different interpretations of buddha nature.
(4) There are combinations of the above listed variables that are subsumed under the appellation "Yogacara(-Svatantrika)-Madhyamaka". On the negative- intellectual side we find more Nagarjunian definitions like the one by the Tibetan Cang-kya. According to this Rangtongpa, Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamikas differ from Yogacarins in that they do not affirm any kind of consciousness, nor even a non-dual suchness, as truly existent. They only incorporate Cittamatra thought into their explanations of relative reality by maintaining that conventionally the appearance of phenomena is caused by projections of mind. Representatives of this faction of Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamikas were Santarakshita (8th century) and his disciple Kamalsila, both extremely influential Indian missionaries to Tibet.
Rangtongpas and people who were educated by them accept only this version as "Yogacara-Madhyamaka". Ruegg, e.g. does not mention anyone more "positive-mystical" in this category. Even when he lists a few masters and treatises that are the product of a synthesis of Yogacara, Madhyamaka, and Vajrayana (the Tantric vehicle) none of them match Shentongpas' definition of Yogacara- Madhyamikas.
On the other (very positive-mystical) side there are people who declare the Yogacara of Maitreya, Asanga, and Vasubandhu to be Yogacara-Madhyamaka. Dolpopa says that "Absolute Cittamatra" is nothing other than Yogacara- Madhyamaka, since in it there is no duality of perceiver and perceived. He managed to gain widespread acceptance for this stance though it was severely challenged by Rangtongpas.
In between these two versions of Yogacara-Madhyamaka there is a third definition of later thinkers such as Jamgon Kongtrul the Great and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. In contrast to Dolpopa, they try to reconcile Uma Rangtong and Shentong by saying: "No Shentong without a proper understanding of Rangtong" These people maintain that even as a Shentongpa one has to first recognize the self-empty nature of the absolute before one can affirm its qualities. They say one does so when one really understands just how inconceivable buddha nature is. To Dolpopa however, inconceivability (Skt.: acintya or acintika, Tib.: bsam med or bsam gyi mi khyab pa) is not the same as self- emptiness. No matter how inconceivable thusness is, it will never be self-empty.
If one was to take Rangtong as Madhyamaka and Dolpopa's Shentong as Yogacara, then the efforts of later Shentongpas could indeed be called Yogacara-Madhyamaka.
So whose ideas does Dolpopa match? Hookham confirms that Dolpopa's stance is: "in essence as well as in expression, no different from the Tathagatagarbha Sutras and the Sutras on the Absolute Dharmata". But he systematized and interpreted older scriptures, particularly seeking to harmonize the two diverging definitions of emptiness he found. His formula for reconciling them was: When it is said that samvrti (Skt. conventional, relative) phenomena are empty, it is meant that they are empty of own nature (rangtong). But when the absolute is said to be empty, it is meant to be empty of other, (shentong), but not empty of itself. According to Williams, even Nagarjuna characterized the nature of reality as "not dependent of an-other" and admits that the Madhyamika does "not totally deny" the non-contingent on another self- essence of the true nature of reality. Dolpopa agreed with Nagarjuna that all phenomena are empty, but interpreted buddha nature, not interdependent co-arising, as emptiness.
What other scholars (particularly Gelugpas) took such offense with was that he did something that had not been done in Tibet up to that point: he took the third turning of the wheel of Dharma literally, stating that, as opposed to the official view then held in Tibet, it was not in need of interpretation, but represented the highest teachings of the Buddha.
Now the third turning of the wheel of Dharma consisted of Yogacara and tathagatagarbha teachings. In my view, these are precisely what makes up Shentong thought. Why then did it become known as Shentong Madhyamaka? And why did many Tibetan scholars insist that they corresponded to Yogacara-Svatantrika-Madhyamaka? Whence all that controversy amongst great Tibetan Buddhist masters as well as Western scholars as to which masters and texts belong to which school of thought, who wrote which treatise, and what are the tenets of each school anyway?
This uncertainty is neither an accident nor is it caused by mere ignorance. Rather it is the outcome of specific Buddhist characteristics. One of these is that the followers of the Buddha have always been able to accept people as highly enlightened even if they did not agree with all their teachings. When they could not negate a person's enlightenment, they would try to interpret his or her teachings as ultimately being in agreement with their own tenets. Thus many different schools claim the same masters as expounding their teachings. An extreme example is the Jodo Shinshu (Japanese Pure Land Buddhism) referring to Nagarjuna as one of its patriarchs. A more typical case is the Gelugpa Cang-kya's (1717-1786) evaluation of Marpa's view (1012-1096 C.E.) as "unquestionably that of the Great Madhyamika-Prasangika". Yet at the heart of Marpa's instructions lies "Mahamudra", which Hookham calls a "typical Shentong-type teaching". Cang-kya does concede that Marpa received and taught a vast variety of teachings. But, he says, "it is not necessary that all the instructions deriving from the lama Mar-ba be of the Madhyamika system [in order to call him a Prasangika)." - Perhaps we need to learn to take it as the hallmark of a real master if it is impossible to match him entirely with one particular cluster of ideas.
I see two reasons for the tendency to call Yogacara cum tathagatagarbha teachings "Yogacara-Madhyamaka":
(1) In Tibet Madhyamaka had been proclaimed by royal edict as the highest and only acceptable teaching. Even when it was no longer punished by law to hold different views, this was still a difficult tradition to reject.
(2) The relevant Yogacara teachings had arisen not independently of Madhyamaka but as a response and, as indicated earlier, as a kind of "parasite" on Nagarjuna's proclamations. They had grappled with Nagarjuna; had assimilated of his teachings as much as they found digestible, and had argued against the rest. These were Yogacara cum tathagatagarbha teachings that had gone through the Madhyamaka mill and come out the other side all the more confident that Madhyamaka could neither destroy them nor even prove them inferior.
Perhaps there was a Yogacara-Madhyamaka school in India that corresponded to this description, but I have found no convincing evidence for it. I only found Yogacara schools to coincide with this characterization.
In my opinion, Shentongpas who are true to Dolpopa's teachings are the most honest when they call their views Great Madhyamaka (dbu ma chen po). This term expresses the sentiment of superiority to Nagarjuna's school and an absence of fear to digress from him. For example, Hookham summarizes Jamgon Kongtrul's evaluation of Uma Shentong as "incorporating the superior dialectic of the Madhyamaka with the superior yogic insight of the Yogacarins, producing the 'highest summit of all the Mahayana pitakas'."
To many Shentongpas, Rangtong doctrine reflects merely what views must be let go of to reach realization while Shentong teachings reflect what one (sometimes quite literally) sees when one reaches the goal.
In the end the whole Rangtong-Shentong controversy is a faithful continuation of the old differences between "positive mystics" (that came to be represented by the Yogacara) and "negative intellectuals" (that came to be represented by the Madhyamaka), between sraddhavimukta and prajnavimukta. While the latter mistrust experience unless it corresponds to logical analysis, (their own kind of "discernment of spirits") the former have more faith in experience than in man-made logic.
In India and Tibet the two streams were never completely separate but rather in continual exchange. They influenced and complemented each other.
THE HISTORICAL AND RELIGIO-CULTURAL SETTING OF ANGELA AND DOLPOPA
All was not well in the Church at Angela's time. Ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine had raised Christianity to the status of state religion in the early fourth century the papacy had become more and more preoccupied with worldly power politics. By the end of the twelfth century the Papal Curia was the most powerful feudal lord with more vassals than any other European court. Feudal dues were paid in form of money and/or military services. Many high church offices were sold amongst Roman nobles (simony) or granted by secular rulers to opportune allies (lay investiture). True, in the tenth century the Benedictine monks of Cluny, France started a reform movement that had a great impact on the Church. It eventually led to men having to choose between marriage and church offices. This was to guarantee that the Church would be run by men who had at least some spiritual inclination. Yet the hunger for temporal riches and power had seeped deep into the church structure. On the international level this resulted in drawn out, open warfare between popes and emperors in the struggle for supremacy.
During Angela's life time political consciousness, even within the Church, had developed to the point where many demanded a certain separation between papacy and states. As Broderick puts it: "the monarchic function of the pope came to be questioned." Yet the Curia was far from willing to relinquish power and so the confrontation between pope and kings reached a new peak. When Boniface VIII (1294-1303) announced a decree that every human's salvation depended upon his or her submission to the "Vicar of Christ", Philip the Fair ordered his assassination. The pope barely managed to save his life by fleeing from Rome, which was in revolt. On his way to Perugia he probably came through Foligno, or at least passed through its vicinity in 1303.
On the local level as well, much of the clergy lived a life style quite opposed to that of the apostles. This was not conducive to convincing the laity of the Church's moral superiority and claim to power. In order to keep the masses docile the papacy used two strategies:
On the peaceful side the most powerful of all medieval popes, Innocent III (1198-1216), encouraged the establishment of mendicant friars such as the Franciscans. Travelling the country as poor missionaries, they served as spokesmen for the established ecclesiastical hierarchy, while also embodying the kind of Church many wanted.
On the wrathful side was the Inquisition. Although the Church sought to eliminate diverging views from its very inception, only the thirteenth century brought a systematized and deadly persecution of "heretics". By 1246 (two years before Angela's birth) the Inquisition recruited its spies in every parish. By 1252 torture and executions were part of its legal tools.
Only two generations after St, Francis, these two forces: a mighty, authoritarian Church and an order of "Little Brothers" whose highest ideal was poverty of body and spirit (humbleness), would determine the context of Angela's life.
2. Her Religious Inheritance
a. Generally Catholic
i. The Medieval Women's Movement
The laity, but particularly women, reacted to the more and more grotesque secularization of the Church with a heightened interiority of faith. The middle of the twelfth century saw the rise of a veritable mystical "women's movement". All over Europe the laity strove to take the matters of God into its own hands and hearts. Many were condemned as heretics just for that, even if they maintained a connection to the Church. Some of the lay communities that the Church finally acknowledged as legitimately Christian (after initial suspicion and accusations) included the Humiliates (=humble) around Milan, the Beguines in the Low Countries and the Tertiary lay orders that were affiliated with established orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans. In all of these women were a successful, public, and energetic presence of leadership. Women were not only more emotional but also more mystical. It was characteristic for these sisters, far more often than their brothers, to experience ecstasies, visions, miracles such as levitation and stigmata, and mystical union with the overflowing love of God. Apparently men felt so threatened by this development that they declared masses of women to be possessed.
To this day one can detect the repercussions. Up until recently the relevant literature contained much discussion of which neuroses or generally unhealthy female states of mind might have led to the specific character of medieval women's mysticism. Discussion of this issue might have its place in dialogue between science and religion but not in inter-faith dialogue. Here it seems obvious that within both religions mystics with all their particular mental states were prevalent and important for the tradition.
Although most theologians are prone to investigate only which male figures influenced the masses of women mystics, the influence also flowed in the opposite direction. For each of these women had a male confessor and spiritual guide, and often the roles of penitent and guide reversed as the women advanced on their paths. Denifle suggests that the recorded mystical movement in Germany began when learned Dominican friars were charged with the spiritual care of nuns and lay religious women. Several scholars have pointed out that the most famous traits of the mysticism of Master Eckhart and Ruysbroeck were already formulated by a number of beguines several generations before these men joined their style.
Much research and speculation has been undertaken to investigate what drew and pushed so many women to a selfless mysticism of divine loving union. Was it a natural result of healthy, archetypical femininity? Was it a society and a
Church that barred women from any self-realization other than mother or saint? Were women's selves so devalued that they were more than willing to detach from a self that nobody wanted anyway? I leave this for others to explore. In my opinion an explanation of Angela's spirituality does not directly depend on answering these questions, which may not be answerable anyway.
What is important in the context of this study is what orthodox symbols, teachings and methods were available to women. For all of them were bent on living according to God's will as it was revealed in the scripture. When they came into conflict with the Church it was usually not because they were not trying to be orthodox, but because they were, so to say, "holier than the Pope". The great majority was thoroughly dedicated to "the twin causes of reform and orthodoxy". While willingly submitting to the laws of the Church, mystical women clearly saw that this same Church itself did not follow the way of Christ. The Blessed Angela is a perfect example: On the one hand she rigorously spoke against the heresy of "the Spirit of Freedom", saying that one must subject oneself to "the law, to divine precepts, and even to [[[Wikipedia:church|church]]] counsels." On the other hand she just as willingly lent her lips to Jesus who let it be known through her that those abounded inside the Church who trampled on and attacked his truth and kept it hidden.
Academics tend to want to trace similarities in ideas to historical influences. They would ask: where did Angela get her negative theological ideas? Did her confessor read Dionysius the Areopagite who in turn studied Greek philosophy? This kind of questioning is not very fruitful for understanding the Blessed Angela. The available evidence suggests that the one book she and her confessor took to be authoritative was the Bible. Although the influence of Dionysius the Areopagite pervaded much of the Church in a subtle manner, many were not conscious of it. Perhaps one might say that Denys' influence had led to Negative theology being part of the Christian 'collective unconscious'.
Angela was not learned and the people she associated with and looked to for guidance, her spiritual peers and St. Francis, were rather suspicious of theological learning. Since Francis' death his order engaged in a bitter inner struggle between two fractions that came to be known as the "Spirituals" or the "Observants" and the "Conventuals". The latter, supported by the popes, strove to join the privileged world of learned priests and powerful, well established monasteries. But Angela was associated with the Spirituals who clung to St. Francis' ideal of utter material as well as intellectual poverty.
There is also no evidence that she had direct contact with any other negative theologian. Thus we need to search the Bible and the very basic ideals of Christian monastic life at the time, for seeds of the negative way that might have led to related fruits in independent parts of the world.
ii. Union with God
In the Middle Ages the original concept of divinisation or deification re-emerged under the cloak of beatific vision (i.e. seeing the Divine as it really is in its true essence) and mystical union with God. Ileana Marcoulesco calls these three 'synonyms'. While this is not a precise statement, it is true that all three concepts were closely related. For the goal of an ever more complete and indestructible union with God was a lasting beatific vision and deification.
The contemplative's union was regarded as a mystical marriage of the soul with God. This idea is rooted in the "Song of Songs" (or "Canticles") of the Hebrew Bible which is an erotic love poem. Jewish theologians had long interpreted it as an allegory of the love between God and his people, the Hebrews. Christians assimilated this interpretation into the love between Christ and either the Church or the Christian soul. St. Gregory of Nyssa made it a cornerstone of his Via Negativa. In the Middle Ages St. Bernard brought it back into the center of mystics' attention throughout Europe. It opened the door to a most intimate fusion without intermediary of the contemplative's soul with its beloved God.
The concept of perfect union between soul and God was accosted by the same debates as divinization and beatific vision. Inevitably the Church preferred the views of its less mystical thinkers who maintained that complete deification was possible only after death. On the other side were many mystics like Master Eckhart, Marguerite Porete, and perhaps William of St. Thierry who, already in their lifetimes, saw no boundary between their souls and the absolute. Marcoulesco paraphrases William as maintaining that (even before death): "Seeing God's face is tantamount to possessing of God the same knowledge that God has of himself." Probably the majority of Christian mystics that were not condemned by the inquisition, and whose writings were censured and edited, find themselves caught between these two poles, sometimes affirming one side, sometimes the other. Angela of Foligno falls into this category, as well as Teresa of Avila. In a typical manner the latter begins a chapter on mystical marriage by paying her dues to the Church. The abbess confirms that the marriage "does not come to its perfect fullness as long as we live; for if we were to withdraw from God, this remarkable blessing would be lost." Yet only four paragraphs later she distinguishes union and marriage by saying that only the first is a temporary oneness that can be divided again, while the latter is permanent. She compares the union of spiritual marriage to the water of a creek which flows into the ocean and can no longer be divided or separated from it.
Besides the Song of Songs, the other paradigm for the soul's marriage with God is the union in Jesus Christ of his two natures, human and divine. Becoming one with him means becoming "truly human and truly God". As Evelyn Underhill points out, it also means that the divine does not pour into the soul, as if it could come to a stop upon arrival, but pours through it in order to touch the world and transform it.
iii. Christian Silence
Whenever Angela's students ventured to inquire about her revelations, her favorite response was: "My secrets are mine". According to Lachance, William of Saint-Thierry told his spiritual sons to engrave these words in their hearts and at the entrance to their cells. Likewise St. Francis said: "Blessed is the servant who keeps the secret of the Lord in his heart." Whence this love of silence?
The apostle Paul was the first and formative Christian to say when and for whom it was appropriate to speak. Much of his first letter to the Corinthians deals with this issue. Here his foremost concern seems to be to create order in a church where people would come together and all speak at the same time, some prophesying, some speaking in tongues, others preaching, singing psalms, sharing revelations and interpretations, etc. The apostle never negates that it is the Holy Spirit who speaks through all these men and women, but he wants an orderly and intelligible expression of the Spirit. Chaos confuses and unsettles the man, who maintains that "God is not the author of confusion, but of peace". (1 Cor 14:33) He is also worried about making a bad impression on potential converts to whom the churches must seem like mad houses (verse 23).
So what does he do to create order? First of all he commands all women to be silenced. His letter responds to a dispute which the Corinthians had been struggling with: how to deal with women who speak in tongues and prophesy publicly just like men. In chapter 11 Paul demands that while praying and prophesying, they cover their heads as a sign of their submission under men. Yet only three chapters later he changes his mind; it seems that his patience for publicly speaking women has just run dry: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law." (14:34)
Those who maintain the myth that women's liberation is a brand new concern of the twentieth century would have us believe that Paul spoke and thus it was for the next nineteen centuries. Judging by Margaret Smith's account, however, it seems that the clergy did not manage to silence women until it had the Roman Empire as an ally. After that the patriarchs did succeed indeed. McNamara lists some frightening examples from the Middle Ages of illuminated women struggling to obey Paul's demand. There was Juliana of Cornillon who
kept silent for twenty years as she attempted to convince Jesus that he should make his revelations to a more suitable recipient. Finally, she determined to obey God's instructions to secure a feast in honor of the Eucharist, when her confessor reassured her that she could do so without fear of unorthodoxy. . . . Hildegard (of Bingen) concealed her visions for half her life until, in 1141, a sense of irresistible supernatural force overcame her paralysis. . . . Elisabeth of Schönau, in an exculpatory letter to Hildegard, wrote that an angel had beaten her until she agreed to reveal her visions.
Women who did dare to speak their truth, had to fear death. Marguerite Porete, a contemporary of the Blessed Angela, e.g. was burned at the stake in 1310, "while her book, mistakenly attributed to a man, was approved as orthodox and widely circulated for several centuries."
But Paul did not silence only the women. To create order he also had to regulate the men, ordaining that only two or at the most three should speak within one gathering, one at a time, and only if somebody was able to interpret their utterances for the edification of the community. In other words Paul was suppressing the free expression of the Spirit in men as well as women, but more rigorously in women.
Herein, it seems, lies the root for the Church's later suppression of mysticism for the sake of a "peaceful order". Part of that order (which Jesus incidently never strove to uphold) was that women would be subjugated under men. When the Spirit liberated Eve's daughters too much, men's peace was threatened, and they demanded silence.
The confusing thing is that besides anti-mystical reasons for silence there were also spiritual ones. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul holds himself up as a good example of how to remain quiet about visions and divine revelations. He recounts once having been caught up to the third heaven, into paradise, where he "heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." (2 Cor 12:4)
Whenever the apostle refers to what is 'lawful' he confronts us with Jewish traditions. In this case it is a prevalent characteristic of the God of the Old Testament. JHVH guards his secrets jealously and wrathfully. He may reveal himself to a chosen few but direct and intimate knowledge of him is definitely not public property. On the contrary, receiving it without his explicit permission is punishable by death. Therefore it is "unlawful" to share with others the secrets God has revealed to a designated individual.
On a more psychological note, Paul warns of the danger of becoming proud and boastful of one's revelations. He refers to what was probably a painful physical handicap of his and interprets it as God's precaution against the apostle's pride of his revelations.
Hence in general Christian terms there are four reasons for the widespread reluctance to disclose highest divine "secrets":
(1) It avoids pride and the use of realizations for worldly gains and satisfaction.
(2) It avoids blaspheming the highest truth by attempting to express what is inexpressible.
(3) It keeps the Spirit from bringing chaos and women's liberation to the Church.
(4) Many Christians saw no epistemological benefit in sharing God's highest truth. St. Francis for example reasons that revealing divine visions is of no profit, "for the Most High Himself will manifest His deeds to whomever He wishes."
b. Her Franciscan Inheritance
The Poverello of Assisi is most famous for his adoration of "Lady Poverty". So who is this maiden?
Poverty became a powerful catchword in the 13th century that had implications on all levels of religious life. In particular its discussion also influenced the Church's attitude towards the Blessed Angela's type of spirituality and her later career. At the time a new economy was arising, based on money and international trade. It created a new class of rich merchants but also a rapidly growing number of desperately poor. At a time when everybody was concerned about money, poverty became, to the masses, the defining characteristic of God's incorporated life on earth. Not only did he set an example, he also called for imitation: "Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and come, take up the cross, and follow me." (Mk 10:21) Yet the Church was extremely rich.
Lachance points to two aspects of Franciscan concern for poverty: A life of solidarity with the poor was not only "perceived as the cure for the ills of the times" but also as a way to communion with Christ who was one with the poor. Angela gives a memorable expression to seeing the poor as Christ when she drinks the water she used to wash a leper, feeling as though she had received holy communion. To many earnest Christians taking Christ's poverty seriously meant:
a) that society was to be more concerned with taking care of its marginalized than with catering to its rich and powerful. St. Francis criticized the rank that private property held in society and regarded involuntary helpless poverty not as bad luck or fate, but as the result of social injustice. Accordingly, alms were to him "a just right due to the poor."
b) Christ's example of poverty was seen as a demand that the Church, as an institution, and its orders, as communities, were to be poor.
c) Christians as individuals were to be materially poor.
d) They were also to be intellectually poor. Especially to the Franciscans this meant that the Bible was to suffice as intellectual food for the soul. Studying other literature and engaging in theological speculation was regarded as gluttonous.
e) Christ's example showed that the path to spiritual perfection was based not only on material and intellectual, but also on radical spiritual poverty. That is to say, one was called to give up everything without expecting any rewards in return. One's love of God was to sweep away the possession even of a self or of a "grip on reality". The last thing to remain would be the assurance of God's existence; and then it too would be taken away in the "dark night of the soul", swallowed by the "Cloud of Unknowing".
ii. Penance and Mortification
Penance and mortification denote the annihilation of sin, of any attachment to the world, one's body and one's self, and the purification of even the faintest habitual dispositions to sin that remain in the psyche as a result of former shortcomings. The methods range from extreme self-torture over normal asceticism to internal prayer and combinations of these.
Its moderate aspects being rooted in the teachings of Jesus, penance and mortification were an essential part of Christian life from the beginning. But in the Middle Ages St. Francis of Assisi in particular made them the corner stone of his spirituality and helped spread practices and a life style of penance throughout Europe. To him they were identical with a life of Christian poverty.
The Blessed Angela was certainly not moderate in her penance. She defines it as punishment and discipline of each
member of body and soul and of all the senses. I do not mean to sanction such hate of self and body, but when investigating the means women like Angela used to arrive at divine union, one cannot ignore penance and mortification. She herself proclaims that there is no other way to divine union than that of following Christ's example of "most perfect, continual, and highest poverty, contempt, and suffering".
Penance and mortification have some redeeming qualities. Like poverty, they can help an individual let go of ego clinging, of grasping the world as real, and even of conceptual thought about the absolute. Ultimately mortification can lead to extinguishing the fundamental 'thirst for life' (which Buddha Shakyamuni regarded as the root cause of samsara, the painful cycle of existence.) St. John of the Cross is a good example of this when he says: "Through a method of true mortification, it [the soul) died to all things and to itself"
3. Her Person
The Blessed Angela of Foligno (1248/49-1309) was one of the greatest mystics of the Franciscan orders. Christina M. Mazzoni even says that she "is usually considered together with Saint Catherine of Siena, and sometimes even above her, the foremost woman mystic of the Italian Middle Ages." Angela followed closely in the Poverello's footsteps, perhaps surpassing him in the realization of mystical union with God. In a vision St.Francis told her: "You are the only one born of me." (I.e. his only true spiritual child.) Early on her path God promises her: "I will do for you what I did for my servant Francis, and more if you love me." And love him she did.
Although the Church did not canonize Angela of Foligno, it did pronounce her "Blessed" (one rank below saint) in 1701 and allowed the Franciscans to celebrate her feast with special rites. Regardless of her official status her relics were venerated like those of a saint and most French theologians who write about her, call her "Saint Angela". Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) acknowledged that she ranks on the same level as great mystics such as Teresa of Avila, Peter of Alcantara, John of the Cross, Brigitte and Catherine of Siena. Ever since then she was given the title "magistra theologiae".
What made her so great in Christian eyes was the frequency and depth with which she saw God "face to face". Almost as soon as this penitent embarked on her spiritual quest, God revealed himself to her on a regular basis. By the end of her journey she was continually in a state of seeing, understanding, and possessing the complete truth that is in heaven and in hell, in the entire world, in every place, in all things, in every enjoyment in heaven and in every creature. . . . [She always sees] the One who is and how he is the being of all creatures.
In other words, if we believe her, as her inquisitors did, she was omniscient!
The lady from Foligno spends all her life in her hometown, just a few miles from Assisi where she is born only about twenty five years after St. Francis' passing away. Thus her spirituality is deeply Franciscan from the start. She is born into a well to do, land owning family.
Her conversion to a profound spiritual life of penance happens only in 1285 when she is about thirty seven years old, still married and with children. For the rest of her life she will perform very harsh penances that are "remarkable" even to a Franciscan priest. Having entered the "way of the cross", she attempts to "become poor" like the Poverello has taught. Her family members are such a great obstacle in this pursuit that she prays for their deaths. Soon enough, (mysteriously) her mother, husband and all her sons die within a short period of time. She thanks God for that. Now she can live like a nun, though the local friars bar her way into the order. She decides to go to Rome to ask the Pope himself for permission to become "poor". Upon her return, in 1291, she is finally permitted to take the robes of the Third Order of St. Francis, the "Brothers and Sisters of Penance". (St. Francis founded this order for lay people in c. 1221.) The year 1291 is also the first mention of someone attached to her like a disciple whom she "converted". (Although she does not write her first instruction to a full fledged disciple until 1297/98.) In 1292 Brother Arnaldo, her confessor, starts recording her revelations. He continues to do so until she has reached the summit of her spiritual path in 1296, only eleven years after her conversion. Her fame keeps spreading until she dies in 1309.
4. Her Position as a Woman Mystic
The status of Catholic women mystics depended entirely on how usable and necessary their revelations were for the Church. As long as the institution depended on its spiritual power and on women for the expansion of its territory and for defending its views against "heretics" it appreciated demure saint-missionaries. But once Christianity had conquered all of Europe, was well established, and its maintenance could depend on physical force in form of the Inquisition, the Church no longer needed mystics.
As Pattloch explains, God's revelation to humankind is concluded in the Bible; all contemplatives like Angela can do is unfold what is already known. As opposed to medieval scholars Pattloch greatly appreciates such inspired unfolding. Jean Gerson (1363-1429), the chancellor of the University of Paris, on the other hand, did not hesitate to list mendicants along with heretics and the Antichrist as "plagues of the church" because their very holiness disturbs the order. He effectively argued against all forms of mysticism. In his judgement: "neither a proliferation of visions nor of saints should be encouraged because God did not require repetitious and superfluous interventions in the regular course of events." On the one hand the Church was still proud of its saints and mystics, even at this time, so long as they were in complete agreement with the official dogma. And the longer they were dead, the more proud it dared to be, for the less they threatened to disturb "the regular course of events". On the contrary, they seemed to prove church doctrine right and effective for the attainment of salvation. But live mystics were messy, unpredictable, and difficult to control. Even if they were willing to conform in every detail to official dogma, as many were, their very lives were a plague to the Church for two reasons: (1) They proved that living according to Jesus' example was possible. (2) The discrepancy between their life styles and the character of powerful clerics clearly showed that the latter did not satisfy Jesus' recommendations or demands.
It is the very nature of mysticism to aim at direct experiences of God during one's life. But around Angela's time the Church found that in such experiences God had a tendency to reveal the shortcomings of the Roman Catholic institution. Thus it encouraged the faithful to put experiences of God off until death. It grew so afraid of mysticism that it did not even appreciate intense spirituality that was bound completely to rituals conducted in church. These are the recommendations of a sixteenth century Franciscan friar:
Since you see your wife going about visiting many churches, practicing many devotions, and pretending to be a saint, lock the door; and if that isn't sufficient, break her leg if she is young, for she can go to heaven lame from her own house without going around in search of these suspect forms of holiness.
As in the early Church, so also in the Middle Ages we find a clearly stated correlation between anti-mysticism and anti-feminism. The Dominican professor and confessor of St. Teresa of Avila, Domingo Banez, puts it bluntly when he says that mystical experiences: "are always to be greatly feared, especially in women, who are more inclined to believe that these are from God and to make sanctity consist of them." In the same way any other restrictive measure or teaching applied especially to women. Humans in general were seen as sinful, but women more so. Christians in general were supposed to be humble and hate their bodies, but especially women. Christians were not supposed to question authority; instead they were to have blind faith not only in God but in all authorities on earth as well; this was especially true for women. It was proper for Christians to remain silent about "divine secrets", but especially for women, whose voices were literally not to be heard in churches at all. During the High Middle Ages even nuns were not allowed to chant the liturgical responses during mass unless they were amongst themselves in their own convents.
At Angela's time the situation was not yet as bad as during St. Teresa's life, but it was during the Folignera's life time that the Church decidedly turned against women. Between the seventh and twelfth centuries many religious women, particularly abbesses with their nunneries, had become quite powerful in the spiritual as well as secular realm. The abbess Hroswitha of Gandersheim (c.930-c.990) for example was allowed her own court, knights, the right to coin money and to sit at the meetings of the Diet.
But between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries religious women's status dwindled. First nuns lost their lands to wars and with that their worldly power. The Church used the opportunity to gradually rob them of all independence , of access to higher learning , and finally of any freedom whatsoever. In 1293 Pope Boniface VIII decreed in the Bull Periculoso that all and sundry nuns, present and future, to whatever order they belong . . . shall henceforth remain perpetually enclosed . . .; so that no nun . . . shall henceforth have or be able to have the power of going out of those monasteries for whatever reason or excuse . . . [They shall remain] altogether withdrawn from public and mundane sights.
While the economic realities made it impossible for all nuns to obey the bull to the letter , the message was clear: the Church wanted religious women to be invisible.
Fortunately it never succeeded, for there was one thing ecclesiastics could not take away: the riches of women's inner lives. Many became great mystics and when God spoke through them to men, they had to be heard. Not that they had any authority to speak for themselves, to interpret their own experiences or to translate their own conclusions into actions.
But as God's mouthpiece women still at times influenced worldly and religious rulers and changed the course of history. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) convinced the Pope to return from Avignon to Rome and Joan of Arc (1412-1431) led her people to a pivotal victory in Orleans and the French king to his coronation, to name just two.
Men were not happy with such developments. Having to listen to women was punishment to them. They interpreted God's speaking and acting through women not as actual communication between the Lord and women, but as God shaming and rebuking men. Since men were supposed to be the only ones through whom God was made known to mankind, something must have been wrong with them if he reverted to teaching through women. This is clearly stated in the epilogue to Angela's Instructions. In defense of the Holy Mother's position the author says:
It is not against the order of providence that God, to men's shame, made a woman a teacher-and one that to my knowledge has no match on earth. For Jerome said of the prophetess Huldah, to whom crowds ran, that the gift of prophecy had been transmitted to the female sex to shame men...
The era of the Bull Periculoso did significantly lower the status of religious women. But in the case of mystics God is the one who raises their status. So once a woman was recognized as being filled with the Spirit there was only so much lowering of status one could do. Hence, the objective was to keep it from happening and, when God chose women anyway, to not spread the news.
Accordingly, Angela was treated with ambiguity. The simple people, lay or religious, venerated her as a saint. Since Inquisitors had judged her to be orthodox and since she was not officially a nun she was not subject to the Bull Periculoso and the Church could do little to keep her hidden. (Until after her death, when it condemned the whole movement she was associated with.) As a lay follower of St. Francis her official status was below that of a fully ordained nun. Yet it allowed her to move around and have a public life, visiting hospitals, convents, and gathering many disciples. Thus her fame spread. (Though a prerequisite to such renown was that she embody the above mentioned characteristics of self-hate, submission to authority, etc. which effectively limit the possibilities of status.)
A church that does not ordain women as priests must naturally feel challenged when God raises some of them above priests to the status of prophetess. That this called into question the divine origin of men's status can be deduced from the above cited formulation in the epilogue. Obviously there was a question as to whether women teaching was "against the order of providence of God". The standard answer of people who wanted to listen to women mystics without meaning to topple the patriarchal structure was: As a general rule religious instruction should be up to men, but as an exception, when men are misbehaving, God has to rebuke them by teaching through women. Either way, God speaking through women meant that something was wrong with men; it called into question either their general superior status or their current behavior, or both.
5. The Impact of Her Work
Angela's impact on European Christendom would most likely have been much greater if it were not for the fact that only a few months after Cardinal James Colonna had approved and signed her revelations as orthodox, he and his nephew, Cardinal Peter Colonna, were excommunicated. They had conspired against the Pope, challenging the legitimacy of his election. It was also known that James Colonna was a friend of the Franciscan Spirituals. Though there is no evidence that Angela involved herself directly in political issues, she must be described as a Spiritual herself and could not remain unaffected by the conflict that was tearing at her order and the Church as a whole. The woman was like a second St. Francis, defending the purity of his rule against those who strove for a secularization. She criticized the Church for attacking the apostolic way of life and converted Ubertino Casale, the turbulent leader of the Spirituals, to a life of strict Christian poverty. Only seven years after her passing away the Spirituals, who venerated their Holy Mother as a rare embodiment of sacred truth in a worldly Church, came to be persecuted by the Inquisition.
The result of all this was that for the first century following her death it was not safe to mention her name and particularly not her connection with the Cardinal James Colonna. Consequently the original of her works and most of the early manuscripts were lost. Nonetheless, in the true manner of any esoteric teaching, her works and fame spread underground, only to re-emerge at a later time.
With them survived, it seems in no small part due to her influence, the movement of the Spirituals. In the 1400's they organized themselves under the name 'Observantines', still holding the Most Holy Mother up as their heroine. Finally the social situation demanded the official recognition of the Observantines as at least one faction within the Franciscan order. At the same time the penitent's writings start appearing in Spain and France and in the late 1500's in Germany. By the seventeenth century she is read by mystics and saints all over Europe. St. Francis de Sales mentions her often; St. Teresa of Avila read her, and perhaps also St. Ignacius of Loyola.
Today few people outside of Italy and France pay much attention to her. The things that made her famous in the past, her union with God through extreme poverty and self- mortification, do not make her popular in modern times. Her admonitions are perhaps impossible to swallow, particularly for feminists. True, her character is a bit extreme, at times perhaps even insane. But her phobias are typical of Christians of the "Dark Ages" and her passion characteristic of women mystics of the time. If post-modern wo/men are to recognize the full value of this mystic, they have to learn to distinguish between what God revealed to her and her own internalized oppression. This is not difficult, for again and again the Spirit makes quite clear that he does not appreciate her self-hate.
1. His Time
When Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen was born, in 1292, Buddhism had only been firmly rooted in the Country of Snow for barely three centuries. Though it came to Tibet under the reign of Songtsen Gampo (620-649 C.E.), it took more than three centuries to overcome the resistance of the Bon religion and its affiliated aristocratic patrons.
The biggest and most powerful monastery at the time was "Sakya", called after the place where it was founded in 1071. (This is where Dolpopa grew up and was educated.) And Sakya is to this day the name of the school that stems from that monastery and of the family that rules it. In the thirteenth century Sakya Pandita ("The great scholar from Sakya", 1182-1251) was called to the Mongol court in Beijing to heal the emperor of an illness. From then on the Sakyapas had a great influence on Mongolian affairs and eventually established Buddhism there. Since Tibet was a Mongolian protectorate, the Khan was in the position in 1270, (only two decades before Dolpopa's birth) to hand the Sakyapas the sovereignty over central Tibet (i.e. the greater part of the country). But their rule ended quickly, in 1345, during the height of Dolpopa's fame. Internal struggles made it possible for another, called "Situ" or "Phagmo-drupa", to gain the upper hand in political and religious affairs. Bell describes the situation thus: "Much of the country is parcelled out among powerful monasteries, who, while professing the religion of the peace-loving Buddha, fight each other for spiritual and worldly supremacy."
Yet, as opposed to European Christians, the Tibetans themselves do not seem to have viewed the worldly dealings of their religious institutions as a degeneration. The dharma had been connected to the court and its politics from the start. Even Buddha Shakyamuni had already accepted the sponsorship of kings, local rulers, and rich merchants. Thus most Tibetans never strove for the separation of "church and state". There were a few attempts to form a purely secular kind of government. But they failed because Buddhism was too powerful; rulers could not afford to seek leadership independent of the religion. Culturally the Tibetans were predisposed to link worldly and spiritual power. Snellgrove maintains that the indigenous religion of Tibet "appears to have centered upon a cult of divine kingship". This seems not unlikely since Tibetans continue to this day to seek spiritual ordination for their temporal rulers.
On the local level as well, there was no or very little separation between spiritual and temporal powers. Increasingly over the centuries, aristocratic clans had become the secular arm of the monasteries. It was a mutual relationship of power maintenance. The religious orders justified worldly rulers and supplied them with magical blessings. In return for such favors aristocrats protected the orders' financial aspects and boosted their image and influence.
After the decline of the great Tibetan empire in the ninth century, local chieftains had almost constantly been involved in one battle or another, bringing much suffering to the whole country. Under Buddhist influence the situation eventually improved considerably but it probably seemed only natural that the monasteries would be pulled into these feuds to some extent.
Threats to people's lives also came from the outside of Tibet on a regular basis, since the early 13th century especially from the Mongols. Thus the population may have appreciated the "golden army". Monks in the fortified monasteries were considered the third line of defense after the regular troops and lay-militias. Perhaps a rare burning down of each other's monasteries seemed peaceful compared to how things had been, first when the Tibetan empire stretched from Arab and Turkish territories to the heart of China and then during the times of local civil wars.
From the beginning of the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet the kings imposed a certain degree of uniformity in doctrine. In 794 C.E., following a two year long debate, Khri srong lde btsan issued an edict proclaiming the decision that henceforth the Yogacara-Svatantrika- Madhyamaka view of Santaraksita would be the only acceptable one in Tibet. He threw Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism and Chinese monks out and made the dissemination of their views punishable by law.
Yet at the same time that Santaraksita taught sutras and philosophical commentaries, the great master Padmasambhava introduced the Tantric system of secret teachings and initiations. Apparently the two were in agreement with each other and both worked in close connection with the king. Thus, from the start, only the public, exoteric teachings were controlled; in private and in the realm of Tantra one could teach whatever one pleased. As long as one designated teachings as "special oral instructions", not as sutra type teachings, there was great freedom.
Once Buddhism was firmly established in Tibet even exoteric teachings ceased to be closely regulated. Neither Tibetan geography nor mentality allowed for much supervision. Thus, as Williams points out: "Tibetan thought has never been as monolithic as some would portray it." On the contrary, one of Tibetans' favorite proverbs is: "Every country has its own customs; every monastery has its own lama; every lama has his own mode of Dharma." Surely Tibetan scholars of all times strove to be authentically Mahayana Buddhist, but that could mean selecting from a wide variety of teachings and even changing the selection according to their own development and the development of their students.
2. His Religious Inheritance
a. Tantra in Tibetan Buddhism
It is characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism as a whole to strive to combine all of what is considered Buddha Shakyamuni's teachings and the teachings of all other buddhas as well into one congruent system which one can practice as a whole or from which one can choose parts that suit one's personality and circumstances. Many Tibetan practitioners are ordained in the early Buddhist Sarvastivadin vinaya tradition and maintain these vows as long as they are not superseded by Tantric vows and other considerations such as climate. When it comes to philosophical and ethical attitudes, they follow the Mahayana, but their innermost view and meditation practice is Tantric.
From the start, there was a close connection between the Jonang school and the Kalacakra tantra. It constituted Dolpopa's main practice, though the commentaries to the Hevajra- and the Cakrasamvara-tantras were also essential to his formulation of Shentong philosophy. The Kalacakra tantra with its teachings on the Adibuddha, was one of the main pillars of Jonang doctrine. According to the "Lexikon der östlichen Weisheitslehren" Adibuddha means original buddha. He is represented by the bodhisattva Samantabhadra whose name translates as "the all-embracing good" or "the all round beneficial". Samantabhadra "embodies the "wisdom of identity in nature", i.e. the understanding of the unity of identity and alterity . . . and the content of experience of the dharmakaya." All three parts of the Kalacakra tantra, the "outer, inner, and other" are regarded as aspects of the Adibuddha. That is to say the outer universe, inner human physiology and psychology, as well as the "other" Tantric deities (in short, macro and micro cosmos) are nothing other than the All-embracing Good.
Seeing all manifestations as pure, blissful, radiant expressions of the dharmakaya is characteristic of all higher Buddhist Tantric approaches. This view is often regarded as diverging from sutra teachings in general and the Prajnaparamita in particular. Yet it is not alien to all scriptures. Rather it is closely related to the tathagatagarbha sutras' claim that buddha nature is the pure essence of all phenomena.
Why then would Dolpopa's teachings be so shocking to many scholars who accepted and practiced Tantra as their chosen method for striving for enlightenment? The reason is the difference in how Shentongpas and Rangtongpas integrate Tantra into their philosophies. According to Ruegg, what disturbed Rangtong scholars so much, was Dolpopa's mixing two elements into one system of public philosophy: on the one hand Tantric teachings and mystical intuition gained in Tantric meditation and on the other hand formal philosophy according to one set of related sutras. Other famous scholars of his time followed Dolpopa's example, but it seems that the majority rejected his method. (It is interesting to note that just as Rangtongpas appreciate Tantric and Third Turning of the Wheel teachings as long as they are treated as secret oral instructions from guru to disciple, in the same way strict Shentongpas appreciate Rangtong teachings as secret oral instructions.) Considering that it is the very nature of Tibetan Buddhism to encompass all these different systems and to mix them as far as what is taught to practitioners is concerned, it seems strange that there would be such resentment against a philosophical mixture.
Nonetheless it is true that in the field of scholastic philosophy Buddhists were expected to be very conservative purists. A commentary was supposed to explain only what the text itself meant to say; no personal intuition or opinion was condoned. To invent something new in the field of philosophy, was taboo. Thus it is a grave accusation when the Grub mtha' shel gyi me long states that the Jonang teaching is "a personal invention, it is not a source transmitted by the Indian scholars".
b. The Sakya and Jonang Schools
The first spiritual home of Dolpopa, as well as the Jonang school as a whole, was the Sakya tradition. Ruegg explains that:
at first, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they [the Jonangpas) appeared closely linked with the Sa skya pas, only becoming clearly distinct after their doctrines had become the object of a formal philosophical presentation, for which Dol bu pa was chiefly responsible.
Morioka Sato suggests that the Sakya school does not follow one fixed system of Madhyamaka thought. Rather Sakyapas are free to follow any one of the common Madhyamikas. He says:
"In the Sa skya pa school we can find for example two main interpretations for the term sunyata (emptiness): ran ston and gzan ston or prasanga and svatantra; which can be traced back to the fact that two main streams are represented in this school."
Dolpopa was not only familiar with all the teachings within the Sakya school. It is quite common to this day that especially high ranking Tibetan lamas receive transmissions from all kinds of different lineages. Thus the man from Dolpo too was granted initiation into all the major and minor lineages of his day. When he was twenty nine years old, he went to visit Jonang, which, according to Stearns, "was considered an affiliate monastery of the Sakya school". Thoroughly impressed, he returned the next year, this time to stay and to remain a Jonangpa for the rest of his life. But this must by no means be considered the end of Sakya-Jonang relations.
The Jonangpas themselves trace the transmission of their teachings back to Yumo Mikyo Dorje (twelfth/thirteenth century), a Kashmiri pandit who was a student of Candranatha. As stated above, there was, from the start, a close connection between Shentong doctrine and Tantra. According to the tradition Uma Shentong thought "arose" in Yumo Mikyo Dorje's mind while he was practicing the Kalacakra Tantra. The school derives its name from its first monastery, established in Jonang by the great Kun spangs thugs rje brtson 'grus (1243-1313). After Dolpopa was enthroned as lineage holder and thus in control of the Jonang school, it became synonymous with radical Shentong teachings.
c. Buddhist Silence
Lest one acts like so many Mahayanists who give credit to Nagarjuna that belongs to Gautama, let's consider for a moment what the Buddha taught. With regards to samsara, or relative reality, Gautama acted in accordance with Nagarjuna's conclusion: he did not take a stance. In the Cula-Malunkya sutta he refuses to answer questions about the eternity and infinity of the world or the status of body and soul. With regards to nirvana, or ultimate reality, he goes a little further. Rather than merely remarking that it is useless to ponder the ontological status of the world and of humans, he affirms that it is also impossible to determine such a status. In the Aggi- Vacchagotta sutta the monk Vacchagotta asks about the existence of the Tathagata in parinirvana. That is to say, he really asks about ultimate reality because in parinirvana there is no distinction between the Buddha and reality. This is what Shakyamuni replies: "Arise", Vaccha, does not apply.
Well, then, good Gotama, does he not arise? "Does not arise", Vaccha, does not apply. Well, then, good Gotama, does he both arise and not arise? "Both arises and does not arise", Vaccha, does not apply. Well, then, good Gotama, does he neither arise nor not arise? "Neither arises nor does not arise", Vaccha, does not apply.
When Vaccha is disappointed and confused by these answers, the Buddha continues:
You ought to be at a loss, Vaccha, you ought to be bewildered. For Vaccha, this dhamma is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond dialectics, subtle ...
In principal Nagarjuna concurs with Gautama's approach, yet he thinks it necessary to expand upon the Buddha's silence. He repeats the catuskoti (four edges) the way Shakyamuni had taught them, stating that all phenomena (and for him that includes the dharmata, the true nature of things) neither exist nor do not exist, nor exist and not exist, nor neither exist nor not exist. But, in my opinion, Nagarjuna diverges from the Buddha's approach when he proceeds to prove each one of the four edges by way of a dialectic of logical inferences, and then goes on to demonstrate that anyone who does not agree with him is wrong. While the Buddha understood that agreement as well as disagreement constitute opinionatedness, which in turn prevents one from seeing the truth, Nagarjuna did not recognize his logic as mere opinion.
Nagao summarizes Nagarjuna's efforts as aiming at: "preventing others from making noises by saying in a loud voice, 'Do not utter any sound!'" This is a very fitting image. The problem was that when nobody listened, the master himself kept talking and filling books with his opinions.
The Shentong position is that silence - the option Buddha Shakyamuni chose - or Nagarjuna's way of refuting everybody else without taking a stance himself, is not the most compassionate or skillful way of dealing with the dilemma of wanting to teach what is beyond words. As Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche says:
Many Shentong masters criticize the Prasangika Madhya- mikas for their claim that they do not hold any views. In the opinion of these masters, Prasangikas are just dodging the issue because they refute everyone else's views and then avoid the refutation of their own views by claiming not to have any.
If people are to strive for realization of ultimate reality, and especially if faith is to be one of their main motivators, one has to be able to tell them something positive about it, even if that requires a necessarily always deficient attempt to express the inexpressible.
3. His Person
The Omniscient Dolpopa lived from 1292 to 1361. At an early age he started seriously studying sutras and tantras under several masters at Sakya, the headquarters of the Sakya school, then the most powerful school in Tibet. He was so successful that he was installed as a teacher of the "Four Great Teachings of the Buddha" (bka' chen bzi: vinaya, paramitas, abhidharma, and madhyamaka) when he was only a youth. Thus he became a proud young monk-scholar, with his own ideas about what should be preached. There seems to be a recurring theme in his life: he studies Buddhist works and scriptures that he finds very valuable but that his tradition either does not teach at all, treats as "secret knowledge" that is to be passed on only as "special instructions" from guru to disciple, or teaches only in a very specific sequence and context. Rather than obeying his tradition, he follows his own intuition and teaches them publicly whenever he feels is fitting. This starts early in his career when he teaches Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara along with the "Four Great Teachings of the Buddha", as the Blue Annals say: "in spite of the fact that others did not like him doing so." The same pattern was repeated when he studied the tathagatagarbha sutras and received secret Shentong teachings: he could not see why these teachings should not be given to the general public and followed his own inclination to share them widely.
With regards to his knowledge of the Dharma he was "confident that he could not be humbled" until he came to Jonang where he met many "great male and female meditators" who had gained deep insight into the nature of reality. Impressed, he returned the following year and entered a Kalacakra retreat under the direction of the master Yon-tan rgya-mtso (1260-1327). After that he traveled for two years and then returned for another Kalacakra retreat that lasted one or three years. During this retreat (part of which was done in complete darkness) he had many visions of buddhas, pure lands, Shambhala (the mystical land whence the Kalacakra Tantra was obtained) etc. This is also when he realized ultimate reality to be shentong, empty of other, but not empty of qualities. He ascended the teaching throne of Jonang when he was thirty three or thirty five years old. From 1330-1333 he lead the construction of an enormous stupa in Jonang. According to his own interpretation, by the blessing of the Three Jewels and the Three Roots, as well as of the activity of building the stupa, the shentong rangtong distinction became very clear to him at this time. So he started to teach it publicly to large audiences as well as write about it in his main work Ri chos nges don rgya mtsho (The Ocean of Ultimate Meaning of Mountain Dharma[of yogi ascetics)). It seems that now that his Guru had passed away and he himself was enthroned as about the tenth lineage holder, he felt free to do "what was to be done for the benefit of the Buddhist doctrine".
Throughout his life Dolpopa meditated, taught the Dharma, and wrote. One of his most cherished experiences occurred one day in 1335 when he was forty three years old. He mystically traveled to Shambhala where, by the kindness of the Kalki emperors, he received inner teachings on the Kalacakra Tantra and the nature of this mythical land. At the age of seventy he "proceeded to Sukhavati", as the Blue Annals describe his passing away.
4. His Position as an "Omniscient" Male Lineage Holder
The man from Dolpo was highly educated and encouraged by his tradition to write and thus enlighten his people. It was customary in India and Tibet that great scholars would compile philosophical works which were often held in higher esteem than the sutras themselves. The Tibetan standard of learning for (monks only) scholars was so high that they were sometimes able to correct Indian teachers' interpretations of sutras.
Beyond the customary training granted males, Dolpopa's education took place at the foremost center of learning, the most powerful Tibetan monastery of his time. And not only that, he even completed his meditation retreats so successfully that he was pronounced "omniscient" (Tib. kun mkhyen pa). One can find quite varied definitions of omniscience in Buddhism. What they all share is denoting the perfect knowledge of a fully enlightened buddha. But what exactly the content of that kind of knowledge might be, is much debated. (Each school of course wants it to correspond to its tenets.) The RGV (2.31-33) stresses the ineffableness of omniscience by stating that not even bodhisattvas on the ten bhumis have realized it. Hookham maintains that: "in Shentong terms, it means nondual Knowledge of the Absolute Inseparable Qualities."
On a less scholastic level Omniscient One is simply one of the highest religious titles. While it certainly is meant to convey a person's very far advanced realization, I do not think it always literally is meant to denote a full fledged buddha according to sutra definitions. Nevertheless, in his effort to gain renewed acceptability for Uma Shentong, Jamgon Kongtrul the Great refers to Dolpopa as the All-knowing Buddha of the Three Times. I suspect that Hookham follows him in her statement that Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, Dolpopa, and Longchenpa were the three great Omniscient Ones of the 14th century. Others grant this title to more than just these three. The Grub mtha' shel gyi me long e.g. calls Buton and Tsongkhapa (the founder of the Gelug tradition) thus.
Dolpopa's gender and advanced realization qualified him to become a Jonang lineage holder. That is to say, according to the Tantric tradition, he became a vital link in transmitting the magical blessings and teachings of Yumo Mikyo Dorje to future generations. All of Tibetan Buddhism, but especially Tantra, depends on lineage holders. If a lineage is broken, it can no longer be transmitted and the associated teachings, practices, and powers die out. Tibetans have a great appreciation for rich diversity and quantity of lineages, even if they do not completely agree with them. Thus lineage holders constitute an especially treasured elite within the Buddhist community. If Dolpopa had been condemned too harshly, his teaching and practice lineage might have been lost. This would not have been an option Tibetan Buddhists would tend to choose, especially since the Jonangpas were extremely important for the proliferation of the Kalacakra tantra in Tibet.
Hence his critics struggle with an interesting conundrum which is reflected in the Grub mtha' shel gyi me long. In dealing with Dolpopa's "omniscience", this text on the one hand lauds him as "an excellent and inconceivable being, . . . the white banner renowned as the Omniscient One who made the entire assembly of scholars tremble greatly". On the other hand his teachings are nevertheless judged as low, bad, wrong, incurable, even "severing the vital-artery of Liberation".
The result of being torn between his status and fame on the one hand, and a disliking of his teachings on the other, was ambiguity: "it is difficult to praise or criticize the Jo nang pa system". An other Gelug authority, Gung thang dken mchog bstan pa'i sgron me, confirms that although Dolpopa's understanding of philosophy was faulty, this did not make his omniscience inferior.
In summary, his learning and status prevented him from being attacked as a person. It did not prevent the rejection of his thought by masses of scholars, but it forced them to grapple with it, if for no other reason than that they wanted to preserve the blessing of his Tantric lineage. To this day he cannot be completely disregarded; rather his significance is acknowledged and his teachings respectfully criticized.
Scholars criticizing the teachings of a yogi-scholar whom they otherwise accepted as "omniscient" may seem strange until one realizes that Buddhism exhibits a similar rivalry between mystics and scholars as Christianity does. (Even if in both religions there are scholars who have a mystical side and mystics with a scholastic side.) Each thinks they are more important than the other. To scholars, mystical experiences are only useful if they are interpreted correctly, while many mystics thinks that scholarly precision is unnecessary for liberation.
The situation on the Buddhist side is different insofar as complete salvation is possible not only after death but in life. Since enlightenment is the final goal of all Buddhist philosophy, it must be the determining factor in judging whether a system is correct or not. There has long been great competition among Buddhist schools as to whose is the fastest path to buddhahood. If a tradition had no saints to back its claims up, it would not have much to stand on. Thus, the status of Buddhist mystics is perhaps higher than that of Christian visionaries.
5. The Impact of His Work
Dolpopa was the first to put Jonang thought into systematized writing and to popularize the term shentong. Already during his life the reception of his teachings was mixed. On the one hand he became famous as a scholar and yogi who gathered many disciples whom he led to realization. His practice lineage spread throughout Tibet "filling all the mountain valleys and lands of U (dbus) and Tsang (gtsang) with adapts" For three centuries the school flourished, enjoying great prestige and influence.
On the other hand his ideas also came under heavy critique. As long as he was there to defend them, his opponents could not seriously harm his reputation. 'Gos Lotsawa Shonupal states: "When many scholars, disagreeing with his theory (grub-mtha'), came to discuss the matter with him, their refutations were melted similar to snow when reaching the ocean." But after his passing away, public opinion of scholars and yogis seems to have turned decidedly against Uma Shentong. The Jonangpas' standing deteriorated and became so weak that their opponents probably thought the controversy was won for good. Perhaps they were therefore all the more disappointed when the XIV and XVI Drol Chog (grol mchog) tulkus , Jonang Kunga (1495-1566) and Jonang Taranatha (born 1575) brought about a powerful revival in the first half of the sixteenth century.
The reaction to this revival was an unusually forceful suppression. It is justified to this day by citing philosophical reasons. But these do not explain why, in the second half of the seventeenth century, almost all Jonang monasteries were forced to close or convert into Gelug monasteries, while Shentong literature was banned, especially from Gelug monasteries. Snellgrove points out that other schools such as the Bonpos and the Nyingmapas are "far more unorthodox than ever the Jonangpas may have been". Yet they were never seriously harassed because they did not aspire to political power.
The Grub mtha' shel gyi me long sheds some light on this issue. Although it condemns the philosophical content of Jonang teachings, it also strives for historical objectivity. The author recounts the sudden demise of the school after it had reached a peak of "unprecedented support" achieved by Jonang Taranatha's activities and genius. Added to the expansion of Jonang influence in the field of religion was its connection to the house of Rin spungs which sponsored it and added even more luster not only to its spiritual but also its temporal power. As Ruegg explains, the influential princes of Rin spungs were separatists, pushing for the independence of the very important Tsang province from the central government. Their activities and lineage was put to an end when the fifth Dalai Lama called in the Mongol army. It defeated the Rin spungs princes in 1642 and with them went their source of spiritual power, Dolpopa's school. As soon as Jonang Taranatha died (shortly after the princes) the way was cleared for the Gelug