Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy

Matthew Kapstein

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy


Since the mid-1980s, the study of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy has greatly expanded. The volume of available publications now surpasses the scope even of most specialists in the field. Under these circumstances, the present bibliography aspires not to present the area comprehensively, but instead to offer a selection of materials that, in the judgment of this writer, will enable those beginning research to navigate effectively in this domain. Scholars of Tibetan thought are not wholly agreed as to what counts as “philosophy” within Tibetan traditions. There is no Tibetan term that is a straightforward equivalent to the Western expression, though such distinctions as that between rigs pa’i rjes ’brangs (followers of reason) and dad pa’i rjes ‘brangs (followers of faith) do mark out areas of thought and practice that significantly overlap with Western conceptions of philosophy as opposed to religion, mysticism, or faith. With this in mind, there are some who favor a narrow definition of philosophy in Tibet, stressing above all those traditions emphasizing education through debate and works concerning Buddhist logic and epistemology (Skt. pramāṇa, Tib. tshad ma), Madhyamaka (Tib. dbu ma), the analysis of philosophical systems (Skt. siddhānta, Tib. grub mtha’), and similar subjects. (For an introduction to the Tibetan educational system and the major departments of philosophical thought, refer to Dreyfus 2003, cited under General Overviews.) On the other hand, there are those who insist that important philosophical issues are often addressed, and trenchantly so, in works emanating from outside the debate schools, most notably within the contemplative traditions of the “Great Seal” (Mahāmudrā) and “Great Perfection” (Dzogchen, rdzogs chen). The late H. V. Guenther, several of whose works are cited in this entry, was the pioneering figure in this latter approach. Many of those who have enthusiastically contributed to the translation of Tibetan Buddhist philosophical texts in recent years have had no appreciable background in philosophy before encountering its Tibetan versions, often as a result of their studies under the direction of contemporary Tibetan religious teachers. One result has been a remarkable effort to translate the writings favored by these teachers, as well as the discourses of the teachers themselves. Although much that is of genuine philosophical interest is to be found in some of these works, the expression of ideas that we find in them is often naive with respect to Western philosophical usage. Accordingly, the selection of translations used here has been limited, emphasizing materials that are exceptionally informed by sufficient philosophical background so as to render philosophical concepts in a relatively limpid manner, together with a number of texts of such outstanding importance within the Tibetan tradition that they merit the effort required to read them even when the translations fail to be adequately perspicacious philosophically. It should be noted, too, that much of Tibetan philosophy is scholastic in the strict sense that it is based on and expresses itself in scholia, comments and glosses on the works of past masters (in Tibetan usually called mchan bu, “annotation,” or ’grel pa, “commentary”). The majority of the works studied in this way are Indian Buddhist treatises, above all the writings attributed to Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Candrakīrti and Śāntideva; Maitreya, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu; Dignāga and Dharmakīrti; and Bhāviveka, Śāntarakṣita, and Kamalaśīla. Though some Tibetan commentaries on the writings of these figures are noted here, their principal works, which form the backbone for all serious study of Tibetan Buddhist thought, are not. Details pertaining to these Indian Buddhist authors will be found elsewhere in Oxford Bibliographies Online. Similarly, the bibliographies devoted to specific topics in Buddhist doctrine and philosophy contain information of use to those pursuing the study of Tibetan Buddhist intellectual traditions in particular.

Article.  10552 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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