December 19, 2015

Three Tibetan Ways of Dealing with Historical Contradictions and Inconsistencies

It seems very obvious that Tibetan scholars and historians came up with some elegant ways to resolve doctrinal and historical contradictions and inconsistencies they encountered in their sources. I may mention here just three. First, the ideas of “mode of existence” (gnas tshul), i.e. actual reality and “mode of appearance” (snang tshul), i.e. virtual reality, have been employed to resolve contradictions and conflicting accounts of events. The basic idea is that things may have actually existed or happened in a certain way but appeared in different ways to people who witnessed those realities or events. Such an attitude or approach seems to make much better sense than the attitude or approach of insisting dogmatically and apodictically that only one version of the account must be correct. Two reporters in a car, each looking out of the window in the opposite sides, may report of the same event or scenery in a different fashion. To insist that one is right and the other is wrong would be absurd. Similarly, descriptions of the one and the same elephant by nine blind persons may also be mentioned here. Second, Tibetan historians also seem to use the definitive–provisional (drang–nges) distinction. Those of us who know the technical use of the nītārtha–neyārtha distinction in a typically Buddhist doctrinal context should temporarily withhold our judgment. It seems clear that Tibetan historians do not use the definitive–provisional distinction in a strictly technical manner. What they seem to be meaning is that drang don is “fiction” and nges don is “fact.” The advantage of such a method seems to be that it is less dismissive, less unduly deprecating. The method seems to leave some room for respect even for fictions and to accord some value to fictions (as having a purpose or benefit). Third, the ideas of tshur mthong tshad ma (“myopic valid cognition”) and dag gzigs tshad ma (“valid cognition of pure perception or purity-perceiving valid cognition”) are used to explain contradictions and inconsistencies. In a strict technical sense, the distinction between the two has been established by Mi-pham (11846–1912). Khang-dkar Tshul-khrims-skal-bzang has used the idea of tshur mthong tshad ma to adhere to the modern sense and standard of history. That is, as modern Buddhist historian, one can strictly try to adhere to the modern sense and standard of history, but making clear that the historical facts or probabilities are only from the perspective of tshur mthong tshad ma. No claim of absolute correctness from the point of view of dag gzigs tshad ma is made. The advantage is that, with this strategy, one can uncompromisingly be historical and yet any challenge from the tradition can be precluded by maintaining that anything ahistorical may be true from a dag gzigs tshad ma point of view but it is inaccessible to a historian. A historian is thus only responsible for what he or she asserts with regard to realities or events accessible to tshur mthong tshad ma alone. Another advantage of adopting this method is that one does not naively and arrogantly dismiss or rule out the possibility of other dimensions of reality. It provides a Buddhist scholar to retain a strict sense of history and yet not to dismiss everything what appears ahistorical as mere heaps of rubbish.


  1. Hi D! Did you write this book? Lo rgyus gleng ba. Talk about History? I'll have to try and read it!
    Happy (foreign) New Year!'s day 2016!

  2. Dear Dan, Happy New Year to you! D.