Samye Debate | India or China?!

Samye Debate

Among Western scholars, the Samye Debate has generated more speculation than any other single event in Tibetan history:

Around 797 C.E., a philosophical debate is said to have taken place at Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet:

The debate was held in order to decide, in effect, which form of Buddhism would be adopted by the Tibetan royal court - that of the Chinese Chan School or Indian Buddhism.

The debate was presided over by the Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen (755-797),

and the two sides were represented by the Chinese master Heshang Moheyan (Sanskrit, Mahāyāna) and the Indian scholar Kamalaśīla, respectively.

According to Tibetan sources, the Indian side was declared the winner; Moheyan and his disciples were banished from the country, and Indian Buddhism was established as the state religion.

The alleged victory for the Indian side has strongly shaped Tibetans’ understanding of their own religious heritage.

The philosophical issue at stake was how Enlightenment should be attained - immediately or after a period of extensive training.

Thus, according to the famous History of Buddhism in India and Tibet composed by Buton Rinchen Drub (1290-1364),

Moheyan opened the debate by explaining that just as clouds, be they white or black, obscure the sky, so do all activities, be they virtuous or non-virtuous, perpetuate Rebirth in Saṁsāra:

Therefore, he concluded, the cessation of all mental activity leads immediately to the highest liberation.

Kamalaśīla responded to this philosophical quietism by explaining the stages of analytic meditation. He stressed that even non-conceptual wisdom results from a specific process of gradual analysis.

Moheyan was soundly defeated, and some of his disciples were so humiliated that they committed suicide.

Buton Rinchen Drub’s account, which is largely representative of the normative Tibetan historical tradition, is clearly a biased one:

He frames his narrative with a prophecy made by Śāntarakṣita, the Indian master who helped to establish Samye and ordained the first 9 Buddhist monks in Tibet:

Here, shortly before his death, Śāntarakṣita predicts a controversy between 2 Buddhist groups and instructs that his disciple, Kamalaśīla of Nālanda, should be summoned to resolve the dispute.

Buton Rinchen Drub’s account then closes with a story vilifying Moheyan, in which the Chinese master sends some “Chinese butchers” to murder Kamalaśīla by squeezing his kidneys.

This Tibetan version of events has been complicated by the discovery of a Chinese work titled the Verification of the Greater Vehicle of Sudden Awakening:

The text was unearthed from the caves at Dunhuang, a region once frequented by Moheyan. A translation was first published by Paul Demieville in his 1952 article:

The Chinese work purports to be a word-for-word record of the debate written by Wangxi, a direct disciple of Moheyan. Its version of events differs radically from those of the various Tibetan sources; in this version, Moheyan wins the debate.

This discovery has led some scholars to doubt the very existence of the debate, suggesting that instead it should be viewed as indicative of an on-going controversy through a series of only indirect encounters between Chinese and Indian factions at the Tibetan royal court.

That said, it remains that all available sources agree that a debate of some kind did take place.

It is unclear whether Kamalaśīla knew about the Chinese text when, apparently at the Tibetan king’s request, he composed his 3 famous treatises summarizing the debate’s central themes, each called a Bhāvanākrama (Stages of Meditation):

The Indian and Chinese works address many of the same topics, but part ways on a number of important points:

The Chinese work, for example, gives considerable attention to the doctrine of Tathāgata-garbha (Buddha- nature), while Kamalaśīla does not even mention it.

Similarly, the Chinese work remains silent on a number of issues that are crucial to Kamalaśīla’s argument - the need to develop compassion and the stages of meditation are 2 examples.

Both texts, it seems, reflect their authors’ concerns with developments in their own countries more than with each other. It is unclear whether all 3 of Kamalaśīla’s works were composed in Tibet.

Indeed, the teachings of Moheyan should be understood within the context of 8th century Chinese Chan, itself a milieu of highly charged polemics.

According to other Dunhuang documents, Moheyan belonged to the lineage of the Northern school of Chan:

This school had already come under attack earlier in the 8th century by Heze Shenhui (684-758) of the so-called Southern school, and its lineage continued to be contested from many sides throughout Moheyan’s lifetime.

Such a polarizing environment certainly would have influenced Moheyan, and the fragments of his teachings found at Dunhuang support the common view of him as extreme in his advocacy of immediate Enlightenment.

In addition to its doctrinal ramifications, the Samye Debate certainly had a strong political component. The nature of these more political concerns can be detected in yet another work that discusses the debate:

The Testament of Ba (Testimony of Ba) is an early Tibetan account of the relevant period, purportedly written by a minister to Trisong Detsen:

Several editions of the work exist, and all agree that the Indian side won.

A close reading of the various Testament of Ba editions suggests that a central issue driving the debate may have been the Tibetan court’s adoption of the Indian Buddhist cosmological framework:

This framework, with its “law-like operation of Karma,” may have offered 8th century Tibetans an attractive foundation for political governance. According to this reading, it was the antinomian aspect of the popular Chinese teachings that threatened the new political order.

All such interpretations of the Samye Debate remain, however, just that - interpretations. All we can say for certain is that the debate has served a number of different ends:

In the later Tibetan tradition, the debate was used as evidence for India’s importance as the only authentic source for Buddhist teachings.

The debate also served as a weapon in polemical disputes between opposing Tibetan Buddhist groups. Perhaps the most well-known example of this trend appears in the writings of Sakya Paṇḍita (1182-1251):

There, the author equates the Moheyan side with the Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen by criticizing the “Self-Sufficient White Remedy” doctrine of the Kagyu for being like the “Dzogchen of the Chinese tradition”.

Possible links between Chinese Chan and early Tibetan Dzogchen remain unclear, but the 2 teachings appear to bear some similarities, and these were certainly what caught the attention of later Tibetan polemicists.