Ultimate + Virtue = Ultimate Virtue?
Tibetan Thinkers Debate the Possibility of Virtuous Ultimate Reality

The talk focuses on the inter- and intra-sectarian polemics in the Kagyü and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism regarding what can be described as the “inherently virtuous nature of reality.” While Buddhist thinkers are in agreement that on the most fundamental or ultimate level our nature is pure, what exactly that ultimate nature is—whether it is neutral or virtuous—and what the relationship between it and virtues is are the subjects of continuing debates. I will discuss how conflicting understandings of the ultimate nature by Buddhist thinkers affect their diverse approaches to virtue, and how their understandings of virtue—including the category of “ultimate virtue”—are connected to their diverse approaches to the Buddhist thought and practice.

Tibetan Buddhist thinkers generally adopt one of the two contradictory models of ultimate nature. According to one model, ultimate nature is neutral and/or transcends all notions of virtue and evil. Consequently, it is argued, although we have a potential to develop positive qualities, virtues, etc., we are not good or virtuous at the very core, as far as our ultimate nature is concerned. According to another model, our ultimate nature has positive, virtuous qualities, even though it transcends dualistic concepts of good and evil. Consequently, it is argued that it is good and virtuous, and even more—it is virtue.

A closely related topic, which is also given highly diverse interpretations, is the nature of mind (not necessarily in an ultimate sense). Greatly simplifying, one can point out two different approaches to mind in Buddhism. According to one, mind is a network or series of constantly changing mental events without any subliminal type of consciousness underlying that network. According to the other, there is indeed such subliminal consciousness, which can furthermore be understood as the ultimate nature and also a virtue. The question of the existence of this subliminal level of mind plays an important role in polemics regarding the ultimate virtue.

The ultimate virtue issue, which lies at the intersection of these interwoven elements, is a highly contested issue in Tibet. It is informed by ingenious views on the nature of reality and mind developed by Tibetan thinkers, as well as different Tibetan interpretations of Indian canonical texts. Addressing these diverse views, I will discuss positions of several rival Tibetan thinkers regarding the ultimate virtue. I will start with the position of Wönpo Sherap Jungné (dbon po shes rab ’byung gnas, 1187-1241)—a chief disciple of the seminal Drigung Kagyü (’bri gung bka’ brgyud) thinker Drigung Kyoppa Jikten Gönpo (’bri gung skyobs pa ’jig rten mgon po, 1143-1217)—which is presented as the record of his master’s teachings. I will then outline the refutation of the key elements of that position by the towering figure of the Sakya (sa skya) tradition Sakya Pandita Künga Gyeltsen (sa skya paṇḍita kun dga’ rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251). With those two positions as a background, I will move to the main part of my talk which addresses critical questions regarding Sakya Pandita’s position raised by a controversial Sakya thinker Shakya Chokden (shākya mchog ldan, 1428-1507), and elaborate on his answers to these questions. I characterize his position as an attempt to strike a balance between two rival approaches to the question of whether ultimate reality can be characterized as virtuous—one informed by the other-emptiness (gzhan stong) perspective on ultimate reality and the other by the self-emptiness (rang stong) perspective—without at the same time openly contradicting Sakya Pandita’s position.

Yaroslav Komarovski (Ph.D. Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 2007) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. He specializes in philosophical and contemplative traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. In particular, he conducts research on Tibetan interpretations of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra systems of Buddhist thought, focusing on the writings of a controversial Tibetan thinker Shakya Chokden who articulated a startlingly new reconsideration of the core areas of Buddhist thought and practice. Besides his doctoral training at the University of Virginia, Komarovski extensively studied Buddhism in several Tibetan monastic institutions of higher learning for nine years. His current research interests lie at the intersection of Buddhist thought and contemplative practice and the ways the two mutually influence and affect each other. His publications include books Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Experience and Visions of Unity: The Golden Paṇḍita Shakya Chokden’s New Interpretation of Yogācāra and Madhyamaka.