Research methodology in Tibetan Buddhist studies: The Indo-Tibetan mandala as a conceptual framework and interpretive philosophy

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The realm of Buddhist studies has expanded from textual analysis to include a wide array of other fields. The discipline also embraces a heterogeneity of researchers. Qualitative in nature, methodology explores the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of phenomena deemed ‘Buddhist’. In this paper, I explore an approach to research methodology in Tibetan Buddhist studies based on the philosophical underpinnings of the Vajrayāna path. I demonstrate how the organisational and philosophical framework of the Indo-Tibetan maṇḍala enhances studies of Tibetan Buddhist phenomena. As an example of this approach, I apply maṇḍalic theory to the exposition of Tibetan scripture. This presentation suggests that the maṇḍala as structure and philosophy supports the objectivity of the researcher, fosters phenomenological interpretation from the perspective of the researched and preserves the integrity of scholarly investigations in Tibetan Buddhist studies.


Along with the globalisation of Buddhist thought, the realm of Buddhist studies continues to widen its scope. No longer confined to scriptural analysis as a measure of academic credibility, Buddhist studies also encompasses fields such as anthropology, psychology, medicine and art. Each discipline adopts investigative strategies appropriate to its objectives. Qualitative in nature, the overall paradigm seeks to answer the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the matter.

In this paper I explore research in Buddhist studies, with specific emphasis on a ‘Buddhist’ approach. For example, if anthropologists rely on a set of philosophical paradigms and methodological frameworks intended for the study of human cultures, then what would be the nature of a Buddhist study of phenomena characterised as Buddhist? Could such an approach be applied to any aspect of this type of study? Is there a way to apply the Buddhist worldview to the interpretation of Buddhist experience and still maintain scholarly integrity?

These are complex questions. I maintain that the scholarly exploration of a phenomenon is well-served by an investigative approach based on the underlying philosophical paradigm of that same phenomenon as a means to express the viewpoint of the researched. I therefore explore a Buddhist approach to methodology based on Buddhist theory that could apply to the investigation of a phenomenon deemed Buddhist. Buddhist thought is nuanced across its many traditions. My approach assumes the Tibetan Buddhist worldview, also understood as the Vajrayāna path, which, because of its soteriological objective, is included within the Mahāyāna path.

I first define the basic philosophical underpinnings I include from the Vajrayāna as they relate to this discussion. An important part of the Tibetan Buddhist narrative is its reliance on the dynamics of the Indo-Tibetan maṇḍala as an organising principle in the tantric soteriological path. I then illustrate how I implemented a maṇḍalic approach in the exposition of a particular type of Tibetan scripture known as a Treasure text, or terma. At first glance, the terma with which I was working seemed like a conglomeration of unrelated topics. In a thematic organisation corresponding to the maṇḍalic levels of outer, inner, innermost and secret, a certain ‘logic in the madness’ revealed itself. The composer of the terma demonstrated intuitive skill in presenting the organised chaos inherent to the journey to Buddhahood. The maṇḍala methodology accentuated this creativity and the message from a Vajrayāna perspective. I conclude with a brief discussion of how the maṇḍala approach is applicable to other areas of Buddhist Studies.

1. The nature of a Buddhist study of a Buddhist phenomenon

Fernando (2008: 1) points out, ‘the plurality of methodology has arisen because of the diversity of matter – phenomena or relationships – that we investigate. The diversity may require different methods to be used on the same thing or a particular method selected depending on the nature of the matter that we investigate.’ In qualitative research, this paradigm encompasses an ontology and epistemology appropriate to the study. For the investigation of an entirely Buddhist phenomenon, I propose a methodological perspective based on the Buddhist worldview. In this instance I condense this paradigm to that of the Vajrayāna.

Tibetan Buddhist ontology is founded on the theory of the Two Truths. ‘Reality’ is understood as ‘extant phenomena’, and is divided into impermanent and permanent phenomena. The distinction between these two forms has to do with momentary change. The first of the Two Truths addresses impermanent phenomena, which are said to arise from causes and conditions, are affected by other phenomena, change from moment to moment and produce results. The second truth addresses static phenomena, or ‘ultimate truths’, which function differently in that they do not arise from causes and conditions, are not affected by other phenomena, do not change from moment to moment and produce no effects (Berzin 2001: 1). Ultimate truth is in effect śūnyatā, which is the lack of any inherent existence in impermanent phenomena. All phenomena fall into one of these two categories (Tashi and McDougall 2001: 47). The Two Truths constitute the duality of all knowable phenomena.

Buddhist epistemology is based on descriptions of the mind and its functions. This ‘theory of mind’ describes the knowing power of the mind, its composition and processes of apprehension. The mind is an entity whose nature is that of experience. It is a non-material knowing agent with coarse and subtle characteristics. Cognitive events can ‘know’ because of the fundamental clarity underlying them. In Tibetan Buddhism, this is also known as the ‘clear light nature of mind’ (Gyatso, Goleman and Thurman 1991: 21).

One may logically understand that impermanent or compounded phenomena do not exist as a single, unchanging unit; however, it is ignorance or more precisely, the inability to experientially recognise this characteristic that distorts human perception (Tashi and McDougall 2001: 47). The result of adjusting perception towards an accurate understanding of all knowable phenomena is omniscience, also known as the complete enlightenment of a samyaksambuddha.

2. Mandalic theory

The implications of a Tibetan Buddhist ontology and epistemology become particularly evident in the transformative capacity of the Indo-Tibetan maṇḍala. The maṇḍala represented an organising principle in ancient India and Tibet, and remains an interpretive tool of the Buddhist soteriological path (Raghu and Lokesh 1995: 9; Simmer-Brown 2001: 117). In Indo- Tibetan iconography, the maṇḍala is usually portrayed as a sphere enclosing increasingly concentrated versions of circles and squares.

As Huber (1999: 26) states, the maṇḍala is one of the most important Indo-Tibetan organising principles. As a tantric Buddhist icon, the maṇḍala represents the realm of a particular deity who serves as the focus of a certain set of practices, with the featured tantric personality situated at the very centre of the design.

The maṇḍala also provides the practitioner an overview and guide to mental transformation, proceeding from the coarsest mode of subjective experience to the subtlest view of emptiness. The outermost elements symbolise manifest objects of awareness. Progressing through the stages of outer, inner and innermost, the practitioner ultimately arrives at the most profound, secret level. The maṇḍala’s basic principle is that ‘reality’ has its own structure different from the ordinary, unenlightened mind’s vision thereof. This reality is not something fixed or unchanging; rather it exists as spontaneous fluidity, with the central deity representing the state of awakening towards which one is striving. The surrounding retinue symbolises concepts relevant to the meditator’s worldview as well as strategies to adjust awareness of the pervasive transience of phenomena. The centre and its environs are considered interdependent and therefore empty of any inherent existence. The practitioner recognises that all facets of perception and existence are in fact intricately interconnected (Simmer-Brown 2001: 119). In this way, the maṇḍala functions as an interdependent totality so that physical surroundings, practices and perception become part of the entire experience of the enlightenment journey.

3. A mandalic exposition of Tibetan scripture

Tweed (2011: 21) subsumes his definition of religion to the analogy of ‘a flowing together of currents’. The structure and theory behind maṇḍala accentuates the currents of impermanence and interdependence, solidity and fluidity, the density of ignorance and the expansiveness of realisation. I apply this method to the organisation and exposition of a Tibetan Buddhist text entitled Self-liberation upon hearing: A guidebook to the joyful Pemakö (Dorjé c. 1615-1672).

Self-liberation upon hearing is a Tibetan Buddhist Treasure text, or terma. In the Tibetan Buddhist narrative, terma are teachings first composed by the Indian guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century. These texts were then ‘hidden’ in the natural environment or in the minds of his contemporaries, and in accordance with his predictions, revealed hundreds of years later by future adepts. The said purpose of this entire process was to provide direct guidance to practitioners in subsequent degenerate times.

Hundreds of terma have been ‘discovered’ over the years. The first Treasure revealer, or tertön, was Sangye Lama, who is thought to have lived at some point between 990 and 1070 C.E. (Dudjom and Gyurme 1991: 751). Self-liberation upon hearing was revealed by the tertön Rigdzin Düdül Dorjé (1615–1672), believed to be the rebirth of Drokben Khyeuchung Lotsawa (750–?), one of the twenty-five original disciples of Padmasambhava (Mandelbaum 2007: 1). Structurally, the text commences with the traditional introductory homage to primordial Buddhist figures and a ‘promise to explain’. In the colophon, after ‘sealing’ the revelation by dedicating his efforts to the happiness of all sentient beings, Düdül Dorjé divulges his name as the revealer. The main body of Selfliberation upon hearing then introduces a wide variety of seemingly arbitrary discussions about the Pemakö rendering it quite difficult to extract any meaning from the text. I therefore organised the contents thematically in accordance with a maṇḍalic structure. Tangible objects of perception in the Pemakö were classified as outer; inner and innermost levels related to less easily perceived objects and events, and designation as secret pertained to phenomena in the text that were so subtle as to be unknowable by an ‘ordinary’ mind.

In the outer category, I included textual depictions of the Pemakö’s geographical layout; it was portrayed as a lotus flower. The text indicated regions surrounding its outstretched petals, the land areas that its petals represent and the innermost geography of its core. Self-liberation upon hearing also emphasised the region’s dramatic topography, particularly the mountains. Traditionally, mountains act as focal points of pilgrimage and represent the abode of a deity, known as a né. The text also describes the region’s plant life for its qualities that may accelerate the quest for enlightenment, or at the very least sustain one with its bounty.

The terma mentions esoteric beings that inhabit the region. Because of their subtle form and religious symbolism, I categorised these as ‘inner’ phenomena. Himalayan Buddhist cultures identify geographical locations with different types of otherworldly creatures (Allison 2009: 169). The Tibetan categorisation of these entities roughly corresponds to dwellers located above, at the level of and below the earth (Diemberger 1998: 108). In Self-liberation upon hearing, the Pemakö is deemed an extraordinary location because of the benevolent power of many of the resident deities, and the menace of those deities with destructive intentions (Thinley and Dudjoms 2006: 275). Most importantly is the mention of the ḍākinī. Often at the centre of maṇḍala structures as a representation of a Buddha’s wisdom, she symbolises the final goal of tantric practice (261). She also embodies the tantric practitioner’s inner wisdom. A yogi’s encounter with the ḍākinī is the experience of the ultimate nature of the mind, as well as the means through which that nature is realised (Simmer-Brown 2001: 42).

The philosophical purpose of the maṇḍalic framework is to guide a practitioner through the stages on the path to enlightenment, which includes specific meditative processes. I qualify the innermost level of the terma to be its descriptions of Buddhist practice. There are various mentions of Buddhist training in Self-liberation upon hearing. When pristine cognition is understood to be the highest tenet, the text describes the methods to realise this as thekchöd, or Cutting Through, and thögäl, Direct Crossing Over. The objective of thekchöd is to see through the false appearances generated by the deluded aspect of mind in order to perceive its primordially pure aspect. In thögäl, meditative exploration facilitates the understanding of spontaneous self-perfection of all phenomena. (Powers 2007: 386–387).

Finally, the most secret and subtle aspects of Selfliberation upon hearing are its reference to the resultant characteristics of liberation. In the tantric tradition, there are three phases of meditative training which reinforce each other: the ‘basis’, which is the correct view, is the understanding that all compounded phenomena lack an inherent existence. The second phase is called ‘path’, where the practitioner focuses on cultivation of the unity of compassion and wisdom. The last phase is ‘fruition’, which is the result of this cultivation and the goal of meditative practice. According to Self-liberation upon hearing, this is possible even through mere association with the Pemakö. It is said that the basic, infinite nature of mind is that which is pure, clear and knowing; any experience is like an ocean ripple on its surface. Defilements or afflictions are adventitious, and can therefore be removed through cultivation of the path. At the final level of practice, as reflected in thekchöd and thögäl, the meditator experientially understands that all phenomena are simply emanations of mind (Powers 2007: 291).

The text ties this essence neatly to its innermost, inner and outer elements in reliance on maṇḍalic theory, interdependence, impermanence and emptiness. Practitioners transform ordinary topographical features into the sacred geography of the maṇḍala, which is actually a transformation of both perception and landscape. Perception is a purely subjective experience whereby the landscape itself is seen to reveal this inner essence. By doing so, the relationship between the practitioner’s inner microcosm and the outer macrocosm becomes evident. The environment and all that inhabits it are regarded as pure, along with the mental continuum that perceives them. All have always been and remain in a state of awakening and pristine awareness (Kongtrul 2005: 319). Presented as a maṇḍala, the exposition of Self-liberation upon hearing reflects the essence of Tibetan Buddhist sacred geography and their spiritual purpose as a physical depiction of the salvation process.

4. Implications of a mandalic approach to the study of Tibetan Buddhist phenomena

Cabezón (1995: 254) reminds Buddhist scholars that ‘true research . . . is creative’. I propose that the means to express this creativity should also be practical. Accordingly, I have presented the Indo-Tibetan maṇḍala as a means to organise and interpret the dynamics of a Tibetan Buddhist phenomenon. As an organisational framework, it acts as a heuristic device for the variety of themes a scholar may encounter in a single study. As a philosophical paradigm, maṇḍalic theory illustrates the progressive stages of the tantric enlightenment process.

In Tibetan Buddhist studies, this approach is useful because of its portrayal of the researched phenomenon, or object of observation, from the viewpoint of the researched whilst integrating scholarly rigour. For example, from the Vajrayāna perspective, tantric theory is embedded within any Tibetan Buddhist artistic creation. A depiction of a wrathful deity, such as Hayagrīva, is more than an expression of design, method or material. A Tibetan Buddhist painting reflects the culture, society and history that gave rise to the idea being replicated on the canvas. What differentiates the depiction of Hayagrīva from its non-Buddhist or Buddhist counterparts is the philosophical, ritualistic and soteriological symbolism. It is a manifestation of many complex ideas, which to the initial observer unfamiliar with the theory behind this deity, can be confusing. Using a maṇḍala approach that progressively differentiates the overt from the discrete, it is possible to present a complex depiction of tantric theory in a conventionally logical manner.

This offers the scholar in Tibetan Buddhist studies an avenue through which to form hypotheses about the object of research, organise the approach to its analysis according to Tibetan Buddhist theory, iteratively establish working theories against the background of research findings, interpret these through the Tibetan Buddhist paradigm and then present these findings in a manner that honours the viewpoint of the ideas that the phenomenon represents.

I also maintain, however, that maṇḍalic theory as I have defined in this paper, is flexible enough to be applied to studies in other Buddhist traditions. Each path has as its soteriological aim the arrival at, revelation or experience of the innate nature of mind. This process is substantiated by the mechanism of cause and effect, dependent arising, impermanence, interdependence and śūnyatā. The maṇḍalic format can act as a means to explore and analyse Buddhist ritual, artistry, meditation, social interaction and language. It offers the researcher a technique through which to articulate a deeper understanding of the subtle connections between Buddhist theory, practice and realisation.


The maṇḍala principle represents a type of orderly chaos: it is orderly, because it comes in a pattern; it is chaos, because it is confusing to work with that particular pattern (Trungpa and Chödzin 1991: 15). This circular ‘reality’ illustrates objectivity and connectivity between the central and circumambient elements; it functions as a visual synopsis of their interdependence as a totality in relation to their most secret essence of emptiness.

A maṇḍalic approach also supports academic integrity by promoting objectivity, employing the theory behind the object of research and integrating its perspective. Similar to the realm of Buddhist studies, there are so many different aspects to consider within any type of maṇḍalic organisation – be it internal or external to a person – harmonisation with that scenario is potentially a bewildering undertaking. I therefore maintain that the maṇḍala as organisational framework and interpretive philosophy is also applicable to other traditions of Buddhism.

A maṇḍala for the exposition of the Tibetan Buddhist Treasure Text Self-liberation upon hearing: A guidebook to the joyful Pemakö



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