Reading Mahāyāna Scriptures Conference, Sept 25-26, 2021
Dr. Berthe Jansen
Junior Professor of Tibetan Studies, Institute for South and Central Asian Studies, Leipzig University
‘The Role of Indic Mahāyāna Scriptures in Tibetan Legal Texts’
The famous Tibetan Gesar epic claims that the Dharma originated in India while law came to Tibet from China. This paper, however, looks at the Indian scriptural heritage contained within Tibetan legal works. More precisely, this paper intends to consider the role that Mahāyāna scriptures and narratives of Indic origins play in Tibetan legal texts composed between the 14th and the 18th century. While some scholars have claimed that certain Tibetan foundational legal works were heavily based upon Arthaśāstra materials, others downplay the impact of Indic texts upon this genre.
In this discussion, I will point out how and why certain translated Indian scriptures are used in a legal context. I will highlight some “usual suspects”, such as Nagārjuna’s Ratnāvalī and the Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtra, that justify the “secular” ruler’s right to execute the law will be discussed, but also other less obvious “sūtra” quotations and paraphrases – only some of which are traceable to actual extant texts. I will furthermore present some of the Indian Buddhist narratives that feature in these legal works – an important one being the Jātaka story of Adarśamukha, whose legal decisions have been viewed by Tibetans to be foundational to their laws. In this context, it is also important to consider the intended audience of these legal works: Tibetan Buddhist legal practitioners who were educated, but not necessarily widely versed in the scriptures. In this way, we can assess the “afterlife” of Indic Mahāyāna works within the Tibetan legal sphere: their usage in the semi-secular context of Tibetan jurisdiction and more generally the influence of Indic literature and thought on Tibetan legal works. In this paper, I will furthermore hypothesize that the influence of Arthaśāstra-like materials on Tibetan law is both bigger and subtler than previously thought.