How Tibetan Buddhist monastic education began…

Śāntarakṣita was one of the most influential figures in the early dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet, founding the first Buddhist monastery at Samyé (bsam yas), serving as its first abbot, ordaining the first seven Tibetan monks, and establishing a system of rigorous philosophical study based upon the traditions of learning at the great Indian Buddhist monastic universities such as Nalanda and Vikramaśīla. In effect, Śāntarakṣita (and later, his disciple Kamalaśīla) taught Tibetans how to do philosophy. He introduced Tibetans to a plethora of Indian philosophical views, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, and taught them how to study, critically analyze, and meditate upon these ideas. Several important qualities of Śāntarakṣita’s thought that were unique to him in India, became a fully integrated modus operandi of philosophy in Tibet including his dynamic engagement with competing philosophical views and his integration of Madhyamaka and logico-epistemological thought. As such his influence impacted the spectrum of Tibetan philosophical literature, from the earliest philosophical doxographies such as Yeshe De’s (ca. 8th c.) Distinguishing the Views (lta ba khyad par) to the commentaries and treatises of towering indigenous Tibetan philosophers such as Chaba Chökyi Senge (phwya pa chos kyi seng ge) (1109–1169), Sakya Pandita (sa skya paṇḍita) (1182–1251), Tsongkhapa (tsong kha pa) (1357–1419) and Mipham Gyatso (mi pham rgya mtsho) (1846–1912).

Śāntarakṣita (725–788) was one of the most important and pivotal thinkers in the history of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. His contributions to Buddhist thought were particularly noteworthy due to his historical position as one of the later Indian interpreters of the Madhyamaka thought of Nāgārjuna (ca. 1st–2nd c.). This was an historical position which allowed him to consider many important developments (both inside and outside the Madhyamaka tradition) that preceded him.

The central claim of the Madhyamaka School is that all phenomena are empty (śūnya) of any intrinsic nature, unchanging essence, or absolute mode of being. This was the central idea in Śāntarakṣita’s thought as well, however, he was a commentator on both Nāgārjuna and Dharmakīrti in equal measure. In fact, Śāntarakṣita attempted to integrate the anti-essentialism of Nāgārjuna with the logico-epistemological thought of Dignāga (ca. 6th c.) and Dharmakīrti (ca. 7th c.) along with facets of Yogācāra/Cittamātra thought into one internally consistent, yet fundamentally Madhyamaka system. His innovative integration of facets of the three into a Madhyamaka framework of analysis are exemplary of the unique fruits which benefit from his historical local. The synthesis of these three major movements in Indian Buddhist philosophy was perhaps his most important contribution, among many, to the Indian Buddhist philosophical tradition. This synthesis, which was also taken up by his disciples (important philosophers in their own right) such as Kamalaśīla and to a lesser extent, Haribhadra, has been characterized as the last major development in Indian Buddhist philosophy. Śāntarakṣita was a dynamic thinker and a scholar with both breadth and depth of knowledge of the Indian philosophical traditions. He encouraged his readers to actively engage with a host of non-Buddhist and Buddhist philosophical positions as they ascended a sort of hierarchy of philosophical views, a hierarchy that—in his opinion—culminates in the Madhyamaka view.