Jacob Dalton: Dark Age audio

Tibet’s “Dark Age” was perhaps the high point for the ngakpa tradition, and may have important implications for Buddhism’s future. Jacob Dalton has done some of the most interesting research on non-monastic Tantric practice in the Dark Age.

A talk he gave on the subject two years ago is available as a “webcast” (online audio recording/podcast). (Click on the speaker icon on the linked page to listen.)

His title was “Rethinking Tibet’s Dark Age: Demons, Tantras, and the Formation of Tibetan Buddhism.” From the talk description:

Traditional accounts have obscured the more positive aspects of the period. Freed from the watchful eyes of the imperial court and the monastic orthodoxy, Tibetans of the late ninth and tenth centuries were able to make Buddhism their own. The themes, the imagery, and the strategies they developed during these inchoate years formed the cultural foundations upon which Tibetan Buddhism would be built. Only by excavating these foundations and shedding some light on this “dark age” can we gain a clear appreciation of the Tibetan adaptation of Buddhism.

I have found this and other work of Dalton’s exceptionally interesting, for at least three reasons.1

  • He concentrates on the yogic aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.

Ngakpas also concentrate on yogic practices, of course.

  • He thematizes Buddhism’s history of constant innovation, which contrasts with rhetoric that equates authenticity with stasis.

Understanding how dramatically Buddhism has changed in the past makes it easier to imagine Buddhism surviving in a future in which major changes will certainly be required.

The strategies used in the past to legitimize change, to obscure it, and to resist it, are being deployed now, and will also be used in the future. Knowledge of those strategies is necessary for those involved in Buddhism’s on-going adaptations.

  • He sees Tibetan religion as inseparable from Tibetan politics.

Tibet never had a separation of church and state; of religious and secular power. Religious changes were often driven by political, social, and economic changes. It is not possible to fully understand Tibetan Buddhism, as it appears today, without understanding these historical forces.

Exaggerating that understanding could lead one to cynically dismiss the religion altogether; but Dalton is a Longchen Nyingthig practitioner, and shows a deep fascination and reverence for the Nyingma tradition.

  • 1. These points are my impression of his work, not his own characterization.