The Dark Age and Buddhism’s future

Tibet’s “Dark Age,” more than a thousand years ago, may be acutely relevant to the future of Buddhism. History suggests an answer to the question “can Buddhism be successful when monks are scarce or absent?”

Some prominent Western Buddhists argue that the reason Buddhism in the West is “not working” (in their opinion) is that we do not have strong monastic institutions. They suggest that Buddhism has never succeeded anywhere without monks as the core of the religion.

That is almost true—but the Tibetan Dark Age may be a revealing exception.

Dark Age, or Golden Age?

According to traditional Tibetan history, as written since about 1050, the period 842-978 was a “Dark Age.” Buddhism was firmly established in Tibet a century earlier, in the glorious Imperial Period. It was exterminated by the evil anti-Buddhist emperor Lang Darma around 840. The Tibetan Empire collapsed into chaotic civil war after his death in 842. During the subsequent Dark Age, only bad things happened, and they were so bad that hardly any historical records were kept. Buddhism was only re-introduced into Tibet in the “Second Spread" (phyi dar) starting around 978.

A different story is emerging from study of documents written at the time, particularly from the Dunhuang library. These include an enormous number of Tibetan works from the Dark Age, most of which have not been read in a thousand years. Jacob Dalton has been working on them (in part with Sam van Schaik, who writes the very interesting earlyTibet blog).

Based on new evidence, it seems that the so-called “Dark Age” may have been a Golden Age—for non-monastic Vajrayana. What was destroyed in 842 was monastic Buddhism.1 For ngakpas, the Dark Age was splendid: one could practice Tantra free from the narrow-minded moralizing of monastic busybodies and the political imperatives of feudal warlords.

In the absence of these church and state constraints, non-monastic Buddhism flourished. It was, perhaps, Vajrayana’s finest period, with exceptional freedom for innovation. Among other things, some historians believe Dzogchen developed in Tibet in the Dark Age (rather than earlier in Oddiyana, as traditional history has it).

Dalton writes:

It seems that despite the closing of the monasteries Buddhism continued to flourish at the local level. The forms Buddhism took during these years may well have been “corrupt” in the view of later Tibetans, but these same corruptions were fundamental to the formation of the Tibetan Buddhist identity. Freed from the watchful eye of the imperial court and the monastic orthodoxy, Tibetans of the dark period were able to make Buddhism their own. The themes, the imagery, and the strategies Tibetans developed during the inchoate years of the dark age formed the cultural foundations upon which Tibetan Buddhism was built….

Earlier, during the empire, the exoteric [monastic, sutric] traditions enjoyed far greater support, thanks particularly to the patronage of the royal court, while the translation of tantric texts was carefully controlled, if not prohibited. With the collapse of the empire, these controls were lifted, and Tibetans plunged eagerly into the world of Buddhist tantra….

…the Tibetans who emerged from the dark period were far more Buddhist than the Tibetans who entered it.

(“Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 124:4, 2004.)

History is written by the victors

The “Dark Age” ended when Yeshé Öd re-established the Tibetan monarchy. He re-imported monastic institutions from India, gave them control of Buddhism, and banned Tantric practice. Yeshé Öd is considered a great hero in traditional histories (written by the members of the monastic-state establishment); but from the yogic Nyingma tradition’s perspective, his suppressive activity may have been a disaster.

Later history condemned the Dark Age innovations as “inauthentic.” “Authenticity” in Buddhism is always contentious, and a matter of personal religious affinities. “Mainstream” Buddhist traditions are so diverse that it is extremely difficult to speak of “authenticity” in any way that is not purely partisan.2

It appears to be an inconvenient fact that some of the Dark Age innovations, promulgated by ngakpas, became later orthodoxies. After Yeshé Öd’s reforms, it became necessary to pretend that these came instead from India during the Imperial Period. That required rewriting history to suggest that Vajrayana was better established then than it actually was.

It is quite possible that other Dark Age innovations would now be condemned by all Buddhists as deviations. Unfortunately, we still know too little to judge. And, how we regard events in the Dark Age is likely to be influenced by how we view the ngakpa tradition’s subsequent role. Those who view that tradition with suspicion or hostility, even in the present, may be predisposed to be unenthusiastic about Dark Age tantric practice.

Ngakpas and the future of Buddhism

I think it is possible that Buddhism will not survive this century—or will survive it only as an obscure curiosity, not as a vigorous cultural force.

Lay Buddhism has been surprisingly vigorous in the West during the past few decades. Its time may, however, be passing. It is also criticized as superficial—often rightly, in my opinion.

Some Buddhist leaders have argued that the religion can survive only with a core of dedicated, full-time practitioners—which they equate with monks.

However, contemporary global culture is not fertile ground for monastic Buddhism. Monasticism is mostly not taking root in the West, and is declining rapidly in Asia. There seem to be good reasons for this, connected with the rise of the global consumer culture. I am not optimistic about monasticism’s future.

Fortunately, there is a third way: the ngakpa tradition, which is neither lay3 nor monastic. Ngakpas (if they observe their vows) must be as committed as monks. Taking apparently ordinary life as practice, they are 24/7 religious professionals. They may be better equipped to provide spiritual guidance to lay people than are many monks, because they share the same challenges of career and family.

Objective history matters

In terms of inspiration for individual practice, it doesn't matter whether or not there really was a Golden Age, in which tantric heroes did great deeds. The vision of a Golden Age—whether we locate it in the era of the 84 Mahasiddhas, the Imperial Period of Padmasambhava, or in the so-called Dark Age—can be a powerful motivation.

What objectively happened in the Dark Age matters for the future, however. We have to decide what Buddhist institutions to support. Should Westerners devote our money, time, and political energy toward creating Western monasteries? If it is true that Buddhism cannot survive without then, then probably yes.

But the Tibetan "Dark Age" may be a strong counter-example. If Buddhism did better without monasteries, we should support non-monastic institutions instead. Perhaps, freed again from the church-state complex, we are entering the Second Golden Age of Vajrayana.

This is still speculative. Actual facts matter, and remain to be solidly established:

  • Did Buddhism in fact flourish in the Tibetan Dark Age?
  • Was this Buddhism so “corrupt” that we would reject it if we knew the details?
  • Or was this the time when the foundations of the Nyingma tradition developed?
  • Especially, did Dzogchen actually develop in Tibet in the Dark Age, or earlier in India/Oddiyana?
  • How strong or weak were sutric and tantric institutions during the Imperial Period, relative to the Dark Age, really?
  • What effect did the re-establishment of monasticism have on tantric practice in the decades after 978?
  • Why is the ngakpa tradition being revived now both in Kham/Amdo and the West?
  • What influence are contemporary ngakpas and ngakmas having on the lay communities they serve?
  • 1. According to the story of Gongpa Rabsal, the monastic population of Tibet had dwindled to three old men, before he revived it in Amdo with Chinese help. This is probably an exaggeration, but it is clear from complaints written at the time that monastic Buddhism did collapse, and was less influential than Tantra.
  • 2. Consider Sri Lankan neotraditionalism, Nichiren, and the Nyingma yogic lineages; what do these share besides their prehistory?
  • 3. Ngakpas are often described as “lay.” This is both demeaning and plainly false. “Lay” means non-professional, or not a member of the clergy.