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  • The Gathering of Intentions: A History of a Tibetan Tantra by Jacob P. Dalton
  • Ronald M. Davidson
The Gathering of Intentions: A History of a Tibetan Tantra by Jacob P. Dalton. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. xxiii + 246. $60.00 cloth, $59.99 e-book.

Jacob Dalton composes an extremely engaging, perspicacious, and elegantly written book on the history of the production and development of a Tibetan text, the Dgongs pa 'dus pa'i mdo, which he translates as The Gathering of Intentions (hereafter The Gathering). Many scholars in Tibetan studies have assiduously avoided this text, since it is extremely lengthy, ritually complicated, and highly anomalous. It is classed not with the Treasure (Gter ma) literature, which has gained much recent attention, but instead with the Spoken Teachings (Bka' ma) literature. The latter is said to have been passed down through the Nyingma order, and to a lesser extent the Sakya order, since the time of the Pugyel dynasty (ca. 618–846 ce). Rolf Stein was the first to seriously engage the mythology of The Gathering, but his discussion was [End Page 306] brief and principally concerned with issues of diffusion rather than development (p. 5).

Dalton's key argument is that The Gathering is the most basic scriptural source of the Nyingma tradition's fundamental schematism: it explains the nine vehicles and the way they should be pursued. While there are other potential sources for these ideas—such as those identified in the Dunhuang manuscripts that Dalton knows so well (p. 185n4)—it is the Dgongs pa 'dus pa'i mdo that exhibits the voice of the Buddha and provides a ritual program, which were both requirements for institutionalization in the emerging Nyingma enclaves. The Nyingma lineages, textual categories, ritual systems, contemplative practices, monastic affiliations, and various other enterprises that extend from textual, ritual, and contemplative identity are all framed in the categories constructed within and in relation to The Gathering. Yet Dalton also acknowledges that the importance of this text is not generally recognized in the tradition per se, because it universalizes that schematic arrangement in a manner that occludes the source. He asks,

The Gathering of Intentions' King Dza and Rudra-taming myths and its nine vehicles had become so basic to the Nyingma School that they were now seen as primordial principles that had always structured the Buddhist Teachings. How could concepts so fundamental to the very structure of the eternal dharma have come from just one text?

(p. 67)

Dalton constructs his introduction to the text as a journey of personal intellectual discovery. His pursuit of understanding the tantra was facilitated by his developing relationship with lamas of the Nyingma order both in South India and in Tibet, although, as is almost invariably the case, he incurred significant Tibetan displeasure for his interest in these texts. He was also blessed by good timing; just when Dalton's research into The Gathering was gaining momentum, great collections of the Bka' ma material were being published and found their way out of Tibet into the hands of American scholars, especially E. Gene Smith (the great doyen and facilitator of Tibetan studies in the United States and founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Centre, now the Buddhist Digital Resource Center) and David Germano (at the University of Virginia).

Dalton's assiduous requests for instruction in the text had unintended benefits for Tibetan communities as well. Penor Rinpoche [End Page 307] (1932–2009), the head of the Nyingma order, was eventually moved to provide a great public initiation in the Bka' ma material, in part in response to Dalton's multiple requests, thus allowing many people access to these teachings. This interaction is in many ways a model of how scholarly interest in minority traditions may serendipitously have positive benefits for both the scholarly community and the source community. This book is the result of Dalton's pursuit of understanding and his ability to engage that source community in an agreeable manner.

The book is divided into a short introduction, seven chapters, and an appendix. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the mythology related to the revelation and translation of The Gathering. Dalton delves into...


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