Soteriology of the Senses in Tibetan Buddhism

In: Numen
Holly GayleyHarvard University, The Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, 1 Bow Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA;, Email:

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In Tibet, certain categories of Buddhist sacra are ascribed the power to liberate through sensory contact. No less than “buddhahood without meditation” is promised, offering an expedient means to salvation that seemingly obviates the need for a rigorous regime of ethical, contemplative, and intellectual training. This article investigates two such categories of sacra, substances that “liberate through tasting” and images that “liberate through seeing” as found in a mode of revelation particular to Tibet and culturally related areas, in which scriptures and sacred objects are reportedly embedded in the landscape as terma or “treasures” (gter ma). The author argues that charisma invested in these substances and images — through an amalgamation of relics and special means of consecration — provides the grounds for the soteriological benefits claimed as a result of sensory contact with them. The question is whether these benefits suggest a notion of grace in Tibetan Buddhism, and if so how it might contravene without contradicting the law of karma. Exploring this question sheds light on the role of the senses and the nature of Buddhist soteriology as it developed in Tibet.

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