On Literary Composition

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Ngawang Tendar

Alasha Ngawang Tendar

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On Literary Composition

by Alasha Ngawang Tendar

This presentation of literary composition has three sections:

I. The qualities of the author
II. The classifications of literary treatises
III. The process of composing treatises

I. The Qualities of the Author

Let us inquire into what qualities are required of a treatise’s author. It is commonly stated that if one understands grammar one will not be confused by semantics; if one understands synonymics[1] one will not be confused by terminology; if one understands poetry one will not be confused by poetic ornaments; if one understands composition one will not be confused by meter; and if one understands dramaturgy one will not be confused by language.

It is in this sense that grammar and composition are elements necessary for the composition of Chinese treatises and, while poetry and synonymics are not absolutely indispensable for Tibetan treatises, their presence only serves to enhance a given treatise. Whether one is composing a treatise in Chinese, Tibetan, or Mongolian, it is unacceptable to lack mastery in that given language, whether spoken or written. With Tibetan in particular, as a foundation one should be educated in old and new orthographies, the formulae for applying gender signs, and the practice of penmanship. On top of this, one should either be a specialist in the terminology and key topics related to the subject matter on which one is to compose, have acquired the favor of the deity, or possess the pith instructions of the lineage gurus. As an alternative, the Teaching of the Three Jewels[2] states:

Intellect that dissects the subtlest of logical reasonings,
Practice in which the scriptural tradition dawns as instructions,
And the splendor of speech skilled in the ways of arranging words—
These are the three precious jewels to be found in this world.

Any one of these three qualities is sufficient in itself. However, unless the author’s motivation is pure, they will bring little benefit to others. It is therefore important to embody wholesome intentions. The Summary of Yogācāra Bhūmis[3] describes how one ought to possess the six causal motivations for composing treatises and the four qualities of an author which are, indeed, fundamental:

The Six Causal Motivations for Composing Treatises
  1. Intending that the message of the Dharma spread far and wide
  2. Intending that it bring benefit to some individuals, given the manifold dispositions and interests of beings
  3. Intending to arrange particular topics into categories
  4. Intending to organize scattered topics
  5. Intending to clarify profound topics
  6. Intending to inspire beauty through beautiful words
The Four Qualities of an Author
  1. Humility in not thinking such things as, “If others, who are equally or less qualified than I am, can compose treatises then why shouldn’t I?”
  2. Compassion in desiring that the confusion of beings on certain topics be dispelled
  3. Kindness in desiring that beings come to easily understand particular topics
  4. Not calling attention to oneself thinking, “How great would it be if others considered me a learned scholar”

In short, one should compose treatises with humility, compassionately desiring to dispel the suffering of others, kindly desiring to benefit others, and in order to generate roots of virtue for both oneself and others.

II. The Classifications of Literary Treatises

Literary treatises are classified in the following manner.

In terms of function:

a) Summarizing the vast, as in the case of the Ornament of the Sūtras[4]
b) Unraveling the profound, as in the case of the Ornament of Realization[5]
c) Ordering the disordered, as in the case of the Compendium of Instructions[6]

In terms of subject matter, there are two kinds, based on which of the two truths a treatise reveals.

In terms of topics of exposition:

a) Commentaries on buddhavacana in general
b) Commentaries on particular buddhavacana

The first is divided into the uncommon and the common.

There are also treatises that put an end to mistaken ideas and those that offer guidance to others. As for the first, there are those that focus on form and those that focus on content. Those that focus on form include:

  • Primarily grammatical works that take straightforward nature, condition, and rasa as their subject matter, such as the Grammar of Kalapa[7] and Grammar of Chandra[8]
  • Branching off from those are treatises on composition which present metrical weight and prastāra,[9] such as Candoratnākara[10]
  • Treatises on synonymics which present synonyms, the classifications of the three genders, the application of and homophones such as the Treasury of Immortality[11]
  • Treatises on poetry which focus on the three ornaments—the ornaments of sense, of which there are thirty-five in total, and phonetic ornaments; the poetic challenges; and word ornaments like riddles—according to the divergent positions of the masters of the eastern and southern schools, such as The Mirror of Poetry[12]
  • Treatises on dramaturgy which apply the above to language, such as The Joy of the Nāgas[13] and The Joy of the World[14]

For those that focus on content there are treatises on the science of logic such as the Discourse on Valid Cognition[15] among others.

Treatises that offer guidance to others include treatises on craftsmanship and medicine. The first concerns both the treatises that cover mundane topics such as alchemy and the compounding of incense as well as those that cover extraordinary topics such as the representations of enlightened body, speech, and mind. Treatises on medicine concern four branches, namely: the nature of diseases, the causes of illness, their medical antidotes, and the practice of medical treatment. There are, alternatively, the following eight branches described in medical works:

General medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, upper body illnesses,
Surgery, toxicology, rejuvenation, and fertility.

Treatises on secular ethics are not to be disregarded as they can become a method for the attainment of liberation, as long as one knows how to practice them accordingly. A Hundred Wisdoms states:[16]

If one practices the ethics of men,
The path to the god realm is not far off.
If one climbs the stairways to the realms
Of gods and men, liberation is within reach.

The validity of the words of the Victorious Buddha is established in dependence on valid commentarial treatises. Thus, the cryptic and obscure words and meanings in earlier root scriptures are explained in the word commentaries, overviews, in-depth analyses, and notes of later commentators, who do not allow themselves to be tainted by innovation but instead draw exclusively upon evidence from reliable sources.

III. The Process of Composing Treatises

The process of composing treatises has three sections:

  1. The preliminaries to the composition of a treatise
  2. The actual manner of composition
  3. The benefits of composing treatises

1. The Preliminaries to the Composition of a Treatise

The Mirror of Poetry states:

The utterance of auspiciousness, homage,
And the presentation of the topic are the gateway to the treatise.

At the outset of composing a treatise, one opens with words invoking auspiciousness before then introducing the composition by means of an opening homage, the presentation of the topic, and other such elements that offer a synopsis of its main body. This tradition is said to be shared by both non-Buddhists and Buddhists alike. Yet, in addition to this, the dedication of virtue at the end is a unique feature of Buddhist authors. The Praise of the Exalted One[17] states:

The dedication of collections of virtue
To the entirety of sentient beings
As was taught by you, the Blessed One,
Was not taught in the treatises of others.

The purpose of the utterance of auspiciousness is to invoke the siddhis for oneself while the purpose of the homage is to prevent the arising of obstacles. There are two objects of the homage—one pays homage to the Buddha, the principal teacher of the Dharma, out of trust in the Dharma and to the masters, who teach the meaning of the Dharma, out of trust in its meaning. This is accordance with the Collected Topics,[18] which teaches that one should offer homage first to Śākyamuni Buddha and then to the direct and indirect masters following him.

There are also instances in which the opening homage is not made. For instance, the Illumination of Thought: An Extensive Explanation of the “Treatise on the Middle”[19] notes that A Letter to a Friend[20] lacks an opening homage yet does contain a pledge to compose. There are many other such examples. The arrangements of the homage likewise do not necessarily accord with what was just explained. This is the case in many instances in the writings of the Precious Lord Tsongkhapa where he first pays homage to his chosen meditation deity. Moreover, it is also logical to pay homage, before everything else, to the guru from whom one received the kindness of Dharma. This is acceptable, as the Vinaya-vastu states:[21]

You should first pay homage
Like a brahmin to the waxing moon
To whomever you learned the Dharma from,
No matter whether they be old or young.

Well then, you might wonder, is the Vinaya-vastu with its context of ordained monks in contradiction with the Sūtra of One Hundred Karmas[22] which instructs that one should first pay homage to the Buddha and then to the masters that follow him? No, there is no contradiction here, because, as the great Tsonawa[23] has stated, this is an exceptional case.

The Staff of Wisdom[24] furthermore states:

Sublime beings do not make many commitments.
Yet if they commit themselves to something difficult
Then, as if the pledge were carved in stone,
Even in the face of death, they will not fail.

Accordingly, the purpose of the pledge to compose is to ensure that the composition reaches completion. Even making a pledge to compose which conveys a sense of humility has a purpose, insofar as it shows the author to be someone extraordinary. There is also the tradition of inciting suitable vessels to listen, the purpose of which is for the author to give guidance with love and make evident the importance of the treatise.

2. The Actual Manner of Composition

The actual manner of composition has two subsections:

a) The qualities of superior compositions
b) The shortcomings of inferior compositions

The qualities of superior compositions

It is important for the author to apprehend the general outline of the given work to be composed and subtly ornament it with quotes from other works. The quotes should be arranged together in order, and authors should conduct their analysis based on scripture and reasoning, and prevent their work from being tainted by contradictions and errors.

The most outstanding writings on profound topics have the following qualities:

  • The content that comprises the subject matter is solid yet easily understood
  • The words that comprise the form are ornamented with poetry
  • The syntax is ordered and pleasantly formulated
  • The metered lines are well-composed and evoke poetry or, in the case of essays, are easily understood
  • The word choices are ornamented with synonyms and are inspiring
  • There is no repetition and later statements serve to establish the points made in earlier ones
  • The phrase et cetera is avoided when it does not summarize anything

Such writing is a gift to delight the wise.

The shortcomings of inferior compositions

The shortcomings of inferior compositions include a difficulty in distinguishing one’s own position from that of others, as in the case of the Golden Hued Victory Banner: A Liturgy for the Vinaya,[25] and an outline with far too many subdivisions, unlike in the cases of Bindu of Reasoning[26] and Illuminating the Intent of the Victorious Ones.[27] It is possible that composing topical outlines as per the Tibetan style where “one has two subdivisions, two has three subdivisions, and three has four subdivisions” and so forth will not be helpful to beginners but only serve to confuse them. Chinese texts present as much of a topical outline as necessary once at the beginning of the treatise and then expound upon that in the main body of the commentary, without mixing up the order. It would not be so bad if we were to do the same.

There are still other faults such as failing to use a shad punctuation mark to set apart certain words, using only obscure synonyms and riddles, translating into Tibetan place names and personal names that are known only in certain places or time periods, and the writing of Chinese words in Tibetan. The collected works of Situ Paṇchen of Dege, for instance, include the names of several Chinese medicines written directly in Tibetan. No matter whether you showed these to Chinese or Tibetans, there would be no one these days who could understand. Thus, while it might be great medicine, it will not be able to heal anyone.

Furthermore, for authors of treatises to fail to state their names clearly in the colophon or to conceal their real names and use other, less familiar names is one of the greatest faults. Some treatises might appear to contain sage advice but become suspect on account of the author’s name being unclear. This is also why scholars are unable to cite them as scriptural sources.

Having done away with these faults, authors should clearly state their name, clan, and location; ground themselves in the new and old orthographies that are common to all of Tibet; and write in a style that does not contradict either the Thirty Verses or Application of Gender Signs.

3. The Benefits of Composing Treatises

The benefits of composing treatises include the fact that your life will be spent working for the Buddhist doctrine. In addition, your writings will delight and support scholars and become a delightful offering, the most supreme of gifts, for all the good-natured people who encounter them. In the works of master Daṇḍin, we find:

The kings of the past may have possessed striking physique,
Yet I have attained the mirror-like nature of speech.
While neither of us at present remain any longer,
Observe how it is I who has not faded into obscurity.

Even after you have passed away, your praiseworthy qualities and reputation for kindness will remain. Your eminence as a scholar will therefore not fade on account of everyone proclaiming and discussing [your writings] to no end. The sūtras include the following statement:

Even if all buddha were to assiduously
Describe for millions and billions of eons
The merit of upholding the Dharma,
They would still not exhaust its qualities.

As this says, the power derived from the immeasurable merit of upholding the Dharma will lead one to become a great Dharma king who, in the future, will be seated upon a mighty throne supported by four fearless lions, as he rules over all fortunate beings with the pure law that shines bright with the seals bearing the sixty images and perfects his mastery of the ten powers.


The moon of wise scholars and their activities
Dispels the shrouds of clouds of careless innovation.
Enveloped by the pure white light of this presentation,
The way it shines in the pond of my mind is marvelous indeed.

This message which airs such wonderful tales
Is for my companions in the teachings of the Buddha,
So that our harmonious friendship may never fade.
I have not the slightest hope of benefitting others.

Yet if those who wish to maintain the convention of the four reliances[28]
With respect to whatever anyone says, whether they be scholar or not,
Were to analyze it, having forgone indifference and prejudice,
Then that would certainly be a cause for joy and delight.

As for these flocks of demonic birds overcome with bias
Claiming that this is useless as it was written by a Mongolian,
It would make sense for them to stop chirping out bad omens
And instead take some rest in their north-facing nests.

Ablaze with sharp light rays of scripture and reasoning
That instantly penetrate the darkness of the dens
Of the gangs of the saffron clad who masquerade as scholars,
It is thus that the sun of this eloquent explanation shines ever bright.

It is possible that this discussion of exposition, debate, and composition
May fall on the deaf ears of those with biased persuasions.
Consider the ways in which the coolness of the moonlight
Causes the hungry ghosts unbearable anguish with its heat.

As my intellect is weak and my learning meagre,
While the Dharma is profound and difficult to fathom,
Any contradictions, inaccuracies, irrelevances, or repetitions
I confess within the presence of the deities and the guru.

As the messenger of this eloquent explanation who carries good news
Arrives safely on the path to the ears of fortunate beings,
He speaks only of tales that spread goodness in the house of the heart.
May joy be thus brought to all!

Through the architectural forces of this virtuous endeavor,
May the jeweled palace of the freedoms and advantages,
Which is supported by the eight pillars of the ripened qualities,[29]
Be adorned at its top by the stag and doe of method and wisdom.

In this way, may the drops of pure water gathered here
Flow into the Ganges of Samantabhadra’s aspirations
To mingle as one in the ocean of the Buddha’s aspirations,
Quenching the thirst of all beings with benefit and happiness.

“The Sunlight of Eloquent Explanation: A Presentation on Exposition, Debate, and Composition” was compiled by Alaksha Ngawang Tendar, one who did his examinations during the Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa.[30]

| Translated by Lowell Cook, 2020.


Tibetan Edition Used

tshogs gnyis rab rgyas (ed.), gangs can bod kyi nye rabs phul byung rtsom yig gces bsdus. Beijing: mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2013. p. 153–165.

ngag dbang bstan dar, “’chad rtsod rtsom gsum gyi rnam gzhag” in gsung 'bum/_bstan dar lha rams pa/. Lanzhou: kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2011. Vol. 2: p. 93–100.

Secondary Sources

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé, The Treasury of Knowledge, Book Six Parts One and Two: Indo-Tibetan Classical Learning and Buddhist Phenomenology, transl. Gyurme Dorje. Boston and London: 2012.

John Powers and Sonam Thakchoe, "Ngawang Tendar," Treasury of Lives, accessed August 21, 2020, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Ngawang-Tendar/5338.

Nor brang o rgyan (ed.), Chos rnam kun btus. Beijing: Krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2008.

Version 1.3-20230227

  1. Skt. abhidāna; Tib. mngon brjod  ↩

  2. Bla na med pa’i rin po che gsum gyi gtam gyi sbyor ba by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419)  ↩

  3. Yogācārabhūmi Viniścayasaṃgrahanī by Asaṅga (fl. 4th CE)  ↩

  4. Mahāyāna-sūtrālamkāra-kārikā by Buddha Maitreya via Asaṅga (fl. 4th CE)  ↩

  5. Abhisamayālaṅkāra by Buddha Maitreya via Asaṅga (fl. 4th CE)  ↩

  6. Śikṣā-samuccaya by Śāntideva (8th CE)  ↩

  7. Kalāpa-vyākaraṇa by Śarvavarman (c.400), translated into Tibetan as the Ka lā pa'i mdo by Blo gros brtan pa.  ↩

  8. Candra-vyākaraṇa by Candragomin (c. 5th–7th CE), translated into Tibetan as the Lung ston pa tsandra pa'i mdo by Shong ston lo tsA ba rdo rje rgyal mtshan (early 13th—late 13th CE). For more on his life see: Thinlay Gyatso, "Shongton Dorje Gyeltsen," Treasury of Lives, accessed August 18, 2020, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Shongton-Dorje-Gyeltsen/2029.  ↩

  9. Prastāra is translated by Gyurme Dorje as “a table (or representation) of metrical variants.”  ↩

  10. Composed by Ratnākaraśānti and translated into Tibetan by Byang chub rtse mo (1303-1380) and Yar lung lo tsa+a ba grags pa rgyal mtshan (1242–1346)  ↩

  11. Amarakośa by Amarasiṃha, (c. 375)  ↩

  12. Kāvyādarśa by Daṇḍin (fl. 7th–8th CE)  ↩

  13. Nāgānanda by king Harṣavardhana (ruled 606–648 CE) translated into Tibetan by Shong ston lo tsA ba rdo rje rgyal mtshan (early 13th—late 13th CE).  ↩

  14. Lokānandanāṭaka by Candragomin (estimated to have lived c. 5th–7th CE)  ↩

  15. i.e., Pramāṇa-samuccaya by Dignāga (c. 480–c. 540).  ↩

  16. Prajñāsataka by Nāgārjuna (c. 150–250).  ↩

  17. Viśeṣastava by Udbhaṭasiddhasvāmin (active c. 210 CE), translated into Tibetan as Khyad par du ’phags pa’i bstod pa by Sarvajñādeva and Rin chen mchog.  ↩

  18. Yogācārabhūmi-viniścayasaṃgrahanī by Asaṅga (fl. 4th CE)  ↩

  19. Dbu ma la ’jug pa’i rnam bshad dgongs pa rab gsal (1418) by Tsongkhapa (1357–1419)  ↩

  20. Suhṛllekha by Nāgārjuna (c. 150–250 CE)  ↩

  21. Translated into Tibetan as ’Dul ba gzhi by Sarvajñādeva, Vidyākaraprabha, Dharmākara, and Dpal gyi lhun po  ↩

  22. Karma-śataka (Tōh 340)  ↩

  23. Mtsho sna ba shes rab bzang po (early 13th CE—late 13th CE) was one of the great Tibetan commentators on the Vinaya. For more on his life see: José Cabezón, "Tsonawa Sherab Zangpo," Treasury of Lives, accessed August 18, 2020, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Tsonawa-Sherab-Zangpo/2791.  ↩

  24. Nītiśāstraprajñādaṇḍa by Nāgārjuna (c. 150–250 CE)  ↩

  25. Composed in 1669 by the great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (1617-1682). For more on his life see: Alexander Gardner, "The Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso," Treasury of Lives, accessed August 18, 2020, https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Ngawang-Lobzang-Gyatso/6065  ↩

  26. Nyāyabindu by Dharmakīrti (fl. c. 6th or 7th CE)  ↩

  27. Tshad ma rnam nges kyi TIk rgyal ba’i dgongs pa rab gsal is a commentary on the Pramāṇaviniścaya by Rgyal tshab dar ma rin chen (1364–1432). For more on his life see: Alexander Gardner, "Gyeltsabje Darma Rinchen," Treasury of Lives, accessed August 18, 2020, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Gyeltsab-Darma-Rinchen/9095.  ↩

  28. Reliance on the meaning rather than the words, reliance on the teaching rather than the individual, reliance on wisdom rather than concepts, and reliance on the definitive meaning rather than the provisional meaning.  ↩

  29. The eight ripened qualities (rnam par smin pa'i yon tan brgyad) are longevity, excellent complexion, excellent bloodline, excellent power, firm speech, mighty renown, being male, possessing strength.  ↩

  30. We are grateful to Professor Leonard van der Kuijp for pointing out an error in the translation of this colophon in an earlier version. See See van der Kuijp, Leonard W.J. 2022. “Studies in the Life and Thought of Mkhas Grub Rje II: Notes on Poetry, Poetics and Other Things in Mkhas Grub rje’s Oeuvre”. Journal of Tibetan Literature 1 (1): 93 n.58.  ↩

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