Seminar on “Dharmakīrti of Kedah: The life, work and troubled times of Sriwijaya’s last philosopher”

In this seminar, visiting fellow Dr Iain Sinclair shares some new insights on an obscure Buddhist sage, Dharmakīrti, thought to have been based in Srivijayan Kedah in the 10th century.

Friday, 5 July 2019
– Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre Visiting Fellow Dr Iain Sinclair shared some new insights in a seminar last Friday on the obscure but revered Tibetan Buddhist figure, Serlingpa Dharmakīrti. The seminar was attended by professionals, individuals and academicians from various institutes, such as the Nanyang Technological University and the Asia Research Institute. The seminar was chaired by Professor Leo Suryadinata, Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Before launching into the seminar topic, Dr Sinclair shared that he was piqued by the discovery of a Buddhist clay sealing found in Kedah. The presence of Buddhism as a powerful stately force in the Malay Peninsula, Dr Sinclair explained, has all but disappeared. Dr Sinclair argued that one prominent figure in Tibetan Buddhism today, the sage Serlingpa Dharmakīrti could have possibly been from Kedah, which was a flourishing Srivijayan urban hub alongside other established Srivijayan centres like Palembang and Muara Jambi.

Dr Iain Sinclair sharing new insights on the obscure but revered Tibetan Buddhist figure, Serlingpa Dharmakīrti. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Other than his important philosophical work, nothing much is known about Dharmakīrti’s life. Tibetan sources recorded the young Dharmakīrti as discovering a long-forgotten statue of Buddha in the Golden Isles (suvarṇabhūmi), a navigation term used to mean the Malay Peninsula. His first name, Serlingpa, is Tibetan for the Sanskrit suvarṇadvīpīya, which means ‘of the Golden Isles’.

Historical records also show Dharmakīrti as being a disciple of Mahāśrīratna, a Sinhalese grammarian and a theorist based in Bodhgaya, modern day Bihar, India, which is famous for being the place where Buddha attained his enlightenment. Working backwards from an inscription by Ratnaśrī in 944 AD, Dr Sinclair placed Dharmakīrti’s possible date of birth as somewhere along 930-940 AD. Mahāśrīratna was said to tutor Dharmakīrti before he ‘disappeared’, or passed away, in about 980 AD.

Dharmakīrti had a small following of students, but his most famous student was arguably Atiśa (982-1054 AD), a Buddhist master in his own right. In his travel journals, Atiśa records the meeting of his teacher at a ‘city in the Golden Isles of Srivijaya’ (suvarṇapure śrīvijayapure) flanked by four significant milestones in the four different directions, the evidence for all of which strongly pointed to Kedah. Dharmakīrti’s influence on his student can be seen throughout Atiśa’s works, in which he describes his teacher as knowing the ‘language of the Golden Region’, or Malay.

Dharmakīrti’s major opus was the Durbodhāloka, a commentary on another famous Buddhist text, the Prajñāpāramitā sutras. Dr Sinclair pointed out that the Durbodhāloka was, in essence, an original Malayan Buddhist creation, which proved that despite the Indianisation that took place throughout the Srivijaya Empire, the Malays were still capable of producing their own unadulterated insights on Buddhism. The Durbodhāloka was commissioned as an official state religious text.

Along with Atiśa, Dharmakīrti was especially known for his maxims on lojong (mind training) within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, focusing on the attaining of the bodhicitta, or the goodness of the heart for others. He was also famous for imparting knowledge on the Kālacakra tantra to Atiśa, which focused on repelling Muslim influence in Central Asia.

After the presentation, the floor was opened for questions and comments. Some members of the audience thanked Dr Sinclair for sharing his research. Others asked for clarifications on certain issues, like references to the pre-Muslim, Buddhist Kedah royalty in Malay history, explanations on Dharmakīrti’s ethnicity and background and his pilgrimage throughout India.

Some of the audience at the seminar (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)