The Gathering of Intentions reviewed

Books Buddhism Buddhist Studies History Nyingma Tibet Vajrayana

The Gathering of Intentions9780231176002
A History of a Tibetan Tantra
Jacob P. Dalton

Columbia University Press
ISBN: 9780231176002, 272 pages, Hardcover, $60.00 / £44.00
E-book edition also available


The Gathering of Intentions reads a single Tibetan Buddhist ritual system through the movements of Tibetan history, revealing the social and material dimensions of an ostensibly timeless tradition. By subjecting tantric practice to historical analysis, the book offers new insight into the origins of Tibetan Buddhism, the formation of its canons, the emergence of new lineages and ceremonies, and modern efforts to revitalize the religion by returning to its mythic origins.

The ritual system explored in this volume is based on the Gathering of Intentions Sutra, the fundamental “root tantra” of the Anuyoga class of teachings belonging to the Nyingma (“Ancient”) school of Tibetan Buddhism. Proceeding chronologically from the ninth century to the present, each chapter features a Tibetan author negotiating a perceived gap between the original root text—the Gathering of Intentions—and the lived religious or political concerns of his day. These ongoing tensions underscore the significance of Tibet’s elaborate esoteric ritual systems, which have persisted for centuries, evolving in response to historical conditions. Rather than overlook practice in favor of philosophical concerns, this volume prioritizes Tibetan Buddhism’s ritual systems for a richer portrait of the tradition.


Jacob P. Dalton is Khyentse Foundation Distinguished University Professor in Tibetan Buddhism in the Departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism.



From time to time, I am offered the opportunity to review books about Buddhism from academic presses, which is how I came to read this book.

The Gathering of Intentions is a wonderful book, in many ways:

  • For those interested in the evolution of tantric practice in Tibet, Dalton provides vibrant and articulate insight into the historical forces at play.
  • For those interested in the history of the Nyingma school, including the Pelyul, Mindroling and Khyentse lineages, he honours the dedication of those teachers who nurtured the building of monasteries, establishment of training systems, study and practice of essential ritual, and statecraft, to keep The Gathering of Intentions at the heart of their identity.
  • For those wondering about the importance of Tibetan culture on the larger world stage, he presents an astoundingly rich and ancient literary tradition founded more than 1000 years ago and just as strong today, replete with remarkable individuals, high drama, and humbling breadth of vision.

Dalton traces the waxing and waning popularity of the root text and main commentaries, as teachers sought to contextualize them against the backdrop of newer tantric practices emerging from India, political intrigue amongst successive Tibetan governments, and the demands of increasing institutionalization. His premise is that, in the present day, while most are not familiar with The Gathering of Intentions through either study or practice, it in fact provides the overarching structure within which all Nyingma lineages now function. It’s legacy can be seen at the heart of such large public spectacles as the Mani Rimdu festival each year.

His thesis makes a lot of sense to me. I also found some intriguing references throughout the book to other tantric systems with which I am more familiar. I wish there had been more on that topic, and I would like to learn more about the evolution of those systems, as well as how they bumped up against systems from other of the four main lineages (Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Geluk). Perhaps that will be the subject of a future book.

While Dalton deserves great praise for his scholarship, historical research and crisp writing, he should be doubly thanked for placing at the centre of his book the men and women who devoted their lives to the welfare of others through the propagation of Dharma for centuries in Tibet and beyond. Their enlightened intention, vast scope of vision, dedicated practice, accomplishments and tenacity shine through on every page. Whatever your national tradition or lineage, that is a bodhisattva goal to aspire to. It is something the world needs, and it should not be allowed to slip into darkness.


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