Tibetan Adventures in Dating the Buddha's Nirvana

When and Where

Friday, January 12, 2024 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm
Zoom / McMaster University
University Hall 122


Leonard van der Kuijp (Harvard University)


Yehan Numata Program in Buddhist Studies 2023-24

There is an idea that Buddhism shares with other major religions. This is the notion that there will be an “end-time.” In Buddhism everything is impermanent and, so the scriptures tell us, the Buddha’s Teaching is no exception. The beginning of the “true religion” is as rule calculated from the year of the nirvana or parinirvāṇa [or the death] of the Buddha, that is, his A[nno]N[irvanae], roughly at the age of eighty. As there is no unanimity concerning the year in which he passed away, there is also no consensus when this cataclysm was to take place, and the literature gives several different time periods for the overall duration and gradual degeneration of his Teaching. The Tibetans opted for one of these, namely for a period of five thousand years. The profound uncertainties surrounding the AN did not deter a good number of them to calculate the year of the AN through a series of rather complex and convoluted computations that were based on the incomplete information that was furnished by canonical sources, including the Kālacakra corpus. They drew up elaborate horoscopes for the main events in his life, much like P.C. Sengupta attempted to do now more than half a century ago. The method they followed was to calculate these dates by doing a reverse computation, the Tibetan expressions for which are g.yen du log pa’i brtsis [or: g.yen log gi brtsis] and yar log gi rtsis. And they used the somewhat confusing data of the Kālacakra corpus and other canonical sources concerning the presumed dates of especially his conception, birth and passing. My lecture will provide some historical details about the results that these intrepid monks achieved, even if these proved to be hopelessly inaccurate though through no fault of their own.

LEONARD W.J. VAN DER KUIJP is Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies and chairs the Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies. Best known for his studies of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought, he is the author of numerous works. Van der Kuijp’s research focuses on Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought, Tibetan Buddhist intellectual history, Tibetan cultural history, and premodern Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Mongol political and religious relations. Van der Kuijp received his master’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada, and his doctorate at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He joined the faculty at Harvard in 1995. He is the former chair of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies (now the Department of South Asian Studies). In 2018, he was inducted in the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Van der Kuijp worked at the Nepal Research Center, Kathmandu (1980-85), the Freie Universitāt, Berlin (1985-87), and the University of Washington, Seattle (1987-95). In 1999,
he assisted E. Gene Smith in founding the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), now the Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC).




University of Toronto, McMaster University