A Luminous Transcendence of Views: The Thirty Apophatic Topics in dPal dbyangs's Thugs kyi sgron ma
The constructed nostalgia of the later Great Perfection, or rDzogs chen, tradition gazes backward temporally and geographically toward eighth-century India, reminiscing an era in which the subcontinent is thought to have served as generous benefactor of Dharma gifts to the fledging Buddhist empire of Tibet. Insistence on the familiar Buddhist requirements for true transmission—authenticity and legitimacy founded in lineage and longevity—certainly inspired many of its textual "revelations" beginning in the eleventh century. Many of those nostalgic constructions of rNying ma history have been well documented by modern scholars.
It would be rash to assert, however, that despite all those imaginings, there were no historical primordia of the Great Perfection in the preceding centuries. The textual roots of the Mind Series (sems sde) texts are testament to these early stirrings, as are the Dunhuang manuscripts identified by Sam van Schaik as expressing a form of “Tibetan Zen.” A third seed was planted via the Tibetan Mahāyoga tantra tradition, and within it, germinations of Great Perfection gnoseology, observable prominently in the ninth-century works of dPal dbyangs, who in some colophons and later histories is designated gNyan dPal dbyangs. His works include six canonical verse texts retrospectively entitled sGron ma drug, or Six Lamps, and the rDo rje sems dpa’ zhus lan (Vajrasattva Questions and Answers) catechism found at Dunhuang in three manuscript copies. I have discussed these texts and their most likely Indian inspirations elsewhere. Here, I highlight a particular text within the Six Lamps, his Thugs kyi sgron ma (Lamp of the Mind), as intending to establish, quite early on, a standard set of topics we see well developed in systemizations of the early Great Perfection tradition a few centuries later, and perhaps even before that, in Mind Series texts such as those attributed to Mañjuśrīmitra like the Byang chub kyi sems rdo la gser zhun and the Byang chub sems bsgom pa.
Of all dPal dbyangs’s texts, the Thugs kyi sgron ma is the ideological, linguistic, and practical hinge to his Mayājāla corpus as a whole, linking the other five of the Six Lamps texts and providing convincing evidence for accepting those Six Lamps as a collection, as well as offering insight to the later interpretations of his catechism. The Thugs kyi sgron ma displays dPal dbyangs’s full range of presentation. It includes, on the one hand, dPal dbyangs’s direct recommendations to Mahāyoga tantra, and on the other hand, his depictions of the realization of reality as utterly unstructured, unmediated, and transcendent of any dichotomization or reification, using the apophatic language sprinkled throughout the rest of the Six Lamps texts. Thus, by emphasizing these two elements—the transgressive and the transcendent—within a single text, the Thugs kyi sgron ma may have served as a valuable field guide to early Tibetan Mahāyoga and at least to some degree as a useful strategic plan for the cultivation of something more sustainable and vibrant on Tibetan soil, the Great Perfection. As I hope to show, dPal dbyangs’s very deliberate indexing of these topics appears to have been intended to standardize them as interpretive categories even while undercutting the value of reliance upon them as such, redefining Mahāyoga tantra as it found its earliest shape in Tibet. (Takahashi, introductory remarks, 159–60)
- Sam van Schaik, “The Early Days of the Great Perfection,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27.1: 167 and 201.
- The Six Lamps texts are as follows: The Lamp of the Mind (Thugs kyi sgron ma), The Lamp of the Correct View (lTa ba yang dag sgron ma), The Lamp Illuminating the Extremes (mTha'i mun sel sgron ma), The Lamp of Method and Wisdom (Thabs shes sgron ma), The Lamp of the Method of Meditation (bsGom thabs kyi sgron ma), and The Lamp of the Precious View (lTa ba rin chen sgron ma). These are P5918, P5919, P5920, P5921, P5922, and P5923, respectively. There are other Lamp collections in both Nyingma and Bön traditions, usually comprising four or six texts. The most prominent example of these is from the Bönpo Great Perfection lineage, the sGron ma drug gi gdams pa. See Christopher Hatchell's "Advice on the Six Lamps" in Naked Seeing: The Great Perfection, the Wheel of Time, and Visionary Buddhism in Renaissance Tibet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), and Jean-Luc Achard’s English translation in the Six Lamps: Secret Dzogchen Instructions of the Bön Tradition (Boston: Wisdom, 2017).
- See Namkhai Norbu and Kennard Lipman’s Primordial Experience: An Introduction to rDzogs-chen Meditation (Boston: Shambhala, 2001). Karen Liljenberg has discovered parallel passages to dPal dbyangs’s Lamp text the Thabs shes sgron ma in the rTse mo byung rgyal, a text she has identified as belonging to the sems sde corpus the Sems sde lung chen po bco brgyad. Karen Liljenberg, “A Critical Study of the Thirteen Later Translations of the Dzogchen Mind Series” (doctoral dissertation, SOAS, 2012), 57-60. I suspect there are further discoveries to be made of such borrowings between early Tibetan Mahāyoga texts and those of the early Mind Series. See also Liljenberg's paper elsewhere in this issue.