Lhodrak Dharma Senge's Commentary on the Ultimate Continuum

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Lhodrak Dharma Senge's Commentary on the Ultimate Continuum
Karma Phuntsho
Original content written for the Buddha-Nature Project.

Among the numerous texts discovered at Drepung monastery's library through the efforts of Alak Zenkar Rinpoche and his team is a hitherto unknown commentary by one Lhodrak Dharma Senge. Although the manuscript is incomplete and missing the final pages which may have contained the colophon, the title on the first page and a note at the start of the commentary explicitly mention Lhodrakpa Dharma Senge as the author. Yet, apart from the obvious association of the author with the southern Lhodrak region of Central Tibet, we have no information on when and where he lived.

The style and content of the commentary suggest its composition was completed in the early classical period of the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, most likely before the well-known commentaries on the Ultimate Continuum appeared at the peak of the classical period in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The manuscript itself, in dbu med script, bears some archaic characteristics, including the writing of the negative med (མེད་) as myed (མྱེད་) and the use of numerals instead of spelling numbers in full, such as རྣམ་འབྱེད་རྣམ་པ་༣་ instead of རྣམ་འབྱེད་རྣམ་པ་གསུམ་ and ༢་མྱེད་ in the place of གཉིས་མེད།.

The work starts with how the five works of Maitreya were written as a commentary on the sūtras in order to benefit the beings who were not benefited either by the actual sermons of the Buddha or by the councils after the Buddha's mahāparinirvāṇa. The author, in a unique account of the Buddha's life, claims that the Buddha delivered his first sermon on the four noble truths in the second week after his full enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, expounded sūtras such as the Daśabhūmikasūtra in the heavenly realms in the third week, and gave teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom in later times on Vulture Peak.

For those who have not benefited directly from the Buddha's teachings and the Buddhist councils, the five works of Maitreya, "two of which ornament and three of which distinguish" (རྒྱན་རྣམ་པ་གཉིས་དང་འབྱེད་རྣམ་པ་གསུམ།), were composed as commentaries on the sūtras. Most scholars on the five works of Maitreya enumerate them as "two of which ornament," referring to the Ornament of Direct Realization (Abhisamayālaṃkāra) and the Ornament of Mahāyānasūtras (Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra), "two of which distinguish," referring to Distinguishing the Middle and Extremes (Madhyāntavibhāga) and Distinguishing Phenomena and Reality (Dharmadharmatāvibhāga) and the Ultimate Continuum (Uttaratantra). Dharma Senge is perhaps unique in framing these works as "two of which ornament and three of which distinguish," and one can say he rightly does so, as the full title of the Ultimate Continuum contains the term distinguishing, or vibhāga. He explains that the Ornament of Direct Realization comments specifically on the sūtras on Perfection of Wisdom, while the Ornament of Mahāsūtras is a commentary on sūtras on general Mahāyāna ethics. Similarly, of the three which distinguish, the Ultimate Continuum, or Distinguishing the Precious Spiritual Gene, is a commentary on the sūtras teaching buddha-nature, but the other two do not comment on any specific sūtras.

Lhodrak Dharma Senge states that Asaṅga, who received the transmission of the five works of Maitreya, composed a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum because the root text is short and difficult to understand. Lhodrak Dharma Senge seems to consider his own commentary as not only a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum but also on Asaṅga's commentary. Using the Tibetan sa bchad outline, he divides his commentary into three parts: (1) the explanation of the connective components of the treatise, by which he refers to the rationale for the general layout of the text, the summarized statement of the seven topics, their sūtra sources, and the reason for the sequence of seven topics; (2) the elaborate explanation of the main topics of the treatise along with its parts; and (3) the dedication of the merits.

At the very outset, he addresses the description and distinction of the seven vajra topics, which is the main subject of the Ultimate Continuum. After discussing (1) the purpose, (2) the nature of main topics, (3) their differences, (4) the sequence, (5) how they relate to the Buddha gene, (6) how they relate to the process of realization, and (7) the logic for their number, he explains how the seven topics were taught in the sūtras, which form the main sources for the seven topics.

The second or main part of the commentary, which carries out an elaborate explanation of the seven topics, starts on the verso of folio no. 6. This section is divided into the explanation of the Three Jewels, the spiritual gene, and praise of interest in the spiritual gene. Lhodrak Dharma Senge provides a detailed exposition of the seven topics and presents numerous insightful and interesting points. Lhodrak Dharma Senge's commentary on the first line of the critical verse no. I.28 is a good example. Here is Karl Brunnhölzl's translation of the verse.

Since the perfect buddhakāya radiates
Since suchness is undifferentiable,
And because of the disposition,
All beings always possess the buddha heart.

Lhodrak Dharma Senge argues that the buddhakāya, or buddha body, in this context, can be understood to be twofold. Firstly, it refers to the all-pervasive sphere of reality (ཆོས་དབྱིངས་ཀུན་ཏུ་འགྲོ་བ་) which a bodhisattva from the first stage of enlightenment would begin to perceive partially and would fully realize when he or she reaches buddhahood. Such a sphere of reality is seen to pervade all sentient beings. Thus, sentient beings are considered to be possessing such buddhakāya as an essence.

Secondly, the buddhakāya also refers to the corpus of profound and vast teachings which correspond to the sphere of reality. As the Buddha taught such a corpus of teachings to the ordinary beings, arhats, bodhisattvas, and those on the path, the buddhakāya is said to radiate to the sentient beings.

While he equates the presence of buddhakāya in sentient beings with the sphere of reality which exists in all sentient beings, he clearly does not identify the sphere of reality with an emptiness which is a mere absence of substance. This, he spells out in his commentary on verses I.153–55. His interpretation of these three verses also shows his position on whether buddha-nature is empty of enlightened qualities or of only adventitious afflictions. In the course of discussing verse I.153 on how buddha-nature qua the ultimate is only fathomable through confidence, he explains that the four categories of beings—including the ordinary persons, the disciples, solitary realizers, and the bodhisattvas who are new on the path—cannot fathom the ultimate for the following reasons. The ordinary persons are caught in the wrong view of persons or self, which obstructs the understanding of the sphere of reality. The disciples and solitary realizers are obstructed from seeing the ultimate by the view of impermanence, suffering, and nonself. And those bodhisattvas who are new on the path are occupied by the view of emptiness which is mere absence of substance and emptiness or negation which is seen separately from the phenomena.

He goes on to explicitly explain, while commenting on verses I.154–55, that buddha-nature is only empty of adventitious afflictions but not empty of the qualities of the Buddha, which are latent in it. While it is not clear if he espoused a truly existent and absolute buddha-nature as the proponents of zhentong theory did in later times, it is sufficiently clear that Lhodrak Dharma Senge did not hold buddha-nature to be mere emptiness or a nonimplicative negation as held by early masters such as Ngok Loden Sherab and Chapa Chökyi Senge and later Sakya and Geluk philosophers. His interpretation, while showing some proto-zhentong tendencies, can be seen to accord with the early Kadampa interpretation found among those who professed the meditative tradition and with the interpretation later held by the Kagyu and Nyingma masters.

Further, in order to explain why the Buddha taught emptiness and the illusory nature of phenomena first and then proclaimed buddha-nature, he comments that without teaching emptiness and nonself first, sentient beings would have mistakenly assumed buddha-nature to be a self or person. Thus, the teachings on the nonself and emptiness of all phenomena were taught prior to the teachings on buddha-nature. In response to the question regarding the usefulness of teaching buddha-nature, which is unfathomable by ordinary beings, Dharma Senge, like Asaṅga, states the five purposes for teaching buddha-nature, although it is not fully comprehensible to ordinary beings.

With a dearth of information on Lhodrak Dharma Senge and the commentary abruptly ending without a proper colophon, it is difficult to date and locate the commentary in its historical and intellectual context. A minor but nonetheless powerful indicator of the time of Lhodrak's commentary is the short refutation of the translator Patsab Nyima Drakpa that he carries out toward the end of this commentary. Dharma Senge refutes Patsab's commentary on verse 20, which Patsab, the champion of Prāsaṅgika Mādhyamika in Tibet, seems to have interpreted according to his nonessentialist theory (ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་མེད་པར་སྨྲ་བ་) of the Prāsaṅgika tradition. He cites Patsab stating that it is an act of corrupting the Buddha's sūtras to state that being essenceless (niḥsvabhāva ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་མེད་པ་) refers to the imputed entity not having the essence of characteristics (ཀུན་བཏགས་མཚན་ཉིད་ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་མེད་པ་), the dependent phenomena not having the essence of production (གཞན་དབང་སྐྱེ་བ་ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་མེད་པ་), and the established nature not having the essence of ultimate nature (ཡོངས་གྲུབ་དོན་དམ་ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་མེད་པ་). Patsab, as quoted by Dharma Senge, appears to be implying that the interpretation of sūtra teachings such as the one found in the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra according to the Cittamātra tradition is tampering with the intent of the Buddha. Dharma Senge points out that such an interpretation is also found in Maitreya's Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra and cannot be dismissed as a tampering of the sūtra. What the tampering in verse 20 refers to is to rely too heavily on rational arguments alone and tamper the intent of the sūtra.

What one can infer from the above exchange is that Dharma Senge lived after Patsab Nyima Drakpa, who is dated to have been born in 1055 CE, but perhaps not too long after him, as Dharma Senge does not make reference to other proponents of buddha-nature theories in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. His warning against relying purely on reasoning and logic and refuting the profound content of the sūtras perhaps also points to his affiliation with the meditative transmission of the Ultimate Continuum passed down from Tsen Khawoche.