On the rDzogs chen Distinction between Mind (sems) Primordial Knowing (ye shes): Clarifications and Transcendental Arguments

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On the rDzogs chen Distinction between Mind (sems) Primordial Knowing (ye shes): Clarifications and Transcendental Arguments

Citation: Higgins, David. "On the rDzogs chen Distinction between Mind (sems) and Primordial Knowing (ye shes): Clarifications and Transcendental Arguments." Journal of Buddhist Philosophy 2 (2016): 23–54.

Article Summary

The idea that Buddhist teachings ought to be applied to one's life situation in order to discover their true validity and efficacy has been a salient feature of Buddhism since its inception. It is in light of this normative constraint that Buddhism has traditionally called itself a path (mārga)[1] or, more accurately, a series of paths formulated to lead individuals of varying needs, abilities, and aspirations toward spiritual awakening (bodhi). The complex diversity of views and practices that developed from the time of the historical Buddha were based on two presuppositions: (1) that the Buddha's awakening was of the utmost soteriological significance and therefore to be regarded as the ultimate aim of all religio-philosophical inquiry and activity, and (2) that it was to be seen neither as fortuitous nor inexplicable but as a repeatable soteriological process, one that could be personally realized through particular modes of inquiry and praxis available to most (if not all) humans.
      From this second assumption stemmed the idea that humans are predisposed to spiritual awakening, that they, in other words, have within them some germinal capacity (bīja), spiritual affiliation (gotra), element (dhātu), or quintessence (garbha) that is a condition of possibility of this awakening.[2] Alongside these "buddha-nature" concepts developed a family of systematically related gnoseological ideas referring to an abiding, unconditioned (asaṃskṛta) mode of consciousness—variously termed the Mind of awakening (bodhicitta), naturally luminous Mind (prakṛtiprabhāsvaracitta), the nature of mind (citta-dharmatā)—that was identified with the condition of awakening itself, but also viewed as the tacit background whence dualistic mind, that is, the source of all error and obscuration, emerges. Central to this cluster of related ideas was the view that conditions of awakening and delusion are both located within the complex and heterogeneous structure of lived experience itself. In Indian Buddhism, this paradigm found its most detailed and influential expression in the hybridized Yogācāra-Tathāgatagarbha works of Maitreya, the Indian Buddhist Siddha literature and the Buddhist tantras.
      In light of the foregoing considerations, the doctrinal history of Buddhism may be regarded as an ongoing attempt to work out precisely what it was that made its founder a buddha or "awakened one" so that such knowledge could be systematically pursued by his followers. That this soteriological imperative has been central to Buddhist philosophical and psychological investigations from early on is discernible in the long history of attempts to clarify the defining features of consciousness that can be traced back to the systematic analyses of mind and mental factors (citta-caitta) presented in the Abhidhammapiṭaka of the Pali Canon. For, in investigating the nature and structure of consciousness, Buddhist scholars were above all concerned with articulating the conditions necessary for a sentient being (sems can) to become an awakened one, a being in whom (if we follow the Tibetan rendering of "buddha" as sangs rgyas) all cognitive and affective obscurations have dissipated (sangs) so that inherent capacities for knowing and caring (mkhyen brtse nus ldan) can unfold (rgyas).
      In Tibet, this soteriologically oriented investigation of consciousness was central to the philosophy of mind that developed within the syncretistic rDzogs chen[3] ("Great Perfection") tradition of the rNying ma ("Ancient Ones") school between the eighth and fourteenth centuries. This philosophy developed around a nexus of core soteriological ideas concerning buddha-nature, the nature of reality, and the nature of mind that served to draw attention to a primordial, nondual mode of being and awareness that usually remains hidden behind the mind's own objectifying and subjectivizing reifications.
      A cornerstone of the rDzogs chen philosophy of mind was a basic distinction between dualistic mind (sems) and primordial knowing (ye shes)[4] that was first systematically presented in the seventeen Atiyoga tantras (rgyud bcu bdun) that make up the Heart Essence (snying thig) subclass of the Esoteric Guidance Class (man ngag sde) of rDzogs chen teachings and are traditionally associated with Vimalamitra.[5] rNying ma historical and biographical works trace this distinction to the teachings of early rDzogs chen masters of the Royal Dynastic Period,[6] in particular the oral transmissions of Vimalamitra (bi ma snyan brgyud), an identification that appears at first glance to be supported by the many passages on the two distinctions found scattered among rNying ma collections such as the Bi ma snying thig, Bai ro rgyud 'bum, rNying ma rgyud 'bum, and dGongs pa zang thal. These teachings often take the form of personal instructions advising the practitioner to discern within the flux of adventitious thoughts and sensations that characterize dualistic mind (sems) an invariant prerepresentational structure of awareness known as primordial knowing (ye shes), open awareness (rig pa), or the nature of mind (sems nyid), from which this turmoil arises. The idea is to directly recognize (ngo sprod) and become increasingly familiar with this abiding condition without confusing it with any of its derivative and distortive aspects. In Klong chen pa's view, this distinction provides an indispensable key to understanding the views and practices that are central to the rDzogs chen tradition.
       Although this tradition has attracted increasing interest in recent decades, both popular and academic, there has been little to date in the way of critical study of its philosophical foundations or key doctrinal developments.[7] A noteworthy case in point is the absence of any systematic appraisal of rNying ma ("Ancient Ones") views on the nature of mind that traces their evolution and complex relationships with Indian Cittamātra, Madhyamaka, Pramāṇvāda, and Vajrayāna views. As a step toward at least defining the parameters of this crucial but neglected field of inquiry, this paper will consider some key arguments in support of the "mind/primordial knowing" (sems/ye shes) distinction adumbrated by rNying ma scholars in the classical period. Of particular interest are arguments that were used to justify and defend this distinction by the renowned fourteenth-century rNying ma thinker Klong chen rab 'byams pa in a number of his treatises, commentaries, and poetic works. In a wide range of doctrinal contexts, Klong chen pa will argue that the entire edifice of Buddhist doctrine becomes incoherent in theory and amiss in practice when one fails to recognize the primacy of a primordial mode of awareness and to unequivocally distinguish it from dualistic mind. This paper first examines in detail some of the arguments he employed to convince his audience of the acceptability of such a distinction in light of theoretical and practical drawbacks of not recognizing it. It then focuses on two types of transcendental argument (of the general form "for y to be possible x must be the case") that Klong chen pa repeatedly invokes to show that the mind/primordial knowing distinction was not only tacitly presupposed in Indian Buddhist soteriology but was, in fact, indispensable for making sense of the Buddhist path and goal-realization according to Buddhist doxastic norms. (Higgins, "On the rDzogs chen Distinction between Mind (sems) and Primordial Knowing (ye shes), 23–26)
  1. The Tibetan lam renders a variety of Sanskrit terms including mārga (Pali: magga), patha, advan, paddhati, pratipat/pratipad(a), and vartanī, terms that all mean way, path, road, course, or journey depending on context. Patha is actually an old Indo-European term, cognate to the English "path," that is found also in the Zoroastrian Avesta. These are all given in the Mahāvyutpatti s.v. lam. According to the sGra sbyor bam po gnyis no. 223 (Ishikawa: 77–78), '"path' is so-named because by this path one seeks or is shown or perceives or attains cessation." lam des 'gog pa tshol ba'am mtshon pa'am dmigs pa 'am 'thob par 'gyur ba la bya ste lam zhes bya.
  2. The most exhaustive survey of tathāgatagarbha theories remains Seyfort Ruegg 1969. For a comparative survey of Tibetan interpretations of tathāgatagarbha doctrine, see Klaus-Dieter Mathes, A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Go Lotsawa's Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2008), 25–129.
  3. Teachings classified as rDzogs chen are common to Tibet's two oldest religious systems, the rNying ma (Ancient Ones) school of Tibetan Buddhism and pre-Buddhist Bon tradition. While these traditions share many doctrines and practices, their lines of transmission and scholastic developments are quite different. This paper considers only the rNying ma rDzogs chen system of philosophy, on which see Karmay 1988, Achard 1999, Germano 2005a, and Higgins 2012. For an overview of Bon rDzogs chen philosophy, see Rossi 1999.
  4. On the history, nature, and scope of this distinction and its place in rNying ma soteriology see Higgins 2012. While the historical and biographical contexts of the distinction are now somewhat clearer than they were two decades ago, our understanding of the principal doctrinal developments in the preclassical period that is needed to make sense of the distinction has progressed little since Samten Karmay's pioneering work (see Karmay 1988). Two exceptions are the works of Guenther 1975 and Germano 1992, which provide translations and interpretations of some important materials on the distinction. Germano 1992 presents an annotated translation of the first five chapters of Klong chen pa's Tshig don mdzod (Treasury of Topics), the fourth chapter of which contains a discussion of the distinction. The distinction is mentioned by Thondup 1989, Dudjom Rinpoche 1991, and Arguilleres 2007 but not treated in detail.
  5. On the chronology of the seventeen tantras and related Bi ma snying thig, see Ramon Prats, "Tshe-dbang nor-bu's Chronological Notes on the Early Transmission of the Bi-ma snying-thig," in Tibetan and Buddhist Studies Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Koros, ed. L. Ligeti, vol. 2 (Budapest: Munshirm Manoharlal 1984), 197–209; and Achard 1999, 78–83. On the life of Vimalamitra and relevant sources, see Higgins 2012.
  6. The three periods referred to in this article are the Royal Dynastic Period (610–910), The Period of Fragmentation (910-1249), and the Period of Monastic Hegemony (1249-1705). I have adopted a somewhat pared down version of the periodization scheme proposed by Cuevas 2006. I sometimes use "classical" with reference to the Period of Monastic Hegemony.
  7. The current lack of critical engagement with the subject matter of rDzogs chen—of a kind and caliber one has come to expect in contemporary Buddhist epistemology for example—can, and often does, give the impression that philosophical rigor, clarity, and systematicity are simply lacking in, or have been avoided by, rNying ma thinkers. I can think of three reasons for this misconception: (1) the relatively recent development of rNying ma studies; (2) the enduring stereotype (among Western and Tibetan scholars) of rNying ma (Ancient) as an antinomian tradition pursued by wild-eyed shaman-mystics averse to scholarship, rational discourse, and textual analysis in contrast to the more sober-minded rationally inclined gSar ma (New) scholar-clerics (on which see Dalton 2002, 12); 3) the challenging nature (both to understanding and praxis) of rNying ma views of mind vis-a-vis the prevailing Anglo-American representationalist epistemology that underlies much of the recent work on Buddhist theories of knowledge. The third consideration is of particular relevance here as I will argue that rNying ma attempts to articulate the conditions for the possibility of nondual primordial knowing (ye shes) led them, in interesting ways, to abandon subject/object epistemologies, realist as well as antirealist, in a manner comparable to attempts by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein to overcome mediational epistemologies in Western philosophy.