Topic of the week
Kyotön Monlam Tsultrim's Meaning of Luminous Essence
The Kadampa master Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim authored several short works related to buddha-nature and the Ultimate Continuum. One of them is the Meaning of Luminous Essence (འོད་གསལ་སྙིང་པོའི་དོན།), a text which provides a clear and concise account of buddha-nature. He presents the work under three subheadings of:
- 1. How the luminous nature of mind is naturally awakened
2. How to clear the adventitious stains of thoughts
3. How the essential pristine wisdom arises
He illustrates the first point through explaining the three points of dharmakāya, reality, and spiritual gene, the nine similes and three stages of buddha-nature at the ordinary level when it is fully impure, on the transcendental path when it is partially pure, and on the level of buddhahood when it is fully pure.
The second topic covers the process of eliminating the adventitious stains by following the path. Unfortunately, the only copy of this text available to us is the one recently obtained from the Nechu library in Drepung monastery, and this text abruptly ends while discussing the path to remove the adventitious stains. Despite being incomplete, the text gives a clear idea of how Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim adopts a cataphatic approach to buddha-nature as the nature of mind, which, like space, cannot be pinpointed but is at the same time the inconceivable and inexpressible luminous presence which constitutes the eternal, absolute, peaceful, and adamantine nature free from mentation and conceptual construction.
Getse Paṇḍita's Presentation of Great Middle Way
Getse Mahāpaṇḍita Tsewang Chokdrup composed his short work entitled Ornament of Sugatagarbha: A Discourse Ascertaining the Definite Great Middle Way (ངེས་དོན་དབུ་མ་ཆེན་པོའི་ཚུལ་རྣམ་པར་ངེས་པའི་གཏམ་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོའི་རྒྱན།), as he would put, as a mere key which can unlock the door of sūtras and tantras (ལྡེ་མིག་ཙམ་འདིས་མདོ་སྔགས་སྒོ་ཕྱེ་). He structures his short work by aligning the four Buddhist tenet systems to the three sets of turnings of the wheel of Dharma. The first two tenet systems of Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika, which espouse the ultimate existence of atomic particles and moments of consciousness as building blocks for the empirical world, correspond to the first turning of the wheel, while the third tenet system, the Cittamātra system of idealist thinkers, who assert the true existence of an innate self-cognizing mind, is based on some sūtras of the last turning of the wheel.
These schools were overshadowed by the rise of the Middle Way tradition, which was promoted by Nāgārjuna and his followers based on the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras of the middle turning. Getse recounts the development of the Mādhyamika school and its bifurcation into Svātantrika and Prāsaṅgika subschools among Nāgārjuna's followers, who for some reason also considered Asaṅga's tradition to be the Cittamātra tradition, thereby leading many biased scholars of India and Tibet to classify Asaṅga and his followers as Cittamātra masters. Getse rejects that the ultimate understanding of Asaṅga and his followers is of Cittamātra thought.
Furthermore, the Middle Way tradition focusing on the emptiness of all phenomena as primarily shown in the middle turning, based on rational analysis to eliminate ordinary superimposition of self and other characteristics, and passed down through Nāgārjuna’s followers, according to Getse Mahāpaṇḍita, is only the coarse, outer Middle Way (རགས་པ་ཕྱིའི་དབུ་མ་). The inner, subtle Middle Way (ཕྲ་བ་ནང་གི་དབུ་མ་) is what is taught in the last turning through the tathāgatagarbhasūtras, the innate self-awareness, buddha-nature, or element, which is also elucidated in the works of Maitreya and passed down through Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, and their followers as the ultimate and quintessential message. This, Getse Mahāpaṇḍita calls the Great Madhyamaka of other-emptiness (གཞན་སྟོན་དབུ་མ་ཆེན་པོ་) and the ultimate truth, the luminous nature of the mind, the adamantine mind, and the main point of Kālacakra, Mahāmudrā, and Dzogchen teachings. A mere emptiness that is a nonimplicative negation is not the ultimate reality. The ultimate intent of the great masters converges on this point of innate luminous awareness, although they showed different types of provisional paths. The short work of Getse Mahāpaṇḍita is aimed at establishing the Great Middle Way or other-emptiness as the ultimate and absolute reality which forms the basis of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, and he does so with great precision and vigor in a short work.
Mipham's Doxographical Classification of Maitreya's Works
In his commentary on Maitreya's Distinguishing Phenomena and Their Nature, Mipam Gyatso, one of the most polymathic thinkers of nineteenth-century Tibet, explains that scholars differ in the doxographical classification of the five treatises taught by Maitreya as commentarial works on the Buddha's teachings. Some scholars, he reports, considered the five treatises to be parts of a single work, while others refuted such a position, saying that they cannot be coherent parts of a single work, as the five treatises diverge on the issue of whether there is only one vehicle or three vehicles which lead to ultimate liberation. The latter scholars then take the five treatises to be commenting on different turnings of the wheel of Dharma.
Among Maitreya's five treatises, some consider the first, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, or Ornament of Clear Realization, and the last, the Ratnagotravibhāga, or the Ultimate Continuum, to fall within the Mādhyamika system and the middle three to fall under the Cittamātra system. Others maintain that only the Sūtrālaṅkāra, or the Ornament of Sūtra, belongs to the Cittamātra system and the rest to Mādhyamika thought. Still others argue that all the five treatises are fully works of Cittamātra thought or that of Mādhyamika.
Against such differences, Mipam states that it is indisputable that the Ornament of Clear Realization is a commentarial work on the Perfection of Wisdom taught in the middle turning and the Ultimate Continuum is clearly a commentary on the definitive teachings of the third turning, which deals with the buddha-nature. These two treatises also agree on the theories of the single spiritual gene and the single vehicle, which accords with the Mādhyamika thought. In contrast to these two, the Ornament of Sūtra is a commentary on other sūtras, and it clearly presents theories aligned to the Cittamātra thought, such as the acceptance of more than one spiritual gene and vehicle to ultimate liberation.
The two treatises, Distinguishing Phenomena and Their Nature and Distinguishing the Middle and Extremes, deal with the profound and vast aspects of general Mahāyāna thought and therefore cannot be categorized as belonging to either Cittamātra or Mādhyamika thought. They deal with topics which are common to all adherents of Mahāyāna. While Distinguishing the Middle and Extremes primarily discusses the vast aspects of the Mahāyāna path, Distinguishing Phenomena and Their Nature discusses the nonconceptual wisdom of the union of the two truths, which is the essence of the Mahāyāna teachings. Because of the profundity of the topics that Distinguishing Phenomena and Their Nature and the Ultimate Continuum deal with, Mipam reasons that these two treatises are considered to have been protected and thus their texts unavailable until Maitripa rediscovered them from a stūpa after seeing a light shining from a crack in it. When Zhama Lotsāwa Senge Gyeltsen translated them, the paṇḍita is said to have only spared one page at a time and advised the translator to strongly cherish them as the texts were rare.
Maitrīpa's True Reality
Maitrīpa, according to a common account of the Ultimate Continuum passed down through Tibetan lineages, is said to have rediscovered the text of the Ultimate Continuum and Distinguishing Phenomena and Their Nature. He in fact cites the Ultimate Continuum in his work. Yet, it is curious that Maitrīpa does not use the terms tathāgatagarbha, sugatagarbha, or dhatu in his writings to refer to buddha-nature. He does, however, discuss the luminous and empty nature of the mind both in the contexts of sūtra and tantra traditions.
He uses the term luminosity (འོད་གསལ་) in many of his writings, and it is this innate nature of the mind, which is empty, nondual, open, and luminous, that is the focus of his amanasikāra system. In his presentation of true reality in Ten Verses on True Reality, which succinctly captures his philosophical and experiential stance on reality, Maitrīpa points out how all phenomena are of single taste (རོ་གཅིག་) and without a point of fixation (གནས་མེད་པ་), that the entire world is free from the duality of knowledge and knowables, and that even the assumption of nonduality is itself empty and luminous. Such reality is to be realized through the instructions of a guru, and having realized such "suchness," a yogin moves in the world with eyes wide open, with no fear, like a lion, in any manner he or she chooses, and is beyond worldly concerns, often taking up what looks like crazy behaviors.
Chapa's Commentary on Verse I.154–55 of the Ratnagotravibhāga
Chapa Chökyi Senge is one of the most prominent early Kadam scholars of Sangpu Neutok scholastic center and well known as a logician and dialectician, his approach being a continuation of Ngok Loden Sherab's tradition with some differences. Later scholars such as Sakya Paṇḍita considered his tradition to be part of the earlier pramāṇa school (ཚད་མ་སྔ་རབས་པ་) and critiqued his dialectical approach. Chapa was also a leading commentator on the works of Maitreya, authoring a very detailed commentary on the Ultimate Continuum and a summary which primarily presents an outline of the Ultimate Continuum.
In his commentary on verse I.154–55, Chapa argues that one avoids the extreme of superimposition (སྒྲོ་འདོགས་) as one rejects the self-existence of persons and phenomena. There is nothing to be negated or cleared which previously existed. Persons and phenomena do not ever exist on the ultimate level. This shows the unmistaken understanding of the ultimate nature through a nonimplicative negation. One avoids the extreme of annihilation (སྐུར་འདེབས་), as qualities such as the ten powers primordially exist in buddha-nature. There is nothing to be maintained or ascertained, as they naturally exist on the conventional level. This shows the unmistaken understanding of the conventional aspect through an implicative negation. The nonexistence or emptiness on the ultimate level and the existence on the conventional level indicate the unmistaken coalescence of the two truths.
Similarly, one avoids the extreme of superimposition (སྒྲོ་འདོགས་) as one understands buddha-nature to be empty of the separable aspects—that is, the ultimate existence of persons and phenomena which serve as objects of ordinary grasping and emotions. No self-existent person or phenomena which previously existed is being negated or annihilated. One avoids the extreme of annihilation (སྐུར་འདེབས་) as one understands the buddha-nature to be not empty of the unsurpassable qualities such as the ten powers on the conventional level.
Kyotön Monlam Tsultrim's Instructions on the Path to Reality
Among the collection of short texts by the Narthang hierarch Kyotön Monlam Tsultrim recently revealed from the Drepung library is the Instructions on the Path to Reality (ཆོས་ཉིད་ཀྱི་ལམ་ཁྲིད།). The text claims to highlight the intent of Maitreya and does so by blending the main topics of the Ratnagotravibhāga and the Dharmadharmatāvibhāga. It discusses the four topics of the basis for the spiritual path, the manner of confusion in the cycle of existence, the cultivation of the path, and the actualization of buddhahood. Under the first topic, it presents buddha-nature, or the spiritual gene (རིགས་), as the luminous nature of the mind and as the cause for spiritual awakening. The text also gives the categories of beings with or without a functional spiritual gene.
Under the second topic, Kyotön uses the structure in Maitreya's Dharmadharmatāvibhāga to discuss how the cycle of existence is the work of conceptual fabrication. He then discusses the path to buddhahood and ends with the fourth main topic of how the pristine wisdom of the Buddha shines forth by explaining the different enlightened bodies.
Jikten Sumgön's Fivefold Path of Mahāmudrā
Jikten Sumgön, the founder of the Drikung Kagyu tradition, presented Mahāmudrā practice in five parts in his short poetic work called Hymns on the Fivefold Path of Realization (ལྔ་ལྡན་རྟོགས་པའི་མགུར།). Capturing an important topic in each verse and using an effective analogy for each topic, his poetic work has become a well-known, concise text on Mahāmudrā and is widely cited in the later works. The five verses with translation by Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen of the Drikung lineage are given below.
བྱམས་དང་སྙིང་རྗེའི་རྟ་ཕོ་ལ། །གཞན་ཕན་གི་དཀྱུས་ཐོག་མ་བཅད་ན། །ཁྲོམ་ལྷ་མིའི་འོར་ཆེ་མི་འབྱུང་བས། །སེམས་སྔོན་འགྲོ་འདི་ལ་ནན་ཏན་མཛོད།།
1. The Great Seal of Bodhichitta
If the steed of love and compassion
Does not run for the benefit of others,
It will not be rewarded in the assembly of gods and humans.
Attend, therefore, to the preliminaries.
རང་ལུས་ལྷ་སྐུའི་རྒྱལ་པོ་ལ། །གཞི་འགྱུར་མེད་ཀྱི་བརྟན་ས་མ་ཟིན་ན། །མ་མཁའ་འགྲོའི་འཁོར་འབངས་མི་འདུ་བས། །ལུས་ཡི་དམ་གི་ལྷ་ལ་ནན་ཏན་མཛོད།།
2. The Great Seal of Yidam Deity
If one’s body, the King of Deities
Is not stabilized on this Unchanging Ground,
The retinue of dakinis will not assemble.
Be sure, therefore, of your body as the yidam.
བླ་མ་སྐུ་བཞིའི་གངས་རི་ལ། །མོས་གུས་ཀྱི་ཉི་མ་མ་ཤར་ན། །བྱིན་རླབས་ཀྱི་ཆུ་རྒྱུན་མི་འབྱུང་བས། །སེམས་་མོས་གུས་འདི་ལ་ནན་ཏན་མཛོད།།
3) The Great Seal of Devotion
If on the Guru, the Snow Mountain of the Four Kayas,
The Sun of Devotion fails to shine,
The Stream of Blessings will not flow.
Attend, therefore, to this mind of devotion.
སེམས་ཉིད་ཀྱི་ནམ་མཁའ་ཡངས་པ་ལ། །རྣམ་རྟོག་གི་སྤྲིན་ཚོགས་མ་དེངས་ན། །མཁྱེན་གཉིས་ཀྱི་གཟའ་སྐར་མི་བཀྲ་བས། །སེམས་མི་རྟོག་འདི་ལ་ནན་ཏན་མཛོད།།
4. The Great Seal of the True Nature
If in the vastly spacious space of the mind itself (cittata)
The clouds of conceptual thoughts do not dissipate,
The stars and the planets of the Dual Knowledge་will not shine.
Attend, therefore, to nonconceptuality.
ཚོགས་གཉིས་ཡིད་བཞིན་གྱི་ནོར་བུ་ལ། །སྨོན་ལམ་གྱིས་བྱི་དོར་མ་བྱས་ན། །དགོས་འདོད་ཀྱི་འབྲས་བུ་མི་འབྱུང་བས། །རྗེས་བསྔོ་བ་འདི་ལ་ནན་ཏན་མཛོད།།
5. The Great Seal of Dedication
If the two wish-fulfilling gems of Accumulations
Are not cleaned and polished with aspiration prayers,
The results of (your) hopes and expectations will not come to fruition.
Attend, therefore, to the dedication of merits at the end.
Tilopa's Six Dharmas for Meditation
The text Instructions of Ḍākiṇīs entitled Validity of the True Word (བཀའ་ཡང་དག་པའི་ཚད་མ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་མཁའ་འགྲོ་མའི་མན་ངག) is one of the primary sources for Mahāmudrā meditation and the six yogas of Nāropa passed down through the Kagyu tradition. In this text, one finds the six dharmas of Tilopa (ཏི་ལི་ཆོས་དྲུག་), which are fundamental techniques for meditation to cultivate single-pointed concentration and nonconceptuality. These six features of meditation are captured by the following verse:
- Do not reflect, think, or analyze,
Do not ponder or meditate, but let it be in the natural state.
In the state of meditation particularly to still all mentation and conceptual construction, one should not reflect on the past, not think of the future, or analyze the current object. One must not contrive to meditate, or be occupied with present matters.
Mikyö Dorje on the Transmission of Middle Way Teachings
The Eighth Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje, is undoubtedly one of the most prolific authors of the Karma Kagyu tradition, having written some twenty-six volumes of works including extensive commentaries on four of the five great sūtra treatises. He wrote commentaries on vinaya, abhidharma, prajñapāramitā and madhyamaka, while the Seventh Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, wrote an extensive commentary on pramāṇa.
In his commentary on Candrakīrti's Madhyamakāvatāra, Mikyö Dorje presents a detailed account of the Middle Way and buddha-nature, including a brief account of the transmission of Middle Way teachings. He considers the founding father Nāgārjuna and other luminaries such as Āryadeva, Āryaśūra, and Śāntideva as masters of the primary Middle Way treatises (གཞུང་ཕྱི་མོའི་དབུ་མ་), accepted by all later followers of this school, before the school split into two groups based on the interpretation of the logical and hermeneutic approach through Buddhapālita and Candrakīrti on one side and Bhāvaviveka and his followers on the other. Mikyö Dorje comments that in spite of the differences, both camps present the ultimate understanding of the Middle Way qua ultimate truth.
Elaborating further on the transmission of the Middle Way teachings, he writes that there are transmissions of the actual wisdom of the Middle Way and the transmission of the scholarly study and letter of the Mādhyamika tradition. For the first one, there are three lines of transmission to Tibet. The first one is the lineage of the profound teachings through the Kagyu hierarchs, and this includes two sublineages. One was received via Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa, while the other was received through Maitrīpa, particularly in the context of his amanasikāra, or nonmentation practice. Despite some criticism from scholars such as Drolungpa and Sakya Paṇḍita, which according to Mikyö Dorje are unjustified, this line has come down to Gampopa, who championed it and spread it vigorously using the term Mahāmudrā.
The second line of transmission was received in Tibet through Atiśa and was passed down through Kadam masters to Gampopa, who was a Kadampa before he became a disciple of Milarepa. This transmission through Atiśa, Mikyö Dorje states, is the same in content or purport as the transmission received via Maitrīpa in the name of Mahāmudrā, but this line adopts a more analytical and apophatic approach to highlight the negational aspect of ultimate reality, while Maitrīpa's approach takes one beyond both apophatic and cataphatic framing to an utter groundlessness. Gampopa is said to have mastered the practice according to the Kadampa approach, but when he met Milarepa and shared his experience, his realization was considered by Milarepa to be incomplete and only capable of overcoming partial problems of grasping and not all forms of grasping to extremes. As such a contemplative practice risks leading to a rebirth in some celestial world, Gampopa is said to have remarked that he risked being born as a celestial being if he did not meet Milarepa.
The third transmission comes through Patsab Lotsāwa Nyima Drakpa, who translated Candrakīrti's Madhyamākavatāra and is known to have introduced the Prāsangika Mādhyamika thought in Tibet. Except for subtle differences in the analytical and contemplative procedure, this line of thought, Mikyö Dorje comments, is similar to the transmission via Atiśa, even in the use of words. Mikyö Dorje also explains that the differences between the three transmissions also depend on the emphasis and effort of the individuals, and it is also possible that adherents of these different transmissions adopt the approaches and techniques from the other transmission lines.
The transmission of the study and interpretation of letters of the Mādhyamakāvatāra in Tibet only begins with Patsab Lotsāwa, from whom it was passed down to Mikyö Dorje himself through some twenty-four masters in the lineage. Mikyö Dorje, then, engages in a long polemical discussion on the difference between the Middle Way transmitted through the sūtra schools and the secret tantric tradition.
Tāranātha's Three Commentaries on the Heart Sūtra
Tāranātha perhaps stands as the most prolific commentator on the Heart Sūtra, having written three commentaries on it of different style and length. The first is a commentary in verse, which he wrote at the age of 29 at the request of a master named Śākya Gyaltsen. Containing 90 verses to explain the 25 stanzas of the Heart Sūtra, he called the commentary Incomparable King: A Verse Commentary of the Heart Sūtra (འཕགས་པ་ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པའི་སྙིང་པོའི་དཀའ་འགྲེལ་འགྲན་ཟླ་མེད་པའི་རྒྱལ་པོ་ཚིག་ལེའུར་བྱས་པ།) and indeed claimed the commentary to be unique in explicating how the Heart Sūtra treats the hidden theme of the eight topics (སྦས་དོན་དངོས་པོ་བརྒྱད་) of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings. In verses 85–86, Tāranātha declares that such sagacious interpretation, apart from his own writings, may be found only in the writings of his followers and those who may steal the idea from his works.
The Heart Sūtra, Tāranātha argues, is the epitome of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings, although there are numerous other minor sūtras on Perfection of Wisdom. For this reason, masters throughout the ages have cherished this sūtra, and it was initially promoted in Tibet by Vimalamitra. The ultimate purport of the Heart Sūtra, Tāranātha states, is of Vijñaptimādhyamika, although the sūtra can be interpreted according to other Mādhyamika philosophical positions. Building on this, Tāranātha argued that the Heart Sūtra presented the three forms of emptiness: (1) the emptiness of what is nonexistent (i.e., the nonexistence of what is imputed or superimposed, such as external matter even on the relative or conventional level), (2) the emptiness of what is existent (i.e., the lack of inherent existence of the dependent nature), and (3) the emptiness of real nature (i.e., the lack of duality in the consummate nature). Thus, Tāranātha's comment that "form is emptiness" indicates the utter emptiness or nonexistence of external form, and his comment that "emptiness is form" indicates how the mental cognition which is empty of form appears as form and how "emptiness is not other than form" and "form is not other than emptiness" negates the identity and difference between the consummate nature and mental cognition which is projected as form.
He presents such an interpretation of the Heart Sūtra in accordance with his philosophical espousal of the other-emptiness more articulately in his second word-for-word commentary entitled the Marvellous Word Commentary on the Heart Sūtra (ཤེར་སྙིང་གི་ཚིག་འགྲེལ་རྨད་དུ་བྱུང་བ་). At the very outset, he states in this commentary that the main referent of the term Perfection of Wisdom is buddha-nature, the nondual wisdom which is the true nature of all phenomena. This, he argues, is not empty of its nature. The Heart Sūtra sufficiently makes it clear that the five skandhas and other conventional phenomena are empty of their nature, but not buddha-nature or the ultimate truth. "Form is emptiness" means that form is utterly nonexistent and empty. "Emptiness is form" means that emptiness, which is the ultimate reality, is what appears as form to ordinary beings. "Emptiness is not other than form" means there is no emptiness which exists separately from form, but reality qua emptiness is rather the true nature of form. "Form is not other than emptiness" means there is no real form that is different from emptiness in the ultimate sense, because emptiness qua reality exists, whereas form doesn't.
Tāranātha presents a detailed exposition of his understanding of the Heart Sūtra in accordance with the theories of other-emptiness in his long commentary entitled the Unprecedented Elegant Exposition: An Exegesis on the Heart Sūtra (ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པའི་སྙིང་པོའི་མདོ་རྣམ་པར་བཤད་པ་སྔོན་མེད་ལེགས་བཤད།). In this treatise, Tāranātha starts with the discussion of the different forms of Perfection of Wisdom in relation to the nature of phenomena, the path to enlightenment, the resultant state, and the doctrinal teachings which discuss the topic. In both this and the verse commentary, he cites Dignāga to claim that the true Perfection of Wisdom is the resultant wisdom of the buddhas. However, the most important point he underscores is that the ultimate message of all three turnings of the wheel and of the Heart Sūtra is the great other-emptiness. All conventional phenomena are primordially empty of their own nature, but the ultimate nature is only empty of other conventional phenomena but not empty of its own nature. This, he argues, is the ultimate truth, the reality, and the intent of all buddhas.
Commenting on the four statements on form and emptiness, he presents what he considers to be the interpretations among the proponents of the Mind Only (སེམས་ཙམ་པ་) and the Naturelessness (ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་མེད་པར་སྨྲ་བ་), both of which are acceptable in certain contexts but do not capture the ultimate reality. The ultimate understanding, he reasons, must be obtained by putting the four statements in the context of the three characteristics (མཚན་ཉིད་གསུམ་). He goes on to explain how the four statements should be understood in relation to the imputed nature, the dependent nature, and the consummate nature. In the first case, "form is emptiness" refers to form and all other phenomena of imputed and illusory nature being empty or utterly nonexistent even in relative terms. "Emptiness is form" refers to such emptiness appearing as an illusory form to ordinary beings. "Emptiness is not other than form" and "form is not other than emptiness" refer to there being no form and emptiness which are distinct and separate from each other. This is the first emptiness of what is actually nonexistent (མེད་པའི་སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་).
In the case of the dependent nature, "form is emptiness" refers to the mental cognition that is projected as form being empty of real external existence and subject-object duality, although it seemingly appears as form. "Emptiness is form" refers to such emptiness or lack of subject-object duality being the nature of the mental cognition which is projected as form. "Emptiness is not other than form and form is not other than emptiness" refers to how emptiness of a real existence of form and the mental cognition projected as form are not different or distinct entities. This is the explanation of the emptiness of that which exists (ཡོད་པའི་སྟོང་ཉིད་) in relation to the dependent nature.
In the context of the final understanding in connection to the consummate nature, "form is emptiness" refers to the form of reality — which in this case may be understood as a metaphorical body of truth or reality instead of external physical form — being ultimate emptiness, and "emptiness is form" refers to emptiness of duality that is the consummate nature being the form of reality. The emptiness qua consummate nature and form of reality are not separable and different. This is the exposition of the emptiness of nature (རང་བཞིན་སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་). These three understandings of emptiness, Tāranātha asserts, are the true understanding of emptiness as taught by Maitreya.
Pema Karpo's Treasure Vault of Mahāmudrā
Pema Karpo is perhaps the most well-known scholar of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition and undoubtedly the leading systemizer of the Mahāmudrā system in this tradition. In his famous work entitled An Exposition of Mahāmudrā: The Treasure Vault of the Victors, he presents the Mahāmudrā, particularly the Co-emergent Union (ལྷན་ཅིག་སྐྱེས་སྦྱོར་), in five chapters. In the first chapter on the Mahāmudrā of word or teachings, he discusses the texts and transmissions of Mahāmudrā teachings which primarily deal with the view. They are classified into three sets of (1) explanatory words (བཤད་པ་ཚིག་གི་སྐོར་), (2) practical instructions (གདམས་ངག་ཉམས་ལེན་གྱི་སྐོར་), and (3) blessings for realization (རྟོགས་པ་བྱིན་རླབས་ཀྱི་སྐོར་). He also discusses the concept of oral guidance, explaining who is being guided, what guides them, from where and to where one is guided, and the different types of oral guidance.
Next, in the second chapter, he explains what Mahāmudrā means by carrying out a discussion on the term mudrā, the four different types of mudrās, and how Mahāmudrā is a universal panacea like the Single White Remedy (དཀར་པོ་གཅིག་ཐུབ་). In the third chapter, Pema Karpo explains the Co-emergent Union of Gampopa by categorizing it into (1) the co-emergent nature of the mind (སེམས་ཉིད་ལྷན་ཅིག་སྐྱེས་པ་) and (2) the co-emergent nature of appearance (སྣང་བ་ལྷན་ཅིག་སྐྱེས་པ་), which are dharmakāya and the radiance of dharmakāya respectively. He also cites the different interpretations and understandings of this practice while explaining the four practices of single-pointedness, nonelaboration, single-taste, and nonmeditation.
Pema Karpo starts the fourth chapter on the instructions for Co-emergent Union by discussing the Mahāmudrā of reality and Mahāmudrā of confusion and underscoring that the Co-emergent Union is the innate, primordial, and original awareness, the pristine wisdom of the Buddha, which is naturally pure, unconditioned, nondual, stainless, and ineffable, being beyond the realm of conceptual thought and language. In the course of this discussion, he goes on to refute the position held by the Jonangpas that buddha-nature is absolute reality which is totally different from the appearance of ordinary existence. The Jonangpas assert that while buddha-nature, which is the primordially pure ultimate truth, transcends dependent origination, the ordinary phenomena, which is the impure conventional truth, is characterized by conditioned existence through dependent origination. Pema Karpo refutes the Jonangpa position using various scriptural citations and reasoning. He goes on to argue that even nirvāṇa is relative to saṃsāra and therefore devoid of absolute self-existence. In the final chapter, Pema Karpo undertakes a detailed rebuttal of Sakya Paṇḍita's criticism of Mahāmudrā in his Distinguishing the Three Vows.
Śākya Chokden's Polemical Trilogy on Mahāmudrā, The Wheel of Brahma
In three short works in the seventeenth volume of his Collected Writings, Śākya Chokden discusses his understanding of Mahāmudrā as presented by Gampopa through the latter's practical instruction of the Single White Remedy (སྨན་དཀར་པོ་གཅིག་ཐུབ་).
In the first book entitled Undermining the Haughtiness of Others by the Wheel of Brahma: A Treatise Clarifying Mahāmudrā (ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་གསལ་བར་བྱེད་པའི་བསྟན་བཅོས་ཚངས་པའི་འཁོར་ལོས་གཞན་བློའི་དྲེགས་པ་ཉམས་བྱེད།), he seeks to explain the luminous nature of the mind, which he says is also popularly given the name Mahāmudrā in Tibet (སེམས་ཀྱི་རང་བཞིན་འོད་གསལ་ལ།། ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོའི་མཚན་གསོལ་ནས། །གངས་ཅན་ལྗོངས་སུ་ཆེར་གྲགས་པ། །དེ་ཉིད་མདོ་ཙམ་གསལ་བར་བྱ།།). In elucidating the Mahāmudrā advocated by Gampopa, he presents a detailed explanation of it by pointing out that the Mahāmudrā in this context is the luminous nature of the mind which is common to all Mahāyāna traditions and the one which is explicitly taught in the works of Maitreya, particularly in the Ultimate Continuum. This nature is totally obscured or tainted in the ground phase (གཞི་དུས་མ་དག་པ་), partially tainted or obscured at the path phase (ལམ་དུས་ཕྱོགས་གཅིག་དག་པ་), and fully purified at the fruition phase (འབྲས་དུས་ཐམས་ཅད་དག་པ་). He writes that the basic element of buddha-nature is the ground to be purified, the stains to be removed are ninefold (perhaps referring to the nine analogies used to illustrate how buddha-nature is obscured by the afflictive emotions), the antidote which purifies is the discernment of buddha-nature, and the final result is the perfection of purity, self, and bliss. A resemblance of the final result is already perceived on the path of seeing, and such experience of buddha-nature is said to be the seeing of Mahāmudrā.
In brief, he states that Mahāmudrā in this context is not the emptiness of nonimplicative negation as argued in the scholastic writings of Nāgārjuna but what is taught in the writings of Maitreya, or the definitive ultimate reality taught in the third turning after having taught self-emptiness in the middle turning. He then explains how such nature is actualized through meditation by removing the dualistic conceptual thoughts and emotions which are included in the eight types of consciousness that characterize the three realms of the cycle of existence. In the final section, he refutes several misunderstandings and criticisms concerning Mahāmudrā and argues that this Mahāmudrā cannot be realized merely through conceptual reasoning but through the practice of nonmentation, with the help of instructions which point out the nature of the mind and devotion to the guru. Intellectual study and single-pointed concentration are not prerequisites for the experience of Mahāmudrā. He adds that positing the emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation after a reductionist analysis as Mahāmudrā is not in accordance with the Ultimate Continuum or the purport of the hymns by Saraha.
In the second work, A Treatise on the Distinctions of Mahāmudrā (ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོའི་ཤན་འབྱེད་ཅེས་བྱ་བའི་བསྟན་བཅོས།), Śākya Chokden lists the five types of misinterpretation of the actual point of Mahāmudrā practice:
- 1. The emptiness posited through Mādhyamika reasoning.
2. The union of emptiness and bliss which fills the network of channels after the tantric practice of consecration.
3. Experience of bare consciousness free from all mentation.
4. Nonapprehension of the mind either inside or outside, having color and shape, etc.
5. The ground consciousness which is the cause of all experience.
He states that none of these capture the profound, precise, effective Mahāmudrā technique of Gampopa, which is compared to the Single White Remedy, and explains how they are not the same as Gampopa's Mahāmudrā. For instance, the first position concerns emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation espoused by Mādhyamika thinkers, associated with conceptual thought and established through logical reasoning, whereas Mahāmudrā is primordial wisdom which is discerned by direct experience triggered by devotion, blessings of the guru, and one's karmic merit. The second case is what is taught in the tantras and not the one advocated by Gampopa in the context of the sūtras.
Śākya Chokden distinguishes the above positions and also Chinese Chan practice from Gampopa's Mahāmudrā and goes on to explain their differences and elaborate the practice of Mahāmudrā through the four points of single-pointedness (རྩེ་གཅིག་), nonelaboration (སྤྲོས་བྲལ་), one taste (རོ་གཅིག་), and nonmeditation (སྒོམ་མེད་).
The third book in his trilogy on Mahāmudrā, The Great Ship Unity: A Treatise that Dispels Misinterpretations of the Perspective of Mahāmudrā in Terms of Both the Scriptures and Reasonings (ལུང་རིགས་གཉིས་ཀྱིས་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོའི་བཞེད་ཚུལ་ལ་འཁྲུལ་པ་སེལ་བའི་བསྟན་བཅོས་ཟུང་འཇུག་གྲུ་ཆེན།), comprises his responses to a list of questions raised by a certain scholar named Karma Wangchuk Pel with regard to Sakya Paṇḍita's critique of neo-Mahāmudrā and Single White Remedy in his Distinguishing the Three Vows.
He begins with a cogent presentation of Mahāmudrā, covering its sources, the objective Mahāmudrā, the subjective Mahāmudrā, its synonyms, the actual Mahāmudrā experience among sublime beings, the analogous Mahāmudrā understanding among ordinary practitioners, and the Mahāmudrā concept according to the philosophical and tantric schools. Following this, he delves into how some later followers of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions do not fathom the understanding of the their respective teachings. He also points out how the followers of the Kadampa tradition have missed the important original teachings of Atīśa and founding fathers.
In summary, Śākya Chokden underscores the point that there are two ways in which misconceptions are overcome: through an extroverted rational analysis and an introverted yogic contemplation. The Mahāmudrā tradition of Gampopa belongs to the latter category, while the former includes the postulations of self-emptiness and other-emptiness.
Choying Tobden Dorje’s Encyclopedic Work and Buddha-Nature
In 1838, Choying Tobden Dorje, one of the leading Nyingma figures of the Amdo region, completed his encyclopedic work entitled the Treasury of Precious Sūtras and Tantras. This multivolume work is today being translated into English by Ngawang Zangpo, Gyurme Dorje, and Heidi Nevin, and published in the Complete Nyingma Tradition from Sutra to Tantra series. Choying Tobden Dorje was one of the four leading students of the first Dodrup Jigme Thinley Özer and thus a teacher of the Nyingthig tradition. Following the model of Jigme Lingpa's Treasury of Precious Qualities and Longchenpa's Treasury of Wish-Fulfilling Jewel, Choying Tobden Dorje presents the entire span of the Buddhist path in twenty-five chapters starting from following a virtuous teacher and culminating in the Dzogchen tradition of which he was a staunch advocate and practitioner.
After discussing the type of teachers, etiquette for studying, four points of mind turning, and taking refuge in the first seven chapters, Choying Tobden Dorje discusses bodhicitta and the ground Madhyamaka in the process of which he discusses buddha-nature.
- དེ་ལྟར་སྐྱབས་འགྲོའི་སྡོམ་པ་གཞི་བཟུང་ནས། །ཐེག་ཆེན་སེམས་མཆོག་བསྐྱེད་ལ་རིགས་ཁམས་དོན། །ཤཱཀྱ་ཐུབ་པས་སྣ་ཚོགས་འཁོར་རྣམས་ལ། །ལྷ་དང་ཀླུ་ཡི་གནས་ལ་སོགས་པ་ནས།། འཁོར་ལོ་ཐ་མ་དོན་དམ་ངེས་པ་བསྟན། །སྔ་འགྱུར་ཕལ་ཆེན་དཀོན་བརྩེགས་མྱང་འདས་མདོ། །གཟུངས་ཀྱི་དབང་ཕྱུག་སེང་གེ་ང་རོའི་མདོ། །བུ་མོ་རིན་ཆེན་ལྷ་མོ་དྲི་མེད་མདོ། །སོར་ཕྲེང་བྱམས་ཞུས་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོའི་མདོ། །ལ་སོགས་དགུ་བཅུ་གསར་འགྱུར་ཉི་ཤུ་བཞི། །དགོངས་པ་འགྲེལ་པའི་བསྟན་བཅོས་བཅུ་ཕྲག་བཞི། །དོན་དམ་བདེན་པ་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོ་ཡི། །སྣང་བའི་ཡོན་ཏན་སྐུ་དང་ཞིང་ཁམས་དང་། །སྟོང་པའི་ཡོན་ཏན་སྟོབས་བཅུ་མི་འཇིགས་སོགས། །ཡེ་ནས་ལྷུན་གྲུབ་འགྱུར་མེད་རང་རིག་ཁམས། །གློ་བུར་གཟུང་འཛིན་ལས་ཉོན་འཁྲུལ་པས་བསྒྲིབས། །
- Having thus the foundation of vows of taking refuge
In order to generate the thought of great vehicle
The Buddha has taught the topic of gene or element
Which constitutes the last wheel of definitive ultimate truth
To various disciples in the lands of gods and nāgas.
Among the early translations are ninety sūtras including Avataṃsaka,
Ratnakūṭa, Mahāparinirvāṇa, Dhāraṇīśvara, Siṃhanādasūtra,
Aṅgulimālīya, Maitreyaparipṛcchā and Tathāgatagarbhasūtra.
Among new translations are twenty-four.
There are forty commentarial treatises.
The ultimate truth that is buddha-nature
Has features of appearance such as enlightened bodies and realms
And features of emptiness such as ten powers and four forms of fearlessness.
The immutable self-aware gene, which has qualities primordially and naturally present,
Is obscured by the adventitious, dualistic, deceptive afflictions and actions.
- སྒྲིབ་ཀུན་སངས་ཚེ་དྲི་མེད་ཡོན་ཏན་རྒྱས། །འགྲོ་བ་ཡོངས་ལ་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོས་ཁྱབ། །རིགས་སད་རྟགས་སུ་སྲིད་ཞིའི་སྐྱོན་ཡོན་མཐོང་། །ཡོན་ཏན་རྒྱ་ཆེ་སྲིད་པའི་མཚོ་ལས་སྒྲོལ། །ཆོས་དབྱིངས་རྟེན་དང་སྣང་བ་བརྟེན་པ་དང་། །མ་དག་དག་པ་ཤིན་ཏུ་དག་པའི་རིགས་། །མར་དང་མར་མེ་ནོར་བུ་གསེར་དང་འབྲུ། །ཤིང་འབྲས་དཔེ་དྲུག་གཞི་ལམ་འབྲས་བུའི་ཚུལ། །པདྨའི་སྦུབས་ཀྱི་སངས་རྒྱས་སྦྲང་མ་སྦྲང་། །སྦུན་པའི་འབྲས་བུ་འདམ་རྫབ་ནང་གི་གསེར། །ས་འོག་གཏེར་དང་ཤུན་པའི་མྱུ་གུ་དང་། །གོས་རུལ་ནོར་བུ་མངལ་གྱི་མི་བདག་དང་། །ས་ཡིས་བཏུམ་པའི་གསེར་སྟེ་དཔེ་དོན་དགུ །དབྱིངས་དང་སངས་རྒྱས་སྙིང་པོ་ཁམས་དོན་དམ། །འོད་གསལ་སྟོང་ཉིད་ཤེར་ཕྱིན་དེ་བཞིན་ཉིད། །ཁམས་ཡོད་མོས་པ་ཕྱོགས་རེ་མངོན་གྱུར་པ། །སྐྱོན་དང་འདུས་བྱས་ཀྱིས་སྟོང་ཡོན་ཏན་རྫོགས། །ཉེས་པ་ལྔ་སེལ་སྤྲོ་བརྩོན་གཞན་དོན་འགྲུབ། །
- When the obscurations are cleared, the stainless qualities shine.
The buddha-nature pervades all sentient beings.
As signs of awakening, flaws of saṃsāra and qualities of liberation are seen.
The qualities, being vast, will deliver beings from the ocean of existence.
The sphere of reality is the support and appearance is what is supported.
The gene comes in impure, pure, and very pure phases.
Six analogies of butter, lamp, gem, gold, grains, and fruits
Illustrate it in relation to the ground, path, and fruition.
Nine analogies showing the point are a buddha image in a bud,
Honey within the bees, grain in the husk,
Piece of gold in the mud, an underground treasure,
A shoot in the bark, a gem in a rag,
A monarch in the womb, and gold covered by earth.
It is the sphere, the essence of buddhas, the element, the ultimate,
The luminous, emptiness, perfection of wisdom and reality.
The element is believed to exist, seen partially, and fully realized.
It is empty of flaws and conditioned things but complete with enlightened qualities.
It removes the five faults, and inspires interest, diligence, and benevolent actions.
He unpacks these concise verses on buddha-nature, as with the rest of the treatise, through a summary, a word-for-word commentary, and then an elaborate exegesis which fills five volumes in its most recent publication by Sitron Mirig Petrun Khang.
Buddha-Nature in Gö Lotsāwa's Blue Annals
Gö Lotsāwa Zhönu Pal wrote one of the most elaborate commentaries on the Ultimate Continuum sometime in 1473 according to his biography. In this, he expounded an ecumenical theory of buddha-nature. A few years later, he finished his renowned historical work, the Blue Annals, in which he included a lot of information on the transmission of buddha-nature teachings. The following section on the Tsen tradition of the exposition of the Ultimate Continuum gives rich information on the transmission of buddha-nature teachings in Tibet. (Bod kyi lo rgyus rnam thar phyogs bsgrigs, Ziling: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, vol. 14, p. 338-40 and Deb ther sngon po, Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, Vol. 1, pp. 422-25.)
བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་བྱམས་པའི་ཆོས་ལྔ་པོ་འདི་ལ། ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་ཆེན་པོ་བློ་ལྡན་ཤེས་རབ་དང་བཙན་ཁ་བོ་ཆེ་གཉིས་གསན་སའི་བླ་མ་སཛྫནར་གཅིག་ཀྱང་། གཞུང་གི་བཤད་པའི་ཚུལ་ནི་མི་འདྲ་བར་སྣང་སྟེ། དེ་ཡང་བཙན་ལུགས་ཀྱི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་ལ། ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོ་རྒྱུད་བླ་མ་དང་ཆོས་ཆོས་ཉིད་རྣམ་པར་འབྱེད་པ་གཉིས་པཎྜི་ཏ་གཞན་ལ་ཡང་མ་གྲགས། རྗེ་མེེ་ཏྲི་པས་མཆོད་རྟེན་ཞིག་གི་སེར་ཁ་ནས་འོད་འབྱུང་གི་འདུག་པ་གཟིགས་པས་ཆོས་གཉིས་པོའི་དཔེ་བྱུང་། དེ་ནས་རྗེ་བཙུན་མ་ཕམ་པ་ལ་གསོལ་བ་བཏབ་པས་སྤྲིན་གྱི་མཐོངས་སུ་བྱོན་ཏེ། དེ་གཉིས་ལེགས་པར་གནང་། མེེ་དྲི་པས་པཎྜི་ཏ་དགའ་བའི་གྲགས་པ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་ལ་བཤད། དགའ་བའི་གྲགས་པས་སྤྲང་པོའི་ཆ་བྱད་ཀྱིས་ཁ་ཆེར་བྱོན། སཛྫ་ནས་དགའ་བའི་གྲགས་པ་ངོ་མཚར་ཅན་དུ་གཟིགས་ཏེ་བསྙེན་བཀུར་ནས་གཞུན་གཉིས་པོའི་བཤད་པ་ཞུས་ཤིང་། དཔེ་ཡང་ཁ་ཡར་བྲིས་ནས་མཁས་པ་ཛྙཱན་ཤྲཱི་ལ་སོགས་པ་ལ་ཕུལ།
Although the translator Loden Sherab and Tsen Khawoche have the same teacher, Sajjana, from whom they received the teachings on the five works of Buddha Maitreya, their explanation of the texts appear to be different. As for the story of the Tsen tradition, the Ultimate Continuum and the Distinguishing Phenomena and Their Nature were not known to other scholars. Lord Maitripa found the texts of these two works when he investigated the light shining out of a crack in the stūpa. Then, he prayed to Lord Maitreya, who appeared in the clouds and gave teachings on these two texts. Maitripa explained them to Paṇḍita Anandakīrti. Anandakīrti visited Kashmir in the guise of a beggar, and Sajjana, who found him amazing and offered him services, received teachings from him on the two texts. Some copies of texts were also written and offered to the scholar Jñānaśrī and others.
དེ་ཡང་བཙན་ཁ་བོ་ཆེ་དེ་གྲྭ་པ་མངོན་ཤེས་ཀྱི་མཁན་བུ་ཡིན་པས། ཁ་ཆེར་འབྱོན་ཁར་མཁན་པོ་ལ་གཏོར་མ་ཞུས་པས། མཁན་པོའི་ཞལ་ནས། ཁྱོད་ཁ་ཆེ་ནས་མ་འཁོར་བར་ལ་སོ་ན་བ་ཙམ་ཡང་མི་ཡོང་བར་ངས་ཁག་ཁུར་ཅིག་གསུངས་ནས། ལྕགས་མོ་བྱ་ལོ་པ་ལོ་ལྔ་བཅུ་རྩ་དྲུག་བཞེས་པ་ཞིག་ཁ་ཆེར་ཕྱིན་པ་ཡིན་པས། སཛྫ་ན་ལ། ད་ང་རྒས་པས་ཆོས་མང་པོ་མི་ལོབས། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་བྱམས་པའོ་ཆོས་ལ་འཆི་ཆོས་བྱེད་པས་དེའི་བཤད་པ་ཡང་དག་པ་ཞིག་གནང་བར་ཞུ་ཞེས་ཞུས། སཛྫ་ནས་ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་གཟུ་དགའ་བའི་རྡོ་རྗེ་ལ་བཅོལ་ནས། བཙན་ཁ་བོ་ཆེ་ལ་གདམས་པ་དང་བཅས་པ་གནང་ཟེར། དེ་དུས་སུ་གཟུས་བྲིས་བྱས་པའི་རྒྱུད་བླ་མ་ལ་ཡིག་ཆ་ཡང་ཡོད་པར་འདུག པདྨ་སེང་གེ་ཞེས་བྱ་བའི་ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་ཞིག་ལ་ཡང་བཙན་དང་བཤད་པ་མཐུན་པར་བྱུང་འདུག་སྟེ། དེས་ཀྱང་སཛྫ་ན་ལ་གཏུགས་པའི་སྐབས་ཀྱི་ཟིན་བྲིས་བྱས་པའི་མདོ་སྡེ་རྒྱན་གྱི་ཊཱིཀ་ཆེན་པོ་ཞིག་ཀྱང་སྣང་ངོ་། །
Tsen Khawoche was a pupil of Drapa Ngonshe. He asked his master for torma [ritual protection] before departing to Kashmir, to which his master said: "Until you return from Kashmir, may I guarantee that not even a toothache will befall you." At the age of 56, Tsen, who was born in the Iron Bird year, went to Kashmir. He submitted to Sajjana: "I am old and cannot train in many dharmas. I shall adopt the teachings of Lord Maitreya as my dharma for dying. Please grant me authentic teachings on them." Sajjana is said to have given teachings including instructions to Tsen Khawoche, relying on Zu Gawai Dorje as translator. There seems to be some documents on the Ultimate Continuum written by Zu at that time. A translator named Pema Singye also appears to have received the same teachings as Tsen. There appears to exist also a commentary by him on the Ornament of Mahāyāna Sūtras, for which he too notes when he studied with Sajjana.
བཙན་གྱིས་རྔོག་ལོ་ཙཱ་བའི་སྔ་རོལ་དུ་བོད་དུ་ཕེབས། གནས་ཐ་དད་པ་རྣམས་སུ་ཇི་ལྟར་རིགས་པར་དགེ་བའི་བཤེས་གཉེན་དོན་དུ་གཉེར་བ་རྣམས་ལ་བྱམས་ཆོས་ཀྱི་བཤད་པ་མཛད། ཕན་ཡང་ཆེ་བར་བྱུང་། དེའི་གནས་གཞི་ནི་ཡར་སྟོད་ཀྱི་བྲག་རྒྱ་ཡིན། དེས་དགེ་བའི་བཤེས་གཉེན་ལྕང་ར་བ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་ལ་གསུངས། དེས་འཕྱོས་ཀྱི་མདོ་སྡེ་སྦུག་པ་དར་མ་བརྩོན་འགྲུས་ལ་བཤད། དར་མ་བརྩོན་འགྲུས་ཀྱི་མདོ་སྡེའི་རྒྱན་ལ་ཊཱི་ཀ་ཆེ་བ་ཞིག་ཀྱང་མཛད་དེ། དེའི་གླེགས་བམ་ནི་མང་དུ་སྣང་། རྒྱུད་བླ་མ་ལ་བཙན་ལུགས་ཀྱི་ཊཱི་ཀ་ཡིན་ཟེར་བའི་མཛད་པ་པོ་མ་སྨོས་པ། བཤད་པ་རྣམས་མན་ངག་ཉམས་ལེན་ཁོ་ན་དང་སྦྱར་བ་ཞིག་ཀྱང་སྣང་། བཙན་ལུགས་ཀྱི་མན་ངག་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་བཞགས་ལ་སོགས་ཡིག་ཆུང་ཡང་འགའ་ཡར་འདུག དིང་སང་ལུགས་དེ་དགེ་བའི་བཤེས་གཉེན་འདི་ལ་བཞུགས་སོ་བྱ་བ་ནི་མ་ཐོས།
Tsen came to Tibet before the translator Ngok and gave teachings on the works of Maitreya to interested scholars in different places as was appropriate. This resulted in great benefits. His base was in Drakgya in Yartö, and he taught the scholar Changrawa, who taught it to Dode Bukpa Darma Tsöndru. Darma Tsöndru wrote a major commentary on the Ornament of Mahāyāna Sūtras, of which there are many books. There exists also a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum—written by an unnamed author—which claims to follow the Tsen tradition and blends the explanation with instructions for practice. There also exists some notes on the instructions according to Tsen tradition, such as Abode of Pristine Wisdom (ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་བཞག་ས་). However, we do not hear of this tradition held by any scholar nowadays.
དེ་ཡང་རྔོག་ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་བློ་ལྡན་ཤེས་རབ་ནས་རིམ་པར་བརྒྱུད་པའི་མཁས་པ་མང་པོས་ཊཱི་ཀ་ཡང་མཛད། དེ་ལ་ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་ཆེན་པོ་དང་སློབ་དཔོན་གཙང་ནག་པ་ནི་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་སྙིང་པོ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་དོན་དམ་པའི་བདེན་པ་ལ་ཟེར་མོད་ཀྱི། དོན་དམ་པའི་བདེན་པ་ནི་སྒྲ་དང་རྟོག་པའི་དངོས་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་མ་ཡིན་པ་ལྟ་ཞོག ཞེན་པའི་ཡུལ་ཙམ་ཡང་མ་ཡིན་ཞེས་གསུང་། སློབ་དཔོན་ཕྱྭ་པ་ནི་དངོས་པོ་རྣམས་བདེན་པས་སྟོང་པའི་མེད་པར་དགག་པ་ནི་དོན་དམ་པའི་བདེན་པ་ཡིན་ཞིང་། དེ་སྒྲ་རྟོག་གི་ཞེན་པའི་ཡུལ་དུ་ཡང་བཞེད།
Many of the scholars who held the transmission from the translator Ngok Loden Sherab even composed commentaries. In this context, the great translator and the master Tsang Nakpa claimed that what is called buddha-nature is the ultimate truth and such ultimate truth is not even the referential object of thought and language, let alone being a direct object. The master Chapa asserted that the nonimplicative negation (that is, all phenomena being empty of true existence) is the ultimate truth, and such [ultimate truth] is a referential object of thought and language.
བཙན་ལུགས་པ་རྣམས་ནི་སེམས་ཀྱི་རང་བཞིན་འོད་གསལ་བ་བདེ་བར་གཤེགས་པའི་སྙིང་པོ་ཡིན་པས། དེ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱི་རྒྱུ་ཡང་གྲུང་པོར་བཞེད། རྗེ་བཙུན་རེད་མདའ་བས་དང་པོར་རྒྱུད་བླ་མ་སེམས་ཙམ་གྱི་བསྟན་བཅོས་སུ་མཛད་ནས་སེམས་ཙམ་དང་མཐུན་པའི་ཊཱི་ཀ་ཡང་མཛད། ཕྱིས་དབེན་པ་བསྟེན་ནས་ནི། དེ་ཕྱིར་རང་སེམས་རིག་སྟོང་དབྱེར་མེད་འདི། །སེམས་ཅན་ཀུན་ལ་ཁྱབ་པར་ཡོད་གཟིགས་ནས། །ས་འོག་གཏེར་དང་སྦྲུམ་མའི་མངལ་སོགས་དཔེས། །འགྲོ་ཀུན་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོ་ཅན་དུ་གསུངས། །ཞེས་བྱ་བའི་མགུར་བླངས།
The adherents of the Tsen tradition espouse the luminous nature of the mind to be buddha-nature, and that is a vigorous seed of buddhahood. Lord Rendawa initially considered the Ultimate Continuum to be a treatise of the Mind Only school and even wrote a commentary according to the Mind Only philosophy. Later, he took up the hermetic life and proclaimed the hymn:
- Thus, this mind, which is indivisible awareness and emptiness,
Is seen to pervade all sentient beings
And, through analogies of underground treasure, pregnant woman’s womb and so forth,
It was taught that all sentient beings possess buddha-nature.
སྤྱིར་བྱམས་པའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་[ཕྱི་]མ་གཉིས་པོ་འདི་རྗེ་བཙུན་མེེ་ཏྲི་པས་གསར་དུ་རྙེད་པ་ནི་བདེན་པ་འདྲ་སྟེ། བརྒྱད་སྟོང་འགྲེལ་ཆེན་སོགས་སུ་དབུས་དང་མཐའ་རྣམ་པར་འབྱེད་པ་དང་། མདོ་སྡེའི་རྒྱན་ནས་ལུང་དྲངས་ཤིང་། བསྟན་བཅོས་ཕྱི་མ་གཉིས་པོའི་ལུང་ཅུང་ཟད་ཀྱང་མ་དྲངས་པར་སྣང་བའི་ཕྱིར་རོ།། ཁ་ཆེ་པཎ་ཆེན་གྱིས་ཀྱང་སྲིན་པོ་རིར་བྱམས་ཆོས་ལྔའི་མན་ངག་གནང་ཟེར་བ་ནི་འདུག དིང་སང་ནི་དེའི་སྒྲ་མི་གྲག་གོ། ཀུན་མཁྱེན་ཇོ་མོ་ནང་པས་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་སྙིང་པོ་བདེན་རྟག་ཏུ་ཁས་བླངས་པ་ནོར་རོ་ཞེས་ཁ་ཟེར་བ་དག་ཡོད་ཀྱང་། རྒྱུད་བླ་མ་ཡི་དམ་དུ་བྱེད་པ་དབུས་གཙང་ན་མང་དུ་འདུག་པ་རྣམས་ནི་ཁོང་གི་དྲིན་ལས་ཡིན་པས་སྣང་ངོ་།། རྒྱུད་བླ་མ་འགྲེལ་པ་དང་བཅས་པ་ཇོ་བོ་དང་ནག་ཚོས་ཐོག་མར་བསྒྱུར། དེ་ནས་རྔོག་ལོ། སྤ་ཚབ་ལོ་ཙཱ་བ། ཡར་ཀླུངས་ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་རྣམས་ཀྱིས་བསྒྱུར། ཇོ་ནང་ལོ་ཙཱ་བས་གཞུང་རྐྱང་ལ་འགྱུར་མཛད། མར་པ་དོ་པས་བྱམས་ཆོས་ལྔ་ཀ་ལ་འགྱུར་མཛད་ཡོད་ཅེས་ཀྱང་ཟེར་རོ།། བྱམས་ཆོས་བཙན་ལུགས་ཀྱི་སྐབས་སོ།།
In general, it seems true that these two [later] treatises of Maitreya were newly obtained by Maitripa. In the Great Commentary on 8000 Verses, there are citations from Distinguishing the Middle from the Extremes and the Ornament of Mahāyāna Sūtras, but there are no traces of citations from these two later treatises. There is a claim that the Kashmiri paṇchen gave instructions on the five works of Maitreya at Srinpori, but there is not a word of that today. There are some who say that the omniscient Jomonangpa assertion of buddha-nature as real and permanent is wrong. Yet, it appears that it is thanks to him that there are many who hold the Ultimate Continuum dear in the Ü and Tsang areas. Lord [Atiśa] and Naktso first translated the Ultimate Continuum and its commentary. Then, Ngok Lotsāwa, Patsab Lotsāwa, and Yarlung Lotsāwa translated it. It is said Jonang Lotsāwa also translated the main text and Marpa Dopa translated all five works of Maitreya. This is the section on the Tsen tradition of Maitreya's works.
Sūtra Vehicle and Buddhahood in One Lifetime
The general claim among Buddhist scholars about the philosophical sūtra vehicle (མདོ་མཚན་ཉིད་ཐེག་པ་) is that it takes three countless eons (1 followed by 59 zeros) for the bodhisattva with superior caliber and many more for those of mediocre and inferior caliber to reach perfect enlightenment, or buddhahood. The Vajrayāna path, or the vehicle of secret mantra (གསང་བ་སྔགས་ཀྱི་ཐེག་པ་), on the other hand, is considered to be swift and advantageous, with the possibility of bringing forth enlightenment in one lifetime or within sixteen lifetimes at the latest if one follows all the dos and don'ts. Thus, the Vajrayāna path is known as the fast path (མྱུར་ལམ་).
The Single Intention of the Drikung Kagyu, however, makes a bold and unusual claim that even the sūtra vehicle can bring about buddhahood in one lifetime. The locus classicus of Buddhist doctrine for the Drikung tradition, the Single Intention is a compendium of critical philosophical, soteriological, and moral positions taught by the Drikung master Jikten Gönpo and written down by his disciple and nephew Sherab Jungne. The text contains 150 critical vajra words (རྡོ་རྗེའི་གསུང་) in seven groups (ཚོམས་), along with another 47 appended points (ལྷན་ཐབས་). The root text composed by Sherab Jungne has seen several commentaries, including one by the first Drikung Chungtsang Chökyi Drakpa which has been translated by Markus Viehbeck and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch.
The 150 vajra words include many startling and controversial claims, including the assertion that one can attain buddhahood in one lifetime through the sūtra vehicle. Chökyi Drakpa writes in his commentary:
- བཅུ་གཉིས་པ་ནི། རྒྱུ་མཚན་ཉིད་ཀྱི་ཐེག་པས་ཀྱང་ཚེ་གཅིག་གིས་འཚང་རྒྱ་བར་བཞེད་པ་ནི། རང་གི་སྐལ་བ་དང་བསོད་ནམས་ཀྱི་མཐུ་ཡོད་ཅིང་། བླ་མ་མཚན་ལྡན་གྱིས་བསྟན་པའི་ལམ་ཚང་ལ་མ་ནོར་བ་དང་། རང་གིས་ཉམས་ལེན་བརྩོན་པ་རྨད་དུ་བྱུང་བ་ཞིག་སྟེ། རྒྱུ་ཚོགས་དེ་རྣམས་འཛོམས་ན་མཚན་ཉིད་ཐེག་པས་ཀྱང་ཚེ་གཅིག་ལ་ཡང་འཚང་རྒྱ་བ་འོང་ལ། རྒྱུ་ཚོགས་དེ་རྣམས་མ་འཛོམས་ན་སྔགས་ཀྱི་ཐེག་པས་ཀྱང་ཚེ་གཅིག་ལ་འཚང་རྒྱ་བ་མི་འགྲུབ་ལ། གཙོ་བོར་རྒྱུ་ཚོགས་དེ་འདྲ་བ་འཛོམས་པ་གལ་ཆེ་བ་སྟེ། ཞིབ་པ་སྔར་སྡོམ་པ་གསུམ་འཆད་པའི་སྐབས་སུ་བཤད་གྲུབ་བོ།།
- As for the twelfth point of asserting that even the causal philosophical vehicle can bring forth buddhahood in one lifetime, if one has the fortune and power of merit, an authentic teacher teaches the complete and correct path, one shows exceptional efforts in practice — if the assembly of causes is present, even the philosophical vehicle can reach one to buddhahood in one lifetime. If the assembly of causes is not present, even the mantra vehicle cannot take one to buddhahood. It is important primarily for such assembly of causes to be present. It has been explained in detail while explaining the three vows.
Tāranātha and Yeshe Gyatso's Presentation of the Middle Way
The Middle Way promoted by the Buddha has been a subject of much interpretation and debate. From a simple understanding of it as a way of seeking moderation in lifestyle to a highly sophisticated notion of going beyond all concepts and cognitive fixations, the Middle Way (Madhyamaka, དབུ་མ།) has come to mean different things to different people in different contexts. It is one of the most popular Buddhist terms with a wide range of varying and even contradictory meanings. Different masters and schools of thought use the term to delineate their distinct philosophical and moral theories and approaches.
In his major work on the philosophy of other-emptiness entitled Thoroughly Ascertaining the Great Middle Way of the Expansive Supreme Vehicle (ཐེག་མཆོག་ཤིན་ཏུ་རྒྱས་པ་དབུ་མ་ཆེན་པོ་རྣམ་པར་ངེས་པ་), Tāranātha, the famous Jonang scholar and acclaimed historian, lists some fourteen different ways of understanding the Middle Way. His treatise features as one of the three most important works on the Jonang philosophy of other-emptiness, alongside Dolpopa's Mountain Doctrine and Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa's Fearless Lion's Roar. It is an extensive work in verse that includes verbatim citations of many critical and controversial verses from authoritative Indian works.
His student Yeshe Gyatso compiled the Commentarial Notes (རྣམ་བཤད་ཟིན་བྲིས་) on Tāranātha's treatise after receiving the teachings from Tāranātha. The Commentarial Notes, now available in Volume 10 of the Jo nang dPe tshogs series published by Pe cin mi rigs dpe skrun khang in 2007, and in Volume 43 of the Jo nang rje btsun tā ra nā tha'i gsung 'bum dpe bsdur ma, from the Mes po’i shul bzhag series of dPal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib ’jug khang in 2008, is a long prose commentary on Tāranātha's treatise, which is a verse composition. The colophon of this commentary reports that the commentary on the last two chapters were either never written or were lost in the transmission process. Thus, Lobzang Chogdrub Gyatso composed the commentary on the last two chapters in Wood Horse year, 1894, at a hermitage in upper Tsakho.
Tāranātha and Yeshe Gyatso explain that there are two main categories of the Middle: the Middle which is the topic to be understood/realized and the Middle which is the path that understands/realizes the topic. The first also subsumes what are commonly presented as Middle of the ground and the Middle of the result. If the Middle is about avoiding the extremes of thought and practice such as eternalism and nihilism, singularity and plurality, arising and ceasing, etc., then the ultimate Middle is the state of absolute reality which transcends all these and is the sphere of pristine wisdom. Only someone who fathoms such reality can understand the true Middle, avoid the pitfalls of extremes, and grasp also the entire Mahāyāna system. Then, Tāranātha goes on to list the different notions of the Middle starting from the Middle of practical application.
- 1. The Middle of the right lifestyle, which avoids the extremes of self-indulgent decadence and self-mortifying austerity.
2. The Middle of the right conduct, which adopts what has to be adopted and avoids what is to be relinquished.
3. The Middle of the right practice, which combines both calm abiding and insight meditation and avoids the extreme of relying only on either one of them.
Coming to the philosophical Middle of the view, he enumerates:
- 4. The Middle of the view of non-self, which avoids the extreme of eternalism by rejecting a true, personal self, creator, etc., and avoids the extreme of nihilism by accepting undeniable empirical experience of dependently originated phenomena.
5. The Middle of the view of mindstream, which avoids the extreme of eternalism by rejecting a static, permanent store-consciousness and avoids the extreme of nihilism by accepting a store-consciousness which is a transient and momentary stream.
6. The Middle with regard to conventional truth, which avoids the extreme of eternalism by rejecting that imputed things have essential nature or self-existence and avoids the extreme of nihilism by accepting the illusory appearance of imputed phenomena.
7. The Middle associated with the yogi practitioners, which avoids the extreme of eternalism by rejecting the true existence of external material phenomena and avoids the extreme of nihilism by accepting the diverse appearance of external things to the mind.
8. The Middle of notational ultimate, which avoids the extreme of eternalism by rejecting the true existence of external and internal phenomena and avoids the extreme of nihilism by accepting the subject-object appearance of things.
9. The Middle of absolute reality, which avoids the extreme of eternalism by rejecting the true existence of imputed and dependent phenomena and avoids the extreme of nihilism by accepting the true existence of absolute reality.
10. The Middle pertaining to two truths, which avoids the extreme of eternalism by rejecting the existence of all conventional and relative phenomena on the level of the ultimate truth and avoids the extreme of nihilism by accepting the diverse appearance of all conditioned phenomena on the level of the conventional truth.
The Middle with regard to the state of result is presented in four ways.
- 11. The Middle of purpose, in which the pristine wisdom, representing benefit for one self, is free from all fabrications and thus eliminates the extreme of eternalism while the illusory activities, representing benefit for others, engages in the welfare of beings and eliminates the extreme of nihilism.
12. The Middle of the enlightened body, in which the truth body being free from all fabrications eliminates eternalism, and the form body appearing interrupted in many forms eliminates nihilism.
13. The Middle of the enlightened qualities, in which qualities such as the ten powers are of singular nature in being free from fabrications and thus eliminates eternalism while the myriad display of the Buddha's qualities eliminates nihilism.
14. The Middle of the enlightened activities, in which the lack of contrived effort and elaborate actions eliminate the extreme of eternalism while the magic-like, effortless engagement of the Buddha in the world eliminates the extreme of nihilism.
Tāranātha and Yeshe Gyatso finally state that to argue all phenomena are totally empty of self-existence is a nihilistic view and to argue that even the emptiness of self-existence is empty of its nature is a gravely nihilistic view. Through this, Tāranātha points out the zhentong view that the ultimate nature of the mind, the buddha-nature, the ground of all existence, the supreme self, the universal reality, the Great Middle, is absolute and real, while all conventional phenomena as conceived by ordinary consciousness is unreal and empty of true nature.
Both at the beginning and end of the treatise, Tāranātha extols this zhentong understanding, or the Great Middle Way. To paraphrase, he writes that it is better to engage in this teaching even for a moment than to engage in other teachings for eons (ཆོས་གཞན་བསྐལ་པར་སྤྱོད་ལས་ཀྱང་། །འདི་ནི་ཡུད་ཙམ་སྤྱད་པའང་མཆོག།). This profound and vast teaching is the fortune of some supreme intelligent ones and not within the reach of many who claim to be learned and highly accomplished practitioners. It is preferable to read the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras with faith in this system once than to read them with the view of the rangtong, or self-emptiness, for eons. One who honors the books by Maitreya on his crown is closer to enlightenment than someone who engages in the erudite works of the rangtong philosophers for a hundred years. Tāranātha claims it is proven that those who endeavor in the rangtong system cannot even stop rebirth in the lower realms, but those who have mere faith in this zhentong system take rebirth in the celestial realms without any effort. "Strive on this path if you have the fortune (སྐལ་བཟང་ཡོད་ན་ལམ་འདིར་འབད་པར་རིགས།།)" Tāranātha advises his readers in the final verse of his influential work.
Longchen and Buddha-Nature
Longchenpa, or Longchen Rabjampa Drime Õzer, is undoubtedly the most influential philosopher of the Nyingma school and the main promoter of the teachings of Nyingthig (སྙིང་ཐིག་), or Seminal Quintessence. He was a scholar, poet, and mystic of phenomenal caliber, and it was for his vast learning that he was given the honorary title of Longchenpa (ཀློང་ཆེན་པ་), or "Vast One," by Tai Situ Jangchub Gyaltsen, the Tibetan ruler of his time.
Longchenpa synthesized the Buddhist teachings in general and Dzogchen thought in particular for the Nyingma school and left behind a large literary legacy which includes the Seven Treasures (མཛོད་བདུན་), Trilogy of Self-Liberation (རང་གྲོལ་སྐོར་གསུམ་), Trilogy of Relaxation (ངལ་གསོ་སྐོར་གསུམ་), and Seminal Quintessence in Four Parts (སྙིང་ཐིག་ཡ་བཞི་). Although we do not have a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum by Longchenpa (see the June 2021, Week 3 post in this blog for more discussion on this), he has commented on the most critical verses, including Verses I.128, 154, and 155 of the Ultimate Continuum in his other writings. As a prolific writer on the theory and practice of Dzogchen, the topic of buddha-nature appears in most of his writings in the context of the ultimate nature of the mind which one needs to realize and the ground reality from which the phenomenal world and empirical experience arise.
Longchenpa blends the sūtra presentation of buddha-nature with the esoteric exposition of the spontaneous primordial ground in the tantras. He uses terms such as essence, element, spiritual gene, innate mind, pristine wisdom, vajra mind, primordial ground, the ultimate, ground gnosis, sphere of reality, Middle Way, nondual truth, thatness, Perfection of Wisdom, etc., to refer to the same luminous nature of mind which is buddha-nature. His exposition on buddha-nature occurs most saliently in three of his main writings. In his Relaxation in the Nature of Mind, Longchenpa deals with buddha-nature in the opening verse while paying homage to the ultimate truth, in chapter 9 while discussing the generation-stage- and completion-stage practices, and in chapter 10 on the topic of wisdom which comprehends the ground reality free from the two extremes. He presents buddha-nature as the ground maṇḍala, which forms the basis of temporary confusion, while at the same time being the uncontrived, unborn, unchanging nature of the mind to be realized on the path. Ordinary beings do not perceive this buddha-nature, but bodhisattvas on the stages see it partially and the buddhas see it fully.
In his Treasury of Tenet Systems, Longchenpa carries a more detailed exegesis of the buddha-nature in chapter 4 on the spiritual gene required for the practice of Mahāyāna path. He cites several sūtras and many critical verses from the Ultimate Continuum, on which he comments to make clear his interpretation of buddha-nature teachings. He considers buddhahood as being identical with buddha-nature latent in all sentient beings and argues that buddhahood is a result which is revealed rather than a fruit which is cultivated and produced. Thus, all qualities of the Buddha are primordially present in the nature of all sentient beings.
Similarly, in chapter 1 of his Treasury of Wishfulfilling Jewel, he expounds the theory of buddha-nature as the primordial ground from which both nirvāṇa and saṃsāra arise. In chapter 18 he discusses the abiding nature of reality, which is the ultimate truth, and presents the experiences of saṃsāra as temporary illusions arising from adventitious misconception.
Buddha-nature is understood to be the empty, luminous nature of things which abides as the ontic reality in all sentient beings and is free from all fabrications. Using the terms from the sūtras teaching buddha-nature and the Ultimate Continuum, he characterizes buddha-nature as the ultimate pure, eternal, blissful self. He considers the teachings on buddha-nature which form part of the third wheel as definitive teachings, which expound the same ground nature presented in both the sūtra and tantra literature. In summary, he writes in the Treasury of Wishfulfilling Jewel:
- འོད་གསལ་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོ་ལྷུན་གྲུབ་སྟེ། །སྟོང་གསལ་རིག་པ་དབྱེར་མེད་ཆོས་ཉིད་དོ།།
The luminous buddha-nature is indivisible reality
Which is spontaneous, empty, and clear awareness.
His presentation on buddha-nature theory and associated practices in his writings became the most authoritative references which determine the interpretation of buddha-nature theory and practice in the Nyingma tradition to this day.
The Great Other-Emptiness
The Zhentong Chenmo, or Fearless Lion's Roar: The Tradition of Jonang Which Ascertains the Profound Meaning of the Supreme Vehicle of Cause and Result (རྒྱུ་དང་འབྲས་བུའི་ཐེག་པ་མཆོག་གི་གནས་ལུགས་ཟབ་མོའི་དོན་རྣམ་པར་ངེས་པ་རྗེ་ཇོ་ནང་པ་ཆེན་པོའི་རིང་ལུགས་འཇིགས་མེད་གདོང་ལྔའི་ང་རོ།), is perhaps the last great work to be written on buddha-nature, particularly highlighting its interpretation in association with the philosophy of zhentong, or other-emptiness. Commonly known as the Zhentong Chenmo, or Great Other-Emptiness, this treatise is a work of Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa (1720-75), a luminary of the Zamthang monastery in Amdo. Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa, also known as Mati Rinpoche, was a leading scholar of Jonang centers in Zamthang in the twentieth century and was considered an incarnation of great Jonang hierarchs such as Dolpopa and Tāranātha, although he himself mentions the 8th Tsechu Ratnakīrti, who requested him to compose this work, as the incarnation of Dolpopa.
Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa studied with leading Jonangpa figures of his time and composed many works which today fill ten volumes of his collected writings. Most of his works were transcribed by his disciple Ngawang Yonten Zangpo, who not only served as the scribe for this work but also made offerings to Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa requesting him to compose it. He started the composition of this work on the 10th day of the 5th Tibetan month, 1965 and completed it in the 7th month of the same year in Zamthang, months before the horrific destruction of the Cultural Revolution started to take place across China.
Composed at the cusp of tragic cultural and religious persecution in Tibet, the Zhentong Chenmo is the most outstanding philosophical work by Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa, presenting his detailed explanation and arguments for zhentong philosophy espoused by the Jonang school. Alongside Dolpopa's Mountain Doctrine and Tāranātha's Thoroughly Ascertaining the Great Middle Way of the Expansive Supreme Vehicle, the treatise today ranks among the most authoritative writings on zhentong philosophy of the Jonang school. The work starts with the discussion of the three wheels and delves into the topic of the ground reality, or zhi, by discussing it through ten different modes. He points out how Ngok Lotsāwa understood buddha-nature as emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation, Sakya Paṇḍita took buddha-nature to be an emptiness free from elaborations, Butön equated it with store-consciousness, and Dolpopa, whose tradition he follows, defines buddha-nature as the innate pristine awareness which has all qualities of the Buddha latent in it. Michael Sheehy's "The Gzhan stong Chen mo: A Study of Emptiness according to the Modern Tibetan Buddhist Jo Nang Scholar 'Dzam Thang Mkhan Po Ngag Dbang Blo Gros Grags Pa (1920–75)", comprehensively renders this section of the book while also providing clear and insightful contextual information on this work, its author, and the tradition.
The work is generally laid out, as shown in the author's own outline, into the ground, path, and fruition for both the exoteric sūtra system and the esoteric tantric system. In order to substantiate his claims in both systems, the author provides scriptural citations and references as well as rational arguments in support of his philosophical position. The philosophical presentation is interspersed with poetic composition at the conclusion of the chapters. While the work clearly promotes the philosophical position of the Jonang tradition, Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa also adopts a very respectful and ecumenical approach and acknowledges in the colophon that the ultimate intent of the different traditions in India, which were received from Nāgārjuna and Asaṅga, and the different traditions in Tibet, including the Kagyu, Sakya, Nyingma and Geluk received through their respective founding fathers, all converge in the ultimate understanding of the Great Definitive Middle Way (ངེས་དོན་དབུ་མ་ཆེན་པོ་). Thus, all teachings are seen as noncontradictory and all texts as instructions leading to the realization of the ultimate buddha-nature.
The book is available online in two versions. Digital copies of the old pecha published from xylographic blocks made in 1999 in Zamthang Samdrup Norbuling monastery are available through the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (W19762), and copies of the more recent edition in book format published by the Tibetan Buddhist College of Yonghegong Temple in Beijing are also available. The latter is an incomplete and almost verbatim reproduction of the former but attributed to Ngawang Lodrö Drakpa's disciple and scribe Ngawang Yonten Zangpo. It also does not contain texts from f.4 to f.32 in the former version and differs significantly toward the end of the book. Thus, the book published in Beijing must have relied on an exemplar which is incomplete, while the former contains the complete text with a long colophon and information on the publication and also artistic renderings of deities at the beginning and end.
Buddha-Nature as Mother's Milk
The sūtras on buddha-nature use a large number of similes and analogies to illustrate the existence of buddha-nature in all sentient beings. The Ultimate Continuum, following the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, explains nine similes. However, in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra one can find an interesting simile of mother's milk. The Buddha compares the teachings on buddha-nature to mother's milk—the main and best nourishment that a sick child may have to be deprived of temporarily while going through medication for an illness. Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, Derge 119, folio 104 states:
- The Blessed One said: O son of noble family. For example, a woman has a child who is ill. The woman, at that time, summons a doctor, and the doctor feeds the child medicine mixed with butter and sugar and instructs the woman to not breastfeed the child until the medicine has melted. The woman, in order to stop the child from breastfeeding, puts a paste of neem and tells the child that her breast is anointed with poison and he should not breastfeed. The child, out of thirst, would think of breastfeeding, but sensing the smell and taste of neem, would cry and give up until the medication is done. When the medication is over, the mother would wash the two breasts with water and tell the child: "Son, you can breastfeed now." The child would cry and resist breastfeeding with the fear of poison. He would not even look at them. The mother would then explain: "Earlier, with the fear of you becoming more ill or dying, the breasts were anointed with neem paste until the medication was over. Now, you can suckle." The child would gradually breastfeed.
- O son of noble family. In the same way, previously, for the sake of the beings to be tamed, just as the medicine with butter for the child has to be melted, the monks have to destroy the view of the world, have to show properly the greatness of going beyond the world, have to show properly the falsity of worldly truth of the self, and have to purify the body through meditation on non-self, I have instructed the monks "meditate on all phenomena being without self, by doing so self-clinging will be eliminated, having eliminated self-clinging totally, one can reach nirvāṇa." Just as the mother of the child has anointed her breasts with the paste of neem, I have also said: "meditate on all phenomena being without self and empty." Just as the mother of the child washed her breasts and said "Earlier, I have anointed the breasts with neem and stopped you from suckling. Now you can suckle," in the same way, I have also, in order to turn people away from worldly matters, taught there is no self. Now, I teach buddha-nature exists. O monks. Not being scared like the child, just as the child investigated and again suckled, in the same way, O monks, investigate to see there is buddha-nature, meditate on it, and persevere. I have shown you this.
Buddha-nature, like breast milk, is shown to be the true and ultimate nourishment, and the teachings of non-self and emptiness are considered to be provisional teachings dispensed, like neem paste, to turn people away from worldly desires and afflictions.
The Four Noble Truths and Right Eightfold Path in the Ultimate Continuum
The Ultimate Continuum, the main classic on the theory of buddha-nature in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, is considered to be a commentary on the last turning of the wheel of dharma. According to the Indo-Tibetan Mahāyāna tradition, the teachings of the Buddha are classified into three successive turnings or pronouncements (བཀའ་འཁོར་ལོ་རིམ་པ་གསུམ་). Based primarily on the content and purport and only secondarily on the time of the sermons, the three wheels are the first wheel of pronouncements on the four noble truths (བཀའ་འཁོར་ལོ་དང་པོ་བདེན་པ་བཞིའི་ཆོས་འཁོར་), the middle wheel of pronouncements on absence of characteristics (བཀའ་འཁོར་ལོ་བར་པ་མཚན་ཉིད་མེད་པའི་ཆོས་འཁོར་), and the last wheel of pronouncements on proper differentiation (བཀའ་འཁོར་ཐ་མ་ལེགས་པར་རྣམ་པར་ཕྱེ་བའི་ཆོས་འཁོར་).
The first wheel or set of sermons is said to have been delivered to a general audience—including followers of both Mahāyāna and Śrāvaka vehicles—and to have contained topics commonly accepted by most followers of the Buddha. It was kicked off at Deer Park in Varanasi, when the Buddha gave the sermon on the four noble truths to the five ascetics. The second wheel or set of teachings is said to have been delivered on Vulture Peak and other places mainly on the topic of emptiness or absence of characteristics or self-existence about a year after the Buddha gave his first sermon. The teachings mainly include what is known as the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, which deal with the cultivation of the wisdom that discerns reality or the way things are. The final wheel is composed of teachings delivered at places such as Vaiśālī and Kushinagara on the topic of the ultimate and provisional truths and on how to distinguish different realities. Sūtras on buddha-nature generally fall into the category of this final wheel.
For this reason, the Ultimate Continuum is considered a commentarial treatise which synthesizes and encapsulates the purport of the sūtras of the third wheel and highlights the differentiation of different realities. Yet, the Ultimate Continuum also contains verses which capture the gist of the teachings belonging to the first and second wheels. As the world observes the day of the Buddha’s first sermon on the four noble truths, it is worth noting that Verse IV.52 of the Ultimate Continuum contains one of the most succinct explanations of the four noble truths using the medical analogy.
- vyādhir jñeyo vyādhihetuḥ praheyaḥ svāsthyaṃ prāpyaṃ bheṣajaṃ sevyam evam/
duḥkhaṃ hetus tannirodho ’tha mārgo jñeyaṃ heyaḥ sparśitavyo niṣevyaḥ//
- ནད་ནི་ཤེས་བྱ་ནད་ཀྱི་རྒྱུ་ནི་སྤང་བྱ་ལ། །
- Just as a disease is to be known, the cause of the disease is to be relinquished,
The state of well-being is to be attained, and medicine is to be relied upon,
Suffering, [its] cause, its cessation, and likewise the path, respectively,
Are to be known, to be relinquished, to be reached, and to be relied upon.
Similarly, Verse IV.46 talks about how the shower of the right eightfold path is released from the vast cloud of the Buddha’s compassion.
- śītaṃ svādu prasannaṃ mṛdu laghu ca payas tat payodād vimuktaṃ/
kṣārādisthānayogād atibahurasatām eti yadvat pṛthivyām//
āryāṣṭāṅgāmbuvarṣaṃ suvipulakaruṇāmeghagarbhād vimuktaṃ/
santānasthānabhedād bahuvidharasatām eti tadvat prajāsu//
- ཇི་ལྟར་བསིལ་དང་ཞིམ་དང་འཇམ་པ་དང་། །ཡང་བའི་ཆུ་ནི་སྤྲིན་དེ་ལས་ཐོན་པ། །
ས་ལ་བ་ཚ་ལ་སོགས་གནས་འབྲེལ་བས། །ཤིན་ཏུ་མང་པོའི་རོར་ནི་འགྱུར་བ་བཞིན། །
དེ་བཞིན་འཕགས་པའི་ཡན་ལག་བརྒྱད་ཆུའི་ཆར། །རབ་ཡངས་བརྩེ་སྤྲིན་སྙིང་པོ་ལས་ཐོན་པ། །
འགྲོ་བའི་རྒྱུད་ཀྱི་གནས་ཀྱི་དབྱེ་བ་ལས། །རྣམ་པ་མང་པོའི་རོ་དང་ལྡན་པར་འགྱུར། །
- Cool, sweet, clear, soft, and light is the rain that is released from clouds,
[But] it assumes a great many tastes due to coming in contact with places on earth that are full of salt and so on.
Likewise, the rainwater of the eightfold [path of the] noble ones that is released from being contained in the vast cloud of compassion
Assumes many kinds of tastes due to the differences in the places that are the mind streams of beings.
(English translations of the verses from When the Clouds Part)
Śākya Chokden’s History of the Middle Way School
Paṇchen Śākya Chokden is perhaps the earliest Tibetan scholar to write a history of Madhyamaka thought. In his Discourse on the History of Madhyamaka entitled Wish-fulfilling Mountain (དབུ་མའི་བྱུང་ཚུལ་རྣམ་པར་བཤད་པའི་གཏམ་ཡིད་བཞིན་ལྷུན་པོ་ཞེས་བྱ་བའི་བསྟན་བཅོས།), he defines what Middle Way is and presents the transmission of the different Middle Way schools of thought. At the outset he points out that all Buddhists follow the Middle Way, while the non-Buddhist philosophical systems fall to the extremes. Thus, the view of the Middle Way is a hallmark of the Buddhist system and explains how even the substantialist schools of thought, which include Cittamātra, claim to adopt a philosophical Middle Way.
The main topic of the text is the history of what is commonly known as the Madhyamaka school, which is considered the fourth and highest tenet system in the Tibetan scholarly world. Śākya Chokden divides this into two groups: the Yogacāra and the Niḥsvabhāvavādin. He argued that the former, based on the five treatises of Maitreya, adopted a Middle Way which is free from subject-object dualism and centered on the self-conscious nature of the mind. He emphatically distinguishes this from the view of Cittamātra, as the luminous or self-conscious mind, which constitutes the Middle Way in this tradition, is the sphere of reality or dharmadhātu, and not mere mind. The Niḥsvabhāvavādin, or proponents of lack of own-being, he argued, abided in the Middle Way by avoiding eternalism, as they argued that all phenomena do not truly exist, and by avoiding nihilism, as such negation is not forced through reasoning or other causes but is the true nature of things. In the course of this, he criticizes the interpretation given by later Tibetan scholars, that this Middle Way school abides in the Middle Way and avoids eternalism by rejecting hypostatic existence and avoids nihilism by accepting conventional existence.
Śākya Chokden also presents the Middle Way topic in the two categories of the nonanalytical Middle Way experienced through meditation (རྣམ་པར་མ་བརྟགས་པ་སྒོམ་པས་ཉམས་སུ་མྱོང་བའི་དབུ་མ་) and the analytical Middle Way which cuts the superimposition of characteristics (རྣམ་པར་བརྟགས་པ་མཚན་འཛིན་གྱི་སྒྲོ་འདོགས་གཅོད་པའི་དབུ་མ་). The former is equated with buddha-nature, pristine wisdom of reality, emptiness endowed with supreme aspects, etc., and taught in the third wheel and the tantras, while the latter, taught primarily in the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras of the Middle Wheel, is identified with the emptiness established by study, emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation, emptiness which excludes aggregates, etc. He also classifies Middle Way into a) the Middle Way system of all phenomena without own-being taught in scholastic works of Nāgārjuna, b) the Middle Way system of propounding the absolute as nature taught in the works of Maitreya, and c) the Middle Way of the tantras.
Having discussed the different understandings of the Middle Way, Śākya Chokden presents the history of Middle Way thought in India and Tibet. He begins the history in India with a claim that Saraha, who is a slightly early contemporary of Nāgārjuna, spread the teachings of the Middle Way through his songs, although Nāgārjuna is generally considered the pioneer of the Middle Way school. This is then followed by his account of how the Middle Way traditions from Nāgārjuna and Maitreya and the Middle Way of secret mantra first spread in India and was later propagated in Tibet. He gives the names of the many masters who advocated the different interpretations of the Middle Way philosophy and championed the various subschools of Middle Way thought. While presenting the gist of their interpretation, Śākya Chokden also refutes the later Tibetan interpretations, most of which are associated with the new Gelukpa school.
Śākya Chokden’s history, written at the behest of the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, is perhaps the earliest Tibetan record giving a fairly detailed account of the masters of the Middle Way, their students, seats, and philosophical positions. He also amply demonstrates his own inclination for the Middle Way of other-emptiness and the espousal of the Great Middle Way, or innate reality qua buddha-nature, which is absolute and empty of only temporary afflictions and impurities. The full text can be viewed here.
Lodrö Tsungme or Longchenpa: Who Is the Author of a Commentary on the Ultimate Continuum?
In recent decades, many Nyingma scholars and lamas have expressed jubilation in supposedly finding a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum by Longchenpa, perhaps the most important figure for the systematization of Dzogchen thought and a leading patriarch of the Nyingma tradition. A commentary by a Nyingma master, especially by someone of Longchenpa's stature, would certainly add to the wealth of Nyingma philosophical literature and give Nyingmapas their own voice on important philosophical topics contained in the Ultimate Continuum. The need for hermeneutics and clear interpretations of Indian classics became more evident as the Nyingma scholastic literature and study saw unprecedented development since Mipam wrote his scholastic commentaries and as interschool exposure and exchanges became heightened in the second half of the twentieth century. But the school did not have a thoroughgoing commentary on the Ultimate Continuum apart from the annotation and short exegesis by Mipam. A commentary from an authority like Longchenpa would have given Nyingmapas a clear and firm position to follow.
The commentary entitled The Precious Lamp That Illuminates the Definitive Meaning of the Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Treatise (ཐེག་པ་ཆེན་པོ་རྒྱུད་བླ་མའི་བསྟན་བཅོས་ཀྱི་ངེས་དོན་གསལ་བར་བྱེད་པའི་རིན་པོ་ཆེའི་སྒྲོན་མེ།) was written by someone called Lodrö Tsungme of Sangpu Neutok monastery in the early part of the thirteenth century. As some Nyingma lamas, such as Minling Terchen Gyurme Dorje, considered Lodrö Tsungme to be another name for Longchenpa, and since Sangpu Neutok monastery was clearly Longchenpa's alma mater, there were reasonable grounds for them to attribute the commentary to Longchenpa. The commentary also mentioned the author being from the Ü region of Tibet, which Longchenpa was. In addition, there was a widespread rumor being passed down that Longchenpa had composed a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum. The content of this commentary was also generally consistent with the philosophical views of Longchenpa found in his popular writings. Khenpo Palden Sherab, a scholar based in New York, went on to claim that even the style of writing is that of Longchenpa and that the commentary is unmistakably the one authored by Longchenpa. He rejoices in the fact that the commentary, after over six hundred years, has come to light through the kindness of the great Nyingma figures.
Following Khenpo Palden Sherab's claims, the Ngagyur Nyingma College of Lhodrak Kharchhu Dudjomling monastery in Bhutan, in the preface to their publication of the commentary in 2014, laments how the text has remained inaccessible for nearly seven hundred years and adds that it has finally come to light through the kindness of Longchenpa and the merit of sentient beings. Namkhai Nyingpo Rinpoche recounts how he heard of the existence of a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum by Longchenpa as a young boy and how, in 1995 during the Nyingma Prayer Festival, he came across an important person who claimed to have a copy in his possession. He did not pursue the book then, but after many years he saw the book listed in the catalogue of the extensive edition of Kama teachings published in Kham. The Lhodrak Kharchhu edition was published after one of the teachers at his monastery downloaded the electronic version, most likely from the website of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. The text is reproduced in neat typeset, making it very accessible to readers, and it is clearly attributed to Longchenpa based on Khenpo Palden Sherab's claims. Even an annotation that reads "born in Yoru Draichatö drong" (གཡོ་རུ་གྲའི་ཆ་སྟོད་གྲོང་) is newly inserted while discussing the author's origin in Ü in order to specify the birthplace of Longchenpa.
The editors of the extensive Kama teachings in Tibet were, however, a little more scrupulous in their recent publication after having recognized an error they made previously. They first encountered a copy of the manuscript of this commentary in 1997 in Shechen monastery in Nepal with a note saying it was written by Longchenpa. In order to protect the text, which was at that time available only in a few copies, the editors included it in their new extensive edition of the Kama teachings published in 1999 in Tibet. However, as they delved deeper into codicological considerations and enhanced their textual preservation programs, it became clear that the commentary was composed by Lodrö Tsungme, the Kadampa scholar of Sangpu Neutok, who was an older contemporary of Longchenpa. For many reasons, including differences in the writing styles, they attributed the commentary to this Kadam scholar and excluded it from the collection of Longchenpa's writings, which they published as part of the Mes po'i shul bzhag series through dPal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib 'jug khang. Instead, they included the commentary within their bKa' gdams gsung 'bum series alongside other works of Lodrö Tsungme.
Both redactions of the commentary available as part of bKa' gdams gsung 'bum series from dPal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib 'jug khang in Tibet and the typeset version from Lhodrak Kharchhu monastery in Bhutan are based on the copy of the manuscript which is available from the Buddhist Digital Resource Center (numbered W465 on www.tbrc.org). This photo offset print of the book was published in 1974 by Tseten Dorji of Tibetan Nyingmapa monastery in Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh, India. According to the preface for the publication written in 1974, most likely by E. Gene Smith, the book was created by copying a manuscript in the library of Ri-bo-che Rje-drung and is described as "a beautiful but faded ancient piece of calligraphy with numerous bsdu-yig." The original manuscript was "unfortunately unsuitable for direct reproduction," and "a careful copy was prepared preserving the old orthography and checked several times against the original." The preface identified the author to be Lodrö Tsungme, a contemporary of Butön, whose famous treatise Ornament That Illuminates and Beautifies the Tathāgata Heart (བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོ་གསལ་ཞིང་མཛེས་པར་བྱེད་པའི་རྒྱན།) was triggered by Butön's philosophical discussions with Lodrö Tsungme.
Riwoche Jedrung, whose library contained the book, must be the 7th Riwoche Jedrung, Jampal Jungne (1856–1922), who lived in Pemakoe, a hidden land in Arunachal Pradesh, and was a staunch follower of both Nyingma and Kagyu traditions and a teacher of modern Nyingma masters such as Dudjom Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje and Kangyur Rinpoche. Yet, it is not clear how his library was created and where it was located. Thus, nothing can be said about the provenance and history of the original manuscript besides what the above-mentioned preface contains.
Similarly, not much is known about its author, Lodrö Tsungme, although a little more information has come to light in recent decades. Although we do not have a biography for him, he is mentioned in a number of sources, which helps us to roughly place him in the late thirteenth and first half of the fourteenth century. He was the 14th throne holder of Lingme College at Sangpu Neutok monastery and well known for his scholarship on the five treatises of Maitreya (བྱམས་ཆོས་སྡེ་ལྔ་). He was a student of Jamyang Śākya Zhönu and a teacher of the 1st Shamarpa Drakpa Sengge, Yakde Paṇchen Tsondru Dargye, and also both a teacher and student of the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje. He authored three works, including a commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, an exposition on the dedication of merit, and an explanation of the precious vehicle. These three works were recently discovered in the Neychung temple library of Drepung monastery and published as part of the bKa' gdams gsung 'bum series.
With sparse knowledge of the author and manuscript and close affinity of content and writing styles between this text and writings of Longchenpa, can we then categorically say whether the author of this commentary, Lodrö Tsungme, is Longchenpa or not? The clear answer perhaps lies in the detailed reading of this commentary and the works of Longchenpa, which those who attributed this commentary to Longchenpa clearly did not do. A cursory search carried out by this author to verify certain orthographic issues for the current project of compiling a new edition of Longchenpa's writing has led to the following revelation. In the sixth chapter of the Great Chariot, an auto-commentary on his Finding Rest in the Nature of the Mind, Longchenpa discusses the concept of the Three Jewels and refutes the interpretation of a certain lama.
- Here, a certain lama says that the followers of Mahāyāna claim the dharmakāya buddha, which one will attain, is the only thing that can protect one from even the fears of inferiority and fears of very subtle impurities, thus it is posited as resultant state of refuge. The followers of the vehicle of pratyekabuddhas claim the dharma jewel which is the realization that will naturally arise in one's mindstream in the future to be the result. Thus, that is posited as the resultant state of refuge. The followers of the vehicle of śrāvakas posit the saṅgha of arhats that will arise in one's mindstream in the future as the resultant state of refuge. Thus, the three vehicles are each said to have one resultant state of refuge. This is slightly not right.
- འདིར་བླ་མ་ཁ་ཅིག་ནི་ཐེག་ཆེན་པས་སྨན་[དམན་]པའི་འཇིགས་པ་དང་སྒྲིབ་པ་ཕྲ་ཤིང་ཕྲ་བའི་འཇིགས་པ་ལས་ཀྱང་སྐྱོབ་པར་བྱེད་པ་ནི་རང་གིས་ཐོབ་པར་འགྱུར་བའི་སངས་རྒྱས་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་ཅན་དེ་ཁོ་ན་ཡིན་པས་འབྲས་བུའི་སྐྱབས་གནས་སུ་བཞག་གོ། རང་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱི་ཐེག་པས་མ་འོངས་པ་ན་རང་རྒྱུད་ལ་རྟོགས་པ་རང་བྱུང་དུ་སྐྱེ་བར་འགྱུར་བའི་ཆོས་དཀོན་མཆོག་ནི་འབྲས་བུ་སྟེ། འབྲས་བུའི་སྐྱབས་གནས་སུ་བཞག་གོ། ཉན་ཐོས་ཀྱི་ཐེག་པས་རང་རྒྱུད་ལ་མ་འོངས་པ་ན་འབྱུང་བའི་དགྲ་བཅོམ་པའི་དགེ་འདུན་དེ་འབྲས་བུའི་སྐྱབས་གནས་སུ་བཞག་པས། ཐེག་པ་གསུམ་པོ་སོ་སོ་ལ་འབྲས་བུའི་སྐྱབས་གནས་ནི་རེ་རེ་ཡིན་ནོ་ཞེས་གསུངས་པ་ཡང་ཅུང་ཟད་མི་རིགས་ཏེ།
Longchenpa goes on to refute such claims and argues that followers of each vehicle consider their final state of enlightenment as the resultant state of refuge. This passage which Longchenpa cites as opposition in his Great Chariot can be found, with slight differences, in Lodrō Tsungme's commentary on page 165 of the BDRC redaction and on page 131 of the Lhodrak Kharchhu edition. Thus, by "a certain lama," Longchenpa is referring to the author of this commentary. This makes it very clear that this commentary was not written by the Nyingma master Longchenpa and that Longchenpa was fully aware, and perhaps also had a copy, of Lodrō Tsungme's commentary when he wrote his Great Chariot.
However, this finding then leaves us with the same old question: Where can Longchenpa's commentary be found if he has written one? Are there any chances that it exists as many lamas believe? The chapter of finding Longchenpa's commentary on the Ultimate Continuum remains far from closed and the search must continue.
Forging a Common Ground between Rangtong and Zhentong
The philosophy of buddha-nature in Tibet is often thought to have been split into a dichotomy of the rangtong, or self-emptiness, and zhentong, or other-emptiness. The advocates of these two traditions are seen to present two contradictory interpretations of the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras. While the classic rangtong philosophers such as the mainstream Sakya and Geluk scholars consider the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras as provisional teachings, reject an intrinsically existent buddha-nature and the latent Buddha qualities in all sentient beings, and adopt a rationalist approach to the nature of the mind, the main zhentong thinkers such as the leading Jonangpa masters take the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras to be definitive teachings, accept innate buddha-nature endowed with all enlightened qualities of the Buddha, and primarily maintain a cataphatic, mystical approach to the nature of the mind. Apart from the followers of the Nyingma and Kagyu, who profess a kind of a middle ground between the two by accepting the emptiness and illusory state of buddha-nature while espousing also that it is fully endowed with the Buddha qualities, the followers belonging to the mainstream rangtong and zhentong camps are seen to oppose each other, not finding a common ground. Instead, the Jonangpas and Gelukpas accuse each other of adopting extremist views and faltering from the Middle Way philosophy.
Thus, it is intriguing that some Jonangpa masters in the twentieth century who were based in the Jonang establishments of Zamthang in eastern Tibet adopted an inclusive approach to reconcile the Gelukpa rangtong theories and Dolpopa's zhentong theories. One such scholar was Ngawang Tsoknyi Gyatso, who was the author of Removing the Anguish of Holding to Extremes: Explanation of Omniscient Jonangpa's Madhyamaka of Other Emptiness and Illuminating Light: An Exegesis of Omniscient Jonangpa's Intent Aligned with General Treatises of Madhyamaka and Pramāṇa. Perhaps influenced by his teacher Bamda Thubten Gelek, who had direct connections with Geluk teachers and is also considered to be an incarnation of the Geluk master Jamyang Zhepa, Tsoknyi Gyatso in these two writings on other-emptiness makes a concerted effort to bring Dolpopa's Jonangpa and Gelukpa understanding of emptiness and the ultimate to a noncontradictory phase using various hermeneutic tools. A substantive treatment of Tsoknyi Gyatso's inclusivistic and conciliatory interpretations has been carried out by Filippo Brambilla in his article "A Late Proponent of the Jo nang gZhan stong Doctrine."
At the end of his Removing the Anguish of Holding to Extremes, Tsoknyi Gyatso presents a synopsis of the Ultimate Continuum, which effectively captures his understanding of the teachings on buddha-nature. He writes:
- As for presenting a short summary of the Ultimate Continuum, this great treatise entitled the Ultimate Continuum, which is primarily a major commentary on the last turning of the wheel, shows that a buddha element which is a naturally luminous and pure awareness, empty of hypostatic existence and primordially free from harsh characteristics of conceptuality, exists in all sentient beings without difference. It is obscured like treasure underneath the ground and butter lamp in a vase. Such an element is fully fathomed only by the Buddha and out of great compassion shown to the sentient beings, who are to be tamed, according to their mental capacity in the manner of cleansing a gem. In the first turning of the wheel, all appearances such as form are maintained as they appear and taught to be impermanent, suffering, empty and without self. These teachings show merely the techniques to approach liberation after the sentient beings have renounced saṃsāra and entered the path of liberation from saṃsāra.
- For those whose mindset is mature, the middle turning shows how all phenomena from form to the qualities aligned with enlightenment are by nature thatness which is free from all elaborations being empty of inherent existence, just like seeing the colorful rope as a snake. For those whose mindset is further matured through [the second turning] having confirmed the lack of elaborations or characteristics, the last turning shows how the sphere of reality which is empty of hypostatic existence and without the depth of characteristics is not a mere nonexistence when accessed by nonconceptual pristine wisdom free from elaborations. It is shown to possess all pure and ultimate aspects such as the marks, tokens, and strengths.
Rongtön and Buddha-Nature
Rongtön Sheja Kunrik alias Shakya Gyaltsen is one of the towering Sakya scholars who has left behind a rich corpus of commentaries on the five works of Maitreya. Among them, we find two works he composed pertaining to the Ultimate Continuum: a full commentary entitled Elegant Explanation of the Treatise of the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna and a short synopsis entitled Stages of Meditation of the Ultimate Continuum: Ornament of Maitreya's Intent, which contains instructions on how to put the Ultimate Continuum into practice. As one of the preeminent figures who shaped the philosophical assertions of the Sakya school, Rongtön presents a clear philosophical interpretation of the main topics discussed in the Ultimate Continuum.
For instance, while discussing the Buddha among the Three Jewels and explaining the unconditioned nature of the Buddha, Rongtön explains that the concept of being unconditioned must be understood in four different ways: not being conditioned by causes and conditions like the compounded phenomena are, not being conditioned by actions and afflictive emotions like ordinary sentient beings are, not being conditioned by the birth with mental body and inconceivable death and transfer like the enlightened saints on the path are, and not appearing to be conditioned like the physical forms of the Buddha are. Thus, only the aspect of the Buddha's ultimate state which is the sphere of reality or emptiness is truly unconditioned in the first sense; even the cognitive aspect of the Buddha's enlightenment is conditioned.
While commenting on Verses I.154 and 155, Rongtön refutes the interpretation given by former scholars and explains that there are no real adventitious defilements to be overcome, as they are empty by nature, and the defilements are separable from buddha-nature by their nature. Similarly, the natural purity of the buddha-nature need not be maintained, as it is an inherent and inseparable quality of the mind. Thus, he understands buddha-nature to be the luminous nature of the mind, combining both emptiness and awareness, and claims that it is free from truly existent defilements but endowed with the natural purity which unfolds into the sublime qualities of the Buddha when fully enlightened. If it were merely the unconditioned nature of emptiness, it could not be the main cause of Buddha's wisdom.
Although Rongtön presents in his commentary an analytical and scholarly exegesis of the Ultimate Continuum following the tradition passed down from the famous translator Ngok Loden Sherab, in his synoptic work on the practice of the Ultimate Continuum he lays out the structure in which this text can be put into practice. Firstly, one identifies the element/buddha-nature, which is the main cause of enlightenment, and the four obscuring thoughts and emotions, including aversion to dharma, view of self, fear of cyclic existence, and disregard for others' welfare. Then, one takes refuge in the Three Jewels to start the practice of the path to enlightenment and begins to cultivate the four antidotes to the four obscuring thoughts and emotions—namely, interest (seed), wisdom (mother), meditation (womb), and compassion (nanny). The path results in the state of enlightenment described as pure, self, permanent, and blissful. More on Rongtön’s commentary and the positions he held on buddha-nature and related topics can be read in Christian Bernert's Perfect or Perfected? Rongtön on Buddha-Nature.
Mahāmati, what I taught as buddha-nature is not like the self advocated by the non-Buddhists. Mahāmati, what the fully enlightened Buddhas teach as buddha-nature refers to emptiness, the ultimate, nirvāṇa, the unborn, the uncharacterized, and the wishless.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Gö Lotsāwa’s Monumental Work on Buddha-Nature
Gö Lotsāwa Zhönu Pal was one of the most illustrious Tibetan scholars of the fifteenth century, not least for being the author of the famous historical work called Blue Annals. This history gives a brief account of how the five works of Maitreya, including the Ultimate Continuum, were transmitted in Tibet. Although not as well known as his historical work, Gö Lotsāwa also wrote a monumental commentary on the Ultimate Continuum and its vyākhyā entitled The Commentary on the Treatise "Mahāyāna-Uttaratantra": The Mirror Showing Reality Very Clearly. The work, amounting to nearly seven hundred folios, is most likely the longest commentary on the Ultimate Continuum to have ever been written and contains not only detailed philosophical interpretations and arguments but also historical accounts of how the Ultimate Continuum was transmitted in India and Tibet. The text contains rich citations from the canonical texts, including sūtras and tantras, Indian commentarial literature, and the works of many Tibetan scholars and masters. It is almost unique in blending the Indian sources and inspirational Tibetan writings on buddha-nature, particularly from the Kagyu tradition.
Styled on Indian commentarial writings and not laid out using the sa bcad outline which is the norm in Tibetan scholarship, Gö Lotsāwa presents the commentary in three main parts. The title, for which he gives an elaborate explanation of each word, is the first part and is the concise statement through which people of superior caliber can comprehend the content of the text. The second part consists of the first three verses of the Ultimate Continuum, which present the summary of the content of the text. These verses are considered sufficient to give the complete picture of the content of the text for those of middling caliber. The first verse enumerates the seven vajra, or adamantine, topics, which form the content of the Ultimate Continuum, the second verse shows the sūtra sources for these topics, and the third verse presents how the seven topics are connected to each other in a rational and coherent manner.
The third and main part of the commentary is the explanation of the main text of the Ultimate Continuum, in which Gö Lotsāwa first cites the verses and provides a very incisive and detailed explanation. This is said to be required for those of inferior mental caliber. Gö Lotsāwa presents an elaborate commentary on the verses, often exhibiting his ecumenical approach to bring all schools of Mahāyāna thought to a harmonious phase. With his knowledge of Sanskrit, he also compares the different translations and explains some concepts using original Sanskrit terms. For example, he states that the Tibetan term snying po (སྙིང་པོ་) is translated from the Sanskrit terms sāra, hridaya, garbha and maṇḍa. While these can be used synonymously to refer to the same thing, sāra implies being the essence or center from which things emit, hridaya to the heart which is cherished, garbha to the seed or womb which remains at the core, and maṇḍa to the crux or center. His reading of the Ultimate Continuum in his commentary is said to be more aligned to the original Sanskrit than the versions currently available in the Tibetan Tengyur canons.
Another striking feature of his commentary is his merging of the two traditions of the scholastic commentarial tradition, or analytic tradition, passed down from Ngok Lotsāwa Loden Sherab and the meditative tradition passed down from Tsen Khawoche. This is particularly palpable in his writing given his scholastic training under masters such as Tsongkhapa and his deep connection to Mahāmudrā and the Kagyu tradition of Gampopa. While being very critical and scholarly in his exegetical approach, he frequently draws inspiration from the experiential teachings of meditation masters such as Gampopa, Dampa Sangay, and Drigung Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön.
Gö Lotsāwa summarizes the meaning of buddha-nature in the scripture into four categories as (1) emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation, (2) the luminous nature of the mind, (3) the store consciousness, and (4) the bodhisattvas and sentient beings. His own understanding of buddha-nature is aligned to the second one, and he uses terms such as element of awareness (རིག་པའི་ཁམས་) and emptiness of awareness (རིག་པའི་སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་) to refer to buddha-nature, which appears to be seen as a coalescence of emptiness and appearance.
The version of Gö Lotsāwa's commentary which was critically edited by Klaus-Dieter Mathes can be found here.
Buddha nature is eternal, pure, real, virtuous, and will be realized by everyone in the future.~ Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra
The Kālacakra (དུས་ཀྱི་འཁོར་ལོ་) teachings, which were introduced to Tibet sometime around 1027 by Kyijo Lotsawa and fully translated by Dro Lotsāwa Sherub Drak and Ra Lotsāwa Chorab (leading to two early lineages), had a major impact on the tantric tradition in Tibet. The most common historical tradition claims that the Kālacakra teachings were imparted by the Buddha in Dhānyakaṭaka stūpa on the full moon of the Caitra month (the third month in Tibetan calendar today) in the year after he reached full enlightenment. According to another tradition, the Buddha gave these teachings in the final year of his life. The teachings were dispensed to a large gathering of disciples, including King Sucandra of Śambhala kingdom. King Sucandra is said to have taken the teachings to Śambhala where it flourished for many centuries.
Seven generations later, King Yaśas, who is believed to have been an emanation of Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, united the different subjects of his kingdom into a single Vajrayāna caste and composed the summarized version entitled Summarized King Kālacakra Tantra Extracted from the Supreme Primordial Buddha, commonly known as the Summarized Kālacakratantra, or Kālacakralaghutantra. His son, Puṇḍarīka, who is considered to have been an emanation of Avalokiteśvara, composed the commentary on the Summarized Kālacakratantra entitled Vimalaprabhā, or Stainless Light. The original Root Tantra, said to be 12,000 verses containing 384,000 syllables in length, is no longer extant, but many of its verses are cited in the Stainless Light.
The Summarized King Kālacakra and its commentary Stainless Light were first passed down to India from where it was taken to Tibet in the eleventh century. Since its arrival, the Kālacakra teachings have not only changed the Tibetan concepts of time and space and informed its calendar and cosmology but also impacted the understanding and practice of Vajrayāna Buddhism. The tantra, with five chapters discussing the concepts of external cosmology, internal sentient beings and energies, the rites of empowerment, instructions for deity yoga, and the cultivation of pristine wisdom, became one of the most encompassing and influential sources for Vajrayāna theory and practice and was embraced by all major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, with many considering it a very advanced and superior form of tantric teachings.
The impact of the Kālacakra on the understanding of buddha-nature can be best seen in the explicit and emphatic teachings the Kālacakra text professes on the actualization of the blissful, empty, luminous nature of the mind, often referred to as the pristine wisdom of the fourth empowerment (དབང་བཞི་པའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་) and aroused through sexual yoga and control of energy fluids. It is this aspect of the Kālacakra teachings and the related sixfold yoga practices in the Kālacakra that inspired Dolpopa to rise as a strong advocate of other-emptiness and formulate an absolutist understanding of buddha-nature. It is this aspect that also aroused Mipam Gyatso to praise the Kālacakra as exceptionally effective in revealing the innate nature of the mind.
More on the link between buddha-nature and "the image of emptiness" (སྟོང་གཟུགས་) in the Kālacakra and other-emptiness can be found in Michael Sheehy’s presentation at the 2019 Tathāgatagarbha Symposium in Vienna and in Robert Thurman's explanation here.
What is rigpa? The so-called rigpa is inner awareness free from conceptualisation. It is emptiness endowed with all aspects.~ Vimalaprabha
Gampopa’s Four Dharmas
Gampopa Sonam Rinchen was undoubtedly one of the earliest scholarly masters of the Kagyu school. He effectively combined the monastic and mind-training tradition of Kadam, in which he received his first training, with the tantric meditation tradition, which he received from Milarepa. He left behind a rich collection of teachings and meditation instructions, among which his teachings known as the Four Dharmas of Gampopa (སྒམ་པོའི་ཆོས་བཞི་) stand out as very well-known axiomatic teachings.
His learned disciple Jangchub Ngödup wrote down the four axiomatic instructions as it was taught to him in his work entitled Treatise Known as Four Dharmas of Incomparable Gampopa. Jangchub Ngödup, from the southern region of Layak, also authored an extensive commentary on the instructions entitled Ornament Illuminating the Essence: A Commentary on the Famous Text, the Four Dharmas of the Incomparable Dakpo in which he presents buddha-nature as a definitive teaching and directly links it to Mahāmudrā. The four dharmas are presented as:
- 1. ཆོས་ཆོས་སུ་འགྲོ་བ། Making dharma a [genuine] dharma practice
- 2. ཆོས་ལམ་དུ་འགྲོ་བ། Turning dharma into the path
- 3. ལམ་འཁྲུལ་པ་སེལ་བ། Clearing confusion on the path
- 4. འཁྲུལ་པ་ཡེ་ཤེས་སུ་ཤར་བ། Seeing confusion as pristine wisdom
Jangchub Ngödup elaborates on these four points in great detail, providing a very rich array of citations and arguments to underscore his points.
The buddha-nature is the cause, precious and supreme human body, the support, the virtuous master is the agent, and his instructions, the expedient technique. The result is the body of the perfect Buddha, who engages in actions for the world with no thought.~ Gampopa
The Precious Lamp, the First Bhutanese Commentary on the Ultimate Continuum
Gendün Rinchen alias Geshe Jyaku, the sixty-ninth Je Khenpo of Bhutan, is one of the most prolific monk-scholars Bhutan ever produced. A Bhutanese Buddhist luminary of the twentieth century, he has left behind an impressive literary legacy of nine volumes of compositions and commentarial literature, most of which he wrote while teaching in the shedra colleges in Bhutan. A scholar of great depth and vast knowledge, his works are marked by clarity and an exceptionally beautiful writing style, whether they are in prose or poetry. His creative play with words and lucid writing skills can be seen in his wit and humor-laden Biography of Drukpa Kunley and the very informative Religious History of Bhutan.
On buddha-nature, Gendün Rinchen wrote a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum entitled Precious Lamp: A Literal Explanation of the Ultimate Mahāyāna Continuum. In explaining the content of verses I.154 and 155, he clearly expresses his understanding of buddha-nature as a union of emptiness and luminosity endowed with latent qualities of the Buddha. He writes:
- If asked what is the ontic nature of the element which is taught to be unfathomed by others, this natural purity of the essence, which is free from stains, has no need for preexisting elements of flaws to be cleared because being free from all kinds of stains is the nature of this intrinsically empty [essence]. This natural luminosity of the essence, which is free from stains, has no need for new aspects of qualities to be maintained because possessing all qualities in an indivisible manner is the nature of this intrinsically luminous [essence].
He comments further:
- If asked what are the characteristics of such element, the naturally pure element is separable from the conditioned phenomena, which are divisible from it, because the afflictions which have arisen from the assembly of causes and conditions do not penetrate its innate character and the stains are empty of their nature, just like space. The pure element is inseparable from the unconditioned attributes of the Buddha, which are indivisible from it, because it naturally possesses the unsurpassable qualities of the Buddha, such as powers, and the qualities are not empty of their nature, just like the sun. It is empty of that which does not exist in it, thus transcending the extreme of exaggeration, and it is not empty of that which exists in it, thus transcending the extreme of denial, just as Maitreya has said: "What exists in it cannot be nonexistent and what does not exist can neither be existent."
Gendün Rinchen explicitly endorses a buddha-nature that is a union of emptiness and luminosity, but he also argues that the Buddha qualities which are latent in buddha-nature are not empty of their being. Thus, he adopts a position which is slightly different from the main advocates of self-emptiness and other-emptiness.
O King! Mind is inconceivable and always luminous by nature. Its buddha-nature remains like gold in the rocks.
Bötrul Dongak Tenpai Nyima and His Elucidation of Mipam's Thought
If Ju Mipam Gyatso, who composed commentaries on many classical texts and articulated specific Nyingma philosophical positions on critical and popular topics in the Tibetan scholarly world, can be considered the father of Nyingma scholasticism, it was his disciples and followers who carried on this legacy and gave a sustained and strong philosophical voice for the Nyingma school. This can be seen in hermeneutics pertaining to buddha-nature, which was initiated by Mipam and later on reinforced by his followers, such as Bötrul Dongak Tenpai Nyima.
Bötrul, in his Notes on the Essential Points of Exegesis (སྟོང་ཐུན་གནད་ཀྱི་ཟིན་ཐུན་), captures the gist of interpretations, analyses, and arguments which Mipam has presented in his writings, particularly in Lion's Roar: Exposition of Buddha-Nature. This concise and clear synopsis was initially written at the behest of Choying Rangdrol in Kham and later extended at Drigung Nyima Changra, when Bötrul taught there for a year. The crux of Mipam and Bötrul's exposition of buddha-nature and related literature and formulation of buddha-nature as a union of emptiness and luminosity is the two sets of two truths and the fourfold scheme of correct cognition. Mipam endorses the importance of distinguishing the two different sets of two truths in order to understand the intent of the many sūtras and their commentaries. The first set of two truths, which is well known particularly in the Mādhyamika literature, is two truths comprising emptiness and appearance (སྣང་སྟོང་བདེན་གཉིས་). In this context, emptiness is the ultimate truth and all knowable phenomena or appearances fall under the category of conventional truth. Buddha-nature, in this case, is a conventional truth just as the wisdom and qualities of the fully enlightened Buddha are. Emptiness, which is free from all extremes or elaborations, is the only real ultimate truth. The Buddha's middle turning of the wheel and the scholastic writings of Nāgārjuna, according to Mipam and Bötrul, focus on this set of two truths.
Mipam calls the second set the two truths of abiding/ontic and appearing/phenomenal modes (གནས་་སྣང་བདེན་གཉིས་). In this context, a thing for which its ontic existence and phenomenal appearance are consistent (གནས་ཚུལ་དང་སྣང་ཚུལ་མཐུན་པ་), such as the Buddha's wisdom, is the ultimate truth, while a thing for which its appearance does not conform with its ontic reality, such as the illusory experience of hell through misconception, is a worldly or conventional truth. Thus, buddha-nature, which is the innate nature of all beings, falls under the ultimate truth because it exists ontologically as it appears, whereas suffering, for instance, is a part of the conventional truth because it is an illusory experience triggered by adventitious afflictions and does not exist objectively.
In tandem with this distinction of two sets of two truths, Mipam and his followers also underscored the theory of fourfold correct cognition. Firstly, correct cognition is divided, as is popularly done, into two categories of the cognition examining the ultimate (དོན་དམ་དཔྱོད་བྱེད་ཀྱི་ཚད་མ་) and the cognition examining the conventional (ཐ་སྙད་དཔྱོད་བྱེད་ཀྱི་ཚད་མ་). The correct cognition discerning the ultimate is then divided into the correct cognition discerning the notational ultimate (རྣམ་གྲངས་པའི་དོན་དམ་) and the one discerning the non-notational ultimate (རྣམ་གྲངས་མ་ཡིན་པའི་དོན་དམ་). The first one apprehends merely the emptiness or absence of real existence, while the second is the awareness of emptiness free from all extremes or elaborations. The understanding of the lack of self-existence or hypostatic existence is considered only a partial emptiness and the notational ultimate. The real ultimate is said to transcend all points of fixation, mental constructions, and conceptual elaborations.
The correct cognition perceiving the conventional is also divided into two categories of the limited mundane cognition (ཚུར་མཐོང་ཚད་མ་) and cognition of pure discernment (དག་གཟིགས་ཚད་མ་). Ordinary phenomena such as the things of saṃsāra are objects of limited mundane cognition which does not have ontic reality. Thus, they fall within the conventional truth, while things associated with nirvāṇa, such as buddha-nature, which exist as the true nature of things, are objects of the latter. Because they are confirmed by the higher cognition of pure discernment or the pristine wisdom of the enlightened beings, these things are ultimately existent (དོན་དམ་པར་ཡོད་པ་).
The rejection of buddha-nature as the ultimate truth in the sūtras of the middle turning of the wheel and works of masters such as Candrakīrti is in the context of the first set of two truths. Buddha-nature is negated when examined by the cognition examining the ultimate truth in this context. Thus, buddha-nature is considered a provisional teaching. However, buddha-nature is part of the ultimate truth in the context of the second set of two truths as it is ascertained by the enlightened wisdom or cognition of pure discernment. Therefore, it is considered as a definitive teaching in the sūtras of the third turning of the wheel and in texts such as Maitreya's Ultimate Continuum. In this manner, Mipam and his followers adopt a hermeneutic approach to reconcile the divergent positions of the sūtras and classical Mādhyamika authors and claim them to be noncontradictory.
Mahāmati, Buddha-nature is the basis of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, and happiness and suffering.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Kongtrul and His Encyclopedia
Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Taye alias Yönten Gyatso was one of the most prolific scholars and staunch advocates of the theory of other-emptiness in the nineteenth century. An ecumenical master with extensive learning not only in various Buddhist traditions but also in the Bön religion of Tibet, he left behind an astounding literary legacy. His oeuvre, which includes both new compilations/editions of existing texts and fresh writings, consists of the Five Great Treasures (མཛོད་ཆེན་ལྔ་) and amounts to well over a 100 thick volumes.
Among the Five Treasures is an encyclopedic work entitled Treasury of Knowledge (ཤེས་བྱ་ཀུན་ཁྱབ་མཛོད།) that covers in ten long chapters all topics and concepts related to the Buddhist path to enlightenment. The content of the book is presented through the scheme of the three trainings (བསླབ་པ་གསུམ་), and the author broaches all major understandings and interpretations known to him on the topics starting from the cosmological origins of the world to the ultimate nature and qualities of Buddhahood. Kongtrul first composed the root verses of the text and later supplemented them with the commentary at the behest of his teacher and colleague Khyentse Wangpo.
In his Treasury of Knowledge, Jamgön Kongtrul presents a clear analysis of the positions held by the advocates of self-emptiness and other-emptiness. He writes:
- As for both Madhyamaka known as self-emptiness and other-emptiness, there is no difference in establishing all phenomena included within the conventional truth as emptiness and in negating all extremes of elaboration during meditative equipoise. Yet, in the postmeditative state when tenet systems are delineated, merely as a philosophical assertion, there is a difference in the manner of designating through thoughts and words, some saying "there is reality and truth," others claiming "there isn't," and a difference in the view, with some asserting nondual wisdom is truly existent and others saying it is not truly existent when being examined by the final analysis verifying the ultimate.
He also refutes the position held by some Indian and Tibetan scholars that the theory of other-emptiness belongs to the Mind Only school. Kongtrul explains that both the systems introduced by Maitreya/Asaṅga and Nāgārjuna are Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, and deal with the ultimate definitive point. The first one, presented in the Five Dharma Treatises of Maitreya, does so through nondual pristine wisdom, and the latter, presented in the scholastic writings of Nāgārjuna, does so through emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation. The former establishes the ultimate to be empty of all conventional phenomena which lack self-existence, and the latter establishes both conventional and ultimate truth to be empty of self-existence. Thus, the theory of self-emptiness is best at elucidating Nāgārjuna's position and the theory of other-emptiness is best at elucidating Maitreya's thought, and neither can logically repudiate the other. Kongtrul, following Śākya Chokden, considers the two systems introduced by Nāgārjuna and Maitreya as equal in delineating the ultimate reality and does not relegate either to a lower rank in Buddhist doxography.
The single vehicle of the Buddha is taught.
Hold this for every one will become Victors.
The Golden Age of Buddha-Nature Discourse in Tibet
The fourteenth century was perhaps the most vibrant period in the history of buddha-nature thought in Tibet. At the peak of what Seyfort Ruegg called the classical systemic period of Tibetan philosophical history, particularly that of Madhyamaka, or the Middle Way philosophy, that century saw the discourse on buddha-nature reach new heights. Many leading authorities on buddha-nature whose works shaped the understanding of buddha-nature in Tibet and formalized the main schools of interpretation of buddha-nature lived in the fourteenth century.
The first one was the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339), who composed two important short works on buddha-nature and espoused a position that buddha-nature is the basic element or base of existence, including both saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, endowed with the qualities of the Buddha. He was followed by Butön Rinchen Drup (1290–1364), who ardently argued in his treatise that the buddha-nature taught in the sūtras as having qualities of the Buddha latent in it is a provisional docetic teaching and that the buddha-nature is empty of its own being. Using the Indian Buddhist hermeneutic tools of basis for the intention (དགོངས་གཞི་), purpose of the teaching (དགོས་པ་), and logical damage in direct understanding (དངོས་ལ་གནོད་བྱེད་), he advocated a position which was aligned to many Sakyapa masters before him.
In contrast, Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), whose life almost fully overlapped with Butön’s, started as a critical and ecumenical scholar on buddha-nature and eventually adopted an absolutist theory, arguing that buddha-nature is real, absolute, eternal, and endowed with the qualities of the Buddha in its primordial nature. Heavily influenced by the teachings in the tantric literature such as Kalācakra and in the sūtras of the third wheel, Dölpopa became the foremost doyen of other-emptiness, and his Mountain Dharma remains the tour de force of this thought. As an author of many works on buddha-nature and as the head of Jonang tradition, he left behind a philosophical and religious tradition which clearly distinguishes itself in terms of its absolutist understanding of buddha-nature and assertion that both the first and second turnings of the wheel of Dharma are provisional. His student Jonang Chokle Namgyal (1306–86) carried on his legacy in the fourteenth century.
Another luminary of this era was Longchen Rabjam (1308-64), who left behind a rich body of literature related to buddha-nature as well as a vibrant spiritual tradition of seminal teachings on the nature of the mind. Longchen Rabjam espoused a position akin to what his teacher Rangjung Dorje promoted and also presented buddha-nature in direct relationship to Dzogchen mysticism, the highest tenet system and spiritual practice in his Nyingma school. These heavyweights on buddha-nature were followed by prolific writers and thinkers such as Rendawa Zhönu Lodrö (1349–1412), Rongtön Sheja Kunrik (1367–1449), and Bodong Chokle Namgyal (1376–1451), but most prominently Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (1357–1419), who reformed the Kadampa tradition and founded the Gelukpa school, which became a strong advocate of the theory of self-emptiness and a harsh critic of other-emptiness. Thus, the main philosophical interpretations of buddha-nature in the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Jonang, and Geluk traditions were mostly crystallized and systematized in the fourteenth century.
The nature of the mind is luminous and has never any affliction.
Ngok Loden Sherab was one of the most outstanding figures of the New Translation (འགྱུར་གསར་མ་) and old Kadampa tradition. A prominent translator and scholar of the 11th century, Ngok Loden Sherab taught philosophy, logic, and religious practices to as many as twenty thousand students and worked with many Indian paṇḍitas to translate some thirty-seven thousand verses of texts. The Tibetan translation of the Ultimate Continuum (Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra) as we know it was executed by him with the Indian scholar Sajjana. An earlier one was done by Atiśa and Naktso Tsultrim Gyelwa but is considered lost. In addition to the translation, Ngok Loden Sherab also authored a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum and started the analytical tradition of the exegesis and study of the Ultimate Continuum.
Ngok Lotsāwa Loden Sherab generally equated buddha-nature with emptiness free from all elaborations and asserted buddha-nature to be a seed or potential for buddhahood rather a full-blown buddhahood in sentient beings obscured by temporary afflictions. In his epistle sent to Ga Sherab Drak and the monks of Tsong Kharusum, he writes:
- བཤེས་གཉེན་སྤྲིན་ལས་ལེགས་བྱུང་མང་དུ་ཐོས་པ་ཡི། །
- ཆར་རྒྱུན་བསིལ་བས་ཉོན་མོངས་གདུང་བ་ཞི་བྱེད་ཀྱིས། །
- བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོའི་ས་བོན་རབ་ཏུ་བརླན་བྱས་ནས། །
- སངས་རྒྱས་ཡོན་ཏན་ཕུན་ཚོགས་ལོ་ཏོག་རབ་རྒྱས་བྱ། །
- Quell the agony of afflictions with the cool shower of learning
- Which flows gently from the cloud that is one’s master.
- Having soaked the seed of buddha-nature,
- Make the wholesome harvest of the Buddha's qualities boom.
The full translation of this epistle can be found here.
Mahāmati, the Bodhisattvas and Mahāsattvas of the present and future should not construe and grasp this a self.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Tāranātha was undoubtedly one of the greatest exponents of the theory of other-emptiness in Tibet. A brilliant scholar with an impressive oeuvre on history, language, philosophy, and rituals, he has left a mark on Buddhism particularly through his History of Buddhism in India and his writings on buddha-nature.
Among his numerous writings on buddha-nature, the following three works highlight his position on emptiness and the philosophical interpretation of the Buddha's ultimate intent. In his Essence of Other-Emptiness (Gzhan stong snying po), he spans the Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical tenets and spiritual paths. He classifies them into systems which cannot lead to happy rebirth, which can lead to happy rebirth and to liberation, and classifies the Buddhist systems into four philosophical tenet systems and Greater and Lesser Vehicles. While most people who follow Greater or Lesser Vehicles also espouse the equivalent tenet systems, there are some who espouse a Mahāyāna tenet system but enter the path of the Lesser Vehicle and vice versa.
The highest philosophical system is the Madhyamaka, which he divides into the Ordinary Madhyamaka (དབུ་མ་ཕལ་པ་) and the Great Madhyamaka (དབུ་མ་ཆེན་པོ་). The exponents of self-emptiness are grouped under Ordinary Madhyamaka, which was passed down from masters such as Buddhapālita, Bhāvaviveka, Vimuktisena, Śāntarakṣita, et al. This school, he argues, asserts emptiness free from elaborations, like empty space, to be the ultimate truth and includes even the Buddha's wisdom within conventional truth. Tāranātha states that the later exponents of this tradition have criticized the theory of other-emptiness without understanding it properly.
The theory of other-emptiness is the Great Madhyamaka, also known as Madhyamaka of Cognition (རྣམ་རིག་དབུ་མ་), which was propounded by both Nāgārjuna and Asaṅga and their main followers. In this system, all conditioned or unconditioned phenomena, including the ultimate truth espoused by the proponents of self-emptiness, are considered as lacking true existence and thus adventitious constructs, while the self-aware luminous wisdom which is inseparable from the sphere of reality is the ultimate truth. This theory of eternal, absolute, adamantine buddha-nature, or dharmakāya, is the message of the Mahāyāna sūtras, particularly those teaching buddha-nature, and the many commentarial literatures.
In the Ornament of Other-Emptiness Madhyamaka (Gzhan stong dbu ma'i rgyan), he carries out a more rigorous rebuttal of the critique of the theory of other-emptiness. Delving into Buddhist hermeneutics in this discourse written largely in verses, he argues that no sūtras teach the third turning of the wheel to be provisional, while many teach the second turning to be provisional. According to him, the first turning teaches conventional truth, the second turning teaches partial ultimate truth, and the third turning teaches the full ultimate truth. Deploying themes such as provisional and definitive teachings, the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma, and the four points of reliance, he argues how the theory of self-emptiness is provisional and not the ultimate understanding of the Buddha's intent.
He also cites many sūtras and the early masters of Mahāyāna and argues that the most leading Mahāyāna masters prophesied by the Buddha taught the other-emptiness, while only a few later Mādhyamika masters rejected the other-emptiness and advocated the theory of self-emptiness. In The Scriptural Citations for the Ornament of Madhyamaka of Other-Emptiness (Gzhan stong dbu ma'i rgyan gyi lung sbyor), Tāranātha provides in full the citations and references which he either quoted briefly or alluded to in the Ornament of Other-Emptiness Madhyamaka.
Although your true nature may be hidden momentarily by stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still continues to exist.~ The Buddha's Brain
Tashi Özer's Commentary on the Ratnagotravibhāga
Dumowa Tashi Özer is one of the articulate Kagyupa commentators on the Ratnagotravibhāga. He received an education in the Geluk and Sakya traditions but is most significantly associated with the two most scholarly Karmapas as a student of the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, and a teacher of the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. Tashi Özer's commentary, Heart of the Luminous Sun, was primarily based on the topical outline written by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje.
The commentary provides a concise summary of the two interpretations of the topic of buddha-nature in Tibet. He writes:
- In identifying the nature of buddha-nature, in Tibet, there are diverse assertions. The lamas of the Gaden tradition claim that the emptiness of the mind being empty of hypostatic existence, which is a nonimplicative negation, is buddha-nature. The lamas of the Sakya tradition hold that the unity of emptiness and clarity of the mind is buddha-nature. The lord Rangjung Dorje has taught:
- This ordinary consciousness itself
- Is the sphere of reality, the buddha-nature.
- It can neither be made better by enlightened beings
- Nor sullied to become worse by sentient beings.
- He also states:
- Then, if asked: What does buddha-nature refer to? It is as said in the verse:
- The luminous nature of the mind
- Is immutable like space.
- The adventitious impurities such as attachment
- Which arise from wrong concepts cannot defile it.
Following Rangjung Dorje's position, the author adopts a zhentong position and argues that buddha-nature is empty of adventitious defilements but is not void of the transcendental qualities of enlightenment. He refutes the claim put forth by others that buddha-nature is a provisional teaching and also the argument that buddha-nature is empty of both its own existence and adventitious defilements.
All sentient beings are of the same spiritual gene and possess buddha-nature.~ Atiśa
Mipam Gyatso on Buddha-Nature
Ju Mipam Namgyal Gyatso (1846–1912) was perhaps the greatest polymath Tibet ever produced. A thinker and writer with extraordinary output, now published in 31/32 volumes, Mipam effectively began a new chapter of philosophical exegesis and scholarship in the Nyingma tradition. Although he did not claim to begin a new philosophical school but only elucidate and elaborate the points of the scholars and saints of the past, including his Nyingma precursors Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (1042–1136) and Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364), Mipam became a trailblazer in presenting a clear Nyingma stance on many philosophical issues and is today seen as the most authoritative intellectual voice in the Nyingma tradition. While building a strong Nyingma philosophical and hermeneutic system, he also espoused and promoted the ecumenical rime approach and had much influence on other Tibetan Buddhist traditions through his writings.
Mipam did not write an extensive treatise on buddha-nature, although he discussed the topic in many of his writings. His writings on the Middle Way and Vajrayāna cover the topic of buddha-nature in some detail. However, it is in the two short writings, both with the title Lion's Roar, that we find his philosophical take on the definition of buddha-nature. The first one, Lion's Roar: Exposition of Buddha-Nature, is a pithy presentation in which Mipam explains the three rational arguments given in Ratnagotravibhāga, Verse I.28 for the presence of buddha-nature in all sentient beings. In the course of his discussion, Mipam refutes, on the one hand, the zhentong thought, which asserts buddha-nature to be an absolute hypostatic entity endowed with the qualities of the Buddha, and on the other, the Geluk position that buddha-nature refers to the mere negation of hypostatic existence as well as the Sakya assertion that it is the union of emptiness and clarity of the transient mind. Like his Nyingma precursors, whose position he sets out to elucidate, Mipam presents a description of buddha-nature which is closely related to the understanding of the "ground" in the Dzogchen philosophy. To him, buddha-nature is the coalescence of emptiness and luminosity, which is an unconditioned, innate nature of the mind. If analyzed using Mādhyamika reasoning, buddha-nature, like other phenomena, is empty of true self-existence and cannot be found. It defies ontological possibilities such as being, nonbeing, existence, nonexistence, both and neither. Yet, such emptiness or absence has a natural appearance or presence that is unconditioned and transcendent. Buddha-nature is this empty and transcendent nature, which all beings possess, and has all the qualities of enlightenment latent in it.
In his other short treatise, Lion's Roar: Affirming Other Emptiness, Mipam defends the zhentong interpretation of buddha-nature from the unjustified criticism made by the mainstream rangtong advocates. The proponents of rangtong, or self-emptiness theory, argue that buddha-nature refers to the emptiness of the mind and does not exist as an innate nature of a sentient being. They argue that the Buddha's teachings on buddha-nature as an innate state of enlightenment are not definitive teachings to be taken literally but provisional teachings to lead the beings who lack confidence. They criticized the proponents of zhentong, or other-emptiness, and accused them of espousing an absolutist concept akin to the non-Buddhist theory of self.
Although Mipam himself held the position of rangtong, or self-emptiness, which combines emptiness free from elaborations with unconditioned transcendent presence of enlightenment in all sentient beings, he rebutted the critique of zhentong theory. He used his two different schemes of two truths in order to do this: the two truths pertaining to emptiness and appearance (སྣང་སྟོང་བདེན་གཉིས་) and the two truths pertaining to existence and appearance (གནས་སྣང་བདེན་གཉིས་). In the context of the final analysis for true existence in accordance with the purport of the second turning of wheel, all things are empty. Thus, buddha-nature is also empty of its own nature as are all other things. Thus, buddha-nature is merely a conventional phenomena. Yet, in the context of what really exists on the conventional level in accordance with the purport of the third turning of the wheel, Mipam argues that there are some things which exist as they appear because they are inherent aspects of our true nature. Buddha-nature is such an inherent nature, and all sentient beings are endowed with the transcendent qualities of enlightenment in their true nature, unlike defiling emotions and negative thoughts of saṃsāra which are pure fiction and do not exist with any ontological reality. Thus, to Mipam, buddha-nature is empty of such adventitious problems, but not empty of its own transcendent qualities.
The single essential point of all the doctrines of Sūtra and Mantra is only this all-pervasive buddha-nature.~ Mipam Gyatso (1846–1912)
Rangjung Dorje on Buddha-Nature
Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339) is undoubtedly one of the greatest authors on buddha-nature in the Kagyu tradition. Recognized as the incarnation of Karmapa Pakshi by his teacher Ogyenpa Rinchen Pal (1229–1309), Rangjung Dorje emerged to be a leading religious figure of his time, combining Kagyu and Nyingma teachings.
The work for which he is best known is Zab mo nang don, or The Profound Inner Meaning, which, in eleven chapters, deals in detail with the origin of sentient bodies in existence; the network of inner energy channels; the different types of energies and essential fluids which flow through them; the states of consciousness dependent on physical energies; the alignment of internal forces to the external universe, pantheon of divinities, and stages on the path of purification; and the dissolution of the energies. Although the text is based on the premise that all beings have innate buddha-nature with full-blown qualities, Rangjung Dorje does not elaborate on buddha-nature. This he does in his short text entitled The Treatise on Pointing Out the Tathāgata Heart and his famous aspiration prayer Aspiration Prayer of the Definitive Meaning of Mahāmudrā.
This ordinary consciousness is the sphere of reality and the essence of the Buddha.~ Rangjung Dorje
Remembering Professor David Seyfort Ruegg
Today is the 21st day since the passing of Professor David Seyfort Ruegg, one of the most outstanding modern scholars in the field of buddha-nature and Middle Way studies. I first met Prof. Seyfort Ruegg in 1998 when I approached him with a request to be the external supervisor for my doctoral research on emptiness at Oxford. He had already retired from academic positions by then and was devoting his time to writing, but after my persistent requests during three visits, he kindly agreed, making me, to my knowledge, the last PhD student he formally supervised.
In the four years of doctoral work that followed, I would visit Prof. Seyfort Ruegg regularly to discuss the chapters of my thesis, which I would post to him a couple weeks in advance. If I failed to send a chapter on time, I would receive a short note as a polite reminder. Our meetings at his home in Cadogan Square in London would invariably begin with a glass of apple juice, one or two pieces of Duchy Originals shortbread, some pleasantries, and updates on Tibetan and Buddhist Studies before he delved into the detailed discussion and critique of what I had written. We spent hours going through my chapters page by page, the longest session being one from 2–10pm. The sessions were both taxing and uplifting, filled with advice and instructions on which book to read or word to choose, and a ruthless assessment of my writing.
Prof. Seyfort Ruegg was a king in his field. A leading authority on Middle Way and buddha-nature studies in the Indo-Tibetan tradition, he was relentless in the rigor, precision, clarity, and substance of his works. Two incidents still remind me of the high standard he held and wished his students to aim for. When I included a long critique of a certain author on Nāgārjuna in my writing, to my surprise, he dismissed it, saying the work in question did not deserve such attention and effort. After I submitted my thesis for viva voce, he insisted that I wait (which I did for eight months) to have accomplished scholars on the topic as examiners.
Born in 1931 in New York and having undertaken Indology and Tibetology in Paris for his university education, Prof. Seyfort Ruegg devoted much of his long and rich academic career to the study of buddha-nature and the Middle Way. Starting from his doctoral thesis, La théorie du tathāgatagarbha et du gotra, in 1969, he has written many books and articles on buddha-nature, including Le traité du tathāgatagarbha de Bu ston Rin chen grub in 1973, and Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective: On the Transmission and Reception of Buddhism in India and Tibet in 1989. His writings on the Middle Way include, among other titles, his important work The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India published in 1981, Studies in Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka Thought, Part 1 & 2, and the most recent compilation of fifteen articles by him, The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle: Essays on Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka. His other writings include books and articles on linguistic philosophy, epistemology, hermeneutics, history and art, and many dozens of book reviews.
As a Sanskritist and Tibetologist, Prof. Seyfort Ruegg also held professorial chairs in Indian Philosophy, Buddhist Studies, and Tibetan Studies at major universities, including Leiden, Seattle, Hamburg, and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He has supervised numerous students like myself, giving them his time and knowledge very generously. Despite his formidable output and renown for his work, David Seyfort Ruegg was, as a person, a quiet, private, and gentle being. His kindness and soft character was evident particularly in his care for his senile mother who lived with him. Our academic discussions in his house were at times interrupted by the care he was giving her.
David Seyfort Ruegg passed away on February 2, 2021 due to complications related to Covid-19. Far away in the midst of the land and people he studied, I lit a butter lamp in homage and chanted some heartfelt prayers. May his consciousness find peace, and may his wisdom and compassion continue to shine his own path and the paths of other sentient beings.
The idea that the doctrine of the tathāgatagarbha and buddha-nature is one of the supreme teachings of the Mahāyāna is explicitly stated besides in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra.~ David Seyfort Ruegg
Gompopa and His Jewel Ornament of Liberation
Dam chos yid bzhin nor bu thar pa rin po che'i rgyan, or Dvags po thar rgyan for short, is one of the most popular works by Gampopa Sonam Rinchen, one of the founding fathers of the Kagyu tradition. Using a lam rim instructional style, the text presents the entire system of the Buddhist spiritual practice using the framework of the six focal points of cause, support, agent, technique, result, and actions.
- རྒྱུ་ནི་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོ་སྟེ། །
- རྟེན་ནི་མི་ལུས་རིན་ཆེན་མཆོག །
- རྐྱེན་ནི་དགེ་བའི་བཤེས་གཉེན་ཡིན། །
- ཐབས་ནི་དེ་ཡི་གདམས་ངག་སྟེ། །
- འབྲས་བུ་རྫོགས་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱི་སྐུ། །
- ཕྲིན་ལས་རྟོག་མེད་འགྲོ་དོན་མཛད། །
- The buddha-nature is the cause,
- Precious and supreme human body, the support,
- The virtuous master is the agent,
- And his instructions, the expedient technique.
- The result is the body of the perfect Buddha,
- Who engages in actions for the world with no thought.
Gampopa, thus, set the ground with buddha-nature as the cause of enlightenment. He goes on to elaborate how buddha-nature exists in all sentient beings as the capacity for enlightenment, citing sūtra sources and using the three arguments presented in the Sublime Continuum Verse I.28. The text is also available in English translations such as Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Herbert Guenther.
Why wouldn’t one attain enlightenment if sought with diligence because all of us sentient beings possess buddha-nature, the cause of buddhahood.~ Gampopa Sonam Rinchen
Chomden Rikpai Raldri and Buddha-Nature
Chomden Rikpai Raldri (1227–1305) is one of the most illustrious masters of the early Kadam school and Narthang monastery. He was born in Phuthang in the Samye area and became a monk at Samye but later joined Gadong to study under Nyima Tsundru. Suspecting leprosy contraction, he traveled to Narthang to see Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim, the master who was then well known for treating leprosy. Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim made Chomden Rikpai Raldri recite the Pramāṇaviniścaya in seclusion. He is said to have recovered from leprosy after reciting this text on epistemology over a thousand times. He is also said to have studied at Narthang, where he later became an abbot of great reputation, so much so that two-thirds of Tibet’s scholars are said to have gathered there during his time.
Chomden Rikpai Raldri despised the alliances Tibetan lamas made with Mongolian rulers and even had an interesting exchange with Chogyal Phakpa, the first Sakya ruler and teacher of Kubilai Khan. His student Chim Jampelyang, with whom he was initially displeased and whose gifts he did not accept happily, became a tutor to a Mongol prince and sent him ink to help him write some sixteen volumes of his writings. He composed many commentarial works with the title Ornamental Flower and also wrote catalogues for the newly compiled Narthang Kangyur and Tengyur. His synoptic commentary and outline of the Sublime Continuum entitled Ornamental Flowers: A Commentary on Sublime Continuum is a short work which is perhaps one of the earliest commentaries on the Sublime Continuum.
In this synoptic outline, which has recently been discovered in the Drepung library, Chomden Rikpai Raldri highlights his position on buddha-nature. He points out that buddha-nature is a luminous nature of the mind which is indivisible from reality (ཆོས་ཉིད་དང་དབྱེར་པའི་རང་བཞིན་འོད་གསལ་བའི་སེམས་), and buddha-nature does not refer to the mere empty reality because even nonsubstantial and inanimate objects have that reality (ཆོས་ཉིད་རྐྱང་པ་ཁམས་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ་བེམ་པོ་དང་དངོས་མེད་ལ་ཡང་ཡོད་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ།།). He clearly claims that all sentient beings possess the buddha-element, for which different labels are used, and the buddha-element has all the qualities of the Buddha latent in it, awaiting to be only made manifest. Thus, he categorically declares that buddha-nature is not a provisional topic but a topic of definitive teaching.
All phenomena are perfectly awakened from the beginning.~ Padmasambhava
Candrakīrti and Two Works Attributed to Him
The figure of Candrakīrti features prominently in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophical tradition. His work on the Middle Way entitled Entrance to the Middle Way, or Madhyamakāvatāra (དབུ་མ་འཇུག་པ་), is perhaps the most studied work on emptiness and Madhyamaka in the Himalayan world. As a leading exponent of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way school, and as the foremost champion of Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka thought, which is seen as the highest philosophical tenet system, Candrakīrti holds a highly elevated position in the Tibetan Buddhist intellectual tradition.
In his Madhyamakāvatāra, Candrakīrti charts out the bodhisattva path in the framework of ten stages and ten perfections, which culminates in the state of the Buddha with enlightenment powers and other marvelous qualities. Of the ten perfections, his work treats in detail the perfection of wisdom by establishing emptiness, which according to him is the true and ultimate nature of all things. It is the full realization of emptiness, or non-self, which constitutes the ultimate knowledge or wisdom and the central path to enlightenment. Candrakīrti employs a wide range of rational reductionist analyses to deconstruct all phenomena to establish the emptiness of all things and in the process refutes the substantialist philosophical claims of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools.
While underscoring this nature of emptiness, he rejects the existence of buddha-nature and interprets the sūtras that expound buddha-nature to be provisional teachings which are dispensed merely as expedience to lead beings to enlightenment. He argues that buddha-nature, akin to the notion of self, or ātman, was taught for the sake of helping those inferior beings who are scared of the negation of the self. He cites the Descent into Laṅka Sūtra (Laṅkāvatārasūtra) in his autocommentary on Madhyamakāvatāra to explain that buddha-nature is just another designation for emptiness and the unborn nature of all phenomena. Based on this rejection of buddha-nature in his Madhyamakāvatāra, the followers of and commentators on Candrakīrti considered him to have denied the existence of innate buddha-nature in sentient beings.
However, such one-sided philosophical classification is not as straightforward as it seems and becomes complicated when we consider another work attributed to Candrakīrti and related to buddha-nature. The Pradīpoddyotananāmaṭīkā, or The Extensive Commentary entitled the Illuminating Lamp, is an elaborate commentary on the Guhyasamāja Tantra, which Candrakīrti claims is based on instructions passed down from Nāgārjuna. His mention of Nāgārjuna and citation of the prophecy for Nāgārjuna from The Descent into Laṅka Sūtra in this commentary also generally confirms that Candrakīrti, the author of this commentary, is the same as the Mādhyamika philosopher and author of the Madhyamakāvatāra.
In this commentary on Guhyasamāja, an important inner-yoga tantra, Candrakīrti presents the six hermeneutic tools of the provisional and ultimate teachings, the literal and nonliteral teachings, and the interpretable and the noninterpretable teachings. The treatise also highlights the enlightened state of all phenomena, presenting the five aggregates as five families of buddhas, the five elements as five female buddhas, etc. The text describes the innate nature of the mind as luminous and endowed with enlightened qualities. He argues that sentient beings are the base of all buddhas because they possess buddha-nature (རྒྱལ་བ་ཀུན་གྱི་གནས་ནི་སེམས་ཅན་ཐམས་ཅད་དེ། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་སྙིང་པོ་ཅན་ཡིན་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ།།). Thus, we can confidently say that Candrakīrti in the context of the higher tantric school accepted buddha-nature as the essential quality of sentient beings.
Such divergent claims from a single author can be perplexing and can often lead historians to question the identity of the author. The diverging positions of Nāgārjuna on ultimate reality in his scholastic and hymnic corpuses is a good example. While he takes a negative or apophatic approach of reductionism to negate all points of fixation and thus reaches an ultimate truth of utter emptiness in the scholastic corpus, he adopts a positive, cataphatic, and romantic approach to embrace an ineffable absolute reality, or dharmatā, in his hymnic corpus. These two seem contradictory on the surface as does the philosophical position of Candrakīrti on buddha-nature in his two treatises.
Yet, with close scrutiny, one can say that it is an interesting characteristic of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophical tradition to have philosophers espouse different, sometimes even contradictory, positions in different doxographical contexts. It is a part of their skill-in-means (ཐབས་ལ་མཁས་པ་) and an inclusive strategy to help sentient beings. Such a shift in philosophical stance and interpretation is not seen as a sign of inconsistency and confusion but rather as an intellectual ability to formulate things in the proper context and unravel and propound layers of teachings as per the needs of the different levels of sentient beings, who are the audiences and beneficiaries.
Sakya Paṇḍita and His Critique of Absolute Buddha-Nature
Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyaltsen (1182–1251) is certainly one of the most influential Tibetan scholars. Enumerated as one of the three Mañjuśrīs of Tibet for his intellectual brilliance and learning, his writings continue to influence Tibetan Buddhist thought and culture. It was his scholarly stature which eventually led to the Sakya rule over Tibet. He also enjoys unique acclaim in being the only Tibetan to debate and defeat a non-Buddhist challenger and the only Tibetan author whose work was translated into Sanskrit. He is said to have defeated Harinanda in debate and had his Tshad ma rigs pa’i gter (Treasury of Logic and Epistemology) translated into Sanskrit.
On buddha-nature, Sakya Paṇḍita held a clear rangtong view and attacked the Tibetan thinkers who took the buddha-nature teachings to be ultimate. In his Sdom gsum rab dbye (Distinguishing the Three Vows), he alleges that asserting an absolute buddha-nature in sentient beings would amount to a heretical philosophical view like that of the Saṃkhya school. Buddha-nature, according to him, is a designation for dharmatā, the luminous nature which is free from all extremes and elaborations. The doctrines on buddha-nature such as those showing buddha-nature as a latent buddha quality in sentient beings, like a statue hidden in a rag, are to be understood only as provisional teachings to help beings enter the path of enlightenment. Should there be such an innate buddha-nature, it would be equivalent to the non-Buddhist ātman. He also criticized those who understood buddha-nature as emptiness or as the buddha-element exclusively in sentient beings.
What is known as buddha-nature is the expanse of nirvāṇa.
Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim and His Works
Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim (1219-1299), a master of the acclaimed Narthang monastery, is the author of a number of short texts related to buddha-nature. He served as the abbot of Narthang from 1285 to 1299, when he passed away, and built the main temple and border walls of Narthang. He wrote many treatises, including exegeses on the Middle Way philosophy of Madhyamaka and the Perfection of Wisdom, or Prajñāpāramitā. Among his works dealing with buddha-nature are his Instructions on the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna, The Meaning of the Essence of Luminosity, Instructions for the Moment of Death, Essential Pith Instructions That Summarize the Quintessence of the Piṭakas, and Instructions on the Path of the Nature of Phenomena.
While these short works contain scholarly depth and rigor, Kyotön does not present them merely as doctrinal exegesis but rather takes the approach of homiletic discourse which is in alignment with the spirit of Kadampa masters and their pragmatism. Most of the texts contained here have recently been discovered in the Nechu Temple of Drepung Monastery. Find out more about these works and their author here.
The Buddha has taught that all sentient beings possess buddha-nature and the Buddha is permanent, eternal, unchanging, immovable and blissful.~ Mahāparinirvāṇamahāyānasūtra
The Four Noble Truths
The teaching on the four noble truths (Tibetan: བདེན་པ་བཞི་ bden pa bzhi, Sanskrit: catvāri āryasatyāni, Chinese: sìshèngdì) is perhaps the most well known of the Buddhist teachings. Delivered to his five friends in Deer Park seven weeks after the Buddha attained enlightenment, the four noble truths form the earliest set of teachings and the soteriological basis of the Buddha’s spiritual system. The Buddha proclaimed that,
- There is suffering.
- There is the cause of suffering.
- There is the cessation of suffering.
- There is the path to the cessation of suffering.
In today’s idiom, the Buddha declared that,
- Life has many problems.
- Problems come out of causes.
- There are solutions to the problems.
- There are paths to the solution.
After identifying the four noble truths in the first round of utterances, the Buddha is then said to have announced in the second round of utterances that,
- Suffering is to be recognized.
- The cause of suffering is to be eliminated.
- The cessation of suffering is to be attained.
- The path to the cessation is to be adopted.
The Sublime Continuum, Verse IV.52, succinctly captures this message using the common medical analogy.
- ནད་ནི་ཤེས་བྱ་ནད་ཀྱི་རྒྱུ་ནི་སྤང་བྱ་ལ། །
- བདེ་གནས་ཐོབ་བྱ་སྨན་ནི་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ་བ་ལྟར། །
- སྡུག་བསྔལ་རྒྱུ་དང་དེ་འགོག་པ་དང་དེ་བཞིན་ལམ། །
- ཤེས་བྱ་སྤང་བྱ་རེག་པར་བྱ་ཞིང་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ། །
- Just as a disease is to be known, the cause of the disease is to be relinquished,
- The state of well-being is to be attained, and medicine is to be relied upon,
- Suffering, [its] cause, its cessation, and, likewise, the path, respectively,
- Are to be known, to be relinquished, to be reached, and to be relied upon.
For more details, see the page on Verse IV.52.
What is buddha-nature? The primordial innate freedom of every mind that is blissful and full of wisdom and compassion itself.~ Karl Brunnhölzl
Among the many tathāgatagarbhasūtras, or sūtras on buddha-nature, the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra is the only one which goes by that name. It is also perhaps the earliest and most well-known sūtra on buddha-nature. Translated into Chinese by Buddhabhadra in the fourth century and Amoghavajra in the eighth century, and into Tibetan by Śākyabhadra and Yeshe De in the eighth century, this sūtra is one of the main sources used by the author of the Sublime Continuum, or Ratnagotravibhāga, which is the core text on buddha-nature.
The sūtra is set at Vulture Peak, ten years after the Buddha attained perfect enlightenment, among some hundred thousand monks and innumerable bodhisattvas, including many familiar names, and many other kinds of beings. The Buddha, after lunch, enters the Candanagarbha pavilion, and through his meditative power he manifests myriads of lotus flowers in the space above. A radiant buddha figure sits in calyxes of the lotus flowers sending forth rays of light. He then uses his power to make the flowers wilt into dark, putrid, unsightly forms, but the buddhas inside the flower remain radiant. The Buddha uses this to explain how, in the putrid and unsightly filth of negative emotions and thoughts, every sentient being has the true nature of a buddha.
The Buddha goes on to explain all nine similes to illustrate the presence of latent buddha-nature in all sentient beings.
- 1. Buddha figure in the wilting unsightly lotus
- 2. Honey in the beehive
- 3. Kernel of grain in the husk
- 4. Gold nugget in pile of excrement
- 5. Treasure underneath a pauper’s house
- 6. A mango seed ready to unfold into a tree
- 7. Precious statue of the Buddha in a rag
- 8. A universal monarch in the womb of a poor woman
- 9. Golden statue in a clay mould
All sentient beings possess buddha-nature; It remains obscured by myriad defiling emotions, like a lamp in a vase.~ Aṅgulimālīyam-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra
Topic of the Week: Buddha-nature and Luminosity
The classic text on buddha-nature, Ratnagotravibhāga, Verse I.63 states:
The luminous nature of the mind
Is completely unchanging, just like space.
It is not afflicted by adventitious stains,
Such as desire, born from false imagination.
The innate nature of the mind is often described as luminous (Tibetan: འོད་གསལ་བ་ ’od gsal ba, Sanskrit: prabhāsvara, Chinese: guāng míng) in the sūtras and commentarial literature. The earliest sūtra to do this is perhaps Aṅguttaranikāya, I.10, which quotes the Buddha saying: "Luminous, monks, is this mind, but sometimes it is defiled by adventitious defilements." Among the Mahāyāna sūtras, the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā is perhaps the earliest to describe mind as being naturally luminous. In Chapter I it states: "Mind is not mind; its nature is luminous." Later sūtras, tantras, and commentarial writings elaborate on the luminous nature of mind.
What does it mean for the mind to be "luminous" then? Karl Brunnhölzl, an authority on buddha-nature, warns that it should not be understood to be an experience of external light. Luminosity, in the context of the buddha-nature and the nature of mind, refers to its natural clarity, consciousness, and lucidity. It is the innate capacity of the mind that enables it to be aware, intelligent, and knowing. This essential quality of the mind forms the bedrock of spiritual transformation and enlightenment in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions of the Buddhist Himalayas. See more on this here.
Buddha-nature is the ultimate topic of both sūtra and mantra Buddhist teachings.~ Khenpo Namdol
Topic of the Week: The Life of the Buddha
The life of the Buddha is told in many sūtras and commentaries, and it is also presented in numerous art forms. Ever since the early days of Buddhism, it was used as one of the most common liberative tools to help inspire people on the path to enlightenment. Buddhists chant many prayers which recount the life of the Buddha. In the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the rich life story of the Buddha is often condensed in his twelve deeds (མཛད་པ་བཅུ་གཉིས་). These twelve deeds are also considered to be a defining characteristic of the supreme emanation body, or uttamanirmāṇakāya (མཆོག་གི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་). However, there are variations in the enumeration of the twelve deeds.
The Ratnagotravibhāga (Verse II.54-6), which is often cited as source for the enumeration of the twelve deeds, presents the following twelve:
1. Being born in Tuṣita heaven (སྐྱེ་བ་མངོན་པར་སྐྱེ་བ་)
2. Descent from Tuṣita (དགའ་ལྡན་གནས་ནས་འཕོ་བ་)
3. Entering the mother's womb (ཡུམ་གྱི་ལྷུམས་སུ་ཞུགས་པ་)
4. Being born (སྐུ་བལྟམས་པ་)
5. Becoming skilled in various arts (བཟོ་ཡི་གནས་ལ་མཁས་པ་)
6. Enjoying the company of royal consorts (བཙུན་མོའི་འཁོར་གྱིས་དགྱེས་རོལ་བ་)
7. Renouncing the world and going through austerities (ངེས་འབྱུང་དཀའ་བ་སྤྱད་པ་)
8. Proceeding to the heart of bodhi (བྱང་ཆུབ་སྙིང་པོར་གཤེགས་པ་)
9. Overcoming Mara's hosts (བདུད་སྡེ་བཅོམ་པ་)
10. Becoming fully enlightened (རྫོགས་པར་བྱང་ཆུབ་པ་)
11. Turning the wheel of Dharma (ཆོས་ཀྱི་འཁོར་ལོ་སྐོར་བ་)
12. Passing into mahāparinirvāṇa (མྱ་ངན་ལས་འདས་པ་)
Nāgārjuna, in his Praise of the Buddha through Twelve Deeds, contains a different list.
1. Descending from Tuṣita to enter mother's womb
2. Taking birth in Lumbini grove
3. Mastering the various arts and skills
4. Enjoying palace life in the company of consorts
5. Seeing futility of worldly life and becoming a renunciate
6. Undergoing austerities and reaching meditative states
7. Becoming fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree
8. Turning the wheel of Dharma at various places
9. Defeating his rivals and taming the opponents
10. Performing miracles and spreading the teachings
11. Passing into nirvāṇa
12. Leaving behind relics
However, the common enumeration of the twelve deeds of the Buddha in the Himalayan communities differs slightly from both of the above-mentioned Indian sources.
1. Descent from Tuṣita
2. Entering the mother's womb
3. Taking birth
4. Becoming skilled in various arts
5. Delighting in the company of consorts
6. Becoming a renunciate
7. Practicing austerities
8. Proceeding to the foot of the Bodhi tree
9. Overcoming the evil forces
10. Becoming fully enlightened
11. Turning the wheel of Dharma
12. Passing into nirvāṇa
Buddha-nature is not an object of intellectual enquiry.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Topic of the Week: The Number Three
The use of the number three is very common in religious traditions. The ancient followers of Vedic religion had the three deities of Agni (the fire god), Vāyu (the wind god), and Sūrya (the sun god), and the ancient Greeks commonly grouped gods by triads or trinities. Hinduism is centered on the cosmic trinity of Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Christianity has the Holy Trinity, while Judaism has the three patriarchs, including Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The Taoists have their Three Pure Ones and other triadic categories.
The most popular Buddhist triadic set is perhaps the Three Jewels, although there are many other sets of three, including the three poisons (དུག་གསུམ་), three baskets (སྡེ་སྣོད་གསུམ་), three trainings (བསླབ་པ་གསུམ་), etc. The Buddha presented a set of three objects of refuge which can protect an individual from the cyclic sea of suffering. They are the Buddha, to whom one takes refuge as the teacher, his teachings, the Dharma, in which one takes refuge as the path, and the Saṅgha, or the spiritual community in whom one takes refuge as the companion. But why these three?
A common explanation for this question, using a medical analogy, is that a person who is suffering from the disease of afflictive emotions needs the Buddha, like a physician, the Dharma, like medicine, and the Saṅgha, like a nurse. The Ratnagotravibhāga, however, the core text on buddha-nature, justifies the triadic enumeration by arguing that the three objects are for six kinds of individuals and three purposes. The Buddha Jewel is mainly taught for the bodhisattvas, the supreme beings seeking the state of the Buddha, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the teacher. The Dharma Jewel is mainly taught for the pratyekabuddhas, or solitary sages, who seek enlightenment without a teacher by relying on individual realization of dharma, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the teachings. The Saṅgha Jewel is mainly taught for the śrāvakas, or disciples, who focus on the support of the spiritual community, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the spiritual community. The triadic presentation is also for the purpose of highlighting the qualities of the teacher, teachings, and the followers. See Verse I.19 for more on this.
While the triadic presentation of the objects of refuge have remained universal, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition added another element, especially in its universal chant for taking refuge. In addition to the Three Jewels, one commonly finds Tibetan Buddhists taking refuge in the lama, as the following popular verse shows.
I take refuge in the lama.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Saṅgha.
The path of awakening involves both transforming the mind/brain and uncovering the wonderful true nature that was there all along.~ Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, Buddha's Brain, p. 19.
Topic of the Week: The Saṅgha
Saṅgha, the third of the Three Jewels, generally refers to the followers of the Buddhist path. The Sanskrit term saṅgha literally means a company, assembly, or association. The Tibetan translation for the word saṅgha, dge ’dun (དགེ་འདུན་), literally "interested in virtue," refers to the spiritual seekers who are often classified into the two communities of saffron-colored renunciates (རབ་བྱུང་ངུར་སྨྲིག་གི་སྡེ་) and the community of white-clothed, long-haired ones (གོས་དཀར་ལྕང་ལོའི་སྡེ་).
The Saṅgha Jewel originally referred to the followers of the Buddha who have entered the path. In the early sūtras, they are described as those who have properly entered (ལེགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ་), correctly entered (རིགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ་), ethically entered (དྲང་པོར་ཞུགས་པ་), and harmoniously entered (མཐུན་པར་ཞུགས་པ་) the path. They are further described as those who are worthy of veneration (ཐལ་མོ་སྦྱར་བའི་འོས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་), worthy of homage (ཕྱག་བྱ་བའི་འོས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་), worthy objects of merit (བསོད་ནམས་ཀྱི་ཞིང་), worthy of offering (ཡོན་ཡོངས་སུ་སྦྱོང་བ་), and worthy recipients of gifts (སྦྱིན་པའི་གནས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་). They mainly include the celibate monks and nuns, particularly the fully ordained bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. Four such ordained persons are often believed to constitute a proper saṅgha.
In terms of a more technical explanation, the saṅgha in mainstream Buddhism comprises the four sets of spiritual persons, including the stream-runner (རྒྱུན་ཞུགས་), once-returner (ཕྱིར་འོང་), non-returner (ཕྱིར་མི་འོང་), and foe-destroyer (དགྲ་བཅོམ་). The first three are considered to be at different levels on the path to enlightenment, and the fourth one is considered to be an enlightened saint who has reached nirvāṇa. They are further divided into eight or twenty types of saṅgha. The great scholar Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośa (chapter IV.32) states that it is the inner spiritual realization and experience of the followers of the Buddha, not the physical or social person, which is the true saṅgha - the third object of refuge.
The classic literature on buddha-nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga, presents a unique Mahāyāna understanding of the saṅgha. In chapter I.15, it argues that a true Mahāyāna saṅgha is the assembly of bodhisattvas who possess the virtue of the inner vision of suchness and multiplicity and have reached an irreversible stage on the path to buddhahood. Later commentators elaborate that a Mahāyāna saṅgha is marked by the eight qualities of knowledge and liberation (རིག་གྲོལ་གྱི་ཡོན་ཏན་བརྒྱད་). A Mahāyāna saṅgha possesses the knowledge of suchness or reality (ཇི་ལྟ་བ་རིག་པ་), the knowledge of multiplicity of phenomena (ཇི་སྙེད་པ་རིག་པ་), and the knowledge of inner pristine wisdom (ནང་གི་ཡེ་ཤེས་རིག་པ་). Furthermore, they possess the liberation or freedom from the obscuration of attachment (ཆགས་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་), the obscuration of obstructions of knowledge (ཐོགས་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་), and the obscuration of inferiority (དམན་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་). The overall categories of knowledge (རིག་པ་) and liberation (གྲོལ་བ་) are added to these six to make eight qualities. For more on this, read Verses I.14–18
All sentient beings possess buddha-nature.~ Ārya-prajñāpāramitā-naya-śatapañcaśatikā
Topic of the Week: Buddha-Nature and Gender
Set in the male-dominated society of ancient India and given the physical difficulties faced in the life of a renunciate in old times, most Buddhist sūtras present the female body as being a lesser physical medium for spiritual practice than the male body. These sūtras often teach how a female seeker would move on to a male body as she advances on the spiritual path. This was exactly the assumption Mahāmeghagarbha had while talking about a female bodhisattva named Vimalaprabhā in the Great Cloud Sūtra. The Buddha berates Mahāmeghagarbha for having such a thought.
- གསོལ་པ། ལྷ་མོ་དྲི་མ་མེད་པའི་འོད་གང་དུ་བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་ལས་ལྡོག་པར་འགྱུར་བ་བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པས་ལུང་བསྟན་དུ་གསོལ།
- བཀའ་སྩལ་པ། སྤྲིན་ཆེན་སྙིང་པོ། བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་ལས་གང་དུ་ལྡོག་པར་འགྱུར་ཞེས་དེ་ལྟར་མ་ལྟ་ཞིག །
- གསོལ་པ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་འོ་ན་ཇི་ལྟ་བུ་ལགས།
- བཀའ་སྩལ་པ། འདི་ནི། བུད་མེད་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ༑ ལྷ་མོ་དྲི་མ་མེད་པའི་འོད་འདི་ནི། བསྐལ་པ་བྱེ་བ་ཕྲག་གྲངས་མེད་པ་ནས་བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་དཔའི་བྱ་བ་བྱེད་པ་ཡིན་ཏེ། སེམས་ཅན་འདུལ་བའི་དབང་གིས་བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་འཛིན་པས་ན།
- འདི་ནི༑ ཐབས་ཀྱི་ལུས་ཡིན་པར་བལྟའོ། །
- [Mahāmeghagarbha] asked: O Blessed Tathāgata! Please prophesy where the goddess Vimalaprabhā will switch from the female body.
- [The Blessed One] said: Mahāmeghagarbha! Do not think of where she will switch from the female body.
- Mahāmeghagarbha: Blessed One! How will it be, then?
- The Buddha: This is not just a case of a woman. The goddess has engaged in bodhisattva activities for countless decamillion eons.
- She holds the female body for the sake of taming sentient beings. View hers as a form of expedience.
The Buddha praises the qualities of Vimalaprabhā in the sūtra and goes on to prophesy how Vimalaprabhā will take the form of an attractive and loving princess in the future to promote the teachings of the Buddha and benefit the world. We also find a similar account of female power in the sūtra called Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā. In this sūtra, the main interlocutor is Queen Śrīmālā, daughter of King Prasenajit of Kosala but married to King Yaśamitra of Ayodhyā. Queen Śrīmālā is described as a lady of high caliber and confidence. She makes ten pledges and three special prayers, and the Buddha gives the prophecy that she will become a buddha in the future.
The buddha-nature teachings generally underscore the fact that all sentient beings, irrespective of their diverse physical forms, are the same in their innate state of being. Whether male, female, or otherwise, beings possess the same potential and capacity for enlightenment.
Every being has the potential for perfection, just as every sesame seed is permeated with oil.~ Matthieu Ricard
Topic of the Week: The Four Misperceptions
Buddhist texts talk about four viparyāsa, or misperceptions. The most common enumeration of the four misperceptions include (1) perceiving what is impure as pure (མི་གཙང་བ་ལ་གཙང་བར་འཛིན་པ་), (2) holding what is dissatisfactory and suffering as blissful (སྡུག་བསྔལ་བ་ལ་བདེ་བར་འཛིན་པ་), (3) holding what is impermanent as permanent (མི་རྟག་པ་ལ་རྟག་པར་འཛིན་པ་), and (4) holding what is lacking in self as self (བདག་མེད་པ་ལ་བདག་ཏུ་འཛིན་པ་). In this context, our notion of things being pure, blissful, permanent, and self-existent is considered to be a wrong perception and contradictory to the way things are.
Yet in the Mahāyāna sūtras and the commentarial treatises, particularly those dealing with buddha-nature, we find the description of buddha-nature as pure, blissful, permanent, and self-existent. Purity, bliss, permanence, and self are ultimate qualities to be actualized. How do we, then, reconcile these two types of teachings dealing with the four viparyāsa?
The sūtra entitled Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā provides one clear explanation of what the Buddha meant in the divergent teachings.
- བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས་ནི་ཟིན་པའི་ཕུང་པོ་ལྔ་པོ་དག་ལ་ཕྱིན་ཅི་ལོག་པར་གྱུར་ཏེ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། དེ་དག་ནི་མི་རྟག་པ་ལ་རྟག་པར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། སྡུག་བསྔལ་བ་ལ་བདེ་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདག་མ་མཆིས་པ་ལ་བདག་ཏུ་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། མི་གཙང་བ་ལ་གཙང་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་ལགས་སོ། །བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། ཐམས་ཅད་མཁྱེན་པའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་དང་། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་ནི་ཉན་ཐོས་དང་། རང་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་ཤེས་པ་དག་པས་ཀྱང་སྔོན་མ་མཐོང་ལགས་སོ། །བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པ་ལ་དད་པས་རྟག་པར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདེ་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདག་ཏུ་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། གཙང་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པའི་སེམས་ཅན་དེ་དག་ནི་བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་ཕྱིན་ཅི་ལོག་ཏུ་འགྱུར་བ་མ་ལགས་ཏེ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་དེ་དག་ནི་ཡང་དག་པའི་ལྟ་བ་ཅན་དུ་འགྱུར་བ་ལགས་སོ། །དེ་ཅིའི་སླད་དུ་ཞེ་ན། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་ཉིད་རྟག་པའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། བདེ་བའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། བདག་གི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། གཙང་བའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་ལགས་པའི་སླད་དུའོ། །
- Blessed One! Sentient beings have misperceptions regarding the five sentient aggregates. Blessed One! They are perceiving what is impermanent as permanent, perceiving what is suffering as blissful, perceiving what lacks self as self, and perceiving what is impure as pure. Blessed One! Even the pure cognition of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas has not previously perceived the objects of pristine omniscient wisdom and the dharmakāya of the buddhas. Blessed One! Those sentient beings who, out of faith, perceive the Buddha as permanent, blissful, self, and pure are not mistaken in their perception. Blessed One! These sentient beings possess the right view, for the dharmakāya of the buddhas, Blessed One, has reached the perfection of permanence, perfection of bliss, perfection of self, and the perfection of purity.
If there were no buddha-element, one wouldn’t be unhappy with suffering.~ Maitreya
Topic of the Week: What is dharma?
Dharma is perhaps one of the most popular Indic Sanskrit terms that is used widely in religious philosophy and practice. There is no single word in the English language that renders dharma and its numerous meanings. It refers to existence and phenomena in its broadest sense, but in specific contexts it also designates objects of mental faculty, the law of nature, truth, virtue, duty, spiritual path, religion, and religious doctrine. In his work entitled Vyākhyāyukti, or Principles of Exegesis, Vasubandhu states that the term dharma can mean ten different things in the Buddhist context alone.
In its most common usage in Buddhism, dharma refers to the second object of refuge, the teachings of the Buddha. Again, Vasubandhu in his magnum opus, Abhidharmakośa, or the Treasury of Abhidharma, explains that the dharma of the Buddha is twofold: the doctrinal scriptures and experiential understanding. The Ratnagotravibhāga presents a more abstruse and sophisticated Mahāyāna definition of dharma in the context of its explanation of the Three Jewels. The Dharma Jewel is said to be inconceivable, nondual, nonconceptual reality, which is pure, luminous, and remedial in nature. It comprises the third and fourth truths out of the four noble truths: the truth of cessation, which is free from attachment, and the truth of the path to cessation, which helps bring about the freedom from attachment. Learn more about this Mahāyāna definition of dharma by reading Verse I.10.
Buddha-nature is taught to be the immutable reality that is unborn and unceasing like space.~ Asaṅga
Topic of the Week: Who is a bodhisattva?
The term bodhisattva is commonly used in Buddhism and has now entered most of the English dictionaries. Who, then, is a bodhisattva, or what makes someone a bodhisattva? In early Buddhism, a bodhisattva is considered to be a rare being of exceptional caliber who can become a buddha. Not many beings were said to have the bodhisattva spiritual gene and to possess the capacity to become a buddha.
The rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism changed this narrative. Some Mahāyāna traditions argued that those capable of seeking enlightenment would have one of the three dispositions to pursue a śrāvaka arhathood, pratyekabuddha arhathood, or buddhahood. Many beings of superior caliber and disposition became bodhisattvas, seeking buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. As the opportunity to become a bodhisattva increased, the pantheon of bodhisattvas also grew. Thus, we find many names of bodhisattvas in the Mahāyāna sūtras. Other Mahāyāna traditions took this even further and argued that all beings have the capacity to become a buddha and would eventually become one if they followed the path. Thus, any sentient being could become a bodhisattva, and the bodhisattva disposition was not restricted to any specific type of being. Anyone who generated bodhicitta—the thought of enlightenment—and engaged in the practice of the six perfections was a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva, in brief, is a buddha in the making.
The Ratnagotravibhāga, the main text on buddha-nature, explains that a bodhisattva or an heir of the Buddha is someone who is born from the seed of faith in the Supreme Vehicle and the womb of blissful samādhi. Their mother is understood to be wisdom, and their nanny is compassion. To discover more on this, read Verse I.34.
Even those born as animals have the buddha-nature.~ Asaṅga
Topic of the Week: Buddha-Nature at Death
Can buddha-nature be instantly actualized at the time of death? Death, in Tibetan Buddhism, is seen as a powerful opportunity for enlightenment. As one’s bodily organs stop functioning and the support of the physical elements break down, one’s ordinary consciousness ceases to function. At this point one is said to go through a psychological and existential hiatus in which all thoughts, emotions, and activities momentarily come to a halt and the luminous nature of mind, the clear light, like a vast, clear sky, is laid bare and open. Those who become aware of this and rest in this state of the ground nature overcome the temporary obscurations and let their buddha-nature shine forth unobstructed and free forever. They are said to have actualized the pristine wisdom of the ground and remain in thugs dam, a meditative equipoise at death. Find more on buddha-nature and death in ’Da’ ka ye shes kyi 'chi kha ma’i man ngag by Mönlam Tsultrim, The Buddha: Death and Eternal Soul in Buddhism by the 14th Dalai Lama, and "Death, Sleep, and Orgasm: Gateways to the Mind of Clear Light" by Jeffrey Hopkins.
Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha.~ The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Topic of the Week: The Parable of the Lost Son
In the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible (Luke, 15.11), we find the story of a son who was lost and found. The Buddha presents a similar parable about the reinstatement of a lost son in the Great Drum Sūtra. In this story a wealthy householder, who lost his son due to the carelessness of a nanny, finds his son many years later living an impoverished life. Worried that he may frighten the poor boy away if he reveals the whole truth of their relationship, he entices the boy with presents and expediently employs the boy to work as a servant. With gradual exposure to the rich life in the house, the boy becomes ready for the final recognition and reinstatement as the scion of the wealthy house.
The Buddha uses this parable to illustrate how the lower vehicles of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are only expedient steps leading to the ultimate Mahāyāna goal of complete buddhahood. Sūtras related to buddha-nature such as the Great Drum Sūtra and the Lotus Sūtra teach that there is only one final enlightenment (i.e., buddhahood) and that there is only one vehicle (ekayāna) which represents this goal.
In the Dzogchen tradition, this story is used to illustrate that we are all buddhas by nature but are led astray from this nature by temporary incidents. Like a lost prince roaming in the state of an ordinary person (རྒྱལ་པོའི་བུ་དམངས་སུ་འཁྱམས་པ་) remains a prince to be eventually recognized and enthroned as a king, sentient beings remain in the state of the buddha-nature, although they wander aimlessly in the cycle of existence. The purpose of spiritual practice is to recognize and realize that our true nature is the same as the Buddha’s.
In a pregnant woman’s womb,
A child exists but is not seen. Just so, dharmadhātu is not seen, When it’s covered by afflictions.~ Nāgārjuna
Topic of the Week: Explaining the term Three Jewels
The Three Jewels form one of the fundamental concepts in Buddhism. The Buddha as the teacher, his teachings, or the Dharma, as the path, and his followers, or Sangha, as the companion are known as triratna in Sanskrit, triratana in Pali, and könchosum (དཀོན་མཆོག་གསུམ་, Wyl. dkon mchog gsum) in Tibetan. The Sanskrit term ratna and Pali ratana means jewel, gem, or treasure. The Tibetan word köncho literally means rare and supreme. Why are the Buddha, his teachings, and his followers considered to be jewels or to be rare and supreme? What is the reason behind the term Three Jewels or Triple Gem?
The Ratnagotravibhāga, which is a treatise on the spiritual gene of the Three Jewels, states in Verse l.22 that they are considered jewels or gems because they are rare, stainless, powerful, supreme, immutable, and ornaments of the world. Find more translations and explanations of this verse here.
The Buddha's teaching on the fundamental nature of the human mind has always been a great source of inspiration and hope for me.~ The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso
Topic of the Week: Who or What is a Buddha?
Who or what is the "buddha" in buddha-nature? The word buddha comes from the Sanskrit verbal root √budh, to wake up and to know. Buddhist texts generally describe the Buddha as the one who is awakened or enlightened. A buddha has woken up from the slumber of ignorance and is in full awareness of the way things are. Tibetan translators used the term sangye (སངས་རྒྱས་, Wyl. sangs rgyas), in which "sangs" refers to being cleansed or freed from something and "rgyas" refers to flourishing. They explained that the Buddha is fully freed from ignorance and other impure things, and the Buddha flourishes with intelligence and wisdom.
The core classic text on buddha-nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga, defines the terms buddha or buddhahood as a state of enlightenment with eight qualities: unconditionality, spontaneity, incomprehensibility, wisdom, compassion, power, benefit to oneself, and benefit to others. Explore what these qualities mean and who or what is the ultimate "buddha" in the context of buddha-nature teachings by reading Root Verse I.5.
Mind, in essence, is luminous and pure buddha-nature.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra