Approaching the Great Perfection - Selections
CHAPTER 1: APPROACHES TO ENLIGHTENMENT
The Great Perfection
This is the heritage left by the buddhas of the past, the object of accomplishment for buddhas yet to come, and the only pure path walked by the buddhas of the present day. Since the intellectual tenets of the other eight vehicles fail to reach it, it comes at the pinnacle of them all.
This is the way in which Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa (1730–98) describes the methods of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen). The Great Perfection is a Buddhist approach to salvation, in a form only known to have existed in Tibet. From its earliest appearance in the eighth century it has survived to the present day. In the intervening centuries its literature grew into a vast range of texts, describing various different systems of the Great Perfection.
At the time when the first known texts of the Great Perfection appeared in the eighth century, Tibet had reached the zenith of its power as an empire, embracing much of Central Asia and parts of China. The Tibetan Empire came into being a century earlier through the military successes of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (609–49). Songtsen Gampo is also traditionally said to have been the first king to sponsor Buddhism in Tibet. At that time, Buddhism had to compete with indigenous religious practices and local deity cults which made its introduction as a state religion less than straightforward. Nevertheless, as the Tibetan Empire went from strength to strength over the two following centuries, Buddhism rose to become the major religious power within Tibetan borders.
The ascendance of Buddhism in Tibet was assured by the work of Songtsen Gampo’s great-grandson, King Trisong Detsen (756–97). This king, while continuing the military successes of his forebears, attempted to turn Tibet into a truly Buddhist country, on the model of India and China. Thus he invited the renowned Indian Buddhist scholar Śāntarakṣita to establish the first Tibetan monastery, with ordained Tibetan monks. He also invited exponents of the Buddhist tantras including the semi-legendary figure Padmasambhava, who taught tantric practice and perhaps the Great Perfection as well.
During the reign of Trisong Detsen great numbers of Buddhist scriptures were translated into Tibetan. A great range of Buddhist literature was translated from both Sanskrit and Chinese, including the most recent developments in the Mahāyāna. Monasteries were established based on the monastic rule of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school. At the same time the practices of the tantras, known as the Vajrayāna, were introduced and practiced by both monastics and laypeople. The lay tantric practitioner (sngags pa, Skt. māntrin) became a common figure in Tibet, and would remain so throughout the history of Tibetan Buddhism.
The early Great Perfection
The earliest Great Perfection texts are from the manuscript cache found in the Central Asian monastic complex of Dunhuang. During the ascendancy of the Tibetan Empire, Dunhuang was under Tibetan control, although both Tibetan and Chinese lived there as monks and passed through as lay devotees. The Dunhuang texts contain some of the fundamental features of the Great Perfection that remain in most of its various later forms. These essential features owe much to earlier Buddhist literature, in particular the doctrine of emptiness (Skt. śūnyatā) set out in the Prajñāpāramitā sutras and the understanding of the nature of the mind set out in certain other sutras, such as the Laṅkāvatāra. The following passage from one of the Dunhuang texts is a typical example:
It does not matter whether all of the phenomena of mind and mental appearances, or affliction and enlightenment, are understood or not. At this very moment, without accomplishing it through a path or fabricating it with antidotes, one should remain in the spontaneous presence of the body, speech, and mind of primordial buddhahood.
As this passage illustrates, Great Perfection meditation instruction points the meditator toward the direct experience of the true nature of reality, which is immediately present. This method is held to be superior to all others, which are said to involve some level of intellectual fabrication. This criticism applies to most of the practices encountered in Buddhism, from intellectual analysis to the use of specific meditation topics as antidotes to undesirable mental states. The exaltation of the Great Perfection above all other schools of Buddhist practice remains a theme throughout Great Perfection literature and can be seen in the eighteenth-century passage quoted at the beginning of this chapter. The identification of the Great Perfection as a distinct vehicle (thegs, Skt. yāna) of Buddhist tantric practice is present in these early texts. It is known as the vehicle of supreme yoga (Skt. atiyoga), overtopping all of the lower levels of tantric yoga.
From this position as the ultimate system of Buddhist practice, the Great Perfection was used as an interpretive structure for the practices of the tantras, which were placed below it in the hierarchy of Buddhist systems. The rejection of any kind of path (lam), any conceptually fabricated form of practice, in these early texts—as seen in the passage above—often seems to put the Great Perfection in opposition to the various and complex paths of practice that were derived from the tantras. However it in fact existed as a way of approaching these practices, much as the doctrine of emptiness is used in the Prajñāpāramitā literature and the works of commentators such as Nāgārjuna, as a way of approaching the practice of the Mahāyāna. In both cases, although there is criticism of conceptually constructed practices, there is also a great deal of discussion of how to engage in those practices. Thus it is clear that the criticism is not to be taken as an injunction against engaging in the practices at all; rather the practices are contextualized within the higher perspective of nonconceptuality and nonduality.
Thus the Great Perfection was not really a departure from Buddhist tradition. As well as the similarity to features of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, there are other obvious influences from the Māhāyana sutras on the early Great Perfection. The true nature of reality alluded to above is also known as the basis of all (kun gzhi, Skt. ālaya), a term that appears often in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra and became fundamental to the Yogācāra school in India.In the early Great Perfection this basis of all is synonymous with the awakened mind (byang chub kyi sems, Skt. bodhicitta), which, as well as being immediately present, is the basis of all that manifests. This use of the term awakened mind is also derived from Yogācāra texts and their scriptural sources, such as the Sandhinirmocanasūtra.
The early Great Perfection was also characterized by certain distinctive features, in particular a vocabulary that was later elaborated and developed into a technical terminology. Examples of this vocabulary in the early texts are gnosis (rig pa, Skt. vidyā), for the everpresent nondual and nonconceptual awareness, and spontaneous presence (lhun gyis grup pa), indicating—as in the passage quoted above—the immediate and unfabricated presence of “the body, speech, and mind of primordial buddhahood.” Equally important is the term primordial (ye nas), indicating that the awakened state has always been present, uncreated.
The categorization of the Great Perfection as a distinct yoga goes back as far as the earliest known Great Perfection texts.The Great Perfection is classed as atiyoga, the highest of the three supreme forms of yoga. Below it are the practices derived from the tantras, classed as the two lower forms of inner yoga, anuyoga, and mahāyoga, although in fact the vast majority of tantric practice fell under the mahāyoga rubric. An eleventh-century Tibetan commentary on the different methods of Buddhist practice distinguished mahāyoga and atiyoga as distinct methods, but earlier texts indicate a less orderly state of affairs in which the characteristic approach of the Great Perfection was presented both in isolation from mahāyoga practice and as the means of engaging in it.
The end of the empire and the new schools
In the 840s a new Tibetan king, Langdarma, was on the throne. Tibetan histories relate that he broke with the custom of supporting Buddhism (which had continued through the reigns of Trisong Detsen’s successors) and supervised the wholesale dismantling of the monastic structure that had been established and encouraged over the previous century. This is said to have been the cause of his assassination by a monk in 842, which ended the royal line and began the disintegration of the Tibetan Empire into small individual states. In the following century and a half there was little or no monastic presence in Tibet, but it seems that the lay tantric practitioners flourished and maintained the transmission of the tantras and their associated practices, including the Great Perfection.
By the eleventh century, certain local rulers in the state of Ngari in Western Tibet wished to see monastic Buddhism reestablished in their land and to curb what they saw as the excesses of the lay tantric practitioners.Their support resulted in the training of Tibetan translators in India, and the beginning of a new wave of translation activity. At their invitation, the Indian monk Atiśa Dīpa˙karaśrījñāna (982–1054) came to Tibet and instigated a new wave of translation of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries. His disciple Dromtön (1002–64) established a new Tibetan monastic form of Buddhism known as Kadam. Atiśa’s legacy to Tibet was a form of Buddhism based on a graduated path that included tantric practice but put much more emphasis on general Mahāyāna teachings, especially the practice of compassion.
In the following years other schools developed. The Sakya based their tantric doctrines on the newly translated tantric cycle of Hevajra, the practice of which was structured by a doctrine called the Union of Samsara and Nirvana, a meditation-oriented interpretation of the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. The Sakya also became a monastic school with a highly scholastic element. Another new school, the Kagyü, also appeared in the eleventh century, with a lesser tendency to monasticism than the Kadam and Sakya. The fundamental texts of the Kagyü were a set of tantric practices derived from an Indian lineage of yogins, and a doctrine that was held to be the ultimate understanding of tantra, called Mahāmudrā, “the great seal.” Mahāmudrā has many similarities to the early Great Perfection, and the two teachings may have shared a common source. The last of the main Tibetan schools to appear was the Gelug, which was founded by the Tibetan monk Tsongkhapa (1367–1419), based on his wish to continue the monastic tradition of the Kadam, which had been supplanted by the more recent schools. Tsongkhapa, like Atiśa, placed more emphasis on the nontantric practices of the Mahāyāna and on a strictly graduated path of practice. His most important innovation was a new reading of the Madhyamaka doctrine, which he used as an interpretive structure for all tantric practice.
Despite the proliferation of new schools in Tibet, there were many who continued to adhere to the lineages based on the first wave of transmission of Buddhism into Tibet. These were the spiritual descendents of those lay tantric practitioners who had survived the collapse of monastic Buddhism in the ninth century, and in their lineages of transmission they carried with them the Great Perfection scriptures. These practitioners came to be known as Nyingmapa (the old ones), and although there was never a coherent Nyingma school as such, it became useful to refer to the lineages and scriptures that derived from the first period of transmission of Buddhism into Tibet with the term Nyingma.
Moreover, at just the same time as the new schools began to appear in Tibet, the Nyingma canon began to grow, with the addition of fresh material known as treasure (gter ma). Treasures are scriptures said to have been concealed in Tibet by Padmasambhava in the eighth century that are brought to light by a treasure revealer (gter ston). The new treasures vastly increased the scriptural material available to Nyingmapas and opened the way to the development of the Great Perfection from its simple early form into a far more complex body of doctrines.
The development of the Great Perfection
The proliferation of Great Perfection texts from the eleventh century called for a structure, a method of categorization to make sense of the different systems that were developing. The method that took hold was a distinction into three classes: the Mind Series (sems sde), the Space Series (klong sde), and the Instruction Series (man ngag sde).Under the Mind Series rubric were placed those early Great Perfection texts dating back to the eighth century or beyond, and more recent material in the same mold. The Space Series enjoyed only limited popularity, and little is known of it today. The Instruction Series, on the other hand, gradually increased in popularity from its appearance in the eleventh century and in time supplanted entirely the Mind Series and the Space Series, becoming by the eighteenth century the only form of the Great Perfection still practiced.
The first known occurrence of this distinction into three series is in an early Instruction Series text, and the threefold distinction is perhaps most accurately seen as a way of distinguishing what made the Instruction Series different from earlier forms of the Great Perfection.The three series were defined as different approaches to the true nature of mind, with the Instruction Series embodying the most direct approach. The characterization is as follows: In the Mind Series, one’s own mind is established as the basis of all appearances, and then this mind is recognized as an empty and luminous awareness, mind itself (sems nyid). In the Space Series, one approaches mind itself by recognizing it as empty. Finally, in the Instruction Series, mind itself is approached directly by the meditator, without any need to establish its character as the basis of all appearance, or to recognize its emptiness.
The Instruction Series built a far more complex system upon the foundations of the earlier Great Perfection literature, in part through the addition of material from earlier sutra and tantra sources, and in part through distinctive doctrines and practices of its own. The particular features of the Instruction Series are discussed in chapters 4 to 7 below. Here it is only important to mention that, by this stage, the Great Perfection had developed beyond its role as an interpretative approach to tantra (although it did not lose that role) and had developed a complex series of meditation techniques of its own.
The popularity of the Instruction Series owes much to a corpus of literature known as the Seminal Heart (snying thig). Although the term suggests an essentialized and condensed teaching, in fact the most elaborate discussions of the Great Perfection occur in Seminal Heart texts. Some doxographies identify the Seminal Heart with the Instruction Series, some place it at the pinnacle of various subdivisions of the Instruction Series, and some place it outside of all the three series, as the very essence of them all.The earliest known Seminal Heart texts are the collection of tantras known as the Seventeen Tantras and a collection of miscellaneous texts attributed to six Indian figures, named Bima Nyingtig after one of those figures, Vimalamitra. Both collections were circulating in Tibet from around the mid-eleventh century onward.The Indian masters, who also figure in other Great Perfection lineages, are Garab Dorje, Mañjuśrīmitra, Śrīsī˙ha, Jñānasūtra, Vimalamitra, and Padmasambhava. The last two were both active in Tibet, but the historical existence of the previous four is much less certain.The Bima Nyingtig is said to have been concealed in the eighth or ninth century and rediscovered in the eleventh, yet it is not strictly classified as a treasure text, for reasons discussed in chapter 3.Between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries, the Seminal Heart, just one among a number of systems of the Great Perfection, was not particularly preeminent, and by the end of this period may even have been in decline.
This was to change due to the work of two people, the treasure revealer Pema Ledreltsal (1291–1315?) and the scholar Longchen Rabjampa (1308–63). In the early fourteenth century Pema Ledreltsal produced the first fully fledged treasure collection in the Seminal Heart corpus, the Khandro Nyingtig. This collection did not achieve immediate popularity and may have been short-lived had it not been taken up by Longchenpa.
Longchenpa was probably the greatest exponent of the Great Perfection in its long history and was certainly responsible for the revitalization of the Seminal Heart tradition. He brought together the Bima Nyingtig and the Khandro Nyingtig with two new collections authored by himself, the Lama Yangtig (based on the Bima Nyingtig) and the Khandro Yangtig (based on the Khandro Nyingtig), and a third new collection, the Zabmo Yangtig. Before long all of these collections were handed down through the lineages of textual transmission as one great cycle, the Nyingtig Yabzhi. The endurance of this cycle ensured that the great variety of meditation practices and doctrines contained in the Seminal Heart rubric would not be lost.
This was not the end of Longchenpa’s development of the Seminal Heart. In two lengthy prose works, the Tegchö Dzö and the somewhat shorter Tsigdön Dzö, Longchenpa set down, in a coherent and systematic form, the miscellaneous and heterogenous doctrines and practices contained in the Seminal Heart collections. In lengthy discourses he attempted to place these materials in the context in which he felt they belonged, that is, as the supreme method of Buddhist practice, not only for the Nyingma, but for all of the Tibetan schools. He attempted to secure this place for the Seminal Heart by relating it to the Indian heritage (especially the Madhyamaka and Yogācāra) and to the interpretations of the tantras found in the new schools, thus giving the Great Perfection an acceptable place in the Tibetan Buddhist milieu of the fourteenth century. The Tegchö Dzö and Tsigdön Dzö were only two of the seven large treatises that became known as Longchenpa’s Seven Treasuries (mdzod bdun).In the centuries following Longchenpa, earlier kinds of Great Perfection practice died out as the Instruction Series became more prevalent. However, no scholar of equal ability appeared, and in general, the new Great Perfection texts were treasures that were, by their nature, miscellanies. By the eighteenth century, the Seminal Heart was beginning to look like a number of competing and increasingly divergent systems of practice—the same state of affairs that had been brought about in the Great Perfection in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by activities of treasure revealers.
This process was stopped and in time reversed by the works of the eighteenth-century treasure revealer, Jigme Lingpa (1730–98). His treasure cycle, the Longchen Nytingtig, is a self-contained collection of texts including every aspect of the meditative practices current among Nyingmapas in his time. The form of Great Perfection practice contained here was firmly based on the Seminal Heart system set out by Longchenpa. (One meaning of the name Longchen Nyingtig that acknowledges this debt is “the seminal heart of Longchenpa.”)Furthermore, in a treatise called Yönten Dzö, Jigme Lingpa made a new attempt at Longchenpa’s project of establishing the Seminal Heart as the supreme manifestation of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.
In the nineteenth century, after Jigme Lingpa’s death, the Longchen Nyingtig became the most popular of the treasure cycles, becoming as close to normative as any set of practices within the heterogenous Nyingma milieu. Jigme Lingpa gave much of the credit for the production of the Longchen Nyingtig to visions of Longchenpa, and in the Great Perfection texts of both this collection and the Yönten Dzö constantly deferred to the work of Longchenpa. The success of Jigme Lingpa’s works firmly established the Seminal Heart, in the systematized form developed by Longchenpa, as the supreme form of Buddhist discourse for most Nyingma lineages.
Simultaneous and Gradual
He could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the one hand the steady goers of superhuman strength who, plodding and persevering, repeat the whole of the alphabet in order, twenty-six letters in all, from start to finish; on the other the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash—the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order.
Many religious, mystical, and philosophical traditions have recognized the existence of two approaches to their ultimate goals. The first is a step-bystep cultivation, the second an immediate realization. The first approach is often associated with learning, meritorious works, and the practice of morality, while the second is often held to transcend such religious and philosophical activities, in fact to transcend all ordinary activities. In essence, the first approach, which I will call gradualist, is pluralistic in that it involves a plurality of methods, and a gradual unfolding of understanding over time. The second approach, which I will call simultaneist, is singular in that it includes no method except direct insight, and no progress over time, only the single moment of realization. It is simultaneous in that all of the elements accumulated by the gradual method are present in the singular event of realization.
The tension between these two approaches is felt through much of the history of Buddhist thought. In early Buddhist scriptures, there are many discussions of gradual cultivation, but also accounts of disciples attaining realization on hearing short sermons by the Buddha.In the more technical discussions in the Pāli canon, a distinction is made between liberation of the mind (Pāl. ceto-vimutti), which involves gradual ascent through the levels of absorption (Pāl. jhāna) in śamatha meditation, and liberation through prajñā (Pāl. pañña-vimutti), which some held to afford a direct access to enlightenment without the need to pass through the levels of absorption.The existence of both approaches is evident in the Mahāyāna sutras as well. In the Prajñāpāramitā sutras the doctrine of emptiness undermined the substantiality of all philosophical reasoning and religious practice. In other sutras, such as the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, the teaching that all sentient beings are possessed of an inherent buddhahood held the implication that there could be access to an immediate realization of buddhahood. Yet it was also in these Mahāyāna texts that the ideal of the gradual cultivation of the bodhisattva’s path was expounded, a cultivation that was generally said to occur through several eons.
In China the simultaneist tendencies of some of the sutras were developed into a doctrine of simultaneous enlightenment by followers of the Chan schools. Most Chan schools advocated a sudden, uncultivated realization of the true nature of mind. In general, the Chan doctrine stated that through nonmentation, the true nature of mind, which is present but not manifest in all beings, becomes manifest. This nonmentation is the avoidance of all conceptual thought. Through the singular method of nonmentation, the singular result, enlightenment, is accomplished. Thus this is a simultaneist approach.
Within the Chan schools, this issue of simultaneism and gradualism received a great deal of attention, and a useful distinction was made between two aspects of the dichotomy. The first aspect is the method. The gradual method is the undertaking of a hierarchical series of practices, which in turn remove more and more subtle obstacles to enlightenment. The simultaneous method is a singular practice, such as nonmentation, which has no internal divisions. The second aspect is realization. In the model of gradual realization, the qualities of enlightenment become apparent in a cumulative manner in the practitioner of the path. This is the model of the five paths and ten stages that appears in many Mahāyāna sutras. Simultaneous realization is the instantaneous presence of all the qualities of enlightenment at the moment of enlightenment. This distinction means that there are at least four alternative positions in the question of simultaneism versus gradualism:
- A simultaneous method with simultaneous realization
- A simultaneous method with gradual realization
- A gradual method with simultaneous realization
- A gradual method with gradual realization
All of these approaches were taught by Chan schools. Ultimately, the first one—simultaneous method and realization—came to be the orthodox Chan position. However, another popular approach, which became the standard for Korean Chan, was the third: a gradual method with simultaneous realization. In this model, the trainee Chan adept undergoes a simultaneous realization of the true nature of mind at the very beginning of his career, and then cultivates the spiritual qualities of buddhahood through standard, gradual, Mahāyāna practices. At the end, another simultaneous realization brings about the final accomplishment of buddhahood.
Distinctions in the capabilities of sentient beings
Many of the traditions that recognized the differences between simultaneous and gradual approaches also recognized that this might correspond to a difference in the capability of those who engage in the practice. The simultaneous method might require the practitioner to be above average, perhaps even to be exceptional. Distinctions between levels of ability in trainees are commonplace in Buddhist literature and were usually characterized as levels in a practitioner’s faculties (Skt. indriya), with the top level described as having sharp faculties (Skt. tīkṣṇendriya). This distinction is especially useful for traditions in which both simultaneist and gradualist approaches are advocated in the scriptures. Advocates of either approach can argue that the simultaneist approach is only for those of the sharpest faculties. While the advocate of the simultaneist doctrine may feel that this includes a substantial number of adepts, the advocate of the gradual approach may argue that only one in a million adepts is actually of this high standard.
There are several passages in the Pāli canon setting out hierarchies of ability in followers of the Buddha; one occurs in the discussion of the two methods of liberation mentioned above. Richard Gombrich writes:
At MN I, 437, Ānanda asks the Buddha why some monks are ceto-vimutti and some pañña-vimuttino. The Buddha does not reply, as in effect he did to the three monks at AN I, 118–20, that there is no answer to this question. On the contrary, he says, with extreme brevity, that it is due to a disparity in their faculties.
In this context the distinction is between the levels to which a monk has developed the five faculties of faith, energy, awareness, concentration, and insight. Discussions of the concept of disparity in faculties also appear in the Mahāyāna sutras. A reference to three levels of ability occurs in the Sandhinirmocanasūtra:
But while I teach with such an intention that there is a single way (Skt. yāna), this does not mean that there do not exist the (various) realms of living beings, depending on their natures, being of dull faculties, of medium faculties, and of acute faculties.
Such statements become common in the commentaries to the tantras. There is, for example, a much-quoted verse by Tripiṭakamāla that defines the mantra path as being suited for those of the sharpest faculties:
Though the meaning is the same, mantra treatises
Are superior because of being for the non-obscured,
Having many methods, no difficulties, and
Having been made for those of sharp faculties.
These verses are quoted by Atiśa in his Bodhipathapradīpa, the influential work in which he sets out a graduated path, and the hierarchy of the three types is used as a fundamental structure. Later, Tibetan scholars of all schools, including Tsongkhapa and Longchenpa, also used the three types of ability to structure a gradual path.
The distinction of different levels of ability was also common in Chinese Buddhism, particularly in Chan. It was used in polemics directed by the Southern Chan toward the Northern Chan, whose gradualist doctrine was characterized as being for those of dull faculties. It was also used to justify a gradualist approach in the Northern Chan by Shenxui, who wrote that the Buddha’s most profound teachings are not suitable for sentient beings in general because their faculties are dull.It was also used by later Chan teachers of the simultaneist approach to explain why the Buddhist canon included so many lengthy, scholastic texts: they were produced for those of dull faculties.
Simultaneous and gradual in Tibet
These two approaches seem to have coexisted in the early stages of Tibet’s assimilation of Buddhism. In the later tradition, the gradual approach became an orthodoxy, given authority by the result of a debate sponsored by King Trisong Detsen.This debate may never actually have taken place, or there may have been several debates, but the story that became accepted in the Tibetan tradition was that a great debate was called in the late eighth century to determine whether Tibet would accept Indian or Chinese Buddhism as normative.
The Indian Buddhist scholar Kamalaśīla opposed the Chinese teacher Hashang Mahāyāna. The question at issue was whether the cessation of dualistic conceptualization alone was sufficient cause for enlightenment (Hashang’s position), or whether a gradual engagement in the practice of the six perfections of the Mahāyāna was required (Kamalaśīla’s position). Thus Hashang represented the simultaneous approach (cig char ’jug pa), Kamalaśīla the gradual approach (rim gyis ’jug pa).According to the Tibetan versions of the story, Hashang was defeated, and his method rejected.
For Tibetan scholars of later generations, the doctrine of a simultaneous realization caused by the mere cessation of conceptualization, attributed to Hashang, became a standard object of rebuttal. This was to be problematic for those who followed doctrines that had something in common with the Chan of Hashang. Certain bodies of teaching in Tibet, including the Great Perfection, were accused of espousing immediate realization and disparaging models of a gradual method and gradual realization, essentially continuing the banned tradition of Hashang. This perception was not unfounded; as we have seen, the texts of the Great Perfection frequently assert the immediate presence of the true nature of mind.
The Great Perfection was subject to criticism at least as early as the eleventh century, when the Nyingma scholar Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo was writing in its defense. Sakya Paṇḍita’s (1182–1251) treatise Domsum Rabje is an early polemic that influenced many of those that followed. Sakya Paṇḍita criticized the teaching of a doctrine of simultaneous realization called the white panacea (dkar po cig thub) in the Mahāmudrā doctrine of the Kagyü school and, in passing, leveled the same criticism at the Great Perfection.More extensive attacks followed. The following passage by the great Gelug scholar Khedrubje (1385–1438), translated by David Seyfort Ruegg, is a good example:
Many who hold themselves to be meditators of the Snow-mountains talk, in exalted cryptic terms, of theory free from all affirmation, of meditative realization free from all mentation, of practice free from all denial and assertion and of a result free from all wishes and qualms. And they imagine that understanding is born in the conscious stream when—because in a state where there is no mentation about anything at all there arises something like non-identification of anything at all—one thinks that there exists nothing that is either identical or different. By so doing one has proclaimed great nihilism where there is nothing to be affirmed according to a doctrinal system of one’s own, as well as the thesis of the Hwashang in which nothing can be the object of mentation.
The intersectarian polemics are the most visible aspect of this conflict, but studying them is perhaps not the best means of investigating the characteristics of particular positions within the Tibetan traditions. As David Jackson has argued in a discussion of the simultaneous versus gradual debate, the use of polemical material to elucidate doctrinal positions within a particular tradition is limited and distorting. Although polemical material is attractive because it points to problematic areas, the presentations of doctrine from both sides are bound to be affected by the arguments that they support. We might also argue, as Seyfort Ruegg has done, that the study of polemics encourages further partiality. A better approach might be the measured study of the various conflicts and the responses to them within particular traditions.
All of the Tibetan traditions had to deal with the rich scriptural inheritance of the late Indian Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna, in which both simultaneist and gradualist positions were to be found. As all schools accepted some, if not all, of the Vajrayāna tantras as authentic, they had to deal with simultaneist tendencies in their scriptures. For those who also inherited the systems of the Great Perfection and Mahāmudrā, the problem was particularly evident, especially under the pressure of attacks from respected scholars like Sakya Paṇḍita. Exponents of these traditions had to come to a solution that would prevent them from being labeled with the Chinese heresy, yet preserve the essence of their own teachings.
Furthermore, if exponents of the Great Perfection did not wish to teach a wholly simultaneous approach—if they wanted to teach a gradualist method or realization, or both—it would be necessary to find a way in which the two approaches could acceptably coexist. The later Great Perfection was without doubt incorporated into a gradual method that included many of the practices of the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna. In Jigme Lingpa’s eighteenth-century treasure cycle, the Longchen Nyingtig, Great Perfection texts sit alongside texts derived from other traditions of Buddhist practice. Most large treasure cycles are considered to contain all the materials necessary for the Buddhist path, and this is also the case with the Longchen Nyingtig. What we are presented with appears to be a de facto gradualist path that, however, incorporates practices with a strongly simultaneist approach. Because of this, and because of the unequaled popularity achieved by the Longchen Nyingtig, it is an ideal case study for the relationship between simultaneist and gradualist tendencies in the later Great Perfection.
The Great Perfection of the Longchen Nyingtig
The Longchen Nyingtig contains eleven texts that are directly concerned with the Seminal Heart, comprising over three hundred pages. They vary greatly in style, including short and pithy instructions on the essential points of the Seminal Heart, evocative verses on the nature of mind as it is known through the Seminal Heart, and longer, discursive commentaries on aspects of the doctrine and practice of the Seminal Heart. All of these Longchen Nyingtig texts are presented in translation in part IV, except for the Yeshe Lama, which is too long to include but from which I draw frequently in the course of analyzing the texts (see also Appendix I). Of the ten translations, seven have never been translated.
These translations are a rich resource for the examination of the presence of simultaneist and gradualist approaches within a single tradition. Points of tension can be identified between different texts and even within a single text. Hermeneutical strategies that smooth over the conflicts between simultaneism and gradualism are to be seen here. Sometimes these are explicitly presented in the texts as solutions, while elsewhere they are not marked out as such and have to be drawn out from where they are embedded in the discourse. In either case, these strategies are an example of how the tradition of the Great Perfection embodies contradictions and how it struggles toward the resolution of those contradictions.
Treasure texts, as I mentioned earlier, are believed to have been concealed by Padmasambhava in the eighth century, to be discovered later by a treasure revealer. Such texts have the authority of scripture. However, a treasure collection is not entirely composed of revelatory material. Texts written as ordinary compositions by the treasure revealer were included alongside the treasure texts, often as direct commentaries upon them. Five of the eleven Great Perfection texts from the Longchen Nyingtig are such ordinary compositions, which Jigme Lingpa attributes to his own hand.
Thus in a single treasure collection one can identify more than the single authorial voice. There are the scriptural voices of the treasure texts, often the first person voice of the primordial buddha Samantabhadra. Alternatively, the scriptural voice may be unspecified, a simple voice of authority.
There is also a category of text that, though not considered to have been concealed in the eighth century, nevertheless has a semi-scriptural authority. This kind of text is believed to have come to the writer as a direct realization and is thus called a pure vision (dag snang). Though without any claim to previous existence, the pure vision texts maintain an air of timelessness, not addressing themselves to contemporary issues as a more mundane composition might.
The non-scriptural texts are usually easily identified by the colophon, in which the treasure revealer records his having written the text. These texts are presented as the expression of the treasure revealer’s own authorial voice. Usually the writer will not use his treasure revealer name to sign a non-treasure text. The texts that are neither treasure nor pure vision I will call authorial, since they are distinguished from the treasure texts by being presented as the work of the treasure revealer in his role as an author, not as a treasure revealer. Authorial texts are often commentaries on the treasure texts in the same collection, but can merely be works with some thematic connection to the treasure collection. The latter is the case with the authorial texts under consideration here, which share the same themes as the treasure texts, but rarely invoke them or comment directly upon them.
In view of the complexity of the concept of authorship in a treasure collection, invoking the treasure revealer as author when citing every text from the collection would only obscure these distinctions. Therefore, though in the course of my analysis I have referred to the authorial texts as Jigme Lingpa’s own statements, I have not invoked this concept of authorship when citing the treasure and pure vision texts. In view of the literary theory of recent decades, one might well question even this use of the concept of the author. Indeed, prior to any modern analysis, the Tibetan Buddhist concept of authorship was informed by the Buddhist concept of nonself (anātman), as Janet Gyatso has shown in her study of Jigme Lingpa’s autobiographical writing, which displays an unstable and ultimately unresolved tension between the presentation of the authorial self and the fundamental doctrine of nonself.
Despite such reservations, the concept of authorship is useful in the limited sense of distinguishing those texts that an author claims as his own compositions from those in which the matter of composition is more complex. I use the concept in this way for the Longchen Nyingtig texts that are neither treasure nor pure vision, in order to distinguish the voice that Jigme Lingpa specifies as his own from the voices of the treasure texts, for which he makes no claim of authorship. This is not to suggest that there is a unitary intention behind all of the authorial texts, but that to avoid the concept of the author entirely is to overlook the question of whether the voices of visionary origin in a treasure collection are saying different things than the authorial voice of the treasure revealer.
Simultaneous and gradual in the Longchen Nyingtig
The translations presented here bring together for the first time a range of treasure, pure vision, and authorial literature from a single author and treasure revealer, creating the opportunity for an exploration of the ways in which these types of text differ in their doctrinal content and in their style. One significant difference emerges when the texts are examined in the light of the distinction between simultaneous and gradual. The treasure and pure vision texts tend toward the simultaneous approach, while gradualist elements and attempts to reconcile gradualism with simultaneism are to be found more often in the authorial texts.
These texts as a whole throw light on the nature of the general tensions between simultaneist and gradualist approaches in the Seminal Heart that are evident from the very earliest Seminal Heart texts. The interpretative strategies employed in the Longchen Nyingtig to reconcile these tensions can also be traced back to precedents in the Seminal Heart tradition and elsewhere. Jigme Lingpa, drawing on a wealth of previous material, uses the technique of distinguishing between different levels of ability in practitioners of the Buddhist path in order to justify the coexistence of simultaneism and gradualism in the Longchen Nyingtig. As we saw above, this distinction may be used in various ways. It may simply justify the coexistence of two different but valid kinds of practice by stating that one is for simultaneist types and one for gradualist types. Alternatively, the distinction may be used to argue for the superiority of a simultaneist form of practice, superior because it is only for those of the highest ability. In both of these cases the proportion of practitioners who are of the highest ability is not particularly important.
On the other hand the distinction in ability may also be used to justify the teaching of a gradualist path, in which case the proportion of those of the highest ability becomes very important. Those who use the distinction to justify the gradualist path agree with those who use it to justify the simultaneist path in asserting that the latter is only for those of the highest ability. They differ in the question of how many practitioners may be said to be of that category. For those defending the gradualist approach, there are very few, perhaps in this degenerate age none at all, who are suitable for the simultaneist approach. This is the position that Jigme Lingpa tends toward in his authorial texts in the Longchen Nyingtig. As I will show in the following chapters, he attempts to teach a gradualist path without contradicting the voice of the treasure texts, which speak in the language of simultaneism.
CHAPTER 3: THE LONGCHEN NYINGTIG
At this point we need to look a little more closely at the features of the treasure tradition. As with the vast majority of treasures, the texts were believed to have been taught and concealed by Padmasambhava during his stay in Tibet. In the case of the Longchen Nyingtig the recipients are said to have been King Trisong Detsen, Padmasambhava’s consort Yeshe Tsogyal, and the translator Vairocana.The mode of the texts’ transmission down through the centuries to Jigme Lingpa was as mind treasure.
In recent years the nature of the treasure tradition has been examined in a number of articles by Janet Gyatso.The word treasure refers to a text that is believed to have been concealed and subsequently rediscovered by a later rebirth of the person to whom it was entrusted prior to the concealment. In the great majority of cases, treasure texts are considered to have been concealed in the eighth century by Padmasambhava, one of the founders of Buddhism in Tibet—usually called Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher) by Tibetans—or by his consort Yeshe Tsogyal.
The tradition distinguishes between different types of treasure, the two main types being earth treasures (sa gter), which are taken out of a hiding place in earth or rock, and mind treasures (dgongs gter), which are taken from the sphere of the enlightened mind (dgongs) in visions. Whatever their particular hiding place, treasure texts are usually given the status of scripture by those who accept the validity of the treasure tradition, which is a majority in the Nyingma and Kagyü schools, and a minority in the Gelug and Sakya schools.Even within those groups who accept treasure texts, there is discussion of the criteria for judging the authenticity of a treasure. Jigme Lingpa himself, in his account of the Longchen Nyingtig’s genesis, displays skepticism toward the majority of treasure literature:
In my opinion, in the present degenerate age so many people accept treasure and pure vision texts, both superior and inferior, that everyone has fallen into the net of doubt. If one does not hold in the palm of one’s hand the symbolic language that has the power to set free the secret treasury of the ḍākinīs, then great waves of karma may be caused when the intrinsic energy of the purified state of the channels arises as a smattering of verses, and this is taken to be a pure vision. One sees and hears many things like this.
According to the Nyingma school, treasure texts are equal in canonical status to those scriptures passed down through the generations in the ordinary way (which are called bka’ ma). Some texts in a treasure cycle are given this scriptural authority even without any preexistence being ascribed to them. Such texts are called pure vision (dag snang), a rubric for texts of visionary origin that in practice are closely associated with, and sometimes overlap, the mind treasure tradition. The existence of this genre indicates that, although it is not stated so bluntly within the tradition, the treasure discoverer is able to introduce new scripture out of the sphere of his own realization (though since that realization is considered to stand outside of time, the adjective new is anachronistic within the tradition). Robert Mayer (1996) has argued that the treasure tradition allows the Nyingma school to hold an open canon that is continually expanding, as opposed to the closed canon insisted upon by the scholastic majority within the Sakya and Gelug schools, in which only the utterances of the historical Buddha are accepted as genuine scripture.
The definition of the difference between earth treasures and mind treasures is discussed in a treatise on the treasure tradition by the third Dodrubchen, Jigme Tenpai Nyima (1865–1926), who plays down the difference between categories. He states repeatedly that the physical scrolls discovered by a treasure revealer as earth treasures are merely the catalyst for awakening within him the texts of which he received the transmission in a previous life, which he and no one else can decipher and transcribe, and that, as such, they differ little from the scrolls discovered in visions of a mind treasure revelation. The treasure revealer represents the rebirth of one of the individuals who received the initiation (dbang) and authorization (gtad rgya) from Padmasambhava, and the texts are linked with his consciousness (though they are, the author stresses, deposited in the enlightened awareness rather than the samsaric mind). Jigme Lingpa considered himself to be the rebirth of the King Trisong Detsen, who, according to the legend of the origin of the Longchen Nyingtig, was one of those who received all the necessary transmissions from Padmasambhava.
Although in the case of mind treasures the scrolls are said to be perceived in visions while in the case of earth treasures they have physical form, in both cases the scroll is far from being the final text itself. It is generally written in symbols that range from coded sentences to a single character that jogs the memory of the treasure revealer. In both cases the treasure revealer is credited with an active and personal role in the formulation of the treasure texts. The treasure text is not merely hidden and dug up; this is why the Bima Nyingtig, which is said to have been hidden in a temple and discovered later, is not strictly considered a treasure.
The transmission of the treasure is usually understood within the framwork of the threefold model of scriptural transmission peculiar to the Nyingma school. The first of the three is the mind transmission (dgongs brgyud), which is usually understood as a wordless transmission “occurring” outside of time between a dharmakāya buddha, usually Samantabhadra, and an entourage who are nondual with him. Second is the symbolic transmission (brda brgyud), usually placed in the context of the Great Perfection’s Indian lineage, including Vajrasattva’s transmission of the Great Perfection scriptures to Garab Dorje. Third is the heard transmission (snyan brgyud), such as Padmasambhava’s teaching of the Longchen Nyingtig texts to Trisong Detsen and others. This is the transmission of a text in ordinary language. Though in the case of a treasure text these transmissions belong to the prehistory of that text, they are, as Janet Gyatso has shown, used analogously to describe the treasure revealer’s discovery of the texts. The mind transmission is considered the treasure revealer’s realization brought about through his own practice of meditation; the symbolic transmission is the discovery of the scroll with its symbolic script; and the heard transmission is the transformation of those symbols into a text written in ordinary language.
After the discovery, whether through scrolls or visions, there is traditionally a period of secrecy, and within this period there is a hiatus between the discovery and the actual writing down of the treasure texts. This process, which is the same for the mind treasure and earth treasure traditions, is absent from the pure vision texts, where the text has no prehistory—the text is received directly from a buddha figure, who is removed from the historical process. If the treasure tradition tends toward an open canon, pure vision texts require an open canon as a prerequisite for their existence. As I have mentioned, and will discuss further below, some of the Longchen Nyingtig texts are closer to being pure visions than mind treasures.
Revelation, Writing, and Publishing
Jigme Lingpa’s visionary revelation of the Longchen Nyingtig is barely mentioned in his general autobiography. The visions are described in two texts that are placed at the beginning of all editions of the Longchen Nyingtig: Chudai Garkhen and a later, shorter text, the Ḍākki Sangtam. The latter is intended as an account of the visionary origin of the Longchen Nyingtig, while the former is actually a general record of Jigme Lingpa’s most significant visions during his two retreats, and though these culminate with his three visions of Longchenpa, the Chadai Garkhen is only indirectly concerned with the Longchen Nyingtig. Both texts have been translated and analyzed in a recent study by Janet Gyatso. The production of the Longchen Nyingtig texts was an ongoing process, and many years after the initial visions, Jigme Lingpa was still writing new texts for the cycle. This is told to us by Jigme Lingpa himself in his autobiography and need not be thought of as unusual. The process by which the treasure cycle came into being incorporates two visionary events and two periods of writing. The first visionary event is the primary vision for the Longchen Nyingtig, the revelation of the mind treasures, recorded in Ḍākki Sangtam, which took place during Jigme Lingpa’s first retreat. The second event is the three visions of Longchenpa, which took place during the second retreat.
In the primary vision, as recounted in Ḍākki Sangtam, Jigme Lingpa is transported on a white lion to the courtyard of Jarung Khashor (the Bodhnāth stūpa in Nepal) where the ḍākinī of dharmakāya wisdom gives him a wooden casket, indicating that it is a mind treasure. It contains scrolls and crystal beads. The first text he takes from the casket is a sādhana, a text dedicated to the practice of the deity Mahākaruṇika, a form of Avalokiteśvara.The second is the certificate (byang bu) for the Longchen Nyingtig, containing prophecies regarding the treasure cycle and treasure revealer.The certificate is a traditional feature of treasure discovery noticed by Janet Gyatso (1993). It is taken as a sign that the treasure revealer is the one to discover this particular text, and as a certificate of his authority once he has done so. The Longchen Nyingtig certificate contains an account of the treasure’ s history and prophecies about its discoverer and about the way in which it will come to light.
Following the instruction of a ḍākinī in the form of his mother, Jigme Lingpa eats the remaining scrolls and beads, whereupon their words and meanings become imprinted on his mind. Then he awakens from the vision. Following advice from both the figures of his vision and his lama he does not write down or teach the treasure texts immediately.
After concluding the Palri retreat in 1759, Jigme Lingpa moved to Chimphu, northeast of Samye, and began another three-year retreat in the upper and lower Nyang Caves, so called because the eighth-century monk Nyang Tingdzin Zangpo was said to have meditated in them. More significantly for Jigme Lingpa, Yeshe Tsogyal and Trisong Detsen, two of the three people whom he considered to be the original recipients of the Longchen Nyingtig, were also said to have used the caves for meditation. The lower cave Jigme Lingpa called the Flower Cave, because it had appeared to him as such in a vision near the end of his first retreat. In these caves, as he recounts briefly in Ḍākki Sangtam and in more detail in Chudai Garkhen, Jigme Lingpa had three separate visions of Longchenpa. In the first vision, which occurred while he was in the upper cave, Longchenpa confirms that Jigme Lingpa has the requisite aspirations (smon lam) and has been given an entrustment (gtad rgya). He encourages Jigme Lingpa to teach others that which has been transmitted to him and commends his songs. Jigme Lingpa considered this vision to be a blessing of the body (sku’i byin rlabs).In the second vision, which occurred after Jigme Lingpa had moved to the lower cave at some point in 1760,Longchenpa hands Jigme Lingpa a scroll that is a clarification of the Shingta Chenmo, tells him that it is time to decode the symbols of the “great secret treasury,” and gives him a scroll confirming that in a previous life he was Longchenpa. This was considered a blessing of speech (gsung gi byin rlabs).In the third vision Jigme Lingpa receives an initiation into all-pervasive, pure luminosity (’od gsal dag pa rab ’byams), taken to be a blessing of the mind (thugs kyi byin rlabs).Thus he states that the transference of Longchenpa’s blessings occurred in the three spheres (body, speech, and mind) that are involved in the initiations of the Vajrayāna, and in this way emphasizes the completeness of the transmission and its authority in the terms of tantric initiation.
Jigme Lingpa provides much less detail on the process of putting the treasure into writing than on the visions themselves. In his autobiography he mentions writing a short piece on the Great Perfection around the time of the initial Longchen Nyingtig visions that was not included in the trea-sure collection:
At this point, through the favorable circumstance of realizing that the clinging of any ordinary person and the true condition that manifests in visions are both illusory, I united the two. The vital points of the secret, translated, symbolic scrolls of the enlightened mind-expanse of the Longchen Nyingtig collection came to me. From out of [my experience of ] appearances arising as books, I wrote the Story of the Intelligent Bee as a preliminary to the emergence of [the Longchen Nyingtig] in the time it takes to drink three cups of tea. It came to me in an unfinished form. Because this book was not set down by the intellect, if one attempts to grasp the meaning, the words appear to be indefinite.
It is interesting to compare the Story of the Intelligent Bee to the Longchen Nyingtig texts, to which it bears striking similarity. It was written down quickly, in an inspired manner, in association with the Longchen Nyingtig vision. However Jigme Lingpa did not consider it to belong in the treasure collection. A similar case is the song that he wrote immediately after the visions of Longchenpa, during the second retreat, which was also not included in the Longchen Nyingtig.
For treasure texts proper, there is a traditional hiatus between revelation and writing, as has been mentioned. We cannot be certain when Jigme Lingpa was convinced that this period had passed. In the Ḍākki Sangtam he says only that he was encouraged to set down (gtan la dbab pa) the great secret mind-treasury by the visions of Longchenpa, and once the time set for decoding the symbols by the chief ḍākinī of the five buddha families had passed, he made it manifest (snang ba byas pa) in gradual stages (rim par skyang) on sheets of white paper.
A seven-year vow of silence is mentioned in the certificate and in the colophon to the Mahākaruṇika text, but neither makes it quite clear whether this refers to writing or to teaching. The autobiography mentions that, after the move to the Flower Cave, but some time before the end of the retreat, one of Jigme Lingpa’s disciples, a wandering yogin called Kongnyön Bepai Naljor, encouraged Jigme Lingpa to break the great code of Dharma (rda chen bdung ba) in spite of the fact that Jigme Lingpa had not told the yogin of his visions. Jigme Lingpa took this as a sign that the auspicious conditions for revealing the treasure were increasing. This encouragement is also recorded in the colophon to one of the Longchen Nyingtig texts, dated the Iron Snake Year (1761/2), roughly coinciding with the last of the visions of Longchenpa, which Jigme Lingpa also took as a form of encouragement. After these encouragements, and before the end of the retreat, Jigme Lingpa wrote the Great Perfection texts that he attributed to his own authorial hand, the supporting instructions (rgyab chos) included below as translations 7 through 10. He records the writing of these texts in Chudai Garkhen, stating that they were inspired by the visions of Longchenpa, and written as distillations of the Seven Treasuries and Shingta Chenpo. He mentions the specific texts KZL, PK, SN, “and so on” (by which he probably means NCT). Some of the colophons of these texts specify that they were written in the Flower Cave, and all mention the visions of Longchenpa. In KZL Jigme Lingpa records that he is in his thirty-second year, which indicates that the year was 1761.
These texts are not strictly treasure texts, as they are attributed to Jigme Lingpa’s own authorial hand. Was Jigme Lingpa writing down the treasure texts, such as YLG and NSB, at the same time? The colophons of the treasure texts rarely place them in time, tending to make oblique references in the form of prophecies. There are exceptions; the colophon of one prayer of purification in the Longchen Nyingtig gives the Iron Dragon Year (1760) as the date and the Flower Cave as the place. However, though the prayer has the treasure punctuation, the colophon suggests that it is closer to the category of those texts that were not considered to be treasure texts as such, despite being inspired by the visions of Longchenpa. Another clue is found in DTK, which states in its final line that KZL is a commentary on it.The colophon to DTK only provides the day (26th) and the month of writing (the “miracle month”: the first month of the year), but if it was written before KZL, then it was probably written early in 1761, the year Jigme Lingpa wrote KZL.Therefore, despite the general lack of dates, it seems likely, given Kongnyön’s significant encouragement and the date of the writing of DTK, that Jigme Lingpa began to write the treasure texts around the same time as the other texts, that is, from 1761 onward, soon after the final vision of Longchenpa.
This initial period of writing continued after Jigme Lingpa had left his retreat and moved into his new home at Tseringjong Monastery, as the colophon to YL shows. By the end of the seven-year vow of secrecy in 1764, when Jigme Lingpa began to spread the new teachings, he probably had a large number of complete treasure texts written down. Therefore a tentative time-scale for the first and most intense period of the writing of the Longchen Nyingtig is 1761 to 1764.Two major subsections within the Longchen Nyingtig, both comprising mahāyoga practice texts (sgrub thabs), were written sometime later. The Dechen Gyalmo section (325 pages in AC) was probably written in 1773, following a vision. These comprise both treasure and commentarial texts, and while little can be gleaned from the colophons of the treasure texts, some of the colophons to the commentaries indicate their relatively late date. Indeed, as the autobiography shows, one was written as late as 1780 and was occasioned by Jigme Lingpa’s practices with his consort, Palding Jetsün Drung.She is also credited in the colophons with having encouraged Jigme Lingpa to write four other texts in the Dechen Gyalmo cycle. A rare reference in the autobiography to this consort implies that she was engaged in sexual yogic practices as Jigme Lingpa’s consort, and that through this she was responsible for the the decoding of at least one Longchen Nyingtig text:
Palding Jetsün secured the connections for a long life. Also, through the creation of the blessings of a consort within her, the good connections for breaking the code of the Khandro Lükyil arose.
In the late 1780s,when Jigme Lingpa was nearly sixty, he wrote the largest subsection of the Longchen Nyingtig, its wrathful deity practices, the Palchen Düpa.This was in part in response to requests by his disciples, including Jigme Trinle Özer and the Queen of Derge.In the same period, another student encouraged Jigme Lingpa to produce a practice for the Dharma protector Mahākāla and his consort. Longchen Nyingtig contains seven of these texts in its Dharma protector section. Also around the same time, Jigme Lingpa wrote the aspirational prayers for the intermediate state and pure land that appear in the Longchen Nyingtig, again at the request of a student. The pattern of writing is the same in each period: first a number of central treasure texts are produced, and subsequently, over a period sometimes extending to several years but generally not more than ten, commentaries are written on them as authorial compositions. This central and subsidiary text arrangement is the usual pattern for treasure collections. Apart from these the Longchen Nyingtig also contains more miscellaneous texts, the criterion for the inclusion of which was perhaps no more than a sense of appropriateness. One text, for example, a commentary on the development stage of mahāyoga included with the Palchen Düpa texts but actually containing no reference to them, has a colophon stating that Jigme Lingpa wrote it in his thirty-ninth year (1768), long before he wrote any of the Palchen Düpa proper. Furthermore, a number of miscellaneous texts written by Jigme Lingpa are grouped at the end of the Longchen Nyingtig, including a guruyoga practice for the translator Vairocana and also one for Jigme Lingpa himself, along with various offering rituals and prayers, all of which could just as well have been left to find a place in the fifth volume of the collected works, with Jigme Lingpa’s other miscellaneous short texts.
The two-volume Derge edition of the Longchen Nyingtig was printed shortly after Jigme Lingpa’s death, around the turn of the century (1800) as part of his collected works. According to the autobiography, there were earlier, independently printed editions of Longchen Nyingtig. The first edition mentioned is a ten-volume collection, described as “the complete mind treasures and commentaries,” which was probably published in 1794 or 1795 at a monastery in Dungsamgyi Ritse. As we have seen, Jigme Lingpa was producing Longchen Nyingtig material almost right up to this time.
The Derge edition of the collected works, supervised by the queen of Derge and Jigme Lingpa’s disciple Dodrubchen, edited by Kātog Getse Trulku, and printed at Gönchen monastery, became the normative collected works. The modern printing of SBd, in which the Longchen Nyingtig comprises the seventh and eighth volumes (ja and nya), is based on this edition. A century later, another edition of the Longchen Nyingtig was printed in Lhasa. From the records of the printing blocks at Nechung Monastery, and from certain extra colophons in this edition that mention Nechung, it looks as if the two volumes of the Longchen Nyingtig in this edition may have been copied from the blocks kept there. The collected works in SBl are based on the Derge edition except for the Longchen Nyingtig and one other text, which have been taken from the Nechung blocks. Also at the beginning of the twentieth century, editions of the Longchen Nyingtig (in three volumes) and the collected works (in fourteen volumes) were printed under the auspices of Adzom Drugpa (1842–1924) at Adzom Chögar. The modern printing of AC is based on this edition of the Longchen Nyingtig. Its three volumes are identified by the mantra letters ōṃ, āḥ, and hūṃ. These three editions of the Longchen Nyingtig are similar in content, with some differences in the order of the texts. In terms of the latter, the Adzom Chögar edition is very close to the Derge edition, with the Lhasa edition diverging from the other two more often than they differ from each other. The Lhasa edition, as it appears in SBl, is also the least legible of the three, with some pages hand copied rather than printed. However, within the Great Perfection texts translated here, SBl and SBd appear to be closer, in spite of the greater number of scribal errors in SBl, with AC showing more significant divergences, most interestingly where it fills in a lacuna in KZL that occurs in the other two editions.
The Contents of the Longchen Nyingtig
The structure of the Longchen Nyingtig
I have already mentioned that the Longchen Nyingtig is divided into certain subgroups of texts, namely the Dechen Gyalmo and Palchen Düpa. Although not all of the collection’s contents fall into subsections in this way, the following is an outline of the way the contents of the Longchen Nyingtig are grouped, based on the arrangement in SBd and AC.
No. of texts
- Revelation accounts and prophecy 3
- Root tantra and root initiation 3
- Outer guru sādhana (phyi sgrub) 4
- Inner guru sādhana (nang sgrub) 4
- Longlife practices (tshe sgrub) 2
- Dechen Gyalmo 28
- Palchen Düpa 20
- Secret guru sādhana (gsang sgrub) 4
- Very secret guru sādhana (yang gsang sgrub) 1
- Wrathful lama practice (bla ma drag po) 3
- Miscellaneous aspirational prayers (smon lam) 4
- Peaceful and wrathful deities (zhi khro) 8
- Protectors (bka’ srung) 16
- Transference of consciousness (’pho ba) 2
- Practices on the channels and winds (rtsa rlung) 6
- The practice of cutting attachment (gcod) 2
- Great Perfection treasure texts 4
- Preliminary practices (sngon ’gro) 3
- Great Perfection practice instructions (YL) 1
- Supporting instruction (rgyab chos) for the above 6
- Additional miscellaneous texts 11
It has been said that the Longchen Nyingtig marks a critical point in the merging of the Great Perfection with the rituals of mahāyoga, the assumption being that from the fourteenth century onward, Great Perfection cycles came to incorporate more and more mahāyoga material, and that this becomes especially apparent with the Longchen Nyingtig. However, treasure collections much earlier than the Longchen Nyingtig can be identified that contain an equal or higher proportion of mahāyoga, anuyoga, and general ritual texts than the Longchen Nyingtig. For example, a fourteenth-century treasure cycle, the Lama Gongdü of Sangye Lingpa (1340–96), which is also a Seminal Heart cycle, contains a greater proportion of non–Great Perfection to Great Perfection texts in its thirteen volumes than the Longchen Nyingtig contains. This is not to argue that there was no development in the traditions of the Great Perfection, but that a true picture of any such development will not emerge until the nature of the treasure tradition is understood through the analysis and comparison of a large number of treasure cycles.
The late additions to the Longchen Nyingtig of the Dechen Gyalmo and Palchen Düpa collections and the Dharma protector texts show Jigme Lingpa rounding out the content of the Longchen Nyingtig later in life, as its popularity grew. The new texts were almost all from the mahāyoga rubric. In tipping the balance of the Longchen Nyingtig’s content this way, Jigme Lingpa was not moving away from older models of treasure collections but toward their example, especially toward the example of the Lama Gongdü, with which he was very familiar. It is, perhaps more than anything else, the completeness of the Longchen Nyingtig that created the conditions for, and maintained, its popularity in the following centuries. The Longchen Nyingtig shares the aims that, I have argued, are characteristic of Jigme Lingpa’s general body of work: the preservation and revitalization of the unique texts and doctrines of the Nyingma. Just as his Yönten Dzö was a new presentation of what he considered to be the core doctrines of the Nyingma, the Longchen Nyingtig, like many earlier popular treasure cycles, presented new forms of the traditional types of meditation and ritual texts: the tantras, initiations, sādhanas, and practice instructions of the mahāyoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga rubrics.
The Longchen Nyingtig’s Great Perfection texts
The Longchen Nyingtig contains eleven texts directly concerned with the Great Perfection.Six of these are treasures or pure visions, and five are written as personal compositions. Even within these two groups, distinctions emerge. Within the treasure texts, YLG is the only one that contains a colophon giving the supposed history of the text. According to this colophon there was a nonverbal transmission of the tantra by the primordial buddha Samantabhadra to the eighth-century translator Vimalamitra, who set it down in writing (bkod pa). Jigme Lingpa translated the ḍākinī language of a certain box without a dictionary (skad gnyis shan sbyar). Almost certainly this was the box that contained the scrolls given to Jigme Lingpa in the vision mentioned above, in which the Longchen Nyingtig was revealed. In this case, in conformity with the threefold model of scriptural transmission invoked by Jigme Lingpa in the colophon, the mind transmission would be the nonverbal transmission from Samantabhadra, the symbolic transmission must be the ḍākinī language of the scrolls, and the heard transmission would be Jigme Lingpa’s own transmission of the text to his disciples. The colophon of GP does not indicate this kind of historical preexistence. The tantra is said to have arisen of itself (rang shar) from the enlightened mind (dgongs) of Samantabhadra. The symbolic transmission came from Longchenpa, and Jigme Lingpa put it into words. Thus while there is a reference to the visions of Longchenpa, there is no reference either to earlier visions or to the historical preexistence of the text. There is, however, a Sanskrit version of the title given at the beginning of the text, a feature shared only with YLG.These two texts are also the only ones named as tantras, and the presence of the Sanskrit title is probably linked to this status. Thus, while GP is certainly designated as a tantra, its historical preexistence is left ambiguous. The other two treasure texts—KGN and NSB—lack distinct colophons but both conclude with a prophetic verse indicating, in vague terms, that at a certain time a certain person will give this teaching, indicating indirectly that these texts are considered to have previously existed.
DTK, on the other hand, appears to be a pure vision text. According to the colophon it was granted as a mind transmission by Samantabhadra straight to Jigme Lingpa. While there is no mention of the symbolic transmission, the writing of the text is associated with the heard transmission. Moreover, the origin of the transmission is presented as the awareness of Samantabhadra (shes rig kun tu bzang po), emphasizing the deity’s role as a symbol for the enlightened mind. ML differs from all of the above in that it is an aspirational prayer. It is located in the Longchen Nyingtig with two other aspirational prayers rather than with the Great Perfection texts, yet the subject matter is undoubtedly the Great Perfection. The colophon states that the prayer was written at the behest of the protector Rāhula in the form of a monk, which is an allusion to a vision related in the Ḍākki Sangtam:
Then one who had taken the form of a monk suddenly appeared as a guide. He said “I have had the feeling for some time that you had something like this in you,” and while he was creating an unparalleled pure vision I felt sure that it was the protector Rāhula.
The phrase “creating an unparalleled pure vision” is obscure, but whether it refers specifically to ML or not, the colophon of ML alone suggests that Jigme Lingpa considered the prayer to be a pure vision directly from Rāhula.I have already mentioned four of the other five texts, those that Jigme Lingpa credits to the inspiration arising from the visions of Longchenpa: PK, KZL, SN, and NCT. These are the texts classified in later catalogs of the Longchen Nyingtig as supporting instructions (rgyab chos).The colophons of KZL and SN report that the texts were written in the Flower Cave, and in KZL, as already mentioned, Jigme Lingpa states that he is in his thirty-second year. The colophons of PK and NCT are in verse and more elusive, but both mention the blessings of Longchenpa. All four contain Jigme Lingpa’s name as author in the conventional sense: the text is written (’bris pa or bkod pa) or made (byas pa) by the author. This, and the lack of the treasure punctuation marks, sets these texts apart from the five treasure texts discussed above.
The distinctions between these authorial texts and the treasures and pure visions are blurred, however, by the fact that Jigme Lingpa seems to be playing with the idea of mind treasures and pure visions in the texts. In the opening verses to SN he writes: “I made this from the treasury of the enlightened mind of the vast expanse,” making references to Longchenpa (vast expanse is klong chen) and his Seven Treasuries (treasury of the enlightened mind is dgongs pa’i mdzod), and to the process of the revelation of a mind treasure. A very similar statement with the same set of associations is made in the closing verses of KZL quoted below. Also in KZL, Jigme Lingpa refers to the text as “this very scroll” (shog dril ’di nyid), alluding to the yellow scroll (shog skya) that is the traditional form in which treasure texts are meant to appear, and uses the formula samaya, sealed sealed sealed (sa ma ya rgya rgya rgya) with which many treasure texts conclude. Jigme Lingpa had a precedent for this blurring of distinctions in the texts of Longchenpa’s Khandro Yangtig. Although the Khandro Yangtig is not directly presented as treasure, Longchenpa often signs himself as Pema Ledreltsal (the name of the treasure revealer responsible for the Khandro Nyingtig), attributes his text to the blessings of Padmasambhava, and sometimes refers to the text as a “yellow scroll.”There are a number of other ways in which Jigme Lingpa invests his text with status indirectly. At the end of NCT he writes that the text is his last testament (kha chems), aligning his work with the texts presented as the last testaments of the figures of the early Great Perfection contained in the Bima Nyingtig.It seems that Jigme Lingpa may have been genuinely concerned that he might not live long: at the end of PK, he alludes to a prophecy indicating that he might die soon. Another example is Jigme Lingpa’s use of the phrase appearances arising as books (snang ba dpe char shar), which appears in SN, KZL, and PK.In SN the phrase appears in the description of the yogin who has achieved Great Perfection realization, but in KZL and PK Jigme Lingpa uses it in reference to himself and the way in which he wrote these texts. This is the relevant verse from KZL, which follows a verse in which he tells of receiving the blessings of Padmasambhava and Longchenpa:
Appearances and sound truly arose as symbols and books,
And my throat came to be a treasury of advice.
This advice is not dependent on shreds of words and examples;
It bursts forth from the secret treasury of the realized mind of the vast expanse.
Although originally “appearances arising as books” may only have meant that a realized person had no need to rely on written teachings, as his perceptions were the actualization of those teachings, it is clear here that the phrase is used to indicate the practice of writing out of one’s realization rather than book-learning. Although the visionary language of the above verse is not present in the explanation of how PK was written, here Jigme Lingpa uses the image of appearances arising as books to validate the authenticity of his writing, despite his not having spent time in debating schools and not having the confidence to give extensive teachings. Given Jigme Lingpa’s general emphasis on experience over learning, some irony is probably intended here. Both SN and PK are described as having been written “as a handprint of having undone the knot of the central channel,” which is another example of his investing his texts with authority. Like the use of the image of appearances arising as books, this is a declaration of writing based on personal realization, in this case using the terminology of the development-stage yoga of the channels and winds. Furthermore, when explaining the genesis of the text in PK and KZL, Jigme Lingpa refers to having received what he variously calls “the blessing of the truth-continuum” (don brgyud byin rlabs), “the blessing of the continuum” (rgyud byin gyi rlabs), and “the transmission-blessing of symbols and words” (brda tshig gi byin brgyud).These words are echoed in Jigme Lingpa’s report of his first vision of Longchenpa, where he hears the master say:
Let the heart continuum of the truth that is expressed be transferred. Let it be transferred! Let the continuum of the words that express it be perfected. Let it be perfected!
Jigme Lingpa also believes that in the third vision he was granted permission to be master of the realization of the truth continuum (don rgyud). This is very close to the language of the three transmissions used in the treasure texts. The Tibetan words continuum (rgyud) and transmission (brgyud) are, as well as being close homonyms, related in meaning: there can be no transmission without a continuum. That Jigme Lingpa has access to that continuum of ultimate truth suggests that his realization is now equivalent to that of Longchenpa. He is making a strong assertion of the authenticity of his compositions. These ten texts indicate how indefinite the boundary between mind treasures and authorial compositions can be. While at one end of the scale YLG is explicitly stated to have had a previous existence in the time of Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra, in GP, despite its status as treasure tantra, there is no explicit assertion of preexistence. The attribution of status becomes more uncertain with DTK, in which the three types of transmission (mind from Samantabhadra, symbolic from Longchenpa, heard from Jigme Lingpa himself ) associated with mind treasures are invoked but no preexistence is suggested. On the other side of the boundary, in KZL, SN, and NCT, and to a lesser extent PK, Jigme Lingpa names himself as author but invokes the authority of Longchenpa’s blessings and playfully suggests that these texts too are mind treasures.
The playfulness and shifting boundaries of the categories are present even in the name of the collection, Longchen Nyingtig. The name is both “the heart essence of the vast expanse” and “the Seminal Heart of Longchenpa.” The pun acknowledges the importance of both Longchenpa’s works and his visionary inspiration to the cycle but, being a pun, is not fixed there. It allows for a more all-encompassing meaning, the expanse of realization, and links the cycle, beyond Longchenpa, to the figure of Padmasambhava and his activity of treasure concealment in Tibet in the eighth century. Since the name Longchen Nyingtig does not feature within the treasure texts themselves, and does not appear in the certificate (gnad byang) for the collection, it may be assumed that the name itself is not supposed to date back to the eighth century, and Jigme Lingpa was free to make a reference to the fourteenth-century figure of Longchenpa in the title.
Though it is important to recognize the fluidity of categories of text in treasure cycles, it is vital not to lose sight of the way the texts are categorized since, as we will see, different types of treasure texts perform different functions in a treasure cycle. So, for ease of reference, the table below lists the texts according to the category with which they are most strongly associated.
Treasure texts (gter ma)
YLG: The Great Perfection Tantra of the Expanse of Samantabhadra’s Wisdom
GP: The Subsequent Tantra of Great Perfection Instruction
KGN: Experiencing the Enlightened Mind of Samantabhadra
NSB: Distinguishing the Three Essential Points of the Great Perfection
Pure visions (dag snang)
ML: An Aspirational Prayer for the Ground, Path, and Result
DTK: Vajra Verses on the Natural State
Practice instructions (khrid yig)
YL: The Wisdom Guru
Supporting instructions (rgyab chos)
PK: The White Lotus
KZL: The Words of the Omniscient One
SN: The Lion’s Roar That Destroys the Deviations of Renunciates Meditating on the Seminal Heart
NCT: Seeing Nakedly the Natural State of the Great Perfection
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© Sam van Schaik, Approaching the Great Perfection (Wisdom Publications, 2004)
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