A Direct Path to the Buddha Within - Preface

Gö Lotsāwa’s Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga


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This mind, O monks, is luminous!
But it is defiled by adventitious defilements.

—The Buddha: Aṅguttara Nikāya I.5, 9

Like cloth purified by fire,
[That is,] when one puts [a cloth]
Sullied with various stains over a fire,
The stains are burnt
But not the cloth,
Similarly, with the luminous mind,
Sullied with stains arisen from desire,
The stains are burnt by wisdom
But not the luminous [mind].
Those sūtras taught by the victorious ones
In order to reveal emptiness—
All eliminate defilements
But do not diminish the [buddha] element.

—Nāgārjuna: Dharmadhātustotra, stanzas 20–22


Numerous passages in the sūtras and śāstras distinguish the adventitious stains of a suffering mind from its coexisting natural purity, which is at times called luminosity, buddha nature, or dharmadhātu. This natural purity is a kind of true nature of mind endowed with innumerable buddha qualities since beginningless time, even during our wildest excesses of attachment or hatred. Put another way, buddha nature (Skt. tathāgatagarbha) is empty of adventitious stains but not of its own qualities. If we take the above-quoted passage from the Dharmadhātustotra seriously (and all Mahāyāna exegetes accept that this stotra was composed by Nāgārjuna), we have to restrict the validity of Madhyamaka logic to the adventitious defilements—anything else cannot be the object of a conceptualizing mind. Some Tibetan interpreters have distinguished two modes of emptiness: being “empty of an own-being” (Tib. rang stong), and being “empty of other” (Tib. gzhan stong). The former rangtong view is that buddha nature means simply that the mind, like all phenomena, lacks an own-being or self. The latter zhentong view is that buddha nature is an ultimate nature of mind that is endowed with all buddha qualities and that is empty only of adventitious defilements (the “other”), which do not reflect its true nature.

The old Tibetan discussion of whether the teachings of a luminous mind or buddha nature in the so-called third turning of the wheel of Dharma (dharmacakra), such as in the passage above, should be taken more literally or whether the third dharmacakra should be interpreted via the rangtong analysis became a contemporary issue when my Tibetan teachers Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtsho and Thrangu Rinpoche began to propagate the controversial zhentong interpretation of the Rgyud bla ma (the Uttaratantra or Ratnagotravibhāga) in the 1970s and 80s. Up until then the Tibetan reception of the Ratnagotravibhāga had mainly been known of in the West through David Seyfort Ruegg’s publications, which were to some extent influenced by the prevailing Gelug (Dge lugs) hermeneutics. The Gelug school follows Candrakırti’s (seventh-century) lead in taking the teaching in the second dharmacakra of the lack of an independent nature or own-being as the underlying intention of any positive statement about the ultimate.

Against this background, it would of course be useful to investigate how other Tibetan schools have interpreted the theory of buddha nature, and when I was appointed director of the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project in Kathmandu in October 1993, I had great hopes of collecting new material for a future research project on this subject. But it was only when I went through the Tibetan texts kept at Chetsang Rinpoche’s library in Dehra Dun in March 1997 that I finally discovered something interesting, namely Gö Lotsāwa Zhönu Pal’s (’Gos Lo tsā ba Gzhon nu dpal) (1392–1481) Ratnagotravibhāgavyākhyā commentary, which is said to belong to the meditation tradition (Tib. sgom lugs) of the Maitreya works. A first reading revealed two important points: Zhönu Pal was not at all concerned with propagating zhentong (at least not the Jonangpa (Jo nang pa) variety), but he did see in the Ratnagotravibhāga and the other Maitreya works doctrinal support for his mahāmudrā tradition.

Having realized the importance of this work, I decided to edit it, and on the basis of an old blockprint of the same text, I was able to publish a critical edition of Zhönu Pal’s Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma’i bstan bcos kyi ’grel bshad de kho na nyid rab tu gsal ba’i me long [“A Commentary on the Treatise Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra (i.e., Ratnagotravibhāga)—The Mirror Showing Reality Very Clearly”] at the beginning of 2003. This commentary is the main source for the present study, which was accepted as my habilitation thesis by the University of Hamburg in April 2004.

It is my pleasure to acknowledge the various forms of help I have received from others in preparing this work. First of all, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, who assisted me in my research continuously, whether in Kathmandu, Sarnath, or the West, by patiently going through long lists of questions and discussing the subtle points of my research on buddha nature, emptiness, and mahāmudrā. Similar thanks go to Khenpo Lobsang from the Vajra Vidya Institute in Sarnath, who helped me to understand difficult passages in the Tibetan and who, thanks to his having memorized many treatises, was able to identify some of the unattributed quotations. Even though I was able to meet the Venerable Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche only once—in the summer of 2002 in Hamburg—I gratefully recall his clear and precise explanations of certain aspects of tantric zhentong, sūtra-mahāmudrā, and essence mahāmudrā at an important stage in my writing.

I also express my gratitude to professors Lambert Schmithausen and David Jackson, who carefully read important parts of my study and offered most welcome solutions to a number of difficult points. Having only joined the Indian and Tibetan Department in Hamburg in the summer of 2001, I nevertheless feel sufficiently qualified to praise the collegial, “bodhisattvalike” atmosphere in which scholarly problems are addressed. This is true in particular of Dr. Diwakar Acharya, who provided repeated assistance in deciphering all the nearly unreadable akṣaras of the Ratnagotravibhāgavyākhyā manuscripts and in working with the numerous Laṅkāvatārasūtra manuscripts from Nepal.

Many thanks also to Philip Pierce (Nepal Research Centre, Kathmandu) and David Kittelstrom (Wisdom Publications) for carefully reading through the entire manuscript and improving my English. Furthermore, I profited from the very fruitful exchanges I had during regular meetings with Kazuo Kano (Kyoto, currently University of Hamburg), whose doctoral thesis on Ngog Loden Sherab’s (Rngog Blo ldan shes rab) Ratnagotravibhāga commentary (the Theg chen rgyud bla’i don bsdus pa) I have been supervising for the past two years.

Finally I would like to thank the German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) for enabling me to conduct the present study in the first place by financially supporting me for three years with a scholarship.


How to cite this document:
© Klaus-Dieter Mathes, A Direct Path to the Buddha Within (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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