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Approaching the Great Perfection

Chapter One: Approaches to Enlightenment

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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 C.E. 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 4he 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 Laṇkāvatāra. 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.1

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, 5which 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.2

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.3

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 Laṇkāvatārasūtra and became fundamental to the Yogācāra school in India.4 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.5

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 6are 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.6

The categorization of the Great Perfection as a distinct yoga goes back as far as the earliest known Great Perfection texts.7 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.8

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.9 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 Dīpaṃkaraśrījñāna (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 7of 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 8way 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).10 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.11 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.

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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.12

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.13 The Indian masters, who also figure in other Great Perfection lineages, are Garab Dorje, Mañjuśrīmitra, Śrīsīṃha, Jñānasūtra, Vimalamitra, and Padmasambhava. The last two were both active in Tibet, but the historical existence of the previous four is much less certain.14 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 3.15

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.16 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 10Tsigdön 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).17

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.”)18 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.

11

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.19

Many religious, mystical, and philosophical traditions have recognized the existence of two approaches to their ultimate goals. The first is a step-by-step 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.20 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.21

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 12are 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:

       (i) A simultaneous method with simultaneous realization

      (ii) A simultaneous method with gradual realization

     (iii) A gradual method with simultaneous realization

     (iv) A gradual method with gradual realization

All of these approaches were taught by Chan schools.22 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 13through standard, gradual, Mahāyāna practices. At the end, another simultaneous realization brings about the final accomplishment of buddhahood.23

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, finanda 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.24

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.25 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.26

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Such statements become common in the commentaries to the tantras...

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