The — Buddhist — Nyingmapas (rNying ma pa) and the Bonpos (who do not identify themself as Buddhists in a narrow sense) have in common a set of doctrines and practices called Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). Though there exists such a common denomination, the corpus of the Dzogchen texts and practices shows a considerable heterogeneity, which can be largely (but maybe not totally) explained as the result of an internal development process.
Now, in what is most probably the most recent layer of this development (13th century ? actually maybe quite earlier, according to Jean-Luc Achard's ongoing research), we discover not only a very sophisticated system of visionary contemplation, but also, as its doctrinal background, a quite surprising et of ideas and a very distinctive terminology, including :
(1) the idea of an ultimate principle referred that pre-existed time and space, the «primordial mode of being» (gdod ma’i gnas lugs) or the «original ground of primordial purity» (ye gzhi ka dag) ;
(2) from which radiate one first layer of luminous manifestations (gzhi snang, “epiphany of the ground”, equated to the Dharmadhātu);
(3) from which then is produced the mind (sems), the root of which is a mis-understanding, a mis-representation occurring within and about this first, pure, layer of manifestation;
(4) from which also arise time, space and matter, both inner (the body) and outer (the world).
This set of elements being given, then, the way in which mind functions, and with it all the dependent origination process of the saṃsāra, is accounted for in terms that are more or less those of the Buddhist idealism (vijñānavāda), somehow combined with Madhyamaka. So, we have what sounds like a more or less hybrid junction of an emanatist theory (including the ideas of some sort of first beginning, original downfall, and a hierarchized ontology implying different levels or layers of being), with a more typically Buddhist dependent origination theory, implying a beginningless process of causation within the framework of an ontology that does not clearly go beyond the range of the univocitas entis (all that actually exists, exists in the same sense).
My aim here is not to explore these doctrinal combinations and the efforts of authors such as Klong chen pa (1308-1364) to construct it in a philosophically consistent form.
Rather, my intent is
(1) To suggest the possibility of a comparison with Neo-platonism, from its Greek origins to its late developments in Iranian shî’ism and sufism;
(2) Not with the idea of establishing any from of historical filiation, or “influences” of any sort, which, so far, would be completely impossible to set up on any solid philological basis, but precisely as an exercise of comparative philosophy;
(3) My main objective being to re-define comparative philosophy as such on the basis of this example and of a reflection about the genesis of the idea of comparative philosophy in the context of the contemporary developments of comparative anatomy and comparative grammar.
(4) The main locus of my analysis will be a comparison of the layered structure of the soul in the Neo-platonician family of doctrines, especially as it implies a re-reading or recycling of Aristotle’s De Anima, giving a special role to the phantasia, “imagination”, as an intermediary layer between intellect and the senses, connected to memory.
(5) In the latest developments of Neo-platonism in the Jewish and Muslim cultural spheres, a very important function was ascribed to this faculty, especially as the organ of prophetic revelation and as the “place” where all the visions of the saints and prophets occur. – It is very plain in Maimonides, for example, that the prophet is not someone whose intellect alone is illuminated with divine light (that would be more the character of the philosopher), but someone in who the divine light pours down to the phantasia. This is then developed to its last extend by
(a) Sufi masters of the Kubrawiya tradition, who connect it with a practice based, much like visionary Dzogchen, with the gradual development of luminous visions, starting with photisms that slowly grow and finally fill up the entire field of perception
(b) and shî’a speculations that seem to reach their full development with Mollâ Sâdra in the 17th century in Iran.
(6) Now, it is plain that, in Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism more specifically, there has never been a strong distinction between discursive thought (the type that is implied in, e.g., the mental activity of a philosopher or, say, scientist) and imagination. In Buddhist epistemology, true concepts are more or less conceived of as “fictions that work”, or as a map that allows one to travel efficiently — say : adequate mental images, as distinguished from delusive mental images, that do not practically fit empirical reality. In the same way, in what we may call Buddhist psychology, there is not either the concept of an imaginative faculty, firmly distinguished from a conceptual faculty.
(7) My focus (somehow experimental, at this point), is that comparative philosophy should not merely be a method that helps us to understand what is similar to our systems of philosophy in non-western thoughts, but also a tool to put in light invisibilities. I use this word referring to Foucault who says that each new episteme, as he phrases it, creates visibilities, i.e., zones of light for science or knowledge, fields of discourse, about aspects of the reality that were not cognitive objects so far. We can put it the other way round, though it might sound less intrinsic and so less relevant, to and say that any cultural formation is characterized also by its “invisibilities” — that which cannot be thematized.
(8) Now, those invisibilities are of two types: for some of these, questioning why, in such and such a civilization, such and such issue has not been addressed is purely anachronical and ethnocentric. Still, some sorts of questions like : why is there no science-fiction in the Middle Ages? can be useful pedagogical tools to bring up an insight in the intellectual structures of those cultural formations. Then, there are other types of similar questions, when we ask why some issues, that should logically have been brought up by thinkers who were very much equiped to perceive such contradictions or blind spots in their own system of thought, were actually ignored; and, even more : when we ask ourselves how they would have solved those problems, or how the most aware of tried to elaborate ways to escape the contradiction.
So, finally, this is my point : comparative anatomy, for example, was, in the late 18th century and in the 19th century, a methodological approach that helped very much in the development of biology, as an inductive an analogical device that allowed the scientists to perceive not only what is similar and can be understood, mutatis mutandis, by analogy with what is already known — but also that allowed to perceive, in a new, unknown organism, which organ is not there, and then that orients the inquiry towards the question of what other organ may perform a similar function. To take a silly but eloquent example, it is clear that aksing “Why fishes do not have a nose?” is childish. But, on the contrary, once it is recognized that fishes do not have a nose, we know that must probably they must breathe otherwise, supposed that they have blood and that it requires to be oxygenated.
Now, in the same way as fishes do not have a nose, the Dzogchenpas do not have a theory of imagination. And actually, it is clear that, for them, the organ or faculty of the luminous visions is what they call rigpa (rig pa), which I translate as Intelligence, by analogy with the standard Latine translation for the Greek noûs : intellectus, intellectio. The faculty implied in the dreams and hallucinations, for them as for all Buddhist scholasticism, is the so-called mental faculty, yid, skt. manas, which is also the organ of philosophical thought. Now, this implies that the whole philosophical framework is different: in the neo-platonician / neo-aristotelician framework, the noûs and its operation, noèsis, actually have a very strong intellectual function: that of perceiving “the first principles and first causes” by intellectual intuition, and thus to provide us with the axioms that science (philosophy) requires.
The non-distinction of intellect and imagination make it impossible for it to perform this functions, as the objects of the rig pa look more similar to the aspects of the Mundus Imaginalis as defined by Henry Corbin on the basis of the speculations of his Islamic philosophers. The luminous visions of Dzogchen gradually reveal an infinite display of light, with Buddhas in their maṇḍalas, quite similar to the evocation of the Dharmadhātu in the Ataṃsaka-sūtra.
Philosophy, then, cannot be constructed in an axiomatic way on the basis of principles known through intellectual illumination “in the highest part of the soul”. We remember that Proclus, for example, wrote a commentary about the first book of Euclides’ Elements of Geometry, and imitated his way of reasoning in his own Elements of Theology. But this also means that the ultimate structures of the real — as, in a way that would deserve to be inquired in and developped — the visionary encounters of the Dzogchenpas are still somehow the essence of things (e.g., the five lights are “the essence of the five elements”, etc.) are not intelligible elements with logical interconnections. There is here all a series of “invisibilities”, difficult points that were never questioned in-depth in the Tibetan tradition, as far as I know, especially about this essence / phenomenon connection.
But, somehow, these difficulties perceived within Tibetan Buddhist / Bon thanks to the comparative approach sort of flow back on Western philosophy, as when we notice that, for example in Plotinus’ system, as far as we can induce it from the texts, the elements of the “intelligible world” do not really have the character of “realized abstractions” as the Platonician Ideas are supposed to be. When Plotinus describes “the intelligible horse running in the intelligible plain”, not only does he treat the essence as an individual, living being, but also it could be questioned wether this essence or Idea is the eternal archetype of a whole species, and that of an individual being. As for the human being, at least, it is clear that all of us have a portion of our individual soul eternally remaining in the Intelligible World.
In conclusion: this contribution is an invitation and a preliminary to a renewed form of comparative philosophy that would imply not only inquiring in new fields (that might well end up on interesting discoveries about so far unrecognized historical connections), but also and mostly rethinking the general practice of comparative philosophy — a philosophy of the history of philosophy.