Longchen Rabjam’s doctrine (1) [adapted from Profusion de la Vaste Sphère (Peeters, 2007)]

Publié le 3 Juin 2021

2.1 Introduction

2.1.1. General presentation

The strangeness of Klong chen rab '’byams’ work cannot fail to strike any reader, provided he is otherwise accustomed to Mahāyāna philosophy. The peculiarities of his doctrine lie in both form and content.

As far as form is concerned, Klong chen rab ’byams stands out sharply against the background of Tibetan scholasticism with a powerful poetic eloquence, which is particularly noticeable in his last works (Chos dbyings rin po che'i mdzod, gNas lugs rin po che’i mdzod, Rang grol skor gsum[1] ). At the end of his career, he has developed a language that belongs to him alone; he has forged a form that alone is adequate to his thought. However, even in older works, such as Theg mchog rin po che’i mdzod or Tshig don rin po che'i mdzod, he distinguishes himself from any other Tibetan author by the mixture of the very singular vocabulary of rDzogs chen and a real conceptual rigor, importing a concern for perfect philosophical precision in a register otherwise reputed to be purely mystical.

To put it in a nutshell, this is partly due to the very specificity of the tantras of the rDzogs chen: one only has to take a superficial view of them to observe that they are much less than the rest of the tantric literature about a kind of spiritual technique, and that the portions devoted to the “view” (lta ba) are much more substantial. Is it philosophy? Is it poetry? Is it mysticism? It does not resemble the scholasticism of the Mahāyāna, and yet statements of great doctrinal import abound. The form is poetic, but it is not merely a matter of adorning well-known thoughts with beautiful images. It appeals to an experience that goes beyond the ordinary mind (sems), and yet the thought that emerges from it is not irrational. This is the corpus that mainly inspired Klong chen rab ’byams.

Cyrus Stearns, in his book on Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan, the greatest of our author’s contemporary thinkers, rightly insists (p. 46) on the terminological innovations (chos skad) of this philosopher and on the “hermeneutical shock” that they caused in his time. Now, it seems to me that the audacity of Klong chen rab ’byams is even greater than that of Dol po pa; so much so, paradoxically, that the effect of surprise, or of scandal, has been nil. What is strange surprises; but what passes all measure in the unusual does not even surprise. Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan shocked, because he dealt with questions to which its contemporaries were accustomed, in terms that baffled them, and to arrive at solutions that seemed to them unseemly. Klong chen rab ’byams, however, did not disconcert them, because he posed problems that were largely unheard of in Tibetan philosophy and solved them in a way that is still inconceivable today within the frameworks that this thought has assigned itself.

It should be shown, once the main elements of Klong chen rab ’byams’ doctrine have been clarified (which is my main purpose here), that the very singular style of his expression, in its final and accomplished version, is a form which is perfectly adequate to its content, so that Klong chen rab ’byams can only be understood as a philosopher by understanding him as a writer. If he had only conceived this doctrine, he would still have been a major thinker of Tibetan Buddhism, and even of Buddhism in general; but his singular genius is to have largely repudiated the ordinary rhetoric of Tibetan philosophy in order to invent a language equal to his intuition.

At the same time as this feature makes him stand out with an unmistakable brilliance among all the thinkers of Tibet, none of whom resembles him in this respect, and at the same time as this unparalleled writing has earned him a very special radiance up to the present day, this inimitable style, in which a thought largely apart from Tibetan scholasticism unfolds, has also completely isolated him and left him on the sidelines of the development of Buddhist speculation in his country, a meteor without a philosophical posterity[2]worthy of the name.

Among the rNying ma pas, he is quoted, paraphrased and venerated, but he is not commented upon, nor does one venture to specify the unique key points of his doctrine. He is an author who, among his admirers, elicits only adoration (for example, of dPal sprul rin po che) or repetition (with ’Jigs med gling pa, in particular). Only ’Ju Mi pham has taken the risk of exegesis; but how cautiously, to what limited extent, and certainly not on the most puzzling or difficult works! In the other branches of Tibetan Buddhism, he is not even read, only his name is known.

His work, however popular it may be with some, is, for the Tibetan mind, of an indigestible strangeness.

And yet, what Tibetan thinker is more poetic than Klong chen rab ’byams? That is, are there many others who, like him, make such full and idiomatic use of the expressive possibilities of the Tibetan language? With him, and with few others, it seems to me, words are not mere instruments of thought, given in their opacity, tools somehow external to reflection, rigid and well-defined elements for various constructions; on the contrary, with Klong chen rab ’byams, they are a living material that thought inhabits, like light in a diaphanous and plastic element, in which it unfolds.

Each line of a text like the Treasury of the Real Element (Chos dbyings rin po che'i mdzod), for example, reveals an idea that could not be expressed otherwise than in the unique form in which it is articulated. If it is indeed one of the characteristics of literature to be that discourse in which form cannot be dissociated from content, in which the relationship between expression and content is not an external and instrumental one, it must be said that Klong chen rab ’byams is indeed a literator, and that he is so to the highest degree, not in his secular poetic work, but in the texts in which his speculative thought reaches its climax. He is not, therefore, a philosopher and a poet, but a poet in the highest degree precisely when he is the most philosophical.

This being said, for the sake of clarity, it is necessary to begin by separating the “content” from the “form” and by treating the content separately, before underlining the particularities of the expressive form of this content.

This approach is not only the most appropriate one to convey precisely what is being discussed, but it is also legitimized by the fact that, in Klong chen rab ’byams’ own work, the doctrine was first elaborated in a more common form, namely under the guise of exegesis of the rDzogs chen literature, before the author ventured to give it this most appropriate expression. Klong chen rab ’byams was for a long time an author of doctrinal treatises and a commentator on the literature of the rDzogs chen, on the one hand, and a poet, on the other, before combining in the same works the two sides of his talent - what, for convenience, we would readily call art and philosophy.


[1] Let us recall that I have no proof of the late character of this writing. I simply conjecture it from its affinity of style and thought with the Chos dbyings rin po che’i mdzod and the gNas lugs rin po che’i mdzod, of which we have, on the other hand, very good reasons to think that they are from the end of the author’s life.

[2] The same cannot be said for his spiritual legacy, which is considerable.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

Publié dans #Klong chen pa

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