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As far as doctrine is concerned, to anticipate in a word a conclusion that I will have to demonstrate next, Klong chen rab ’byams differs from any other Tibetan philosopher (as far as I know) in that he thinks of all aspects of doctrine from a meditation on the “fruit” (’bras bu), on the nature of the state of Awakening. Roughly speaking, we might say that the general tendency of Mahāyāna philosophers, especially in Tibet, is to consider that what must be thought of first and foremost is the “basis” (gzhi), that is, the ultimate nature of things, or the absolute (don dam), on the one hand, and the condition of the individual lost in the saṃsāra, on the other, i.e., the superficial (kun rdzob) aspect of our situation.
Very often, theoretical activity focuses mainly on this aspect of the “Basis” alone, while the “Path” (lam) and the “Fruit” (’bras bu) are considered to be a matter of practice, and left somewhat to the side of properly philosophical reflection. Admittedly, such a statement is overly schematic, when one thinks, in particular, of the mass of literature devoted, in Tibet, to the exegesis of the Abhisamāyālaṅkāra, which particularly develops all the stages of the Way of the Three Vehicles. But it seems to me that the general tendency of Buddhist thought is to illuminate aspects of the Path, let alone the Fruit, from the concepts employed to explain the Basis. This is not without reflection in Western studies: themes such as emptiness, idealism and realism, the mechanism of conditioned production, Buddha-nature, and so on, seem to us to be the subject of genuine philosophical consideration there; in contrast, questions such as those of the omniscience of the Buddhas or the production of the Form Bodies (rūpakāya), for example, are implicitly looked upon as pertaining to a kind of Buddhist theology of little interest to philosophers.
This is, I dare to say, a serious error insofar as the much-talked-about question of emptiness is inseparable from the problem of the nature of the knowledge that adequately understands it (stong nyid rtogs pa’i ye shes), a problem that was far too neglected by Buddhology, and which can only be illuminated in the light of the doctrines relating to the awakening of the Buddhas.
In Klong chen rab ’byams, even if it is not immediately apparent on first reading, the center of gravity of the reflection falls entirely on the side of the Fruit and it is only from the understanding of this that the nature of the Basis and that of the Path become clear.
To abbreviate what I will demonstrate below, the doctrine of Klong chen rab ’byams is characterized, among all the doctrinal variants of the Mahāyāna, as a meditation on the relationship of essence (Dharmatā, chos nyid) and phenomenon (dharma or dharmin, chos or chos can), in which the very particular notions of expression (rtsal), display (rol pa), and adornment (rgyan), among others, are brought into play. It has an ontological, or perhaps even metaphysical, dimension of its own, which is not developed in this direction, nor to this degree, elsewhere in Tibetan doctrinal literature. Moreover, if one engages in an archaeology of these terms and themes in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought, one soon finds that they initially appear only in a certain context: that of explaining the production of the Formal Bodies (rūpakāya) from the Reality Body (Dharmakāya) at the moment of the Fruit. This is the case in the Five Dharma attributed by the Tibetans to Maitreya, and more specifically in the Ratnagotravibhāga. In the Tibetan version of this text, the word rol pa (unfolding, display, entertainment) indeed has many occurrences. In Klong chen rab ’byams, the conceptual framework developed in India to account for the procession of formal Bodies is displaced to allow for the construction of a general metaphysics.
One might say, in an obviously overly schematic formula, that Klong chen rab ’byams’ doctrine is distinguished in particular by the fact that it combines two seemingly redundant explanations of phenomenal reality: one, by dependent arising (pratītyasamutpada), taken from the classical doctrines of the Mahāyāna; the other, by a kind of dynamic and spontaneous bestowal from an eternal principle, thought of under the categories of expression (rtsal), display (rol pa), and adornment (rgyan).
The second approach doubles itself, depending on whether phenomena are considered as immanentexpressions of the principle or rather as emanations or reflections constituted in a certain way away from the absolute sphere.
So, we have three types of causality – one immanent (within the principle), the other eminent (processive, from the essence to the phenomena) and the last transitive (from the phenomenon to the phenomenon) – which, in fact, correspond purely and simply, as we shall see, to three points of view of decreasing adequacy on the same reality.
Any phenomenon whatsoever is conceived both as the fruit of the causes and conditions that generate it transitively in time and as the expression (immanent or else processive) of the principle. In this respect, phenomena are, in effect, analogous to the Emanating Body (Nirmāṇakāya) which, in the Mahāyāna literature, is always given both as emanated from the Reality Body (Dharmakāya) and as produced by transitive causation (previous accumulations of merit in one who is now Awakened; merits and aspirations of beings to be converted).
The systematic development of the idea that phenomena are the spontaneous expression of an eternal and pure principle is apparently the characteristic of Klong chen rab ’byams among the greatest Tibetan thinkers; but what is most remarkable in his doctrine, as well as most difficult, is the synthesis of the point of view of duration (transitive causality) and eternity (both immanent causality and procession ad extra), a synthesis which, moreover, gives the key to the hackneyed question of the Gradual or Sudden Path.
Deliberately leaving aside one of the essential aspects of the work, that which relates technically to the contemplative precepts (gdams ngag), after a general presentation, I will approach Klong chen rab ’byams’ thought from the following questions:
(1) in order to approach the theme of the “causality of the absolute” in a rather classical way, I will first undertake to determine the relationship of the two realities (bden gnyis) in Klong chen pa’s system, in particular by comparison with the doctrine of Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292-1361), also taking as a basis a number of texts by Mi pham (1846-1912) and Go rams pa dam pa Seng ge (1429-1490).
(2) From there, I will move on to the question of knowledge of the absolute in its ultimate form, that is to say, the mode of knowledge proper to the Buddhas, namely, the “double omniscience.” We shall discover, with the help of the clarifications that can be drawn from Mi pham and Go rams pa, and by contrast with the doctrines of sGam po pa, on the one hand, and Tsong kha pa, on the other, that the three poles of this ultimate knowledge that the tradition distinguishes namely, the “subject” (the principial knowledge, as I transate ye shes for reasons that will then become obvious), the absolute object (the ultimate nature of things) and the superficial object (all the details of the phenomena penetrated by the omniscience of the Buddhas) are but one and the same thing.
(3) When we’ll have reached this point, one will understand, in short, what we call, in the Spinozian formula, “immanent and non-transitive causality” within the Dharmadhātu, alongside the transitive causality in duration, which is the proper characteristic of the saṃsāra. But there will still be a facet missing from this arrangement, that of eminent causality – in other words, the procession of the saṃsāra from the Dharmadhātu. This is an aspect we will deal with from the texts on the epiphany of the Ground (gzhi snang) and the initial misguidance of sentient beings, a kind of “original fall myth” of the rDzogs chen.
(4) Then, starting from a reflection on Klong chen rab ’byams’ point of view on the activity (’phrin las) of the Awakened beings in the saṃsāra (another way of looking at the relationship of the absolute and the superficial), we will move on to some brief investigations of the body – the Body of the Buddhas as enveloping the universe and the body of the beings as enveloping those Buddhas in whose vision, reciprocally, it is included.