Longchen Rabjam’s doctrine (4) [adapted from Profusion de la Vaste Sphère (Peeters, 2007)]

Publié le 6 Juin 2021

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Having made this clarification, one has guarded against two ruinous pitfalls: either the idea that Klong chen rab ’byams would seek to flatten the Great Completeness into the confines of the lower doctrines (one would find hundreds of texts to the contrary), or the opposite extreme view, asserting that the rDzogs chen has absolutely nothing to do with the other doctrines of the Buddhist Mahāyāna. The view which I think is that of the author is that there is a single “idea” or “intention” (dgongs pa) of the Buddha in the whole of his preaching; that this idea is revealed, so far as it is capable of expression, only in the rDzogs chen ; but, at the same time, that once one has adopted the right point of view, one finds in the Subordinate Vehicles, in addition to a number of theses which are merely pedagogical expedients, a certain quantity of affirmations which are to be preserved, albeit in a sublimated form, within rDzogs chen. The same is true of the idealistic doctrines relating to the eight consciousnesses (vijñāna) or Nāgārjuna’s views on emptiness, which, reinterpreted and put in their proper place in the correct perspective, fit harmoniously into the Great Perfection.

Because of his conception of the fundamental unity of Buddhism, there was no doubt in his mind that its seemingly disparate developments should converge, not merely in an ultimate experience, but also in a synthetic doctrine, which would be as faithful an image of it as discursive thought could provide.

Moreover, on reading his work, it is clear that many of the doctrines of the classical Mahāyāna do not only have the modest status of preparations or approximations to a true thought – that of the rDzogs chen: they are incorporated into what is given as the ultimate system. Of course, this does not happen without displacing their meaning. But, on the other hand, their association with the view proper to the Great Perfection is not without enlightening it, nor without putting it into a perspective which, at the very least, would not spontaneously impose itself on the naive reader of, say, the Seventeen Tantras.

Klong chen rab ’byams’ general tendency in philosophy is not to set the rDzogs chen apart from the general (and itself layered) edifice of Buddhist philosophy, as if the latter, to take up a classical comparison, were at most a temporary ladder[1] or staircase to climb up to this higher truth, which would, then, be somehow heterogeneous with respect to its mediations. Rather, he inclines to include everything, in a sort of sublimated state, in the sphere of rDzogs chen. Or, more precisely, after a negative moment, when the absolute superiority of the rDzogs chen is posited, so that its own view is grasped in its singularity, a further deepening of this view makes it possible to see that it embraces everything in its vast scope. Thus the intellectual movement of Klong chen rab ’byams is analogous to the spiritual movement of rDzogs chen pa: it too begins with the strict dissociation (ru shan ’byed pa, etc.) of consciousness (rnam shes, vijñāna) and principial knowledge (ye shes, jñāna), or of mind (sems) and Intelligence (rig pa); then it proceeds to reintegrate the one into the other, to the point where the very notion of an otherness disappears.

It is this dialectical movement that I think we observed in the chronology of Klong chen rab 'byams’ work as a whole, if I was not misled by the meager clues: (1) a period devoted to pure rDzogs chen, and even more specifically to sNying thig,[2] (2) then the period of syntheses integrating the lower Vehicles,[3] (3) to end with a return to pure immediate simplicity.[4]

In this way, Klong chen pa’s synthesis (especially in the intermediate period) does not consist mainly in calling upon the classical texts and doctrines of traditional Buddhism to make them say what they do not say. Nor does our author fall into the other extreme, which would tend to distort the Great Perfection in order to hypocritically flatter the prejudices of vain censors. The second hypothesis is of course easily born when one considers the question from the political situation that formed in Tibet in the following centuries ;[5] but, even a century later, Go rams pa bSod nams seng ge or Śākya mchog ldan could still express, and even with the greatest freedom of tone, ideas that would later suffer from censorship. All the more so in the time of Klong chen rab ’byams, a fertile period of intellectual ferment.

Klong chen rab 'byams’ great contemporary, Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan, was not afraid to go even further in provocation by innovating openly, with an unusual terminology, which apparently greatly disturbed the scholars of his time. Certainly, in substance, Dol po pa’s doctrine is less consequential (he is expressly “gradualist;” his system, in short, changes everything in theory but nothing in practice). But his expressly innovative character was far more scandalous in traditional Tibet than Klong chen pa’s approach. Indeed, the latter appears to be the spokesman of a minority tradition, but one that was quite popular at the time; he uses its own terminology; he is therefore outside the field of the main controversies, as shown by the fact that, until today, no one, even among the enemies of the rNying ma tradition, seems to have taken the trouble to subject his doctrine to critical examination. Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan, on the other hand, makes no secret of his feeling that he is the reformer of the whole edifice of Mahāyāna doctrine, which, in his opinion, had fallen into decadence. This could not fail to be experienced as a provocation by Tibetan scholars. On the contrary, Klong chen rab ’byams advances under the mask of rigorous exegesis of a marginal, though esteemed, tradition. The former emphasizes its difference, the latter veils it.

It is above all the pressure of an inner necessity, that of articulating, as far as it is possible in the philosophical register, the whole of the fundamental thought of the Buddhist tradition, which could have determined our author to undertake his dogmatic construction. The only reservation that would seem to me to be admissible, in relation to this assertion, would be based on the way in which Klong chen rab ’byams, especially from his forties onwards, seems to have conceived himself as the main master of the centralteaching of Buddhism: we have glimpsed, in the biographical section, the parallelism that could be sketched between the constitution of the system, the restoration of the Zhwa’i lha khang and the (aborted) construction of the political power of sGom pa Kun rin. Nietzsche is perhaps not wrong to link the will to power and interpretation; and there is something of a great conqueror as well as a feudal spirit in Klong chen rab ’byams’ way of both extending his system to the whole of the Nine Vehicles and constructing it in such a hierarchical manner.

In any case, if the master of Gangs ri thod dkar had wanted above all to respond to the attacks made against the rDzogs chen, he would have made so in proportion to their mediocrity. The arguments against the Great Completeness – when the polemicists even deign to refute it – almost always rely on such complete misunderstandings, or on such rudimentary textual criticism, that one can only say that their authors missed their target because they did not know what they were talking about. It is not that the doctrine of rDzogs chen is invulnerable in principle; but, at least, the criticisms that have been levelled against it almost always fall flat – first and foremost because of the total lack of sufficient information - a lack that is rich in meaning, because it probably expresses, on the part of the Tibetan scholastics, the idea that there is not really anything to be concerned about.

Klong chen rab ’byams certainly would not have taken the trouble to proceed with this vast and original construction, if he had only wanted to convince the opponents of the tradition he represented. Besides, he would have wasted his efforts, since even today the same arguments formulated by Sa skya paṇḍita against the Mahāmudrā of the bKa’ brgyud pa are still mechanically used when one wants to philosophically denigrate the rDzogs chen (and still, in a stale, hackneyed form, worn out by centuries of thoughtless repetition and pulled out of the context that in Sa skya paṇḍita gave them more weight).

It must be repeated, because it is remarkable, that to this day we are not aware of any treatise by an opponent of the Great Perfection who has had the seriousness, or even just the laudable curiosity, to inquire into the system of Klong chen rab ’byams in order to denounce possible inconsistencies, either in the register of the lack of orthodoxy, or by attacking the speculative solidity of the doctrine taken in itself.

This is a good illustration of the general intellectual situation of the rNying ma tradition in Tibetan thought for centuries: it is, all things being equal, like a certain esotericism which, in the West, has nourished the dominant currents of metaphysics in a subterranean way, while being almost totally ignored by most authors, and despised by those who were uninformed about it, as if it were obscene to take cognizance of it, even with the exclusive aim of refuting it. If one wanted to illustrate the status of Klong chen rab ’byams in the history of Tibetan thought, one would have to compare him to Master Eckhart (1260-1327 or 1328), for the combination of scholastic erudition, dizzying mystical elevation and poetic inspiration; but, on the other hand, one would have to find a parallel in the traditions of alchemy and magic, to understand the curious combination of high esteem and total disdain that surrounds his work.

Admittedly, this is not a very happy comparison, inasmuch as any Tibetan philosopher worth his salt was also versed in the tantras, which are, in a sense, the esotericism of the Mahāyāna. But the traditions that Klong chen rab ’byams claims, and from which most of his works are directly or indirectly derived, are, to be honest, pretty much unintelligible without additional training, even to a scholar well-versed in the mainstream and classical interpretations of “modern” (gsar ma) tantrism. Even in a culture focused on tantric esotericism, the rNying ma pa traditions in general and the rDzogs chen in particular are esotericism squared, the esotericism of esotericism.

I am not saying, moreover, that Klong chen pa’s work is entirely carried by a primarily philosophical tension, nor that its speculative dimension takes precedence over its merely exegetical or even, so to speak, technical aspect (of clarification of meditation methods, etc.). My first thesis is precisely, and only, the following: the author’s work has an irreducible philosophical[6] dimension, which deserves to be examined for itself. I intend to show that this approach, which lies in the use of notions specific to the rDzogs chen to resolve aporias of the Mahāyāna in general, is fruitful as much as it is original.

If a scholia is needed for this proposition, I will add that if there is a relative autonomy of the speculative register, it does not mean that there would be a part of the work that would be more philosophical than practical, and that we could dissociate from the rest and treat it separately. Nothing is more foreign to me than this thought. On the contrary, it is through a close examination of the whole work that I have gathered the clues which, when I put the puzzle together, draw a philosophical configuration, or a system, which would still have its whole theoretical value, even if it were not one with the precepts or instructions of practice.

Of course, in Buddhism it can be said in general that theory is subordinate to practice, in the sense that if it were possible to attain enlightenment without the mediation of philosophy, one might as well do without it, so that in fact the value of a doctrinal construction is largely measured by its liberating utility. But this does not prevent Buddhists from distinguishing the criterion of truth from that of usefulness, even if, in fact, true ideas tend, according to them, to be useful, and false ideas, most often (but not always[7]), harmful.

All in all, it emerges from the Buddhist conception of the exegesis of the canonical texts that if a part of the doctrine is useful without being true - purely expedient, in short -, there is however a final version of it, which is the ultimate remedy for the ills of existence, precisely because it is the truest[8].

Moreover, the very tiering of philosophical systems (characteristic of the Tibetan Mahāyāna[9]) or the hierarchization of the sūtra (more marked in Buddhism of the Chinese tradition) implies that there is not just a whole range of disparate expedients, instruments dedicated to meeting diverse needs, and whose value would be strictly determined by practical expediency. This hierarchy is linked to the idea of stratified doctrinal outlines, the degree of adequacy of which increases as one rises from one level to the next. Thus, the supreme degree, which is only ever accessible to the minority most distinguished by intelligence and merit, is the truest, while being the least popular - thus, in sum, the least useful to the greatest number. Its superlative effectiveness is only valid for those who have properly prepared themselves for it.

The doctrinal constructions of Buddhism cannot therefore be treated in a purely pragmatic way; they must be considered according to their own speculative content, without exaggerating their subordination to practice, nor their dimension as a polemical instrument in the service of any one chapel. This point of view is foreign to most modern Western readers of Klong chen rab ’byams who, because of a lack of interest in philosophy, or because they were looking for something else, did not know how to, or did not want to, consider the matter in this light. It seemed useful to me, therefore, to attempt a fresh and general philosophical reading of this author.


[1] “That, without the scale of adequate superficiality,

We can access the summit

From the palace of the adequate (yang dag),

This is inadmissible in the eyes of the wise.”

(Bhāvaviveka, Madhyamaka-hṛdaya, III, 11-12).

[2] mKha’ ’gro yang tig, Bla ma yang tig Yid bzhin nor bu, Theg mchog rin po che’i mdzod, Tshig don rin po che’i mdzod...

[3] Ngal gso skor gsum, Grub mtha’ mdzod, Yid bzhin rin po che’i mdzod and its commentary, sNgags spyi don tshangs dbyangs ’brug sgra, and the so-called Mun sel skor gsum...

[4] Chos dbyings rin po che’i mdzod and Lung gi gter mdzod, Rang grol skor gsum, gNas lugs rin po che'i mdzod and sDe gsum snying po'i don ’grel.

[5]  The pressures, to say the least, to which the author may have been subjected, especially by Ta’i Si tu Byang chub rgyal mtshan, were of a purely political nature, if the clerical elements, and through them the doctrinal positions of the various factions of the clergy, can be separated entirely from the political combinations of Tibetan feudalism. There is no evidence of persecution, or even of dangerous polemics, of which Klong chen rab ’byams’ thought was the object during his lifetime. The situation at that time is not comparable to that which a Go rams pa (1429-1490) was to suffer a century later, not to mention the avenues that the dGe lugs pas would take against 'Ju Mi pham (1846-1912), when the former had become masters of a State that was fairly unified on the basis of a Church that had itself reached a high degree of political coherence and exclusivity, hostile to any deviation in the field of doctrine. The writing of these last two authors is affected by the political situation of their time, either in the tight and often violent polemic, even to the point of invective, that one finds in Go rams pa, or in the prudent evasion of Mi pham, who covers his sometimes considerable audacities with a whole euphemistic, pacifying or opacifying oratory apparatus, which is basically a matter of those procedures analyzed by L. Strauss in Persecution and the Art of Writing.

[6]  On the notion of “Buddhist philosophy,” cf. the afterword to my French translation of 'Ju Mi pham’s Sher ’grel ke ta ka, chp. 1 (p. 236-251): “of the double face, formal and objective, of the idea, or : what is a system of Buddhist philosophy and why are there hardly any ‘untranslatables’ in philosophy ?”.

[7] See the theory of skill in expedients and the hermeneutic category of neyārtha (drang don).

[8] This is what is implied by the idea of nītārtha (nges gift).

[9] Klong chen pa’s  presentation of philosophical systems (Grub mtha’) varies between the Theg mchog rin po che’i mdzod and the Grub mtha’ mdzod (no. 33) and especially with the Yid bzhin rin po che’i mdzod. It is necessary to distinguish between the contexts, and to see clearly that while in the Yid bzhin rin po che’i mdzod, Klong chen rab '’yams expresses his own (and final) understanding of these questions, in the Theg mchog rin po che’i mdzod, his main objective is to expound the thought of the Seventeen Tantras of the Heart Essence (sNying thig gi rgyud bcu bdun). These tantras contain, in fact, doxographic material that is curious, to say the least. Unfortunately, I have not been able to deal here with two questions on which I had prepared many notes and to which I plan to devote a separate study: that of the presentation of philosophical systems and that of the classification of the tantras in Klong chen pa.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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