Longchen Rabjam’s doctrine (6) [adapted from Profusion de la Vaste Sphère (Peeters, 2007)]

Publié le 8 Juin 2021

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2.2. The two realities, the absolute and the knowledge of the absolute

2.2.1. Summary of the distinction between the doctrines of Klong chen rab ’byams and Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan on the conception of the relationship of the two realities

Like all Mahāyāna authors, Klong chen rab ’byams makes great use of the theme of dual reality (or truth). Much more significant, then, are the passages – relatively numerous in fact [1] – where he challenges this dualism.[2]

The essence of Klong chen pa’s thought, stated schematically, is clear: reality (chos nyid), which the rDzogs chen texts also call Intelligence (rig pa), etc., is perfectly simple and is universally infused (kun khyab) or omni-inclusive (kun 'dus, etc.), because all things are (in a way that is yet to be determined) its immanent unfolding, its “display” (rol pa).[3]

This is precisely the key point in the distinction between the systems of our author and his great contemporary Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292-1361): in the latter, the principial universal substratum knowledge (kun gzhi ye shes / *ālayajñāna), absolute reality, is certainly the basis or foundation (rten, gzhi) of consciousness (rnam shes, vijñāna), surface reality, but it is not the cause of it. [4] In Klong chen rab ’byams, Intelligence is, in a very special sense, the cause (immanent, in one sense, and eminent, in another sense) of phenomena. And this is not a contradiction, because, as in Spinoza, this causality of the order of eternity does not interfere with the causality according to duration, the one that the authors of the Mahāyāna think of mainly according to the scheme of the four conditions (pratyaya).

Moreover, in Dol po pa, consciousness seems to be thought of above all as an adventitious stain that veils the purity of absolute reality, like the clouds that veil the sky. In Klong chen rab ’byams, on the other hand, it presents a double aspect, one according to which, from its own point of view, consciousness veils absolute space, but the other, from the point of view of Intelligence, according to which it expresses this space. What is illustrated, from the first point of view, by the example of clouds is illustrated, from the second point of view, by that of the rainbow or the sun, the moon, the stars and the planets, which, far from obscuring it, illustrate the sky.

There is a very curious text in the Treasury of the Scriptures (Lung gi gter mdzod, pp. 319 ff.), which threads the metaphor of the clouds in the sky, explaining in short that it is the heat of the sun, the image of the dynamic and positive qualities of Intelligence, which causes the ocean to evaporate and thus occasion the appearance of the clouds, representing the delusions of the saṃsāra:

“[319] How does that which comes into being as a display from the own expressiveness [of our Intelligence] obscure it?

The sun-like quiddity is illustrated in the sphere of the Real Element;

All things arise as rays [from its] expressiveness, [radiation] without limits

That infuses the land, the rivers and the lakes with his warmth.

Then the clouds arise as a display (rol par shar) due to evaporation,

And they obscure the [solar] quiddity – and even its expressions, [the rays].

In the same way, the impure entertainment resulting from the quiddity as its own expression

Does it obscure to its own point of view (rang ngor) the suchness of the essence,

And the deceptive appearances (’khrul snang) of the phenomenal world, container and content, [proliferate] beyond [all] imagination.

The phenomenon of the occultation of the sun by clouds is related (thug) to the sun [as to its] principle. The expressions of the sun [i.e., the hot rays], touching the earth and the oceans, [produce] by heating steam, mists, fogs, which, gathering in the sky, [end up] hiding the sun. In the same way, one does not recognize the self-expression of the Intelligence that has been set in motion in the form of the epiphany of the Ground,[5] but it is [mis-]taken for oneself or for [something] alien. [320] Then comes to light its display, the mind and what manifests itself from its point of view, the deceptive appearances, the phenomenal world, container and content. Body, speech, and mind obscure Intelligence, whose Body, Speech, and Mind are from the beginning established in Awakening. Because [these] disappear and one goes astray in the six destinies, one speaks of ‘perceptions of the deluded mind.’ Thus it is the impure expression of Intelligence itself, as well as its [improper] display, that obscures this very Intelligence.” [6]

I shall return to this striking text, which establishes a kind of causal continuity between the enlightened qualities of the ultimate nature and the appearances of delusion; it will be of capital importance when I address the question of the necessary or accidental character of the way sentient beings originally went astray. But, if it is not yet time to comment on the details, it was necessary to quote it already to show how, in Klong chen rab ’byams, the too simple model of the clouds (surface reality) veiling the sun and the sky (absolute reality) is subverted, and the dualism it entails, fluidified. This text is, moreover, very typical of Klong chen pa’s writing, which combines a set of conventional metaphors in an unusual way to make them say unusual things.

As for Dol po pa’s system, it is not strictly speaking dualistic, insofar as, in it, all reality falls on the one side of the absolute, and, in a sense, all duality on the one side of the superficial, and therefore, of the unreal. That said, he lacks a true integration of the two realities, absolute and superficial. This conceptual weakness is at the very heart of the system known as the “extrinsic emptiness” (gZhan stong), developed by this great author; it is due to the systematic implementation, in the interpretation of the Madhyamaka, of the scheme of the three natures (trisvabhāva) or three characteristics (trilakṣaṇa), originally elaborated within an idealist (Vijñānavāda) framework, even if the use made of it by Dol po pa certainly goes beyond the limits of the classical Tibetan interpretation of Buddhist Idealism.[7]

The superiority of Klong chen pa’s system over that of Dol po pa seems to us to lie in the fact that, while agreeing with the latter on the positive characteristics of the Buddha-nature and of the Absolute, it succeeds, in a particular way, in maintaining also a perfect radicality in the theory of emptiness, on the one hand, and (the two things being linked) the perfect integration of the two realities, on the other.

This last point is perfectly developed in the doctrine of Tsong kha pa (1357-1419) but, in the latter, it implies the position of an abstract and dead emptiness, “simple privative non-existence” (med dgag tsam) of the object of refutation (dgag bya) which is not established as real (bden par ma grub pa). I find very judicious the criticism of Go rams pa bSod nams seng ge who, in the lTa ba’i shan 'byed, rejects both the gZhan stong of Dol po pa (on the grounds of its “eternalism”) and the doctrine of Tsong kha pa, which he regards as “nihilistic.” In my opinion, Klong chen rab ’byams, whatever the differences between his thought and that of Go rams pa (who does not seem to have had a very favorable opinion of rDzogs chen), would have deserved to be praised by the latter as having escaped from the one and the other “extreme.”

This requires further explanation, since the opinion seems to be firmly established, even among present-day rNying ma pas, that Klong chen rab ’byams is rather on the “eternalist” side of Dol po pa than in the camp of the sa skya pa doctrine, whose ultimate and classical expression Go rams pa is reputed to have given, and which is often believed to differ from the dGe lugs doctrines only in very insubstantial subtleties, despite the pugnacity with which the Sa skya pas have defended the positions they hold.

The perfect integration of the two realities is due, once again, to the implementation of those very specific categories that are proper to the rDzogs chen, those that have to do with the expressiveness (rtsal) of Intelligence (rig pa), its display (rol pa) and its adornment (rgyan).

If I succeed in bringing this point to light, I will have established both in what sense Klong chen rab ’byams is one of the important philosophers in the history of Mahāyāna thought, and why, in him, the rDzogs chen is, indeed, the keystone of the whole doctrine and the high point which, placing all doctrines and practices in their proper perspective, clarifies them all.

In any case, if all things are the expressive (rtsal) display (rol pa) of Reality (chos nyid), there is no need to oppose two ontological orders, the “superficial” and the “absolute,” and even less if we naively assimilate them to the categories of appearance (snang ba) and emptiness (stong pa).

Those who assume this assimilation,[8] in fact, present on the one hand the phenomena as a deceptive illusion, whereas they are in a sense the epiphany of the absolute, and on the other hand the ultimate Reality as a dry, bloodless emptiness, an arid absence (Tsong kha pa), or as a luminous “back-world,” but distinct from the illusory concrete world (Dol po pa), whereas the rDzogs chen gives it to us as radiant, alive, and inseparable from its infinite (ma 'gags) expression (rtsal).

To this proposition must be added a corollary, the relation of which to the preceding problem will be obvious only to a reader who is very familiar with the controversies of the Mahāyāna or Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence and Phenomenology of Spirit: if one makes such a split between appearance (snang tshul), which is deemed to be false, and essence (gnas tshul or gnas lugs), which is held to be essentially inapparent, then it is the knowledge of the absolute which becomes impossible. In fact, everything that comes under knowledge tends to be placed on the side of appearance (consciousness of being, subject), while the absolute is placed on the other side (being without consciousness, object). The adequacy becomes inconceivable between a consciousness which relates to its object as from outside, on the one hand, and an object defined as intrinsically devoid of consciousness, on the other hand.[9]

To put it in even more clearly Hegelian terms, but which seem to me to express well the thought of Mi pham as well as that of Go rams pa, and, in my opinion, give the key to that of Klong chen rab ’byams, the absolute must be subject (knowledge) no less than substance (content). We shall return to this later. We shall see, moreover, how the theoretical weaknesses of Dol po pa’s model with regard to the conception of the Basis (gzhi) give rise to overwhelming difficulties in the doctrine of the Path (lam), while, on the other hand (as we shall see with regard to the Buddhas’ omniscience), Tsong kha pa’s system, while presenting a very logical explanation of the Path, is deficient in the aspect of the Fruit (’bras bu) as well as in its determination of the Basis.

The question of the two realities is addressed in a work that (for reasons that have already been specified) seems to us to be one of the last (or perhaps the last) that Klong chen rab ’byams wrote, the sDe gsum snying po’i don ’grel or Commentary on the Essential Meaning of the Three Sections [of the Great Perfection], a self-commentary on the gNas lugs rin po che’i mdzod or Treasure of Jewels of the Way of Being.

The first interesting occurrence of this theme in the sDe gsum snying po’i don ’grel appears at the beginning of the text[10] through a rather long quotation from the Kun byed rgyal po. Here is the translation of the few relevant lines:

“The [present] teaching has the following aims :

To show that] there is [nothing like] a duality of the absolute and the superficial,

To make one perceive that there is nothing to accomplish by meditating,

That there is no production of the [Awakening] mind nor antidotes

[And to make us see] the nature of the omni-creative Mind[11]...”

The coherence of the passage is clear: to a theory, or “view” (Tib. lta ba), is articulated a practice; the negation of the duality of the two realities implies the impossibility of opposing appearance and essence, and therefore of positing a gap between my present situation and a possible enlightened state, which would be distant from my present condition by the whole thickness of ignorance, measuring the gap between the two realities. It emerges that practice is useless, since all experience is already wrapped up in the absolute, which is assimilated (which is not necessarily self-evident,[12] incidentally) with Awakening.

This is perhaps where the doctrinal (as well as practical) specificity of rDzogs chen begins to emerge. But things are not simple, for the affirmation of the non-duality of the absolute and the superficial is not in itself singular; it is even commonplace in the Mahāyāna literature, which seems to posit this opposition only to deny it at once. Certainly, among our author’s predecessors in Tibet, the doctrine that the non-duality of the two realities is peculiar, if not to rDzogs chen, at least to tantrism, is common. This is the thought of Rong zom Chos kyi bzang po, who expresses it several times in the Introduction to the Method of the Mahāyāna (Theg pa chen po'i tshul la ’jug pa): the Madhyamaka, the culmination of the doctrine of the Bodhisattvayāna, would be incapable of overcoming the opposition of the two realities; this overcoming would be, according to this author, peculiar to Vajrayāna.[13]

Before going further into the analysis of the thought of the master of Gangs ri thod dkar on this question, it is important to clarify the meaning of the distinction between the two realities, not in Buddhism in general, which would be too broad and irrelevant, but at least insofar as this is necessary to understand the intention of Klong chen rab ’byams. Very often, in fact, the most essential things are missed out of haste, because we believe that we are well aware of points which are indeed elementary, but, as such, fundamental and yet difficult.

This is what our path will be: our object, in the first instance, will be to determine the meaning of the distinction between the two realities. This distinction is made in different ways by different authors and in different philosophical schools of Buddhism.

As the point is not dealt with in a very frontal way in Klong chen rab ’byams, we will mainly follow a text by ’Ju Mi pham, which will give the general framework in which the chapters that follow will be set.

This author presents first of all the distinction of the two realities in the idealist system, and, to do this, he explains precisely the theory of the three natures.

Now this is essential for us to explain the crucial point of the difference between the systems of Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan and Klong chen pa.

I shall therefore digress from the general presentation of the two realities to give an account and a refutation of Dol po pa's system, borrowed from Go rams pa bSod nams seng ge’s lTa ba’i shan 'byed. Indeed, it seems to me that the doctrine of Klong chen rab ’byams disagrees with the gZhan stong in particular on the very points that Go rams pa, a century later, was to attack in his criticism of this system.

Following this development borrowed from Go rams pa, I will give some texts by Klong chen rab ’byams on the threefold nature and the idealist doctrines, as well as some remarks on the occurrences of the gZhan stong theme in his work. This will close for us the chapter on the relations of our author with Buddhist idealism.

Then we will resume the reading of Mi pham’s text, this time on the two realities in the Madhyamaka.

A reflection on the three possible modes of definition of the two realities in this doctrine will lead us, through the one favored by Mi pham, to a reflection on the nature of the knowledge of the absolute according to the Madhyamaka, and, more broadly, on the Buddhas’ omniscience - a point on which I will give a passage from another text by Go rams pa.

This is how we will arrive at the point we need to conquer, as it were, in order for Klong chen rab ’byams’ doctrine to become intelligible with regard to the theory of the relationship of the Basis (gzhi) and the Fruit (’bras bu), on the one hand, and of phenomena (dharma) and Reality (Dharmatā), on the other.

On this basis, after this long (but necessary) preamble, I will explain the doctrines of our author on expressiveness (rtsal), the “myth of the beginning and the fall” according to the rDzogs chen and the peculiarities of this doctrine with regard to the mode of manifestation of the formal Bodies at the time of the Fruit.



[1]  Especially in the works of the end of his life, Chos dbyings rin po che’i mdzod, gNas lugs rin po che’i mdzod, Rang grol skor gsum. But the principle of this overcoming of the opposition of the two realities is already quite clear in the auto-commentary of the Yid bzhin rin po che’i mdzod (also quite late), as we shall see. One might as well have used the Mun sel skor gsum, moreover, to make the same points.

[2] We know what considerable efforts Chinese Buddhist philosophers have devoted to overcoming (by various means) this opposition of the two realities. Paul L. Swanson's interesting book, The Foundations of T'ien t'ai Philosophy - The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism develops this point at length.

[3] Comp. François Chenet, Psychogenèse et Cosmogonie dans le Yoga vāsiṣṭha, vol. 2, pp. 622ff.

[4] Cf. this passage from the dBu ma’i man ngag khyad ’phags, quoted by Cyrus Stearns, The Buddha from Dolpo, p. 217, n. 14 : “this Element is certainly not the cause of the saṃsāra ; but because, inasmuch as, if this one were not, that one would not be either, just as the disc of the wind rests on space [according to the cosmology of the Abhidharma], it is presented that [the Dharmadhātu] is the basis of the saṃsāra (dbyings de ’khor ba’i rgyu ni min mod kyang | de med na de yang mi srid pas | mkha’ la rlung gi dkyil ’khor brten pa ltar | ’khor ba’i gzhi gyur zhes pa’i rnam bzhag byas |).” Dol po pa's system seems in many ways to be based on an imaginary topology of “strata”: for him, the absolute is always “under” the superficial, which veils it, but which it grounds. This is why he attaches so much importance to the categories of the three natures (trisvabhāva) and why, in him, as in the schools that the Mādhyamikas call “substantialist” (dngos por smra ba), the absolute appears as an irreducible residue (lhag ma) at the end of the nāgārjunian refutations (“under the snake, the rope”).

[5] This topic is discussed in detail below.

[6] Rang gi rtsal las rol par shar bas bsgribs tshul ni | | ngo bo nyi bzhin chos dbyings klong na gsal | | rtsal las zer bzhin kun shar ris med pas | | sa dang chu mtshor drod kyis khyab pa na | rlangs las sprin gyi rol par shar ba yis | ngo bo nyid dang rtsal yang bsgribs pa bzhin | ngo bo nyid las rang rtsal ma dag pa'i | rol pas snying po'i de-nyid rang ngor bsgribs | | snang srid snod bcud 'khrul snang bsam mi khyab | | nyi ma sprin gyis bsgribs par snang ba de yang rtsa ba nyi ma'i rtsal la thug ste | nyi zer gyi rtsal sa gzhi dang rgya mtshor phog pas drod skyes pa'i rlangs pa na bun lang long po nam mkhar 'khrigs pas sprin du song ba des nyi ma nyid bsgribs pa ltar | rig pa'i rang rtsal gzhi-snang du g.yos pa la rang du ma shes par bdag dang gzhan du bzung [320] -ba las | rol pa sems dang sems kyi ngo na snang ba'i 'khrul snang snod bcud snang srid du shar ba te | lus dang | ngag dang | sems gsum gyi [sic for gyis] rig pa ye nas sangs rgyas su bzhugs pa'i sku gsum thugs la bsgribs nas | mi snang bas 'gro drug 'khrul ba la 'khrul sems kyi snang ba zhes bshad pa yin no | de yang rig pa nyid kyi rang rtsal ma dag pa dang de'i rol pas rig pa nyid bsgribs par...

[7] We will see below a text where Klong chen rab ’byams himself uses the categories of the three natures very freely. But, apart from the particularities of the use he makes of them, which would be incompatible with the system of Dol po pa (let us say that it is a different detour of these notions), the most important thing to remember is that this theme of the three natures is absolutely not central in Klong chen rab ’byams, whereas it is a capital conceptual operator in Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan.

[8] On reflection, it is perhaps common to Dol po pa and Tsong kha pa, despite the abyss that otherwise opposes them.

[9] This remark applies only to the doctrine of Tsong kha pa, not to that of Dol po pa, who clearly states that the absolute is self-knowing, clear by itself. The problem, in Dol po pa, is rather the passage from the consciousness (rnam shes) on the path to the principial knowledge (ye shes) of the fruit. Dol po pa can only solve this problem by the suppression of consciousness at the end of the path - destruction of the meditating subject and self-revelation of an impersonal absolute. In a word, if Enlightenmet is possible in this author's work, at least it is never me who reaches it. In Tsong kha pa, on the other hand, the ordinary subject (sems) is maintained, but, as we shall see, in a supposedly magnified form that is both not very intelligible and perhaps hardly in line with what we read in the great Mahāyāna sūtras.

[10] P. 28 of the quoted edition.

[11] This quotation is truncated; I have isolated the end of a list of purposes of this teaching, which it is difficult to decide with certainty where it begins. There are often several acceptable solutions for the translation of passages from the Kun byed rgyal po. Here is the Tibetan text of the translated passage:

Don dam dang ni kun rdzob rnam gnyis med | | bsgom zhing bsgrub tu med par mthong ba dang | sems bskyed med cing gnyen po mthong ba med | | kun byed sems kyi rang bzhin mthong ba yi | | De lta bu yi dgos ched bstan pa yin |

[12] Cf. the classical distinction between “natural nirvāṇa” and “resulting nirvāṇa,” certainly foreign to the rDzogs chen, but no less prevalent in the Mahāyāna in general. It is illustrated, for example, by a passage in Mi pham’s Shes ’grel ke ta ka (commentary to chapter 9 of the Bodhicaryāvatāra), ed. cit. vol. XIV, pp. 16-17 (cf. pp. 70-71 of my French translation, L'Opalescent joyau).

[13] Cf. e.g., his Introduction to the Method of the Mahāyāna (ed. cit., p. 138): “The Mādhyamika profess that all things are devoid of their own nature, let alone [doctrines that] conceive them as other [than devoid of reality]. However, since they do not abandon the thought (blo) of the two realities, they are not counted among those who conceive [things] as non-dual (dBu ma pa chos rnams rang bzhin myed pa nyid yin par 'dod pa la | gzhan du 'dod pa lta smos kyang ci dgos te | 'on kyang bden pa gnyis kyi blo ma 'dor bas | gnyis su myed par lta ba'i grangs su mi chud de |)...” And, p. 165: "[It is in] the Vajrayāna that the non-duality of the two realities is understood  (gsang sngags kyis bden pa gnyis dbyer myed par rtogs)...” It will be seen that Klong chen rab ’byams expresses the same thought in the auto-commentary of the Yid bzhin rin po che’i mdzod, but with notable peculiarities in the form of the argument.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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