treasury of precious instructions

Matthew Kapstein on Dam Ngak in the Treasury of Precious Instructions

The following is Matthew Kapstein's paper from Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, one of the great collections of scholarly works on Tibetan literature.  This paper focuses on Dam Ngak (gDams ngag) or special instructions.  He uses the Jonang volume from Jamgon Kongtrul's Treasury of Precious Instructions as the basis.

There is a more complete version on as well for those wish to learn more, and we thank Matthew Kapstein for his permission to post it.

gDams ngag: Tibetan Technologies of the Self

The Tibetan terms gdams ngag (Skt. upadesa) and man ngag (Skt. amnaya, but sometimes also upadesa) refer broadly to speech and writing that offer directives for practice, whether in the general conduct of life or in some specialized field such as medicine, as­tronomy, politics, yoga or meditation. In any of these areas, they may refer to "esoteric" instructions, i.e., advice not usually found in theoretical textbooks but derived from the hands-on experience of skilled practitioners, and thus intended primarily for those who are actually engaged in the practice of the discipline concerned. Man ngag seems often to connote a higher degree of esotericism than does gdams ngag, particularly where both terms are employed together contrastively, and despite their essential synonymity.

In this short essay I shall focus on the category of gdams ngag, "instruction," as understood in connection with meditational and yogic practice. In this context, gdams ngag refers essentially to the immediate, heartfelt instructions and admonitions of master to disciple concerning directly liberative insight and practice. gDams ngag in this sense is, in the final analysis, a product solely of the interrelationship between master and disciple; it is the non-repeat­able discourse event in which the core of the Buddhist enlighten­ment comes to be manifestly disclosed. It is in this sense, for in­stance, that we find the term used in narrating a signal event in the life of the famed rNying ma pa master Mipham Rinpoche (1846-1912):

One time, Mipham went into Khyentse Rinpoche's presence. "How did you apply yourself to experiential cultivation when you stayed in retreat?" he was asked.

"While pursuing my studies," Mipham answered, "I made conclusive investigations, and while performing the ritual ser­vice of the meditational deity in retreat I have taken care to see that I have reached the limits of the stage of creation."

"Those are difficult. The great all-knowing Longcenpa said, 'Not doing anything, you must come to rest right where you are.' I have done just that. By so resting I have not seen any­thing with white flesh and a ruddy complexion that can be called the 'face of mind.' Nonetheless, if I were to die now it would be all right. I do not even have a grain of trepidation." So saying, Khyentse Rinpoche laughed aloud. Mipham [later] said that he understood that to be the guru's instruction (gdams ngag).

(Dudjom Rinpoche, 1991: 876-877)

gDams ngag, then, is the articulation of the dynamic interaction between master and disciple; it expresses the essentially herme­neutical movement in which the disciple is reoriented in the depth of his or her being to the goal of the teaching. Insofar as the Buddha's entire doctrine is held to be directed to that goal, the achievement of perfect enlightenment on behalf of oneself and all creatures, all expressions of Buddhadharma may be in a certain sense termedgdams ngag (cf. 'Jam mgon, DNgDz, vol. 12: 626-630). Nevertheless, the term has been thematized in Tibetan Buddhist discourse to refer above all to those meditational and yogic in­structions that most frequently form the basis for systematic salvific practice. One must include here also the innumerable writings on blo sbyong, "spiritual training/purification," and the entire genre of khrid yig, "guidebooks," i.e., practical manuals explicating par­ticular systems of meditation, yoga and ritual. It is in this context that gdams ngag has come to form the basis for an important set of distinctions among Tibetan Buddhist traditions, corresponding in general to distinctions of lineage, while crosscutting distinctions of sec t.2 These systematic approaches to liberation through medi­tation and yoga, which will be our concern here, may be thought to be the quintessential Tibetan "technologies of the self."

There is no single classification of the many traditions of gdams ngag that is universally employed by Tibetan Buddhist doxo­ graphical writers. From about the thirteenth century onwards, however, the preeminence of certain particular traditions gave rise to a characteristic scheme that we encounter repeatedly, with small variations, throughout Tibetan historical, doctrinal and biblio­graphical literature.4 According to this, there are eight major gdams ngag traditions, which are referred to as the "eight great convey­ances that are lineages of attainment" (sgrub brgyud shing rta chen po brgyad). The paradigmatic formulation of this classificatory scheme is generally attributed to 'Phreng bo gTer ston Shes rab 'od zer (Prajftarasmi, 1517-1584), whose verses on this topic are widely cited by Tibetan authors ('Jam mgon, DNgDz, vol. 12: 645- 646). The "eight great conveyances" as he enumerates them may be briefly explained as follows:

  1. The sNga 'gyur rnying ma, or" Ancient Translation Tradi­tion," derives its special gdams ngag primarily from the teachings of Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra, eighth-century Indian Bud­dhist masters who visited Tibet, and from the great Tibetan trans­lators who were their contemporaries, especially Pa gor Bairo tsa na. Of the tremendous body of special gdams ngag belonging to the rNying ma tradition, most widely renowned are those con­cerned with the meditational teachings of rDzogs chen, the Great Perfection.
  2. The bKa' gdams, or "Tradition of [the Buddha's] Transmitted Precepts (bka') and Instructions (gdams)," is traced to the activity of the Bengali master Atisa (982-1054) and his leading Tibetan dis­ciples, notably 'Brom ston rGyal ba'i 'byung gnas (1104-1163). It is owing to its special role in maintaining the vitality of teachings derived from the bKa' gdams tradition that the dGa' ldan or dGe lugs order, founded by rJe Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (1357- 1419), is often referred to as the New bKa' gdams school (bKa' gdams gsar ma). The bKa' gdams tradition specialized in gdams ngag relating to the cultivation of the enlightened attitude (bodhicitta, byang chub kyi sems), the union of compassion and in­sight that is characteristic of the Mahayana.
  3. Lam 'bras bu dang bcas pa, the "Tradition of the Path  with its Fruit," is derived ultimately from the teachings of the Indian mahasiddha Virupa, and was introduced into Tibet by 'Brog mi lo tsa ba Sakya Ye shes (992-1072). This tradition of esoteric practice, emphasizing the Hevajra Tantra, became from early on a special concern of the Sa skya pa school, and so has been primarily asso­ciated with Sa skya and the several Sa skya pa suborders, such as the Ngor pa and Tshar.
  4. The Mar pa bKa' brgyud, or "Succession of the Transmitted Precepts of Marpa," has as its particular domain the teachings of the Indian masters Tilopa, Naropa and Maitripa as transmitted to Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros (1012-1097), the translator of lHo brag. His tradition of gdams ngag stresses the Six Doctrines (chos drug) of yogic pratice-inner heat, the apparitional body, lucid dreaming, inner radiance, the transference of consciousness at death, and the teachings of the intermediate state (bar do)-as well as the culmi­nating meditations of the Great Seal (mahamudra, phyag rgya chen po).


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The proliferation of lineages adhering to the teachings of Mar pa, those of his foremost disciple, Mi la ras pa (1040-1123), and those of the latter's main students Ras chung rDo rje grags (1083- 1161) and sGam po pa bSod nams rin chen (a.k.a. Dwags po Lha rje, 1079-1153) was very widespread, and the many teaching lin­eages that arose among their followers almost all created their own distinctive formulations of the bKa' brgyud gdams ngag. The four "great" bKa' brgyud orders (bKa brgyud che bzhi) were founded by sGam po pa's immediate disciples, among whom Phag mo gru pa rDo rje rgyal po's (1110-1170) leading disciples founded eight "lesser" orders (chung brgyad). (The terms"great" and "lesser" refer solely to their relative proximity to sGam po pa, and imply nei­ther quantitative nor qualitative judgment.) The first Karmapa hierarch, Dus gsum mkhyen pa (1110-1193), is numbered among the four "greats," while 'Bri gung skyob pa 'Jig rten gsum mgon (1143-1217) was prominent among the founders of the eight "lesser" orders. Among the eight is also counted Gling rje ras pa Padma rdo rje (1128-1188), whose disciple gTsang pa rGya ras (1161-1211) founded the 'Brug pa bKa'brgyud order, which in turn gave rise to several major suborders. (The 'Brug pa later established itself as the state religion in Bhutan, a position it retains at the present time.) Mar pa bKa' brgyud teachings have been widely transmitted among non-bKa' brgyud pa orders, for instance among the dGe lugs pa, a considerable portion of whose esoteric gdams ngag originated in the Mar pa bKa' brgyud tradition.

  • The Shangs pa bKa' brgyud, the "Succession of the Trans­mitted Precepts of Shangs Valley," is traced back to Khyung po rnal 'byor Tshul khrims mgon po of Shangs (d. ca. 1135), a master whose foremost teacher was the akinz Niguma, said to have been the sister or wife of Naropa. The special teachings of the Shangs pa tradition, which are similar to those of the Mar pa bKa' brgyud tradition, differing primarily in points of emphasis, were widely influential. Despite the almost complete absence of distinctive Shangs pa institutions, they were transmitted within the Mar pa bKa' brgyud, dGe lugs, Jo nang and rNying ma orders. The Shangs pa teachings have aroused considerable  interest among Buddhists in the West owing to the widespread activity of their leading con­ temporary proponent, the late Kalu Rinpoche Rang byung kun khyab (1905-1989).
  • The closely related teachings of Zhi byed, "Pacification," and gCod yul, "Object of Cutting," originated respectively with the enigmatic Indian yogi Pha Dam pa Sangs rgyas (d. 1117) and his remarkable Tibetan disciple, the yogini Ma cig Lab kyi sgron ma (ca. 1055-1143). Though schools specializing in Pacification were very widespread from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, the teaching all but disappeared in later times. The Object of Cutting, however, permeated the entire Tibetan Buddhist tradition and is today preserved by all Both of these systems of gdams ngag seek to bring about the realization of liberating insight as it is un­ derstood in the "Perfection of Wisdom" (Prajfi.aparamita) sutras by means inspired by esoteric Buddhist practice. This takes par­ ticularly dramatic form in the traditions of the Object of Cutting, whose exquisite liturgies involve the adept's symbolic offering of his or her own body as food for all beings throughout the uni­verse.
  • rDo rje'i mal 'byor, the "Yoga of Indestructible Reality," re­fers to the system of yoga associated with the Kalacakra Tantra, as transmitted in Tibet initially by Gyi jo lo tsa ba Zla ba'i 'od zer during the early eleventh century. Later traditions that were par­ticularly influential include those of Zhwa lu and Jo nang. The former came to be favored in the dGe lugs pa school, and contin­ ues to be transmitted in that order today, above all by H. H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The latter fell into decline in the wake of the suppression of the Jo nang pa sect during the seventeenth cen­ tury, but was later revived in eastern Tibet, particularly by the proponents of the so-called Eclectic Movement (Ris med), during the nineteenth century.
  • rDo rje gsum gyi bsnyen sgrub, the "Service and Attainment of the Three Indestructible Realities," represents an extremely rare tradition, closely allied with the Kalacakra Tantra, and stemmingfrom the teaching of the divine Vajrayogini, as gathered by the Tibetan siddha O rgyan pa Rin chen dpal (1230-1309) during his travels in the northwestern quarters of the Indian subcontinent. The teaching was popularized by O rgyan pa's successors during the fourteenth century, when several commentaries on it were com­posed, but subsequently seems to have lapsed into obscurity. 0 rgyan pa also figures prominently as a transmitter of several of the major bKa' brgyud lineages, notably the 'Brug pa and Karma pa traditions.

During the nineteenth century this scheme of the "eight great conveyances"  provided  the  basis  for  the  great  Tibetan  anthology of gdams ngag, the gDams ngag mdzod ("The Store of Instructions"), compiled by 'Jam mgon kong sprul Blo gros mtha' yas (1813-1899), one  of  the  leaders of  the  Eclectic Movement.    "The Store  of  In­structions"  provides  encyclopedic  and  balanced  treatment of   all of the major Tibetan  Buddhist  gdams  ngag traditions  and  several of the more important minor ones, and preserves scores of instruc­tional texts by some of the  most  famous  Tibetan  authors as well as by many who are less well-known. It  includes  in  its  compass  en­ tire previous collections of gdams ngag materials, such as the Blo sbyong brgya rtsa ("The Hundred [Teachings on] Spiritual Training and Purification"), representing the essential gdams  ngag  of  the bKa' gdams traditions ('Jam mgon, DNgDz, vols. 2-3), and the Jo nang khrid brgya dang brgyad ("The Hundred and Eight Guidebooks of the Jo nang pas"), an eclectic compilation  by Jo  nang  rje btsun Kun dga' grol mchog (1507-1566) that is in certain respects a pre­cursor to "The Store of Instructions" itself (DNgDz, vol. 12).

Because all of the traditions mentioned above have generated abundant literature devoted to their own distinctive gdams ngag, including both texts immediately concerned with the details of practical instruction and systematic treatises that attempt to for­mulate the distinctive perspective of a particular gdams ngag tra­dition in its relation to Buddhist doctrine broadly speaking, it will not be possible to attempt to survey here the extraordinary vol­ume of materials that are illustrative of these many differing tra­ditions. Indeed, one may well wonder at this remarkable prolif­eration of the Tibetan technologies of the self: if, after all, the goal is in any case the achievement of buddhahood here and now, then why complicate matters by providing those who wish to follow the path with such a dizzying array of road maps? The traditional view is that, like a well-equipped pharmacy, the Buddha's teach­ing provides appropriate remedies for the many different afflic­tions of living beings; the myriad gdams ngag of Tibetan Buddhism may thus be seen to constitute a spiritual pharmacopeia. The medi­ cal analogy, however, by suggesting that, to a certain degree at least, eclecticism and pluralism are to be welcomed for the therapeutic enrichment they provide, points to a complicated cluster of problems: briefly, how is one to form a comprehensive vision of the totality of possible approaches to the path, that remains suffi­ciently critical to exclude false paths, without at the same time undermining the positive values of pluralism? Kong sprul's eclectic and even unitarian approach to the difficulties that arise here finds its complement in the attempt to elaborate and defend favored systems of gdams ngag through doctrinal apologetics, whether these be relatively catholic in outlook, or narrowly sectarian. gDams ngag, essentially the pithy expressions of contemplative experience, thus become the basis for renewed dogmatic system-building. This occurred very prominently in certain of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism-consider in this regard the massive philosophical elaboration of the Great Perfection (rDzogs chen) teachings of the rNying ma school,15 or of the Great Seal (Mahamudra, Phyag chen) precepts of the several bKa' brgyud orders,16 or of the originally bKa' gdams pa Path Sequence (Lam rim) instructions among rJe Tsang kha pa and his successors.17 The products of these and other similar doctrinal syntheses certainly represent some of the most creative developments in the field of Tibetan Buddhist thought. The exploration of the many ramifications of such system-build­ing, however, lies beyond the scope of this small contribution.

In order to provide the reader with a concrete example of the teaching of a particular tradition of gdams ngag, I give below, in the manner of an appendix, some short translated excerpts from "The Hundred and Eight Guidebooks of the Jo nang pas," con­cerning the history and the actual teaching of the practical dimen­ sion of the approach to Madhyamaka thought known as dBu ma chen po ("The Great Middle Way"). It is important to recall that gdams ngag traditions are not thought of ahistorically in Tibet: each such tradition has its unique origin, history of transmission, and relevance to a special historical setting. Thus, even a very terse historical note, such as the one given here, helps to situate a given gdams ngag for the Tibetan reader or auditor. The equally terse presentation of the teaching itself reflects what is in fact a series of rubrics, intended to guide an expanded course of  oral  explana­tion. The strictly maintained correlation between history and doc­ trine reinforces the role played by these instructions as the practi­ cal technologies of the self, for in a tradition's history we find the concrete exemplifications of the human ideals that are to be real­ ized by one's submission to the course of training imposed by that same tradition's gdams ngag.

I have chosen this particular extract to honor Geshe Lhundrup Sopa, to whom the present volume is dedicated, for Geshe-la has been a preeminent exponent of Madhyamaka thought through­ out the nearly three decades that he has graced Buddhist Studies in the special setting of our own time and place. Those who have had the good fortune to study with him will no doubt supple­ment the topics briefly enumerated here with their own recollec­ tions of Geshe-la's learned expositions of related subject matter.

From the "History of the Hundred and Eight Guidebooks":

Concerning the dBu ma chen po'i khrid ["The Guidance on the Great Middle Way"]: it was received by the bodhisattva Zla ha rgyal mtshan from the Newar Penya pa, one who belonged to the lineage of Nagarjuna, father and son [i.e., Nagarjuna and Aryadeva]. He taught it to rDzi lung pa 'Od zer grags pa, and he to Gro ston, who propounded it widely. There are some who hold that this was the lineage of the dBu ma lta khrid ["The Guid­ance on the View of the Middle Way"] that came to the vener­able Re mda' ha from mNga' ris, in West Tibet, but that is uncer­ tain. This is [also] called the gZhung phyi mo'i dbu ma ["The Middle Way according to the Original Texts," i.e., of Nagarjuna and Aryadeva], and so is the ancient tradition, not yet divided into Prasangika and Svatantrika. That which is distinguished as the special doctrine of Red mda' ha, however, is the unblem­ished adherence to the Prasangika tradition, that follows the texts of the glorious Cand rakirti.

From the "Text of the Hundred and Eight Guidebooks":

dBu ma chen po'i khrid yig ["The Guidebook of the Great Middle Way"]: Concerning "The Guidance on the Great Middle Way": One begins by going for refuge and cultivating the enlightened attitude [bodhicittaJ. Then, investigating the abiding nature of appearance and emptiness, appearance is [determined  to  be] just this unimpeded and ever-varied arising. As for the under­standing of emptiness, however, it is neither the emptiness that follows after a pot has been shattered, nor is it the emptiness that is like the pot's emptiness of being a blanket, nor is it the emptiness of sheer nothingness, like that of a hare's horn. It is, rather, self-presenting awareness's emptiness with respect to substantial essence at the very moment of appearance. And that, because it is empty of veridicality in terms of the relative, is apparition-like, and, because it is absolutely empty of essence, is sky-like. In brief, whatever the manner of appearance, there is not even so much as the tip of a hair that is veridically estab­ lished. This is not the emptiness of [appearance's] cessation, nor the emptiness of the fabricated. It is precisely the emptiness that has reference to appearance itself.

When cultivating this experientially, you adopt the bodily dis­position of the meditational posture. First you consciously strive somewhat [to recall and to concentrate upon  the understanding of appearance and emptiness taught above]. In the end you re­ lax [that deliberate striving]. Beginners should practice fre­quently in short sessions.

When you have thus cultivated the meditation, the three spiri­ tual experiences of clarity, bliss and nonconceptuality arise. It will come about that mind will not grow excited about that at all, but will remain at ease, like the hand resting just where you place it. Your awareness becomes absorbed in simplicity, in the simple disposition of reality. (1) The inception of one-pointed­ ness that remains unexcited with respect to [both] untarnished clarity of mind and circumstantial objects is called "tranquil­ ity" (samatha, zhi gnas) while (2) its nonconceptual nature, like the circle of the sky that is free from apprehended referent, is called "insight" (vipasyana, lhag mthong). (3) Complete absorp­tion is untouched by the intellect that apprehends objectives, and (4) your course of conduct involves the awareness of the qualities of dream and apparition in the aftermath [of medita­tive absorption]. You experientially cultivate [this teaching] in these four ways. When hairline discriminations of being and nonbeing forcefully arise, you gradually develop your skill, and it is said that in this way you will come to meet the face of that abiding nature that is unpolluted by the taints of the conceptual elaborations of the eight limitations.

The heart of all [kun] doctrines is the Great Middle Way: To delight [dga']  the wise, it is completely free [grol] From the range of unreflective and foolish meditations;
It is the great path of supreme [mchog] freedom from limitations.21

This was compiled from the guide[book] of the bodhisattva Zla [ba] rgyal [mtshan ).

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