The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion

The following article is from the Autumn, 1999 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by Donatella Rossi
bibliography, Tibetan-English glossary, index, 250 pp., #PHV1GR, $19.95

Dzogchen, or the Great Perfection, is considered in Tibet to be the culmination of all teachings embraced by both Bonpos and the followers of the Nyingma school. The View of the Great Perfection introduces the individual to the knowledge of reality, which is one with the enlightened state of all beings. In this book the Dzogchen View is presented by way of two Bonpo texts belonging to the revered terma and oral traditions, here translated and critically edited for the first time in their entirety.

Donatella Rossi has a Ph.D. in History of Religions and Tibetology from the University of Oslo, Norway. She currently works as Asian Program Officer of The Mountain Institute, a non-governmental organization based in Franklin, West Virginia, which implements environmental and cultural conservation projects as well as grassroots level developmental projects in the Himalayan Region, South America, and the USA.

The following is an excerpt from 77IP Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion.

The View (Ita ba)

The expression rdzogs pa chen po'i Ita ba, the View of the Great Perfection, obviously implies the literal connotation of theoretical view or philosophical way of seeing; but as will be shown through this presentation, this view' detaches itself from the common Buddhist connotation of theory or (wrong) view to cover the whole gamut of doctrinal, metaphysical and soteriological principles pertaining to the Great Perfection.

The first observation to be made is that the teachings of the Great Perfection are traditionally addressed to individuals who still live in a relative condition, where suffering is concretely experienced, but who are deemed to possess a superior capacity of understanding. Therefore, instead of fostering mere speculative knowledge, the Great Perfection teachings, as they are expounded through the principles related to the Basis (gzhi), concentrate uncompromisingly on assisting the individual to transcend the confusion and narrowness that characterize the relative condition, so that one's own Ultimate Nature (rang bzhin), which is the self-perfected state of Enlightenment (sangs rgyas pa) existing as a potentiality in all beings, may be recognized. When these liberating means are applied through the Path (lam), the teachings are centred on actualizing the Awareness (rig pa) that the source and the final point of all external and internal phenomena related to the condition of living beings is the unlimited and ineffable state of Reality (Bon nyid), which is one with one's own Ultimate Nature. When the teachings describe the Fruit (bras bu), they imply the definitive return' to the state of Reality; and since that state is precisely one's intrinsically enlightened Nature, the Fruit is said to already be spontaneously accomplished.


The Mind-itself is like the eye, (without which) other (things) cannot appear by themselves. Since it is naturally concealed in itself, it can (only) be discovered by (entering) its secret (nature).

The Reality is called Great Perfection because it is not affected by the limitations that characterize all phenomena, such as their transitoriness, the causes that generate them, and the effects to which they are subjected. It cannot be defined as a meeting of opposite principles, nor as an alternation of forces. It is intrinsically non-dual {gnyis med). Therefore, it cannot be identified with the state transcending suffering (mya ngan las das pa) enjoyed by enlightened beings, nor with the state of transmigration (khor ba), since it encompasses and at the same time transcends them both. It is not a state where distinction or choice is to be made between good' and bad'. Nor is it a state that can be approached and achieved in a gradual way, by going through successive stages of mental and physical practices.

These ideas are expressed in the ITa ba la shan sgron ma, The Lamp that Clarifies the View (p. 278,4-7), a short gter ma belonging to the cycle of the Three Proclamations:

rDzogs pa chen po kun gnas te / rang bzhin lhun rdzogs chen po nyid/

rdzogs pa chen por ye nas gnas / thams cad rdzogs pa'i rang bzhin la / bzang ngan blangs dor gnyis su med/

theg pa lam dang bsgam [sic] bsgrub rtsogs /

rdzogs chen di la ngas ma bshad / rgyu bras gnyis su ngas ma bshad / skye shi med par lhun gyis gnas / gnas pa nyid la gnyis su med / des na bon dang gshen rab med / rgyu bras theg par btags pas nor / Ita bas bltas pa khral par snang / lam gyi rim pa ye nas med / nye lam bde rdzogs lam gyis [sic] mchog/

jug Ita spyod bsrungs gnyis mi mnga' /

bsgom dang bio yis the tshom med / des na rdzogs chen nam mkha'i klong //

The Great Perfection abides (in) everything;

(it is) the great, spontaneously perfected Nature

(which) exists as Great Perfection from the origin.

As to (this Ultimate) Nature which is totally perfected,

(it) has no duality of acceptance (and) rejection, good (or) bad.

(Following) paths (and) vehicles, performing meditation:

I have not proclaimed (that) the Great Perfection (consists) in this.

I have not proclaimed (that it exists) as cause and effect.

It exists spontaneously without birth and death.

As to (that state of) being itself, (it is) without duality;

therefore, (it) has no Bon nor gShen rab.

(It is) erroneous to tie (it) to the vehicles of Cause and Fruit.

Investigated through (a specific) view, (it) appears in (a) delusive (way).

From the beginning, (it) has no graduality of paths;

(it is) the best path, the direct path of perfection and bliss.

There is no view (to be) followed, nor conduct (to be) observed.

There is no uncertainly (produced) by thoughts and meditation.

Therefore, (it is) Great Perfection, (it is like) the Expanse of Space.

Taken by itself, the affirmation that this absolute state cannot be found in meditation seems to go against and dismiss the whole range of endeavours that followers of lower Vehicles painstakingly undertake with the aim of reaching the much aspired state that transcends suffering (mya ngan las daspa). However, in the View of the Great Perfection, meditation is considered as a contingent state, a child's play, because no matter how profound and accomplished that may be, it is nevertheless considered to imply the perception of a subject envisaging its object. Therefore, how can it be possible to actually transcend all suffering by using a means that constitutes the cause, or the emblem, so to speak, of all duality? The Commentary to The View which is like the Lion's Roar (ITa ba seng ge sgra bsgrags kyi grel pa, rDzogs chen bsGrags pa skor gsum, pp. 826,4-7,827,3-7) briefly describes the way in which the followers of what we can infer to be the Seventh Vehicle of the Fruit endeavour to find the absolute state by practising meditation on specific deities; how this view is still maintained in the Eighth Vehicle of the Fruit, although it is approached from a more sophisticated standpoint; and how this view loses its validity when one has realized the true' state of meditation:

Theg pa og ma bas sngags phyi nang gi lugs ni sgom yod du dod/

de yang dngos po mtshan ma rang du dod ta [*] /

zhal yas dang gdan dang yi ge bru dang/

sku dang rgyan dang cha lugs sgom pa'o/

theg pa ye gshen pa yang klong du ma gyur bar du sgom du yod par dod/

de yang dngos po mtshan ma mi sgom ste /

zhi gnas dang lhag mthong cha rnnyam pa de./

ma yengs pa'i ting nge dzin gyi sgom pas sgom yod do /

/.../ sgom du yod pa'i dus tshod ni / ma rtogs pa'i dus dang / rtags [* read rtogs I par bya ba'ithabs kyi dus so /

de la rtogs pa'i dus na sgom du med te [sic] /

sgom mi sgom gyi bye brag mi shes pas/

rtags[* read rtogs] pa klong du gyur ba'i dus na yang sgom du med de /

bsgom bya'i yul dang sgom byed kyi bio gnyis ka ban [* read bon] nyid dam sems nyid du shes pas so /

yang sgom par bya ba'i yul pha rol na med par rtogs la /

sgom par byed pa'i shes pa tshu ral [* read rol] na med par rtogs pa'i sgom med do //

Lower Vehicles (which follow) the system of outer and inner formulas maintain (that it) exists (in) meditation.

By (mentally) assuming the aspect (and) characteristics (of a certain deity),

(they) meditate (upon its) countenance, seat, seed- syllable,

body, ornaments and garments.

Also the followers (of) the Vehicle (of) the Primordial gShen maintain that

as long as (it is) not realized, it is (found) in meditation, (although)

(they) do not meditate (upon) the aspect (and) characteristics (of a certain deity).

(They say) it is (found in) meditation through the practice of undistracted meditative absorption (which consists in) equalizing peaceful-abiding and superior seeing.

When (it is said that) it is (found) in meditation,

it is (either) a method to foster ealization

or lack of realization.

rIn that respect, when one has realized (it), it is not in meditation

since the difference between meditation (and) non- meditation is not perceived;

also, when realization has fully matured, it is not (found) in meditation

(because) both the mind that performs meditation and the object that is meditated (upon) are perceived as the Mind-itself, the Reality.

Moreover it is not (found in) meditation, when (one) realizes (that) there is no object, on one side to be meditated (upon),

(and) no consciousness on the other that performs meditation.

In practice, as said in The Explanation of the Twelve Little Tantras (rGyud bu chung bcu gnyis kyi don bstan pa, pp. 187,6-188,1), it is impossible to experience and perceive the absolute state by any other means than that state itself:

Sems nyid mig dang dra ste gzhan gsal rang mi gsal /

rang la rang gis gsang pas rang gsang thabs kyis chod /

thabs gzhan khrul ring khor ba'i gnas su lhung //

The Mind-itself is like the eye, (without which) other (things) cannot appear by themselves.

Since it is naturally concealed in itself, it can (only) be discovered by (entering) its secret (nature).

Other ways are delusive and (make one) fall into the sphere of transmigration.

In the ITa ba la shan sgron ma (op. cit., p. 278,1) we also read that the teachings therein contained have been expounded by the Compassionate Teacher Kun tu bZang po. Instructions of this kind are traditionally not considered as mere verbal expression, but rather as expounded from the state of contemplation (dgongs pa), which is referred to as the Condition of Kun tu bZang po (kun tu bzang po i ngang), manifesting itself on a supernatural plane in the form of deities such as gShen lha Od dkar. The latter is very often called the Compassionate Teacher (thugs rje'i ston pa) in the texts. dPon slob Phrin la Nyi ma informs us that the term kun tu bzang po can be interpreted as dus kun tu (kun tu) dri ma ma bgos pa (bzang po), at all times wearing no stains, and that it refers to the Self-Originated Primordial Wisdom of the Basis (gzhi'i rang byung ye shes), whereby it is also styled Kun tu bZang po of the Basis (gzhi'i kun tu bzang po). He also points out that the term kun tu bzang po is interpreted in a twofold way: gdags su med pa'i Kun tu bZang po and gdags su yod pa'i Kun tu bZang po; gdags su med pa'i Kun tu bZang po, the inexpressible Kun tu bZang po, symbolizes the Body of Reality (Bon sku). The expressible Kun tu bZang po,gdags su yod pa'i Kun tu bZang po, refers, as in the case of our texts, to deities or enlightened beings that are expressible in terms of their attributes and qualifications, such as gShen lha Od dkar and Ta pi Hri tsa. These two figures respectively symbolize the Body of Perfection (rDzogs pa'i sku) and the Body of Emanation (sPrul pa'i sku). u image


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