What is profound?

In English, French, German etc., the word ‘profound’ goes back to Latin profundus , meaning ‘deep.’ It is made up of the two elements pro ‘before’ and fundus ‘bottom.’ From earliest times it was used in the sense of “showing deep insight.” In that sense it is most often used referring to a subject or thought that demands deep study or thought. A “profound truth” is usually something that is not visible on first sight, is hidden or deep, and needs much study and thought to be understood. The Tibetan term for the noun is zab pa (adj. zab mo ). So we may speak of a ‘profound instruction’ (zab khrid ), a ‘profound view’ (zab mo lta ba ), a ‘profound meaning’ (zab mo’i don ), or a ‘profound path’ (zab lam ). Such a usage indicates depth and subtlety at the same time.

In the dGongs gcig we find a discussion of profoundness in the fifth chapter, where the general opinion is cited that “pith instructions of [the tantric practises of] channels and winds are more profound than [other teachings] such as the three vows.” Obviously the opinion is chiefly based on an understanding of profoundness as ‘most subtle.’ In this sense, the instructions on practises of the vehicle of mantra, such as on the channels and winds of the vajra body are considered profound, because they are extremely subtle practises. Here Jigten Sumgön says (5.14): “What is profound for others, is not profound [for us]; what is not profound [for others] is profound [for us],” and, as we shall see, he seems to build on an understanding of profoundness as something that reaches deep, is deeply grounded, and is therefore something that everything else is based upon, and without which other things could not even exist.

Thus Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa says in his commentary: “As the later result does not arise without a cause that is accomplished earlier, and as all the fortunes of the Cakravartin king first depend on his birth in the royal family and the gradual perfection of his physical and mental faculties, so, too, the vajrayana path of maturation and liberation, which is profound in [the view of] others, has no support if it lacks the vows of refuge, pratimoksha, and of the bodhisattvas, and so forth, which are not profound for others, and for the mantra vows to arise, the two lower vows are indispensable.”

The same idea is very clearly expressed in the Indian tantric siddha Advayavajra’s Kudrshtinirghatana with regard to the preliminaries (adikrama ) of tantric practise.♦ 1 According to Advayavajra, the preliminaries, consisting in this case of such things as taking refuge and the refuge vows, water offerings to Jambhala, cultivation of love, compassion, rejoicing and equanimity, mandala offering, etc., are not merely preliminary, but also primary, in the sense that they are a continuously constituted foundation of tantric practise (Wallis 2003: 204). That is certainly also Jigten Sumgön’s intention, as is clearly stated in dGongs gcig 2.14: “All stages of the path are practised in [each] single session.” Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa explains: “In that manner each session is preceded at the beginning by the [first part of the] stages of the path of the three [kinds of] beings, namely the [contemplation of] death, impermanence, the leisures and endowments that are difficult to find, cause and result, and the disadvantages of samsara.” The Rinjangma commentary refers in this context to a teaching by Jayülwa Zhönu Ö (1075-1138), received by Gampopa, according to which it is necessary to practise in the first morning session death and impermanence. Jayülwa is quoted with the words: “Forgetting to practise death and impermanence once in the morning, during that day you will aim only at this life!” Thus Rinchen Jangchub states that it is necessary to cultivate these thoughts from the depth of the heart, and then one contemplates karma, cause, result and the disadvantages of samsara, until all the higher and the lower realms of samsara are understood to be something like a fire-pit or filthy hole. Then one continues the session by cultivating, love, compassion, and the resolve for awakening, etc. Only after such profound fundamentals at the beginning of a session should one continue in the sutra vehicle with the actual practise of the two kinds of selflessness and in the mantra vehicle with the two stages of cultivation and completion.

Our commentaries disagree with those people who claim that such a way of practise came to Tibet only after Atisha. They say that such a method of practising is deeply rooted in the Kagyüpa teachings transmitted by Marpa Lotsava and Ngog Chöku Dorje.

Coming back to the general theme of profoundness, it is also a general opinion that the three higher tantric empowerments are profound, while the vase empowerment, that precedes them, is not. Here Jigten Sumgön maintains that the vase empowerment is the root and the higher empowerments are its branches. He said:

Even though [others] say that the higher supreme empowerments are profound,
I value the vase empowerment greatly.
It is like a basis, a container, and a body,
The other [empowerments] are its particulars.

“Therefore,” says Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa, “as middle and old age do not occur without childhood, similarly the intention is that what is not profound for others is profound [for us, and] it is the supporting ground of the other [subsequent teachings], and the higher storeys are not raised without the lower.” And Dorje Sherab sums up his comments saying: “The dGongs gcig teaches throughout just this topic. (…) If you understand it in this manner, you will understand all the topics of the dGongs gcig .” And Rinchen Jangchub summarises that if the lower Dharmas are lacking, one will not be able to pass beyond samsara even if one practises the profound topics of mantra. The best is certainly that all Dharmas are assembled, but even if the mantra elements that are held by others to be profound are lacking, one may still obtain happiness of samsara and nirvana based only on the pratimoksha. Thus, how profound can those practises of the channels and winds of the vajra body be, when they are useless without the preliminaries? And do we not have to value the preliminaries and pratimoksha most highly, if through practising only them one may obtain nirvana? “Therefore,” he says, “we teach that the lower is profound.”

1. [See Glen Wallis (2003), “Advayavajra’s Instructions on adikarma ,” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies , pp. 203-230. For Sanskrit editions of the text contained in his Advayavajrasamgraha , see Annual of the Institute for the Comprehensive Studies of Buddhism , Taisho University,” no. 10, (March 1988): 255-198, and Gaekwad’s Oriental Series , vol. 40, Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1927.]

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