All the teachings are one

It has been more than a year now that this blog has gone online. Since then, a steady stream of visitors with more than 3600 views from 58 countries has been coming in to read about the Single Intention of Drikung Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön. Thank you for your ongoing interest!

The reason why I haven’t posted anything since March 28 is that, through a generous grant, I was able to interrupt my teaching duties and (most of) the administrative work at Copenhagen University to go on a research semester. During this semester I have been in Dehradun, India, and in Vienna to meet with the ven. Khenpo Rangdrol. We have worked very intensively on Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa’s commentary of the Single Intention. I have still until the beginning of September to try to transform as much as possible of these collaborative efforts into the book that I hope to publish next year.

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The Single Intention has a number of key themes. One of them is the unity of all teachings. Jigten Sumgön has made this point in numerous of his teachings, and within the Single Intention it also occurs many times, for instance in the first chapter on the three wheels of the Dharma.

For the sake of easy reference, the Buddha’s teachings are divided into different sections. There are 84.000 Dharma heaps, the three baskets of vinaya, sutra, and abhidharma, the four tantra classes, the three wheels of the teachings, the teachings of definite meaning (nitartha) and the teachings of meaning requiring further interpretation (neyartha), the teachings of ‘mind only’ (cittamatra) and the ‘middle way’ (madhyamaka), the teachings of relative (samvirti) and absolute truth (paramartha), the teachings of the five paths (marga) and the ten bodhisattva levels (bhumi), the teachings of gradual and simultaneous engagement (Tib. rim gyis, cig char), the teachings of disciplined conduct (shila), meditative concentration (samadhi), and discriminating knowledge (prajna) and so on … Usually scholars make a lot of effort to differentiate these categories and to show how one category is superior to the other, or how one element has to precede another. Some people become very great scholars in this respect, and they debate skilfully, revealing their superiority over other scholars. Sometimes they go so far as to argue that their opponents, who have different opinions regarding the above categories, are not Buddhist at all!

Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, however, makes great effort to show how all these teachings are just one teaching, namely the teaching of the Buddha, with one purpose, namely to liberate sentient beings from suffering. His key theme of the unity of all teachings is especially visible in the first chapter of the Single Intention. We could easily fill pages and pages with examples of how Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön establishes the unity of all teachings. I will summarise here some of the key points of the first chapter.

One of the first things he discusses are the 84.000 ‘heaps of Dharma.’ Very often scholars group them into three or four categories, saying that 21.000 of them are antidotes for this affliction and 21.000 are antidotes for that affliction, etc. From this some scholars conclude that since people are dominated by particular afflictions, they would need particular antidotes. Thus they say that not all antidotes are necessary for everyone. Some go even so far as to claim that a being is liberated through a particular group of antidotes, or even by a single antidote alone. Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, however, maintains that although some afflictions might be dominant in a person, generally all antidotes are required for achieving Buddhahood, because each being possesses all 84.000 afflictions ( Single Intention 1.2).

These 84.000 antidotes are organised in three baskets and four tantra classes. Some people claim that each basket or tantra class is intended for a particular group of people. They say that the shravakas have to practise the vinaya and the tantric adepts have their tantras. And within the vehicle of mantra they say that each class of tantra is for a particular kind of person. These opinions often imply that a person belonging to a certain group would not need (or not be allowed) to practise other practises than those belonging to “their own” kind of teaching. Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, however, maintains that all these baskets and tantra classes are stages of the path for everyone. And not only are they stages leading to more and more subtle teachings and practises, but the full range of elements of practise is necessary for everyone. As the shravaka will not achieve great awakening without the bodhisattva and mantra practises, the bodhisattvas and tantric adepts, too, will not achieve great awakening without the vinaya ( Single Intention 1.3).

One of the most fundamental differentiation of the teachings is that into the three wheels. According to the general opinion, the first wheel is the teaching of the four truths of the Noble Ones, teaching suffering, its cause, the end of suffering, and the path for ending suffering. This is called the Dharma of the shravakas. Accordingly, the other two wheels are the teachings of mahayana, and there is a lot of discussion in the mahayana which one of these two remaining wheels contains the sutras of definite meaning and which the sutras that need further interpretation (see also below). Furthermore, there is of course the big distinction into hinayana (first wheel) and mahayana (second and third wheel). Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, however, maintains that the three wheels are not different by their teaching, but by their recipients. The teachings of the three wheels are like the rain falling from the sky, which is always the same, yet by virtue of the different qualities of the ground upon which it falls, the water acquires different tastes ( Single Intention 1.4). Furthermore he maintains that within each of the wheels all the three other wheels are complete (1.5) and that the seeds of each of the later wheels exist in each of the earlier ones (1.6). This is shown in great detail and very clearly in these and some others points of the first chapter.

Furthermore, some people say that within the three wheels those sutras that teach chiefly cause and result, namely the four truths of the Noble Ones which are taught within the first wheel, require further explanation. They say that only the sutras that teach emptiness and belong to the second wheel are of definite meaning. There are also many scholars who say that the sutras that teach the existence of Buddha nature in all sentient beings, which belong to the third wheel, require further interpretation. Others again say that just these sutras of Buddha nature are the definite meaning, while the sutras teaching emptiness, i.e. of the second wheel, require further interpretation. Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, however, does not except that one wheel requires interpretation while another wheel is of definite meaning. He maintains that the teachings of definite meaning are taught in all vehicles ( Single Intention 1.9). According to him, despite the fact that different beings have different realisations, natures, faculties, motivations, and inclinations, and even though the wheels reflect that to some extend, what is taught in all the vehicles has all the time been the definite meaning and has a single intention.

Why do people say that some sutras need interpretation and others are of definite meaning (which does not need further interpretation)? In general, there are several interpretative tools for the analysis of a teaching. A teaching can be classified as (1) intentional (see below) and (2) non-intentional, it can have (3) a provisional meaning requiring to be further or otherwise interpreted (i.e. it teaches a meaning that is not the ultimate one), and (4) the definite (i.e. ultimate) meaning, and it can be understood (5) literally (i.e. exactly as expressed) and (6) non-literally. “Intentional” can for instance mean that a teaching promises a certain time frame for the success to be achieved, but that promise has the particular intention to urge the disciple to enter into the practise, or the way a teaching is formulated has the particular disposition of certain kinds of disciples in mind. All these categories have a lot of overlap, of course. Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, however, does not accept that anything that is taught in this way does not have the definite meaning in mind. In other words, the purpose or function of teaching a ‘meaning requiring further interpretation’ is not to establish an independent, autonomous meaning that is different from the definite meaning. According to our commentaries, the Buddha would be incapable of pronouncing such false and misleading teachings. Whenever a teaching is spoken that requires further interpretation, it is always done with the intention to ultimately establish sentient beings in the great happiness of higher births and well being. Thus ‘definite meaning’ means here ‘definite purpose.’ In that sense, i.e. within the perspective of a single vehicle for all disciples and the unity of the teachings, there is no difference between these two categories (Single Intention 1.10).

In his commentary, Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa is mostly interested in the implications of this tenth vajra statement of the first chapter for the mantra teachings. His concern are the people of his time who explain the tantras using categories such as ‘the intentional’ and ‘the non-intentional.’ There is, however, according to Jigten Sumgön, no separate intention to be sought, since mantra is taught chiefly through symbols (Tib. brda) and signs (rtags). That is to say that a statement, according to which one would have to “kill enemies of the teachings,” is not made with an intention to establish a separate Buddhist path on which ‘killing’ would be permitted. And it is also not meant in any literal way. Instead, ‘enemy’ symbolises ‘wind and thoughts’ and ‘killing’ signifies the taming of the mind. Thus the mantra teachings of the tantras are by way of a code, with the code obviously being a ‘signifying sign’ and the meaning being ‘the signified.’ The crucial point here is not whether the tantras need to be interpreted literally or figuratively, or as having an intention or not having an intention. According to Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön’s understanding, the Buddha’s teachings always have only a single definite meaning, namely the end of suffering, and in the above case of “killing enemies of the teachings” that definite meaning is the taming of the mind. In the same manner the tantric expression “attend to your sister” (with a sexual connotation) signifies to be never separate from discriminating knowledge (prajna), “knocking down the central pillar” (of a tent) signifies transformation of the impure channels etc., and “killing the kind parents” signifies the accomplishment of the body of inseparable means and discriminating knowledge. Since the meaning is precisely what is taught in the exoteric mahayana tradition, there is nothing else intended and there is no need to clarify any further meaning, beyond that which is accepted in the general mahayana.

One might therefore ask: if the meaning is the same as in the openly taught exoteric tradition, what is there to be kept hidden by using a symbolic language? I think that what is meant here to be kept hidden is the method, i.e. the manner in which thoughts and wind are stopped, prajna is kept inseparable, the impure channels are purified and so forth, because these methods are potentially harming when practised without proper guidance. In any case, what is clear from many statements in the Single Intention is that Jigten Sumgön is not accepting a mantra path that would have a meaning that is different from the exoteric general mahayana path. Therefore he says (5.24): “What is virtuous in the vinaya is also virtuous in mantra and what is non-virtuous (in the one) is non-virtuous (also in the other).” The example given there is alcohol. According to Jigten Gönpo, the intention in mantra and in the vinaya is the same, namely to abandon alcohol. When, however, the correct method is ably applied and alcohol is really transformed into nectar, with its smell, taste, power etc. actually transformed, then, since it is not alcohol anymore, but nectar, it can (and must!) be taken. Here, too, there is no secret intention as to permitting alcohol in the mantra and prohibiting it in the vinaya. In both alcohol is prohibited and nectar is permitted. What is kept hidden is only the method of transformation, since it is to be transmitted, learned, and practised under the close guidance of an authentic guru.

Thus this is also an example for Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön’s general approach of seeing the Dharma as a unity: The teaching of the vinaya and the mantra have the same definite meaning, namely to end suffering and to establish happiness.

Regarding those people who differentiate the Dharma a lot, debate with Dharma opponents, and develop the attitude of looking down on ‘lower’ teachings or wheels, and who, for instance, follow the teachings of emptiness according to the second wheel and abuse those who follow only the teachings of the first wheel, Jigten Sumgön and all the commentators say that such an attitude is to be understood as the origin of the ‘Self of the person.’ Such people only abuse the teaching that they themselves should follow in order to abandon the ‘Self,’ and they have not understood the Buddha’s Dharma as a unity. This is taught in many of Jigten Sumgön’s teachings, and in particular also in Single Intention 1.5.

In the discussion of another vajra-statement of the sixth chapter it is mentioned that people within the sutra vehicle hold Great Madhyamaka to be the pinnacle of all systems, people within new mantra hold the Great Seal, i.e. the stage of completion without characteristics within the highest yoga tantra to be the highest realisation, and people within ancient mantra declare that nothing can match the ultimate ninth vehicle of Great Perfection. Holding the pinnacle of their system to be superior to the highest level of other systems, they do not go beyond the mentally fabricated, because they cultivate the apprehending mode of ‘being great’ and ‘I’ and thereby they do not even touch the accomplishment of the nature of mind at all ( Single Intention 6.8). But the accomplishment of the nature of mind is beyond the mentally fabricated, free from an apprehending mode, and beyond the sphere of examples and words. Yet this accomplishment of the nature of mind is the intention of all the Buddha’s teachings, of all 84.000 Dharma heaps, of all wheels, vehicles, and paths. As I have quoted in another posting before, Jigten Sumgön said:

For someone who, after taking refuge to the three jewels, has entered the gate of the precious teachings of the Tathagata, completely all the practises of the different trainings are similarly ‘Dharma.’ But some people defame the instructions of the Tathagata by claiming “only this teaching of mine is Dharma, what others are practising is not Dharma,” or “Nyingmapa-mantra is not Dharma,” or “the practise of the siddha Vajrapani is not Dharma,” or “amanasikara (“mental inactivity”) is not Dharma,” etc. This causes only desire, hatred, and cognitive misorientation for them! The maturation of such activity is the result ‘samsara’ and ‘lower realms.’ Since such results are wailful, you should never denigrate any teaching!

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