How Jigten Sumgön tested the teachings

(This blog article is both an abbreviated version and a slight expansion of the second part of an article published in the Festschrift for Per K. Sörensen. You can download it here: https://www.academia.edu. Please see for all references the original article.)

All Tibetan traditions have developed ways and methods to authenticate the teachings they had received from their masters. Jigten Sumgön’s master was Phagmodrupa, and it is from him that he received the methods of testing the teachings. These are called the “four means of authentication” (tshad ma bzhi) and they are mentioned in the Drikung tradition in Jigten Sumgön’s collected works and in the commentaries of the Same Intention.

Jigten Sumgön reports in his collected works the view of his teacher Phagmodrupa, who said that the teachings have to be checked against these four authentications:

(1) the pure instructions of the Sugata, i.e. the Buddha’s teachings contained in the authoritative texts (lung) of Sutra and Mantra,

(2) the vajra masters’ experiences, i.e. the experiences of the gurus of the lineage,

(3) dependent origination, i.e. the illustrating stories (lo rgyus) that we find in the scriptures, and

(4) the yogis’ own experiences.

Jigten Sumgön says that scholars explain the Buddha’s Dharma with the help of authoritative quotations (lung) and logic (rigs). They establish a teaching through a form of inference known as syllogism (rig pa’i gtan tshig). Yogis, on the other hand, produce inner experiences and rely on the Buddha’s and the lineage gurus’ instructions. They do this because these instructions are without error since the Buddha and the lineage gurus have obtained an understanding and realisation that is certain and free from delusion. It is not possible to realise the Buddha’s intentions through quotations and logic alone. Thus, if one searches for the exact meaning of the intentions, it is not enough to rely on inferences (rjes dpag) and syllogisms. Instead, it is necessary to practise as well. Through practice, an experience will arise, through which self-reflexive awareness is realised (rang rig rtogs pa). However, not only quotations and flawed logic can mislead. If the experience of a practising yogi is not free from error, it will only lead back into samsara because the experiences and qualities arising from error are false. Whoever wants to obtain realisation must, therefore, rely on all of the above mentioned four means of authentication.

In one of the earliest commentaries of the Single Intention, Dorje Sherab’s Dosherma, we find the following passage:

(1) “It occurs like this in the [Buddha’s] instructions (bka’)” – that is the means of authentication of the Sugata’s instructions. (2) “The former ones have elucidated the teachings like this” – that is the means of authentication of the excellent gurus. (3) The Dharma Lord [Jigten Sumgön] said:

Whichever profound [topic] I have taught in the assembly,
I have never said anything I have not experienced myself.

Because Jigten Sumgön himself mastered and experienced all that, it is the means of authentication of being experienced by the yogi. (4) “It occurred like this through the workings of dependent origination, which is known throughout the world,” that is the means of authentication of the stories [illustrating] dependent origination. This ascertaining through these four is the “complete liberation” (rnam thar) of Phagmodrupa. Therefore, Jigten Sumgön, too, follows this and ascertains all teachings through the four means of authentication.

1. The Instructions of the Buddha
“It occurs like this in the [Buddha’s] instructions (bka’)” means that a teaching that is found in the Sutras or Tantras is authentic due to the Buddha’s authority. This category is not much discussed in the context of the “four means of authentication,” but it has its own vajra-statement in the Same Intention, which says (1.16): “Valid knowledge is the gnosis that is the knowledge of the Buddha.” This is a problem of its own, however, suffice it to say that according to Jigten Sumgön the Buddha is definitively a valid means of knowledge. I will not go further into this interesting, but complicated topic and concentrate instead on the other three means of authentication.

2. The Experience of the Lineage Gurus
Phagmodrupa speaks of “the vajra masters’ experience,” i.e. the experiences of the lineage gurus. That is, he points out that one relies on the former gurus because they possess authentic experience. This statement is obviously meant to exclude mere scholarship and inauthentic experience from being a means of authentication. This is also exactly what the Drikungpa has in mind. In this context, Jigten Sumgön speaks of scholars who work with authoritative quotations (lung), syllogisms (gtan tshigs), inference (rjes dpag), and logic (rigs), and of yogis who work with realisation through self-reflexive awareness (rang rig rtogs pa). But whatever they do, if they only use scholarly means or if their experience is faulty, they will not obtain realisation. Thus, they all, scholars and yogis, have to rely on the four means of authentication, which then may be further “ornamented” with inferences and syllogisms. The yogi’s own experience is crucial (see the next point), but how can the yogi or the yogini be sure that the experience is not flawed? The answer is that one has to check whether one’s experience matches the other three means of authentication: It should be mentioned like this in Sutra and Tantra, it should match the stories of dependent origination (see point 4 below), and it should match the experience of the gurus of the lineage. The guidance by an experienced and realised master has a special place. When one shares one’s experiences with him, it is the guru who steers one away from traps (shor sa) and sidetracks (gol sa). He does that, based on his own experience, with the help of quotations from the Buddha’s teachings and the stories of dependent origination.

3. The Experience of the Disciple
In the category “the yogi’s experience,” Phagmodrupa speaks, generally, of the yogis’ own experiences, while the commentator of the Same Intention, Dorje Sherab, speaks here, specifically, of Jigten Sumgön’s experience, quoting the line from his work according to which Jigten Sumgön never taught in the assembly anything he had not experienced himself. Thus, Jigten Sumgön is both a worthy receiver of teachings from former authentically realised masters and, since he has become a realised master, an authentic teacher for his own followers. In a more general sense, this category of experience is “the yogi’s experience” in the sense of “the disciple’s experience” in contrast to “the experience of the lineage gurus.” When the disciple himself turns into a master, his experience will be that of the lineage of gurus.

The Sakyapa master (and earlier guru of Phagmodrupa), Sachen Künga Nyingpo, makes many very interesting remarks on the topic of the four authenticities in his work known as the Sras don ma. Among other things, he points out that there is always at the beginning the yogi’s – i.e. the disciple’s – own experience arising from practice. Without that, nothing can be done. This is followed by the guru’s guidance (based on his own realisation) and, in fact, correcting instructions which are backed by the Buddha’s words and (in the Sakya tradition) the expositions of Indian masters as collected in the Tanjur.

Thus, the first thing is always the disciples’s own practice experience. However, for that experience to turn into a means of authentication, it must be checked against the other three means. These other three means are used by the master to guide the disciple to a purified experience and realisation. But without the disciple’s own experience, the other three authentications cannot be checked against anything. Finally, through the disciples own realisation, his own experience turns into the experience and realisation of the unbroken lineage of masters.

4. The Illustrating Stories of Dependent Origination
A very significant category for the Drikungpa’s teachings is that of the “stories.” It is also the main difference between the Drikungpa’s system of the four means of authentication and the very similar system of the Sakyapas, who have a different interpretation of this fourth category. Although in their commentaries they also use the term lo rgyus (“story”), they rather understand it in the sense of “exposition.” In doing that, they follow a line in the Samputitantra, which uses the term bstan bcos (“treatise”) instead of lo rgyus. In short, they understand this category as “authenticity of the exposition.” For them, the fourth authenticity lies in the treatises composed by the masters of the Indian tradition. That is also why the Sakyapa tradition is not only a tradition of realised masters but also of great scholars of the Indian tradition of scholarship.

This interpretation, however, is not what is taught by Phagmodrupa and the Drikungpas. There are two hints how they understand this category. One is that Phagmodrupa speaks in this context of “dependent origination,” the other that Jigten Sumgön glosses this with “stories that are well known to the world.” Dorje Sherab explains this point in his commentary of the Same Intention:

[The experience] occurred like this through the workings of dependent origination, which is known throughout the world – that is the means of authentication of the stories [illustrating] dependent origination.”

Moreover, the Introduction to the Same Intention says:

Dependent origination [is] the means of authentication of stories: It is, due to the natural state (gshis dang babs kyis) of dependent origination, as [stated] in the universally known stories (gtam rgyud).

What this means becomes evident in Dorje Sherab’s commentary, the Dosherma. Each of its seven chapters has an extensive appendix with numerous stories from former life stories of the Buddha (Skt. jataka), as well as from Sutra and, occasionally, Tantra. These stories are illustrating the natural state (gshis babs) of dependent origination. That is to say that they demonstrate how virtuous causes have virtuous results, and how non-virtuous causes lead to suffering. Let me provide an example. In Same Intenion 3.11, Jigten Sumgön teaches that the Buddha’s instructions are not meant only for particular groups of people or beings, such as only for human beings or only for monks, but generally for each and every being alike. This is so because his instructions are based on his understanding of the fundamental nature of reality. Because the Buddha understood that nature, he knows what must be eliminated and what must be accomplished. The fundamental nature, however, is the same for all beings, from the tenth level of the bodhisattvas down to hell. It is not so that the fundamental nature of the dependent origination of virtuous and evil causes and results is different for a bodhisattva on the highest level and a hell being of the lowest levels. Therefore, the elimination of evil and the accomplishing of virtue concerns all beings alike, no matter which status they have.

The illustrating stories that the commentaries provide in this section as a means of authentication all have the purpose of showing just that point. Thus, for instance, in an earlier life, the Buddha was born in hell among the lowest of beings. Here, he developed for the first time compassion and relieved another person from dragging a cart of fire. This example is to show that bodhicitta is a teaching for all beings – even if they are born in hell, as the Buddha-to-be was at that time – and that the benefit of that will arise even for the lowest being who cultivates that virtue. Secondly, there is the story of Kumara Kusha (Tib. Zhönnu Kusha). There was once a householder who refused to give alms to a Pratyekabuddha. Instead, he got angry at him and said because that Pratyekabuddha was associated with eighteen unpleasant omens and had the face of a lion: “You, with the face like a lion, don’t come into my house!” In a later life, the householder was born as Prince Kusha with a very strong body, a face like a lion, and associated with eighteen unpleasant omens. The commentary of the Same Intention by Rinchen Jangchub, the Rinjangma, remarks that although the householder Kusha was a Bodhisattva of the tenth level, he was unable to avoid the negative consequences of his deed. Thus, this is to show that the negative results of non-virtue arise even for the highest bodhisattvas. Yet another story is that of the monk Svagata (Tib. Leg Ong), who had, due to his ignorance, taken food (in some versions: drink) mixed with alcohol. Heavily intoxicated, he had gotten into trouble that nearly killed him. On that occasion, the Buddha proclaimed the rule concerning intoxicants. This is to show that becoming intoxicated had been a non-virtuous act even before the Buddha issued a rule about it. The Buddha has not “invented” the rule prohibiting the use of intoxicants, he only understood their fundamental nature and, therefore, issued the rule prohibiting it.

The stories collected in the appendices of the Same Intention also play an enormous role in the extensive commentary of Jigten Sumgön’s Essence of the Mahayana Teachings (Theg chen bstan pa’i snying po) by Ngorje Repa, who was roughly contemporary to Jigten Sumgön. In short, while the Sakyapas rely on the exposition of dependent origination, as found in treatises of Indian Buddhist masters collected in the Tanjur, the Drikungpas rely on the stories illustrating dependent origination as found in the Buddha’s instructions. Since these are directly related to the Buddha’s instructions in that the Buddha (or an earlier incarnation of the Buddha) often appears as one of the actors in these stories and in that he is the one who uses the story in his teachings, Jigten Sumgön accepts them as having the same authority than the teachings of Sutra and Tantra. In fact, occasionally, when there is a contradiction between such a story and the teaching in a treatise by an Indian Buddhist master, the story carries more weight. This is, for instance, the case when some scholarly treatises teach that, as a rule, the pratimoksha vows always end at death. Here the Dosherma teaches that it depends on the capacity of the person. There are stories according to which the vows can arise in a dream, in the intermediate state, and in the next life as a continuation of the strong habituation to holding the vows in a previous life. Therefore, the experience transmitted in these stories shows that the rigid explanation of the scholarly treatise does not always hold.

This does not mean that the Drikungpas have a disregard for the treatises of the Indian masters. It is only so that the Drikungpas put more trust in the stories told by the Buddha than in the treatises of later masters and that they distrust purely analytical means as the only means of approaching understanding. In fact, we will find in every generation of Kagyüpa teachers several great masters who demonstrated their analytical faculties, even though there are by far not as many as we find among Sakyapas and Gelugpas.

This does also not mean that yogic experience is per se and uncritically accepted by Jigten Sumgön in the Same Intention. Grasping and conceptualising yogic experience is held to be as dangerous as the attachment to the fruits of intellectual analysis. Jigten Sumgön often warns against false, deluded, or incomplete yogic experiences. In particular, he warns against the mistaken identification of the gnosis introduced during tantric empowerment, he explains that the experiences produced through the practice of channels and winds may be deceiving and misleading, or may even be false. Moreover, he says about meditative concentration that it may only cause birth in the realms of samsara and that an incomplete realisation of emptiness comprises dangerous downfalls and sidetracks.

The correctives which can be applied to false, deluded, or incomplete experience are just these four means of authentication that are discussed here, namely the words of the Buddha, the instructions of the lineage of realised masters, yogic experience, and the illustrations through dependent origination as found in Jatakas, Sutras and Tantras. Thus, there is really no difference concerning the necessity to authenticate intellectual understanding or yogic experience. The difference, however, lies in the means of authentication. Here the Drikung tradition favours non-analytical authentic expression and experience.

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