Is the Single Intention a philosophy? A first glance at the 8th Karmapa’s commentary

During the last three months, I had the chance to work a bit on the 8th Karmapa’s enormous commentary of the Single Intention. Actually, it is not really one commentary, but a collection of texts composed between the mid-1530s and the mid-1540s. Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s style of writing is remarkably different from the other commentaries of the Single Intention that I have studied so far, in particular, the early 13th century commentaries by Dorje Sherab and Rinchen Jangchub, and the 17th-century commentary by Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa. But it is not only the writing style but also his whole approach that differs from the commentaries of Drikungpa authors.

One aspect of the Karmapa’s special approach to the Single Intention is that he discusses it as if it were (largely) a philosophical text. At one point, Mikyö Dorje indicates that the Single Intention was conceived of from the beginning as a “system of philosophical tenets” text (Skt. siddhanta). He says that Jigten Sumgon once predicted that his chief disciple Sherab Jungne would compose such a “system of philosophical tenets” on the basis of the teachings he had given to him. Moreover, one of the Karmapa’s commentaries is called General Summary of the Tenets [of the] Single Intention, and he claims here that the Single Intention is the “siddhanta of the Kagyupas.” In fact, much of Mikyö Dorje’s writings on the Single Intention is largely using the topical themes of Jigten Sumgon’s vajra-statements as stepping stones to expound his own philosophical views.

A siddhanta (Tib. grub mtha’) or “system of philosophical tenets” usually expounds non-Buddhist and Buddhist views one-by-one, refuting the respectively lower through the respectively higher view, until it arrives at the ultimate view, usually Madhyamaka, which refutes all other views. The Drikungpas themselves have never authored such a text. There is just one Drikungpa text by Dombu Jowo Dowa, who might be Jigten Sumgon’s disciple Chöje Tsadrelwa, that has the term siddhanta in its title. Although it touches briefly on some general topics of philosophy, it is really not in any way a typical “system of philosophical tenets” text at all. In fact, all the usual themes of the siddhanta authors, like defining which of the three wheels of Shravaka teachings, Perfection of Wisdom teachings, and Buddha Nature teachings is the definite wheel, etc., have been avoided by Jigten Sumgon, who much prefers to reveal the unity of all teachings and not its differentiations – hence his legacy is known as the Single Intention. (I have already made a few remarks on Jigten Sumgon’s approach to philosophical views here).

In truth, the position Jigten Sumgon and his successors took with regard to philosophical tenets can only be described as dismissive or, sometimes, perhaps, ironic. Thus, Jigten Sumgon states in the Single Intention (4.13):

The truth is veiled by all [philosophical] tenets whatsoever.

And in a praise of his guru Phag mo gru pa’s lives he says: 1

May those who mistake the system of tenets,
which is a knot of the mind, as the Buddha’s intention,
realise true reality
and may their mindfulness be purified in itself.

And, as the final lines in a text about the primordial purity of all phenomena, he states: 2

If one’s pure mind, [which is like] the sky,
is, due to the conceptions of the inconceivable collections
of the various views of the [philosophical] tenets,
covered with clouds of conceptions, which are false,
one cannot purify it
because one has not understood and realised
the natural state of the mind as it is.
Therefore, engage in this pure essence of the mind
that is spontaneously taken hold of in itself
without being covered by the clouds of thoughts, which are false.

Moreover, echoing the Mahasiddha Saraha, he says: 3

All the views starting from the Non-Buddhists’ view of permanence and nihilism and up to the Madhyamikas’ [view] are something that is a mind-made duality. Since I have not studied these views of the various tenets, I do not know them.

Furthermore, an introduction to the Single Intention contained in the block print of Dorje Sherab’s commentary states: 4

The grasping of that which is free from the extremes of all proliferation [of] “existence” and “non-existence” [is] the conceptuality (rtog pa ) of the tenets, the sphere of the [proliferating] mind (blo’i yul ). It is mind-made, but not empty.

In fact, this introductory text of unknown authorship discusses the concept of tenets with the same negative attitude as is illustrated above. It also offers a curious statement that it ascribes to Jigten Sumgon (but which I could not yet identify). Here, he says, somewhat ironically: 5

Virtue [is] natural virtue (gshis kyi dge ba): Due to being good “white” [natural] virtue, a virtue that apprehends the characteristic “virtue” will not become non-virtue. Non-virtue [is] natural non-virtue (gshis kyi mi dge ba ): Due to being “black” [natural] non-virtue, the non-virtue that apprehends the characteristic “non-virtue” will not turn into virtue. This is my great system of tenets.

These words ascribed to Jigten Sumgon are summarising an important aspect of his Single Intention teaching according to which something is either by nature virtuous or non-virtuous, and nothing and no one can change that – neither the highest philosophical view, nor a skilful means of mantra, nor the Buddha himself. That, the passage states, is Jigten Sumgon’s “philosophy,” not any of those intellectual conceptualisations that one finds in the siddhanta literature.

Judging from all this evidence, I think that the prophecy of which the Karmapa speaks, according to which Sherab Jungne would compose a siddhanta on the basis of Jigten Sumgon’s vajra-statements, namely the Single Intention, is perhaps a “creative invention.” The Karmapa may have thereby justified his own predominantly philosophical approach to Jigten Sumgon’s teaching. Or such a prophecy, if it existed, did not use the term “system of tenets” with its usual philosophical connotation, but rather in the ironical sense illustrated above.

It will be an important task for future research to investigate whether the Single Intention is in any other sense than the strictly “philosophical” paradigmatic for the whole of the Kagyupas. It is, indeed, time to ask ourselves what it is that makes the Kagyupas a distinctive tradition. The Single Intention is an excellent focus to start this work. My first glance at the Karmapa’s comments, however, has rather revealed differences of Jigten Sumgon’s and Mikyö Dorje’s approaches to the Dharma. But that was only a first attempt, and Mikyö Dorje’s approach is certainly not typical for the Karma Kagyupa up to his time. With all its diversity, it will be a challenging task to define the Kagyupas’ identity.

Notes

1 Jigten Sumgon’s Collected Works (2001), vol. 1, p. 24: grub mtha’ blo yi mdud pa la// sangs rgyas dgongs par ‘khrul ba rnams// de nyid rtogs par gyur nas kyang // dran ‘dzin rang sar dag mdzad gsol//.

2 Jigten Sumgon’s Collected Works (2001), vol. 3, p. 358: ji ltar sems kyi gnas lugs ‘di// ma go rtogs par ma gyur pas// grub mtha’ lta ba’i bye brag tshogs// bsam gyis mi khyab rnam rtog gis// rang sems rnam dag nam mkha’ ‘di// log rtog sprin gyis bkab na ko / rnam dag gsal bar mi ‘gyur bas// sems kyi ngo bo rnam dag ‘di// log rtog sprin gyis mi dgab par// lhun grub rang sa zin du chug//.

3 Jigten Sumgon’s Collected Works (2001), vol. 6. p. 434: mu stegs rtag chad nas dbu ma’i bar gyi lta ba thams cad blos byas pa’i gzung ‘dzin zhig yin te/ grub mtha’ so so’i lta ba de ngas thos pa ma byas pas mi shes/. He repeats very similar words in vol. 5, p. 491: yang bka’ gdams pa rnal ‘byor pa mtshan nyid pa gang yin yang so so’i lta bsgom spyod pa gsum yod de/ ‘di grub mtha’ mkhan kun la phyi rol mu stegs nas dbu ma’i bar du lta sgom mi ‘dra ba mang po yod de grub mtha’ ma mnyan pas mi shes/.

4 Khog dbub (dGongs gcig edition of Kagyu College, 2007, p. 219 f.): yod med spros pa thams cad kyi// mtha’ dang bral ba’i ‘dzin pa yang // grub mtha’i rtog pa blo yi yul// blo yis byas kyang stong pa min//. dGongs pa gcig pa’i khog dbub , in: dGongs pa gcig pa’i ‘grel chen snang mdzad ye shes sgron me , vol. 1, bKa’ brgyud nang bstan mtho slob khang, 2007, pp. 197-258. The text is ascribed there to rDo rje shes rab, but that is doubtful.

5 Khog dbub dGongs gcig edition of Kagyu College, 2007, , p. 218 f.: nyid kyi zhal nas dge ba gshis kyi dge ba ste/ dge ba dkar pos dge ba’i mtshan nyid ‘dzin pa’i dge ba mi dge bar mi ‘gyur/ mi dge ba gshis kyi mi dge ba ste/ mi dge ba nag pos mi dge ba’i mtshan nyid ‘dzin pa’i mi dge ba dge bar mi ‘gyur bya ba ‘di nga’i grub mtha’ chen

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