Thursday, December 23, 2004

A glimpse at rDzogs chen (Dzogchen)

Just a note about the Tibetan Language: I don't know it at all, but I'm studying Tibetan Buddhism and the likes and think I know a thing or two about it. Like the three consonants that seem to start any word when it's written out sometimes, ie rDz in rDzogs chen. If you see all of the 'extra' letters then you're probably dealing with the Wylie system of transliteration, where every letter found in the written Tibetan is expressed in our roman script. If you see letters then chopped off, ie Dzogchen, then you're seeing a phonetic writing of the word, which is great for pronunciation, but not so good for those of us who might some day be digging around old Tibetan texts looking for words.

So anyhow - I've been reading for my rDzogs chen paper and haven't actually gotten to the actual rDzogs chen texts, but have been caught up in a scholarly debate overy two of my professor's books from 1998 (The Reflexive Nature of Awareness, and Altruism and Reality) in which he digs into some of the heavy philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism - with some massive controversy (see the review to Altruism and Reality!) I might add. Part of that controversy is likewise addressed in the online pages of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics:

Altruism and Reality: Studies in the Philosophy of the BodhicaryĀvatĀra. By Paul Williams. Reviewed by John W. Pettit.
[View the article] [Print]

A Response to John Pettit. By Paul Williams.
[View the article] [Print]

Anyhow -- if those are too philosophically abstract for ya - here's a (hopefully) more down to earth look into rDzogs chen as a revision of the universal view of enlightenment:

...goes back to very basic notions of enlightenment. Enlightenment is caused/has causes, yet unlike conventional caused things (everything within dependent origination) it does not cease as its causes fall out of existence. This is because its causes are truly themselves negations of the causes of its opposite: samsara. The final cause of enlightenment is merely the removal of the last cause (the final mental obscuration) of samsara. It is from this analysis that enlightenment can then be said to be without cause, uncaused, and the essential nature of all things. The enlightenment (phenomenological) that is caused by the removal of mental obscurations is gnosis, the experience of the enlightenment (ontological) which is already always there. This gnosis must be distinguished from knowing which by definition has an object. Gnosis is nondual, without an object, an experience without a subject. It is unambiguously incomprehensible to the discursive mind, which seeks to comprehend in terms of distinctions. Gnosis is an experience beyond existence and nonexistence, beyond the categorizing faculties of the rational/discursive mind. The rational mind, nevertheless, can be led to the edge of gnosis through conceptual meditation on emptiness (cf. Tsong ka pa), the lack of self existence in all things. This process is necessarily pre or sub-ultimate, but moves the meditator from the lower conventional reality of reifying objects of the senses to seeing that such ‘objects’ are themselves only false perceptions. Rather than falling on the innate misconception of things existing in-themselves, meditation on emptiness shifts one’s unconscious ontology from one of things to one of processes. Rather than seeing reality as of atoms in various configurations interacting with one another, one sees ever-changing flows which are only reified by action of the mind (karma). This experiential shift in seeing reality indicates (clearly and directly) to the meditator that all solid things of experience are actually a mistaken reification of what is in reality a flow. The task is then clear: eliminate karmas which cause misperception of reality to experience it 100% clearly, eliminate reification (the sine qua non of subject-object duality) and live in the flow.

This flow is no different from the flow of a baseball player at the plate as a pitcher winds up and releases the 98 mile-per-hour fast ball or the flow of the artist in the act of spontaneous creation. The sameness lies in the phenomenology; the person in each is just being, without object, without reification, without the duality of discursive thought. The baseball player cannot think to himself, “the pitcher is winding up, he’s throwing the ball, it has an over-top spin, it’s coming straight, it’s a fast-ball, it’s in the strike-zone, etc.” He just has to know all of this in the split second he has before the ball is in the catcher’s glove. This knowing is gnosis and does not take objects in the way that the above hypothetical stream of thought does. This gnosis is free of action of the mind (karma).

The flow of the meditative master is different only in that it is based on a cultivated knowledge of reality with the goal of maintaining this state indefinitely. While the baseball player must learn to eliminate action of the mind in the moment of the pitch (as any mental action will necessarily obstruct the flow), the meditator must learn to eliminate action of the mind in every moment, regardless of situation. Does this mean that a meditative master should be able to establish a perfect batting average in Major League Baseball? In theory, yes. The mental part of a perfect baseball player is intact - the remaining physical conditioning would just need to be fulfilled. However, there are yet to be any examples of meditative masters translating their skills into successful sporting careers (except perhaps famous Zen archers, the best of whom become the bow, become the arrow, become the target, and then release). On the other hand, countless meditative masters have gone the route of the artist, ranging from prose and poetry writing to painting, sculpting, and engineering (while a 600 year old bridge that is still in use may not appear as art to some, there are several examples of such in Tibet, designed by early Gelug monks).

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