Western Washington University – Bellingham, WA –

Just last week at Nītārtha Institute’s 2009 summer program, professor Matthew Kapstein, translator of such seminal works as The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, taught five two-hour morning classes on a text by Klong chen rab ‘byams pa (1308-1364). This course began what will be a yearly tradition of Western scholars teaching at the Nītārtha summer program. The crowd that assembled each morning for Kapstein’s course included a large contingent of Naropa University students, former Naropa students, professors and other dharma practitioners. This summer’s program attracted several scholars in the area of comparative philosophy and the milieu was full and rich with the sharing of ideas between fascinating eclectic minds. Philosophy of mind professor Matthew Mackenzie (CSU) was in attendance for the month; a practitioner and scholar I predict will have an interesting influence on the formation of Buddhism in the West. I will try to provide here a few comments on the text, some of the interesting highlights of Kapstein’s translation choices, and a few notes on my impressions of the course. If anyone reading this would like more information, the Tibetan text, etc. please do contact me: Marcus@tsadra.org

Along with a short and very general introduction to Klong chen pa’s context, Kapstein furnished attendees with the Tibetan text and his rough translation, which he emended as he proceeded through a week of discussion about the text, the concept of buddha nature in Tibet, and the various relations of Klong chen pa’s thought with other Tibetan interpretations. Kapstein also prepared a very interesting and thorough annotated bibliography on buddha nature covering sources from several traditions, nations, and languages.

A few comments on the text:

The text Kapstein taught, སེམས་དང་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་དྲི་ལན།, is found in the གསུང་ཐོར་བུ་ of Klong chen pa published in Delhi by Sanje Dorje in 1973 (vol. 1, pp. 377-392). In the colophon the title is actually given as སེམས་དང་ཡེ་ཤེས་བརྟག་པའི་མན་ངག, which Kapstein takes as the proper main title of the text and translates it as: An Instruction on the Investigation of Mind and Gnosis.

སེམས་དང་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་དྲི་ལན། provides little in the way of Klong chen pa’s well-known poetics and is mostly prose. It is a short response to questions from his student (or perhaps even son) and eventual biographer, Chos grags bzang po; however, we are not privy to those questions. We are merely presented with a typically Tibetan scholastic text full of citations. In this case many of the (20+?) citations are from the main sources of buddha nature theory. Organized in terms of ground, path, and fruition, the text is a kind of summary of Klong chen pa’s  ཤིང་རྟ་ཆེན་མོ།

In the opening section, Klong chen pa says that he has investigated the significance (དོན) of sems and ye shes and is writing the “sequence of their cultivation” (Kapstein trans. of དེ་དོན་བརྟགས་ནས་སྒོམ་པའི་རིམ་པ་བྲི།།). The text is, as Kapstein presents it, Klong chen pa’s attempt to balance two models of practice and enlightenment: 1) The Constructive Model, which leans towards seeing a process of training and education that leads to creating a Buddha and 2) the Disclosure Model, which leans towards the inherent nature of Buddhahood present within everyone, mysteriously (or not) disclosed to the practitioner. Leaning too far either way is a danger. This appeared to be Kapstein’s primary tool for interpreting Klong chen pa and he further indicated that he thinks this is a major distinction useful for understanding all Buddhist traditions.

This distinction leads us to wonder which side Klong chen pa favors, which leads to wondering which side is more or less gzhan stong, which side more or less Yogacara, ad nauseam. These questions of allegiance were discussed some in the question portion of the class. Attendees also asked Kapstein about Klong chen pa’s stance on buddha nature, as well as the connection to Rang byung rdo rje’s ideas. And there was even a bit of debate between Kapstein and the Acharyas about classifying various authors as gzhen stong or rang stong. None of which lead anywhere in particular, but were interesting nonetheless. Some thoughts on this:

A friend at Oxford, Charles Manson, wrote a short essay comparing this very text with the Third Karmapa’s རྣམ་ཤེས་ཡེ་ཤེས་འབྱེད་པའི་བསྟན་བཅོས།; interesting primarily because of how different the two texts actually are. Manson details many differences, but I will summarize quickly to make my point: While one might think that Klong chen pa, a student of the Third Karmapa, would refer to his masters text in order to answer similar questions, we find a rather different focus and content. Klong chen pa provides meditation instruction in prose and Rang byung rdo rje provides analytic arguments in metered verse. Klong chen pa speaks of meditation in the three realms and proclaims the luminosity that is revealed through stages of practice, while Rang byung rdo rje analyzes the eight consciousness and describes their transformation into the five wisdoms correlated with the five Buddha bodies. These differences don’t necessarily mean Klong chen pa didn’t agree with the Karmapa’s presentation of the difference between mind and gnosis, nor do they mark a difference in tathāgatagarbha theory, but they are interesting nonetheless, for Kapstein likes to think of this text as “a place where Klong chen pa’s thought intersects with Rang byung rdo rje.” Despite the major differences in style and content of presentation in this example, Kapstein sees a resemblance in meaning and a connection in thought. He noted further that Dolpopa, Bu-ston and Klong chen pa were all on good terms with the Third Karmapa, rang byung rdo rje – An interesting group of associates for people who see through the glasses of the gzhan stong / rang stong distinction. In any case, we should not be quick to judge Klong chen pa to be so solidly in either camp.

Perhaps one of the most interesting comments Kapstein made throughout the week was when Acharya Lama Tenpa Gyaltsen asked where he thought Yogācāra fit into the four school scheme. His response was basically that it is not always useful to ask that question. Meaning that the scheme is not an all-purpose lens usable for viewing and categorizing past Buddhist teachings. He said that the grub mtha’ system and its way of analyzing and organizing is useful in the beginning stages of learning, and that what makes more sense is to let go of that system and read Asaṅga and Vasubandu on their own terms. Acharya replied that it follows that if they can’t fit Yogācāra into the four schools, then Buddhism does not fit into the three turnings. Essentially pointing out that there has to be an end to our theorizing, an end of our categorizing, so why not use the four schools and the three turnings? If we don’t, he said, we’ll have five turnings or ten turnings (which is apparently not agreeable). Kapstein responded with the cake analogy. We can cut a cake into fours, or threes, or any way we want, but there is also something wonderful to be gained by not cutting it. By observing it as a whole (that whole being a cake of Yogācāra, in this case) we see it in another –important– way. Presumably the same applies to distinctions of rang stong/gzhan stong as well.

Overall Kastein’s course was interesting, but many of the most interesting things were small tidbits and side stories he told in relation to his studies and to connections between various teachers and lineages. For instance, he noted that Klong chen pa’s biography does not mention receiving the Shangpa Kagyu lineage transmission, but Kapstein says he must have because of his citation of the rin chen rgya mtsho’i rgyud (an oft-cited text of the Shangpa Kagyu) and his close connection with Kumarāja (aslo a teacher of Rang byung rdo rje). Another story involved Dudjom Rinpoche laughing at him for asking why he didn’t see any difference between Dzogchen and Mipham’s Madhyamaka – according to Dudjom Rinpoche, there is no difference.

If there is a call for more information about the course, I will be happy to recount more questions and interesting answers in another post. For now, here are a few Tibetan words and Kapstein’s translation choices:

Kapstein in translation: The interesting and the questionable:

ཡེ་ཤེས་ = gnosis

མན་ངག = intimate advice, intimate teaching instruction, here he just uses “instruction”

ངང་ = inherent structure – Kapstein notes that this may be too strong a translation

བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོ་ = nucleus of the sugata སྙིང་པོ་རབ་ཏུ་བསྟན་པའི་མདོ་ = The Sūtra that Teaches the Nucleus

དེ་བཞིན་ཉིད་ = Quiddity. From the latin quid ‘what’ – the ‘whatness’ of something, its nature.

2 Responses to “Kapstein at Nītārtha Institute”

  • Coming up next post is a short summary of Dr. Phil Stanley’s dissertation and a talk he gave at Western Washington University on “canonicity” in the Christian and Buddhist traditions.

  • དེ་བཞིན་ཉིད་ tathatâ < tathâ-tâ, thus/such-ness. It is not after the Sanskrit tattva, which in Tibetan is (again literally) དེ་ཉིད་, where དེ་ goes for tat & nyid for tva/thâ.
    “Quiddity” is a scholastic term which does not add that much to the precise word “essence”.
    I think there is in “suchness” something like the essence which is not exactly the essence. Even if experientially de bzhin nyid, de (kho na) nyid & ngo bo (nyid) name the same “thing”, we should take a greater care in translating those words with the same sense of variety than in the original…
    T’would be nice to have a little deepening into this range of vocabulary.

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