Black Snake Discourse
Courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources
Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo — who is also known by his Sanskrit name Dharmabhadra, his title as the ‘Great Scholar’ Rongzom Mahāpaṇḍita, or simply Rongzompa — was one of the most important scholars and earliest systematizers of the Nyingma tradition. A genius polymath, he was both a lotsāwa, renowned for his exceptional Sanskrit-to-Tibetan translations, and an author of many original treatises. The texts he composed demonstrate a rare depth and breadth of erudition and cover topics ranging from Sanskrit grammar to agriculture and animal husbandry. He is mostly remembered, however, for his lion-like defense of Nyingma scriptures, practices, and philosophy, all of which were under attack from adherents of the New Schools. His writings provide an exegetical foundation for Nyingma philosophy and served as an essential source of inspiration to his successors Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364) and Ju Mipham (1846–1912). The Nyingma tradition regards all three of these masters as omniscient (kun mkhyen), but as the earliest defender of the school, Rongzompa holds a unique position in its history. A brief introduction to his life and times may shed further light on his status within the lineage and help to contextualize the brilliant, somewhat polemical, and highly distinctive text translated below.
The Black Snake Discourse
by Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo
The specific views and conducts of the higher and lower vehicles may be understood, in short, as follows. Their various views are posited based on the appearance of bodies, environments, and spheres of activity, all of which can be subsumed under body, speech, and mind. However, as to the question of whether things do or do not appear: No matter if you are an individual who upholds the various textual traditions, or someone ranging from a beginner up to a bodhisattva on the tenth bhūmi, there is no debate. This is because no one can exaggerate or denigrate direct, immediately experienced appearances. Therefore, all debates about this arise from the status of the defining characteristics of appearances.
In brief, there are five positions. Let us first offer an example. Consider, by way of analogy, a black snake reflected in water.
One type of individual regards this as an actual snake and, driven by fear, actively seeks to get rid of it.
One type of individual recognizes the snake as a reflection. Even though they know that it is not actually a snake, they see the reflection as capable of harm and, therefore, exert themselves in applying a remedy with skilful means.
One type of individual recognizes the snake as a reflection, without the material support of the coarse elements and, therefore, lacking the ability to perform any action. However, driven by the force of previous anxiety, this individual is unable to touch or destroy it.
One type of individual realizes the snake is a reflection and therefore incapable of performing any action. But, in order to swiftly free themselves of anxious thoughts, such individuals rely on ascetic discipline to touch and destroy the reflection.
One type of individual knows the snake is a reflection and therefore has no thoughts of rejection or acceptance, and does nothing whatsoever.
In this way, the philosophical tenets of the various Buddhist vehicles correspond with the meaning of the previous examples.
The first of these is the tradition of the Śrāvakas. The Śrāvakas posit that phenomena, such as suffering and its sources, exist both relatively and ultimately, and exist as substantial entities. This belief compels them to see phenomena as genuinely real and to accept and reject them. This is like seeing the snake’s reflection as real and trying to get rid of it. In this system, among the four kinds of existence, the Śrāvakas affirm three: “ultimate existence,” “relative existence,” and “the substantial existence of both.”
The second example corresponds to the Mādhyamikas of the Mahāyāna, since, for them, appearances are not substantially established but are like illusions. However, just as illusory poison can perform a function, thoroughly afflicted phenomena are likewise capable of harm if they are not embraced with skillful methods. When they are so embraced, phenomena perform beneficial functions. Because phenomena substantially exist at the relative level, the Mādhyamikas assert that they should be accepted and rejected. This is like asserting that although the snake is a reflection, its ability to perform a function substantially exists. Of the four kinds of existence, this system negates “ultimate existence” but retains “relative existence” and “imputed existence.”
The third example corresponds to the outer ascetic tantras, Kriyā and Yoga. As all apparent phenomena are illusion-like, they are utterly without substance. Despite phenomena posing no fault or problem, through the force of previous anxiety, yogis in this tradition dare not act themselves, but they are able to summon an external hero. This is like knowing the snake’s reflection to be harmless, yet still being unable to touch it. In this system, among the four kinds of existence, “ultimate existence” and “substantial relative existence” are both refuted. However, “imputed relative existence” is retained. On top of asserting merely this system of the commonly held two truths, proponents of this tradition know there is no substantial relative existence. Through this system, one first attains, to a small degree, the view of equality in which the relative and the ultimate are realized to be inseparable.
The fourth concerns the view of the inner tantras of Mahāyoga. Having mostly realized that all thoroughly afflicted phenomena are like illusions, and in order to swiftly put into practice the view of equality, the yogi engages in wonderous conduct. This is like swiftly eliminating fear for the mere reflection of the snake by practicing asceticism to destroy it. In this system, any grasping to imputed relative existence is extinguished even further, and these individuals are mostly free from grasping which views the truth dualistically. The yogis of this system attain, to a middling degree, an understanding of the inseparability of the two truths.
The fifth relates to the view of the Great Perfection. Here, as everything is like an illusion, the proponent realizes that every action, such as rejection or fear, or actual destruction, arises from a view that clings to things as real. As phenomena are illusion-like, the yogi realizes they are without any basis to act upon; one neither rejects nor strives for anything whatsoever. In this system, the understanding of the illusion-like reaches its pinnacle through the awareness of the absence of defining characteristics of appearance. The yogi is liberated from even the subtlest clinging to ultimate or relative truths and is thereby liberated from any view whatsoever. This is termed the “view of the inseparability of the ultimate and relative, the realization of equality itself.”
Actual, direct appearances arise through the force of latent tendencies and, therefore, do not immediately subside. Clinging, on the other hand, arises from adventitious, mistaken conceptions, and is easily reversed. Furthermore, clinging comes from grasping at defining characteristics, and this comes from a view of real entities. If these three concepts are overturned, a dualistic view of the truth will not arise, even if the appearances of intrinsically real entities are not reversed.
Here, some might say, “The Mādhyamaka scriptural tradition does not ultimately divide the truth into two, and the Secret Mantra scriptural traditions do not refute appearance.” To this, we would answer:
Individuals might evaluate objects of knowledge while keeping in mind that the defining characteristics of the two truths are truly established, but by doing so, they will never be able to abandon dualistic thinking. When they evaluate the position, “ultimately, the two truths are indivisible,” even the assertion that the relative truth exists as mere illusion has not been relinquished due to their strongly held belief in true establishment. Therefore, even when establishing the nondual nature of reality, their thinking arises dualistically.
When evaluating the statement, “relatively, like an illusion,” we can see that “illusion-like” refers to conceptual elaborations, since the imputations of ultimate existence made by the Śrāvakas and Yogācārins have been pacified. However, “illusion-like” does not mean that phenomena are devoid of substantial functionality on a relative level.
Here, even at the time of such evaluation, directly focusing on defining characteristics that are relatively established as substance, it is then claimed that “these are not actually established as real entities.” Therefore, the mind at this moment has not even given up the two systems. This means that appearance—a property-possessor (Skt. dharmin, Tib. chos can)—is posited as an instance of characteristics (Skt. dṛṣṭānta, Tib. mtshan gzhi). As long as there exists in the mind the notion of being free from the properties or the conceptual elaborations of the instance, and as long as the property-possessor is perceived to exist as mere illusory appearance, then the obsessive mind that grasps to the defining characteristics of appearance has not been reversed. Someone like this cannot be said to possess the view of great equality.
Consequently, investigating objects of knowledge by focusing the mind on the distinction between the two truths was taught as an antidote for those people with excessive, obsessive clinging to real entities. However, in the very nature of phenomena, there are no dual characteristics. Whosoever reverses grasping to characteristics is free from this obsessive clinging. When one experiences no craving or wishful thought toward anything that appears, this is called “the view of great equality.”
There might be a further question: “Is not mere appearance itself relative?” This was already explained above with regard to any person who believes appearance to be relative and that freedom from conceptual elaborations regarding this is the ultimate. For the mind that does not believe in the reality of the two truths, the scriptures teach that to ask whether the truths are one or two is analogous to asking whether the son of a barren woman is blue or white.
Someone might then ask: “Well then, what does your tradition assert?” We merely refute your wrong views without at all establishing any point of our own. This, conventionally speaking, is called “the view of great equality,” but there is no clinging whatsoever to it as a metaphysical view.
| Translated by Patrick Dowd, 2021
Here Rongzompa refers to concepts belonging to the Śrāvaka and Yogācārin systems. ↩