Black Snake Discourse

Buddhist Philosophy | Tibetan MastersRongzom Chökyi Zangpo

English | བོད་ཡིག

Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo

Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo

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Translator’s Introduction

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.

Alak Zenkar Rinpoché gives the Iron Dragon, 1040, as Rongzom’s birth year, though other sources, including Düdjom Jikdrel Yéshé Dorjé, say he was born in 1012.[3] Whichever the case, there is broad scholastic consensus that he thrived in the second half of the eleventh century and led a long and productive life, perhaps until as late as 1136. He was born in lower Tsang to a family of devoted lay Nyingma practitioners, and he eventually married and had three children who would receive and transmit his religious lineage.[4] At a time when masters such as Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (982–1055?) and Dromtönpa Gyalwé Jungné (1004–1064) were stressing the importance of celibacy and strict monastic discipline, Rongzompa upheld Tibet’s centuries-old tradition of lay tantric practice and hereditary religious transmission. Such dynamics are emblematic of the unique cultural crucible of this period of Tibetan history and underpin the dynamic, and sometimes quite hostile, environment in which Rongzompa lived and wrote.

From the late tenth to the middle of the eleventh century, new political bodies emerged in Tibet following the tumultuous Era of Fragmentation (sil bu’i dus) which began with the 842 collapse of the Tibetan Empire. Unlike the Imperial Period (btsan po’i dus rabs) in which centralized power was exercised over the whole of the Tibetan plateau, Rongzompa’s time saw the rise of kingdoms that were largely decentralized and far smaller – though many strove to recreate the visionary world of Tibet’s great Dharma Kings, with religious patronage and large-scale translation projects at the heart of their quest for political legitimacy.

The most famous of this new constellation of cultural centres was the Western Tibetan kingdom of Purang-Guge (pu hrangs gu ge), ruled by Lha Lama Yeshe Ö and his nephew Jangchub Ö. Together, they sponsored the great translator Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055) in his studies in India and invited Atiśa from his seat in Vikramaśīla monastery to Tibet. These examples from Purang-Guge represent the broader cultural values of the time, as “pure” Buddhist lineages were imported from India and Nepal and the authenticity of Tibet’s existing imperial Buddhist lineages came into question.

Giuseppe Tucci said that the “thinkers and ascetics” of this period “shed over the whole of Tibet a spiritual light which is not yet extinguished.”[5] Undoubtedly, this was an era of great cultural renaissance after more than a century of chaos, clan rivalry, and civil war. The vast treasury of Buddhist texts that entered Tibet at this time is still cherished nearly a thousand years later. However, this was also a moment of emergent polarization and conflict between the newly imported Buddhist traditions, the “New Ones” (gsar ma), and the posthumously labeled “Old Ones” or “Ancients” (rnying ma). This division was further reified as the upholders of the “later transmission” (phyi dar) or “later translations” (phyi 'gyur) questioned the very veracity of the “earlier transmission” (snga dar) or “earlier translations” (snga 'gyur).[6] In this rather antagonistic climate, “Rongzom considered methods to advocate and prove the validity of the Nyingma tantras that were under attack.”[7]

Rongzom’s hagiographies highlight his meeting with Atiśa, who is said to have identified him as an incarnation of the Indian mahāsiddha Kṛṣṇapāda. These sources also show him encountering other Sarma masters such as Gö Khukpa Lhetse (11th CE) and Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (1012–1097), who expressed great admiration, despite their original intention to denigrate him and the Nyingma tradition. Heidi Köppl points out, “To what degree these reported meetings with famous opponents have any historical reality is hard to estimate, yet the accounts are interesting as they underscore an atmosphere of tension and a quest for authenticity.”[8] This was the first moment in Tibetan history in which the adherents of the early Buddhist transmission found the legitimacy of their texts and practices under attack, establishing a precedent for actions that have continued, with varying degrees of intensity and persecution, for almost a millennium.

The conflicts of this period are reflected in the tone of The Black Snake Discourse, which presents the Buddhist philosophical tenet systems (grub mtha') using the example of a black snake’s reflection in water.[9] After proposing how each of the lower schools would relate to such a reflection, Rongzompa concludes that only the followers of the Great Perfection arrive at a lucid and correct understanding of reality, namely, that the snake’s reflection warrants absolutely no response whatsoever. This leads to his unabashed assertion of the superiority of the Great Perfection and the Nyingma tradition as a whole.

While the Sarma lineages generally regard the Madhyamaka as the highest view and apotheosis of Buddhist philosophy, Rongzom places it only second in his ascending schema of five. In his view, the Mādhyamikas lack even a modicum of the nondual awareness that realizes the inseparability of the relative and ultimate truths. Rongzom believes the Sūtrayāna to be inferior to any tantric view, even that of the outer tantras, in which the deity remains external to, and master over, the practitioner. With the inner tantras and the Vajrayāna practices of creation (bskyed rim) and generation (rdzogs rim) stage yogas, the practitioner develops a middling understanding of nondual awareness. However, it is only with the Great Perfection, the pinnacle of all Buddhist yānas, that the practitioner arrives at the “view of the inseparability of the ultimate and relative, what is intended by the designation of equality itself.” This text is only one of many in Rongzom’s corpus in which he vehemently argues for the supremacy of Mantra and esoteric Buddhism over the exoteric doctrine of Madhyamaka.

Within this framework of the tenet systems, Rongzompa uses the terminology and reasoning of valid cognition (Skt. pramāṇa, Tib. tshad ma) to explain the non-conceptual Great Perfection teachings. Often called “Buddhist logic,” pramāṇa was central to the curricula of the monastic centres of philosophical learning and debate, such as Sangphu (gsang phu), which emerged in Tibet at this time. The Black Snake demonstrates how Rongzompa employed this dialectical method, but it simultaneously reveals the creative tension inherent in using logic to transcend logic (and all other concepts) to arrive at the nondual awareness of the Great Perfection.

The treatise also bears some of the hallmarks of Rongzom’s distinctive literary style. For instance, he dives immediately into the content of his discourse, omitting the initial homage to the buddhas and bodhisattvas that is standard in nearly all Indian and Tibetan Buddhist treatises. As a translator of Sanskrit texts, he was clearly aware of the convention, and he even makes note of it in his treatise on linguistics, The Commentary on the Weapon of Speech (smra sgo mtshon cha’i 'grel).[10] Nevertheless, he excludes the homage in this and nearly all his other extant treatises.[11] He likewise simply ends the text with his final refutation and does not include the expected colophon to explain the context of his composition. These omissions lend the treatise an abruptness that sets it apart from the generally ornate works of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist canon.

Another mark of his iconoclastic style, evident in The Black Snake, is the lack of any appeal to authority, either to the Buddha or previous Buddhist masters, in support of his arguments. At this moment in the eleventh century, as debates raged over the legitimacy and authenticity of Buddhist texts, contemporary writers such as Atiśa infused their treatises with copious references to specific Buddhist scriptures to validate their own arguments.[12] Rongzom, by contrast, seems singularly unconcerned with establishing the legitimacy of his writings based on such appeals and “never claims his discussions are repetitions of previous statements of the Buddha.”[13] In the present text, he makes just one explicit reference to established Buddhist scriptures, and even this seems less about bolstering his argument and more about providing a comic, ridiculous image: that of a barren woman’s son’s complexion. The overall effect is to create a tone of dauntless self-assurance.

A particular display of Rongzom’s literary genius comes at the end of the treatise. To the rhetorical question “Well then, what does your tradition assert?”, Rongzom responds, “We merely refute your wrong views without at all establishing any point of our own.” This reductio ad absurdum (reminiscent of Nāgārjuna’s famous claim to “have no thesis”), uses precisely the argumentation of the Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka, held to be the highest view by many of the Sarma lineages, to establish the philosophical supremacy of the Great Perfection. Here, Rongzom demonstrates a deft understanding of the dialectical method emerging in Tibetan scholasticism, even as he undercuts this very philosophical position and asserts the superiority of the Nyingma view.

Even though the source text is nearly a thousand years old, I hope that the present translation communicates some of its immediacy and vigour. I also hope that it provides a sense of how something so seemingly arcane as the philosophical tenet systems can have profound implications for our own subjective experience and how we engage with reality. May this translation be of benefit, and may we all be freed from our anxieties toward any reflections in the water![14]

Further Reading (in English)

Almogi, Orna. “Sources on the Life and Works of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Scholar Rong Zom Chos Kyi Bzang Po: A Brief Survey” in Henk Blezer, ed. Tibet, Past and Present. Tibetan Studies I: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden, 2002, pp. 67–80.

Dudjom Rinpoche. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991, pp. 703-709.

Köppl, Heidi. Establishing Appearances as Divine. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2008.

Nyoshul Khenpo Jamyang Dorjé. A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage: A Spiritual History of the Teachings of the Natural Great Perfection. Trans. by Richard Barron (Chökyi Nyima). Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 2005, p. 53.

Sur, Dominic. “Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo.” Treasury of Lives, accessed August 10, 2021,

___. Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle: Dzogchen as the Culmination of the Mahāyāna. Boulder, CO: Snow Lion, 2017.

  1. Almogi 2002, 67  ↩

  2. Ju Mipham, in particular, was deeply influenced by Rongzompa and sought to collect all his extant works. Mipham Rinpoche even composed a guru yoga sādhana with Rongzompa as the central deity entitled Shower of Blessings: A Guru Yoga of the Great Paṇḍita, Glorious Rongzom (dpal rong zom paN+Di ta chen po'i bla ma'i rnal 'byor byin rlabs char 'bebs).  ↩

  3. Quoted in Sur 2021.  ↩

  4. Sur 2021.  ↩

  5. Tucci, Giuseppe. Secrets of Tibet: Being the Chronicle of the Tucci Scientific Expedition to Western Tibet. Blackie & Son Limited: London and Glasgow, 1935: 165.  ↩

  6. Germano, David. “A Brief History of Nyingma Literature.” Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Archive. 2002.  ↩

  7. Köppl, Heidi. Establishing Appearances as Divine. Snow Lion Publications, 2008: 16.  ↩

  8. ibid. 18.  ↩

  9. When the term sbrul nag po appears in Tibetan canonical works it is usually a translation of the Sanskrit compound kṛṣṇasarpa (or a variant thereof) and refers specifically to the (black) cobra. (Information supplied by Stefan Mang.)  ↩

  10. ibid. 19.  ↩

  11. ibid. 19.  ↩

  12. See Atiśa’s most famous and important work, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment  ↩

  13. ibid. 19.  ↩

  14. The translator was introduced to this text while attending the 2019 Advanced Classical Tibetan summer course at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute, taught by Dr. David Higgins, under whose guidance I produced my first draft. I remain grateful for his instruction and exceptional understanding of Nyingma philosophical literature, which illuminated my own understanding of this discourse. While translating, particularly the conclusion, I referred to my class notes as well as a previous translation by Kunchok Joy. I am also grateful to Lowell Cook for his careful edits and feedback on an early draft.  ↩

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.[1] 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

Version: 1.1-20210908

  1. Here Rongzompa refers to concepts belonging to the Śrāvaka and Yogācārin systems.  ↩