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Architecture and Abscence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection

Architecture and Abscence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection

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DAVID GERMANO
Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric Historyof the Great Perfection
(rdzogs chen)
Historical
overview
The Nyingma
(rNying rna;
"ancients") sect
of
Tibetan
Buddhism
claimsto stem in lineal succession from religious groups active during
the
dy
nastic
period
of
Tibetan
history
(600-842
CE),
which
they maintain
endured
in
non-monastic
lay
groups though
the
darkperiod
(842-978)
ensuing upon the collapse
of
centralized political authority
in
Tibet.
As
this latter period gives way to the classical period
(978-1419)
of
Tibetan
civilization sparked
by
economic revival and limited political centralization, competing religious traditions emerge under the rubric
of
the
Sarma
(gSar rna;
"modernists").
1
The
Nyingmas
wereknown
as
such
in
con-
This article benefited greatly from discussions during a symposium on
rdzogs chen
at the University of Virginia in April 1994, and I would thuslike to thank its principal participants: Ronald Davidson, Janet Gyatso,Jeffrey Hopkins, Matthew Kapstein, Anne Klein and Dan Martin. In particular I would like
to
thank Janet for her criticism of
an
earlier draft
of
the paper,and Matthew for very helpful conversations prior to and following the symposium. Paul Hackett also offered me constructive criticism on the openingsections. Finally my remarks on tlte importance of tlte body in tltese contemplative techniques are in part based
on
extensive discussions with CharlesHerreshoff and Herbert Guenther.
1.
I am well aware that some will object vehemently
to
my rendering
of
gSar
11U1
as
''modernist'' (the Tibetan term literally means "the new" or "the fresh").I do not intend
to
directly compare tlte use
of
tlte term
to
the various
specific
usages of the English rubric "modernism" in the twentieth century, but I dotltink it accords witlt tlte general significance of "modem tltought, character,or practice" and even its more specialized contemporary definition
as
"tlte
de
liberate departure from tradition and
tlte
use
of
innovative forms
of
expression."
It
also has tlte advantage of making clear
tlte
pure ideological force
of
tltese terms for competing groups during this period, while simply utilizing
203
 
204 JIABS 17.2
trast
to these groups actively and self-consciously reimportingBuddhism from India from the late tenth century onwards. Thus theserubrics "ancients" and "modernists" are not Indic
in
origin,
but
ratherfIrst came into use in Tibet to signify these two discernible periods
of
Tibetan translation
of
Buddhist texts: "ancients" refers to the activity
of
the
translator Vairocana (late eighth century)
up
to
PaI).~lita
SmpiGfianakirti)
(late tenth century
or
early eleventh century), while"modernists" signifIes Rin chen bzang po (958-1055) onwards.
2
Thedistinctive identities
of
both traditions were mutually co-constitutingduring the eleventh century and beyond, since both had their inception asself-conscious and distinct movements
in
intimate dialogue with eachother. In addition, the earlier communities and their associated religioustraditions were divided up into two broadly defIned camps based uponwhether or not they considered themselves explicitly Buddhist
in
affiliation: the Buddhist "ancient ones" and the non-Buddhist Bonpos
(bon
po).3
While the dark period continues to
be
obscure from our contemporaryperspective,
as
it comes to a close we fInd those groups adhering to therubric
of
the ancients dominated by two tantric-based traditions
of
prac -tice and theory generally transmitted
in
conjunction with each other:Mahayoga
(mal 'byorchen
po)
and the Great Perfection
(rdzogs chen).
The former constitutes a classic tantric system with the full spectrum
of
beliefs and practices characterizing late Indian Buddhist tantric movements
(i.
e.
eighth century onwards). Thus representing the Tibetanimportation
of
cutting edge Indian Buddhist tantra in the eighth to ninthcenturies, this system constituted mainstream tantra for the Nyingmas,just
as
the Anuttarayoga tantras would eventually fulfIll the same func-
the Tibetan terms suggests their semantic content is slight (the flat "newones" speaks little to a reader).
2.
See kLong chen rab 'byams pa's
Grub
mtha'
mdzod
315.6. The importantearly Nyingma master Rong zorn chos kyi bzang po was said to be a directreincarnation
of
P~4ita
SmrtijfilinakIrti (see Dudjom 1991, 703).
3.
The early Great Perfection traditions are mainly found within these twocommunities. While the associated practices and literature are quite similar inboth, in the present context I will
be
focusing exclusively on the situationwithin the communities
of
the ancients. Though it is imperative that the two
be
studied
in
tandem, research has not yet progressed to a state where this.isreadily possible in many cases.
 
GERMANO
205
tion for the modernists. The Great Perfection. however, defined itSelf bythe rhetorical rejection
of
such normative categories constituting tantric
as
well
as
non-tantric Indian Buddhism. This pristine state
of
affairsknown
as
the "Mind Series"
(sems sde)
movement stemmed above allfrom Buddhist tantra
as
represented by the Mahayoga tantras, but wasalso influenced by other sources such
as
Chinese Chan. and unknownindigenous elements. Over the course
of
the next four centuries traditions going under the name
of
the "Great Perfection" radically altered
in
nature. These alterations primarily consisted
of
rethinking its relationship to the wider tantric domains
of
discourse and praxiS that formed itsoriginal and continuing matrix
of
significance. This rethinking was pursued in dialogue with more normative tantric traditions both from withintheir own tradition (primarily the Mahayoga) and from the burgeoningmodernist movements (such as the Mahamudra and Anuttarayoga tantracycles);
it
was driven by its own interior logic
of
development
as
well asthe multiple transformations induced by the modernists philosophically,institutionally andideologically. The entire process constituted nothingless than a stunningly Original and distinctively Tibetan reinvention
of
Buddhist tantra
in
a large body
of
canonical and commentarial
Tibetan
language texts, many
of
which are philosophical aruiliterary masterpieces.
Of
the many new systems thus generated under the continuingrubric
of
the Great Perfection,
the
most important was known as
the
"Seminal Heart"
(snying thig).
The process finally culminated
in
thecorpus
of
the fourteenth century scholar-poet kLong chen rab
'byams
pa
(1308-1363),
who not only systematized the creative ferment
of
thepreceding centuries, but also carefully contextualized it
in
terms
of
thestandard doctrinal and contemplative structures that were beginning todefine Tibetan Buddhism
in
general.
It
is this process from the ninth tofourteenth century which forms the subject
of
my present inquiry.
The denial
of
tantra and rhetoric
of
absence
in
the formation
of
GreatPerfection traditions
From a very early point onwards, the Mahayoga
Guhyagarbha Tantra(gSang ba snying
po)
represents the most normative vision
of
whatconstitutes a tantra for these Nyingma lineages. Tibetan exegeticalworks on it discuss
it
in
terms
of
ten
or
eleven "practical principles
of
tantra"
(rgyud kyi dngos po)
understood as summarizing
the
distinctivefeatures
of
mainstream tantric systems overall. For example, Rong zorn

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