The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī (mkha’ ‘gro snying thig)

A Great Perfection Text through Four Centuries

Tibetan Meditation has been repeatedly studied in recent scholarship in neuroscience and psychology amidst the backdrop of increasing influence of mindfulness meditation in North America. Such studies have been critically interpreted by some as committing epistemic violence, due to their omission of crucial contextualization in the historical, ethical, ritual and social structures that define meditation methods in their Buddhist contexts. For such contexts to be properly understood, humanities scholarship has a crucial role to play. However, while there is a history of Buddhist Meditation in India, Wynne (2007), there is no long-term history of a Tibetan contemplative curriculum. I am part of a small group of international scholars working to fill that gap by writing a history of Tibetan Meditation systems. My research contributes scholarship to begin to fill that gap by presenting a history of a Tibetan meditation cycle of defining importance in the Nyingma (rnying ma) sect. That is the Great Perfection contemplative cycles featured in Heart Essence (snying thig) literature, especially The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī (mkha’ ‘gro snying thig). This corpus was the center of attention for some of the most famous authors in Tibetan Buddhism including, Longchenpa (1308-1364), Rangjung Dorje Karmapa III (1284-1339), and the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-82). Today this corpus provides the core curriculum for elite contemplative specialists in retreat at large, influential institutions such as Gangtey Gompa in Bhutan, Larung Gar and Dzogchen Gompa in Tibet and Namdrolling in India. Yet, the history of the curriculum and its transformations remains largely unknown. Therefore, my research contributes a history of this influential Tibetan contemplative curriculum, focusing on its developments from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries.

The guiding concern of my research is how a Tibetan contemplative system was variantly structured, with attention to how, why, when and by whom, it was restructured. It pays attention to the sequence of practices presented in this corpus, their soteriological assertions, proscriptive and visionary frame narratives. While the early presentation of The Heart of the Ḍākinī include substantial ritual and instructions for sexual practice along side simple contemplative practices, its later reformulation in Terdak Lingpa’s Illuminating the Heart (snying po rab gsal), focuses exclusively on a streamlined meditation curriculum where contemplative technique appears in simple, non-elaborate formulations. It is the very series depicted in Terdak Lingpa’s redaction which lies at the aforementioned major Nyingma esoteric contemplative programs today.  The key question is that guides this research is, what is the source of that curriculum? How did a meditation curriculum tied originally enmeshed in sexual practice and eschatological concerns become streamlined in this fashion? Another question that drives this research is – what other alternative sequences were presented in the four century period between its revelation and Lingpa’s pre-modern formulations? This research therefore focuses on three iterations of the Heart of the Ḍākinī, those by the first treasure revealer, Pema Ledreltsal (13th century) and the students of Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), the commentary by Longchenpa (1308-1364), and the redaction by Terdak Lingpa (1646-1714) and his followers.

About The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī
The Heart of the Ḍākinī is a revealed scripture. The Heart of the Ḍākinī emerged in the thirteenth century as a syncretic collection of ritual, philosophical, contemplative and narrative texts based on early Great Perfection works, The Seventeen Tantras and The Seminal Heart of Vimalamitra. It was revealed in the thirteenth century. In keeping with complex notions of authorship in Tibetan literature, in emic histories, this corpus is attributed to the writing of the Tibetan heroine, Yeshe Tsogyal (ye shes mtsho rgyal, 8th Century) who records the teachings of, Padmasambhava (8th Century), demon-taming yogi credited with conversion of Tibet to a Buddhist nation. The corpus is also attributed to an eight-year old Princess, Pema Sal (lha lcam pad+ma gsal) who received this text from Padmasambhava when she died of a bee-sting. In this narrative, Padmasambhava deposited the scriptures in her mind-stream for discovery in future reincarnations. However, the text itself first appears as a revelation, discovered by thirteenth century male figure, Pema Ledretsal (pad+ma las ‘brel rtsal 1248-1307) who, along with Tsogyal, is the author of record. Within the overarching corpus, the most important texts in this collection, in terms of how the text is known, are the emic histories, prophecies and contemplative instructions. After Pema Ledretsal’s short and mostly unknown life, the corpus was subsumed into Longchenpa’s Four Seminal Essences (snying thig yab zhi). This collection serves as a primary source with its own commentary and redaction of The Heart of the Ḍākinī, called The Seminal Quintessence of the Ḍākinī. This may be the version upon which other redactions are based. Longchenpa is also considered an author to the text since he became identified as the reincarnation Pema Ledretsal, thus aspects of the corpus are his contributions. The precise measure of his contribution to the corpus is unknown, since copies of the scriptures before Longchenpa’s collection are not extant. However, evidence of additions is located in detailed prophetic texts which describe him and his circumstances conspicuously. However, before Longchenpa took ownership of the cycle and it was subsumed in his Four Seminal Hearts, the text was briefly in the care of Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje. Evidence of his contributions appears in lineage histories inclusive of him, contemplative practices in which he appears as a subject and in colophons attributing texts to his students.

Primary Sources
This research intervenes in the technique-focused paradigm of scholarly work about Buddhist meditation by presenting a context-centered paradigm, framing a Tibetan meditation cycle as embedded in a matrix of ritual, philosophical, textual and sexual praxis and reflecting changing circumstances over time. Four iterations of the scripture are central to questions of the history of the meditation cycles. First, the early, classical presentation is The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī, which includes ritual, narratives, prophecies, and extensive philosophical commentaries. The second is Longchenpa’s commentary, The Seminal Quintessence of the Ḍākinī. Third is Terdak Lingpa’s (gter bdag gling pa,  1646-1714) technique focused Illuminating the Seminal Heart (snying po rab gsal). And finally there is the short commentary to Lingpa’s work by The Fifth Dalai Lama (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho 1617-1682), The Guide to the Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī (rdzogs chen mkha’ ‘gro snying tig gi ‘khrid yig). A philological view of these texts will highlight how such revelations and adaptations repositioned a contemplative system over time expressing hermeneutic struggles and developments as well as reflecting shifting audiences. 

As for the significance of this corpus, The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī scriptures’ contemplative program stands out in juxtaposition to themes of violence and domination in contemporaneous Nyingma literature such as the Eight Great Sadhana teachings (bka’ brgyad). In contrast, The Heart of the Ḍākinī literature focuses on contemplative programs that feature themes of spontaneity and naturalness, with heavy reliance on the rhetoric of letting go and settling in. Thus, it presents an alternative to complicated Tantric ritual programs of practice, instead promoting simple meditations and uncontrived visionary experiences as the ultimate practices. Yet, the subject of violence is not completely absent, it looms in the background of a contemplative instructions which warn of the dangers of demons, proscribe eschatological meditations and give foreboding prophecies of future obstacles.

Women and Sexuality
A thorough analysis of this textual history cannot be accomplished without addressing the issue of women and sexuality in the contemplative curriculum, a subject featured heavily in the early corpora but phased out of Terdak Lingpa’s version. This is a contemplative corpus whose classical form took shape as a manual produced by and for non-celibate tantric contexts with sexuality included as a central aspect of its contemplative program. Women were considered an integral part of the social matrix surrounding the text. Indeed it was said to be first taught by Padmasambhava to two female disciples, Yeshe Tsogyal and Pemasel. The title itself, The Seminal Heart of the Ḍākinī, refers to the pith instructions of female divinities, the Ḍākinī (mkha’ ‘gro) who are featured as divinities, consorts, human teachers and students and as the primary instigators of the revelations of the scriptures, but primarily are discussed as consorts. It is in fact, the presence of female figures, which set the Heart of the Ḍākinī apart from earlier Great Perfection texts whose authorship was entirely attributed to male authors.

Treasure Revelation and Its Curation
Another key point of the significance of this history lies in offering an account of what happened to a treasure revelation after it was revealed. Treasure revelations have complex conceptions of authorship but by and large can be understood as texts that provide a hermeneutic restructuring of Indian Buddhist philosophy (Germano, 2005). Previous studies of revelations have focused on revelation origins and an excellent study by Gyatso (1993) has focused on their processes, purpose and place in the greater concept of Tibetan canons. This research contributes to the subject of scriptural revelation by documenting how a revealed scripture continued to be transformed in redactions, commentaries and re-revelations. I show that in this context scriptural revelation referred to a process of curating previous texts and adding additional Tantric ritual material to them which was particular to the treasure revealer.

Methodologically speaking, this research draws on three phases of study. The first is based on archival research in Tibet, China and Nepal. The second is the translation and analysis of the emic narrative history and contents in terms of the structure of praxis. This history is drawn from the revelation accounts, colophons, narrative lineage histories and prophetic histories. The contents of the curriculum are drawn from the corpora’s contemplative instructions and contemplative commentaries to explore how a contemplative curriculum took shape from the thirteenth to seventeenth century iterations. The third phase of study is the philological one. This is a philological analysis of textual evidence, using digital analytics to examine how the contemplative program developed. I will utilize digital text analytic tools to track all occurrences of citations, identify citation and textual patterns, determine pools of topics, generate heat maps to demonstrate degrees of intertextuality and track word frequency – across all the texts. This demonstrates the texts interrelationships and changes in which texts are cited most and omitted by each of the major authors who interacted with the corpus.

Scholarly Work on Great Perfection
Tibetan studies have come along way since the early phenomenological study of a Seminal Heart text in Guenther’s 1992 Meditation Differently. Other early Great Perfection scholarship tended to focus on origins and early period of Great Perfection in the ninth to fourteenth centuries such as Germano (1994, 2005) and Karmay (1975, 1986 1998, 2007) and Liebenberg (2012). The subject of Great Perfection philosophy is a necessary resource for understanding the worldview underpinning the contemplative curriculum. For this context, I draw on work undertaken by Germano (1994, 2005), Hayward (1998), Higgins (2012) and van Schaik (2004, 2018). Illustrations of Great Perfection contemplation in the fifteenth and late seventeenth century are valuable materials studied by Baker (2012) and Winkler (2002). Two of the most valuable resources are ones that model the use of narrative as historical records, these come from hermeneutic work such as that of Gyatso (1998) and Jacoby (2014). For my approach to the history of the curriculum I turn to Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, in terms of framing these contemplative texts as a discourse, one that transforms, is disrupted and appears in complex varieties. Instead of imposing a concept of discursive unity, I analyze how different literary genres and techniques drawn from contradicting philosophical vehicles are used within these contemplative manuals, at times in discordant ways.

What is “Meditation”?
The resultant meditation curriculum complicates the issue of what the definition of Tibetan “meditation” is. Generally, Great Perfection meditation is framed in terms of its final two secret practices, which are considered Tibetan innovations, Breakthrough (khregs chod) and Direct Transcendence (thod rgal). However, despite the rhetoric of the supremacy of these practices, they take place in a contemplative sequence of numerous other impactful practices which construct a world-view and exercise cognitive and somatic contemplative capacities of the adept. For example, the curriculum generally is presented with various iterations of preliminary praxis which do not necessarily match the common ordinary and extraordinary four-fold preliminaries (sngon ‘gro) format as common today. This formulation also includes techniques for re-inhabiting body and identity through sonic, visual and somatic practices. Included are Separating Samsara from Nirvana techniques (‘khor ‘das ru shan), which are practices of embodied poetics and aesthetic personhood. By poetics, I refer to Ricoeur who suggests that it is the work of certain types of literature to destroy ordinary reference points for reality in order to open up new possibilities of being in the world. Separating Samsara and Nirvana exercises open up new possibilities for reality by making the familiar strange in rehearsals of samsara (through the enactments of the six realms). These are followed by rehearsals of buddhahood, through spontaneous enactments of themes of deity yoga. Other methods include physical postures patterned after animals and a variety of gazes. Ritual is a key facet of these texts, yet ritual is also redefined in the contemplative sequence in terms of simple presentations which refer symbolically to knowledge of their more elaborate Tantric counterparts or focus on a stripped down presentation of contemplative ritual. The final practice in the sequence of contemplative methods is indeed, Direct Transcendence, which is distinctive for its reliance on spontaneous visions that come from the external environment. Overall, this research pays attention to the contents, sequence, and structure of the contemplative curriculum in its variant iterations. It gives special attention to how this curriculum is justified based on which scriptures are quoted and when revelatory visions are presented in order to justify the restructuring and redactions of the texts.

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