Uttaratantra: History of the Text

Origin of the Text According to Tradition

This weekend we are talking about the great Mahayana text by Maitreya, Mahayana-uttaratantra Shastra (Theg-pa chen-po rgyud bla-ma’i bstan-bcos), about Buddha-nature. It’s An Indicative Composition on a Vast Vehicle of the Mind, the Furthest Everlasting Continuum. It was written down by Asanga (Thogs-med) although it was composed by Maitreya (Byams-pa), the future Buddha. Asanga lived six hundred years after the Buddha, for one hundred and fifty years; so if Buddha passed away in the mid-sixth century before our era, he lived between 50 and 200 of the Common Era.

Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita Sutras in which there is the extensive and profound teachings about voidness. The one hundred thousand verse version was brought by the gods to the god realm; the twenty-five thousand verse version was taken to the realm of the yakshas, the lords of wealth; and the eight thousand verse version was taken by the nagas to their realm beneath the sea. These were protected. What that actually means, for them to go to these various realms, is hard to understand. From a Jungian point of view one could say that they were hidden into the unconscious and guarded by these various types of beings; particularly the nagas, that are similar to dragons guarding the princess and the tower and the treasure, and so on, that we have in Western myths.

Nagarjuna brought the 8,000 verse version back from the nagas from beneath the sea and explained the profound teachings on voidness. Whereas Asanga studied the Prajnaparamita with Maitreya in the god realm and he brought that back with him and explained particularly the extensive mind – the extensive teachings on the mind that understands voidness. In a sense we can say that symbolically the deep profound teachings on voidness come from the bottom of the ocean, and the extensive teachings about the mind and the method for understanding voidness come from the heavens, which are extensive like space.

Asanga, in order to get these teachings, thought that he would have to do a meditation retreat on Maitreya to try to get a vision of Maitreya and get these teachings, and so he did retreat for twelve years. Actually, it was divided into many three-year retreats; probably it was a type of mantra retreat, although that’s not clear. After the first three years he didn’t experience any type of vision, no results, and he left his cave. He saw a man who was dusting a large rock – with a feather – that was in front of his house, and he asked the man what he was doing. He said he was trying to remove the rock by dusting it with the feather because it was blocking the sun from his house. Asanga thought if this man can put so much effort and so much perseverance into doing something so trivial then I can also do something with much more perseverance. Obviously, the symbolism here was to remove what is blocking the sunlight, the light of Buddha, and so on, from the inner house. It’s something that one has to exercise great perseverance in order to accomplish that.

Then after the next three years with still with no results, Asanga gave up. And he saw again an old man who was polishing a long iron bar with a silk scarf. He asked what the man was doing, who said, “I am trying to make a needle out of this.” Again, Asanga said if he can have so much perseverance then I can also. This probably represents taking our dull mind and polishing it, to make it sharp like a needle for understanding voidness. Then, after three more years with no results, Asanga again left in disgust and discouragement from his retreat. He now saw an old man shifting a hill from one side of a valley to another – with bags of dirt. He again asked what he was doing, and the old man told him; and, again, he learned perseverance. This likewise could represent trying to shift our old samsaric ways to a new nirvanic type of way, slowly, bit by bit, with moving the bags of dirt from one side of the valley to the other.

So again Asanga did three more years of retreat. At the end of it, after twelve years with no results, he left the retreat and he saw an old female dog that was covered with maggots. He was filled with great compassion for the dog and for the maggots. He thought that if he took the maggots off and put them on the ground, they would starve. So he cut off a piece of his leg, a piece of flesh from his leg, and put it on the ground. Also he thought that if he removed the maggots with his fingers he would harm them, but if he removed them with his tongue it would be much better. So he bent down, closed his eyes, and stuck out his tongue to take the maggots off the old dog. But he could never reach the dog. He opened his eyes and the dog turned out to be Maitreya. Asanga asked Maitreya, “Where have you been all this time?” Maitreya said that “I’ve been here all along. It was because you developed love,” which is actually what the name Maitreya means, “that you were able to cut through your obscurations and you are able to see me.”

So it was the idea of love that was able to cut through all of this obscuration. Maitreya said, “As proof that I was here all the time with you, I was not only these old men that showed you these signs, but look here on my robe. Whenever you blew your nose, all the snot from your nose landed on my robe, so here it is.” That would symbolize that the jewel of the teachings (and particularly of love and Buddha-nature) was covered by Asanga with his snot (with his impure ideas) and that it was only love that was able to break through that.

Then Asanga was taken by Maitreya to the Tushita Buddha-field, the realm of the gods here represented by the Buddha-field Tushita, and he listened to the stages of the extensive teachings (of how to understand voidness and put them into practice) by Maitreya. He was there for a morning of the gods, which was fifty human years. Later he came back down and he wrote down from memory The Five Dharma Texts of Maitreya (Byams-chos sde-lnga). These are A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara); A Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras (Theg-pa chen-po mdo-sde rgyan, Skt. Mahayanasutralamkara); Differentiating the Middle from the Extremes (dBu-mtha’ rnam-‘byed, Skt. Madhyantavibhanga); The Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra, our text here); and Differentiating Phenomena and Their Actual Nature (Chos-dang chos-nyid rnam-‘byed, Skt. Dharmadharmatavibhanga).

The Five Dharma Texts of Maitreya

The Abhisamayalamkara explains from the point of view of Svatantrika, specifically Yogachara-Svatantrika, but ultimately points to the Prasangika view. The fourth one, Uttaratantra, that actually is a Prasangika text. The other three are Chittamatra, although some say the last one, Differentiating Phenomena and their Actual Nature, is like a commentary to Uttaratantra.

The texts of Maitreya have played a great influence in Tibet. They are studied by all the different traditions. What is quite noteworthy of it, as was pointed out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama – I studied this text twice with His Holiness and once with Serkong Rinpoche – His Holiness pointed out that the style of Maitreya’s text is that it starts with a few summary verses, like an outline. Then it goes through each point of the outline, first with a brief indication of the subject matter, then with an extensive explanation, and then, at the end, an abbreviated summary of the meaning. So this outline style that you find in Tibetan commentaries derives here from Maitreya’s texts.

The two texts from this that are studied most by Tibetans are the Abhisamayalamkara, the Filigree of Realization, and that takes as its subject matter the different levels of voidness. Because in Svatantrika you have the person being devoid of one impossible way of existing and all phenomena being devoid of other ways of impossible ways of existing. It discusses these different levels, which is the manifest topic that is discussed in Prajnaparamita, but in greater depth. It discusses in great detail the stages of the realization of the mind that understands voidness. Whereas the Uttaratantra discusses the root, or foundation, from which all of this is possible, which is the Buddha-nature. This is the qualities of the everlasting mind-stream of the practitioner upon which good qualities can be developed and faults can be removed.

The Title of the Text

The title of the text has four words in Sanskrit, which are very meaningful. The main term here is “tantra,” it’s an “everlasting stream of continuity” and refers to the mental continuum on the basis of which the various fleeting stains can be removed and the good qualities developed. That stream has a basis level, or ordinary situation, when it is not yet purified from these stains; the path level, which is when it is partially purified, particularly the stage of a bodhisattva arya; and the resultant level, when it is fully purified. And this is the topic – of how to purify this mental continuum and work with the mental continuum – this is the topic of “uttara,” the second word in the title, which means the furthest or latest, or superlative, or ultimate transmission of the Dharma. That refers to the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, or the third round of transmission, which was the latest and supreme teaching of Buddha. And what the text is also teaching about is “Mahayana,” another word in the title, which is a vast vehicle of mind that can take one to enlightenment, both a causal level (which is the basis and the path level of purifying the mind-stream) and the resultant level of enlightenment. That also is a main topic of the text. And it a “shastra,” an indicative composition which indicates this meaning and cuts away any doubts about it. So we get the title of: a composition to indicate a Mahayana vast vehicle of mind, which is the furthest everlasting stream, the everlasting stream of mental continuum taught in the furthest or ultimate teaching.

The Three Rounds of Transmission of the Dharma

To understand that, we need to understand the three rounds of transmission of the Dharma. This is what is usually translated as the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma (this is a classification system for sutra, not for tantra). Although the non-Gelugpa schools refer to and analyze these three rounds in terms of the time when Buddha taught them (so the third round would be the last round that Buddha taught in time), Tsongkhapa, in the Gelug tradition, classifies and explains them differently according to the subject matter.

According to the subject matter, the first turning of the wheel of dharma (the first round of transmission) teaches that all phenomena have true existence. This is the Hinayana presentation – particularly with the Dharmachakra Sutra (Chos-‘khor-gyi mdo), the Sutra of the Wheel of Dharma, which presents the four noble truths. Then the second round teaches that all phenomena lack true existence. This is the Madhyamaka teaching, it’s found in the Prajnaparamita Sutras.

The third round according to Tsongkhapa is the teachings of the Chittamatra, the mind only school, which says that some phenomena have true existence (this would refer to voidness and nonstatic phenomena) whereas the others do not (this refers to the static phenomena other than voidness, what are known as the completely conceptual phenomena). This is taught in chapter seven of the Sandhinirmocana Sutra (dGongs-pa nges-par ‘grel-ba’i mdo), the Sutra Unraveling What Is Intended. But His Holiness explains that we don’t need to limit our understanding of the third round of transmission just to the Chittamatra teachings, but we can also take it the way that the non-Gelug schools say, which is that the second round of teachings deal with voidness (which is the clear light as an object). In Uttaratantra it speaks of clear light on a sutra level (so it returns to voidness as an object). Whereas the third round speaks about the mind that takes as this object this object clear light (it’s sometimes called the subject clear light) and on the basis of which, all faults can be removed and all good qualities developed.

If we understand the third round in terms of speaking about the mind that understands voidness, the subject clear light, then we can say this is the furthest everlasting stream. It would include in the sutra teachings of Buddha the Tathagatagarbha Sutra (De-bzhin gshegs-pa’i snying-po mdo), A Sutra on the Womb for a Thusly Gone One, commonly known as The Sutra on Buddha-Nature. And Uttaratantra, our text here, can be understood as a text that expounds or explains in terms of that.

Although Uttaratantra is usually explained in terms of sutra and not tantra, nevertheless we can say that the text points toward Buddha’s deepest intention – which is tantra and, within that, anuttarayoga tantra. So when it says in the text that the nature of mind is clear light, although we can understand this on a sutra level to mean that the nature of the mind is clear light as an object (in other words, voidness) and also clear light as a mind, which refers to the defining characteristics or conventional characteristics of mind, which is clarity and awareness, we can also say that this points to the ultimate end point of what Buddha intended – which is the clear light subtlest consciousness as discussed in the highest class of tantra (anuttarayoga tantra). And so we find in some commentaries that in addition to the sutra explanation we also have an anuttarayoga tantra explanation.

History of the Five Dharma Texts of Maitreya

Let’s discuss now the history of the text, particularly of these five texts of Maitreya. The first three of them, Abhisamayalamkara, Mahayanasutralamkara, Madhyantavibhanga, these texts were taught publicly and widely and openly, and they passed down in India through a lineage of Dignaga (Phyogs-kyi glangs-pa) and Sthiramati (Blo-gros brtan-pa), and many famous commentaries were written to them, particularly by Haribhadra (Seng-ge bzang-po). These were translated into Tibetan during the Old Translation Period (Nyingma) by Paltseg (dPal-brtsegs) and Zhang Yeshe-de (Zhang ye-shes sde). But the last two, Uttaratantra (that’s our text) and Dharmadharmatavibhanga (Differentiating Phenomena from their Deepest Nature), these were considered not suited for the disciples of those times and so they were hidden, like treasure texts (gter-ma). We have this tradition of treasure texts in India; the oldest example would be the Prajnaparamita Sutras which were hidden and then recovered by Nagarjuna. Here we have this Uttaratantra and the Differentiating Phenomena from their Actual Nature also being hidden as treasure texts and found later in India. So the Nyingma tradition didn’t begin this tradition of treasure texts or the tradition of pure visions (dag-snang) like Asanga had of Maitreya, but these derive from India.

The text was rediscovered or recovered by Maitripa (Mai-ti-pa) somewhere between the tenth and eleventh centuries. It is interesting “Maitripa” also comes from the name Maitreya, meaning “love.” He was the mahamudra teacher of Marpa. Marpa studied in India with two great teachers: Naropa and Maitripa. Maitripa saw light coming from the center of a stupa and he investigated it, and these two texts by Maitreya were there; he found them. And so he gets the name Maitripa from Maitreya. He made requests to Maitreya, and Maitreya appeared in a vision and gave the oral transmission of the texts. This is how they came about. He taught the text to an Indian pandit called Anandakirti (dGa-ba’i grags-pa), who then took it to Srinagar in Kashmir. It passed down through a line of two more Indian pandits Ratnavajra (Rin-chen rdo-rje) and Sugata (bDe-bar gshegs-pa) and, from the second of them, it went to Pandit Sajjana. Sajjana is the one who transmitted it to Tibet.

What was the reason why the text was hidden? Was it dangerous?

I have no idea. It is just said that this was inappropriate for that time. Perhaps the teachings on Buddha-nature, they thought, were not appropriate. Perhaps because it had an indication of the clear light, the subtlest mind in tantra, that it was hidden. I have absolutely no idea.

Why were the Prajnaparamita Sutras hidden? It teaches about voidness, and it’s said that people at that time were not suited for the voidness of all phenomena. You see it’s very difficult to really come to any decisive conclusion about this because one needs to evaluate whether or not one could take this history literally – that it actually was written down by Asanga and then hidden by Asanga at that time, for whatever reasons – reasons which one would have to correlate with the history of what was going on at the time. And then it was only recovered at the time of Maitripa, and one would correlate it with the history of that time. Or probably Western academics would say that it was just written probably by Maitripa at the time that it was actually written. So again, we go back to the His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s line about this, which is: to say that it wasn’t written down by Asanga and it was not hidden as a treasure text, just for the reason that “I don’t think so!” is not a sufficient reason.

One could speculate on the basis of history, of what was going on at the time, but nothing pops out in my mind that was particularly noteworthy at the time of Maitripa. Buddhism was not forbidden. The Turkic invasions of the area were around Punjab, getting close to Kashmir, although the Muslims, the Turkic invaders, didn’t actually go to Kashmir. That was at the beginning of the eleventh century when this text would have appeared, and so one could think that in a time of invasions and massacres that people would need encouragement with teachings on Buddha-nature, and so the time was ripe for that. One could speculate like that.

The great Tibetan translator Ngog Lotsawa Loden Sherab (rNgog Lo-tsa-ba Blo-ldan shes-rab) went to Kashmir and he studied with this pandit Sajjana, and he translated the text and he brought it back to Tibet. Now prior to that, Atisha had actually done a translation of this, together with Nagtso Lotsawa (Nag-tsho Lo-tsa-ba), and two other very famous translators: Patsab Lotsawa (Pa-tshab Lo-tsa-ba) (Lotsawa means translator), and actually Marpa also translated the text. But Ngog’s translation was considered the best and this is the one that survived and came down and was transmitted, which is also a very interesting point – that you can have so many very famous skilled translators and all of them make versions of the same text, but that only one of them stands the test of history.

This particular lineage of Loden Sherab’s translation explains Buddha-nature in accordance with the second round of transmissions of the teachings, in accordance with voidness as being a refutation with no implication left over (med-dgag, non-implicative negation) – there’s no such thing as true existence. The commentaries from the Gelug tradition and the Sakya tradition follow this.

Now there was another line of transmission that went through a young boy who went with Ngog Lotsawa to Kashmir and also was there studying with Sajjana. And since the boy was about to die, he received special teachings on this text; and he obviously survived and he became known as Zu Gawe Dorje (gZus dGa’ba’i rdo-rje). He wrote a commentary on the text together with another great master Tsan Drime Sherab (gTsan Dri-med shes-rab). He spread this in Tibet and this became known as the Meditation Tradition of the Dharma Texts of Maitreya (Byams-chos sgom-lugs). The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (Kar-ma-pa Rang-‘byung rdo-rje), received this second tradition and through his own realization he wrote his own commentary on it, and this is the line that the Kagyus and the Jonangpas follow – Nyingma follows this as well. This tradition puts the emphasis on the Buddha-nature being the clear light consciousness, rather than clear light object or a voidness, and so this is the other-voidness (gzhan-stong) explanation.

Other-voidness is the refutation or a negation with implication (ma-yin dgag, implicative negation) – it has the implication of the mind that understands voidness. It speaks about the mind itself which is devoid of all the various stains. And so we get two different ways of explaining Buddha-nature. One is the voidness of the mind; the other is the conventional nature of the mind, the clear light nature of the mind, which is free of all these stains. The first being the self-voidness position and the second being the other-voidness position. And then there are tons of commentaries written on Uttaratantra, written from each of these points of view from all the four Tibetan traditions. Actually, it is not an easy text to translate into our Western languages because the commentaries differ so much. One needs to be able to translate the root text in an open enough way so that it could be understood and interpreted from the two quite different points of view.

This all comes from Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche’s (‘Jam-mgon Kong-sprul Yon-tan rgya-mtsho) commentary to the text on Buddha-nature (rGyud bla-ma’i ‘grel-ba phyir mi-ldog-pa seng-nge’i nga-rol, A Commentary on “The Furthest Everlasting Continuum”: The Unrevertible Lion’s Roar). He gives a very detailed history.

Question on Voidness

Emptiness is free of obscurations. Can you explain in more detail what is the difference between the explanation of Buddha-nature in terms of the clear light voidness or in terms of the clear light mind that is capable of understanding voidness.

In order to really answer this we have to jump a little bit ahead in the presentation of the text. There are various types of Buddha-nature – these are the factors that allow us to reach enlightenment. Without going into tremendous detail at this point, one of them is known as the abiding nature (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs) – this is the one that doesn’t change, which is there from no beginning, which is constant and static, in a sense. So for this we can state either the voidness of the mind, its deepest nature, which would be the way in which it is explained from the first tradition (which is the tradition followed in the Gelug or Sakya lineages); or we can explain this in terms of the conventional nature of the mind, which is the nature of the mind that is usually translated as clarity and awareness – clarity and awareness: giving rise to appearances and cognition.

Now this conventional nature of the mind – although again there is discussion whether that could be considered a deepest nature or a conventional nature (some of the Kagyus and Nyingmas will consider even that a deepest nature) – but in any case this is something that doesn’t change, it’s always the same, is constant forever, and it is free of all the fleeting stains – like rigpa, it’s the nature of rigpa. Sometimes it is identified with that, although we can speak about it purely in terms of the nature of the mind itself. And so that is an abiding factor that allows us to achieve enlightenment.

The fact that the mind is void of impossible ways of existing means that the stains can be removed, and so on; they are not inherent in the mind; the mind itself is not some fixed truly existent thing. So because of that voidness, we can achieve enlightenment. But also the fact that the mind itself is this clarity and awareness, this appearance-making and cognizing, that is not stained, has never been stained by nature – that also allows for enlightenment because those stains can be removed.

So the difference here is in terms of which one do you emphasize, and it makes a big difference in how you meditate on Buddha-nature. Are you going to meditate on: no such thing as true existence with respect to the mind? Or are you going to meditate on the mind that has never been stained with the belief in this impossible existence (and which doesn’t exist truly anyway)? So in meditation do you try to get to that state of mind, realize that state of mind, that has never been stained; or in meditation do you try to understand there’s no such thing as these impossible ways of existing? They are quite different ways of meditating. Although as His Holiness always says, they come to the same thing because you have to have a mind that understands voidness, and that mind which is free of stains needs to understand voidness. So it comes to the same thing in the end. It’s just a matter of which one do you emphasize in your meditation as the way of getting to the combination of object and subject clear light.

When you do these meditations – if you do it in the Kagyu and Nyingma style, although they have studied Madhyamaka earlier in their training and gone through the analytical understanding of voidness and so on, the emphasis in this type of Buddha-nature meditation that you would do in mahamudra or dzogchen would be primarily quieting down. If you quiet down, then you get to this state of the natural purity of the mind and then you recall your understanding of voidness that you’ve trained in before (it isn’t just going to come like that for no reason). Whereas in the Gelug and Sakya tradition, primarily in the Gelug, then you do this analytical understanding of voidness and you try to come to a very decisive understanding in your meditation. You stay with that decisive understanding which cuts off completely, like a guillotine – BAM! – there’s no such thing as this impossible way of existing! You stay focused in that. And as you stay focused in that, then you get quieter and quieter and quieter down. So in the end you come to the same thing, but they are two very different styles of meditation. Actually, to be more accurate, what you cut off is this impossible way of existing, which never existed in any case. There is no such thing – in doing that, to the side, you cut off the mind that believes in it. “There is no monster underneath the bed!” And when you are totally convinced of that, you’ve cut that off to the side, of course you’ve gotten rid of your belief in it. Although if the habit is very deep (in believing it), it comes up again and again, and so you have to constantly meditate and constantly remind yourself there is no such thing.

The text also has a subtitle in a Sanskrit fragment, which is Ratnagotravibhanga. “Ratna” is the Gems, the Three Precious Gems (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha). And “gotra” means family or caste, and so I translate that as “family traits.” This is a synonym for Buddha-nature. So when we talk about the Buddha-families – the three Buddha-families, or four Buddha-families, or five Buddha-families – these are referring to different aspects of Buddha-nature. And “vibangha” means to differentiate, so the subtitle means: Differentiating about the Family Traits for the (Three) Gems. “Trait” means characteristic. So that gives much more specifically what the text is discussing.