Root tantra texts (rtsa-rgyud) are purposely written in obscure language, known as vajra expressions (rdo-rje'i tshig), to ensure that disciples rely closely on tantric masters for studying and practicing tantra. Without a hermeneutical device, the texts appear confusing or meaningless.
In Illuminating Lamp (sGron-gsal, Skt. Pradipotyatana), a commentary to The Guhyasamaja Root Tantra (gSang-ba 'dus-pa rtsa-rgyud), the Indian master Chandrakirti II outlined six alternatives and four modes (mtha'-drug tshul-bzhi) for explaining the various levels of meaning of vajra-expressions - specifically, those in anuttarayoga tantra texts.
The following presentation is according to the explanation of the six and the four by the 15th-century Gelug master Gyu Sherab-senggey (rGyud Shes-rab seng-ge) in An Extensive Explanation of "Illuminating Lamp" (sGron-gsal rgya-cher bshad-pa). This commentary is a major textbook studied by the monks of Gyume Lower Tantric Monastic College (rGyud-smad), which this master founded.
The Six Alternatives
Explicit Suggestive and Implicit Suggested Meanings
When a vajra expression has two dissimilar meanings, the literal, evident, or face value meaning (dngos-zin-gyi don) of the expression is its explicit suggestive meaning (drang-don, Skt. neyartha). It suggests or leads one on to the second meaning, which is dissimilar to what is actually said on face value. For example, the explicit suggestive meaning of Vajra-Holder (Skt. Vajradhara) is a Buddha-figure who holds a five-pronged vajra in his hand.
The second meaning that is dissimilar to the face value one is the implicit suggested meaning (nges-don, Skt. nitartha). It is a meaning to which one needs to be led and which one must come to ascertain. Thus, the implicit suggested meaning of Vajra-Holder is the unified pair (zung-'jug, Skt. yuganaddha) of clear light (' od-gsal) and illusory body (sgyu-lus).
The technical terms for the first two of the six alternatives have completely different meanings in sutra. There, drang-don (explicit suggestive meaning) refers to interpretable meaning, while nges-don (implicit suggested meaning) refers to definitive meaning. According to the Gelug interpretation of Prasangika-Madhyamaka, only words about voidness are of definitive meaning – the deepest meaning to be ascertained, to which all other teachings lead. Words about any other topic are interpretable and are meant to lead one deeper to voidness.
In sutra, then, one passage may be either of interpretable or definitive meaning, depending on its subject matter. It cannot be both. In tantra, on the other hand, one passage may have both an explicit suggestive meaning and an implicit suggested one.
Metaphorical and Non-metaphorical Meanings
Vajra expressions that indicate a meaning that is not shared in common with the lower tantras and sutra, and which do so with different contrary words that intend this other meaning, are metaphorical (dgongs-can). For example, "Find a young virgin with broad eyes and adorned with a beautiful youthful form, twenty-five years of age" are words of metaphorical meaning. They indicate the unified pair of clear light and illusory body with words that are different and contrary to this meaning.
Vajra expressions that indicate a meaning that is uncommon with lower tantras and sutra, and which do so by indicating this meaning clearly and directly with words that do not need to be explained as intending this as their other meaning, are non-metaphorical (dgongs-min). For example, "Sit in the total absorption of the samadhi called vajra identitylessness" are words that non-metaphorically indicate meditation on clear light.
One passage can convey its meaning in only one way, either metaphorically or non-metaphorically.
Conventional Language and Nonconventional Language Meanings
Vajra expressions that clearly indicate something shared in common with the lower tantras, by using words that are either worldly conventions (' jig-rten-pa'i tha-snyad) or coinages (brnga) of Sanskrit grammarians, are words of conventional language meaning (sgra ji-bzhin-pa, explanations with conventional words).
These may be either explanations in conventional language that do not have both a literal and a second dissimilar meaning – for example, instructions for painting mandalas – or explanations in conventional language that do have both a literal and a second dissimilar meaning. An example of the latter is "even those sentient beings with great negative karmic force, such as from having committed heinous crimes, can attain the supreme vehicle of the great ocean of Vajrayana."
Vajra expressions that convey an actual specific meaning with words that are neither worldly conventions nor coinages of Sanskrit grammarians, but were coined only by Buddhas, are words of nonconventional language meaning (sgra ji-bzhin-pa min-pa). For example, "kotakya, kotava, kotakotavashcha, and so on" is a list of names for the Buddha-figure Vajrapani.
Here, as well, one passage can convey its meaning with either conventional language or nonconventional language, but not with both.
The Four Modes
The meaning of a vajra expression that one can derive from relying merely on dictionaries and grammar books is its literal meaning (yig-don).
General Shared Meaning
The meaning of a vajra expression that is common to the experience of those on the generation stage (bskyed-rim) and below is its general shared meaning (spyi-don).
There are two varieties:
- The meaning may be something experienced in common with those striving for both the worldly and supreme actual attainments – namely, practitioners of the three lower tantras, but not practitioners of sutra alone.
- The meaning may be something experienced in common with those practicing the three lower tantras and sutra.
The meaning of a vajra expression in terms of mind-isolation (sems-dbyen) or illusory body is their hidden meaning (sbas-don). Mind-isolation and illusory body refer to the second half of the second stage and the entire third stage of the five-stage Guhyasamaja complete stage (rdzogs-rim rim-lnga).
There are three varieties. The hidden meaning may concern
- Teachings about desire,
- Relative level illusory bodies (kun-rdzob sgyu-lus),
- The three subtlest conceptual appearance-making minds (snang-gsum).
The meanings here are hidden from those practicing the three lower tantras and below. Except for one portion concerning desire, they are also hidden from those practicing the generation stage.
The meanings may be hidden in three ways.
- They may not be indicated in the three lower tantras and below.
- They may not be a path of practice for those on the generation stage, although they are indicated in the root tantra.
- Their inner essence may not be obvious from the outside.
Final Ultimate Meaning
The meaning of a vajra expression in terms of deepest clear light (don-dam 'od-gsal) or a unified pair is their final ultimate meaning (mthar-thug don). Deepest clear light and unified pair refer to the fourth and fifth stages of the five-stage Guhyasamaja complete stage. Specifically, unified pair refers to the purified illusory body (dag-pa'i sgyu-lus).