Friday, November 08, 2013

Tantra's Ineluctable Logic

Buddhist wisdom is simply wisdom. It isn’t necessarily any the more wise for being Buddhist. I know my Buddhist friends may not like me saying that, but I’m not all so sure how Buddhist they are to begin with...  anyway I have observed how Buddhists do require conversion to Buddhism time and time again. There is a commonplace wisdom that wisdom comes with age, an expression I passionately detested when I was younger (along the same lines: “When you’re older you’ll understand...”).

Today I’d venture there is some truth in it.  For instance I’ve seen that young people just don’t know that failure is success. They only see the failure, and don’t appreciate the opportunity it nearly always presents them. When you get a present, you ought to be saying ‘Thank you!’ Seeing how badly they take defeat always looks so-o-oh pathetic you almost want to feel sorry for the bastards. When people concede defeat (or put themselves at risk) in order to help another person, they become so much bigger for that, they come out winners, don’t they? Young people fail to recognize these simple wisdoms over and over again until they’re too old to benefit from them anymore. So then they might think they have to express their well thought-out thoughts to the young people, young people who just won’t buy it whether they’re getting charged for it or not. 

Listen children! Failure keeps us growing and prevents us from getting stuck. Period, full stop. Stop your whining. The one who loses the argument is the one who learns the most, is indeed the successful one. These are things we either know from experience or don’t know at all...  Not that anybody really ever grows up all that much. That’s why reincarnation, if it didn’t exist, would have to be invented. We always have a lot further to go than one life can normally allow time for.

An older person I know, one even older than yours truly, was recently asked what he would like to teach young people, and the first thing that he thought of was this, “There is no such thing as a wrong thought.”  I’ll admit I was a little taken aback by that, perhaps out of a knee-jerk moralistic impulse (I’m an occasional victim, I’ll confess), but I could also see the tantric logic in it. The serpent in the primordial garden convinced us with the help of a drugged apple — to follow an interesting reading of Genesis — that there is a difference between the good thoughts and the bad thoughts, that there’s something godlike about knowing this.  Ever since then we’ve been filled with inner turmoil, tortured by indecision about what would be the right thing to do (and the right thing to think). 

The real problem isn’t this so much as that we’ve placed ourselves at the mercy of our thoughts, whether good or bad, and act impulsively or even unconsciously most of the time...  it’s a problem of awareness and awakening, the rules be damned. We’re here to live, not to be managed or observed or judged. We don’t meditate in order to force ourselves to listen to the mini-fascist in our own minds... Or do we?  ‘You kids behave, and watch those thoughts, they’ll get you into a world of trouble,’ we tell them out of the selfish and probably futile hope they won’t bother us while we’re up to our important adult business. Who tells them to release their grips on those hooks they’ve got sticking into them? Who tells them to jump over those walls they've had built around them or they built around themselves? Who helps them see the bigger and more meaningful connections between what they’ve got inside and what’s going on outside?  Who tells them that real ethics have to come spontaneously out of an awakened goodness inside and not imposed by some dull authority outside? Dull authorities make us dull fellows who need to be told what we ought to find of interest instead of finding out on our own.

Well, true, I hear you... just as bad are the fate-focussed people who think life is a computer game full of insurmountable obstacles and insist on living it like it is one, as if there were no question our aims are the only ones there are, but at the same time aims that will probably never be achieved, or at least not achieved enough. This attitude itself is a big part of what gets in our way. We can’t stop and reflect, let alone admit that we’re on a fast flight to nowhere of significance. That’s why tantric logic is a life requirement, as crazy and radical as it may sometimes seem to some. 

No doubt I’ll be criticized for appending these dangerous ideas from Āryadeva, the tantric teacher of the 7th century or so, in a set of verses called Treatise on Mind Purification. It’s a book without an outline, moving from subject to subject kind of like our minds are always doing whether we notice or not. But these particular verses do share a common theme, if you can detect it. I’ll call it tantric logic to put a name to its many faces. As much as it might seem counter-intuitive, it’s a whole lot more important than going to those hundred places before you die. And just between friends, it isn’t about justifying the selfish actions of your cheating heart. Don’t even go that way. It’s in that direction that the bigger dangers lie.

“Water in the ear can be removed by water,
a thorn can be removed with a thorn.
Just so the wise know how to remove
desire with desire.

Just as the laundryman uses dirt
to purify a dirty garment,
a wise person also uses
dirt to clean dirt itself.

As the dust motes on a mirror
when wiped help make it clean,
so, to rely on the wise,
faults are overcome by faults.

If a metal ball is put in water
it sinks to the bottom,
but if it is shaped into the right vessel,
it not only doesn’t sink, it holds up others.

In some way a mind that is the right vessel,
through the workings of wisdom and means,
gets disentangled while acting on impulse
and disentangles others as well.

When a confused consciousness uses it
desire is the chains themselves.
When wise persons use it
desire brings them all the way to freedom.

All the world knows
that milk cures poisonings,
but if a snake drinks it
its poison is multiplied.

The swan knows how to sip out the milk
from a mixture of water and milk.
The wise person, while acting in the
poisoned sensory realms, is freed.

If done according to procedures,
even poison can be made into the acqua vitae,
while children who don’t know how to eat
butter or molasses can be poisoned by them.

Yet to someone who cleanses their own mind
with the appropriate measures
its unthinkable, unimaginable
pure nature shines bright.

Even the smallest flame,
making use of the butter, wick, etc.,
clear, pure and steady
dispels the most obdurate darkness.

The Banyan seed though small
under the right conditions
will grow into a giant tree
with roots, branches and flowers.

When mustard is mixed with mineral powders
a different color is produced.
In a similar way the wise know the Dharma Realm
through the workings of wisdom and means.

Butter and honey in equal proportions
can be a harmful combination,
but when taken in the right way,
it can be the best nutritional program.

Putting mercury in copper
makes it perfectly golden.
Just so the application of true Total Knowledge
makes mental complexes into something worthwhile.”

 §   §   §

When I made this partial translation back in around 1990, I was staying in Nepal and had access to a classic work of Indian Tibetology, an edition by P. B. Patel of the  Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa of Āryadeva: Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts, Visva‑Bharati Research Publications (Santiniketan 1949). I wish I had it now, since it served as the basis for the translation you just saw. In times since those days in Kathmandu two other translations have appeared, and I will very soon supply references to try and help those who might find the exercise of comparison fun or curious. For Wedemeyer’s version of these particular verses, see his pages 365ff; and for Varghese’s, pages 236ff.

Christian Wedemeyer, Vajrayāna and Its Doubles: A Critical Historiography, Exposition, and Translation of the Tantric Works of Āryadeva, doctoral dissertation, Columbia University (New York, April 1999).

Mathew Varghese, Principles of Buddhist Tantra: A Discourse on Cittaviśuddhi‑prakaraṇa of Āryadeva, Munshiram Manoharlal (New Delhi 2008). 

If you have the Dergé Tanjur handy,* you can see the Tibetan text here:  Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa (Sems-kyi sgrib-pa rnam-par sbyong-ba zhes bya-ba’i rab-tu byed-pa).  Tôh. no. 1804.  Dergé Tanjur, tantra (rgyud) section, vol. NGI, folios 106v.7‑112r.3.  Translated by Jñānākara and Tshul-khrims-rgyal-ba in around the early- to mid-11th century.
(*Actually, everybody in the world who has an internet connection can get to it almost immediately here at the TBRC.) 

Today's blog was written under the lingering influence of a book called Consecrated Venom by Caryl Johnston, who finds refreshingly interesting things to say about the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.

 §   §   §

I will train [myself] to take the defeat upon myself 
And offer the victory to others.
— Langritangpa 

 §   §   §

Postscript: I won’t vouch for the third verse from the last being precisely correct. I’m thinking it isn’t. It’s very possible this verse is the source for a similar one by Sakya Pandita that we saw in an earlier blog. In that one we saw that when you combine (white/ invisible) borates/ borax with (yellow) curcumin/ turmeric, you get stuff called Rosocyanine and Rubrocurcumin, which ought to be which color?  If you don’t remember, have a look here.  Meanwhile, if anybody needs me, I’ll be here in my laboratory. Perhaps you would like to try the experiment for yourself? First get together the necessary ingredients, then do as the scientist does in this video or perhaps this one.

Hmmm, should we be heading for the book to see if the reading is correct? (or to the library to search out what other text it was copying from?) or should we be going out into the laboratory of life to see if there is something true and effective in it?

Cham Dancers in Ulan Bator

Illustrations further up:  Pearl Potential and the Banyan Tree.

§  §  §

Somebody nice nicely sent me a nice copy of the Patel edition, so I'll type in my Tibetan version of Patel's Tibetan version for those who may want it (leaving off Patel's notes), starting at verse 37 on p. 24 and ending with verse 51 on p. 27 (perhaps I'll put in Patel's Sanskrit later on):
















One PS: I notice the yung in verse 49 is in the Sanskrit version haridrā, and that means curcuma, or turmeric if you prefer (so the ‘mustard’ translation is not accurate), while for the rdo-thal [mineral powder] of the Tibetan, the Sanskrit has cūrṇa, which ought to mean chalk or [mineral] lime.  So I’m not 100% the chemistry experiment here is identical to Sa-paṇ’s. Only 90% maybe.

Another PS:  A. Annapoorani, K.R. Anilakumar, Farhath Khanum, N. Anjaneya Murthy & A.S. Bawa, "Studies on the Physicochemical Characteristics of Heated Honey, Honey Mixed with Ghee and Their Food Consumption Pattern by Rats," Ayu: An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda, vol. 31, no. 2 (April 2010), pp. 141-146.  It's yogurt Tibetans say should only be eaten uncooked, and about this rule our tandoori cooks seem to know nothing.

Yet another PS:  Vijaya Deshpande, "Transmutation of Base-Metals into Gold as Described in the Text Rasārṇavakalpa and Its Comparison with the Parallel Chinese Methods," Indian Journal of History of Sciences, vol. 19, no. 2 (1984), pp. 186-192.  


  1. Dear Dan,

    That was a lovely read. I am looking forward to becoming old and wise like you (no irony). I have often read about this wondrous gift of the swan and wonder whether there is any biological truth in it? Any at all, even remotely. Where does this idea come from?

    Also, my wild imagination (it never ever stops, you know...) thinks it recognises the gnostic idea of the mustard seed. I only have the French translation handy, sorry.

    "[Le Royaume des cieux] est comparable à un grain de moutarde. Il est le plus petit parmi toutes les semences, mais lorsqu'il tombe sur la terre travaillée, elle produit une grande branche et elle devient un abri pour les oiseaux du ciel." Evangile selon Thomas, logion 20


  2. Dear J,

    I've noticed a passage that says the seed of this tree the Banyan measures one quarter the size of a mustard seed, yet five hundred chariots can go beneath its branches without touching. It's only a bit of an exaggeration, if you've ever seen these amazing trees. But here the smallness of the tiny seed is used as a metaphor for introducing as a (homeopathic) antidote some very small and apparently insignificant thing. There is what I'd call a different metaphor using the mustard seed where it's located in the heart, and in this case I think it probably fits your quote from the Gospel of Thomas. But on 2nd thought maybe it does fit your quote from Thomas... For some reason I just can't decide what's right and wrong today.

    I heard somewhere that some Tibetans in India - probably one of those overzealous beginners in the "Science for Monks" program — in a fit of scientific inquisitiveness, decided to test the theory and make the poor hansa deal with watered down milk, but the results were, even more than the milk, mixed... Now I forgot where I heard it from, any idea? May as well keep the rumor going.

    If it's ngang-pa in Tibetan we say duck, but if it is standing for the hansa we say swan, even though the Indic texts intend the goose (we rationalize that the image of the swan better fits with western romantic notions about that bird, and not the goose...), but then ngang-pa might be taken to intend the whole lot of them. Oh what a tangled net we weave when first we practice to translate (I mean, deceive, not that anybody needs to know that). Sometimes the search for meaning is like a wild goose chase. Or duck chase. But hey, if you've got the energy go for it.


    1. Big trees growing from a tiny seed makes me also think of the end of Saraha's Dohakosagiti. They spread through the triple world, and yet they spring from one seed.

      The fair tree of thought that knows no duality,
      Spreads through the triple world.
      It bears the flower and fruit of compassion,
      And its name is service of others. (Tr. Snellgrove)

      The two trees spring from one seed,
      And for that reason there is but one fruit.
      He who thinks of them thus indistinguishable,
      Is released from Nirvana and Samsara.

      I only read Francis de Sales after having been in contact with Tibetan Buddhism, and have always been struck by the similarity of his teaching style and that of Tibetans. He uses a lot of exemples from nature. And someone (I have forgotten who, where and when, sorry) actually went to the trouble of checking whether his exemples were true. Many weren't, but that doesn't matter.

      If you're interested in the subject (and I know you are because of Padampa Animal Kingdom), here's a thesis about Francis de Sales and Nature. In French...

      I had an afterthought about the swan. If you can't make sense of an analogy, I have learned to look at the stars. We do have a cygnus. And at the end of this constellation there is a beak, a star called Albireo (β Cygni), apparently originally an Arab name meaning exactly that "beak". And it seems to be one of the most beautiful double golden stars. The most shiny of the two stars is yet another double star.

      I wonder whether this may have anything to do with the swan's gift?

    2. PS an image is worth a thousand words

      Loot at the ends of the open beak of the cygnus.

    3. This reminds me of a line from a nyungne practice, as translated by a khenpo.

      You walk like the king goose and the graceful elephant.

      Many of us were amused by picturing the goose walking.
      (Also translating དྲེགས་ as graceful is pretty dreadful.)


    4. Dear M,

      I know, very funny whether they are ducks or geese... Well, geese are a lot funnier, really hilarious, when you see them run around in their gaggles. What do you suggest for the elephant? Maybe grave and stately? Anyway, I think monks are supposed to walk like ducks, or geese, since it's considered a modest way of walking. Or am I sadly mistaken here?


  3. J, I had what I thought was a damned fine response to your comment, but the Google box swallowed it, and now I forgot what I said. Maybe I wasn't supposed to say it. Maybe I just don't know what I'm supposed to say. I feel like saying something bad or unacceptable. There, maybe I said it. Read "Hamlet's Mill" if you haven't yet. I can't remember what it said, but I can tell you it was really very good at blaming practically everything on the star lore.

  4. Oh, now I remember. Isn't that Guenther's (or Snellgroves?) translation of Saraha. Do you know the textual basis for it? I have a feeling it isn't quite right. Can't quite put my finger on it. Not sure I should.

  5. Oh, here it is:





  6. Yes this is very powerful stuff. Saraha was an excellent gardener. I will publish Advayavajra's commentary one day.

    The Banyan tree is a funny tree. "is a fig that starts its life as an epiphyte (a plant growing on another plant) when its seeds germinate in the cracks and crevices on a host tree (or on structures like buildings and bridges)" And also "Older banyan trees are characterized by their aerial prop roots that grow into thick woody trunks which, with age, can become indistinguishable from the main trunk".

    The formal bodies grow out of the dharmakaya, but that which pervades the triple universe is the dharmakaya.

    BTW The last verse of your quote only exists in the Tibetan translation, not in the original apabhraṃśa. But it seems to rephrase
    Which Longchenpa uses as doctrinal support for his dzogchen theory (See Mathes, Buddha within, p. 99).
    Anyway, I see the same theme all along in Aryadeva’s verses. Something small (monad/tattva) is the seed of both saṁsāra and nirvāṇa. It may grow into a big tree, but still is basically the monad. One can find it even in fat, butter, wood (matter), in the form of a flame that can dispell darkness (the « aura » of matter). « Matter » is like poison, but it still contains the monad. When used intelligently, only the tattva is used, the poison is left untouched. Or it feeds (butter, wick) the flame that will consume it. It is also found in Nāgārjuna’s chos kyi dbyings su bstod pa.

    62. ji ltar 'o ma dang 'dres chu/
    snod gcig na ni gnas pa las/
    ngang pas 'o ma 'thung byed cing*/
    chu ni ma yin de bzhin gnas/
    63. de bzhin nyon mongs kyis g.yogs nas/
    ye shes lus 'dir gcig gnas kyang*/
    rnal 'byor pa yis ye shes len/
    mi shes pa ni 'dor bar byed/

  7. More news about the banyan. Mircea Eliade writes: "In the Bengali poem Gopī-candrer Pāṃcalī, when Gorakhnath initiated the princess Mayanāmatī, he made a banana tree/banyan (in the French translation) grow from a seed in a few hours (this is the miracle known as the "mango trick”). At the same initiation, Gorakhnath fed 25,000 yogins and disciples on a single grain of rice." (Yoga, Immortalitya and Freedom).

    If your laboratory gear is still out, you could try this "mango trick"

  8. I think it's full of illusions up to the very end, just like the Path to Enlightenment. But once they taste the fruit, that's the real test, isn't it? Not that I've tested it in my own laboratory. Now I have a rope to climb.

  9. i just hear about this bok "kosher sutra": The Kosher Sutra offers an Eastern, Tantra and kabbalistically-inspired:"

    i don´t know what to think about using the word tantra in that context.
    anyway: ངང་པའི་འགྲོས་འདྲ་གླང་ཆེན་དྲེགས་ལྟར་ཤེགས་པ་པོ།
    You walk like the king goose and the graceful elephant.



Please write what you think. But please think about what you write. What's not accepted here? No ads, no links to ads, no back-links to commercial pages, no libel against 3rd parties. These comments won't go up, so no need to even try. What's accepted? Everything else, even 1st- & 2nd-person libel, if you think they have it coming.

Follow me on