Reflections on ‘The Great Liberation’ by Padmasambhava

November 11, 2011

“The human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”
–Francis Bacon

This essay will comment briefly on Padmasambhava’s ‘The Great Liberation’ teaching, translated to English in 1936.  While I am not a Buddhist scholar, I have studied Buddhism with a variety of teachers and lamas and have over thirty years of experience meditating. To say the least, the teachings are among the most profound I have encountered. To be sure, verbalizing some insights that seem quite intuitively clear in meditation becomes difficult when translating to the written word. I must up front caveat this text by saying that the reader should perform their own analysis of and meditation on ‘The Great Liberation’ and use that as the definitive guide.

While many of the ideas surrounding ‘The Great Liberation’ are elaborated on to a great extent by modern Buddhist masters (in the Dalai Lama’s writings on Dzogchen or Gyatrul Rinpoche in his commentary Natural Liberation), some of what is described below has  not, as far as I’m aware, been discussed in quite the same vein, particularly regarding any comparison with Judeo-Christian creation myth (perhaps scholars could explore this idea further!).  I will caveat that I’ve not read the Evans-Wentz writings regarding ‘The Great Liberation’ and have decided not to read in the spirit of the Padmasambhava text, which states clearly that the text alone should be sufficient. With that in mind, some readers may want to jump to the bottom link of this page, should they not want to color their minds with my own interpretation.

I’ll look at five specific ideas in ‘The Great Liberation’:

  • The uncreated nature of mind
  • The conceptual nature of phenomena
  • The ‘tri-kaya’ – three types of light
  • The Great Light
  • The mirror nature of mind

I’ll then end with some meditative reflections.

The uncreated nature of the mind. The text elaborates on how mind is ‘uncreated’ by using logical analysis to put forward the idea that mind, on analysis, cannot be found. The analysis is similar, but somewhat different, from other Buddhist  philosophers (i.e., Nargajuna) regarding ‘emptiness’ in that it does not refer to mind as uncreated because its composite parts are interdependent (‘dependent arising’) and thus lacks intrinsic, autonomous being within conventional reality. Rather, the text explores how mental analysis does not allow us to assign language, description, context or  shape to the concept of ‘mind’. We can certainly discuss an individual ‘mind’ – or even its locality in the cerebrum of individuals, but the overall concept of ‘mind’ cannot be physically or otherwise located. It is unfound, uncreated.

The conceptual nature of phenomena.  The text goes on to define all phenomena, even physical phenomena, as conceptual in nature. That is to say, what we define by language is conceptual; but also what is defined as conventional physical reality is conceptual. In this sense the text is a ‘mind only’ view of reality (rooted in the Buddhist philosopher Asanga) in that ultimately only mind exists; moreover, there is only in reality one mind that exists. All dualistic fragments of this one mind are illusory or partial views of the totality.

The ‘three-light’ nature of reality. Three types of light are  described: dharma-kaya – the ‘clear light’ of uncreated, unconceived mind; ‘shamboga-kaya’ – the self-illumined void that is perceivable and infinite in potential; ‘nirmana-kaya’ – conventional, manifest and “fixed” reality as light.

The Great Light – the Great Light is perceived as the ‘at-one-ment’ of the three types of light in a unity of consciousness. In this sense, the separation of light is for definition only, to help the perceiver back to at-one-ment.

The mirror nature of mind. While the use of the mirror analogy in the text is brief, I found it to be one of the text’s most compelling ideas and one that ultimately led me to a variety of meditative insights. From the text:

“All appearances are verily one’s own concepts, self-conceived in the mind, like reflections seen in a mirror. To know whether this be so or not, look within thine own mind.”

Some Personal Reflections

First, if one considers a mirror image, it is in and of itself insubstantial, although it appears real. A mirror image is in the nature of light.

By meditating on the nature of perceived reality, it could well be that it is in the nature of a mirror, reflecting light. If mind is uncreated, and perceived reality is like a mirror reflecting (paradoxically) uncreated mind, then what is perceived appears real, but is really more of an illusion or magic show. Moreover, if mind is uncreated then what is perceived is uncreated by inference. If what is perceived is uncreated, and in the nature of light, then it is closer to a mirror reality than ‘real’ or substantial reality with ‘intrinsic’ or ‘inherent’ or ‘autonomous’ qualities. The mirror analogy falls short in that conventional reality finds ‘clear light’ and ‘conventional perceived reality’ subsumed within one another and not separate: the nirmana-kaya and dharma-kaya (clear light) are one thing; nirvana and samsara (illusion) are one.

So what then is the shamboga-kaya? The shamboga-kaya is the ‘intermediate’ light between the dharma-kaya and the nirmana-kaya. It is the illumined void, the ‘messenger’ of the dharma-kaya. It is the empty mind, illumined by the ‘seed’ or ‘masculine’ light so that it is perceivable as infinite and as infinite potentiality. The ‘void’ is the feminine ‘womb’ in which the masculine ‘light’ pierces in order to be self-aware of its own infinite potential. This infinite potential is then played out in the nirmana-kaya, the perceived reality which in essence is never separated from the clear light. The shamboga-kaya is the pregnant moment of potentiality that is then played out in the  nirmana-kaya.

If mind is uncreated, and phenomena are also uncreated, but only appears created and substantial as a mirror image also appears substantial, then what is perceiving? If there is no-one perceiving (as mind is uncreated) then there is no perceiver to conceptualize, or interpret or judge, the nature of reality. If there is no perceiver, then reality is in essence what it is as a totality, the ‘isness’ of being. Once a perceiver is removed, there is only what is in totality in an ‘at-one-ment’ of light. There is no more judgment, there is no more duality, there is complete liberation from the concepts of the dualistic mind that trap one in conceptualization – even the concept of karma.

The question might arise, if this description brings us close to a truer view of reality, why is it this way? A simple motive might be found reflecting on one’s own use of a mirror. One cannot see one’s face without a mirror – tribal people’s who have never seen a mirror jump in terror when they first see their face. The point is that if one wanted to see one’s face, one’s nature, one needs the duality of a mirror. Once the duality of the mirror takes place, the uncreated mind begins to conceptualize about that reality, ‘naming’ it much like Adam and Eve named creatures in the Garden. Once the creatures are named, the conceptual reference takes hold and eventually supersedes the original ‘face’ that is pure being. Uncreated mind continually ‘names’ things conceptually (or seems to), creating reality where none exists  – it only exists as if in a mirror, reflecting the clear light of uncreated mind. This conceptual naming of things colors the reality and ultimately obscures the intrinsically pure nature of the primordial. However, this is an illusion, for the ‘at-one-ment’ of uncreated mind (clear light) and perceived reality (nirmana-kaya) is never diminished nor lost.

The Garden of Eden myth follows the movement from uncreated mind (void) to shamboga-kaya to conceptual ‘fixed’ reality quite clearly. In Genesis, first there is the void, the unconceived ‘womb’. Then the masculine ‘light’ pierces the void, and creation/conception ensues. Then mankind, once created, begins ‘naming’ conceptual reality in the Garden. Humankind is ejected from the innocence of ‘at-one-ment’ once he/she perceives the dualistic notion of good and evil and comes to see ‘nakedness’ as shameful. From that moment, ‘naked’ mind becomes concealed in mental concepts.

The  meditator seeks ‘at-one-ment’ with the innocent, unified (‘uncreated’) mind by first reflecting on the nature of that mind, and then using techniques such as pondering the mirror nature of  phenomena to understand that what is perceived is essentially a mental construction. The meditator can also use traditional Buddhist analysis techniques to understand that because of interdependence, nothing has intrinsic existence and is in truth ’empty’ of autonomous reality. Once one understands the mirror nature of mind and emptiness, one can then reflect on the absence of themselves as an individual perceiver. Once the individual perceiver is absent, there is only the at-one-ment of being in bliss and light. (Note that this at-one-ment is not oblivion, but rather the primordial awareness itself.) Once there is at-one-ment of being in bliss and light, the Bodhisattva’s vow has been attained and all are liberated as there is only in reality one mind.  Therefore the ‘Vajrasattva’ purity (Buddha Nature/Christ Consciousness) is attained as the primordial, naked innocence of the one mind  is realized in bliss. Finally, karma is non-existent and has no hold. The ‘Great Liberation’ is achieved.  To fully explore these teachings, I suggest reading the texts at the end of this post.

Padmasambhava ends the teaching by reflecting on how wondrous this all is. He chooses a child-like awe when summing up his feelings about the nature of reality. It could be, on reflection, that other choices could be made. For example, Nargajuna chooses compassion when reflecting on how sentient beings appear lost in illusion, and advises against detachment from sentient beings lest we lose our way in nihilism; Buddhism as a rule advises us to vow to assist all sentient beings until samsara (illusion) is ‘emptied’. Padmasambhava chooses detachment and to subsume all of reality into a single view, a single mind, and thus ends suffering through this realization, and avoids nihilism through child-like wonder. Both paths achieve the Bodhisattva’s vow.

While Padmasambhava’s text below reflects a ‘mind only’ view (even asserting the physical is a mental concept), many Buddhist’s believe this philosophy has been superseded by Nargajuna’s ‘middle way’ approach of emptiness that allows for a conventional, physical reality and appears, therefore, more common sense than a ‘mind only’ view that seems to contradict the physical world we see in front of us.

It could be that a quantum analysis of multidimensional reality, and modern descriptions of reality by physicists such as David Bohm regarding the ‘holographic’ nature of phenomena, may indeed take us back to the ‘mind only’ view put forth in Padmasambhava’s text below. More on that in another essay.

You can find the full text to ‘The Great Liberation’ here.
You can find Padmasambhava’s teachings on ‘Natural Liberation’ here.
You can find the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Dzogchen here.


One Response to “Reflections on ‘The Great Liberation’ by Padmasambhava”

  1. […] a Buddhist perspective, the Great Liberation teachings of Padmasambhava say it all. From a previous blog, this sums up my interpretation: “The  meditator seeks […]

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