The Uttara-tantra: The Sublime Continuum?

By David Reigle on May 31, 2018 at 11:51 pm

A new English translation of the Ratna-gotra-vibhāga, also known as the Uttara-tantra, was published last year (2017), along with the commentary by Rgyal tshab dar ma rin chen. It was translated by Bo Jiang, and is titled: The Sublime Continuum and Its Explanatory Commentary, by Maitreyanātha and Noble Asaṅga, with The Sublime Continuum Supercommentary, by Gyaltsap Darma Rinchen. In recent decades, this famous text attributed to Maitreya has increasingly come to be referred to as The Sublime Continuum, a translation of the Tibetan translation of its Uttara-tantra alias, Rgyud bla ma. Unfortunately for Maitreya, this is not what the title Uttara-tantra means, not how it would be understood in India. It is an early misunderstanding of Rgyud bla ma, going back to at least fourteenth-century Tibet. This can now be seen, thanks to the discovery of the original Sanskrit text of the Ratnagotravibhāga in 1934 and its publication in 1950. The early misunderstanding apparently resulted, at least in part, from ambiguities in the Tibetan translation of this text.

As is well known, a single Tibetan word must often translate two or more different Sanskrit words. The Tibetan word rgyud must translate the Sanskrit words tantra as well as saṃtāna (and its derivative, sāṃtānika). A tantra is usually a kind of “text,” and also the “teaching” or “doctrine” or “science” taught in it, while a saṃtāna is a “continuum,” usually the continuum of a person. Of the twenty-one occurrences of the word rgyud in the canonical Tibetan translation of the Uttara-tantra and its Indian commentary, it translates tantra seven times, saṃtāna five times, and its derivative sāṃtānika nine times. Of the seven times rgyud translates tantra, one is in the title, five are in the title as repeated in the five chapter colophons, and one is in chapter 1, verse 160, referring to the title.

So the word rgyud as found in the title, Rgyud bla ma, translates tantra, whereas the word rgyud as found in the text itself translates saṃtāna (or sāṃtānika), with the single exception of in verse 1.160 where it refers to the title. The word rgyud as saṃtāna, used in the text itself, does indeed refer to a continuum, although that of a sentient being (e.g., 4.46: saṃtāna . . . prajāsu = ‘gro ba’i rgyud; 1.25 commentary: sattva-citta-saṃtāna = sems can gyi sems kyi rgyud). But the word rgyud as tantra, used in the title, refers to a teaching or a text. While “continuum” is one of the meanings of tantra, our concern is the meaning that was intended by the author. An uttara-tantra is a later or additional teaching, and has long been familiar in India as the concluding part of the famous medical work, Suśruta-saṃhitā. Thus, uttara-tantra refers to a teaching, a teaching that is a continuation, but not a continuum. Here uttara is usually understood to mean “later,” as contrasted with pūrva, “earlier,” but also implying its other main meaning, “higher,” i.e., a more advanced teaching.

Indeed, the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra uses the example of a physician teaching the eight branches of medicine to his son, and only when these are mastered teaching him the uttara-tantra, the later and higher teaching. It then compares this with the Buddha first teaching about purifying the mental/moral afflictions (kleśa), the absence of self (anātman), etc., as the earlier branches, and only then teaching the uttara-tantra, the later and higher teaching, that of the tathāgata-garbha. The tathāgata-garbha, “embryo of a buddha,” i.e., the buddha-nature found in everyone, is of course the main subject of the book called Uttara-tantra. There can be little doubt that the authors of the Uttara-tantra and its Indian commentary were familiar with the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, since the reader is referred to it for more information in the commentary on verse 1.153.

The meaning of the title Uttara-tantra as “The Later/Higher Teaching” is confirmed in verse 1.160, saying, “but here in the later/higher (uttare) teaching (tantre),” as contrasted with what was taught earlier (pūrva). What was taught earlier (1.156) is that “all is empty in every way” (śūnyaṃ sarvaṃ sarvathā).” What was taught here later is “the existence of the element” (dhātv-astitvam), that “the buddha-element exists in every sentient being” (buddha-dhātuḥ . . . sattve sattve ‘sti). The buddha-element is a synonym of the tathāgata-garbha, the primary subject of the book called Uttara-tantra. The Tibetan commentators who take the title Rgyud bla ma to mean the sublime continuum understand this to refer to the unbroken continuum of the buddha-element, or a synonym of it such as the dharma-dhātu. Ironically, Gyaltsap Darma Rinchen is not one of these commentators. Gyaltsap favors the later (phyi ma) teaching as the meaning of the title. Bo Jiang did not use “the sublime continuum” in his 2008 thesis that became the book of that title. That title may have been an editorial change.

Another kind of ambiguity in the Tibetan translation, one that may have contributed to understanding the title as the sublime continuum, is seen in verse 1.160, the only place in the text where the words uttara and tantra occur. Both terms are in the locative case, uttare and tantre, “in the uttara tantra.” In the Tibetan translation of this verse, however, the locative case marker was omitted in order to fit the meter, which is strictly regulated by the total number of syllables per line: slar yang bla ma’i rgyud ‘dir ni. Thus, in Tibetan translation, this verse no longer explicitly says that the existence of the element was taught “in” the uttara tantra. Moreover, the final Tibetan “ni” in this line typically marks off the subject, making it at least possible to take the uttara tantra as the element that was taught. If the buddha-element is equated with the uttara tantra, it becomes easy to see the uttara tantra as the sublime continuum rather than the later teaching. Nonetheless, there are weighty reasons to avoid making this equation.

It is only fitting to bring in comments made by award-winning Tibetan translator Gavin Kilty from a 2007 post to an internet Kālacakra forum that started this inquiry. Referring to “The Sublime Continuum,” he wrote: “If this really is a term referring to the tathāgata essence, the subject of the first and main chapter of the book, then you would expect the term uttara-tantra to crop up many times in the book itself. How often does it appear? Not once. Nowhere (except for once when it refers to the book itself) is it to be found in the discussion of this topic. Terms used are tathāgata essence (de bshegs snying po, tathāgata-garbha), element (khams, dhātu) and lineage (rigs, gotra). These three terms are used interchangeably to describe the same thing but uttara-tantra is not used once.” Gavin had translated the first chapter of the Uttara-tantra for the FPMT, unpublished.

Besides verse 1.160, the one known Indian source that explains the title, Uttara-tantra, is a ṭippaṇī, brief textual notes, by Vairocana-rakṣita. He glosses it as uttara-grantha, taking tantra as grantha, “book.” Likewise, in the very early Chinese translation of the Uttara-tantra made from the Sanskrit by Ratnamati in 511 C.E. (Nanjio no. 1236, Taisho no. 1611), the word tantra in verse 1.160 is translated with the Chinese equivalent for śāstra, “treatise” (Jikido Takasaki, A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra), p. 306 fn. 18). Thus, tantra was not understood as a continuum. The title of this text, then, Ratna-gotra-vibhāgo Mahāyānôttara-tantra-śāstram, was apparently understood in India as “The Ratna-gotra-vibhāga, A Treatise on the Later/Higher Teaching of the Mahāyāna.” The descriptive title was not understood as “A Treatise on the Sublime Continuum of the Mahāyāna.” As noted by many commentators, the later/higher teaching of the Mahāyāna obviously refers to the third promulgation of the Buddhist teachings, or turning of the wheel of the dharma, in contradistinction to the second promulgation. This may be described as a continuation, even a sublime continuation, but not as a continuum, the sublime continuum.


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