J. Grela CRUCIAL ROLE OF LIGHT IN TIBETAN BELIEFS
Light (Tib. ‘od gsal) and clarity (gsal ba) play a central role in religious traditions of Tibet. Their function is both metaphysical, as they constitute the basic structure of any being, and epistemical-soteriological in the sense that they are thought of as an important aspect of the mind and the base of liberating insight. The most primordial system of Tibetan beliefs is the so-called religion of people, with underlying animistic and shamanic aspects. Here light symbolizes existence, whereas darkness stands for oblivion. First preserved sources concerning light are present in cosmogony myths1. They mention two cosmic eggs of light and darkness, or sometimes two light rays: white and black, thought to give origin to respectively a white human and everything that is beneficial, and a black human together with stupidity, plague and daemons, Sometimes they stem the beginning of everything from the two principles: the luminous, paternal one, and the dark, maternal one. In another group of cosmogony myths primordial paradise of brightness is mentioned, from which the world of phenomena originated. Some other myths give an account of how the primordial emptiness transformed into the azure shine, which became a rainbow, from which after several transformations the constitutive elements of the world were finally formed. Later history also abounds in legends in which light is a crucial element. The first mythical kings of Tibet were thought to have a rope of rainbow light above their heads, linking them with heaven and functioning as a channel of communication. By means of this rope the kings ascended heavens at night to return to the earth every morning. At the moment of death their material bodies were turning into light and were absorbed by heaven – the kings did not leave any remnants2.
Another important system of beliefs was the Bon religion. Its early version, which showed doctrinal similarities to Zoroastrianism, draws the dualistic opposition of light and darkness, identified with good and evil. Together with the evolution of the doctrine, the protosource began to be viewed in monist terms. The chief principle was endless light, and «omnigoodness». The deities whose existence is assumed by Bon, were divided into two types: the deities of light (nice, friendly) and the deities of darkness (bloodthirsty). In the third religion in Tibet, Buddhism, the conception of light is developed to the fullest extent. Indian Buddhism, by which Tibetan Buddhism was inspired, had already had several groups of references to light. The consciousness (Sanskr. citta) is always bright, but in ordinary beings it is contaminated with accidental defilements1. The deepest human nature is the purest light (bodhicittam prakritiprabhasvaram), invisible, infinite, and ever bright consciousness2. In the Abhidharma literature in the description of forming and filling the world, there appears the motif of the degeneration of light. The good karman is correlated with the inner light. At the beginning of every cosmic cycle gods have bodies which incessantly give off light and exert spread shine. Initially, the sun and other celestial bodies do not exist, they are not needed. When gods taste the earthly food, their bodies become material and cease to shine. Most attention devoted to light is in Tantric Buddhism. Here light is the first manifested corporeal form, related to matter but also a crucial aspect of the mind, its ability to comprehend phenomena. Light manifests itself also as the core of the beliefs concerning the process of dying and the state after death. The Tibetan idea of conceiving light as creative principle of the whole reality finds its reflection in: 1) the doctrine of Great Perfection (Tib. rdzogs pa chen po) present in late Bon, where luminous mind incessantly creates and sustains the existence of phenomenal light. According to this conception, the world is just an illusory projection, the original basis of which is the five-color light3. 2) the Buddhist doctrine of Great Perfection present in the Ancient School (rnying ma); 3) the Tantric Buddhism view on the five aspects of any being taken processually, in connection with the five colours of rainbow4. As regards the first one, two ancient Tibetan texts: «The Mirror of the Mind of Clear Light» («‘Od gsal sems kyi me long») and «Six Torches» («sGron ma drug»)5 discuss one, original, and indivisible sphere of reality. Its most subtle, subject to description manifestation is the radiation of fundamental brightness, which is the 1
1 Much literature called «Klu‘bum» contains hundreds of similar myths and references to the protoorigin. 2 Stein R. A. La civilisation tibétaine // L’Asiathèque. Paris, 1996. P. 22–23.
Anguttara-nikāya I. 10. Saddhatusūtra, in: Conze E. Buddhist Thought in India. London: Allen and Unwin: 1962. P. 195; Conze E. Further Buddhist Studies. Oxford: Cassirer, 1975. P. 18–19. 3 This view has the ripest form in the anonymous text «‘Khor lo bzhi sbrags»; the philosophical conception described there differs much from the myths present in liturgical texts and Bon rituals. 4 Cf. e. g.: Mu tig ‘phreng ba, rNying ma rgyud ‘bum. Vol. Ta, f. 275b. Thimpu, 1973. 5 Translation and discussion in: Chandra L., Namdak L. T. History and Doctrine of Bön-po. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1968.
five lights: blue, yellow, red, green, and white. The texts subsequently explain that because of the polarization of experience into the subject and object, the pure, invariable energy of the five lights is perceived as substantial and existing externally. Visible light originates from it, and then the bodies of living beings, the five elements of external world, reality, dreams and any phenomena. The emanation of successive types of beings, equal to the diminution of their brightness is always a process and not an act. The world is regarded as the emanation of the luminous mind and all the phenomena are illusory projections that exist only in individual minds. In Bon, contrarily to Buddhism, there is often the conception of apocatastasis. The return to unity and perfection, called the return from beneath, is possible only in human body. The Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of Great Perfection discusses one base, manifesting in two ways and allowing recognizing phenomena in two ways: (a) impure, by means of the empirical mind (sems), which comprehends reality in both non-conceptual (in sensual cognition) and conceptual (in rational cognition) ways. However, this cognition is marked with an error caused by karmic defilments and metaphysical ignorance; (b) pure, through the unintentional consciousness (rig pa), always non-conceptual. Its description embraces three aspects: purity (synonymous with emptiness), clarity synonymous with the ability of cognition, and spontaneous manifestation of the five lights as well as energy. The empirical mind and unintentional consciousness are according to the doctrine concurrent but because of ignorance the subject of cognition uses only the first one. When cognition is conducted by the empirical mind, the phenomena appear as substances, separate beings. On the other hand, in the pure cognition, they appear as colourful spots of trembling light1. The third of the enumerated standpoints, the Tantric one, is represented for example by the XIV Dalai Lama, who claims that the substantial cause of both consciousness and the physical body can be attributed to «very subtle energy radiating with five colours»2. The five primary colours of light for Tibetans are: white, yellow, red, green, and blue. On the subtlest level of manifestation they are understood as basic qualities coexisting in every phenomenon. The blue light is responsible for the lack of obstacles for something to appear or happen. The yellow light is ability for providing support. The white light is cohesion and continuity, whereas the red one represents dynamism, and the green one – incessant variation, «processuality» of reality. These basic forces constitute the basis for micro and macrocosm. The five lights manifest themselves not only in the mental sphere but also as less subtle entities, like any components of the animate3 and then the inanimate world. The yellow light forms muscles, connective tissue, nails, and bones. The white light is responsible for blood, lymph, and other liquids in the organism. The red light is correlated with the warmth of the body. From the green light originates breath. The fifth light, blue, is the substantial cause of cavities, space between the organs, any body openings.
The five enumerated lights are also regarded by Tantra as responsible for any life processes. The yellow light is connected with the energy of moving downwards, responsibility for orgasm, defecation, and erection. The white light manifests itself as the so-called energy moving upwards, enabling sensual perception, the red one – metabolism, the green one is responsible for the blood circulation and the nerve system, while life power, vitality is the manifestation of the blue light. Tibetan medicine and psychology have developed particular diagnostics concerning the imbalance or deficit in particular lights in organism. For example, the lack of the red light is manifested as depression or apathy, fears are the lack of the yellow light, anxiety – of the white light, languor – of the green light, and narrowed down horizons and intolerance – of the blue one1. Particular lights are also constitutive elements of the inanimate world. The least subtle manifestation of the yellow light is earth, of the white one – water, the red one – fire, the green one – air, and the blue one – space. It is worth mentioning that in Tibetan shamanism the central direction is ascribed to the yellow colour, whereas in Tantra either to the blue one or to the white one. Similar systems of correspondence collecting in fives various elements of macro and microcosm are also common in neighbouring with Tibet India and China. However, the contents of the lists differ slightly from those in Tibet2. The practically oriented Tibetan shamanism, having health, good feeling, and prosperity as its target, bases its rituals on the so-called external elements (phyi), the elements of human natural environment, such as earth, water, fire, air, and space3. Buddhist Tantra, especially of the New Traditions (sarma) that have been established in Tibet in the 11th century and later, puts stress on the making use of and manipulating the energies of the human body, that are regarded as the inner (nang) or intermediate (bar ma) level of manifestation of the five lights. The Great Perfection Tradition in turn, which is present both in Bon and in Buddhism, values the socalled secret (gsang) colour luminous points (thig le), claiming that they are the subtlest, least substantial manifestation of the elements available in sensual perception. In Tantra, there is also a pantheon of color meditative deities, which is the initial basis for the Tantric methods of transforming the perception. According to Tantra, it is the stage of entanglement in the dualistic conception that decides which level of matter or subtlety is perceived. In this case the metaphor of light going through crystal (meaning consciousness) is recalled, where the light disperses (numerous objects). Finally however, the dispersion of the components of the empirical light is regarded as clearly conceptual. The basic substrate of any phenomena is the pure light (‘od gsal). Tibetan metaphysics, apart from the descending order takes into consideration the ascending order as well: the possible resorption of particular lights, essential for
Mu tig ‘phreng ba. Vol. Ta, f. 275b 6–7. Sen, śnienie, umieranie. Ed. by F. J. Varela. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Mudra, 2001. P. 179. 3 Cf. e. g. medical treatise «Ambrosia Heart Tantra» / Tr. and ed. by Dh. Yeshi, K. Jhampa. Dharamsala: LTWA, 1977. P. 33.
1 Wangyal T. Healing with Form, Energy and Light. The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra and Dzogchen. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002. Passim. 2 As regards the correspondence between the Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian elements, cf.: Cornu Ph. L’astrologie tibétaine. Paris: Collection Présences, 1990. P. 65–68. 3 Cf.: Samuel G. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993. Passim.
soteria. An individual is believed to experience it quickly and in an unnoticeable way during falling asleep, and in a considerably slower manner in the process of dying, unless the death is sudden. The constitutive energies of the five lights gradually dissolve (thim) in one another, which, according to many Tibetans, is accompanied by a number of special phenomena and sensations. The process of resorption of the lights has been divided into two phases: external, embracing senses and elements of the body, and internal, perceived as changing mental states, feelings. Rainbows and five-colored lights are commonly present first of all in myths and legends concerning death1, treated as the disintegration of particular elements (elements, lights), that constitute an individual. Secondly, Tibetan sacral texts contain vast descriptions of «dying physiology», in which the lights play an important role. The most classical presentation of these processes and visions that accompany them can be found in such ancient texts as «Gu zhog chun pos mdza pa’i smon lam rin chen phreng ba» in Bon and in «Bar do thos grol», which belongs to the Tibetan Buddhist canon. In the case of human organism, the texts speak about several phases of «dissolving» psychophysical elements connceted with earth, water, fire, air and space. At the end emotions and concepts disappear. The so-called white appearance, red appearance and black appearance are subsequently experienced, and then comes the fundamental pure light, evading from concretion and picturing2. Realizing it oneself has for a religious Tibetan a liberating value; such an ability however requires previous training. Indian Buddhism already claims that persons plunged in meditations as well as the Buddha himself, are perceived by others as persons bathed in light, luminous, casting brightness on everything around them3. It is additionally held in Tibet that masters in meditation are able to transform physical impure components of the body into its subtle equivalents, visible to the surroundings at the moment of death as gradually disappearing five-coloured light4. In the soteriological scheme of the Buddhist school of the Great Perfection there are inscribed methods which are to enable the cognition of nondiscoursive micromoments present between thoughts, and the differentiation between the two ways of conceiving phenomena: conceptual and nonconceptual. In other words, the adept has to achieve the ability to separate sansara and nirvana (‘khor ‘das ru shan), which means the ability to see the stream of consciousness of phenomena and their basis, source, at every moment. The next step is seeing their metaphysical oneness at the level of innate pure consciousness. The remaining part of the training consists in deepening and preserving that experience by means of knowledge and techniques particular to that very tradition. Two main methods are applied: «break-through» (khregs 1
chod) and «leap-ahead» (thod rgal)1. The latter consists largely in stimulating the points of light in five colours, long meditations in complete darkness, as well as in proper gazing at space, rainbow, or the sun. The aim of these exercises is to recognize that both the physical phenomena, external light, e.g. sunlight, and mental phenomena like visions of light appearing in darkness are one and the same basic light, the nature of any being. The adept is to cancel the subject-object dichotomy that is considered as illusion, entangling them in the material world of change and empirical time. Such an experience is called «great exhaustion»2, which is the cessation of the phenomenal reality, discursive thoughts, and language. In Buddhist Tantra in turn, various exercises are to imitate the processes taking place at the moment of death for the adept to learn noticing them and use at the final moment of life. They are also meant to enable them to recognize both in reality and dream the luminous nature of the mind, the fundamental pure light present in all visions and experiences. They are achieved by e.g. breathing and visualizing exercises, basing on Tantric anatomy. At the final stage of the training the adept is to conduct the merging the two points of light: the white one, originating from father and localized in the head, and the red one, received from mother, situated below the navel. When the two lights meet in the heart, the experiencing of the pure light is to take place. It is only at that level of consciousness, regarded as the subtlest one, where the final insight into the nature of all the phenomena, the liberating cognition, can take place. The insight achieved by means of other than the pure consciousness or the pure light levels of consciousness in the Great Perfection school or in Tantra is regarded as incomplete, not final, but the division of consciousness into various levels is usually understood functionally and not ontologically3. The discursive, conceptual moments of mental activity (rnam rtog) are present neither in the pure consciousness nor in the pure light. The difference between two of them consists in that although the pure light is free from the so-called dualistic appearance (gnyis snang), there may be latent habits of such an appearance during experiencing the light, which never happens in the pure consciousness, which is regarded as a subdivision of the pure light. One and the other experience transcend the concepts of time, subject, and object; it is personal and individual in its character but it concerns the atemporal nature of any being. Light is also one of the most popular symbols of consciousness. In Romance languages one speaks about consciousness by using the word designating knowledge (Fr. connaissance, Port. conhecimento). In the Tibetan language one can also encounter such equivalence, but only in reference to the term used by the Ancient School, designating the subtlest state of consciousness (rig pa) and wisdom. In turn, clarity (gsal cha) being an attribute of consciousness inter alia is the ability of understanding, self-knowledge. A philosophically interesting relationship between light, consciousness, and cognition is not being explored in the field of Tibetan metaphysics.
Cf. e. g.: Opowieść o życiu Milarepy. Kraków: Oficyna Literacka, 1997. Р. 237, 248, 252, 264. The descriptions of the whole process: Sogjal Rinpocze. Tybetańska księga życia i umierania. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo EM, 1995. Р. 123, 262–267; Lati Rinpocze, Hopkins J. Śmierć, stan pośredni i odrodzenie w buddyzmie tybetańskim. Kraków: Wydawnictwo A, 1999. Р. 31–51. 3 E. g.: Jātaka I. 29, v. 219–221, Udāna 391, Lalitavistara. Vol. I. Lehmann, 1902. P. 3; The Lotus Sutra. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993; see also Eliade M. Mefistofeles i androgyn. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo KR, 1999. P. 31–34; Collins S. Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities. Cambridge University Press, 1998. P. 214–216. 4 Tulku Thondup. Buddha Mind. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1989. P. 81–88.
More extensively see: Karmay S. The Great Perfection. Leyden: E. J. Brill, 1988. P. 190–196. It constitutes another interpretation of the term rdzogs pa chen po – «great perfection»; rdzogs pa means both «finished», «exhausted» (not in the sense of being tired but running out of , e.g. possibilities), as well as «perfect». 3 Cf.: The Dalai Lama at Harvard / Tr. and ed. by J. Hopkins. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1988. P. 45.
The source texts and their exegetes present various standpoints regarding the question if consciousness is some kind of third element, apart from emptiness (or space) and light, the two basic principles, feminine and masculine, or rather it is correlated only with light. If the pure light, in not physical but metaphysical aspect, as a constitutive element of the world, a substrate of phenomena, is or is not consciousness, or if it immanently contains a moment of consciousness or not. This problem is not posed in Tibetan philosophy in a direct way, and additionally the same religious school or even the same author can present different views in various periods of time. In mentalist systems the basis is always consciousness; light and phenomenal world are its manifestation, production. Monism of this type claims that both matter and consciousness are the modi of the pure light1. Dualist systems discuss the parallelism of matter (light) and consciousness. Quite frequent are the standpoints that claim that the final metaphysical principle is the oneness of emptiness and the pure light, which is described in the categories of felicity, clarity or lack of conceptualization. The description that employs dualistic language categories can be characterized by the two theoretical perspectives: object oriented, emphasizing the object of cognition, emptiness, and subject oriented, consisting in focusing on the pure light itself, identified with consciousness2. The literature lacks systematic discussion of the problem of light. For the Tibetans who are pragmatically oriented the ability of creation and therapeutic aspect are important: its function of harmonizing the surroundings and organism through the interaction of the five colours. On the other hand, for the religious Tibetans what is crucial is the empirical aspect of light, the mystical experience, thanks to which they can achieve the liberating insight3.
Kontrul Rinpoché. L’approche du vajrayana // Dharma (1990). N 9. P. 12. Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye. Myriad Worlds. Buddhist Cosmology in Abhidharma, Kalacakra and Dzog-chen. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1995. P. 225. 3 This article is translated from Polish into English by Rafal Banka. 2
1 Much literature called «Klu‘bum» contains hundreds of similar myths and references to the pro- toorigin. 2 Stein R. A. La civilisation tib...
Published on Jan 12, 2012
1 Much literature called «Klu‘bum» contains hundreds of similar myths and references to the pro- toorigin. 2 Stein R. A. La civilisation tib...