Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle

Dzogchen as the Culmination of the Mahāyanā

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Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo
Translator(s): 
Dominic Sur
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Snow Lion Publications
    , January
     2017.
     272 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781611803686.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (1012-1088 CE) was a seminal figure in the history of Tibetan Buddhism. He lived at a time when Buddhism was being reinvigorated after more than a century of political and religious fragmentation. New Indian Buddhist lineages were spreading in Tibet, and some of these were actively critical of those lineages that had flourished during the Imperial Period (roughly 618-842). In this critical environment, Rongzom emerged as a champion of these earlier views and practices, which became known as the Nyingma—or ancient school, in contrast with the Sarma, or new schools. As the most important early philosophical defender of the Nyingma lineage, Rongzom occupies an important place in the pantheon of that school, where he is often placed side-by-side with such luminaries as Longchenpa (1308-1363 CE) and Jigmé Lingpa (1729-1798 CE). Despite his importance, however, the scholarly literature on Rongzom is surprisingly thin—the notable exceptions including the work of Heidi Köppl and Orna Almogi. Dominic Sur’s excellent translation and study of Rongzom’s Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle, therefore, is a particularly welcome addition to our understanding of early Tibetan Buddhist thought.

Sur divides Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle: Drogchen as the Culmination of the Mahāvanā into two broad sections, an introduction, and then the translation itself. The introduction provides the necessary context for understanding Rongzom’s work, both philosophically and historically. On the philosophical side, Sur’s introduction provides a succinct introduction to Rongzom’s ideas, particularly his vision of Dzogchen (Great Perfection; rdzogs chen) as the pinnacle of Mahāyāna practice. As Sur explains, Rongzom did not dismiss other Mahāyāna traditions entirely. Instead, Rongzom presents these traditions as part of a continuum with Dzogchen. Dzogchen, in Rongzom’s presentation, can be initiated even when one is still practicing the Śrāvaka path. Rongzom’s view of the place of Dzogchen within Mahāyāna practice, therefore, presents an early, and quite interesting, example of philosophical inclusivism.

While Rongzom’s ideas are interesting in their own right, they also occupy an important place in the history of Tibetan thought. Recognizing this, Sur spends a considerable portion of his introduction elaborating on the historical context that makes Rongzom so influential. Sur sees Rongzom’s efforts as a defense of the Nyingma lineages in the face of the criticism that was, at the time leveled by proponents of Sarma lineages, particularly the western Tibetan rulers Lha Lama Yeshé Ö and Podrang Zhiwa Ö. Sur notes that Rongzom does not call out these authors by name, but does suggest that he was likely aware of their criticisms of the Nyingma lineages, thus situating Rongzom as one of the earliest, and most important, Nyingma apologists in Tibet, specifically defending his tradition against well-known Sarma critiques.

In many ways, in fact, it is Rongzom’s position as an early defender of Nyingma ideas that makes his work so interesting. Adequately introducing this context is, therefore, crucial in any attempt to investigate his work. While Sur’s introduction does a reasonable job of introducing this context in just a few pages, I sometimes found myself wishing that he had gone into more detail. Sur mentions in a footnote (215n7) that his forthcoming monograph will investigate many of these points in full detail, and I look forward to reading this book once it is published. Nevertheless, to my mind, a longer, more substantial introduction would have been nice in this present work as well.

Yet the introduction is simply that: an introduction. The bulk of this book is comprised of Sur’s translation of Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle itself. The first thing to say here is that Sur’s translation is clear and precise. He clearly possesses an intimate understanding of the text, and this understanding is reflected in his translation work. I freely admit that I have not compared the entire translation against the Tibetan original, but I did go through and compare a few select passages, and I am pleased to report that my reading of the text aligns quite closely with Sur’s. Furthermore, Sur clearly has taken pains to consistently translate the same Tibetan words with the same English terms throughout the entire text. This may seem like an obvious point, but given the fact that translations as significant as this one can easily take years to complete, it is actually fairly simple for slight changes in terminology to creep into a translation over the long course of its preparation. That this has not happened here is a testament to Sur’s diligence and attention to detail.

Sur’s translation work is so clear and consistent, in fact, that I often felt like I could see the Tibetan through the translation. That is, I felt like it was possible to have a good guess at the Tibetan grammar and terminology simply on the basis of Sur’s translation. At first, I thought of this as a problem. Tibetan can be dense and repetitive, and in my own translation work, I generally try to render the English in a way that is both clear and accurate, and yet is also literarily compelling. Often this entails varying my terminology or rendering the same Tibetan grammatical structures differently at different times, with the goal of creating an English translation that grabs the reader and draws them through the narrative. As I went further into Sur’s text, however, I decided that what would seem to me like a problem in my own translation work was actually a feature here. I tend towards translation narrative literature, and it is important to create an English translation that flows smoothly. In philosophical works such as Rongzom’s Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle, on the other hand, such an approach would not make sense. Precise grammar matters here, and small changes—even if intended to create more fluid English—could create confusion in the reader, or mis-represent Rongzom’s challenging and distinctive philosophical vision. By rendering Rongzom’s work in such clear and consistent English, Sur allows careful readers to grasp Rongzom’s ideas in all their complexity and nuance.

Before concluding, I’d like to take a moment to highlight one of the difficult, but valuable elements of Rongzom's text: his references and sources, which shed light on the development of early Dzogchen. There are upwards of 200 references, allusions to, and/or citations of other works throughout this text. Often, when citing another text, Rongzom does not provide the title or other identifying characteristics. Tracking these citations down, therefore, involves sifting through massive canons of textual material. While this work is now facilitated by digital access to many canonical collections, it is still complicated by the fact that Rongzom sometimes paraphrases, rather than citing his sources verbatim. Having spent many days trying to find just a few similarly obscure references myself, I can attest to the amount of work that Sur put into this project. In doing so, he has provided us with a fascinating picture of the nature of textual authority and transmission in early Dozgchen. Just these citations alone are a significant scholarly contribution to this literature.

In conclusion, Sur’s Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle is an important scholarly contribution to the literature on early Dzogchen in general, and on Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo, in particular. It provides a translation of one of Rongzom’s most important works and situates that work within its historical and philosophical contexts. By doing so, Sur makes this text available to scholars of Buddhist philosophy who do not read classical Tibetan with ease. Yet even for those whose Tibetan is up to the challenge, the scholarly apparatus Sur provides—his introductions and, especially, his notes—allows readers to fully appreciate this important work. It is my hope that Sur’s Entering the Way of the Great Vehicle will help elevate Rongzom’s profile in the Buddhist philosophical world, establishing him as one of the most important early Tibetan interpreters of Buddhist thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geoffrey Barstow is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Oregon State University. 

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (11th century) was an important translator and exegete of New Translation School literature and the first defender of the Old Translation School.

Dominic Sur is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of History at Utah State University.

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