Finding Rest in the Nature of the Mind

Trilogy of Rest, Volume 1

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Longchenpa
Translator(s): 
Padmakara Translation Group
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Shambhala
    , December
     2017.
     384 pages.
     $32.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781611805161.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Religious traditions are imbued with an authority that is structured and animated by notions of continuity and validity. While a variety of elements may be brought to bear on the task of instantiating and transmitting religious tradition, none is more formal, public, and definitive than doctrine: systematic (often rational) ideological self-presentation frequently linked with the narrative and ritual dimensions of the tradition. Within Buddhist traditions, the doctrinal dimension of religion constitutes an important arena for projecting religious identity and authority. Any Buddhist community that claims to represent and transmit an authoritative tradition may be expected to produce an arguably distinctive and authoritative doctrinal discourse. Such doctrines are not created out of thin air, and they do not get delivered into the world whole. Doctrines are the products of social practices, historical events, languages, and—inter alia—competition. With this in mind, we can deepen our appreciation for the form and content of the recent publication of Finding Rest in the Nature of the Mind: The Trilogy of Rest, Volume 1 (Tib: sems nyid ngal gso), a translation of a text authored by one of the outstanding luminaries of Tibetan Buddhism, Longchen Rabjampa Drimé Özer, also known as Longchenpa (1308–1364).

In the first volume of The Trilogy of Rest (Tib: ngal gso skor gsum), Shambhala Publications has produced a handsome volume for the English-reading world worthy of Tibet’s sacred literature. The Padmakara Translation Group (PTG) has done a great service in offering a new and readable translation of this important work. Finding Rest contains 4 parts: part 2 consists of two forwards and a translator’s introduction; part 2 is the complete translation of Finding Rest; part 3 is a collection of twelve excerpts of various lengths drawn from Longchenpa’s corresponding (and gargantuan) auto-commentary on Finding Rest, titled The Great Chariot; and finally, in part 4, PTG has provided readers with notes (many of which comprise detailed passages from other Tibetan texts), a bibliography, an index, and a list of other works translated by PTG.

Finding Rest in the Nature of the Mind is an example of the lamrim (“stages of the path”) genre found in Tibetan literature, which is invested in outlining the preliminary practices (sngon ‘gro). However, unlike other lamrim texts, such as Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation (Snow Lion, 1998), Longchenpa details both non-tantric and tantric elements of the path from the perspective of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Composed in poetic verse, chapters 1-8 explore external and internal preliminaries of Buddhist practice, such as reflecting on impermanence, the workings of karma within the conditioned world of samsara, the benefits of altruism, and training under a qualified teacher. These topics function to shape the attitude and perceptions of the audience; to prime them for enacting a Buddhist worldview. The balance of the book—five chapters and a conclusion—treat the more esoteric topics of tantric theory and practice. These chapters also include visualizations for specifically tantric meditations. 

There is no doubt that translating and editing the textwas difficult, but PGT’s translation offers a readable and often mellifluous rendering of Longchenpa’s verse that captures the tone and tenor of his work. Having said that––and being duly impressed by another admirable effort by PGT––there are two elements of this publication that make it unwieldy and frustrating to read. 

First, the volume contains two texts read simultaneously: Finding Rest and the massive commentary,The Great Chariot. The former is the poem itself, short and didactic; the latter is arcane exegetical prose with extensive citations from scholastic literature. Therefore, rather than simply drinking up Longchenpa’s verse, readers find themselves reading two parallel texts, each with notations. For this reviewer, the format was distracting, disrupting the enjoyment of the verse. Second, it is not at all obvious why space is alotted some topics but not others. For example, more than forty pages are used explicating buddha nature when, for other concepts, such as coemergent ignorance, the reader is referred to another Padmakara book.There are other problems that concern scholars. For example, the source text is cited, but the precise passage is not identified (167 passim), and the rendering of titles is inconsistent; sometimes given in Sanskrit, sometimes English, sometimes a mix. 

The translator’s introduction (xix–xlvii) is remarkable for several reasons, not least of which is its unmitigated essentialism. According to PGT, the world is divided between “Western readers” (xxv), who are bound by a Western materialist worldview (one that doesn’t believe in ghosts and rebirth, apparently). “Tibetans, on the other hand, with their very different vision of the world, experience no such difficulty” (xxv) perceiving immaterial realities. Here, we encounter PGT’s strange view of Buddhist scholars throughout the Euro-American world. Western scholars are trapped in “the materialistic assumptions implicit in modern historical method [that] are inevitably and fundamentally at odds with the worldview of Tibetan Buddhism” (xxv). According to PGT, this means “often contemptuous dismissal by Western scholars of important elements of Tibetan religious culture” (xxv). This willingness to essentialize what amounts to millions of human beings is remarkable coming, as it does, without a whiff of irony or self-consciousness, from two European translators of Asian literature. It appears as though their concerns revolve around whether or not scholars studying Buddhism accept Buddhist metaphysics, immaterial realities, non-historical trajectories, and so on. PGT’s view, in this context, is simplistic––and unfortunate. This disregard for text-critical methods of scholarship infects the group’s approach to the author, his topics, and the source texts themselves. PTG maintain that establishing any knowledge about Longchenpa’s intellectual and scholarly development is “impossible” (xxxix), though it attempts such a description on the previous page. Such an attitude nevertheless immediately restricts PGT to synchronic analyses. This approach prevents readers from learning about Longchenpa’s development as a Buddhist philosopher: e.g., that notion of universal ground changed during his lifetime. It is different in Finding Rest—where it is linked with dharmadhātu (194–96)—than in other texts where it is explained in contrast with universal ground. PGT’s synchronic orientation also restricts it’s understanding of why Longchenpa composed “stages of the path” literature at a time when competing traditions also produced such genres. 

As noted above, religious doctrines do not fall out of the sky whole; they are products of human efforts as well as social and historical circumstances; but Padmakara rejects this idea––or, at least, seems of two minds about it. On the one hand, they tell us a feature of this work is that it is not the composition of “an ordinary mind” (xx). Rather, Longchenpa’s writingis reported to have “emanated” from (xix) or “sprung spontaneously from the state of Longchenpa’s enlightened wisdom” (xx), which places its “composition” beyond language and concepts. On the other hand, PGT hopes their translation will capture “the author’s essential meaning” (xlvi), a remarkable claim for a group that, one assumes, uses the same old ordinary mind the rest of us do when reading Longchenpa's work.

These minor points of contention do not diminish the fact PGT has offered yet another elegant translation of Buddhist scripture. To be sure, this one will, no doubt, rest at ease on the shelves of scholars, practitioners, and interested parties alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dominic Sur is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Utah State University.

Date of Review: 
March 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Longchen Rabjam (1308–1363), also known as Longchenpa, is a great luminary of Tibetan Buddhism. He was highly skilled in all aspects of scholarship from an early age and excelled throughout his life in the practice and accomplishment of the Dharma. Regarded as a great Dzogchen master, Longchenpa had many pure visions where he was given direct instructions from Guru Padmasambhava and is recognized as an emanation of Vimalamitra. Longchenpa’s prolific writings have made him one of Tibet’s most renowned and precious teachers.

The Padmakara Translation Group, based in France, has a distinguished reputation for all its translations of Tibetan texts and teachings. Its work has been published in several languages and is renowned for its clear and accurate literary style.

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