Dzogchen As Gnosticism: A Phenomenological View
Transmission of Light
In the summer of 2013 at the Tibetan Center in Poolesville, Maryland the great Lama YangThang Rinpoche gave instruction on the practice of the great compassion, or as he described the practice, as being the practice of Absolute Compassion. The instruction was to extend the light of awareness into the world and into the cosmos. Extending the light of awareness into the present moment of a person, extending the light of awareness into the past time of the person and extending the light of awareness into the future time of the person.
This truly is the great practice of the great compassion and everyone can practice this extension of the light of awareness. This very proactive praxis brings forth the light within us and fills us with the light of the field of awareness. It is great to practice this vast practice. Of course it takes a boldness of intention and passion of heart.
Extending the light of our innermost awareness into the present of those we love, and into the past of those we love, and then extending the light into their future of those we love is self-liberating. The light of awareness illuminates experience, metabolizes experience, opens us into un-bound awareness, undoes fixated-ness, and brings forth luminous intensity. The light of awareness is pure potentiality. The same practice can be used with those whom we hate or dislike or whom disgust us.
This practice of extending the light of awareness deepens our own experience of becoming aware of awareness. As we practice extending the light of awareness, awareness itself completely opens up for us and deepens our experience in depth and breath. In time we begin to experience the true secret of this praxis. Timeless awareness begins to be experienced by us and sustained by us. Timeless awareness is the essence of Dzogchen. And so, as we are in abiding in timeless awareness, we extend the light from the dimension of timeless awareness into the dimension of time.
In Dzogchen, as in Heideggerian phenomenology, there are four times. There is the time of the present momentum, there is the time of the past, and there is the time of the future. Most profoundly there is the fourth time, the time of timeless awareness. To be able to be in timeless awareness and then bring forth this dimension into time for ourselves and others is a most wonderful experience and skill. In time we will find ourselves having facility with being in timeless awareness and in time simultaneously.
This great practice is not only an essence of Dzogchen praxis, this practice is also reflective of early Christian gnostic praxis. The great translator of Tibetan text and teacher of Tibetan studies, Herbert Guenther who influenced many generations of Tibetan scholars with his translations and his scholarship and understanding of the Vajrayana. He suggested in his magnificent text on Padmashambhava that early Dzogchen practice (7th 8th and 9th century) was influenced by the early Christian Gnostics. The early Christian Gnostic’s were practitioners of gnosis or jnana, or direct knowingness of Ultimate Reality as pervasive divinity as light. The Gnostics also practiced the transmission of the light from one person to another and from one group to others.
Early Gnostics and the Light
The early Gnostics understood that Jesus, the Christ Consciousness was an expression and embodiment of the primordial light. The same primordial divine light that both manifests and pervades everyone and everything. This light is the light and radiance of innate awareness. Human beings are the embodiment of luminous primordial awareness.
The gnostic path was the path of the self-revelation of the light. The path of the light is the direct path of gnosis, the direct path of knowing divine light both within self and within the world. The gnostic path was the path of experiencing the divine light unfolding within our life experience, and the light unfolding as our innermost experience of subjectivity. Everything is the manifestation of the light.
Early Christian text were gnostic in essence and in origin. For instance for the early Christian Gnostics, the gospel of John was a Gnostic text, a text about the divine light of consciousness. “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” This is the gospel of the logos. This is the gospel of illumination.
For the gnostic practitioners, Jesus said that he was the light,, and he was the light of the world. The world was light, divine light and everything of the world and in the world was the very same light. Jesus was pointing out the nature of human awareness as being luminous radiance knowingness.
The early Christian Gnostics were radical in their understanding that God dwells within them as them and God dwells within the world as the world. God is light. The light is the source of human consciousness as well as all beings. For the gnostic Christian, Jesus taught this understanding about the divine light being embodied by everyone and everything.
Orthodox Christianity and the Gnostic Light
Of course there was another understanding of the gospel of John and this was the understanding of the growing clerical organization of the institutional church. For many of the bishops especially Athanasius the bishop of Antioch, Egypt, Jesus alone, was the light of God and Jesus alone, gave light to the world. Jesus was the only path to God. Jesus alone, was the word. And the path of light was through Jesus alone, and through the church alone, since the church alone was the path to Jesus. And of course there was the early church understanding that outside the church there was no salvation, there was only darkness outside of orthodox Christianity.
This constant interpretation of the growing institutional clergy was dramatically reified and solidified from the year 325 AD onward. This is the year the Christian creed was formulated by the counsel of Nicaea. In this year of 325 AD, Constantine declared that the old Roman Empire was now the Holy Roman Empire and there a fusion between the Roman church and the royalty of holy Christian church and thus the Holy Roman Empire. The Roman Empire and the growing spirituality of the Christ as expressed by the Catholic Church hierarchy was now one. Religion and royalty were now fused.
The unbound luminous spirituality of Jesus had become an institutionalized religion. Jesus became institutionalized. The growing path of light was usurped by the Roman emperor Constantine. A smart political move, for the despot who had only recently murdered his son. In this move in declaring the Holy Roman Empire, he fused religion and royalty. The official clerical and political interpretation was dogmatically defined and reinforced that Jesus was the only expression of God, the only way to God was through Jesus, and the only way to Jesus was through the Roman Church and its sacraments and its priesthood.
This fusion of royalty and religion was sustained and maintained by torture, murder, continuous mass horror. The use of horror was used within the Holy Roman Church. The Holy Roman Catholic Church focused relentlessly for centuries on heretics as a mode of political and religious domination.
The actual teachings of the Gnostics were distorted by the orthodox clerical Roman church. The heretical Gnostics were described by the church as being anti-body, anti-human, anti-life and even anti-Christ. These distortions were used over and relentlessly throughout the entire course of church history to attack gnostic practitioners as heretics.
Most of all the Roman church hated the understanding and the praxis of the Gnostics in their direct experiential perception and direct experience of divinity. The church hated the understanding and praxis of gnosis. The ecclesiastic church hated the gnostic practices that supported the direct experiential experience of divinity and the experiential embodiment of divinity. The church hated the personal experiential transmission of the light. This was, and is the most threatening understanding because this transmission of the light implies the unmediated experience of the divine. This directness of experiencing the embodiment of the divine light challenges the power of the fusion of religion and royalty. This experiential directness of the luminous experience undoes hierarchy, undoes the priestly caste systems, and invokes the experience of God as light as dwelling with everyone and anyone. The distortions about Gnosticism were elaborated for centuries as a way of the church undermining the Gnostic tradition and destroying the tradition by the relentless program of murder and juridical power throughout the centuries.
Original Gnostic Text
Then a most dramatic and historical change took place. The year was 1945. Many ancient gnostic text that were previously hidden for centuries were discovered and made public. Thus a view was now possible that was not the destructive reframing of clerical Roman church. The newly found gnostic texts opened the experience of the pure nature of the early Christian Gnostics. These negative attributions of the church against the gnostic Christians was a projected descriptions of their own anti- libidinal preoccupation and self- hatred of embodiment.
The rediscovered text presented the understanding that Light of awareness was completely and pervasively present in every human being and in every situation. This actuality is fully capable of being known directly by everyone in every situation. The gnostic tradition empowered everyone.
The Gnosis of direct perception was the natural capacity of all human beings. Becoming aware of awareness was the light becoming aware of itself, both within the person, and within the circumstances of life. This capacity to directly know the light of awareness as the light is the essence of direct perception.
I began this discussion about Dzogchen as Gnosticism by introducing the practice of the great compassion as transmission of the light of awareness into the three times of a person. This practice of radiance light is both a practice in Dzogchen and a practice of the gnostic traditions. I then focused on a brief history of Christian Gnosticism. I will now introduce Padmashambhava who has been described as a great Dzogchen master who helped introduced the Dzogchen teachings in Tibet. He was a master of the Radiance of the Light of Awareness.
Padmashambhava : Dzogchen and Gnostic Master
Padmashambhava personified the Dzogchen teachings. Padmasambhava was a person of mystery and symbolic fiction. He lived in the 8th century and his name symbolized living within the world without being enslaved by its vicissitudes, without being captured by contained mind, and containing circumstances. He lived within the spaciousness of freedom and the trans-lucidity of light as the great expanse of awareness. His path of freedom was living in spaciousness and light and not the detachment of depersonalization and disengagement. His personhood personifies the Dzogchen view.
Padmashambhva lived within the space of freedom and action during the wild events of the 8th century in Tibet. Some think he came from Pakistan and others from Iran and others from still other places. Most believe wherever the place, the place of his origin was a country where the gnostic views were vital and alive. He is not an Indian and not a Tibetan. His thought was gnostic, in that he understood and experienced human awareness as the power of space and radiance of light. This power of space and radiance was a source of human freedom and self-liberation. His thought was gnostic and as a gnostic he understood that humans are beings of light and the process of the experiential embodiment of light was the source of self-liberation. He lived and understood that the luminous knowing of primordial awareness was the innermost sense of self. The self was not the self of the mind alone, but the innermost, experiential knowingness of direct perception, direct experience and direct awareness. Innermost awareness was the inner self.
Direct luminous perception as gnosis was for Padmashambhava the natural path of self-liberation. Self-liberation arises through self-awareness and self-recognition of what is already present within us as us. To experientially know who you are in essence, is to become the who-ness of being itself.
Padmashambhava lived in the realm of the Siddhas and wherever he was the Siddha realm would become manifest in its completeness. He would suggest that where ever and whenever he was present, he invoked the Dakini realm and the archetypal realms would become manifest. He was a master of manifestation. His expression of the Vajrajnana was shamanistic and inclusive of the power of the invocation of the light.
He would also speak from within his own experience in a most direct and poetic manner. His language communicates the felt sense of his experience and is rich in symbolism which is dramatic. He gives a poetic and imaginative view of the subtle luminous universe of light and energy. This light and energy is experienced both in the relational world of ordinary life (Nirmanakaya) as well in the archetypal realms expressed as the deities and dakini’s.(Sambogakaya) His awareness lived within the luminous Dharmakaya which is the dimension of pure potentiality within which and from which everything and anything manifest.
Padmashambhava describes how we emerge from within the Dharmakaya and dissolve within the Dharmakaya. And then we reemerge again and dissolve again and then again reemerge and again dissolve. His abiding existential understanding is this who-ness who we are, and through this who-ness who we are manifesting. We bring forth this who-ness life after life and death after death. His confidence is that in essence we are unborn and undying, and we emerge life after life and death after death. He had the awesome power of extending the field of radiance light and energy, as well as the power to dissolve and liberate demonic forces through the extension of his field of light and energy.
His visionary experiences are of an imaginative nature wherein the experience is luminously subtle and the poetical language expresses what is beyond logical and the linear objectifying rational mind. There is no superego encapsulating and containing Padmashambhava. He is never bound by annihilation anxiety or the terror of deprivation. He was magical in his use of the power of invocation of the luminous archetypal energies and radiant light.
Human being-ness is the center of his understanding and work in a form of ageless mystical humanism within the context of luminous Gnosticism in which everyone and anyone is the divine light. Everything and everyone is light. All events are the unfolding of the light as forms. His expression and his understanding is distinctly a gnostic understanding which is human beings are beings of light and who have rational minds. He had great love for the natural power of jnana or direct knowing as unbounded gnosis, and he understood that everyone has this innate nature of primordial awareness and the capacity for the power of invocation of the sublime radiance.
Our humanness emerges out of the innate potentiality that we are essentially. We are manifested from this primordial ground awareness. This primordial ground awareness is both space and radiance. This primordial awareness is also energy and the resonance of compassion. For Padmashambhava compassion was not a sentiment but sublime generative action of the radiant light of the heart essence that liberates beings from endless suffering. Compassion is both benevolent and fierce. Compassion is the light of the moon as well as the light of the sun.
This manifestation is not of our mind alone but primordial awareness manifesting everything and anything, including our minds, bodies, and subjectivity itself. This dynamic potential expresses itself in living symbols, living icons of trans-lucidity. Everything is within this symbolic translucent realm of being.
The experiencer is not mind alone, such as our mind of thinking, feeling, sensation, memory or fantasy. This mind is secondary phenomena to the dimension of awareness. The ego logical self as mind is emergent from within this large field of awareness itself which is manifesting in time and space. This awareness is multidimensional and simultaneously beyond time and beyond space. We are timeless awareness and we are timeless light in time.
Padmashambhava named this drama as Snying Po which means sheer intensity or individuated energy or the creative force of vortices. This is similar to what Jung called psychic energy or psyche and the Gnostics called Pleroma, the fullness of no thingness or the no thingness of fullness. Padmashambhava’s teaching is luminous, mystical Gnosticism in which we can experience the unfolding of luminous elemental-ness as the universe and as the pervasive divinity.
The dynamics of this intensity manifest through human experience, and all forms and all symbols are of a luminous radiant quality. The universe is radiant light energy. As experiencers, we are already luminous beings living in the immediacy of these universal energies. We live in the world and live within this luminous sensuous nature as place and space. The immediacy of sheer experience is found nowhere else but within our daily experience, and within the ever present translucent symbolic reality of all that is.
The symbolic reality is not only mental but is the archetypal configuration of actualities that are present in us. We enter in them and them in us. Padmashambhava’s teachings are free of rationalistic legal thought and he often characterizes the human person as the little man who is the wholeness of self-manifesting light. The primordial field of ground awareness manifests individual fields of brilliance and radiance.
Padmashambhava’s understanding about the nature of awareness was different then earlier Buddhist understanding about awareness and the nature of mind. The first turning of the Dharma (5th century BC) by Guatama was the understanding of mind as thought. The second turning of the dharma (2nd century AD) was the understanding expressed by Nagarjuna and the mind was understood to be emptiness. And the third turning of the Dharma (5th century AD) by the Uttara Tantra was that the nature of mind was wisdom gnosis or Buddha mind. So at this stage the traditional teaching about awareness such as expressed in Madhyamika was that the nature of awareness was cosmic emptiness. I consider that there was a fourth turning of the wheel of Dharma during the 9th century and this event was carried forth by Padmshambhava in his unbound understanding that the nature of awareness is not only emptiness but radiant light. This is a foundational change. Padmashambhava is symbolic of this change of the understanding that the nature of primordial awareness is radiance and emptiness or to express this another way light and spaciousness or still another way luminosity and openness.
Herbert Guenther and His Text on the Teaching of Padmashambhava
In his great text The Teachings of Padmashaambhava, Herbert Guenther presents an existential understanding of Padmashambhava. I am going to use some of Guenther’s descriptions of Padmashambhava’s understanding. I am transliterating Guenther’s statements and understanding that focus on Padmashambhava’s teachings in the light of Gnosticism.
Padmashambhava understands that the human person is the cosmic whole self-manifestation of light in singularity. The self-arising of light within the person break apart the mental frames which contain spiritual pursuit as beliefs of the representational mind, and the self-arising of light destroys representational thought and replaces belief (both personal and cultural) with a profound unbinding and unbounded experience. The intensity of the radiance can be fragmenting, and the mind as well as the body seem to be falling into pieces.
Through the unfolding of this intensity of light of awareness, the vast light of luminous openness as the innate core of all is manifested and revealed. The unfolding of the light is self-revelation of the innate guru or the innate Buddha mind or Shiva consciousness or the Lumen Christos.
This unfolding of awareness brings a person into existential authenticity and this authenticity is manifested with immediacy and suddenness. The totality of that which exists is without exception, the radiance light. From within the fragmentation of the personality of mind alone, authenticity arises and becomes the organizer of the personality.
The wholeness of intensity/energy becomes a vortex of light. The light expands and appears as bindu us and circles of light. The light is both within the person’s mind and embodiment and suffuses everything and anything around the person. The primordial ground of Being is the ground of radiance and spaciousness. The primordial ground of Being is also the ground of gnosis, jnana or yeshe, knowingness as light. Self-illumination is a difficult experience and beyond a person’s comprehension. This experience is beyond words and beyond language and cannot be thought.
This means the totality of all that is, is indivisible and undetermined. There is a ceaseless spontaneous non conceptual happening that is opening and shining, self-illuminating and radiating, giving and manifesting everything and anything.
The cosmological whole’s intensity/energy becomes luminous vortices of radiance giving birth to thoughts and language and to human meaning. The self-illuminating experience of awareness outshines all other spiritual paths by brilliance and radiance and naturalness and the intensity of direct knowingness.
Within this personal experience of manifestations of cosmological whole and intensity energy there is no judgement as to fault or virtue, no wrong or right and no truth or falsity. Non judgment does not mean being without discrimination of direct perception or gnosis. Situational reality is the manifestation of ultimate reality.
Awareness itself fragments us and breaks us and self illuminates us, and liberates us. For Padmashambhava there is a vast luminous field of knowingness beyond our contained mind. The sense of being located in mind alone can feel like being contained and in a bound solipsistic box. The light of awareness can break through us, breaks us open and we are terrified of the vastness of the light. Through the dissolving of our aversion to the luminosity, the experiential emergence of the awareness field happens and the brightness emerges as unbound completeness and then the abyss of darkness is dissolved. This is the inner meaning of Dzogchen as the great perfection or great completeness.
The elements are light and the elemental-ness as light is also the gnostic understanding of Valentinus and other forms of both western and eastern Gnosticism. Elemental-ness is central to Padmasambhava’s work. From the view of elemental-ness everything is alive and moving and translucent. There is the relentless unfolding of the trans-lucidity of awareness and the trans-lucidity of appearance. The world is anima mystic. The universe is luminous psyche.
Padamashambhava created and taught methods for gazing into the light. He was a master of Togal the leaping into the light methods of Dzogchen. These gazing methods of Togal bring a person into the completeness of self-luminousity. Our mind is not the source of liberation. The mind is a box that can be opened to the infinite field of light. The experience of the light is both the source and the result of self-liberation.
Padmashambhava thought that the human mind with its dichotomizing activities directs a person to take positions opposing reality, and (the laws and ways of rational consciousness) narrow reality, impoverishing and enclosing it within the mind’s narrow rationalistic thinking. The mind cannot grasp the nature of awareness and the mind alone cannot grasp the intensity luminosity of everything and anything. The mind cannot grasp Being and cannot grasp the being-ness of Being. The mind can apprehend form and detail, particularity and singularity, and the mind can grasp difference. Awareness experiences Being and the being-ness of Being. Awareness is the light experiencing the light.
The Influence of Gnosticism on Dzogchen
Throughout the history of Christianity there are many forms and traditions of Gnosticism. I would like to recommend the wonderful text Rainbow Body and Resurrection by Francis Tiso for a studied elaboration of the influence of gnostic Christianity on Dzogchen. The text is the study of the light unfolding in Dzogchen and Gnostic traditions.
Tiso with his knowledge both of Gnosticism and Dzogchen surveys the history of the influence of Gnosticism and Dzogchen in their mutual understanding of the radiance of the light. He begins with the spirituality of the Syriac church of the east, and proceeds through other forms of gnostic thinking such as Manichaeism. He also describes how the radical gnostic teachings about the luminous direct perception of the divine was so disturbing to the Patriarchal clergy over the centuries. The same can be said about Dzogchen teachings and practice on the visibility of the light being disturbing to the Tibetan Buddhist Clergy of the new translation traditions. This emphasis on the light, this emphasis on Togal praxis was beyond the mentality of Indian philosophy. The great tantra of the light the Guhyagarbha tantra which is the 8th century source tantra of the Nyingma tradition was often condemned by the new translation traditions such as Gelugpa and Sakya.
There is an ancient book written in the 8th century named The Realization of Profound Peace and Joy by the Christian monk Jingjing and this text was found hidden within a cave in Dunhuang, China. This ancient text focused on the dialogue of Chinese Buddhism and Christianity. The teachings in the text is a blending and synthesis of Gnostic Christian Buddhist teachings.
The book presents the view of the Silk Road nations, wherein the gnostic traditions of the light, the religions of the light influenced each other as well as the Buddhist. Tiso presents the unfolding view of the Buddhist Dzogchen traditions of the light. In Tibet much of this influence took place in the early Tibet of 7th 8th 9th and 10th centuries. This influence was of Chan Buddhism, Daoism, Tantric Kashmir Shavism and various Christian Gnostic as well as Iranian mysticism. The religions of light were gnostic teachings that were becoming pervasive during these centuries. The orthodox traditions of monastically bound traditions in the various religions would often stand against the unfolding gnostic radicalization.
God As Good and Evil, God as Light and God as Darkness
Gnosticism were preoccupied not only with the light but with the drama of good and evil, light and darkness. Many of the various gnostic traditions considered God or Divinity as both good and evil. God or Divinity is both light and darkness. Divinity is understood to manifest goodness and evilness.
How to understand this relentless duality and how does Dzogchen give and understanding to this dramatic duality. Dzogchen tradition understand that primordial ground awareness is divinity manifesting everything and anything. This pure luminous compassionate primordial ground awareness manifests everything and anything. From this dimension of non-duality, duality arises. From this dimension of oneness differences arises. From this potential space of indivisibleness infinite forms of phenomena are created and manifested.
In Dzogchen language the Dharmakaya is primordial awareness as non- duality. This primordial light is completely total goodness, total compassion. And then within the self- manifestation of awareness, the self-manifestation of the Dharmakaya into the self-manifestation as the duality of phenomena. All phenomena is both non dualistic and dualistic simultaneously. At the level of non- duality all phenomena are total ontological goodness and at the level of duality there is dualistic experience of goodness and evilness, light and darkness phenomenologically. Difference brings forth dualism and duality and there is the arising of simultaneous pairs of opposites. And so through duality we can experience non duality and through non duality we can experience duality. As Parmenides pointed out over a 2000 years ago the world is oneness and difference. The world is difference within oneness and oneness within difference.
This view is same in many gnostic tradition. Primordial Consciousness is the light as Divinity and as Total Goodness. The light self-manifests itself as the various forms of phenomena as difference and as duality .The light is total goodness and at the level of self-manifestation there is experienced range of difference of both goodness and evilness of both light and darkness.
This difference within phenomena is not only on the level of ordinary human experience or the Nirmanakaya level to use Dzogchen language, but also there is dualistic difference even at the subtle energetic luminous forms of archetypal energies. Even at the archetypal level there are dualistic archetypal realities that are benevolent and malevolent. There are luminous archetypal realities of light and archetypal realities of darkness.
In the non-duality of pure awareness there is total goodness and out of this realm of total compassion everything and anything is created and brought forth. Self-arising from the Dharmakaya, the archetypal is manifested and from within the archetypal, the Nirmanakaya is manifested as ordinary life. Everything, absolutely everything is the great expanse of the Dharmakaya. Everything is the manifestation of Divinity, Divinity dwells within everything as Divinity. Within the darkness there is luminosity.
The Washington Center for Consciousness Studies and the Washington Center for Phenomenological and Existential Psychotherapy Studies