How to Count the Four Permutations of Actual and Basis
Homage to the guru!
What follows is in response to a request to clarify briefly what has been said on the method of counting the four permutations (mu bzhi) of ‘actual basis’ (dngos gzhi) in the great guidance manual of the Heart-Essence.
‘Basis’ here means the nature of the ground — as one of the triad of ground, path and fruition (gzhi lam ’bras gsum). ‘Actual’ means that it is made evident (mngon du gyur pa). These two refer, therefore, to what must be realized (rtogs bya) and the means of realization (rtogs tshul).
The ground is said to include the three qualities of essence (ngo bo), nature (rang bzhin) and compassionate resonance (thugs rje). Of these, compassionate resonance is taught so that one might understand how the ground functions and so that one might know the main point of the mode of liberation (grol lugs); it is not however the actual ground. Essence and nature, which are explained as emptiness and clarity, correspond to the two qualities of space (dbyings) and awareness (rig), into which the ground is divided. And this means that the ground here should not be taken to mean awareness alone.
Although the text uses the example of a temple and its representations of enlightened body, speech and mind, which are related in the manner of support and supported (rten dang brten pa), this only applies to the examples; it is not an assertion that the referents are similarly related as support and supported. The example for basis in the first permutation is a temple, whereas in the second permutation it is the features (mtshan nyid) of the three representations. The referent (don) of these examples, however, is the same, i.e., the basis, in both earlier and later permutations. If the basis were not illustrated differently like this, then because there is no contradiction between seeing a temple and its three representations and yet not being able to determine the features of the three representations, there would be no means of distinguishing being both the actual and the basis from being the actual but not the basis. This would then mean that the example could not successfully illustrate the superiority of the yoga of the Heart-Essence.
Even if the ground continuum that is to be realized has been realized, if it is not realized directly, meaning in actual direct experience, then it is said to be the basis but not the actual. It is evident that this is what is meant, even if some of the words are not spelled out explicitly. When we say, “realized in actual direct experience”, it means realized directly (dngos su), as when, for example, there is no need for the intermediary of an object-universal (don spyi; *arthasāmānya). Direct is thus not the opposite of implicit (shugs); nor does it imply that realizing the lack of true reality in a single phenomenon leads indirectly to such realization concerning other phenomena.
Now let us consider how each permutation is identified.
1. Basis but not Actual
Let us say that through the guru’s kindness in granting instructions, you gain a special understanding of the procedure for distinguishing the ordinary mind (sems) and pure awareness. Then you understand that there is a great difference in the basis of accomplishment separating the higher paths of the vehicle of transcendent perfections (pāramitā) and the lower classes of tantra from the full strength of realization on this path. Even if, in addition, you then gain some certainty through an understanding of the actuality (de kho na nyid) beyond extremes, if you have not mastered the practice for eliminating projections through the force of experience, you are still at the level of the first permutation—that of seeing the temple, but not seeing the three representations. The analogy here is equivalent to the statement in the Adhyāśayasaṃcodanasūtra that, “In this, talk is like the outer layer…etc.” And about this the Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle says: “This is comparable to those few who leave Dzogchen at the basic level, without applying it practically, and simply spout hot air about dharmatā, so that they die an ordinary death.”
2. Actual but not Basis
When receiving pith instructions, at first when the ‘course’ (dkyus) is revealed, you recognize it as basic space (dbyings). Then, when the ‘runner’ (rgyug byed) is shown directly, it is lucidly clear, free from the dust of conceptualization; ordinary without the tight knots of contrivance; and all-pervasive, unconfined by fragmentary appearances. You recognize somewhat vaguely what has these distinctive features. When you apply this to basic space and awareness it seems to be Dzogchen, and when you identify and sustain that trace of what has the features of pure awareness, the self-radiance (rang mdangs) of the ground appears to grow clearer. Then you clear away faults in meditation such as sinking dullness and you cultivate the tranquillity (śamatha) that is common to all vehicles. You might decide again that your recognition of pure awareness is unerring, but as your mind was not previously matured through a stable understanding of the distinction [between mind and awareness], your experience has become confused. There can be no identification of pure awareness. It is as if there is no vital point at which to apply moxibustion (me btsa’). You can no longer identify the aspect of basic space as a feature of extraordinary primordial purity. This is the actual but not the basis, which is likened to seeing the three representations but not determining their features. As it says in Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle: “Some instructions strike the right chord at the beginning, but, by failing to cut through the limitations of verbalism, do not remain with the crucial point and turn instead into speculation.” Thus, this does not mean simply that experience becomes confused and you settle into that confusion, but that even before that the root of all experience and realization is unstable.
3. Neither Actual nor Basis You might think, “All phenomena are empty,” confusing a nihilistic extreme (chad mtha’) for basic space. Or, even if you manage to avoid such confusion, you might fail to understand the key point of meditation, which is how to relate to this natural state (gnas lugs), the ground, in this vehicle. There are some who cannot distinguish between discovering the view of the Middle Way and receiving the introduction in Dzogchen. You can understand from the texts just how inappropriate it is to treat these two as equivalent: as their approach to analysis and settling is so dissimilar, there is said to be a great difference between them.
You might describe a mere penetrating clarity (sal le hrig ge ba) of the essence of mind in lofty terms, such as “wisdom that is inward and not dull” (thim la ma rmugs pa’i ye shes) or “inner luminosity” (nang gsal) and so on. And when asked how this differs from the meditative absorption of non-Buddhist outsiders, you might say that it comes down to whether there is attachment to experience. But professing such impoverished Dharmas (phongs chos) is to have neither basis nor the actual, a situation likened to failing to see the temple and the three representations. As the earlier [commentary, i.e., Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle] says, “Those who adopt an approach of speculative view and meditation based on the general terminology common to all vehicles are not introduced to the true meaning, and therefore fail to recognize where they must go in the end.”
Here, the great guidance manual (Yeshe Lama) says, “You will remain ordinary at the time of death.” Yet the Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle says something similar about the first permutation. Although these are two different ways of remaining ordinary (tha mal), both are similar in that they involve a failure to capture what develops in meditation. The third permutation obviously denotes an inability to discover the key point of the instructions. It could also mean receiving the instructions in their entirety, but then failing to apply successfully in practice what has been received. This might affect even supreme students, as can be understood from the sequence of listening, reflecting and meditating. There would therefore be no logical fault in including such a situation within the first permutation, as explained above. Nevertheless, the Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle explains the first permutation as, above all, a failure to discover entirely the key points of the instructions, as is clear from the phrase “without taking to hand” (lag tu blang du med par).
The meaning of this is that when you are training in other perfection stage practices of Highest Yoga Tantra, for example, you might understand the explanations of the clear light or wisdom form (ye shes kyi sku; jñānakāya), but unless you also fully understand the practices through which they are accomplished—the yogas of channels, wind-energies and essences—you are just like a boatman without any oars. Similarly, you might understand the explanations of awareness and its radiance or the meaning of the ground and ground-manifestations, but unless you are also skilled in the definitive points of how to remain and thereby transform your understanding into the essence of the path and fruition, it will be just as in the saying: “In the desert of ambiguous treatises, stricken by thirst and left to die.”
All of this means that even thoroughly studying and reflecting upon works in which the various aspects of the Dzogchen path are clearly and comprehensively set out will enable you to go beyond the first three permutations to some degree; whereas if you undertake all three—study, reflection and meditation—well you will be able to transcend them all completely. That is clear.
You might wonder why the guidance manual (Yeshe Lama) explains the second permutation by saying, “There is some understanding derived from conceptual analysis, but it is unconnected to experience…” and explains the first permutation by saying, “This refers to relying upon mere words… as the view and meditation.” How, you might ask, are such statements to be reconciled with what is explained here? There is no fault. In the earlier case, experience is not yet stable, so the negation is used for what is meagre (rather than absent entirely), as can be understood from the quotation given above. And in the second case, what is born of reflection and what is born of listening are taken together as one.
Although there are further points that might be added, this should suffice for a simple list.
4. Both Actual and Basis The Treasury of the Supreme Vehicle explains the fourth permutation by saying: “Since you see pure awareness directly, you no longer rely on ideas about what view and meditation might be. As the ground is seen, there is no basis for turning back.” If you relate this to what has been said above, it is extremely simple.
This was not an explanation of the term actual basis (or main part) as understood in the general language of the scriptures, but how it is applied in Dzogchen, which separates the two words actual and basis and counts the permutations.
Even though it is not possible for the likes of me to explain the intent of the omniscient Guru, I have quickly set down a few ideas as they occurred to me. May the wise such as you examine it with a broad mind. May there be virtue and auspiciousness!
Higgins, David. The Philosophical Foundations of Classical Rdzogs chen in Tibet: Investigating the Distinction Between Dualistic Mind (sems) and Primordial Knowing (ye shes). Vienna: Arbeitkreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 2013.
Pearcey, Adam. A Greater Perfection? Scholasticism, Comparativism and Issues of Sectarian Identity in Early 20th Century Writings on rDzogs-chen. Unpublished PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London. 2018.
In other words, if the example did not change, then given that seeing the three representations necessarily involves seeing the temple in which they are housed, there would be no distinction between this example (seeing only the representations) and the fourth example (seeing both the temple and its representations). ↩
This term is a karmadhāraya compound, so, strictly speaking, translations such as “generic object” are incorrect. On the use of this term in Indian and Tibetan writings on logic and epistemology see Tillemans 1999: 234. ↩
The sūtra compares talk or words to the outer layer or ‘bark’ of sugar cane which gives no flavour. The sweet taste, which is inside the cane, is likened to the actual meaning of what is said. Understanding the meaning is like tasting the sugar. ↩