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Beacon of Certainty

Praeludium

Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso was a prolific teacher and writer of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, and the clearest, least twilight-language shrouded writer I know of who’ve been translated into English, who has a deep and unmistaken understanding of that body of knowledge (tantra, Madhyamaka, Ri-mèd, Dzogchen).

Among his works, Beacon of Certainty is a particularly concise condensation of pretty much the entirety of Madhyamaka teachings. David Chapman writes that “The Nyingma branch of Buddhism, to which I belong, considers Ju Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty the definitive text.”1See “Mipham” at https://meaningness.com/further-reading

Mipham himself was known for giving powerful condensations and commentary of established works, such as Luminous Essence, his condensation of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, which—according to Wikipedia (and to Mipham)—is “the main tantra of the Mahayoga class and the primary Tantric text studied in the Nyingma tradition as a key to understanding empowerment, samaya, mantras, mandalas and other Vajrayana topics.”

In profoundly unworthy imitation of Mipham Rinpoche’s style, I am here giving an extreme condensation of Mipham’s own work, the Beacon of Certainty. I’ve posted a thread to this effect on Twitter

but, given the extreme importance of the text, thought that it was worth expanding and giving a somewhat more stable place on the Internet. May all sentient beings benefit.

Important Disclaimer: I am not a legitimate holder of any Tibetan tantric lineage, and have not received the proper transmissions and empowerments from anybody.

With that, take my words only as they are. They are no more than they appear.

Introitus

Trapped in doubt’s net, one’s mind
Is released by the lamp of Mañjuvajra,
Which enters one’s heart as profound certainty.
Indeed, I have faith in the eyes that see the excellent path!

0.1.1.2.1.1.1

The Beacon of Certainty is introduced thus, as a treatise on certainty. This is not “certainty” in some strange esoteric sense, like the Faith of the Christians or the commitment of the sutric Buddhists2 yanas 1-6 according to this classification, but simple literal certainty in all that one may be certain of.

Therefore it is the certainty arrived in Madhyamaka3often translated “Middle Way,” see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/madhyamaka/ via the absolute negation of doubtful extremes.

The way to arrive at certainty is exactly by clearing doubt, and perhaps this is a reason the Beacon is structured as a sage’s responses to a series of seven questions4this page gives the questions, and the wiki may help with navigating this tradition/idiom especially with regards to terminology to test the sage’s true understanding of several issues beyond conventional scholarship.

Tema I

Q: According to which of the two negations do you explain the view?
[implicative, absolute]

The implicative negation is negation that implies something else, much like the classical logical complement. ¬p is as much a statement as p.

The absolute negation is negation that does not imply anything else, leaving one only closer to emptiness (except not actually, since form and emptiness are inextricably intertwined), to certainty.

Therefore the view is explained according to the absolute negation.

Tema II

Q: Do arhats realize both types of selflessness?
[of “I,” of phenomena]

Many spiritual paths of practice, the sutric Buddhist paths, in particular, involve much meditation on “I” and its transcience. It is often taught how the “I” is just a label attached to an agglomeration of matter and memories and such and separated from the rest of phenomenal experience.

Since the “I” is indeed absent of a permanent, unitary, independent identity, the arhat comes to the realization of the selflessness of “I.” However, this realization does not preclude the use of “I” as a useful category, concept, or reference in thought and communication. Sometimes it is good to think in frames without “I,” but not all the time.

Even less often is it useful, particularly in conventional everyday life or monastic residence, to conceive of “object-level” phenomena as lacking permanent, unitary identity. After all, why else would an object-oriented language for navigating life have emerged so hegemonically, to the preclusion of selflessness-recognition as the default mode?

Therefore though the arhat has the faculties necessary for recognizing the selflessness (perhaps better “objectlessness”) of all phenomena, she typically does not simply due to never meditating upon it, but only upon the domain of the “I.”

So the answer is: in potentiality yes, but in actuality no.

Tema III

Q: Does meditation involve modal apprehension?

“Modal” refers to finite conceptual divisibility. To approach things in terms of definite categories, names, concepts, systems etc. Anything that can be finitely captured in positive definition. Any countable set or its subsets, in the mathematical sense, as literally provable via diagonal arguments. Any haltable program.

The definition for “apprehend” as given by searching it on Google is given here for convenience.

For more perspective, the question is given on the Rigpa wiki as “Does meditation involve grasping at an object?”

David Chapman’s excellent hypertext book Meaningness claims to have originally been an attempt to “to write a short, straightforward explanation of Mipham’s answer”5See “Mipham” at https://meaningness.com/further-reading to this question. It’s not—the simple answer is just “yes.” Rather, Chapman’s work is an aid to doing the kind of meditation described in Mipham, providing an exploration of the four extremes (given by Chapman as eternalism, nihilism, monism, and dualism) that are commonly apprehended or apprehended from (sub-apprehended?), and why they are flawed.

Indeed, Mipham’s answer is that such exploration is the only way to arrive at certainty, by the elimination of doubts via the clear and untainted perception of what generates doubt: the modes as final.

Therefore meditation does involve modal apprehension, since it is through specifically directed meditation that doubt is cleared away and certainty arrived at wherever the meditation is directed. (And this is also why arhats often do not actually realize the second kind of selflessness).

Tema IV

Q: Does one meditate analytically or transically?

Analytical meditation is like what is commonly called “philosophy” or “introspection.” Pretty intuitive name.

Settling meditation is like what is commonly called “mindfulness meditation.” But it’s a bit more complicated.

Chapman’s Meaningness is a very good aid to analytical meditation. In the act of actively reading and thinking through it, really engaging with the ideas, especially when they are troubling, that is what you are doing. You may—privately or with the aid of other people and media—have had similar-feeling experiences that lead towards ever-clearer understanding, but not in a directly embodied way. That’s analytical meditation, and it’s important.

Given this, I think Lulie gives an amazing explanation of the connections between analytical and settling meditation in this Twitter thread.

In fact, I’ll just post the whole thing.

This is pretty much exactly why analytical meditation isn’t always ideal. Despite the most powerful wishes of my probable audience, pure thought isn’t going to give you a powerful and beautiful body for effectively doing things in the world, nor solve all your traumas6In almost all cases. Lulie tells me she’s seen people who are extremely heady but also extremely low-trauma, but that this is rare. This is also consistent with the esoteric canon—these people probably being suitable for the “mantric vehicle.” See this post. Settling meditation (and just plain physical exercise) is needed for such things, though perhaps pure and untainted thought inevitably leads to this realization.

Everything Lulie says also applies in the reverse direction, to show that settling meditation by itself is also not the ideal approach7Again, in almost all cases. There may be rare exceptions.. I am simply actively designing for my probable user-base. But this is especially relevant if you’re a firm mindfulness-meditation-and-nothing-elser, especially if you’re not explicitly committed to a sutric vehicle, with a competent teacher. If you loved Focusing, perhaps try Folding, or even try to dive into the depths of esoteric tantric philosophy itself8would recommend the 9th chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara (for current sutrics [Theravada, Zen]) and/or the actual Beacon of Certainty (for current tantrics [Vajrayana, Dzogchen]) to start with.

This all illustrates the practical meaning of this topic, but for conceptual/terminological clarification, the division between “analytical” and “transical” is not really about mind and body, but about how attention is actively directed. From what I hear and gather from bold section titles, the topic of Focusing is settling meditation, but Folding would actually be analytical meditation, since it goes into the spaces of which Gendlin repeatedly emphasizes “DO NOT GO INSIDE IT,” and “Stand back from it” (Chapter 4).

Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read either.

Therefore the answer to the inquiry is “both.”

Tema V

Q: Which of the two realities is most important?
[ultimate, relative]

The ultimate reality is called “ultimate” because there is nothing beyond it. It is arrived at by the constant elimination of any doubt that arises, like an infinitely powerful and infinitely recursive version of Occam’s razor. I elaborate a bit here.

However, the ultimate reality CERTAINLY cannot be expressed in form. To do so would literally be to solve the halting problem and to construct a (surely “sufficiently powerful”) consistent and complete formal system, both of which we know is impossible.

Yet the realities we navigate in everyday life can not and should not be defined exclusively outside of forms. To speak of “I” and “you” and “table” and “idea” and such is very useful for navigation. Form-based predictive models like Newtonian physics and such are also very useful for producing technologies. In fact, intuitively, non-form-based models cannot be applied (especially by someone not highly realized, like the typical creator-laborer) to produce formful fruit, which is appropriately called “profit” in the Daodejing9Although, it is a central idea in Taoism that usefulness/potentiality/action is derived exclusively from emptiness rather than form. See especially Chapter 11 of the Daodejing. “Therefore with there(-)being as profit, without there(-)being as action” [trans. mine]. But I shall not elaborate on this here..

On a more local level, “profit” in a more general sense cannot be manifested at all without a good view of form-reality, which is relative reality. Without a good view of forms, we literally wouldn’t be able to do anything. But again, for all the reasons Chapman argues, and more, good relative realities can only be manifested from a clear view of ultimate reality. This is why the CEOs of all effective companies and why the true power-directors of all effective institutions and labor-structures10in a very general sense, as in systems for manifesting “profit” in the Daoist sense, though the Marxist ideas around this are very helpful for elucidation MUST operate post-systematically11These “labor-structures” extend from the smallest systems, of subatomic dynamics, to the largest, of intergalactic ones. This is something extremely profound to ponder upon, but I won’t elaborate too much here..

Therefore, acquaintance with the ultimate reality is necessary for producing good manifestations in relative reality, but only relative reality can actually be manifested.

Tema VI

Q: What is the common object of disparate perceptions?

I was talking a bit with Jeremiah Benson about this one. In a blog post, he proposes seven axioms of mind and world.

1. The world exists.
2. The mind exists.
3. A mind exists inside of the world.
4. The mind can observe the world.
5. What the mind perceives isn’t the complete truth.
6. There is an infinite set of possible minds.
7. Each mind contains an element of truth (veridical perception).

bloq11

These seven “axioms” are particularly ubiquitous in the West, and especially among laypeople, though among academics and such the first four may be quite contentious.

The approach of Madhyamaka school is to deny all of the first four axioms. They are not certainly established, therefore they are not of the ultimate view.

Mind though that this is an absolute negation, which means that it does not imply anything. The denial of the first four axioms changes absolutely nothing about the form-nature of all appearances. It’s like the continuum hypothesis. So stop worrying about it and go do science or something.

Also note that it is canonical to Madhyamaka that the “pratyekabuddha yana”12https://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Pratyekabuddha_yana#View (e.g. Theravada, Vipassana) arhat, and even the “bodhisattva yana”13https://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Bodhisattva_yana (e.g. Mahayana, Zen) practitioner does not realize the illusory nature of “indivisible moments of consciousness,” perhaps expressible here as “minds.” A more thorough critique and explanation, particularly suitable for practitioners on these vehicles, is given in the 9th chapter of the Bodhicharyavatara. Shoutout to all my arhat & bodhisattva friends out there; may you quickly advance along the path.

Tema VII

Q: Does Madhyamaka have a position or not?

This is the most beautiful of the bunch—perhaps even the most beautiful thing in the world. Buckle up, kids; this one will blow your mind. Like I kid you not when I first realized the significance of this I entered an ecstatic trance state for like four hours.

“Madhyamaka” is often translated as “Middle Way.” First, acquaint yourself with what the Middle Way is by reading this excellent post by Chapman. But keep in mind that Chapman’s answer, “no,” is (not entirely) wrong. Don’t look ahead.

https://i.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/002/117/long-cat.jpg
from https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/2117-longcat

Alright. I assume you’ve read the post now and have a decent grasp of what the question is asking, so here’s Mipham’s response. With a lot of negative explanations and images and metaphors and such, Mipham basically comes to the answer:

To answer “yes” or “no” would itself be a non-middle position.

This is a strange loop. Mipham basically does the Gödel’s incompleteness theorems thing, but with the entirety of reality and experience. No wonder it is called the “Great Perfection,” infinitely subtle and profound!

Coda

I’ll conclude my commentary with a poem of my own, which I’ve published before but few have seen or understood. I think this commentary will give it greater perspective, perhaps as a call to action, indeed an

Invocation to Growth

solve

That not-to-know is a place of hiding. Incompleteness coming before an acknowledgment of simultaneous so and not-so, in which both disappear into the ? of meaning.

And that nirvana is as scary as they say, the revolt against its witnessing as natural as the impetus away from what came before. That defense of “I don’t know I don’t care,” which even I don’t remember when and wherefore disappeared, into the ? of no-meaning.

et coagula

I don’t remember if this was the gateway to wonderland, terrible nothing leading alike to death and paradise. If paradise, it was only paradise-in-the-mirror—invisible, hinted at, even now unclear.

But here I am now, seeing clearly, cruelly seeing That as not-where-I-am. And I am often tempted to extend my hand through the mirror which distorts me into a monster, laughing at the world-serpent Ouroborous, coiled oh-so-ridiculously around its own happy end.

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