Primordial Experience: An Introduction to rDzogs-chen Meditation, By Mannju sriimitra
Translated by Namkhai Norbu and Kennard Lipman
in collaboration with Barrie Simmons
Reviewed by Lou Nordstrom
Philosophy East & West
V. 39 No. 1 (January 1989)
Copyright 1989 by University of Hawaii Press
Much of what I have to say about this work concerns the translation. It is well-known that Buddhist technical terminology is difficult to translate, a fact that often results in the practice of retaining the technical terms in their original language. The translators of this text, however. make a point of the importance of translating such terminology into "common English" (p. xviii), alluding to Ezra Pound's translation work as their precedent. An advisor to the translators, Barrie Simmons, gets rather carried away by his zeal in this regard, calling Buddhist technical terminology "tribal jargon" (p. xviii)! This offensive remark betrays a startling ignorance of. and lack of respect for, the necessity of technical terminology. "To say it in English" (p. xviii)--the credo of these translators--is an enterprise fraught with difficulties, as I shall show in what follows.
Both a logical and an appropriate place to start is with the title, Primordial Experience. The use of the nontechnical term "experience" here--and elsewhere--is unfortunate because it is misleading. As a careful reading of the translated text (rDo la gser zhun, or "Gold Refined from Ore") clearly indicates, the essence of the primordial is the opposite of the experiential; the phrase "primordial experience" is actually an oxymoron .
The primordial state, condition, or ground--rDzogs chen--is prior to the subject-object dichotomy, whereas "experience" is nothing but the dualistic structuring of reality in accordance with this dichotomy. Indeed, it is explicitly stated in the text that "`Experience' and 'being in a state of pure and total presence' are not the same" (p. 25), the latter phrase being one of several used to translate rDzogs chen. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a distinction between the intrinsic and the experiential that would be very useful here: rDzogs chen, however one translates it, is about the intrinsic fact of oneness; any experience of such oneness must, by definition, no longer be of oneness but twoness. This intrinsic fact of oneness is a fact whether it is ever experienced or not; moreover, what we call "experience" is precisely ignorance of this fact of oneness.
The text repeatedly cautions against trying to see rDzogs chen as an object of experience: for example, ". . . the ultimate content of what is is not an object of experience" (p. 48). This is so because ". . . the ultimate content of what is . . . is nothing at all" (p. 45), and ". . . the state of pure and total presence does not exist" (p. 61) in the sense that it cannot be objectified. Nevertheless, the translators continually lapse into using "experience" and "experiencing" when speaking of rDzogs chen, thus introducing the very dualistic content the author wishes to avoid. Ironically, this inadvertently demonstrates the necessity of technical terms after all, for although nothing could be more 'English' or 'common' than the use of "experience" in contexts where it does not belong--where a nondualistic term would be appropriate--nothing, at the same time, could be more ill-advised.
AAlayavijnnaana, usually translated as the "storehouse consciousness" beyond and prior to the subject-object dichotomy, is the central Yogaacaara-Cittamaatra concept employed in rDzogs chen. The translators construe this either as "one's own capacity to experience"--as in "Mannjuu`srii, the ultimate content of what is, is nothing other than
one's own capacity to experience" (p. 51)--or, most frequently, as 'one's potential for experience"--as in "everything is our potential for experience" (p. 89) and ". . . there does not exist anything apart from one's own potential for experience itself appearing" (p. 107). Given the fact that "experience' is an inherently dualistic term, and that aalayavijnnaana refers precisely to a level of consciousness prior to and beyond dualism--even though it is true that 'in' this consciousness occurs the structuring of all experience--it is odd, to say the least, that this crucial Buddhist technical term is rendered by an English term that so clearly gives inappropriate weight to the very subject-object dichotomy this consciousness transcends. That 'common' or ordinary reality is based on dualistic experience (which has forgotten its primordial ground) is, if you will, the problem; to characterize aalayavijnnaana in terms of "experience'' is thus extremely misleading.
What is at stake here is not mere infelicity of expression. The reason there cannot, strictly speaking, be "primordial experience" or, equivalently, that one cannot speak of experiencing rDzogs chen, is that one is already intrinsically rDzogs chen: that is, one cannot experience it because one is it. And this is the whole point of the crucial association between rDzogs chen meditation and non-action or non-doing. This meditation practice is not a matter of "gaining" or "attaining" rDzogs chen, but of being it (that is, seeing that one already is it intrinsically). Analogies with Zen meditation (zazen), with its similar emphasis on "effortless effort," on the fact that because one is intrinsically Buddha-nature, one cannot attain it, are obvious, despite disclaimers presented in Norbu's pamphlet, Dzog Chen and Zen.
Before concluding with a few more questionable translations of technical terms, I would like to indicate that, on the whole, the translated text reads very well--even beautifully--and Norbu's commentary is masterful. In essence, what I take issue with is the ideology underlying the translation, with its odd prejudice against technical terms. For example, the traditional technial term anatman or anatta, usually translated as "no-self," is translated as "there is nothing that makes both persons and phenomena what they are" (p. 55). This is quite misleading if taken literally--or as "common English"--because it implies that there are no conditions or causes underlying the manner in which phenomena arise. The text is not literally saying this, however; rather, the claim is that "one's experiencing itself. . .appears as if it were cause and condition" (p. 89), which means that the structuring of experience in the aalayavijnnaana gives rise to the illusion of objective or external causes and conditions. But even as illusory, there are causes and conditions that appear to make things what they are. To say that they are illusory is not equivalent to saying that they literally do not exist; rather, illusion specifies the sort of reality they possess. Moreover, even if these causes and conditions were non-illusory, anaatman refers to the fact that there is no permanent, substantial nature, being, or essence that is thus constituted by, or underlies, such causal conditioning. There is no thing or entity thus caused or conditioned.
One last example. The Tibetan technical term rig pa is of crucial importance in demonstrating that the nondual state of pure and total presence can be nondualistically prehended (but not experienced). It is translated as "the flash of knowing that gives awareness its illumining quality" (p. 37). The text goes on to say that this "knowing" is "reflexive" and "presents itself nonconceptually without rejecting anything" (p. 37), thus in effect making the practice of rDzogs chen meditation possible. But to use the
word "knowing" here is very ill-advised. because the ordinary meaning of "knowing'' involves both conceptual representation (not nonconceptual presentation) and nonreflexive mediation (not reflexive--nondual--immediacy). I suggest that rig pa be allowed to remain as rig pa, since the translators' cumbersome English paraphrase serves only to obfuscate and distort.
1. Namkhai Norbu, Dzog Chen and Zen (Nevada City, California: Blue Dolphin Publications, 1986).