Into the Mystery of Being
By Herbert Guenther
A Tibetan Scholar and Translator Speaks
An Excerpt of an Interview
With Yasuhiko Genku Kimura and Laara Lindo
Saskatoon, Canada, February and August, 2000
Dr Herbert Guenther, world-renowned linguist and Buddhist scholar and translator, was born March 17, 1917, in Bremen, Germany. In 1939, he completed his Ph.D. in Indian Philosophy and Linguistics at Munich University and in 1943 his Dr.phil.habil at Vienna University. In 1950, he moved to India, where he was Assistant Professor and Chairman of Tibetan Studies at the Benares Sanskrit University. In 1964, he was invited to become Professor and Head of the newly founded Department of Eastern Studies at the University of Sasketchewan, Canada. He was visiting Professor at Yale University in 1967 and at Toronto University in 1971. Dr. Guenther is the author of almost forty books, many of which have been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese, and of about one hundred scholarly papers. He has been highly honored globally; in 1983 he received the degree of D.Litt. from the University of Sasketchewan; in 1987 he was honored for his contributions to Indian culture by the Anatajyoti-Vidyapith Academy at Lucknow India. Dr. Guenther, presently Professor Emeritus at the University of Sasketchewan, lives in Saskatoon, Canada, with his wife, Ilse Guenther, Ph.D., Greek and Latin scholar, mathematician, and concert pianist. The Drs. Guenther play flute and piano duets daily, and on Thursdays are joined by a professional cellist.
When we were first introduced to Dr. Guenther’s work in August of 1999, we recognized its tremendous importance to the intellectual history of the world as well as for the furtherance of our own work in the development and re-languaging or contemporarization of the Russellian science and philosophy [The Publishers and, to some extant, the interviewers are followers of the philosophy and teachings of Walter and Lao Russell]. The ancient rDzogs-chen classics, through Dr. Guenther’s uniquely brilliant and remarkably creative renditions, reveal in a highly technical language with extremely fine distinctions the spiritual experience and cosmic illumination that Walter Russell and many others before him experienced and expressed in different contexts and languages throughout history. Dr. Guenther’s work is one of the finest expressions of a universal language that unites all of the world’s spiritual traditions and integrates them with the language of modern science.
The following interview with Dr. Guenther is a brief segment of an extended and engaging conversation that took place over several days during two memorable visits, one in winter and one in summer. We are proud to present in The Cosmic Light [The Russelllian University’s Quarterly Journal (Vol. 2, No. 4)] the first-time-ever published interview with Dr. Guenther.
YK: Let’s start our conversation with a discussion of language. We are told that you know sixteen languages, so we want to know what these sixteen languages are.
HG: If you take the various dialects, it will come to that. But the major languages I know are, of course, my mother tongue, German, and English, French, Swedish, and Russian, as well as Sanskrit, Hindi, Tibetan, Latin, and Greek. I can read other European languages, such as Czechoslovakian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and so on. I know these European languages, because at the University of Munich where I studied, translations and other secondary sources were not accepted as legitimate sources. I can read Chinese, but I never had the talent of speaking it. As for Japanese, I have no difficulty with the Chinese characters but I have difficulty with other (hirakana and katakana) characters. As you know, the pronunciation of the Chinese characters is different in Japanese than in Chinese, and also according to when they were imported.
LL: There is a saying that “to know another language is to have another soul.” What is your personal feeling about knowing so many languages?
HG: Every language enriches your experience. For example, I read Don Quixote in Spanish, which is very different from reading a translation.
When I was a child I was constantly ill. What can you do when most of the time you can’t even go to school or go outside? So somehow I was drawn to learning languages. I was very, very good. I could learn a language in no time. Also I was interested in everything to do with the East, even the Near East. At school, I had already learned the classical languages long before they came in the curriculum. So, as soon as we had an option at the Gymnasium, for nine years, six days a week, I had ample time to learn the other subjects.
During the era of Hitler, I studied Hebrew, partly as a kind of protest against the developing political situation. The amazing thing was that when we graduated in 1936―Hitler came into power in 1933―my hometown, Bremen, was the last to capitulate, so we naturally got “maxims for life” from Hitler’s book. I was the only one who got the maxim for life from Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein (a poet who flourished from 1190-1210): “He who sets his mind on true value will be followed by fame and fortune.” Well, this maxim had nothing to do with the political climate. So I took Hebrew. I particularly liked it. I read the Bible in the original, which is quite different from the various translations. Hebrew led me to Arabic, and to Syrian, because in the Syrian language we find many ideas that are found again in Gnosticism. We wanted to read the New Testament in Greek, but the teacher by then got suspended, so we did not get to it. That would have interested me. We read The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the Greek dramatists like Aeschylus in the original. We even read some of Plato’s The Republic, about which people make so much fuss because they have never read it themselves!
YK: So how did you get into the specialized studies of Sanskrit and Tibetan?
HG: In my hometown, we had a wonderful museum. The exhibits were arranged contextually. So, if you had an Indian artifact, you had an Indian village. I was always strangely attracted to Central Asia, because one of the explorers of that region had come from my home town. Then, because my home town was the main port for trade with the Far East, I naturally became fascinated with Central Asia as well as India and China. Maybe my interests were awakened because of this situation, so that it might prove true a statement by the German poet Goethe: “You think you are pushing, but you are pushed.” That was the situation.
When the time came to go to university, I was undecided as to where I should go. There was the University of Berlin for Chinese, but there were admission quotas. So I went to Munich, where Vedic Sanskrit was taught. There I met Wilhelm Geiger an astounding Pali Scholar, who was already retired. When he died, he gave his material to Dines Andersen in Denmark, who was about to bring out the largest Pali dictionary. Wilhelm Geiger and his second wife had made what we would call nowadays a phenomenological study of the Pali word dhamma as it occurred in the whole of the Pali literature. That work has never been translated into English. It was an academic publication and that was the end of it. I had it, but I lost it because of the war and other circumstances. Through Geiger I came more and more into the Pali tradition. Sanskrit was also of interest to me, mostly because of the poetry written in that language. I was not so much interested in the philosophical side, because most of these works pertain to the domain of logic. Logic is a very fine tool, but certainly it does not give you truth. It makes you learn to think clearly, but also it becomes narrower and narrower. As keen logicians, the Indians were the first to note that whenever you make a positive statement, you exclude. So when I talk about the tiger, I exclude every other animal. Another Indian author to whom I felt attracted was Bhartrhari, an excellent poet, but torn, as many Indians are, between sensuality and renunciation.
Another poet I felt attracted to was Dandin. His work on poetics had become the basic work for Tibetan poetics. His contribution was the distinction between ornaments of speech and ornaments of subject matter. While on the Tibetan scene most authors merely wrote commentaries on this work. Klong-chen rab- ‘byams-pa (his full name being Klong-chen rab-‘byams-pa Dri-med ‘od-zer) was the exception. He dealt with the poetics independently, and was disappointed that his work was not appreciated. He is noted today for his philosophical work, but his major quality is his having been a poet. The same was also true of Patrul Rinpoche, who died at the beginning of the last century. He was the author of a beautiful poem which he composed on the occasion of the death of the wife of one of his patrons. He spent all his life among the nomads. He didn’t ever accept an official position. So very often he uses expressions which are only used among these people. He was a thorn in the flesh of the Gelugpas, the ruling clique in Tibet now living in exile. Their followers tried to get him into debate. If a person loses in the debate, it means the person is finished, lock stock and barrel, and the monastery has to submit to the “victor’s” dogmatism. That has happened to some of these monasteries in Ladakh, where in the most famous monastery, Hemis, you can’t find a complete set of Klong-chen rab-‘byams-pa’s works. There is much talk about tolerance in Buddhism, but it is just talk!
This reminds one about the tolerance edict of the Emperor Joseph the Second of Austria. Yes, legally the Jews were tolerated, but they had to use German names so as to be considered Germans and so that they could be drafted into the army. Therefore, when I hear the word tolerance, I am always thinking, “What do you mean by tolerance?” There again language comes in, because the language also expresses very much your whole cultural background. We carry our past with us, and can’t go against it. So when it comes to language, it’s a kind of reductionism more and more, just like the particles in physics―before you had four, now you have more than a hundred and the number will increase until you get tired of the whole game or the money runs out.
To return to language, even in language there are factions, I would say. When I was in India, due to my Sanskrit background, I had no difficulty with Hindi in Varanasi, because it was strongly Sankritized. I had less success in Lucknow, where Hindi was deeply influenced by Urdu, a wonderful language for poetry. My wife was always better in that language, though I had difficulty―but she had difficulty with Sanskrit. It is often the case that the men have a different language from the women. So one talks, and the other talks, and communication is a fiction. Much of what I learned, I learned through my wife, who could fully converse with the ladies, and they naturally told her about their lives―the inside stories we have of India come from there, for the pundits would always speak in the abstract form. The shock to me when I came to India was that I had learned about India from people who had never been to India, such as Max Muller, a German.
Let’s go back to reductionism: Reductionism attempts to reduce everything to a single source of explanation, which is not possible. There are different levels of cognitive experience and various perspectives from which to see reality. Words have no meaning in themselves, but only in accordance with the context in which they are used, and according to the background of the person who uses them.
YK: So what forms the context?
HG: Broadly speaking, there is the level of representational thinking, then there is the level of the imaginal―which is not imaginary; there is a big difference here, the images. We live amongst images. And then there is the level of the experimental. Each level has its own organizing principle.
For all practical purposes, this phenomenal world or ours is always an interpreted world, and this points back to what we call experience. Experience itself, in the English language, is ambiguous. We have experience as lived and
experience as reported. So you can make it analytical only for descriptive purposes, but not otherwise. This was the basis, also, of the Indian Buddhist analysis with its various aspects of “reality.” Chos, the Tibetan equivalent of the Sanskrit dharma, is any entity of reality that we take as factual. Let us remember that the word fact is derived from the Latin word factum, which is a construct. So Whitehead coined the expression “misplaced concreteness.” You have to know how a language is used, because each school interprets the words according to their way of thinking.
In Buddhism, emphasis is on the experiential, on process thinking, whereas our western way is essentially static―things are given once and for all. The science of emergence, of chaos (which is a matrix of possibilities), is a rather recent development, but we still use images taken from our mistaken notions of reality. We talk about an ocean of energy, we speak about the empty sky, but the fact is that the sky is full of activity―the clouds are not predetermined or prefashioned. The experiential process somehow prefigures them. In this way, we would have to develop a new language. Our language is geared to survival. the poets have more of the aesthetic. They introduce ekstasis―a German word that means “standing outside the closure that we are, but still being within the whole.”
In this connection, another difficulty has to be highlighted. The Western world is extremely gender conscious. The Tibetan language has practically no gender except for what is there―as man and woman. Chinese is practically the same.
YK: Japanese is the same.
HG: Now if you remember that we are living in a world of images and patterns, and if you examine your whole makeup in relationship to the whole, you will realize that you are part of the whole, in the sense that you are both the whole and a part of it. There seems to be a gigantic fluctuation there. I remember when I said that ” these images are red-green” and so on, I was told. “How can you say that” These colors are a reflection of your tempermament, they are pure images as to how you deal with them.” Again we have complementarity, the calm ones, the gentle ones; male or female. Then we have the fierce ones, the furious or ferocious. But they are no\ever vicious. They somehow warn us. These forms are there in what is commonly called meditation, by which we enter into a dialogue with the forces working in and through us. Otherwise meditation remains an intellectual game. Of course, I’m quite unorthodox in this way! The main thing is that life does not allow a standstill. So therefore, the going is the way. It is not going from one point to another that constitutes life; it is the going itself.
Then we come to the light. Without light, we would live in a pretty dark world. But nobody knows what light really is. It too, is an emergent phenomenon. Emergence leads back to the dynamic. Its unity is always ordered plurality. Everybody wants to have the one. But the one is a nonsensical notion. If there were only boys, we would not know what a boy is I sometimes use this paradoxical expression in which one pole dissolves into the other. If I were to be committed to coining a new tem, I would speak of “fusional complementarity.”
YK: Within the Indian philosophic tradition, isn’t the first bifurcation out of this fusional complementarity the bifurcation into purusa and prakriti?
HG: Purusa became identified with atman, and prakriti became identified with the material/physical. But this division is a later development, which mad the system dualistic.
If we turn to the rDzogs-chen theory, we also find what superficially looks like the triadic aspect of the prakriti, but there are tremendous differences as pure process thinking. It begins, if this is the right term, since a process has neither a beginning nor an end, with what I render by “stuff,” which is neither material, nor mental, nor even neutral. It is not ‘something’ whatsoever; it is not even ‘nothing,’ but it is described as that which does not allow permanent structures to persist. Its Tibetan word stong is a verb and not an adjective. Through what nowadays we would call a symmetry transformation, this no-thing stuff becomes its own most unique ability-to-be, which is always connected with the phenomenon of light (the Tibetan gsal). Basically, it is an experiential expression―everywhere and throughout is the light, not so much a light that we see, but more a light that we feel. This light transforms itself into what I would call, for want of a better term, the whole’s intelligence that in its closure, to us a modern phenomenological term, is our mental and spiritual nature, and as such, since we are embodied beings, is us as pure meaning. David Bohm came closest to it when he spoke about the implicate and explicate orders. He had learned much from Krishnamurti, but toward the end of his life, he was about to go even one step further. To sum up, in rDzogs-chen thought we have what is called the ground in its double meaning of “ground” and “reason for” and we have its lighting up. In a certain sense, we are faced with the paradox of rest and movement that has played an enormous role in modern physics.
Geographically, the origin of rDzogs-chen thought points to the region linking East and West by way of the silk route. The most important figure in the history is Padmasambhava, who is said to have hailed from Urgyan, an ill-defined area extending from what is nowadays Chinese Turkistan via the Iranian plateau
into the middle near-East. There even is a tradition that identifies Urgyan with the modern city of Urgenj. destroyed by Genghis Khan but rebuilt in modern Uzhekistan. The former identification of Urgyan with the Svat Valley is no longer accepted. This identification occurred during the time when the British and Russian Empires were interested in who should control Central Asia, and since Buddhism came from India, everything had to be of Indian origin. We also should not forget that this Urgyan in its Sanskrit transliteration was given as Uddiyana. This ending “ana” also points to Eastern Turkistan. The mummies that have been found at Urumchi, Eastern Turkistan, are of fair-skinned people, and the dresses that have been preserved are precisely of the kind that Padmasambhava wore. We do not know Padmasambhava’s real m\name, but probably it was unpronounceable by those who were not familiar with the language from which he hailed. So he was given a poetic descriptive name. Padmasambhava, “grown from the lotus.” The lotus grows in the mud but is not spoiled by it.
Another point that substantiates the non-Indian origin of Padmasambhava’s rDzogs-chen teaching is the Noetic Triad, which played a significant role among the Valentinians and the Sethians, both representatives of Gnosticism, of which Padmasambhava was certainly aware. It was among them that the idea of a lineage was very strong. If we speak of syncretism, we should remember that there is nothing wrong with it if one understands what the various trends have to say. Also, though little known, there were Jewish colonies in Samarkand. So people talk to each other, and absorb each other’s ides, so the much-vaunted “purity” of a tradition is a myth.
YK: I wonder if there were historically demonstrable connections between the hermetic tradition and the Hindu traditions, or the Tibetan and other Buddhist traditions.
HG: As far as India is concerned, we had the Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations. How these were destroyed, we don’t know. Mohenjo-Daro means “pile of Corpses,” but there was apparently no violence,; destruction was by disease or something like that. The decline of the Harappa civilization may have been due to geological shifts―the harbor disappeared. When the so-called Indo-Aryans came, they left destruction behind them. When modern Indians say they cam as peaceful settlers, they conceal the fact that their own literature speaks against this. The ninth book of the Rigveda is devoted to the use of soma, an intoxicating drink. Indra, the leader of the war bands, smashed the chariot of the goddess of dawn. He destroyed the irrigation system and performed his heroic deeds when he was dead drunk. Some of the hymns show
an increase in vulgarity. Eventually, as is so often the case, the conquered were the real victors.
YK: An outstanding principle in the Hermetic philosophy is “mentalism,” which states that the All is Mind; the Universe is Mental. This is what you call “no-thing stuff” that becomes its own most unique ability-to-be, which is connected with the phenomenon of light which in turn transforms itself into light, which in turn transforms itself into light, which in turn transforms itself into what you call the whole’s excitatory intelligence that in its self-closure is our mental and spiritual nature. If your were to translate the Hermetic principle in light of the rDzogs-chen philosophy based on process thinking, how would you say it?
HG: The first problem is, how are we going to translate the word that is used as “mind?” The 5th and 6th centuries marked an upsurge in Indian philosophical thinking. Leaving aside the many Hinduistic systems, the Buddhist Abhidharma literature came into prominence again. Three terms stand out prominently. They are citta, manas, and the vijnana. Of these three terms, citta is most problematic. Its Vedic root cit has to do with thinking, but not with representational thinking, and it also has something to do with light. Then we have an additional use that is :”to pile up.” This was taken up by the Buddhists, who defined it as ” that which builds up: and “that which is spread out in the context which we understand as our “body,” that which we can touch or be in contact with, in touch with. Then we have our five senses, resulting in an eight- fold pattern. The interesting thing is that we now have a quarternity, the cittas, manas, vijnana and deha (body).
YK: You talk about the triune dynamics of Being. Is this not what Hermes used the word “mind” for―similar or the same thing―or mind is a derivative of that triune dynamics?
HG: More and more I am wary of the word “mind.” We can use it as a short- hand expression if you make it clear that this is so. We are unable to have more than one. So we use this term, we talk about mind, but we also know about its complexity.
YK: We often look for new terms to describe what is being said.
HG: Of course, we can coin new terms and specify them, but in so doing, we may also kill what we try to say. Modern ways of thinking can help us in resolving the ever-present difficulty. Thus we have the discipline called phenomenology initiated by Edmund Husserl, attempting to move away from
the traditional arid philosophy by demanding the return to “things.” More important is Ernst Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms. And lastly, there is Martin Heidegger, one of the most profound thinkers in the strict sense of the word “thinking.” Because of our ingrained dualistic thinking, we tend to speak of philosophy on the one hand and religion on the other. If the dimension of philosophy is already a hornets; nest, religion is even worse. What does the word religio mean? It may mean to collect, recollect, to link backward, to bind, to read over, and to choose, to mention only a few possible meanings. So when we hear the word religio, we should first of all find out in which of the many possible meanings you want to use the word.
YK: So, in a way, to define words is a form of reductionism.
HG: Yes, it ends up that way. And then, we are so much geared to the material. Descartes made the mistake that there is res extensa and res cogitans, but he could not do much about res cogitans―he could not separate the two substances convincingly. Certainly, the collision of two substances does not give you knowledge. The other great reductionist was Newton. Newton’s major interests were alchemy, hermeneutics, and astrology. This side of his has been overlooked by the growing rationalistic trend in Western thinking. He even falsified his own data to come up with the magic number seven. Dogmatism, of which religion is particularly fond, is not conducive to knowledge. Galileo was put under house arrest. Some of the Jesuits were very interested in and accepted what he did, but the official doctrine would not allow it. When you accept divergence, you lose your power over others. Therefore keep people stupid so you can manipulate them. In academia the situation is not much different. I have talked about downward reductionism and upward reductionism. This shows up in the absurdity of Creationism.
YK: We have previously touched upon the key concept of rDzogs-chen that you use such as stong-pa (utter openness), gsal-ba (sheer lucency), or rig-pa (excitatory intelligence). Now I would like to look at the Sanskrit words, sunya and sunyata, traditionally rendered in English as ’empty’ and ’emptiness’ respectively, whose Tibetan equivalent is stong-pa. Sunyata, as you know, is the key concept in Zen, and utter openness and emptiness connote two distinctly different experiences.
HG: The Collapse of traditional systems has actually opened up a vast field, and in many cases ideas have come closer to what was familiar to the East rather than to the West, due to the tradition in which we have steeped since the time of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Newton. Let us reemphasize again that the rDzogs-chen teaching is preeminently concerned with experience rather
than with theorizing. Accordingly, Buddhism was divided into two aspects, the one emphasizing its analytical character, leading to the many so-called schools of Buddhism, the other emphasizing the contemplative and experiential. Naturally, these two aspects intertwine, but it is a matter of preference as to which aspect one will pursue and consider to be of primary importance. Because of this intertwining, it was almost inevitable that those who were thinking in terms of India only tried to reduce what was not necessarily of Indian origin into the Indian straightjacket. In view of the importance of what we call mind, one tried to pinpoint it and considered it to be outward directed and not self-reflexive. Naturally, if you think of mind in terms of a ‘thing,’ Nagarjuna’s statement that “the little-finger cannot touch itself” is well taken, for what we look for, as the Tibetans noted, is that which does the looking or the seeking. But this is not the point. We want to know what we mean by “mind.” It is here that the expression “self-knowledge” comes in, an idea that has been as controversial in the West as in India. The word self-knowledge leads us to conceive of self as the referent of the knowing according to the grammatical form subject-object. But this is not what was understood experientially, that is, it knows itself without being dependent on anything else. It is a knowing of its own accord (rang-rig).
I have already mad a reference to one of the triune features of what was called the ground (or Being), and that had been described as that which in a sense is nothing, not in the static sense, but in the dynamic sense of not allowing permanent structures to persist. I have already pointed out that the Tibetan term stong-pa had the character of a verb and if we use the Aristotelian categories on which our language is based, it is an adverb, not an adjective. Since everything had to be Indian, the words sunya and sunyata haunt the western translations of Buddhist texts. The basic meaning of su is to swell, to increase in size, out of which comes the two meanings of power/strength and hollow. There is also an onomatopoetic dimension to the word su, as in Vedic su-krta, to chase away, that gives the idea of “empty.” This led to the favorite notion of “emptiness,” which the emptiness addicts do not recognize as the container metaphor, and, since containers have the habit of being broken, we have sixteen emptiness fragments―and in this age of drugs, none of these sixteen emptiness pills can kill the pain of the emptiness addicts’ hollowness.
Where process takes precedence, you cannot have a “before,” or “after,” or “behind,” or “future,” or “past.” It is a going, a flow, which manifests itself through images. These have an enormous attraction, and you may become stuck with them. The main point is that you want to come into contact and establish a dialogue with yourself through these images. Here ritual plays a
significant role. The ritual acts like a protective circle and in this dialogue that is about “going to take place” one praises these forces that express themselves through the images and requests them to be kind to the practitioner. This dialogue takes place through language that in this case is referred to as mantra, which serves the double purpose of an invocation and a protection. In this respect, our critical acumen plays a significant role in the sense that is conducive to and supportive of a positive and healthy attitude. The emphasis is always on the positive and healthy building up, and this always goes beyond the merely rational that in the end cancels itself out. It is through feeling that the vital dimension is opened up. It finds expression in poetry and other works of art, not necessarily in artifacts. In this dialogue we learn to see with fresh eyes.
YK: So when Buddhism developed in India, it was kind of a revolution.
HG: Yes, and it was opposed by the Brahmans, who saw in it a threat to their claim that they had the last word. This antagonism is reflected in Buddhist dramas and dances, where the Brahman is pictured as a fool and, beyond that, only interested in eating and money.
YK: In the original teaching of Buddhism, sunya or sunyata was not present? HG: No, it is a latecomer. On the whole, the Buddhists shared the Indian horror
vacui. There is somehow a horror of facing up to infinity. YK: When did the notion of sunya come into existence?
HG: About the 4th or 5th century, when there was a tremendous intellectual upheaval in India. It is not in the older forms.
YK: Zen can be said to be based on the notion and experience of sunyata.
HG: Yes. Zen is a phonetic rendering of the Sanskrit word, dhyana, which was translated into Tibetan as bsam-gtan, a basis for representational thinking. And most of what we call meditation is just representational thinking. When it comes to the experiential side of what is called meditation, the word used is yoga. This word means to harness, and is taken from agriculture. You have to yoke two bullocks together in order to plow. You can’t have a strong one and the other one weak. It doesn’t work. The term for “tied together into a pair” is yuganadda. The implication is that you want to bridge the division into something lower and something higher that has occurred intrapsychically and is
hurting you. On the other hand, there has never been a division. Wholeness cannot be divided.
YK: When we use language it is normally to describe or represent, as in exoteric Buddhism or Hinduism. It seems that in rDzogs-chen, language is used for a different purpose.
HG: Yes, this touches upon the role of the mantras, in particular the seed mantras that are luminous phenomes and sememes. The seed will grow. In Hinduism, one has dealt with it. In Buddhism, nobody has done anything so far, possibly because it contravenes logical reductionism. I have discussed this in my article Sound, Color and Self Organization.
YK: You use gnoseme. This is the meaning unit. HG: Yes, it has meaning and a certain shape. YK: What is the etymological meaning of the term mantra?
HG: Mantra, in its Tibetan translation as gsang-sngags means “The mystery that is Being as speaking.” It does not slip into representation distortions. It protects language from doing that. To the uninitiated it is just noise. When I tried to ask a question concerning the topic, one very highly educated person told me :If you don’t know it, nobody knows it,” Another tried to answer my question and honestly told me “I’m not quite sure.” Most others were evasive and said “That’s secret.” Mantra or gsang-sngags refers to the arcane or the mystery that is being. It has nothing to do with what is commonly called secret. What was meant by secret even in the middle ages was to have experienced, not to be concealed. Charles Dickens makes fun of that. When the parent comes to the teacher of his son, the teacher asks him, “Are you a philosopher?” The poor chap says “No,” and he goes away thinking the teacher is a philosopher, which he is not. This is precisely what most Lamas try to do. They don’t know anything any longer. Tradition has become rote memory.
YK: reading your writing and that of rDzogs-chen, you use language in such a way that we return to what you term the ground or Being―it’s like an invitation, a strong prompting.
HG: Yes, in other words, Being speaks, and with speaking, also comes a kind of promise. This promise is technically know as lung. Nowadays it has been ritualized and the text to be studied is read out at top speed. After all, you must
have the lung before instruction can be given. The speed of the bullet train in Japan is nothing in comparison with the speed at which the lung is read.
YK: Our conversation has led to a further question. Your have used a number of terminologies from modern science and from your lat friend, Dr. Erich Jantsch. Can we apply the rDzogs-chen thinking to the evolution of science?
HG: That depends on how you interpret the word evolution. I like the expression an unfolding of being’s, the whole’s dynamic nothingness via its potentialities into actualities, and try to imagine it as was done by the rDzogs- chen thinkers as a play.
YK: This way of looking at the universe is much more fun than the Newtonian or the Darwinian way.
HG: Yes, it is a play, not a game. And we must always remember the everpresent experiencer as being a healthy mind in a healthy body. This contrasts sharply with the idea of a game reflecting a tired mind in a tired body.
YK: Actually it may be that evolution is literally like a play. Children learn by playing, and when we are playing we learn.
HG: I might substantiate your observation by referring to the German poet Friedrich von Schiller’s dictum “man is only man when he plays.”
YK: Seeing evolution from the “unfolding in the play” viewpoint rather than the “survival of the fittest” viewpoint is an entirely different way of seeing.
HG: True, Darwin saw many valid things, but he was tied down by the materialistic side of the 19th century. The one-sided application of his principle of natural selection only too often leads tot he image of the blind evolution producing all kinds of nonsense. Evolution in the domain of the living is a learning process, and as such is open, not only in respect to its products, but also to the rules of the game it develops. In the words of Erich Jantsch, the result of this openness is the self-transcendence of evolution of evolutionary mechanisms and principles themselves. The material side has, of course, done much, and without it we would not have all the amenities we have now. But we also have to take into account that things may go wrong. These frustrating events usually happen on the weekend; the computer breaks down, or the power fails. these things have minds of their own.
You referred in our previous conversations to some of the terms I use, which I have taken from Erich Jantsch, who was far ahead of his time, such as dissipative structure and others pertaining to modern systems philosophy. The term coined by Ilya Prigogine, dissipative structures, exhibit two types of behavior: near their equilibrium, order is destroyed (as it is in isolated systems), but far from equilibrium, order is maintained or emerges beyond instability thresholds. Dissipative structures develop entropy, although it does not accumulate in the system, but is part of the continuous energy exchange with the environment. The other point is that of the self-organization, which with reference to dissipative structures is that of the self-organization, which with reference to dissipative structures is illustrated by the so-called Belousov- Zhabotinsky reaction. I also frequently use the term “system.” A system can be3 anything from an atom to the whole cosmos, and from the dynamic point of view we note that order may create disorder, but disorder may also create order, though not in a mechanical sense. In modern thinking, evolution and chaos play a tremendous role, such that whatever is is in a way an emergent phenomenon. The question may be asked, from where does the observed phenomenon emerge? The answer is, out of the openness that is being as such, no thing, nothing.
YK: Nothing or vacuum is not empty, but is more a plenum?
HG: If you use the word plenum, you will get into the other difficulty, because of our deeply ingrained dualistic way of thinking. Nothing is not a “thing,” so how does “plenum” come in, which also cannot be a thing? With such a statement, we are already in our closure. There is a paradox: there is a something where there is nothing.
YK: Yes. That is the reason I use the term quantum vacuum-plenum, which is a complementarity holding the contradiction.
HG: It all depends on how you look at it. It always involves the omnipresent experiencer.
YK: So the cosmos is always an anthropocosmos.
HG: Yes. In the Gnostic system, the idea of the anthropos played a significant role. I think the best presentation of the anthropocosmos is in the book Gnosis by Kurt Rudolph. The Gnostic idea of the “man of light” can be related to the whole’s lighting up in rDzogs-chen thought. We are always reminded that we cannot but employ mythopoeic language.
YK: So translating a word like sunyata in a superficial manner does not capture the experience.
HG: There is a problem with faulty translations. When I translate, I always go to the original texts themselves, and I trust I know something of my own mother tongue and need not refer to what others have said. The German language, like the Russian language, can still create new words by striving for an understanding, and translation means translation, and not transposition of one word for another. In English it is not so easy. How is the Japanese?
YK: To create new words in Japanese is relatively easy. We can create new words by combining different kanji characters.
HG: Once you understand, you will notice the difference. One point to note is that in Buddhism there is ignorance, but not sin. However, what is usually translated as ignorance is not what we usually understand by it. There are two different terms in the Tibetan and Sanskrit languages: the Sanskrit word avidya is usually translated as ignorance, but the Tibetan translation of this word is ma-rig-pa, which means “not quite that ecstatic awareness.” It is not a negation of knowledge. The other word is bhranti, going astray.
YK: Does going astray not imply that there might be a right way to go?
HG: Yes, this right way to go in Japanese is the shingon, to be true to your word, to have integrity.
YK: Interesting. Shingon, as you know, is the translation of mantra in Japanese. HG: But you have to look at the deeper meaning of mantra. YK: So being “true to yourself”―what is the “self?”
HG: It certainly is not the egological thing. The Tibetans use bdag, bdag-nyid, and bdag-nyid chen-po. The Sanskrit uses the word Mahatma―the Self. Atma means “nothing can be greater than that.” Once you are, in Gnostic terminology, the anthropos, there cannot be anything greater than that.
YK: So when you are not true to your Self, you go astray. HG: Yes, and commit all kinds of blunders―karma. YK: If samsara is going astray, what is nirvana?
HG: Maybe it is reversing the trend of going astray, but not going into an end state. This illusive experiential term has been interpreted in various ways. it is said to be an island in an ocean. It is like a flame going out, you cannot retrieve it.
YK: Is nivana the other side of samsara?
HG: I would be reluctant to make a precise statement. Alan Watts’ statement “This is it,” is a mistaken notion. The trend is always there. These words are not so much a definition as a descriptor, and this opens up many now perspectives.
YK: Nirvana may be said to be a state that is not samsara. HG: Maybe Holderlin answers your question: “Many seek vainly joyously to
express joy. Finally I apprehend it, here in my sorrow.”
YK: That is very Buddhist.
HG: The poet has access to the world to which ordinary people have none. As Goethe says, “The world of the spirit is not closed. Your mind is closed.” Therefore, Plato did not like poets. In The Republic, poets have no place.
YK: Without an enlightened leader, the ideology of The Republic may lead to fascism.
HG: Yes, it’s a blueprint for fascism.
YK: In the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, there is a division between noumenon and phenomenon. If phenomenon is “lighting up,” what is noumenon? Or is this a valid division?
HG: Kant was too much of a rationalist. In his Critique of Pure Reason, he denied that noumena as objects of pure reason are objects of knowledge, because reason gives knowledge only of sensible intuition (phenomena). Negatively speaking, noumena are objects of which no sensible intuition, and hence no knowledge. Positively speaking, they (soul and God) are conceived of as objects of intellectual intuition, a mode of knowledge humans do not have, according to Kant.
YK: So in rDzogs-chen thinking, what would be the equivalent of noumenon?
HG: I do not think that we can speak of equivalents. In Tibetan and Sanskrit works, we have two terms: samvritti―kun-rdzob and paramartha―don-dam. The Pali form for the Sanskrit samvritti was sammuta by general consent. The Sanskrit came to have the meaning of “concealing, or covering up.” You are covering up that which is ultimately real, that is you, yourself, as the whole. Both samvritti and paramartha were specified as satya, meaning truth, truth related to sat, “being.” The Westerners’ preoccupation with truth led Heidegger to speak of truth, aletheia, as “unconcealment.” But concerning truth, we might bear in mind Karl Jasper’s statement: “Truth is satisfied curiosity.” And most people are satisfied with very little or nothing.
YK: You nave in the past referred to triadic patterning inn the Buddhist tradition. In the Hegelian philosophy, we also find a triadic patterning of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Can this be compared with the Eastern triadic pattern?
HG: I do not think so. Furthermore, thesis and antithesis do not result in or give synthesis. Hegel himself was a bit conceited. He considered that which he said to be the last word, and he saw himself as a performer when he lectured. He was certainly influential, but he was tied down to the western tradition with its overemphasis on rationality.
YK: What about Schelling?
HG: Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling had a mind of great depth and range, capable of original insights as well as choosing those of others, such as neo-Platonism, Spinoza, Kant, Fichete, Hegel, and others. Many of his ideas reemerged in Schopenhauer, the theologian Tillich, and existentialism. Schelling rejected quantitative, mechanical science, and stressed life as organic an purposeful. In his Philosophy of Nature, he derived “mind” from nature and “nature” from mind. For him, reality or objectivity predominates over ideality or subjectivity in nature. It runs from matter via light, electricity, and chemistry to the organism, the most spiritual phase of the potency of nature. Subjectivity predominates in the ideal. Running from morality and science to art, the most natural phase of spirit. The full manifestation of the Absolute, the universe, is a perfect organism and a work of art. there are certainly similarities of ideas, but similarities are never identities.
YK: We briefly touched upon the English word “enlightenment,” a word misused in the East and West. I would like to get your view on the Western use of the word, starting with, say Francis Bacon, from England to France, then Immanuel Kant, and Hegel―both the positive and negative aspects.
HG: There are two meanings of the word enlightenment. The most vitally held in the Western world is the emphasis on reason, and when we talk about the Age of Enlightenment or Reason, this refers predominantly to the intellectual mood of the 18th century. In the Western world it was a challenge to the assumptions that had prevailed throughout the middle ages. It was characterized by a distrust of traditional authority, respect for human dignity, and the conviction that reason would illuminate mankind and lead to perpetual social, political and scientific progress. In this sense, the word “enlightenment” was first used by Immanuel Kant, followed in England by David Hume and Adam Smith. It had, however, its greatest flowering in France, foremost amongst them, Voltaire. These philosophers of the Enlightenment were not so much philosophers but popularizers of the 17th century doctrines, particularly the rationalism of Descartes and Spinoza, and the empiricism of Bacon and Locke.
In the Oriental context, what is meant by enlightenment leads to the fulfillment of the human quest for perfect understanding. As far as enlightenment as such is concerned, the common feature in both East and West is “light.” In the West it is putting aside superstitions and developing the sciences. The Indian word for enlightenment is bodhi, and the verbal form is “to wake up, to become awake.” So buddha is not a thing, but a process-product word. It is here that the Westerner usually gets into trouble. And therefore, its Tibetan rendering sangs- rgyas is a descriptive term for this process itself: “darkness dissipating, light spreading.” Since Buddha is a “thingification” but is not a “thing,” I avoid the use of it. The traditional rationalistic translation and the undoubted success of the rational approach has had carried with it a kind of dominance psychology, that is , the concept that one has to tell the Oriental how he has to think. Dominance psychology is an attitude in which you influence a person to the extent that it becomes indistinguishable from brainwashing. This is the reason why so many mistranslations of Oriental texts flood the market, because they are done from the Western perspective, and not from what the Easterner actually had to say. Lastly, the Aristotelian concepts in which our Western languages are steeped do not apply to most non-European languages.
YK: This is a mistake many translators have made.
HG: Yes, and in many cases they continue doing so. For example, take a Chinese grammar course and you will never learn Chinese.
YK: The same with the Japanese “grammar.”
HG: Returning to the so-called enlightenment, we should not forget that it is an awakening. It implies light, but not in the sense of switching it on. Rather, the light shines out from you and you preserve it. For this reason, Heidegger said that we are luminous beings.
YK: Had Heidegger studied Eastern philosophy? HG: No. YK: So he really came upon it himself. A profoundly original thinker!
HG: This is the point―somehow we cannot step out of our humanity, but if we try to define it we are in for trouble, for we reduce it to something which it is not. It leaves out this openness.
YK: But, without reductionism there cannot be science. If Padmasambhava were interested in studying physics, for instance, he would have to engage himself in some kind of reductionist thinking.
HG: Yes, and if he were interested in it, he would do very well, because provided that he had been an Indian, which he was not, he would have been an excellent mathematician.
YK: We briefly spoke about evolution, unfolding. What kind of view of evolution did the rDzogs-chen thinkers have? What kind of view of evolution did the rDzogs-chen thinkers have? What kind of cosmology did they have?
HG: On the one hand, it’s unfolding, but on the other, it is also an opening up. In this paradox, you start with an utter openness, which is somehow closing-in on itself. It is again a creative process, and creativity is associated with the feminine. It is through this feminine quality in you, which is prajna in Sanskrit, meaning appreciative discrimination (Tibetan shes-rab), an intensification of the cognitive process, looking ahead and selecting whatever will further the positive.
YK: From the anthropocosmic point of view, evolution, unfolding, is taking place ceaselessly, atemporally abidingly, without beginning, without end, as opposed to the western viewpoint, where there is a beginning with the big bang, and then somehow life came and then humans came. This is an entirely different view of evolution.
HG: Yes, it’s an entirely different view.
YK: So in this case, the human has always been there.
HG: So nirvana has always been there, but you do not use it for any practical purposes. Instead, you have a kind of non-localized ability.
YK: So then there is a form of localized expressions, and humans are a part of it. The anthropocosmic, in this way, expresses and experiences itself.
HG: “will the universe find itself?’
YK: That is the question that Goethe asked.
HG: Erich Jantsch says that the universe becomes self-reflective. Actually, this is an open question, which we cannot answer. Maybe we should take a larger bite from the Tree of Knowledge. This would be in itself an awakening.
YK: When you say self-reflective, you have already made a division. The self that is supposed to be reflecting itself is already kind of divided.
HG: This is a kind of “thingish” thinking. The closest image for what takes place is that of a mirror. We hold up the mirror in which we see ourselves.
YK: When there is self-reflection, there is division. But the mirror that reflects the self is the same self that is reflected.
HG: So the mirror is both a reflector and a revealer. Therefore, in the temples they have a mirror, and what is revealed is the consistency of everything with everything else, and you can more or less pick out what interests you. So self- reflection means also that the whole fluctuates back on itself. Therefore, Novalis could say, “Every beginning is already a second beginning.”
YK: Novalis indeed had a lot of deep insight.
HG: The more you learn, the better off you are. So there is reciprocity between learning and application. And then suddenly comes the vision. Figuratively speaking, it’s just a flash, but you have to develop the vision that has opened up and made you access the rich inner world which otherwise is closed to you. Developing the vision may take two lines: on the one hand, we try to look ahead and be alive: on the other, we remain and are stagnant. Bringing the vision into existence is a kind of an inner dialogue. The world has opened up to the enormous richness that we are, and the forces that work in an through us may be helpful and protect us. When we say we have reached the goal, this
means that we have found ourselves. We are still living in the world. You do not have to renounce the world, you do not need to “dump yourself,” where would you dump yourself? We now are in the world but not of the world. In this way, you lead your life according to your inner life that is the light of the whole of being.
In brief, the two pillars of an enlightened life are vision and comportment. Always there is the consideration of the best way to apply what you know, from the perspective of being which is intelligence in action. It is not the blundering of karma. There is no English word for this, but Goethe spoke of it as ereignis, which has been mistranslated as “event.” The German word means “having become my very own.”