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Tantric Terminology

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 2:31 AM
Tantra xlargeI do not think that a whole chapter on terminology in the early portions of this book rather than as an appendix requires any justification; nor is it due to the author's linguistic-analytical slant in his philosophical interests. A book attempting to survey the tantric tradition in its essentials must give very special attention to terminology and definition. In a wider or more general sense, this has been done in the preceding chapter. However, reference to established Hindu and Buddhist philosophical terminology is neither sufficient nor warrantable, because a considerable portion of nontantric Hindu and Buddhist philosophical nomenclature was subjected to semantic change, sometimes subtle, sometimes very radical indeed. A term frequently and innocuously used, say, in the Madhyamika-karikas, and translated by one constant term into Tibetan, does not necessarily have the same meaning in Tibetan or Indian tantric texts. The fact that the student sees the terms consistently used in the Indian original and in the Tibetan translation might tempt him to assume that they mean the same when they appear in a Sanskrit tantric text and its Tibetan translation. This is dangerous even when the term occurs in Sanskrit Hindu and Buddhist texts alone, where no Tibetan translation is available hardly any Hindu Sakta text appears in the Tibetan tantras (rgyud). The best example is Sanskrit mundra, which means 'the female adept' in the Buddhist tantric lore, and 'parched kidney beans' and other spiced grains in the Hindu Sakta tradition; quite apart from the many tantric and non-tantric passages, Hindu and Buddhist, where mundra means a ritualistic or iconographic gesture.

Black DakiniThe purpose of this chapter, then, is to analyse some crucial Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist tantric terms and to establish their exact connotation. This has so far not been done, largely due to a lack of communication between philosophers and cultural anthropologists on the one side, and philologically oriented Buddhologists on the other. The fault seems to be that of the Buddhologists, who did not care, up to this day, to brush up their occidental vocabulary and to provide precise renditions of Buddhist, and a fortiori, tantric philosophical terminology. The reason for this neglect seems to lie in the notion that occidental philosophy works on totally different lines and that it can there-fore not provide terminological equivalents. This was true with the traditional western philosophers who excluded Indian thought from their study as below philosophical dignity' and whose attitude was reciprocated by the orientalist brand of counter-arrogance: that western philosophy was lacking the spiritual in-sight which could help it tackle the esoteric problems of Asian thought. Traditional philosophy say, up to Russell and Ayer was really not interested in creating a precise vocabulary that could suggest operational equivalents for Indian and Tibetan scholastic terminology. The analytical schools of Britain and America, however, have worked out a vocabulary which could be highly useful in rendering the former intelligible. To my know-ledge, however, no indologist with the exception of H. V. Guenther in India and Europe and Karl H. Potter in North America have cared to avail themselves of the work that has been done by occidental philosophers who regard language analysis as the main function of philosophy.

I shall start with a simple example: Tibetan sems, Sanskrit citta, is translated by such vague terms as 'mind' or even 'sour the latter being a downright atrocious translation so far as Buddhism is concerned. At best, the inadequacy of such renditions is admitted with a shrug as a bequest of last-century indology. However, I feel convinced that modern philosophy does give us an instrument to work out these vexing problems. With the growth of Tibetan Buddhist studies arose the habit of giving the Sanskrit term for the Tibetan in lieu of a translation, thus shelving the real issue; for while it is true that, for example, `nirmanakaya' is the Sanskrit equivalent of 'sprul sku', it is not very helpful to just write ` nirmanakaya ' in Roman characters, although the realization of the inadequacy of a term like 'phantom-body' is laudable. For what, then, is the 'nirmanakaya'?

It goes without saying that we cannot impugn the Tibetan translations of the original Sanskrit terms, and that for logical reasons: the Tibetans had no concepts matching the learned terminology of their Indian preceptors. We must assume that Buddhism was planted on a conceptual vacuum in Tibet. Any term chosen once, and used without modification, had come to stay. It is quite unlike trying to find an occidental term for a Sanskrit or Tibetan scholastic idiom, because occidental languages have a backlog of viable, even though risky, Graeco-Roman-Judaeo-Christian concepts. This shows itself in the translation of such innocuous words as (deva) as `god' or dnos pa (vastu) as 'substance' or 'nature'. 'Substance' cannot get rid of its Thomistic or Aristotelian flavour, and there is nothing of the kind in the Buddhist `vastu'. We shall see, however, that contemporary, non-Aristotelian philosophy might provide a useful term for the Buddhist concept. H. V. Guenther suggests 'reality', which would be acceptable if, as he does, the word is used as shorthand for 'all objects'; in other words if the Aristotelian flavour hovering around nouns suffixed by -ty can be kept out. I would recommend 'totality of sense-data' or even just 'all objects'; and never omitting the article for deva 'a god'.

Dombi and the Dakini Silk
To say that Tibetan renditions of Sanskrit terminology are 'more exact' than any western rendition is a sort of wrongly formulated tautology: the Tibetan term had to create the new concept, not to translate it. Translation is possible where both languages have words for a concept; if we call the work oldie Lo tsa ba 'translation', it is either incorrect or a courtesy: for he had to concoct Tibetan words for the Sanskrit original. Linguists might call this a one-zero relational process.

I believe that the cumbersome but accurate terminology of contemporary analytic philosophy has to be used to outgrow terminological nonchalance, even at the risk of having to adopt tools which so far belonged to another discipline. It seems to me that the philosophical analyst's apparatus may at times tempt us to ascribe too much sophistication to the Indian and Tibetan pundits. I think Guenther often yields to this temptation his translation of sometimes reads like a psychologist's manual. The danger can be avoided if we consistently use the modern terminology under a special rubric the Indian and Tibetan philosophers' categories are intuitive ones, those of western philosophy are discursive postulates, from the crude Aristotelian 'Laws of Thought' to today's logical calculi. Hence if we translate, for instance, 'sons' by 'causal characteristic of mind', our rubric which we may call an 'intuition-rubric' would read somewhat like: 'given that the word is used not as connoting a discursive or cognitive category but as corroborating an intuitive (i.e. non-discursive) experience' sems (citta) means 'causal characteristic of mind'; `bdag med (anatman) means 'non-individuality', etc.

I now proceed with some typical paradigms. I shall concentrate, in this chapter, on terms of the 'mind' class which in. a special sense is almost coextensive with Buddhist terminology in general, 'mind' in its widest sense being all that exists particularly with the Yogacara School which provided Tantric Buddhism with its theological superstructure, sharing a hard core with the older Madhyamika teachings.

sems (citta)

Ritual tantra paintingJaeschke was ignorant of the doctrinal meaning of this term in theology. In the first place, he equated it with Sanskrit sattva ('being'). S. C. Das placed it last in his enumeration of three Sanskrit equivalents; and rightly so, because in theological parlance `sems' translates `sattva' only in terms like 'mahasattva' (sems dpa cen po). It is hardly astonishing that not one of Jaeschke's English renditions was determined by a passage of theological significance he adduces only instances of trivial use, like 'sem khan du chud pa', one very much grieved', `sem chun ba', a timid mind', etc. As English equivalents he lists the vague 'spirit'-'mind'-'soul'. But these are inapplicable in any Tibetan or Indian Buddhist context; I suspect he used `sems' to render the Christian 'soul' for the benefit of his flock. None of these English terms are useful in Buddhist terminology.

S. C. Das does not fare much better. He was right about his Sanskrit equivalents, citta, manas, sattva, if his arrangement does imply descending semantical frequency!' He lists 'soul' (qualifying it 'as power of moral volition'), 'spirit'; 'the heart where the soul resides'; 'mind'.

There are two ways to produce a correct translation of this and other equally fundamental terms; we either look for a phrase which can serve as a common denominator whenever the word occurs. Thus, Guenther wrote in a different context `In the case of sems, we might use "spirituality" as a common denominator term'. 

TantraThe alternative would be to use an adequate paraphrase culled from analytical terminology each time the term occurs, putting the original in parentheses; the term is used as an operational counfer by the pandit and the Tibetan translator, and he knows its particular import from the context which can, of course, not be known through any occidental translation using vague generic terms. For example, we might say: `mental events (sems) recurrent associative event (sems) etc. Personally, I would incline towards the second method. There is the possibility of a combination of the two methods, if we agree that a particular occidental term be used as an `operational counter' each time the Tibetan `operational counter' appears in the text, provided the former is never used to translate any other original term. Thus, if we choose `spirituality' for `sems', we must not use 'spirituality'. to render any other term, like 'thugs'; at least not as long as we do not know for certain that 'thugs' and `sems' arc not complete synonyms in scholastic literature.

The most frequent amplification of sems is sems pa, which is the equivalent of Sanskrit caitta. This is a term which can be rendered most precisely by 'motivation'. The `chos mrion pa kun las btus pa' (Abhidarmasatnuccaya) identifies 'karma' with 'Motivation' in analytical philosophy includes both the urge to perform an action and the goal of the action in a teleological sense."

Tantric TerminologyIn an important article, Guenther elucidates some of these terms. He says, 'it has been customary to translate the terms sems (citta)" and "sems las byung ha (caitta)" by "mind" and "mental event" respectively. But this translation, however philologically correct, does not tell us much until we know what is meant by these terms in relation to each other. At first sight, the relation is comparable with that which common sense assumes to exist between "thing" and the "states of the thing". In this particular (i.e. the Buddhist tantric notion-A.B.) case, mind (sems, citta) would be the "thing" and mental event (sems las byung ba, caitta) the "state of the thing".

This is borne out by an important tantric text, which says 'this mind under consideration, when it has been changed by conditions such as trances and dispositions, should be known as only a state of mind'." Hence, whenever `sems (citta) occurs together with `sems las byung ba' (caitta), we might translate it as 'conditioned mind' and 'state of mind' respectively. The necessity of separate renderings of 'sons' becomes evident from these two examples. In one case, when it translates `citta' we use 'conditioned mind'; and in the other, when it translates `cetanci' we use 'motivation'; now compare these different renditions for meaningfulness, with the common rendering of 'sons' as 'mind', regardless of its context. The Tibetan translators had something more specific in mind than just 'mind'. This example is important for any future study of the development of ideas in Buddhism. `Citta' in Pali is best rendered as `attituele'.'s It goes without saying that Rhys Davis, Oldenberg, and the other old-timers in Pali Buddhism constantly used 'mind' and its other occidental synonyms. I suggest that the development of Pali `citta' into tantric `citta' (sems), i.e. from 'attitude' to a `conditioned mind', is sound psychology. `Mind' generally used as Gampopa's 'operational counter' is conditioned by constantly recurring attitudes; in strict Yogicara argument it is actually but the nominalistically conceived sum-total of attitudes.

I have come to regard terminological susceptibilities as an important tool for tracing religious axioms. To use this example `citta' when used by a Brahmin scholar always means something like `mindstuff ' Swami Vivekananda constantly translated 'dila' this way; no Buddhist of any school would ever think of any sort of 'stuff' when he hears `citta'.

yid (mamas)

Tantra Pict 3Jaeschke again has soul, mind; Das adds 'intellect' and both explain 'especially the powers of perception and imagination'. 'Soul' is impossible anyway; but whereas `sems' might be translated 'mind' as an operational counter, 'mind' should never be used to render 'yid' (manas). The 'powers of perception and imagination' are subsumed under all Buddhist terms of the epistemological order, the description is too wide to be of use. The precise role of 'yid' (manas) in Buddhist tantra and in Yogicira is that of conceptualization. Guenther puts it this way, 'it is that function event which is particularly concerned with conceptualization'. The Vajrayana phrase `amanasikara' (Tibetan yid la mi byed pa) implies the important meditation-hint 'not to conceptualize' the various forms that arise in the course of the contemplative's training.

In early scholastic literature, the epistemological term sems (citta), yid (manas) and rnam par 'es pa (vijnana) are as yet used synonymously (Abliidharmakoia II, 34). In tantric times, this is no longer the case; as in all scholastic philosophy, progress involved subtler terminological distinction. Yid (manas), in tantric Buddhism, transmits sensations to its centre for their interpretation. Once this interpreting function subsides as a result of the prescribed meditative processes, the individual's notions about external objects vanish and the yid (limas) is harmonized with its origin; there is no conception whatever left. 

Psychic DefenseThis basis is not a substratum in the Brahmanical sense (which later incidentally converges with the Thomistic notion of a `substratum'), but a sort of pool into which things merge and from which they arise again. I think it could be likened to a 'flying start' in a horse-race: the 'flying-start' is not really a location but a function located on a particular line. The Yogacara call this the 'alayavijnana (kun ghi rnam par Les pa), the 'consciousness-receptacle' (Frauwallner translates it `Schatzkammerbewusstsein' which sounds very nice but does not seem too helpful).

Guenther does use 'mind' for 'yid' once in a while against his own knowledge of the specific use of 'yid', but in the same book he paraphrases it as 'workings of the mind'. Considering the above, I would render 'yid (manas) 'interpreting function' or 'conceptualizing function'. Rnam par Les pa (vijnana) The non-scholastic meaning of `vijficina' in Sanskrit and the derived languages is simply 'consciousness' or, sometimes, 'intellect'. In Buddhist theology, however, it is a key term, being the quintessence of the radical idealist school (Vijtianavada or Yogacara); 

Tibetan TantricIn their world view, which at times seems to me to be dangerously close to solipsism, the term covers the entire natural realm, somewhat in a Berkeleyan fashion except that esse is a totaliter percipi, there being no divine mind as a separate ontological ens. Popular literature on Buddhism (Humphreys, Glascnapp) uses 'subjective-objective' and tries to explain how the objective merges in the subjective; which is an outsider's diction, there being no 'objective' of any kind in Vijnanavada nor, for that matter, in any important school of Buddhism. Jaeschke lists 'perfect knowledge, consciousness'; 'perceptions, cognitions' (i.e. as one of the five skandhas or aggregates phun po); and the inevitable 'soul', even though only that of the departed. Then, however, Jaeschke adds something very wise in parentheses: 'the significations. I presume, should be distinguished, as is done here, according to the different spheres in which they are used and not to be explained out of the other'.

Writer – Agehananda Bharati


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