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Naked Seeing (The Great Perfection, The Wheel of Time, and Visionary Buddhism in Renaissance Tibet)

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Item Code: NAV526
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Chrishtopher Hatchell
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9780199982912
Pages: 483
Other Details 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 730 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

"This superb study brings to light some of the most esoteric and innovative contemplative practices ever to emerge within Asian religions. In clear and engaging terms, Hatchell explores how the visionary techniques of the Kalacakra and Great Perfection traditions work to undo our deeply engrained psychophysical habits and open us to new ways of seeing. The result is a study that will appeal not only to scholars and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, but to anyone interested in the phenomenology of sensory perception."

BUDDHISMIS IN MANY WAYS A VISUAL TRADITION, withits well known practices of visualization, its visual arts, its epistemological writings that discuss the act of seeing, and its literature filled with images and metaphors of light. Some Buddhist traditions are also visionary, advocating practices by which meditators seek visions that arise before their eyes. Naked Seeing investigates such practices in the context of two major esoteric traditions, the Wheel of Time (Kalacakra) and the Great Perfection (Dzogchen). Both of these experimented with sensory deprivation, and developed yogas involving long periods of dwelling in dark rooms or gazing at the open sky. These produced unusual experiences of seeing, which were used to pursue some of the classic Buddhist questions about appearances, emptiness, and the nature of reality. Along the way, these practices gave rise to provocative ideas and suggested that, rather than being apprehended through internal insight, religious truths might also be seen in the exterior world—realized through the gateway of the eyes. Christopher Hatchell presents the intellectual and literary histories of these practices, and also explores the meditative techniques and physiology that underlie their distinctive visionary experiences.

The book also offers for the first time complete English translations of three major Tibetan texts on visionary practice: a Kalacakra treatise by Yumo Mikyo Dorjé, The Lamp Illuminating Emptiness, a Nyingma Great Perfection work called The Tantra of the Blazing Lamps, and a Bon Great Perfection work called Advice on the Six Lamps, along with a detailed commentary on this by Drugom Gyalwa Yungdrung.


What Can the Eyes See?

What can the eyes see? Is it only mundane objects illuminated by the ordinary light of the world? Or might the eyes themselves be sources of illumination? When the eyes are deprived of light—for instance if we stay for a long while in a completely dark room—we eventually begin to see light where there is none: abstract spots and showers of light will emerge from the darkness and eventually transform into a rich visual field, full of objects and beings. Why do the eyes respond this way to the dark? The eyes also have unusual functions when flooded with light. For instance, if we gaze up at the sky, we see objects that are not outside of us but that are within the eye itself—floaters, spots, and squiggles—and in time those can give way to full visionary experiences, realistic scenes that seem to be projected into the sky. When the eyes meet such visionary images, is this "seeing"? And what do those evanescent and ultimately "unreal" visions suggest about the objects in our more ordinary visual worlds?

This book explores these questions of seeing through a study of Buddhist yogis who dwell in dark rooms and gaze at the sky, aiming to experience luminous visions. These meditative practices rose to popularity in eleventh-century tantric Buddhism, as part of an Indian tradition called the Wheel of Time (kdlacakra), and also in a Tibetan movement known as the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen). As both of these groups began experimenting with the body’s sensory system, they found that complete immersion in darkness or light resulted in unusual events of seeing, and those events could then be used as methods for pursuing long-standing Buddhist questions about appearances. Vision thus became a way of inquiring into whether things in fact exist in the way that they appear, or whether objects’ apparent solidity, permanence, and meaning were in fact as illusory as the fleeting visionary lights that emerge from darkness.

In what follows, I discuss two visionary practices that are commonly called "dark-retreat" and "sky-gazing." While I do present some traditional descriptions of the techniques involved in the practice of vision, my main concern is with Buddhists’ intellectual and philosophical responses to vision: how Buddhists interpret visions, and what they say their ultimate significance might be. Along the way, I look at some of the provocative ideas that arose from these visionary projects, such as the claim that religious truths like "emptiness" (Sinyatd) do not have to be approached through an internal mental in-sight, but that they might be seen in the exterior world—realized through the gateway of the eyes.

Literary Sources: Three Buddhist Texts on Vision

This is in many ways a literary study, organized around three literary works from three different Tibetan religious traditions. The sources are:

  1. The Lamp Illuminating Emptiness (stong nyid gsal sgron), a Kalacakra treatise by Yumo Mikyo Dorjé,
  2. The Tantra of the Blazing Lamps (sgron ma ‘bar ba’i rgyud), a Great Perfection work belonging to the Nyingma tradition, and
  3. Advice on the Six Lamps (sgron ma drug gi gdams pa), and a detailed commentary on this by Drugom Gyalwa Yungdrung, both of which are Great Perfection works belonging to the Bon tradition.
Though these texts came from different traditions and speak in their own distinct voices, they are clearly discussing a common topic, and I suggest that in reading them together, we can learn more about them than if they are read in isolation. On the simplest level, this group of texts speaks about the historical period from which they emerged. Popularized during Tibet’s renaissance period, they suggest how seeing and vision were critical themes in the religious revival of that era. These texts make no reference to one another, but placed next to each other, their common ideas clearly show how their respective traditions competed with, borrowed from, and mutually influenced each other.

Ultimately, I also want to use these sources to get at the question of why religious authors would write about vision in the first place. If we take these texts at face value, it would seem that vision is simply a matter of the body, the mind, and the eyes; but as we read, it becomes apparent that vision is also intertwined with words. Thus, in these texts, we can see a relationship between words and the eyes: a yogi sees visions and puts them into writing; those literary visions are encountered by readers, and when those readers engage in visionary practice themselves, their reading influences and adds meaning to their own experiences of seeing. In the present book, then, through our own reading, I hope that we can come to see new dimensions of vision, as being part of a process that is not simply physical or personal, but that involves literature, discussion, speculation, memory, and culture.

Organization: Three Approaches to Vision

The book that follows is organized as a sort of "tripod," inspired by this structure’s simplicity and stability. Here, I take my three literary sources and discuss them in three sections, with the sections representing three different viewpoints from which to approach the literature.

Part One of the book ("Seeing Literature") contains three chapters, one devoted to each of our three visionary texts. These chapters introduce the texts’ histories, provide the theoretical background necessary for under- standing them, and give interpretive analyses of their content. While these chapters are in some ways the more straightforward portion of the book, they are deliberately constructed to circle around the texts’ points of con- tact and contention. Thus, this part of the book is not intended simply as background but also represents my efforts to present the texts so that their connections can be readily seen.

Part Two ("Views") contains three interpretive essays that approach the texts comparatively rather than individually. In this part of the book I discuss the critical themes found in these sources and also connect them to broader and more well-known Buddhist intellectual movements like Prajiiaparamita and Madhyamika. Chapter 4 is an essay that takes up the theme of darkness. It provides a brief introduction to the techniques and physiology of dark-room meditation but then focuses mainly on the philosophical issue of emptiness and suggests ways that visionary practices using darkness were valued for inquiring into this philosophical idea. Chapter 5 turns to the theme of light; the essay discusses sky-gazing practices by reflecting on philosophical and literary discourses of light that inspired and were inspired by sky-gazing. Finally, chapter 6 investigates the relationship between seeing and sexuality and explores how visionary practice might be understood as related to the Buddhist practice of sexual yoga.

Part Three ("Seeing Sources") contains complete English translations of my Tibetan-language sources. Each translation is prefaced with bibliographic information, comments on the editions of the texts, and my reflections on some of the difficult issues in the process of translation.


Tibetan Renaissance: An Era of Lamps

In Buddhist literature, the image of a lamp is often used to indicate the illuminating presence of a buddha. Sakyamuni, for instance, is called the "Lamp of the World," signifying how his teaching pervades and lights up the universe. Tibetan authors also use lamps to mark the bright spots in their religious histories, with the term "era of lamps" (sgron ma’i bskal pa) used for a period in which a buddha is present to dispel the darkness of ignorance.

When Tibetan historians look back at their own past, they see two such bright periods. The first of these began in the seventh century, when Buddhism was first introduced to the Tibetan plateau. Known as the "earlier spread" (snga dar) of Buddhism, this is recalled as the era when Tibet was at the height of its powers, with a fearsome military presided over by a series of emperors who also sponsored Buddhist activities. Buddhism flourished under this imperial support: the Tibetan script and new Buddhist terminologies were created; the first monastery, Samyé, was constructed; networks of temples and sacred sites appeared; scholars and practitioners were invited from India; and Indian Buddhist texts were translated in large-scale projects. Yet government expenditures on religion—along with the rise of monastic landownership, and taxes that required ordinary families to support monks' introduced new economic tensions. All of this may have combined to tip the empire off balance; Tibetan histories often suggest that imperial largesse ultimately led to the demise of the last major emperor, Relpachen. Though the nature of his demise is unclear, legend has it that Relpachen was assassinated, an act that was in protest of his extensive support for Buddhism.

Relpachen’s successor Lang Darma, the last emperor, was also short- lived. Depending on one’s perspective, Darma either attempted to rein in the power of the Buddhist clergy (according to modern historical thought), or instituted a persecution of Buddhism (according to traditional Buddhist accounts). The truth may be somewhere in between, but the result ias agreed upon: Darma was assassinated in 842. This time, according to the popular Tibetan accounts, the assassin was a Buddhist monk.

Darma’s death sent Tibet into its "period of fragmentation" (sil pa’t dus), as the empire split in a battle over succession and eventually col- lapsed, and political power was divided up among local clans.’ Little is known about this period, though there are accounts of civil unrest, and the near absence of religious literature from the period’? suggests organized religion must also have broken apart. However, religion certainly survived during this time, and in the absence of central contro! took on forms that were distinctively local, making this a time of diversity and ferment that, when Buddhist activity re-emerged in force, would permanently influence the character of Tibetan religion. Nonetheless, when Tibetans look back at this period, they see it as their "era of darkness" (mun pa’t bskal pa).

The present book is set in the time of Tibet’s ensuing religious renaissance, starting near the end of the tenth century when organized Buddhism began to reassert its presence. Tibetan historians call this period the "later dissemination" (phyi dar) of Buddhism, and also refer to it as the "era of lamps" (sgron ma’i bskal pa). The revival of Buddhism in this period began with small pockets of religious activity that still remained from the imperial period, and thus, in a traditional metaphor, religion is said to have sprung up like flames from the embers. Tibetans use this "embers" image to suggest how the renaissance was sparked by fragments of the past: small monastic ordination lineages that were able to survive, rituals and practices maintained by clans associated with the empire, temples and trade routes that had fallen into disuse, and the powerful memory of the once-great religious kings. But "flames" also suggests how the renaissance would consume the past, as the era’s Modernists would portray the "old" traditions—no matter how vital—as broken, sometimes degenerate, and in need of reformation. One part of the renaissance, then, was a drive to remake religion rather than simply reviving it, and this prompted efforts at retranslating texts, importing previously unknown traditions and ritual systems from India, building new temples and institutions, and constructing religious lineages that would challenge and integrate the power of the old clans.

Literature and Life

One major feature of this renaissance was the appearance of new relligious literature. It might seem self-evident that written texts would play a primary role in a religious revival, but in fact "reading" is not always the primary use of books in Buddhist cultures, where texts are often used as sacred objects, irrespective of the particular doctrinal details they may contain. Thus it is useful to recall that the written content of books—and not just their sacred power—can also be a motivating agent in society: lit- erature acts as the basis of personal relationships, forms central points around which communities are organized, prompts travel and economic activity, sparks debates, defines rivalries, and even serves as a space for creative thought.

This was particularly true in Tibet’s renaissance, when there were inten- sive efforts to import and translate new works from India, to revitalize and revise bodies of literature that already existed in Tibet, and to compose works that were completely new. In this environment, translators became cultural heroes, and their tribulations on the road to India became mate- rial for legends. Literature thus prompted an educated class of Tibetans to cross borders and form new personal relationships, as they traveled to India, worked with Indians, and brought Indian scholars back to Tibet. Literature also prompted travel within Tibet itself, as students moved between communities centered around teachers of a particular specialty, and then moved on to other centers as their needs or interests progressed.

A good example of a renaissance life-in-literature is Yumo Mikyo Dorjé, a relatively unknown author whose treatise the Lamp Illuminating Emptiness is central to this book. Yumo’s life story is instructive because his biographies contain relatively little mythology, and though they are spare, they hit the major themes of Tibetan religious life in the mid-elev- enth century. Yumo was born to a nomadic family in western Tibet, near Mt. Kailash. The youngest of four sons, as a child he became ordained along with his parents and siblings, and the family remained so for the remainder of their lives. Yumo’s religious life, however, was not simply centered around wearing robes and maintaining vows; he embarked on a path of scholarship, punctuated at first by studies of the Middle Way (madhyamaka) and epistemology (pram@na). He later met a teacher named Lama Sok Chenpo, famed at the time for his knowledge of monastic dis- cipline. Yumo traveled to Sok Chenpo’s community, and his relationship with this renowned vinaya teacher would open doors for him for the rest of his career.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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