Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Space: Elemental Theory and Practice in the Great Perfection Heart Essence (Rdzogs chen snying thig) Tradition of Tibet

Author: ORCID icon
Zuckerman, Devin, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Germano, David

The theorization of matter in terms of the primary elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space is among the most enduring philosophical and cosmological schemes in Buddhist history. Yet there has been little discussion in contemporary Buddhist studies of the variety of elemental theories belonging to diverse Buddhist traditions. This dissertation aims to address this omission by exploring Buddhist theories of the primary elements and the shifting conceptions of the material world that these discourses represent in Renaissance-era contemplative literatures belonging to the Great Perfection Heart Essence (Rdzogs chen snying thig) tradition of Tibet.
The textual locus of this research is a canonical collection belonging to the Nyingma (Rnying ma), or “Ancient” school of Tibetan Buddhism, known as The Seventeen Great Perfection Tantras (Rdzogs chen rgyud bcu bdun), and interpretations of these texts among commentaries from the 12th and 14th centuries. I study the role of the elements within these texts’ distinctive theories of astrology, divination, and medicine, and within a system of contemplative practice known as the “Yoga of the Four Sounds of the Elements” exploring the intersection of Buddhist doctrine, theory of meditation, and material-environmental thought in these eras. Comparing these 12th century discourses on the elements with that of the major 14th century Great Perfection Heart Essence works, indicates that elemental thought underwent significant reformulation during this period. By the time of Longchen Rabjam Drimed Özer (Klong chen rab ‘byams dri med ‘od zer, 1308-1364), or Longchenpa, some of the most distinctive features of the elemental philosophies of the early tradition—including the emphasis upon elemental-sensory contemplative practice, and the application of astrological and medical knowledge within meditation— are appreciably less prominent.
While Longchenpa is perhaps the most widely recognized scholar of this tradition in its long history, I argue that his influence has limited wider perspectives of the Great Perfection Heart Essence tradition, and that more robust studies into the distinct features of the period of Great Perfection scholarship that preceded his life are necessary to gain sufficient grasp of the tradition as a whole. By turning instead to foundational works of Great Perfection scholarship from the 12th century, this dissertation provides a novel perspective into the early history of the Great Perfection tradition, as well as, more broadly, the period of Buddhist intellectual development in Tibet known as the Tibetan Renaissance.
It was out of the ferment of cultural and political change during the Renaissance era that The Seventeen Tantras arose. These texts, together with their corresponding commentaries, are massive anthologies of Great Perfection scholarship, which are characterized by a particular interest in matter, materiality, and the elements. Here, the primary elements are understood to be a media which coheres the interior matter of the human body with the surrounding material universe, and govern the world’s regular fluctuations of growth, transformation, and decay. In their application within the texts’ systems of cosmology, elemental astrology (‘byung rtsis), human anatomy and multi-sensory forms of contemplative practice, the elements function to make sense of the ways that the physical realities of the body, the senses, the environment, and time, are crucial to actualizing the Buddhist goal of freedom from suffering. This emphasis upon natural and embodied environments, as well as the great diversity of theoretical and practical contexts in which the elements play a critical role within these texts, betrays a deep concern for the material world, and for the development of theoretical models by which it can be explained and organized. I argue that the elemental theory of these texts constitutes a distinctive Buddhist philosophy of the material, our reception of which has been occluded by affinities—both within the tradition and within contemporary scholarship—for classical era reinterpretations of the Seventeen Tantras.
As such, this dissertation sheds light on the ways that Buddhist communities and cultures throughout history have engaged with material objects and natural environments, and utilized the physical body and the senses in the production of knowledge.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Buddhism, Tibet, Great Perfection, Rdzogs chen, Rdzogs chen snying thig, Longchenpa, Vimalamitra, Seventeen Tantras, Elements, Body, Sound, Senses, Philosophy of Nature, Materiality
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: