The Lamp for the Eye of Contemplation: The Samten Migdron by Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, a 10th-century Tibetan Buddhist Text on Meditation. Oxford University Press 2022. Dylan Esler
Dylan Esler’s translation of The Lamp for the Eye of Contemplation or Samten Migdron (Bsam gtan mig sgron) by Nubchen Sangye Yeshe delivers a new complete English translation of this seminal 10th century Tibetan Buddhist treatise on contemplation. Esler’s style is both authentic to the text and accessible to the reader. The Eye of Contemplation stands out as one of the first indigenous doxographies of contemplative practices in Tibet, rivaling the historical importance of the Dunhuang manuscripts. It takes the perspective of the Great Perfection or Dzogchen tradition, and establishes a four-part hierarchy of contemplative vehicles: Mahayana’s gradual approach, Chan’s simultaneous approach, Mahayoga Tantra, and the Great Perfection’s vehicle of effortless spontaneity. Each of these four vehicles is given sustained discussion of their view, meditation, conduct, and fruition, followed by a critique from the perspective of the approach directly superior to it. This is especially notable for two key reasons: 1) It is one of the first manuscripts to regard the Great Perfection as its own vehicle, and 2) It valorizes the simultaneous approach of Chan Buddhism as equal to or greater than the gradual approach of Mahayana Buddhism – a position that opposes normative Tibetan hierarchies.
Contemplative practices for each of these approaches are at the core of the text. These include reflections on the four immeasurables and the two truths; advice for shamatha or calm-abiding and vipashyana or insight meditation techniques; recognizing omens in dreams as a classical Mahayana contemplation; discussions on subtle body practices of the channels, winds, and essences paired with indications of their accomplishment for Mahayoga Tantra; and an examination of various approaches for the effortless resting of the body and mind in the Great Perfection. These contemplations are further analyzed against each other as the author attempts to establish a hierarchy of practices, and ultimately, the superiority of the Great Perfection. Finally, each contemplative approach is described by the author through the use of extensive quotations, and in particular, the chapter on Chan Buddhism shines as one of the most robust Tibetan collections of Chan primary materials on contemplation.
Esler’s translation reflects a depth of historical and philosophical research, understanding, and nuance regarding the Eye of Contemplation’s author and the foundational meditation traditions that he documents. Esler’s ability to convey this in plain and compelling language makes the book a pleasure to read. This publication gives us a significant contribution to the history of contemplation in Tibetan Buddhism.
Post by Adam Liddle, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and Research Assistant at the Journal of Contemplative Studies.