Luminosity (Skt. prabhāsvaratā; Tib.’od gsal ba; Ch. guāng míng; Jpn. kōmyō; Kor. kwangmyōng) is a key Buddhist concept found throughout the major traditions of Buddhism. In the context of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the term is commonly translated as clear light or radiant light, both of which are literal renderings from the Tibetan, while in the context of East Asian Buddhism it is commonly translated simply as purity. Other common English translations include radiance, inner radiance, brightness, and luminous clarity. Although it is clear that luminosity is interpreted differently according to the various Buddhist traditions, it is most often employed to describe the mind’s inherent characteristic of purity that lacks defilements such as afflictive emotions (kleśa). This notion is found throughout the major schools of Buddhism among the early Buddhist, Mahāyāna, and tantric systems of thought and practice. The early Buddhist traditions such as Theravāda generally use the term to illustrate the idea that impurities, which bind one to saṃsāra, are not inherent to the mind. This fact is what allows for the possibility of enlightenment, since stains or afflictions of the mind can potentially be completely and permanently removed. While in the Mahāyāna system, particularly within the contexts of prajñāpāramitā and tathāgatagarbha literature, give increased focus to the mind being naturally luminous and inherently pure, we find within such philosophical systems as Yogācāra and Madhyamaka that luminosity is increasingly associated with emptiness, ultimate reality, and the illumination (prakāśa) of the mind that makes apparent objects of awareness. Tantric teachings tend to emphasize the direct realization or experience of luminosity as itself a means for enlightenment. According to tantric interpretations, luminosity as an experience of consciousness (rather than a mere characteristic of mind’s potentiality) can naturally arise once the gross and subtle levels of consciousness dissolve, such as during orgasm, at the moment of falling asleep, and particularly at the moment of death. A Buddhist tantric practitioner can potentially train in simulating this dissolution process of consciousness during meditation in order to directly recognize the appearance of luminosity, thus leading to liberation and Buddhahood. In the esoteric Tibetan traditions of Dzogchen (Rdzogs chen) and Mahāmūdra, luminosity is emphasized as synonymous with the dharmakāya, the dharmadhātu, and the fundamental nature of all phenomena and reality. It also becomes central for the other-emptiness (gzhan stong) views as maintained by some Tibetan traditions, particularly the Jonang school. Luminosity is thus a central concern for Buddhist soteriology among the major traditions of Buddhism. Despite this core focus, the limited secondary academic literature tends to heavily favor the Indo-Tibetan tantric and philosophical traditions, particularly since luminosity came to be a central theme in Tibetan esoteric Buddhism. References to luminosity in East Asian Buddhism are currently limited within European and American studies, as is reflected in this bibliography.
Despite the clear centrality of the concept of luminosity in Buddhist systems of thought and practice, relatively few academic studies have been carried out on the subject. Although this important concept can be a central theme running throughout many Buddhist works, there is still no systematic study that focuses on this term throughout all major Buddhist traditions. Informative references to luminosity, the notion that the mind is naturally or ultimately pure and luminous, are hidden within footnotes of dissertations or academic studies that one may not think to look in. The majority of references available on the subject of luminosity in Buddhism are predominantly from the perspective of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps the most noteworthy and valuable overview of the concept in both tantric and non-tantric contexts to date is presented in Skorupski 2012. Buswell and Lopez 2014 gives a short but valuable gloss of the term. Shih 2009 investigates the purity aspect of the luminous mind in relation to early Buddhist sources, and Gray 2001 gives a clear summary of the term in relation to purity, particularly in regard to the tantric tradition. Jackson 1990 provides an important overview of the naturally luminous mind in Buddhist philosophical traditions. Tucci 1980 offers a short overview according to Tibetan traditions, while Kapstein 2004 outlines the concept with a focus primarily on Tibetan Kagyu interpretations. Kalu Rinpoche 1997 gives an important overview designed for Buddhist practitioners.
Buswell, Robert, and Donald Lopez. “‘Prabhāsvara’ and ‘Prabhāsvaracitta.’” In The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. By Robert Buswell and Donald Lopez, 653–654. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
These two short entries give an accurate and concise introduction to the notion of luminosity in Buddhism.
Gray, David. On Supreme Bliss: A Study of the History and Interpretation of the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra. PhD diss. Columbia University, 2001.
Although Grey’s thesis focuses on the Cakrasaṃvara tantric tradition, he dedicates a section Purity (pp. 66–86) of his work to discussing the general notion of purity in Buddhism. He particularly gives an informative overview and extensive references to the notion of luminosity in relation to purity (pp. 73–76).
Jackson, Roger. “Luminous Mind among the Logicians: Pramāṇavārttika II. 205–211.” In Buddha Nature. Edited by Paul Griffiths and John Keenan, 95–125. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1990.
While primarily focused on the famous Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti’s interpretation of the notion of a naturally luminous mind, Jackson’s article is also among the few studies solely dedicated to providing an overview of the notion of luminosity in Buddhism.
Kalu Rinpoche. Luminous Mind: The Way of the Buddha. Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 1997.
Although this book is intended as a general introduction to Buddhist views for a general audience, it largely focuses on the notion of the mind and practices to realize “clear light” according to the Tibetan Buddhist perspective.
Kapstein, Matthew. “The Strange Death of Pema the Demon Tamer.” In In the Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience. Edited by Matthew Kapstein, 119–156. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Kapstein’s chapter provides a clear overview of sūtra and tantric understandings of the notion of luminosity or “clear light.”
Shih, Ru-nien. “The Concept of ‘Innate Purity of Mind’ in the Agamas and Nikayas.” Journal of World Religions 13 (2009): 117–176.
Shih gives an overview of the significant early Buddhist discussions of the “innate purity of mind” or naturally luminous mind in relation to the defilements, especially in Abhidharma literature. Shih relates these discussions to comparative Chinese interpretations and their influence on East Asian Buddhist schools of thought.
Skorupski, Tadeusz. “Consciousness and Luminosity in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.” In Buddhist Philosophy and Meditation Practice: Academic Papers Presented at the 2nd IABU Conference Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, Main Campus Wang Noi, Ayutthaya, Thailand, 31 May–2 June 2012. Edited by Khammai Dhammasami, 43–64. Ayutthaya, Thailand: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, 2012.
Perhaps the best complete overview of the notion of luminosity among the early Buddhist, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna traditions. Skorupski covers the most popular quotations from primary sources that describe the notion of luminosity in the Indo-Tibetan tradition. A must-read.
Tucci, Giuseppi. “Sems and Light.” In The Religions of Tibet. Chapter 4.5. Translated by Geoffrey Samuel, 63–67. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
A translation of the German book Die Religionen Tibets (in Die Religionen Tibets und der Mongolei, Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer GmbH., 1970) by Tucci. Tucci dedicates one full section to describing the importance of luminosity (what he calls “light”) and its relationship to the mind, according to general Tibetan understandings.
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