Four modes

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The tantric teachings have meanings on many levels, so to unlock the accurate meaning of a tantra we must follow a series of methods which are known as the six limits and four modes (Skt. caturvidha; Tib. ཚུལ་བཞི་, tsul shyi, Wyl. tshul bzhi). These ten approaches taken all together will bring out the perfect, accurate meaning of the tantra.

The six limits apply to how we understand the text as a whole and the four modes relate directly to the interpretation of each word and line.

The four modes are:

  1. linguistic or morphemic (Skt. akṣarārtha; ཚིག་གི་ཚུལ་, tshig gi tshul)
  2. general (Skt. samastāṅga; སྤྱིའི་ཚུལ་, spyi'i tshul)
  3. hidden (Skt. garbhin; སྦས་པའི་ཚུལ, sbas pa'i tshul)
  4. ultimate (Skt. kolika; མཐར་ཐུག་གི་ཚུལ་, mthar thug gi tshul)

Alternative Translations

  • Four programs of interpretation (Thurman)
  • Four styles (Matthew Kapstein)
  1. lexical
  2. general
  3. concealed
  4. conclusive
  • (Khenpo Palden Sherab & Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal)
  1. word meaning
  • Four ways (Yael Bentor)
  1. Literal
  2. Common
  3. Hidden
  4. Ultimate


Further Reading

  • Robert Thurman. 'Vajra Hermeneutics' in Donald S. Lopez (ed.), Buddhist Hermeneutics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993
  • Appendix 1. The Six Limits & Four Modes pp.161-166 in The Light of Wisdom Volume 1. Root text by Padmasambhava and commentary by Jamgön Kongtrül the Great. Published by Shambhala Publications ISBN 0-87773-566-2
  • Khenpo Palden Sherab & Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal, Tara's Enlightened Activity: an oral commentary on the Twenty-one Praises to Tara. Pages 35-37. ISBN 9781559392877

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