The Provisional and Definitive Meaning of the Transmitted Precepts by H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche

When these teachings are allocated between the provisional meaning (drang-don) and the definitive meaning (nges-don), the three successive promulgations of the doctrinal wheel have the same common purpose, that is, to purify the stains covering the single nucleus of the tathagata (tathagatagarbha). They differ only in the greatness of their means which respectively purify the gross, subtle and very subtle stains that suddenly arise to obscure it. Thus, by teachings such as impermanence, the first promulgation arouses the mind from samsara and causes it to approach nirvana. In the second, the three approaches to liberation become an antidote to attachment to superficial characteristics, which include the mundane view of self; and the third intends that the extensive way of the sugatas be comprehended through the topics of that irreversible promulgation. This is extensively mentioned in passages such as the following from the Sutra of the Dialogue with King Dharanisvara (Dharanisvarapariprcchsasutra, T 147):

Son of the enlightened family, it is in the same way as, for example, a skilled jeweller, who knows well how gems are refined, takes an impure stone from a species of precious gemstones and, after wetting it in dirty salt water, has it cleaned with goats' hair, and similarly after then wetting it in a beverage has it cleaned with a woollen cloth, and afterwards, in the very same way, wets it in a herbal solution and has it cleaned with fine clean linen; when it is well refined, the stainless gem is said to be a great gemstone of the species beryl . Likewise, when a sentient being has first been induced to enter the Vinaya by the disturbing topics such as suffering and impermanence, and has then been made to realise the way of the tathagatas by means of the three approaches to liberation, he subsequently is made to enter the objective range of the tathagatas by the topics of the irreversible promulgation. To enter in this way and realise reality is to become an unsurpassed object of offering.
Thus, the three successive [promulgations] of transmitted precepts are classified into those of provisional meaning and those of definitive meaning. It says in the Sutra which Decisively Reveals the Intention (Sandhinirmocanasutra, T 106):
The first promulgation of the doctrinal wheel by the Transcendent Lord, through which the four sublime truths were taught to those who enter the vehicle of the pious attendants, is surpassed, circumstantial, of provisional meaning and continues to be a basis for debate. Then, beginning with the Transcendent Lord's teaching that things have no essence, the second promulgation of the doctrinal wheel which teaches emptiness to those who correctly enter the greater vehicle is surpassed, circumstantial, of provisional meaning and continues to be a basis for debate. And then, beginning with the Transcendent Lord's teaching that things have no essence, the third promulgation of the wheel of the exceedingly wondrous and amazing doctrine, which is well distinguished, was revealed to those correctly entering the entire vehicle. That promulgation of the doctrinal wheel is unsurpassed, not circumstantial, of definitive meaning and does not become a basis for debate.
The allocation of provisional and definitive meaning is determined in ways such as these.

The intermediate promulgation has accordingly been allocated provisional meaning because in this turning of the doctrinal wheel the enlightened attributes of ultimate reality, such as the powers of the sugatas, are mostly revealed to be empty of their own essence (rang-stong), though they are not actually empty of their own essence, and because it does not teach that these attributes are well distinguished and without inherent contradiction. For such reasons it is said to be surpassed and so on. Definitive meaning, on the other hand, is allocated to the third promulgation because [therein] things of relative appearance are empty of their own essence and the ultimate reality is empty of extraneous entities, so that the nature of these [attributes] is qualitatively well distinguished and then revealed.

If there are those who say that definitive meaning is contained in the intermediate promulgation because it teaches the transcendental perfection of discriminative awareness (prajnaparamita), but that the final promulgation has an intention of provisional meaning because it teaches the contrary, then they have not made an accurate examination. The attributes, such as uncreated and unceasing original quiescence, which are terms relating to the transcendental perfection of discriminative awareness, are most extensively revealed in the final promulgation and very profoundly revealed in the vehicle of indestructible reality.

However, there is no distinction in the essence of the transcendental perfection of discriminative awareness, which is said to be distinguished as surpassed or unsurpassed depending on whether it is unclearly, clearly or very clearly revealed; for all the limitless [attributes] which are revealed by names such as the nucleus of the sugata (sugatagarbha), the expanse of reality (dharmadhatu), the mind of inner radiance, the naturally pure enlightened family, the genuine goal and the emptiness which is the essential nature devoid of substantiality, are identical in the naturally present, non-dual pristine cognition (jnana). This same [pristine cognition] is the transcendental perfection of discriminative awareness (prajnaparamita). Therefore the master Dignaga [in his Epitome of the Transcendental Perfection of Discriminative Awareness, v.l] has said:
Being the transcendental perfection of
Discriminative awareness,
This non-dual pristine cognition is the Tathagata.
Since it possesses the meaning
Which is to be accomplished,
This term applies to the central texts and path.
The final transmitted precepts are conclusively proven to be the definitive meaning by all [scriptural] transmissions and [logical] reasoning. The Conqueror himself made the classification of provisional and definitive meaning, and moreover, in his own words said:
A monk who is called Asanga
Learned in the meaning of these treatises,
Will differentiate in many categories
The sutras of provisional and definitive meaning.
The final [transmitted precepts] were accordingly allocated conclusive definitive meaning by this sublime [Asanga], whom the Conqueror had prophetically declared would differentiate the provisonal and definitive meanings.

There are, on the other hand, no authoritative passages declaring the intermediate [transmitted precepts] to have definitive meaning and the final [transmitted precepts] provisional meaning. Indeed, even if the proponents of the Vijnanavada could have composed these final transmitted precepts as such, they would have mistaken the correct sequence revealed by the above simile of the refinement of gemstones and by other similes which refer to the medical treatment of ill-health and the study of letters. There would be no need even for the definitive order made by the Conqueror himself and the sublime [Asanga], and there would be limitless other such faults. In addition, after first teaching the provisional meaning and intermediately the definitive meaning to those who require training, the provisional meaning would then be repeated, so that one would be obliged to consider just what is the Buddha's intention vis-a-vis the teaching. It should be known that by proceeding in this way, there would be all kinds of unbearable evils, such as allocating the conclusive definitive meaning to philosophical systems which propound substantial existence, slandering the buddhas and great bodhisattvas as holders of a relative teaching, and abandoning this doctrine of the nucleus (garbha).

Furthermore, since the three vehicles have reference to the definitive meaning gathered in the final promulgation, the definitive meaning is conclusively proven. This is extensively mentioned in passages such as the following from the Sutra of the Irreversible Wheel (Avaivartacakra-sutra, T 240):
Then, in reverence to the Transcendent Lord, the great bodhisattva Madhuranirghosa arose from his lotus posture and asked, 'Transcendent Lord, what is the dimension of this world system of Patient Endurance?"

He replied, "Son of the enlightened family, in the western direction of this world system there is a world system which outnumbers the sands of the River Ganges."

Then he asked, 'Transcendent Lord, in that world system which Transcendent Lord teaches the doctrine?"

"He is called the Tathagata Sakyamuni."

"What manner of doctrine does he teach?"

"He begins from the three vehicles."

"What are the three vehicles?"

"He reveals the doctrine beginning with the three vehicles, which are the vehicle of the pious attendants, the vehicle of the self-centred buddhas and the greater vehicle."

"Do these conform to the doctrine revealed by the Transcendent Lord Buddha?"

"Son of the enlightened family, the doctrines revealed by the [different] Transcendent Lord Buddhas do conform."

"Just in what respect do the doctrines revealed by the Transcendent Lord Buddhas conform?"

And he replied, "The doctrines revealed by the Transcendent Lord Buddhas conform to the irreversible promulgation."