The Torch of Certainty
is such a gem of a text from Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö T'ayé, especially since it treats the Four Thoughts so thoroughly and walks you step-by-step through both the outer and inner ngondro. If you're about to embark on the path of the foundational practices of the Kagyu school (and Karma Kamtsang in particular), or have begun already, it's a truly priceless and indispensable as both commentary and reference.
And while I greatly appreciate Judith Hanson's work in bringing the text to the English-speaking world, I think perhaps the translation might need a slight reworking. This could simply be my own particular form of attachment, but I'm not crazy about her use of certain terms in some spots... especially when it comes to the use of overly technical jargon like "trichiliocosm," which may cause confusion rather than clarity for the reader.
I think this same word choice issue could also be part of the reason Kongtrul comes off a bit like a preachy Protestant, as you said, LordCrane... though as always we should understand the context in which this commentary was written. Perhaps someone who's read the original Tibetan can comment on how much is the translator's gloss and how much is the author's tone.
Whatever the case, Hanson's grab bag of terminology seems to be more heavily influenced by Western philosophical works than I personally care for. And some of her scholarly sources are outdated or have biased orientalist leanings... With my recent university training, I can't help but shudder a bit inside every time I see the term "Lamaism" in a footnote. Lastly, her phoneticization of Tibetan words seems a bit haphazard and could lead to mispronunciation, even of well known terms.
There's no ཧ
'h' sound in Drikung, for instance, just as the suffix ད
'd' is not pronounced in Kagyu.
As for having trouble with the Indian cosmology, you're not the first to have a hard time wrapping your mind around it, nor will you be the last. I found it immensely helpful to learn that the mandala, like most Buddhist teachings and symbolism, has several levels of meaning and various interpretations --- so it's not necessarily to be taken at face value. A good rule of thumb is to always remember there are at least three levels of meaning --- outer, inner, and secret --- and sometimes there are even more --- suchness, etc.
The one explanation that helped me most was how things are mapped out in the concise sadhana of Chöd Lujin as practiced in Karma Kagyu, where the various features correspond to the parts of one's body: Meru is our head and torso, the four continents are our four limbs, the golden ground is our skin, the encircling iron mountains our fingers & toes, the sun and moon our right & left eyes, etc. If you don't have this sadhana at your fingertips but are sufficiently established in the view of Chöd from having received empowerment and teachings, there are a number of references to explore.
I highly suggest Kyabjé Tenga Rinpoche's book, Chö: The Garden of All Joy & Generosity of the Body
, which is actually a transcript of a teaching retreat by Rinpoche where he relies on Jamgön Kongtrul's commentary, The Garden of All Joy
, and intersperses his own experiential commentary. There are a few spelling mistakes --- you'll find the author listed as "Kh
abje Tenga Rinpoche" (= 'lord of the house'? Tenga Rinpoche) rather than the intended Kyabje ('lord of refuge'), and the definition of Chö as "to severe
" instead of "to sever" --- but these are minor and easy to excuse as having crept in during the editing/publication process. The contents themselves are pure gold.
On page 107 in my copy, there's a diagram which equates the mandala to the body in even greater detail than the aforementioned sadhana itself. PM me if you'd like a scan of it.