Advice from a Spiritual Friend - Introduction



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In 1973, I was fortunate to have been among the small group of Westerners who were living and studying with Tibetan lamas of the Geluk tradition in Dharamsala, India, the capital-in-exile of the Dalai Lama. The teachings contained in Advice from a Spiritual Friend are translations of key texts of the early Kadam school of Tibetan Buddhism together with transcriptions of oral commentaries given by two eminent lamas, Geshe Rabten and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, in June and October respectively of that year.

Only fourteen years earlier, Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey had led by foot over the Himalayas rom Sera Monastery in Lhasa to escape the violent Chinese seizure of power in Tibet. While Geshe Rabten now spent most of his time in retreat in a small hut above Dharamsala, Geshe Dhargyey was teaching courses on Buddhism in the newly opened Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Both were beginning to attract disciples rom North America, Europe, and Australasia, most of whom had traveled overland to India and Nepal along the “hippy trail.” Among them was Brian Beresford, a young photographer rom New Zealand. With the help of Sharpa Tulku, who translated for Geshe Dhargyey, and Gonsar Rinpoche, the translator of Geshe Rabten, Brian assumed the responsibility of making these teachings available to a wider public.

Compared to the extensive literature on Tibetan Buddhism currently available in the West, little was then known of this profound tradition. Although a handful of classical Tibetan texts had been translated into English, they failed to communicate the vitality and directness of the lamas’ oral instructions that so impressed those of us who were living around these extraordinary teachers. Lamas such as Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey made Buddhism come alive for us not merely by what they said but in the way they embodied it. Here were men who, overnight, had abandoned everything that was dear and familiar to them in order to preserve a vision of human life for which they were prepared to sacrifice everything. This was no dry theology we were studying but a passionate tradition of personal and social transformation.

Just as Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey sought to keep this tradition alive by communicating it to their young Western followers in India, it is fixing that the teachings of Advice rom a Spiritual Friend have their origins with an eleventh-century Indian abbot who also walked across the Himalayas to bring those teachings to Tibet. This was Dipamkara Shrijñana, known as Atisha, who was born in Bengal in 982.

Atisha was not unfamiliar with arduous journeys. After many years of study and practice throughout India earlier in his life, he had a vision at Bodh Gaya (the site of the Buddha’s awakening) of Dharmamati, a monk who lived on the island of Sumatra, in modern-day Indonesia. From his vision, he learned that Dharmamati was the only teacher who could convey to him the essential Mahayana Buddhist practice of bodhichitta, the mind that aspires to awakening for the sake of all living beings. So Atisha traveled for many months by boat to Sumatra and stayed with Dharmamati for twelve years. During this time Atisha received the oral traditions on cultivating bodhichitta. On returning to India, he transfixed these teachings widely, thereby reviving traditions that had been lost in their own homeland.

Atisha’s fame eventually spread to Tibet, which at the time was undergoing a major revival of interest in Buddhism. Impressed by the extraordinary devotion of the Tibetan king who invited him, and despite the reluctance of his monastery to let him depart, Atisha let for Tibet in 1037 at the age of fifty-five. He remained there for seventeen years until his death in Nethang, just south of Lhasa, in 1054.

Atisha’s mission was instrumental in laying the foundations for Tibetan Buddhism as we know it today. In the early eleventh century, Buddhism in Tibet was fragmented into conflicting groups of practitioners. While some maintained that strict ethical purity and rigorous intellectual training was the way to awakening, others insisted that only through mastery of tantric yoga could such realization be achieved. Atisha sought to reconcile these divisions by emphasizing how all these elements were equally necessary: without moral integrity and keen spiritual intelligence an effective tantric practice was impossible.

Atisha’s primary concern was to establish a clear and pragmatic foundation for Buddhist practice in Tibet. Following the example of his teacher Dharmamati, Atisha instructed his Tibetan disciples in simple but powerful methods of thought transformation, which captured the essence of complex Buddhist ideas and served as pithy injunctions to effect profound changes in the way people thought and behaved. While some of these teachings were written down (such as the Jewel Rosary of a Bodhisattva, included with Geshe Dhargyey’s commentary as part one of this book), much of what Atisha taught was transfixed orally to those who were deemed sufficiently prepared to put it into practice.

Widely regarded as the most succinct summary of Atisha’s legacy, the Thought Transformation in Eight Stanzas was first written down by Geshe Langri Tangpa (1054–1123), to whom it had been transfixed by Geshe Potowa, a disciple of Atisha’s immediate successor, the layman Dromtönpa. This text, presented as the appendix of this book, is a deeply moving reflection on the altruistic vision of Mahayana Buddhism. It shows how thought transformation is not merely concerned with improving the quality of one’s own life, but requires a fundamental change in the way one sees and relates to others.

When the twelfth-century lama Geshe Chekawa (1101–1175) came across this text, he was particularly struck by the fifth stanza, which says:

When others, out of jealousy,
treat me badly, with abuse, insults, and the like,
I shall accept their hard words
and offer victory to the other.

In order to fully understand how to translate these challenging words into practice, he sought out Geshe Sharawa (1070–1141), a disciple of Langri Tangpa, and asked for instruction. Sharawa then taught Chekawa the Seven-Point Thought Transformation, which Chekawa subsequently commixed to writing. It soon became acknowledged as the seminal text on the practice of thought transformation and was incorporated into the lineages of all the major Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Together with Geshe Rabten’s oral commentary, it constitutes part two of this book.

The impact of Atisha’s presence in Tibet was such that it gave birth to the Kadam school, which became renowned for the simplicity, integrity, and clarity of its teachings. Three hundred and fifty years later, the reformer Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) looked to the example of Atisha as a model for his own attempt to harmonize and syncretize the different Buddhist traditions of his day. Not only did Tsongkhapa regard Atisha as the true author of his (Tsongkhapa’s) own key work, the Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path, but the Geluk tradition that was born rom Tsongkhapa’s teaching was also known as the New Kadam school. As lamas of the Geluk tradition, Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey thus represent a lineage that can be traced back through Tsongkhapa to Atisha himself.

These teachings on thought transformation are as applicable today as they were when Atisha first introduced them to Tibet. Although this complex, fast-moving modern world may subject us to greater levels of stress, the primary questions we struggle to resolve are essentially the same as those to whom these instructions were first given. Whether we find ourselves surrounded by a herd of yaks on the steppes of Central Asia or rush-hour traffic on a crowded freeway, we experience the same yearning to be free rom the inner anguish of our existence and to find lasting peace and well being.

Thought transformation challenges us to recognize how much of our suffering is generated rom within our own minds. Fixed opinions make us feel self-defensive and anxious; cravings make us feel frustrated and dissatisfied; hatreds make us feel irritable and tormented. To put these teachings into practice entails probing to the very roots of our habitual behavior in such a way that we can begin to change how we see ourselves and the world.

The insights embodied in the pithy sayings of the Kadampa masters are like keys to help unlock the confusions deep within us. Teachers such as Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey were living examples of how such inner transformation was possible.

After we had received these teachings on thought transformation rom these two geshes (a term that literally means “spiritual friend”), Brian Beresford dedicated himself to transcribing, translating, and editing the material. With the encouragement and support of Lama Thubten Yeshe, Advice from a Spiritual Friend was initially published in New Delhi in 1977 as the very first book produced by Wisdom Publications.

Two years after giving these instructions, Geshe Rabten let Dharamsala to become abbot of the Tibetan Monastic Institute in Rikon, Switzerland. In 1977 he founded Tharpa Choeling (now Rabten Choeling) in Le Mont Pelerin, near Lausanne, where he died in 1986 at the age of sixty-six. In 1983 Geshe Dhargyey was invited by his Western students to New Zealand, where he established Dhargyey Buddhist Centre in Dunedin. He lived and taught there until his death in 1996 at the age of seventy-one. Brian Beresford moved from India to England with his wife and two children in 1979, where he continued to work as a photographer and translator. He died in London in 1997 at the age of forty-nine.

The appearance of a new edition of Advice from a Spiritual Friend nearly thirty years after the oral teachings were given is both a tribute to the lives of these teachers and their editor-translator and an acknowledgment of the timelessness of the words contained between the covers of this book.

Stephen Batchelor
La Sauve Majeure, December 2000


How to cite this document:
© Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey, authors. Advice From a Spiritual Friend (Wisdom Publications, 1996)

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