The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems - Preface

A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought


696 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861714643

Add to Cart »


eBook Bundle (PDF, epub, mobi)


ISBN 9780861717866

Add to Cart »

General Editor’s Preface

It is with deep satisfaction that I rejoice in the publication of The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems in The Library of Tibetan Classics series. Completed at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, this acclaimed work by the noted Tibetan scholar Thuken Chökyi Nyima is unique in the annals of Tibetan literature. Beginning with a brief survey of the classical Indian schools, both Buddhist as well as non-Buddhist, the Crystal Mirror presents an in-depth treatment of the key schools of Tibetan Buddhism— Nyingma, Kadam, Sakya, Kagyü, Geluk, and Jonang—as well as Bön, cov ering not only their key philosophical tenets but also providing the reader with an understanding of their historical development. A serious Buddhist practitioner himself, Thuken also endeavors to examine the tenets of the individual Tibetan Buddhist schools in light of their distinctive meditative practices. The final part of the book presents an account of the religions of Tibet’s neighbors in the east and north, including China, Khotan, and Mongolia. Thuken’s work shows that serious and sympathetic study of comparative religion has not been the sole province of Western scholars.

Two primary objectives have driven the creation and development of The Library of Tibetan Classics. The first aim is to help revitalize the appreciation and the study of the Tibetan classical heritage within Tibetan-speaking communities worldwide. The younger generation in particular struggle with the tension between traditional Tibetan culture and the realities of modern consumerism. To this end, efforts have been made to develop a comprehensive yet manageable body of texts, one that features the works of Tibet’s best-known authors and covers the gamut of classical Tibetan knowledge. The second objective of The Library of Tibetan Classics is to help make these texts part of global literary and intellectual heritage. In this regard, we have tried to make the English translation reader-friendly and, as much as possible, keep the body of the text free of scholarly apparatus, which can intimidate general readers. For specialists who wish to compare the translation with the Tibetan original, page references of the critical edition of the Tibetan text are provided in brackets.

The texts in this thirty-two-volume series span more than a millennium— from the development of the Tibetan script in the seventh century to the first part of the twentieth century, when Tibetan society and culture first encountered industrial modernity. The volumes are thematically organized and cover many of the categories of classical Tibetan knowledge—from the teachings specific to each Tibetan school to the classical works on philosophy, psychology, and phenomenology. The first category includes teachings of the Kadam, Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyü, Geluk, and Jonang schools, of miscellaneous Buddhist lineages, and of the Bön school. The texts in these volumes have been selected largely by senior lineage holders of the individual schools. Texts in the other categories have been selected primarily in recognition of the historical reality of the individual disciplines. For example, in the field of epistemology, works from the Sakya and Geluk schools have been selected, while the volume on buddha nature features the writings of Butön Rinchen Drup and various Kagyü masters. Where fields are of more common interest, such as the three codes of conduct or the bodhisattva ideal, efforts have been made to present the perspectives of all four major schools. The Library of Tibetan Classics can function as a comprehensive library of the Tibetan literary heritage for libraries, educational and cultural institutions, and interested individuals.

On a personal level, to see this beautiful gem of Tibet’s classical world made part of the world literary heritage is a source of genuine happiness. To this day I remember the excitement I felt when my own teacher, the late Kyabjé Zemey Rinpoché, lent me his own personal copy of Thuken’s Crystal Mirror. This was in the summer of 1980, only two years after I had joined Ganden Monastery to pursue the rigorous geshé degree. It was an old woodblock-print xylograph edition, an edition we later consulted for the creation of a critical Tibetan edition used as the basis for this translation. What was most refreshing about Thuken’s writing was its fluidity as well as the gentleness of touch with which he analyzed the central tenets of the various schools. Fortunately, a well-edited modern book edition was published in Tibet in 1984, and the work has since been a core volume in my own Tibetan language library. To now be part of the endeavor of making this important classic accessible to the English-speaking world brings me particular joy.

I offer my deep gratitude first and foremost to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for always being such a shining exemplar and an advocate of Tibet’s great classical heritage. I thank one of twentieth century’s most eminent Geluk scholars and teachers, Geshé Lhundrup Sopa, for his leadership in undertaking the monumental task of translating Thuken’s Crystal Mirror into English. To the other members of the translation team, principally Ann Chavez, Roger Jackson, Michael Sweet, and Leonard Zwilling, I owe sincere appreciation for their years of efforts in moving this work toward completion. Especially to Roger Jackson, I express my deep thanks for doing such a superb job of editing the entire volume as well as providing a most illuminating introduction. I owe heartfelt thanks to David Kittelstrom of Wisdom Publications for being, as usual, a most incisive editor; to the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, for providing full access to its library to my Tibetan colleagues who created the critical edition of the Tibetan text; and to my wife, Sophie Boyer-Langri, for taking on the numerous administrative chores that are part of such a collaborative project. Finally, I express my heartfelt thanks to Sandra Esner, who most generously provided the funding for this translation project, and to the Hershey Family Foundation for its longstanding support of the Institute of Tibetan Classics, without which The Library of Tibetan Classics series simply would not have become a reality.

It is my sincere hope that the publication of this volume will benefit many and that it will provide a valuable resource to help people better understand and appreciate the richness of Tibet’s classical intellectual and spiritual heritage. May the efforts of all those who have been part of this endeavor help alleviate the sufferings of all beings; may they especially help us humans become wiser so that we may make this world a more caring and a more peaceful place for all.

Thupten Jinpa
Montreal, 2008

Translator’s Preface (Geshé Lhundub Sopa)

After the Tibetan government was overthrown by Chinese forces, I sought and found political asylum in India in 1959. Three years later His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked me to accompany three young recognized incarnate monks to America to begin their studies there. We went to live at the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America in Freewood Acres, New Jersey. One of the key people sponsoring us was Professor Kenneth Morgan of Colgate University. One day he showed me his recently published book on world religions. He felt the section on Tibetan Buddhism, especially the numerous Tibetan schools, such as Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya, and Geluk, was too scant, since he had not been able to find enough source materials in English. He then urged me to write a book about the religious history, philosophical views, and differences among the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, since no one had explained these in detail before. It was then I thought, “Oh, Thuken Drumtha!” At that time (about 1963), I had no means of fulfilling that promise—I barely spoke English!—but I kept Professor Morgan’s request in my mind for many years.

I had been expelled from Tibet by the Communists. I had lost my country and my cultural setting, and the Buddhism I had studied for many years was now completely disappearing. The highest Tibetan culture is the great and rich Buddhist culture. In that country was a history of pure and thorough Buddhist study and learning, with great teachings and teachers available over a very long period of time. In the early 1960s, unlike today, virtually no real, essential Tibetan Buddhist teachings existed outside of Tibet. If you mentioned Buddhism, that meant Zen. Tibet had tried to shut off the influence of foreign countries, so almost no foreigners came to central Tibet. Yet, on the borders of Tibet, there existed a very strange mixture of Bön and exotic Buddhist practice that was not authentic or based on education or good sense. I thought how shameful it would be to lose the authentic Tibetan Buddhist teachings. To make available an exposition of the traditional, real teachings of each of the four main Tibetan schools would be of great benefit in the world. When you don’t know the different schools, sects, and religions, it can be extremely harmful to yourself and others if they are explained improperly. The exposition must be good, solid, and pure. I strongly resolved that in the future, when I had the language and necessary skills, I would bring this about.

Before I escaped from Tibet, my teacher, the venerable Geshé Lhündrup Thapkhé, had told me about Thuken’s wonderful text, the Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems, containing important information on all the Tibetan schools. This book is unique, because no one in Tibet other than Thuken had written a book covering all the important schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Only in separate books were you able to study the history and sources of the Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya, and Geluk traditions. A mirror reveals all the beings and things in the world. Similarly, this one book clearly revealed the history and assertions of all these schools, and thus Thuken called it a “mirror.” It not only presented the four Tibetan schools, it also presented non-Buddhist religions in India and China, and Buddhism in India, China, and Mongolia. It clearly described how Buddhism came first to India and afterward to Tibet, where, like great rivers, the different philosophical systems flowed into the one ocean of Buddhism. Although Thuken was a great Geluk scholar, he studied all the Tibetan schools—and their history, lineages, and ways of practice—in a very impartial way, which was quite unusual. If certain religious ideas and practices needed criticism, he sharply did so, without regard to school, criticizing even the Gelukpas where necessary. He strove to be completely impartial, and I was very attracted to his style of explanation. He says in the preface to the text:

Many, under the sway of anger, have deprecated
The Dharmas and persons of other systems
Without even knowing how to properly distinguish among
The various philosophical systems in this land.

Many, under the sway of the four negative tendencies,
Failing to ascertain any reason
For the distinctiveness of their own philosophical system,
And driven only by confusion and desire, still hold their system as supreme.

In order to set them in conscientiousness,
I will briefly discuss here
The sources and standpoints of the philosophical systems
That arose in the Holy Land of India and in Tibet and China.

Everywhere, whether in Buddhism or in any other world religion, people without knowledge see their own religion as superior and, failing to see the value and good of other religions, put them down. Therefore, I thought if I could translate this book, what a wonderful service this would be in the world! Otherwise, Tibetan Buddhism would be seen as the superstitious and foolish beliefs of mountain people with blind faith. That is how the Chinese Communists see it. Now, of course, more has been translated, but at that time so little was available. I felt that the books that very great yogis, teachers, buddhas, and bodhisattvas had written should be made available in the world, and translating the Crystal Mirror would bring this about.

In composing the Crystal Mirror, Thuken was influenced by his teacher Changkya Rolpai Dorjé, who had himself written on the Indian philosophical systems. Before Changkya, Jamyang Shepa wrote the Great Treatise on Philosophical Systems, discussing both the non-Buddhists and the four Indian Buddhist schools in great detail. He was a great scholar. Changkya then wrote a more concise text on the four Indian schools, with clear details, in a sharp and pointed way. Thuken came later, beginning briefly with the non-Buddhists as sources, then the four great Indian schools, but then proceeding to explain how Buddhism came to Tibet, and so forth. He did not divide the Tibetan schools by their correlation to the four Indian schools, but rather by lineage of teachers and place of origin.

The Crystal Mirror contains the method and the essence of the things you should adopt or abandon if you seek ultimate happiness for yourself and others. Thuken himself says:

Hey, there! Here is what the wise should do, in thought and action:
Seek a way, a means of liberation from samsara, whose nature is suffering.
Those who never ponder that way, content merely with the appearances of this life,
Appear to be incarnate humans but ought to be counted as cattle.

Further, there are two schools, the non-Buddhist and the Buddhist, who set forth explanations
Of bondage and freedom in this world;
Whichever one you follow, first analyze
The distinction between the deceptive and the nondeceptive.

You allow yourself to weigh incessantly,
In each and every tiny endeavor for this life,
“Although complete, less benefit,
Although incomplete, less harm.”

How then could it be right to act so rashly,
Not analyzing what to adopt or abandon,
When being right brings eternal satisfaction
And being wrong brings grave disaster?

Before Thuken, Changkya Rolpai Dorjé wrote that samsara is like an abyss filled throughout with millions of sufferings and hardships. That is the nature of samsara. If samsaric beings are deeply troubled by that, instead of pursuing deceptive pleasures, they need to determine what is the right method of liberation—and what is the wrong method. To investigate this again and again is a very holy thing to do. If we are satisfied with merely filling our stomachs, how are we different from cattle?

Thuken’s work also contains a wonderful quality of examination. In order to present the differences among philosophical systems, Thuken uses the traditional style of Tibetan scholastic literature. This has three parts. First, if others’ positions are not correct, you refute them with logic and with scriptural references. Next, you present your own position with logical and scriptural support. Finally, you subject your own position to potential criticisms based on different citations and arguments, and then you clear all these doubts away completely with a thorough explanation that resolves all critiques. This is what Thuken does here, and it is the system of the masters. He establishes logically what is to be accepted and refuted in others’ positions. He explains what is superior or inferior based on those logical reasons, not on attachment or aversion. For those who want to learn about the different schools, first he establishes the basis—the lineage, sources, and beliefs—and then he lays out the path. Finally, he explains the ultimate goal. In this way, the Crystal Mirror demonstrates the proper way to understand and practice, an approach that is not just based on blind faith.

For all these reasons, I felt that it was vital to translate this work. When I came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1967, I began to teach Tibetan language classes. It seemed that the students were not just interested in the Tibetan language but also wanted to learn about Tibetan religious culture, about Tibetan Buddhism. With funding help from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, I wrote a language book that was designed for this purpose, called Lectures on Tibetan Religious Culture. This book showed the highest Tibetan culture of Buddhism in connection with, in part 1, the Tibetan schools and their essence, and in part 2, the stages of the path material. It also built up Tibetan vocabulary.

To prepare a translation of the Crystal Mirror, I knew that I would have to learn more about the Tibetan schools. During my university years I received Fulbright fellowships in 1976 and 1987 and was able to go to Tibet, Nepal, and India to do further research on the book. In Tibet, many monasteries had been destroyed by the Chinese Communists, and most of the great scholars and famous lamas had died, although some did get outside to India, Bhutan, and other lands. Texts also were extremely scarce. However, certain things I was able to discuss with my teacher, the great Sera Jé Khensur Rinpoché, Geshé Lhündrup Thapkhé, who had not been able to escape. It was through him and his position as Vice President of the Tibetan Autonomous Region Buddhist Association that I was able to visit Tibet. I spent some time there studying with him. I didn’t go to different monastic centers in Tibet because there was nothing available for study and research on Thuken at the time. When I was in Nepal, I scheduled a few meetings with the most famous and highest-ranking leader of the Nyingma tradition, the Ven. Dudjom Rinpoché, and I asked him some questions about the Nyingma section of the text.

In 1978, I was able to teach a seminar related to the Crystal Mirror. First, I summarized the contents of the book—the differences among the four Indian Buddhist schools and the Tibetan schools—and then each student in the seminar chose a different chapter of the book to translate. I worked with them to produce basic, rough translations. Further on in my university career and after my retirement, other students helped me to clean up and correct the original translations and to complete the missing chapters. Starting in the mid 1990s, I worked closely with Ann Chávez, who went through the entire text with me, except for the chapters on China. In the late 1990s, Roger Jackson agreed to be general editor for the project. He took the versions Ann had helped me with and worked on smoothing them out. He also generated the notes, bibliographies, and appendixes. The final stages of preparing the translation involved many hours of discussion with Ann and Roger. Now I think it is finally in a form that reflects Thuken’s Crystal Mirror.

In addition to Roger Jackson and Ann Chávez, I want especially to thank Drs. Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling for providing the basic translations and annotations of the chapters on China, and to Dr. Zwilling for providing the same for the section on Mongolia. The two of them also provided valuable critical comments on other aspects of the project at various times. I also would like to thank students from the original seminar who worked on sections of the book: Tony Barber, José Cabezón, Lolly Gewissler, Sharon Hendricks, Roger Jackson, and Jay Weil. Also helpful were the subsequent contributions by Philippe Golden and Lori Cayton.

Thanks also go to those who have commented on drafts of one or more chapters of the translation: Ronald Davidson, Matthew Kapstein, Dan Martin, John Newman, Giacomella Orofino, and Cyrus Stearns. At the Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies in Sarnath, India, Wangchuk Dorjé, Sönam Rapten, and Tashi Tsering helped to clarify certain difficult passages, in meetings graciously arranged by Geshé Ngawang Samten. Additional perspective on specific issues was provided by Shahzad Bashir, Tony Duff, Klaus-Dieter Mathes, Guy Newland, Lori Pearson, and Qiguang Zhao. Khachab Rinpoché and Hilary Wehrle, with timely assistance from Roy Li, provided an invaluable service by locating some of Thuken’s text references, and Thupten Jinpa and his team of editors in Sarnath identified most of the remainder. Laura Nathan was most helpful in tracking down bibliographic information, and Ann Chávez has carefully prepared the final version of the index.

Gene Smith encouraged this project at the beginning, and has been supportive throughout. Our editor, David Kittelstrom of Wisdom Publications, has been unfailingly patient and effective in bringing this huge work to publication, providing countless helpful suggestions for improving the style and presentation of the volume. I am very pleased that Thupten Jinpa has chosen to include the translation in the Library of Tibetan Classics series, and thank him for his enthusiasm and hard work.

Finally, I am grateful for the assistance that I received over the years from the department of South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Fulbright Program, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and for the travel grants, sabbatical releases, and collegial support provided to Roger Jackson by Carleton College.


How to cite this document:
© Institute of Tibetan Classics, The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems (Wisdom Publications, 2009)

Creative Commons License
The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems by Thuken Losang Chökyi Nyima is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at