The Easy Path - Preface
The First Panchen Lama's Easy Path, written nearly four hundred years ago, is like a treasure chest that has until now been locked to English speakers. The translation of the root text here with Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche's commentary unlocks that chest of treasures. To gain the greatest benefit from this book, it may be useful to imagine each contemplation and meditation discussed as a precious jewel from that chest being given to you personally. You may want to pause, holding each up to the light to slowly and joyfully examine its facets, beauty, and great value. Khensur Rinpoche was extremely generous in his approach to teaching this text, carefully and precisely revealing many points from the unique, oral tradition that has come down from Lama Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) through Gyalwa Ensapa (1505–66), the First Panchen Lama (1570–1662), and eventually to Rinpoche himself.
If you've read or studied some in the past on the stages of the path to enlightenment, then it may be easy to assume that you already know many of the points explained here. But, if you read carefully, you will discover dimensions not found elsewhere.
At one point in Easy Path, when commenting on the resolve "I must at all costs, quickly, quickly attain the precious state of completely perfect buddhahood for the sake of all mother sentient beings," Khensur Rinpoche explains that one way of interpreting the phrase "quickly, quickly" is that the first "quickly" refers to practicing the three lower classes of tantra and the second "quickly" refers to practicing highest yoga tantra. That is of course a profound point. But then Rinpoche shares another interpretation unique to the oral tradition coming through Gyalwa Ensapa. In that interpretation, the first "quickly" refers to practicing the stages of the path to enlightenment, which is explained to be a faster way of attaining full enlightenment than the three lower classes of tantra, and the second "quickly" refers to taking guru yoga as the life of your practice. By reading this book as we might slowly explore jewel treasures, we can gain understanding of how to go about taking guru yoga not just as the heart of our practice but as its very living essence. In this volume, too, we gain a practical understanding of how to integrate visualizations from highest yoga tantra, guru yoga, and other instructions of the oral tradition with our contemplations and meditations on every single step of the stages of the path. In that way, the Panchen Lama's "quickly, quickly" may come to refer not just to practitioners of the past but to us as well!
As you begin reading this book, you'll notice that both the First Panchen Lama and Khensur Rinpoche take a practical approach to transforming the inner life. These instructions are not mere intellectual exercises. They are intended to evoke powerful, visceral responses. Khensur Rinpoche points out how, due to our beginningless familiarity with unrealistic thinking and afflictive emotions, we easily and spontaneously give rise to visceral feelings of desire, anger, jealousy, and the like. As beginners, our experiences of refuge, compassion, or wisdom may seem less heartfelt or "real." That's a sign only that we've not yet familiarized ourselves much with those states. However, if we continue practicing, deeper experiences will come. If we meditate sincerely on our precious human rebirth and on impermanence, we may come to feel as Scrooge did upon waking Christmas morning to find himself still alive, shouting, "I am here ... I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy ... Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!" As Khensur Rinpoche points out, through training in refuge, we may find ourselves feeling like young children calling out to loving, reliable parents! When meditating on the sufferings of samsara, we may find ourselves utterly disgusted, longing for freedom like a death-row inmate. When meditating on love, we may feel like our hearts have broken open and we're in love with whomever we meet. We may feel that everyone is like our parent, our child, or our dearest friend. When meditating on compassion, each and every sentient being may appear to us as our dear mother drowning and in desperate need of our help. When meditating on emptiness, it may feel like losing everything or like unlocking the secret of the universe! The goal of these meditations is not just to absorb new ideas or information but to gain the tools and skills needed to sculpt ourselves, much as a sculptor might transform a large marble stone into a sacred statue. We can chip away at the clumps of egotism and ignorance, wholly revealing the utterly pure buddha-nature within.
The idea for this book arose when Khensur Rinpoche, in his role as resident teacher at Guhyasamaja Center near Washington DC, agreed to teach on one of the eight great treatises on the stages of the path to enlightenment. After doing some research, I learned that Joshua Cutler of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in New Jersey had made an unpublished translation of the First Panchen Lama's Easy Path. Josh generously offered his translation for use during Rinpoche's teachings. The whole of Easy Path appears in translation in this book, integrated with Khensur Rinpoche's teachings. Josh's initial translation was revised as we went along to ensure consistency with the commentary, Wisdom's house style, and after checking details with Khensur Rinpoche.
Khensur Rinpoche's commentary here is based on the oral commentary that he gave at Guhyasamaja Center. Those teachings were translated by Rinpoche's excellent translators, Geshe Tashi and Tenzin Buchung. I carefully took notes during those teachings. Based on those notes, Rinpoche, his two translators, and I engaged in many discussions about difficult or complicated points in the teachings. Rinpoche was extremely patient and generous in answering many questions and explaining challenging points from many angles in order to make them clear. The current form of this book arose from my editing those original notes taken during Rinpoche's oral commentary with the further clarifications that came during the discussions. I made every effort to check points of uncertainty; if errors remain it's because I lacked the wisdom to be uncertain when I should have been!
In my experience, whenever Khensur Rinpoche teaches on a given text, he does so by relating what the text itself says, what other great masters have taught on the subject, and also what his own experience has been in contemplating and meditating on those teachings. Some of the related texts and commentaries that Rinpoche reviewed and referred to in the context of these teachings include Tsongkhapa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, the First Panchen Lama's Guru Puja, Aku Sherap Gyatso's (1803–75) Notes on "Easy Path," two Easy Path commentaries by Palmang Pandita Konchok Gyaltsen (1764–1853) called Clarifying the Vital Points and Mirror of the Heart, the Second Panchen Losang Yeshe's Swift Path to Enlightenment, an Easy Path commentary by Drakgyap Jetsun Losang Norbu (1903–68), and Pabongka Rinpoche's (1878–1941) Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand.
Khensur Rinpoche himself explains in his commentary quite clearly why Easy Path is such an important commentary on the stages of the path—particularly for those strongly interested in contemplative and meditative practice. Although Easy Path has never before appeared in English, some familiar with English-language books from the Tibetan tradition may find some passages familiar. Because of the seminal role of this text in the Geluk tradition, many versions of the preliminary practices for meditation on the stages of the path to enlightenment quote significant passages from Easy Path. For example, Pabongka Rinpoche's Ornament for the Throats of the Fortunate contains the descriptions of the refuge and merit fields as well as the "Planting the Stake Prayer" taken directly from Easy Path. Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche has composed an extensive version of the preliminary practices combining the Guru Puja, sections of Easy Path, and other materials. Most versions of the preliminary practices for meditation on the stages of the path in the Geluk tradition written after the First Panchen Lama's time excerpt from Easy Path. Also, the commentary on Tsongkhapa's "Three Principal Aspects of the Path" composed by the Fourth Panchen Lama, which has been translated into English by Geshe Lhundup Sopa and Jeffrey Hopkins in Cutting Through Appearances, contains significant quotations from Easy Path. It is clear that the Fourth Panchen Lama in composing his commentary excerpted relevant sections of the First Panchen Lama's text, adding additional comments.
In terms of our current text, sections of Easy Path are indented and set off from Khensur Rinpoche's commentary with distinct type. Headings and subheadings have been added to allow the reader to identify topics more easily and pause for meditation.
This book contains three appendixes. Appendix 1 is an extremely abbreviated version of the preliminary practices. For those with time, many beautiful, extensive versions of the preliminary practices exist in English, such as the two mentioned above. Out of concern for some Western readers who view themselves as extremely busy—perhaps, like myself, due to the laziness of spending lots of time and energy on matters of no spiritual significance—who still may want to engage in practices of the stages of the path to enlightenment, I asked Khensur Rinpoche to explain how to engage in the preliminary practices in the briefest possible way without leaving out what's essential. Consulting the commentaries by Lama Tsongkhapa and Aku Sherab Gyatso, Rinpoche explained a very brief way of doing the preliminaries in accord with what is called the condensed jewel tradition. This tradition involves visualizing just one figure, usually atop your head, embodying all your teachers and all other sources of refuge as well. This condensed jewel tradition appears within Easy Path, and in the first appendix we provide an even briefer version.
That the lineage of Panchen Lamas became second only to the Dalai Lamas in both spiritual and political importance in Central Asia for the past four hundred years is due largely to the amazing accomplishments of the author of Easy Path—the First Panchen Lama. Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen's activities powerfully impacted the spiritual and political history of Central Asia, and his Guru Puja and Six-Session Guru Yoga remain the central liturgical staples for Gelukpa practitioners to this day. I share further details of the remarkable life of the First Panchen Lama in appendix 2.
Appendix 3 provides a brief sketch of the life of Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Jampa. "Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche" is actually a title, meaning "precious abbot emeritus of Gyumed Tantric College." Rinpoche graduated as a geshe lharampa from Sera Mey Monastic University in 1986, and in 1996 he was appointed abbot of Gyumed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a post he held for three years. The great master Ribur Rinpoche, prior to his death, personally requested Khensur Rinpoche to serve as primary teacher to his own next incarnation. Over the seven years I've been close with Khensur Rinpoche, he has almost never spoken about his own life. When I asked him to do so in order to help me compose a brief biography, he replied, "That's not necessary." Only after my repeatedly explaining that the editors at Wisdom Publications and I felt that at least a brief biography would be of interest and benefit to Western readers did Rinpoche agree to speak just a bit about his early life and studies.
Although I've heard high praise of Rinpoche from a number of respected lamas, Rinpoche insisted that I not include those praises in this book. Rinpoche's extreme reticence regarding his own good qualities was a lesson about humility. When Rinpoche spoke about his efforts at memorization during his first couple of years as a monk, I foolishly asked, "When did you turn to your deeper studies, leaving off this focus on memorization?" Rinpoche quite simply replied, "Not yet." Indeed, in his midseventies Rinpoche does continue memorizing texts. Over the course of our discussions about his life, I was also struck by Rinpoche's lack of pretense or drama. When Rinpoche spoke of his escape from Tibet (without any money, food, or belongings) and of his period of recuperation from illness in a hospital after his time at Buxa refugee camp in India, I said, "Those experiences must have been terribly difficult." Again, Rinpoche replied very simply, saying, "I didn't say those things were difficult." Instead Rinpoche expressed gratitude for the help and kindness others had shown to him.
In the section of this book on the preliminary practices, you'll read some about the vast benefits that come from practicing rejoicing. An excellent way to benefit yourself and others is, as you read the biographical sketches of the First Panchen Lama and of Gyumed Khensur Rinpoche, to practice rejoicing in their vast studies, deep contemplative and meditative practices, and extensive compassionate activities.
It is my enormous fortune to have been able to assist in presenting this expression of the wisdom and bodhichitta of these two great masters of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
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