Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand - Selections

A Concise Discourse on the Path to Enlightenment


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Pabongka Rinpoche
A Memoir by Rilbur Rinpoche

My guru, kind in three ways, who met face to face with Heruka, whose name I find difficult to utter, Lord Pabongka Vajradhara Dechen Nyingpo Pael Zangpo, was born north of Lhasa in 1878. His father was a minor official, but the family was not wealthy. Although the night was dark, a light shone in the room, and people outside the house had a vision of a protector on the roof.

Pabongka Rinpoche was an emanation of the great scholar Changkya Rolpai Dorje (1717–86), although initially it was thought that he was the reincarnation of a learned Khampa geshe from Sera Mae Monastery. Rinpoche entered the monastery at the age of seven, did the usual studies of a monk, earned his geshe degree, and spent two years at Gyuetoe Tantric College.

His root guru was Dagpo Lama Rinpoche Jampael Lhuendrub Gyatso, from Lhoka. He was definitely a bodhisattva, and Pabongka Rinpoche was his foremost disciple. He lived in a cave in Pasang, and his main practice was bodhichitta. His main deity was Avalokiteśhvara, and he would recite 50,000 maṇis [the mantra, oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ] every night. When Kyabje Pabongka first met Dagpo Rinpoche at a tsog offering ceremony in Lhasa, he cried from beginning to end out of reverence.

When Pabongka Rinpoche had finished his studies, he visited Dagpo Lama Rinpoche in his cave and was sent into a lamrim retreat nearby. Dagpo Lama Rinpoche would teach him a lamrim topic and then Pabongka Rinpoche would go away and meditate on it. Later he would return to explain what he’d understood: if he had gained some realization, Dagpo Lama Rinpoche would teach him some more, and Pabongka Rinpoche would go back and meditate on that. It went on like this for ten years (and if that’s not amazing, what is!).

Pabongka Rinpoche’s four main disciples were Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Khangsar Rinpoche, and Tathag Rinpoche, who was a regent of Tibet. Tathag Rinpoche was the main teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he was a child and gave him his novice ordination.

I was born in Kham, in Eastern Tibet, and two of my early teachers were disciples of Pabongka Rinpoche, so I was brought up in an atmosphere of complete faith in Pabongka Rinpoche as the Buddha himself. One of these teachers had a picture of Pabongka Rinpoche that exuded small drops of nectar from between the eyebrows. I saw this with my own eyes, so you can imagine how much faith I had in Rinpoche when I finally came into his presence.

But I also had a personal reason for having great faith in him. I was the only son of an important family, and although the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had recognized me as an incarnate lama and Pabongka Rinpoche himself had said I should join Sera Monastery in Lhasa, my parents were not happy about this. However, my father died soon after this, and I was finally able to set out for Central Tibet. Can you imagine my excitement as I embarked on horseback on the two-month voyage? I was only fourteen, and becoming a monk really was the thing to do for a fellow my age. I felt that the opportunity to go to Lhasa to get ordained and live as a rinpoche as the Dalai Lama had said I should was all the wondrous work of Pabongka Rinpoche.

At the time of my arrival in Lhasa, Pabongka Rinpoche was living at Tashi Choeling, a cave above Sera Monastery. We made an appointment, and a few days later my mother, my changdzoe (the man in charge of my personal affairs), and I rode up on horseback. Although Rinpoche was expecting us that day, we had not arranged a time. Nevertheless, he had just had his own changdzoe prepare tea and sweet rice, which freshly awaited our arrival. This convinced me that Rinpoche was clairvoyant, a manifestation of the all-seeing Vajradhara himself.

After we had eaten, it was time to visit Rinpoche. I remember this as if it were today. A narrow staircase led up to Pabongka Rinpoche’s tiny room, where he was sitting on his bed. He looked just like his pictures—short and fat! He said, “I knew you were coming—now we have met,” and stroked the sides of my face. While I was sitting there, a new geshe from Sera came in to offer Rinpoche a special tsampa dish that is made only at the time of receiving the geshe degree. Rinpoche remarked how auspicious it was that this new geshe had come while I was there and had him fill my bowl just like his own. You can imagine what that did to my mind!

The room had almost nothing in it. The most amazing thing was a pure gold, two-inch statue of Dagpo Lama Rinpoche,  Pabongka  Rinpoche’s root guru, surrounded by a circle of tiny offerings. Behind Rinpoche were five tangkas of Khaedrub Je’s visions of Tsongkapa after he had passed away. The only other thing in the room was a place for a cup of tea. I could also see a small meditation room off to the side and kept peeking into it (I was only fourteen and extremely curious). Rinpoche told me to go inside and check it out. All it contained was a meditation box and a small altar. Rinpoche called out the names of the statues on the altar: from left to right there were Lama Tsongkapa, Heruka, Yamāntaka, Naeljorma, and Paelgon Dramze, an emanation of Mahākāla. Beneath the statues were offerings, set out right across the altar.

I was not yet a monk, so Rinpoche’s long-time servant Jamyang, who had been given to Pabongka Rinpoche by Dagpo Lama Rinpoche and always stayed in Rinpoche’s room, was sent to get a calendar to fix a date for my ordination, even though I had not asked for it. Rinpoche was giving me everything I had ever wanted, and I felt he was just too kind. When I left, I floated out on a cloud in a complete state of bliss!

Rinpoche’s changdzoe was a very fierce-looking man, said to be the emanation of a protector. Once, when Rinpoche was away on a long tour, out of devotion the changdzoe demolished the old small building in which Rinpoche lived and constructed a large ornate residence rivaling the private quarters of the Dalai Lama. When Rinpoche returned he was not at all pleased and said, “I am only a minor hermit lama, and you should not have built something like this for me. I am not famous, and the essence of what I teach is renunciation of the worldly life. Therefore I am embarrassed by rooms like these.”

I took lamrim teachings from Pabongka Rinpoche many times. The Chinese confiscated all my notes, but as a result of his teachings, I still carry something very special inside. Whenever he taught I would feel inspired to become a real yogi by retreating to a cave, covering myself with ashes, and meditating. As I got older I would feel this less and less, and now I don’t think of it at all. But I really wanted to be a true yogi, just like him.

He gave many initiations such as Yamāntaka, Heruka, and Guhyasamāja. I myself took these from him. We would go to his residence for important secret initiations, and he would come down to the monastery to give more general teachings. Sometimes he would go on tour to various monasteries. Visiting Pabongka Rinpoche was what it must have been like to visit Lama Tsongkapa when he was alive.

When he taught he would sit for up to eight hours without moving. About two thousand people would come to his general discourses and initiations and fewer to special teachings, but when he gave bodhisattva vows, up to ten thousand people would show up. When he gave the Heruka initiation he would take on a special appearance. His eyes became very wide and piercing, and I could almost see him as Heruka, with one leg outstretched, the other bent. It would get so intense that I would start crying, as if the deity Heruka himself were right there. It was very powerful, very special.

To my mind he was the most important Tibetan lama of all. Everybody knows how great his four main disciples were—well, he was their teacher. He spent a great deal of time thinking about the practical meaning of the teachings and coming to an inner realization of them, and he had practiced and accomplished everything he had learned, right up to the completion stage. He didn’t just spout words, he tried things out for himself. Also, he never got angry; any anger had been completely pacified by his bodhichitta. Many times there would be long lines of people waiting for blessings, but Rinpoche would ask each one individually how they were and tap them on the head. Sometimes he dispensed medicine. He was always gentle. All this made him very special.

I would say he had two main qualities: from the tantric point of view, his realization and ability to present Heruka, and from the sūtra point of view, his ability to teach lamrim.

Just before he passed away, he was invited to explain a short lamrim at his root guru’s monastery of Dagpo Shidag Ling, in Lhoka. He had chosen the text called the Quick Path, by the Second Paṇchen Lama. This was the first lamrim that Dagpo Lama Rinpoche had taught him, and Pabongka Rinpoche had said that it would be the last he himself would teach. Whenever he visited his lama’s monastery, Rinpoche would dismount as soon as it appeared in view and prostrate all the way to the door—which was not easy because of his build; when he left he would walk backward until it was out of sight. This time when he left the monastery, he made one prostration when it was almost out of sight and went to stay at a house nearby. Having manifested just a little discomfort in his stomach, Rinpoche retired for the night. He asked his attendants to leave while he did his prayers, which he chanted louder than usual. Then it sounded like he was giving a lamrim discourse. When he had finished and his attendants went into his room, they found he had passed away. Although Tathag Rinpoche was extremely upset, he told us what to do. We were all distraught. Pabongka Rinpoche’s body was clothed in brocade and cremated in the traditional way. An incredible reliquary was constructed, but the Chinese demolished it. Nevertheless, I was able to retrieve some of Rinpoche’s relics from it, and I gave them to Sera Mae Monastery. You can see them there now.

I have had some success as a scholar, and as a lama I am somebody, but these things are not important. The only thing that matters to me is that I was a disciple of Pabongka Rinpoche.


The Venerable Rilbur Rinpoche was born in Eastern Tibet in 1923. At the age of five he was recognized by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama as the sixth incarnation of Sera Mae Rilbur Rinpoche. He entered Sera Monastic University in Lhasa at fourteen and became a geshe at twenty-four. He meditated and taught Dharma until 1959, after which he suffered under intense Chinese oppression for twenty-one years. In 1980 he was allowed to perform some religious activities, and he helped build a new stūpa for Pabongka Rinpoche at Sera, the Chinese having destroyed the original. He then came to India and lived for several years at Namgyal Monastery, Dharamsala. Toward the end of his life, Rinpoche traveled several times to Western countries and lived for a period in the United States. He passed away at Sera Mae Monastery in Bylakuppe, South India, on January 15, 2006.

Day 1

Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche, a peerless king of the Dharma, spoke a little in order to set our motivations properly for the teaching to follow. He said:

So be it. The great Tsongkapa, the Dharma king of the three realms, has said:

This opportune physical form
Is worth more than a wish-granting gem.
You only gain its like the once.
So hard to get, so easily destroyed,
It’s like a lightning bolt in the sky.

Contemplate this, and you will realize
All worldly actions are but winnowed chaff,
And night and day you must
Extract some essence from your life.
I, the yogi, practiced this way;
You, wanting liberation, do the same!

In all our births from beginningless time till the present, there has not been any form of suffering we have not undergone here in saṃsāra, nor any form of happiness we have not experienced. But no matter how many bodies we have had, we have obtained nothing worthwhile from them. Now that we have gained this optimum human form, we should do something to derive some essence from it. So long as we do not examine this life, we will feel no joy whatsoever in finding such a supreme rebirth, and would probably be happier on finding some pennies; we will not feel at all sorry if we waste this optimum human rebirth; we would probably feel much more regret if we lost some money. But this physical form we have now is a hundred thousand times more valuable than any wish-granting jewel.

If you were to clean a wish-granting jewel by washing it three times, polishing it three times, and then offer it at the top of a victory banner, you would effortlessly obtain the good things of this life—food, clothes, and the like. You may obtain a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, even a hundred thousand such gems, but they cannot do for you even the smallest thing that you can achieve by means of this rebirth, for they cannot be used to prevent you from taking your next rebirth in the lower realms. With your present physical form you can prevent yourself from ever going to the lower realms again. Moreover, if you want to achieve the physical rebirth of a Brahmā, an Indra, and so forth, you can achieve it through your present one. If you want to go to pure realms such as Abhīrati, Sukhāvatī, or Tuṣhita, you can do so by means of this present physical rebirth. And this is not all, for you can even achieve the states of liberation or omniscience through this present rebirth—unless you don’t practice. Most important of all, through this physical rebirth you are able to achieve the state of Vajradhara [the unification of the illusory body and great bliss] within one short lifetime in this degenerate age; otherwise it would take three countless great eons to achieve. Thus, this rebirth is worth more than one thousand billion precious jewels.

If you meaninglessly squander this rebirth that you have managed to obtain, it would be an even greater pity than if you had wasted one thousand billion precious jewels. There is no greater loss; nothing could be blinder; no self-deception could be greater. Protector Śhāntideva said:

No self-deception could be worse
After gaining such a chance
Than not cultivating virtue!
Nothing could be blinder!

You must therefore try to extract essence from it now. If you don’t, you are sure to die anyway, and you cannot know when that will happen.

We are now attending this Dharma teaching, but none of us will be left in a hundred years’ time. In the past, Buddha, our Teacher, amassed the two collections [of merit and primal wisdom] over many eons, thus obtaining the vajra body. Yet even he, to the common appearance, went to nirvāṇa [beyond suffering]. After him, there came scholars, adepts, translators, and pandits to both India and Tibet, but they have all seemingly departed this life. Nothing is left of them but their names to say “There was this one and some other.” In short, there is no one you can produce as an example of a person who death has spared. How could you alone live forever? You have no hope of being spared.

Therefore, not only are you sure to die, but also you cannot be certain when this will happen. You cannot even be sure that you will still be alive next year in the human realm, still wearing your three types of monk’s robes.1 By this time next year, you may have already been reborn as an animal covered in shaggy fur, with horns on your head. Or you may have been born as a hungry ghost, for example, having to live without being able to find any food or even a drop of water. Or you may have been reborn in the hells, having to experience the miseries of heat and cold, being roasted or on fire.

Your mental continuum does not cease after your death; it must take rebirth. There are only two migrations for rebirth—the upper and the lower realms. If you are born in the Hell Without Respite, you will have to stay there with your body indistinguishable from the hellfire. In the milder hells, such as the Hell of Continual Resurrection, you are killed and then revived hundreds of times each day: you continually suffer torments. How could we endure this if we cannot even bear to put our hand in a fire now? And we will suffer in these hells the same way that we would suffer from such heat in our present bodies. We might wonder, “Maybe the experience [suffering] is different, and easier?” but that is wrong.

If reborn as a hungry ghost you will not be able to find so much as a drop of water for years. If you find it hard to observe a fasting retreat now, how could you endure such a rebirth? And as for the animal rebirths, take the case of being a dog. Examine in detail the sort of places where they live, the way they have to go in search of food and the sort of food they eventually find. Do you think you could possibly bear living that sort of life? You may feel, “The lower realms are far away.” But between you and the lower realms is only that you can still draw breath.

As long as we remain uncritical, we never suspect that we are going to the lower realms. We probably think that we more or less keep our vows, perform most of our daily recitations, and have not committed any serious sin, such as killing a person and running off with his horse. The trouble is we have not looked into things properly. We should think it over in detail; then we would see that we are not free to choose whether we go to the lower realms or not. This is determined by our karma. We have a mixture of virtuous and nonvirtuous karma in our mental streams. The stronger of these two will be triggered by craving and clinging when we die. When we look into which of these two is the stronger in our mental streams, we will see that it is nonvirtue. And the degree of strength is determined by the force of the motive, the deed, and the final step. Thus, although we might think we have only done small nonvirtues, their force is in fact enormous.

Let us take an example. Suppose you say one scornful word to your pupils, for instance. You are motivated by strong hostility and, as for the deed, you use the harshest words that will really wound them. And for the final step, you feel proud and have an inflated opinion of yourself. These three parts—motivation, deed, and final step—could not have been done better! Suppose you kill a louse. Your motive is strong hostility. You roll the louse between your fingers, and so on, torturing it a long while, then eventually you kill it. For the final step, you think “That was helpful” and become very smug. So the nonvirtue has become extremely powerful.

We might feel our virtue is very strong, but in fact it is extremely weak. The preparation, the motive, the main part of the deed, the final step, dedicating the virtue, etc.—all have to be done purely if the virtue is to be very strong. Contrast this with the virtue we perform. First, there is our motive. I think it is rare for us to be motivated by even the least of motives, a yearning for a better rebirth—let alone have the best of motives, bodhichitta [the mind that aspires to enlightenment], or the next best, renunciation. Right at the beginning, we usually aspire to achieve desires related to this life’s trivia; any prayers we make to this end are in fact sinful. Then, for the main part of the deed, there is no pure joy or enthusiasm to it; when we recite even one rosary of oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, for example, our minds cannot stay focused the whole time. Everything is either sleep or distraction! It is difficult to do things well for even the time it takes to recite the Hundreds of Gods of Tuṣhita once. And when it comes to making the final prayers and dedications, we slip back into directing them toward this life. So, although we might feel we have performed great virtues, in fact they are only feeble.

Sometimes we do not prepare properly; at other times we botch the motive or the final step; and there are times when we don’t do any of them properly. Thus only the nonvirtuous karma in our mental streams is very strong; it is the only possible thing that will be activated when we die. And if this is what indeed happens, the place where we will go could only be the lower realms. That is why it is definite we shall be reborn in the lower realms. Now, we say that our lamas possess clairvoyance, and we ask them for dice divinations or prophecies on where we shall take rebirth. We feel relieved if they say, “You will get a good rebirth,” and are afraid if the answer is, “It will be bad.” But how can we have any confidence in such predictions? We do not need dice divinations, prophecies, or horoscopes to tell us where we will go in our next lives. Our compassionate Teacher has already given us predictions in the sūtra basket [sūtra piṭaka]. We have also received them from many pandits and adepts of both India and Tibet. For example, firya Nāgārjuna says in his Precious Garland:

From nonvirtue comes all suffering
And likewise all the lower realms.
From virtue come all upper realms
And all happy rebirths.

We cannot be certain—even by means of direct valid cognition—of such things as where we will go in our future rebirths. Nevertheless, our Teacher correctly perceived this extremely obscure object of valid cognition and taught on it without error. Thus we can be certain only by using the Buddha’s valid scriptures for an inference based on trust.

So, if it is so definite that we shall be reborn in the lower realms, from this moment on we must look for some means to stop it from happening. If we really want to be free of the lower realms, we should seek some refuge to protect us. For example, a criminal sentenced to execution will seek the protection of an influential official in order to escape punishment. If we have become tainted by intolerably sinful karma through our misdeeds, we are in danger of being punished under [karmic] law and of going to the lower realms. We should seek the refuge of the Three Jewels [Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha], because only they can protect us from this fate. But we must not just seek this refuge; we must also modify our behavior. If there were some way the buddhas could rid us of our sins and obscurations by, say, washing them away with water, or by leading us by the hand, they would have already done so, and we would now have no suffering. They do not do this. The Great One taught the Dharma; it is we who must modify our behavior according to the laws of cause and effect, and do so unmistakenly. It says in a sūtra:

The sages do not wash sin away with water;
They do not rid beings of suffering with their hands;
They do not transfer realizations of suchness onto others.
They liberate by teaching the truth of suchness.

Thus you should feel, “I shall seek refuge in the Three Jewels in order to be free of the lower realms, and I shall adopt the means to free me from these realms. I shall modify my behavior according to the laws of cause and effect.” This is setting your motivation on the level of the lamrim shared with the small scope.

All the same, is it enough merely to be free of the lower realms? No, it is not. You will only achieve one or two physical rebirths in the upper realms before falling back to the lower realms when your evil karma catches up with you. This is not the ultimate answer, not something in which you can put your trust. We have in fact obtained many rebirths in the upper realms and afterward have fallen back into the lower realms. We are sure to fall back the same way yet again. In our past rebirths, we took the form of the powerful gods Brahmā and Indra and lived in celestial palaces. This happened many times, yet we left these rebirths and had to writhe on the red-hot iron surface of the hells. Again and again this happened. In the celestial realms, we enjoyed the nectar of the gods; then, when we left these rebirths, we had to drink molten iron in the hells. We amused ourselves in the company of many gods and goddesses, then had to live surrounded by terrifying guardians of hell. We were reborn as universal emperors and ruled over hundreds of thousands of subjects; and then we were born as the meanest serfs and slaves, such as donkey drivers and cowherds. Sometimes we were born as sun and moon gods, and our bodies gave off so much light that we illuminated the four continents.3 Then we were born in the depths of the ocean between continents, where it was so dark we could not even see the movements of our own limbs. And so on. No matter what you achieve of this sort of worldly happiness, it is untrustworthy and has no worth.

We have already experienced so much suffering, but as long as we are not liberated from saṃsāra [cyclic existence], we must experience very much more. If all the filthy things—all the dung and dirt we have eaten in our past animal rebirths as dogs and pigs—were piled up in one place, the dung heap would be bigger than Meru, the king of mountains. Yet we will have to eat even more filth as long as we are still not liberated from saṃsāra. If all our heads cut off by past enemies were piled up, the top of the heap would be even higher than Brahmā’s realm. Yet, if we do not put an end to our cyclic existence, we must lose even more heads. In our past hell rebirths, boiling-hot water was forced down our throats—more water than there is even in the great oceans—but we must drink even more, so long as we have not freed ourselves from saṃsāra. Thus we should be hugely depressed when we think about how in the future we will wander aimlessly, with no end to our cyclic existence.

Even the rebirths of gods and humans are nothing but suffering. The human rebirth has the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death; it has the suffering of being separated from the things one holds dear, meeting with unpleasantness, and not finding the things one wants despite searching for them. The demigods also have sufferings, for they are maimed or wounded when they go to battle, and they suffer all the time from gnawing jealousy. When reborn as a god of the desire realm, one suffers because one displays the omens of death. The gods of the [two] higher realms do not have any manifest suffering. However, they are still, by nature, under the sway of the suffering that applies to all conditioned phenomena because they have not gained enough freedom to maintain their state. In the end they will fall, so they have not transcended suffering.

In short, as long as you are not free of saṃsāra for good, you have not transcended the nature of suffering. You therefore must definitely become liberated from it; and you must do so with your present rebirth.

We normally say, “We cannot do anything in this rebirth,” and make prayers for our next rebirth. But it is possible to do it in this rebirth. We have gained the optimum human rebirth, and this is the most advantageous physical form to have for the practice of Dharma. We are free from adverse conditions—we have met with the Buddha’s teachings, and so forth. We have all the right conditions, and so if we cannot achieve liberation now, when shall we ever achieve it?

Thus you should feel, “Now I definitely must liberate myself from saṃsāra, come what may. And liberation is achieved only by means of the precious three high trainings. I will therefore train myself in these three and gain my liberation from this great ocean of suffering.” This is setting your motivation at the level of the lamrim shared with the medium scope.

But is even this sufficient? Again, it is not. If you achieve the state of a śhrāvaka [hearer] or pratyekabuddha [solitary realizer] arhat for your own sake, you have not even fulfilled your own needs and done virtually nothing for the sake of others. This is because you have not yet abandoned some of the things you ought, such as the obscurations to omniscience and the four causes of ignorance. It would be like having to bundle up everything twice to cross a river once: although you may have achieved all the steps up to arhatship in the path of the Hīnayāna [Lesser Vehicle], you must then develop bodhichitta and train in the tasks of a child of the victorious ones right from the basics, starting at the Mahāyāna path of accumulation. It would be like entering a monastery and working your way up from being a kitchen hand to the abbot; then, on entering another monastery, you have to go back to working in the kitchen again.

[Chandragomin] said in his Letter to a Disciple:

They are kinsmen stranded in saṃsāra’s ocean
Who seem to have fallen into the abyss;
When due to birth, death, and rebirth
You don’t recognize them and reject them,
Freeing only yourself: there is no greater shame.

In other words, although we do not recognize each other as such, there is not one sentient being who has not been our mother. And just as we have taken countless rebirths, we have had countless mothers; no being has not been our mother. And each time they were our mother, the kindness they showed us was no different from the kindness shown by our mother in this life. Since they did nothing but lovingly care for us, there is not the slightest difference between our present mother’s kindness and care toward us and that of every sentient being.

However, some may feel, “All sentient beings are not my mother. If they were, I would recognize them as my mother; instead, I do not!” But since it is quite possible that many do not recognize even their mother of this life, mere nonrecognition is not sufficient reason for someone not to be your mother. There are others who might feel, “Mothers of past lives belong to the past. It makes no sense to say they are still one’s kind mothers.” But the kindness and care that mothers showed you in the past, and the kindness and the care your present mother shows you, are not in the least bit different from each other, either in being your mother or in their kindness and care. The kindness is the same if you received some food or wealth from someone last year or this year. The time of the deed, past or future, does not alter the degree of kindness. Thus all sentient beings are nothing but kind mothers to you.

 How could we ignore these kind mothers of ours, who have fallen into the middle of the ocean of saṃsāra, and doing only what pleases us, work only for our own liberation? It would be like children singing and dancing on the shore when one of their dearly beloved close relatives, such as their mother, was about to fall into the ocean’s riptide. The rip is flowing out to the ocean, and she cries and calls out to them in terror, but they are completely oblivious to her. Is there anyone who is more shameful or contemptible? The currents in the oceans are said to be whirlpools, and it is a most horrifying thing when a boat, coracle, and so on, enters the maelstrom, for it is sure to sink. Just like in that example, though we presently do not seem to have any relationship with all sentient beings who have fallen into these ocean currents of saṃsāra, this is not so. All are our kind mothers, and we must repay their kindness. Giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, wealth to the poor, etc., and satisfying their wants, would repay some of them their kindnesses; but this would really not be of much benefit. The best way to repay their kindness is to cause them to have every happiness and to be without every kind of suffering. There is no better way to repay their kindness.

With these thoughts you should come to think, “May these sentient beings have every form of happiness,” which is the development of love. You also feel, “May they be without every suffering,” which is the development of compassion. You develop altruism when you feel, “The responsibility for carrying out these two has fallen on me. I, and I alone, shall work for these ends.”

Still, are you now able to do these? As for right now, forget about all beings—you cannot work for the sake of even one sentient being. Who then can? The bodhisattvas abiding on the pure levels4 and the śhrāvakas or pratyekabuddhas can benefit sentient beings; but they can only do a little of what the buddhas are capable of doing. Thus a buddha, who is without equal in his deeds for the welfare of beings, is the only one. Each ray of light from the body of a buddha is able to mature and liberate immeasurable sentient beings. Buddhas emanate bodies that appear before each sentient being. These forms are tailored to the mental dispositions, sense faculties, wishes, and karmic tendencies of these beings. Buddhas can teach them the Dharma in their individual languages. These are some of the capabilities of buddhas.

If you wonder whether we can achieve the same level of buddhahood, the answer is, we can. The best of all physical rebirths to have for its attainment is the optimum rebirth. We have gained a very special type of physical rebirth: we were born from the womb of a human of the Southern Continent, and we have the six types of physical constituents. We are thus able to achieve in one lifetime the state of unification of Vajradhara, unless we do not apply ourselves. We have attained such a physical rebirth. The means to achieve buddhahood is the Dharma of the Supreme Vehicle; and the teachings of the second Victorious One [Je Tsongkapa] on this vehicle are completely unmistaken. His stainless teachings combine both the sūtras and the tantras. We have met with such teachings.

In short, we are free from any unfavorable conditions, except for cheating ourselves by not making effort. If now, when we have attained such an excellent foundation with all the favorable conditions, we cannot achieve buddhahood, it is certain that in the future we will not gain any better rebirth or Dharma. Some of us might claim, “Now is a degenerate time; our timing has been bad.” But since beginningless cyclic existence we have never experienced a time with more potential benefit for us than now. We could have no better a time than this. We shall find such a situation only once. We must therefore work toward our buddhahood, come what may.

Thus, this should lead you to feel, “I shall do all I can to achieve my goal: peerless, full enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.” This thought summons up bodhichitta, and it is how you set your motivation according to the great scope of the lamrim. You have developed bodhichitta if you genuinely experience this thought in an unforced manner.

You must practice in order to achieve this buddhahood, and you must know what to practice in order to succeed. Some people wanting to practice Dharma, but not knowing how to do so, may go to some isolated retreat and recite a few mantras, make a few prayers, or even manage to achieve a few of the [nine] mental states [leading to mental quiescence], but they will not know how to do anything else. You must study complete and error-free instructions that leave out nothing about the practice of Dharma in order to know these things. And the king of such instructions is the lamrim, the stages of the path to enlightenment. You must therefore develop the motivation: “I shall listen attentively to the lamrim and then put it into practice.”

In general, it is vital to have one of these three motives at the beginning of any practice. Especially when you listen to a discourse on the lamrim, just any motive is not sufficient. You must at least listen in conjunction with a forced or contrived form of bodhichitta. For people who have already experienced the development of bodhichitta, it may be sufficient for them to think over a short formula such as “For the sake of all mother sentient beings…” However, this is not enough to transform the mind of a beginner. If you think over the lamrim, starting with the immense difficulty of gaining an optimum human rebirth, your mind will turn toward bodhichitta. This does not apply only to the lamrim. When we Gelugpas attend any teaching at all, be it an initiation, oral transmission, discourse, or whatever, we should go over the whole lamrim as a preliminary when we set our motivation. Even short prayers include all of the three scopes of the lamrim, with nothing left out.5 My precious guru has said time and again that this is the supreme distinguishing feature of the teachings of the old Kadampas and of us new Kadampas. Those of you who will bear the responsibility of preserving these teachings must carry out your studies in this fashion. (However, when giving a long-life initiation, it is the practice not to speak about impermanence, [death], and so on, as this is an inauspicious gesture: one only speaks on the difficulty of obtaining this beneficial, optimum human rebirth.)

Some of the people attending this teaching of the Dharma might feel, “I am truly fortunate to be studying this, but I cannot put it into practice.” Others attend because they are imitating others—“If you go, I’ll come too.” No one will attend this teaching in order to make a living out of performing rituals in people’s homes; but this happens with other teachings like major initiations. When you attend other teachings—initiations for example—you may think you will receive the power to subdue evil spirits by reciting the mantra, and so forth; or you may think you will subdue sicknesses or spirits, achieve wealth, acquire power, etc. Others, no matter how many teachings they have received, treat Dharma as if it were, for example, capital to start a business; they then go to places like Mongolia to peddle the Dharma. Such people accumulate enormous, grav sins through the Dharma. The Buddha, our Teacher, discussed the means to achieve liberation and omniscience. To exploit such teachings for worldly ends is equal to forcing a king off his throne and making him sweep the floor. So, if you seem to have any of these above-mentioned bad motives, get rid of them; summon up some contrived bodhichitta and then listen. So much for the setting of your motivation.

Here follows the main body of the teaching to which you are actually going to listen.

Firstly, the Dharma you are going to practice should have been spoken by the Buddha and discussed and proven by the [Indian] pandits. Your practice must be one from which the great adepts derived their insights and realizations; otherwise, an instruction could be termed “profound” even if it were not something spoken by Buddha and were unknown to the other scholar-adepts. Meditate on such an instruction and you could be in danger of getting some result that no one else has ever achieved before—not even the buddhas! You therefore must examine the Dharma you are going to make your practice. As the master Sakya Paṇṇita says:

With the pettiest business deal
In horses, jewels, and so on,
You question everything and examine all.
I have seen how diligent you are
With the petty actions of this life!

The good or bad in all your future lives
Comes from the holy Dharma,
Yet you treat that Dharma like a dog eats food:
You worship whatever comes along
Without first checking whether it is good or evil.

When we buy a horse for example, we examine numerous things, get a divination beforehand, and question lots of other people. Take the example of an ordinary monk. Even when he buys a tea brick, he checks its color, weight, and shape many times over. He makes quite sure it has not been damaged by water, etc., and he asks other people’s opinions. Yet if he is unlucky, it would only affect a few cups of tea.

You investigate such things as this thoroughly, even though they have only temporary value for you. But you do not seem to investigate at all the Dharma you are to practice, although this is the foundation of your eternal hopes for all your rebirths. You treat it like dog does food—whatever you chance upon is acceptable. How very wrong that is! If you go wrong here, you have ruined your eternal hopes. Thus, you must examine the Dharma you intend to practice before you engage in it.

If you examine our present Dharma, the lamrim, you will see it is the best of all. Even the extraordinary profundity of the secret tantras depends upon the lamrim; if you do not develop the three fundamentals of the path[renunciation, bodhichitta, and the correct view of emptiness] in your mindstream, you cannot be enlightened in one lifetime by means of the mantra path. I have heard of many supposedly profound teachings that derive from visions or from hidden texts, all of which are supposed to bestow such miraculous powers—but there is absolutely nothing in them to teach you the three fundamentals of the path, nor any instruction of outstanding value.

Now what we call the lamrim was not invented by Je Rinpoche [Lama Tsongkapa], or Atiśha, etc. Its lineage stems from the completely perfect Buddha himself and from him alone. But when you come to understand the teachings, beyond whether they have been given the name “lamrim” while others have not, you will see that all the scriptures are the lamrim. The precious set of the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras is supreme, outstanding, and most excellent among all the teachings of our Teacher. In these sūtras he taught directly the profound stages of the path [the wisdom of emptiness], which are the profound items of the eighty-four thousand bundles of the Dharma; he also covertly taught the extensive part of the lamrim in them [the methods of the buddhas]. This then is the source of the lineage. The extensive part was passed on to the Buddha’s foremost disciple Maitreya, who in turn passed it on to Asaṅga. The profound part of the lamrim passed from Mañjuśhrī to Nāgārjuna. This is how the lamrim lineage split into two—the Profound and the Extensive.

In order to clarify the lamrim, Maitreya composed his Five Treatises, Asaṅga wrote the Five Texts on the Levels, Nāgārjuna his Six Logic Treatises, and so on. So the Profound and Extensive lamrim lineages came down separately to the great peerless Atiśha. He received the Extensive Lineage from Suvarṇadvīpa and the Profound from Vidyākokila; he combined the two into one stream. He also inherited the Lineage of Deeds Bestowing Great Blessing that Śhāntideva received from Mañjughoṭha, as well as the lineages of the secret tantras, and so on. Thus, the lineages he inherited carried the complete sūtras and tantras.

Atiśha composed his Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment in Tibet. This work combines the key points of the complete doctrine. Since that time, the convention of calling these teachings by the name lamrim developed. After that, the lineages concerning the profound view and the extensive tasks have been combined into one stream. But due to further expanding and condensing, this was split into three during the Kadampa period: the Classical, the Stages of the Path, and the Oral Instruction lineages. Later still, Je Tsongkapa received all three of these from Namkha Gyaeltsaen of Lhodrag, himself a great adept, and from Choekyab Zangpo, the abbot of Dragor. It has been a single lineage from that time on.

Great Je Rinpoche made petitions in his prayers [to the lineage holders of this tradition] below the Lion Rock at Radreng to the north of Lhasa; and there he started to write “Unlocking the Door of the Supreme Path.” He had with him a statue of Atiśha that depicted Atiśha with his head bent over to one side. Whenever Je Rinpoche petitioned this statue, he received visions of all the gurus of the lamrim lineage, and they would discuss Dharma with him. In particular, he had visions of Atiśha, Dromtoenpa, Potowa, and Sharawa for a month. These latter three figures finally dissolved into Atiśha, who placed his hand at the crown of Je Rinpoche’s head and said, “Perform deeds for the teaching and I shall help you.” This means that it was he who requested Tsongkapa to write the Great Stages of the Path. Je Rinpoche completed it up to the end of the part dealing with mental quiescence. Venerable Mañjughoṭha requested him to complete the book. As a result, Je Rinpoche wrote the section on special insight. Thus, be aware that the book is a veritable treasure trove of blessings, even if we ignore everything else and only consider those who requested him to compose it. This is secretly taught in passages, such as the colophon, which begins “By the amazing good works of the victors and their children…”

Later, he composed the Stages of the Path to summarize the essence of the matter treated in the Great Stages of the Path, leaving out the extra explanations. This work deals mainly with the whispered lineages and older explanation lineages; the two lamrims are said to complement each other with different key points from the oral instructions.

You may not know how to integrate these texts into your practice. Je Rinpoche later said:

People will eventually find it almost impossible to understand how to put all these teachings into practice, so a condensed version of how to practice them should be made in the future.

Following this injunction, the [Third] Dalai Lama Soenam Gyatso wrote the Essence of Refined Gold. The great Fifth Dalai Lama wrote the Mañjuśhrī’s Own Words lamrim as a commentary to this. The Paṇchen Lama Lozang Choekyi Gyaeltsaen wrote the Easy Path, and Lozang Yeshe[another Paṇchen incarnation] composed its commentary, the Swift Path. Je Rinpoche himself wrote three lamrims: the Great, Medium, and Small (also known as Songs from Experience). And, in addition to the above four concise teachings by the Dalai Lamas and Paṇchen Lamas, Ngagwang Dragpa of Dagpo wrote the Essence of Eloquence. These are the eight most famous teachings on the lamrim.

You must receive the lineage discourses for these root texts and commentaries separately: these do not relate as root texts and commentaries. In particular, there are two lineages of discourses on Mañjuśhrī’s Own Words, one more detailed than the other. One of these was maintained in the Central Province, while the other was upheld in the south; this resulted in the two splitting off from each other. You must also receive the lineage discourses for both of these separately. Chancellor Tapugpa and his followers later assessed the lineages of this text. He claimed that if he had read this text earlier, he would not have had so many problems with lamrim meditation topics. And it is as he says: the concise teaching of the Swift Path and the two lines of Mañjuśhrī’s Own Words go together to make something particularly profound that just one text would not.

When our Teacher Buddha taught, there was no difference between the two lineages—one for the oral transmission and one for the oral discourse. Only later, when his teachings were no longer fully comprehensible, were those discourses given separately. The discourses that painstakingly give a detailed and elaborate discussion of the individual words in a text have been called formal discourses. The concise discourse refers to oral teachings that do not elaborate much on the words of the text but instead expose the heart of the instruction, much as skillful doctors dissect a fresh corpse in front of their students. The way they point out the five solid organs, the six hollow organs, etc., would give a vivid introduction. In the practical discourse, the lama speaks from his own experience, according to what the students’ minds can manage. The experiential teaching is as follows. The disciples stay together around a retreat house. They are taught a set of visualizations, which they then begin to meditate on. They are not taught the next topic until they have gained some meditative experience on those practices. When they gain some experience, they are taught the next one. These discourses come down to us in lineages blessed by insight. They are most beneficial for taming the mindstream.

The teaching I shall now offer is a practical discourse. A few of those present are unfortunate enough only to have the time to attend this sort of teaching once or twice. They are interested in these teachings, although they must later go their separate ways. For their sakes I shall be combining the Swift Path and the brief and detailed lineages of Mañjuśhrī’s Own Words. Later on, when we get to that part, I shall give the seven-point mind training on the interchange of self and others.

I have no reservations about giving this teaching. It will create root merits for the two departed aristocrats in whose memory this teaching is being given. And when I teach the lamrim, I do not have to weigh the benefits or dangers to guru or disciple, something I have to do when I give other teachings, such as initiations. A lamrim teaching can only be most beneficial.

All of you, practice what you can; and you must pray on behalf of these two departed noblemen.

Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche gave a short oral transmission of the opening lines of these lamrim texts. Then we were free to go.

The Three Fundamentals of the Path

Homage to the venerable gurus. 

I shall explain, as best I can,
The import of the essence
Of all the victors’ scriptures,
The path praised by holy victors  
And their children—the gateway  
For the fortunates wanting liberation.

Those unattached to worldly happiness who,
Yearning to give meaning to their optimum rebirth,
Follow a path pleasing to the victors,
O fortunate ones! Listen with clear minds.

Without pure renunciation, there is no way
To still the yearning for the happy fruits  
Of this ocean of existence;
And because all embodied beings
Thirst after existence,
They are utterly bound.
Thus, from the first, seek renunciation.

The optimum human rebirth
Is difficult to acquire.
This life does not last long.
Familiarize your mind with these things
And turn away from this life’s trivia.

If you contemplate over and over
The undeceptive laws of cause and effect
And  saṃsāra’s  sufferings,
You will turn away from your next lives’ trivia.

After such meditations, when you do not long
For the splendors of saṃsāra for even a moment,
When your thoughts day and night
Always yearn for liberation,
You have developed renunciation.

But, if not conjoined with pure bodhichitta,
Even renunciation is not cause
For the choice bliss of highest enlightenment.
Thus the discerning develop supreme bodhichitta.

Swept away by the stream of the four strong currents,
Bound by the fetters of hard-to-stop actions, 
Trapped in the iron mesh of self-grasping, 
Smothered in the blackness of ignorance,
They are endlessly born and reborn to the world
And continuously tortured by the three sufferings.
Such is the condition of our mothers; 
Contemplate  this  situation,
And develop supreme bodhichitta.

Despite acquaintance with renunciation and bodhichitta,
If you do not have the wisdom that understands the way things exist,
You cannot eradicate the roots of existence.
Thus, work hard at the means of realizing the interdependence of things.

He who sees that for all phenomena in saṃsāra and nīrvāṇa
The law of cause and effect is inevitable
And has righted his perception
Is on the path that gladdens the buddhas.

 The appearance that things are mutually interdependent
Is no illusion; but there are those
Who understand emptiness to be something
Devoid of this appearance.
As long as these two
Seem separate to you, you will never
Realize the thoughts of the Great One.

The mere perception [that these two]
Go together—that they are not alternatives,
And that mutual interdependence is undeceptive—
Will destroy all the ways in which you grasp at objects
With the mind.
At this point you perfect
Your analysis of the view.

You eliminate the extreme of specious substantialism;
You eliminate the extreme of empty nihilism.
If you understand how emptiness presents itself as causes and effects,
Views that grasp extremes will not impress you.

When you rightly understand these points
Of the three fundamentals of the path,
Take up solitude and develop
The strength of your perseverance;
You will soon achieve the eternal hope, my child.

The learned monk Lozang Dragpa [Je Tsongkhapa] gave the above advice to Ngawang Dragpa, an official at Tsako.


How to cite this document:
© Michael Richards, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand (Wisdom Publications, 1991, 2006)

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