Review Article

Tsong-kha-pa: Wisdom for Today

Alan E. Donant
Of the many works of the Tibetan master Tsong-kha-pa, few compare in terms of popularity and breadth of influence with his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo), which has been treasured by practitioners and scholars alike for centuries. What distinguishes it as one of the principal texts of Mahayana Buddhism is its scope and clarity. It expounds the entire path, from the way one should rely on a spiritual teacher, which is the very root, right up to the attainment of Buddhahood, which is the final fruit. The various stages of the path are presented so clearly and systematically that they can be easily understood and are inspiring to put into practice.— H. H. the Dalai Lama

The translation into English of Tsong-kha-pa's The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Volume 1, trans. by the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY, 2000; 434 pages, ISBN 1559391529, cloth, $29.95) is a significant event. Little known outside of Tibet and Mongolia for most of its 600 years, it is now being published for the first time in its entirety in a Western language. Judging by the first volume, it is no wonder that over the centuries this work has captured the minds of Tibetans from every walk of life. Exceptional and accessible, one can jump into it at any point and enjoy it.

Buddhism was imported to Tibet from India, but by the 8th century CE, after nearly a hundred years, it had yet to take hold of the Tibetan mind. The country retained a warlike culture, with an empire stretching across Central Asia, and a widespread and unrestrained taste for developing mystical powers. On the advice of a Buddhist teacher, Emperor Trisong Detsen sent for the great Indian master Padmasambhava, who transformed Tibetan history and civilization by redirecting the people's thinking toward Buddhist wisdom and compassion (The Dalai Lama's Secret Temple, Ian Baker and Thomas Laird, p. 49). As time passed, however, people's interest waned and their thoughts turned once again toward nature spirits and paranormal powers, causing Buddhism to coalesce with the native Bhon religion.

Not until the 14th century did the greatest Buddhist teacher known in Tibet begin his lifework: Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419), founder of the now-dominant Gelugpa (Yellow Cap) sect and the originating focus of the Dalai and Panchen Lama traditions. He is said to have received in visionary experiences many personal instructions from Manjusri (Sanskrit for "the holy, beautiful one"), a name commonly associated with Buddha consciousness and also with the spiritual guardians of the various inner and outer dimensions of the earth. This statement implies that Tsong-kha-pa at times embodied power and consciousness of the highest spiritual order. Consequently, he is greatly revered and his teachings inspire the highest regard.

In 1991 the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center committed itself to making his Great Treatise available in its entirety in English, and brought together a group of qualified translators. This first of three volumes (the concluding two to be published next year) covers the nature of the student, the teachings and the teacher, meditation, mindfulness of death, karma, ethical behavior, suffering, and refuge in the three jewels. In his Foreword, Robert A. F. Thurman calls it

the concentrated quintessence of the entirety of the Buddhist path from all the ocean of its literature, concentrated by its integration with the supreme esoteric teachings of the Tantras every single step of the way. . . . without exposing the uninitiated practitioner to the danger of formal tantric performance. The way transcendence is taught, the way compassion and the spirit of enlightenment are taught, and even the way wisdom is taught as the inexorable indivisibility of voidness and relativity — all this makes the power of Tantra accessible in a generous, transformative, and dynamic, but safe and sound, perhaps we could say fail-safe, way. This is the genius of the Great Treatise. — pp. 14-15

The simple yet powerful vision it embodies can be life altering.


Tsong-kha-pa's presentation relies on tradition; he quotes from many Buddhist sources, which the translators name in full. The sections on the teachings and the teacher may even appear sectarian:

Therefore, for something to be a pure personal instruction, it must bestow certain knowledge of the classic texts. No matter how well you learn it, a personal instruction is only something to be cast aside if it cannot bestow certain knowledge of the meaning of the Buddha's words and the great commentaries on their intent, or if it teaches a path incompatible with these. — p. 50

Nonetheless, it contains principles applicable within any great religious tradition. Tsong-kha-pa covers teachings from three major Buddhist schools — the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana — always with an emphasis upon the six perfections or paramitas of the Bodhisattva path:

The path of the perfections is like the center post for the path that leads to buddhahood. Hence, it is unsuitable to cast it aside. As this is said many times even in the Vajrayana, the path of the perfections is the path common to both sutra and tantra. . . . if you cast aside the paths shared with the perfection vehicle, you make a great mistake. — p. 49

While no portion of The Great Treatise is more significant than another, the sections on "The Meditation Session," "Refuting Misconceptions about Meditation," and "Mindfulness of Death" are likely to be of immediate interest to contemporary readers. The discussion of preparation for meditation, for example, provides an expansive vision:

Do not take as your object of meditation the buddhas of a single direction in the universe or of a single time. Rather, take all the conquerors who reside in all ten directions as well as those who have already visited this world previously, will visit here in the future, and are appearing at present. . . . Imagine all the conquerors abiding in all directions and times as if you are actually perceiving them as objects of your mind. Also, as you bow down, imagine duplicate images of your body emanating from your body in a number equal to the minute particles of the buddhas' realms. . . .
. . . Buddhas are seated even upon each of the most minute particles and are equal in number to all of those particles. Each buddha is surrounded by bodhisattva disciples. . . .
. . . imagine that immeasurable heads emanate from each of your immeasurable bodies and that immeasurable tongues emanate from each head. Vocal obeisance is expressing with pleasant song the inexhaustible praises of the buddhas' good qualities. — pp. 95-6

There follows a description of actual meditation, and how to sustain and conclude it, along with various reasons and hints. Meditation, he says,

is the act of sustaining an object of meditation and specific subjective aspects by repeatedly focusing your mind upon a virtuous object of meditation. The purpose of this is as follows. From beginningless time you have been under the control of your mind; your mind has not been under your control. Furthermore, your mind tended to be obscured by the afflictions and so forth. Thus, meditation aims to bring this mind, which gives rise to all faults and flaws, under control and then it aims to make it serviceable. Serviceability means that you can direct your mind as you wish toward a virtuous object of meditation. — p. 99

Even between meditation sessions, the student is advised to

look at teachings that reveal the meaning of your object of meditation, and recollect it again and again. Accumulate, by many means, the collections, which are favorable conditions for producing good qualities. Also, clear away, by many means, the obscurations, which are unfavorable conditions. By applying what you know, strive at whatever vow you have promised to observe, as this is the basis of everything. — p. 101

The way to begin is to

first study with someone what you intend to practice, and come to know it secondhand. Next, use scripture and reasoning to properly reflect on the meaning of what you have studied, coming to know it firsthand. Once you determine the meaning of what you originally intended to practice with this kind of study and reflection and you have no doubts, then familiarize yourself with it repeatedly. We call this repeated familiarization "meditation." Thus, you need both repeated analytical meditation and nonanalytical stabilizing meditation, because meditation involves both nonanalytical stabilization and the meaning of what you originally intended to practice that was determined through study and reflection and the use of discerning wisdom to analyze this meaning. — pp. 109-10

Perhaps no subject is as important to living as is death. In The Great Treatise the discussion is practical and profound:

in the case of your coarse impermanence, which is your death, the avenue of injury is the very thought, "I will not die." Everyone has the idea that death will come later, at the end. However, with each passing day people think, "I will not die today; I will not die today," clinging to this thought until the moment of death. If you are obstructed by such an attitude and do not bring its remedy to mind, you will continue to think that you will remain in this life.
. . .
In brief, the only time to accomplish the aims of beings is now, when you have attained a special life of leisure and opportunity. . . . Even when you have gained the circumstances allowing for practice, the reason that you do not practice the teachings properly is the thought, "I will not die yet." Therefore, the thought that you will not die is the source of all deterioration, and the remedy for this is mindfulness of death, the source of all that is excellent.
. . .
Even if you could live for the longest period explained . . . it would be wrong to think that you have time. Much of your life has already been wasted. Half of what is left will be spent in sleep, and many of your waking hours will be wasted with other distractions. Further, as youth fades, the time of aging arrives. Your physical and mental strength deteriorate such that even if you want to practice religion, you lack the capacity to do so. Consequently, you have no more than a few chances to practice the teachings. — pp. 145, 147, 152-3

For some, Buddhism's focus on suffering has been a great deterrent; after all, for many the "pursuit of happiness" is the focus of their lives. Throughout The Great Treatise, however, Tsong-kha-pa asks us to consider what is real and what is not. By real, he means lasting, and clearly nothing lasts — not our possessions, our friends, our positions. In acknowledging this impermanence, we discover that we have put our faith in things that will disappear even when we think they will not. When they do, we suffer. We need to acknowledge that suffering and happiness go hand in hand when we choose to believe the unreal is the real.

Throughout the treatise we are constantly reminded that the bodhisattva path and compassion are our goals. It is not what is said, nor how it is said that is so moving, but rather that one feels as though he or she were sitting before a great teacher, where lessons and benefits become as countless as the minute particles of the buddhas' realms.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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