Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


Though some become humans in cyclic existence,
few gain a spiritual attitude.
Fewer, in virtue of Buddha's attractive force,
enter into the prime vehicle.
Still fewer bring their whole mind to cultivate
the glorious Vajrayana.
But even more, those longing for Buddhahood
who enter the states of supreme bliss
are, alas, extremely rare.

Atisha's work in Tibet signalled a Buddhist resurgence which extended far beyond his sphere of activities. From the time of his death in A.D. 1054 until the reform inaugurated by Tsong-Kha-Pa in the late fourteenth century, the major Buddhist orders emerged, except for the Nyingmapa or 'old order' which traced its origins to Padmasambhava. The Kadampa order grew out of Atisha's teachings, and Marpa laid the foundation for the Kagyupa order, which looked to Milarepa as its patron. Though Marpa lived as a family man, his wife was a yogini and teacher in her own right and Milarepa was a strict ascetic. Another school with rather different practices arose during this period. When Marpa had first looked for a teacher, he had studied for a time under Drogmi before journeying to India. Drogmi had been to India, where he learnt a number of tantric practices which he transmitted in the form of Lamdre, the path and fruit of action. His doctrine of mystical action leading to realization was not predicated on asceticism, and it was popular and influential until Tsong-Kha-Pa instituted a sharper distinction between monk and layman and a stricter discipline in respect to spiritual practices.

The Khon family, which had provided prominent members of the religious community since the time of King Trhisong Detsen, established the Sakya or 'grey earth' monastery in 1073. Built about fifty miles north of Mount Everest by Konchok Gyeltso, the chief disciple of Drogmi, it became the centre of the Sakyapa order. Other families supported the construction of monastic centres and soon a galaxy of interrelated schools had developed. All of these orders owed their existence to teachers who had either come from India or gone to India for training. Since they were all suckled by the same mother, there was very little difference in their doctrine, even though each order had its own emphasis. Thus it cannot be said that different schools had grown up in Tibet. Rather, they differed from one another in their rituals and meditative practices. Since these were transmitted from teacher to disciple through initiation, what in India had been a diversity of schools became in Tibet a diversity of lineages. The monastic communities were supported by powerful families, and so the competition between nobles was often reflected in the relations between monasteries. In time the monasteries developed armed forces and even functioned as fortresses. The regional kings of Tibet simply disappeared, replaced by 'dharma-holders', successors of monastic heads who governed the orders. The Sakyapas rapidly moved to the forefront of this new social, political and religious structure.

Since the collapse of the central monarchy and the Tibetan empire, local kings had preserved provincial autonomy largely because there had been little outside interference. Although the rise of the monastic orders might have seemed to fragment Tibet even further, just the opposite turned out to be the case. Despite rivalry, the monasteries were interrelated through the lineages to which they belonged, and so they formed a loose network that spread across the country. When Jenghiz Khan invaded Tibet in 1189, he found a religious land which posed no threat to his ambition, and rather than having to conquer the country, he found it willing to submit. Since it had no secular government, and since he was loath to take on religious responsibilities, he found himself the 'patron' of a whole culture. As suzerain, he chose the Sakya monastery to govern in his stead.

Although Sakyapa practice emphasized action, it encouraged study, and many Sakyapa monks became great scholars. The Sakya Panchen, sometimes called the Sakya Pandita, had gone to India, where he gained a reputation for defeating those of other views in debates. Godan, the grandson of Jenghiz Khan, had established himself in Koko Nor, and he wanted someone to debate heretics in Mongolia. In 1244 he invited the Sakya Panchen to visit him, supporting his invitation with an invasion of troops. The Sakya Panchen met him and initiated him into a number of the practices, and whilst visiting Mongolian territories, invented an alphabet for the Mongolian language. In 1249 Godan gave rulership of Ü and Tsang to the Sakyapas. After Godan died, Kublai Khan confirmed their rule and extended it across thirteen Tibetan provinces. The Sakyapa order occupied this exalted position for most of the century, and during this time its monasteries flourished as centres of learning. Besides the Sakya Panchen, its greatest scholar was the historian and commentator Bu-ston Rinpoche.

Bu-ston was born about 1290, when the Sakyapa order was reaching the height of its influence. But though the Sakyapa was politically pre-eminent, the other orders were also well established and strong. Bu-ston combined a profound spirituality with a penetrating intellect, and together they impelled him to ask the most difficult questions. He followed the Nyingmapa tradition early in his religious career, for he was deeply drawn to the Vajrayana teachings. From the Vajrayana he learnt the fundamental importance of analogy and correspondence. Its first principle is "As within, so without", and it is understood as a strict equation. What is outside consciousness must conform to what is inherent to consciousness. This does not mean that every random thought is supposed to be translated into arbitrary actions, for most of what passes in the 'stream of consciousness' is external to the mind's own nature. That which is inherent to consciousness is the self-existent mandala, the circle and seal of illumination. What is outside should also be a mandala, the reflected image of the inner mandala. Discursive thinking, however, deflects, obscures and inverts the mandala of inner awareness so that what appears in the world is distorted, discontinuous and rationalized. To correct this condition of ignorance, which produces suffering, the inner mandala must first be impressed upon the processes of thought; then it can be reflected in one's actions as the circle of right conduct.

This root-analogy is also reversed. What is within must conform to what is without. Therefore the mandala must be drawn in the circle of one's life so that consciousness, which is ever drawn by the senses towards externals, will come to conform more closely to its own nature. When the effort is made both to make the outer conform to the inner and allow the inner to conform to a purified and perfected outer, an analogical dialectic is set in motion which leads to Enlightenment. This is the justification for the elaborate tantric rituals of the Vajrayana. The outer rite is a mode of embodied existence which conforms to the inner rite of pure consciousness. One way of expressing this dialectic is in terms of the three mysteries – the body, speech and mind of Buddha. The aspirant attempts to bring his body into harmony with the body of Buddha through mudra, gesture. His speech is brought in line with Buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, through mantra, and his mind is harmonized with the Buddha-mind through samadhi, meditation.

The second fundamental principle underlying Vajrayana is the doctrine of the subtle body, which is causal to the external, physical body which is characterized by transient states. The inner body is the locus of the psycho-spiritual centres (chakras), the channels (nadis) through which subtle energies circulate. Appropriate practices, given during initiation, not only allow one to develop siddhis, supernormal powers – like those exhibited by Padmasambhava and Milarepa – but also to transmute the subtle body into a pure medium which can absorb and reflect the divine radiance of spiritual illumination. Thirdly, Vajrayana accepts a threefold division of existence. Most mortals spend their waking hours in kamadhatu, the realm of desire, but even in meditation one can become transfixed in rupadhatu, the realm of form. Above that, accessible through the higher states of meditation, is arupadhatu, the formless realm, which is not yet shunyata, the absolute reality beyond all existence and non-existence. Each of these realms is filled with beings – gods to the average person – and one has to learn to distinguish between them, make use of their assistance and get caught by none of them.

The fourth great principle of Vajrayana is initiation. Scriptures and texts are of limited value in the absence of a teacher. The guru knows both the Path to Enlightenment and the disciple's particular mental, psychic and physical constitution. To the degree that the chela truly wishes to advance on the spiritual path, and in light of his capacities, the guru can initiate him. Initiation, whatever its external forms and rituals, is essentially an act of consciousness whereby the guru empowers the chela to undertake more advanced training. In doing this, there is an alchemical transmission of light from teacher to disciple, the proportion of which is determined by the disciple's purity and ability to take and abide by a vow. The first degree of initiation is Completion, and the second is the Secret Initiation. The third is the Insight Initiation, and the last is called simply the Fourth, since nothing can be said of it. Thus is the disciple 'sealed' by stages to the Enlightenment which is his spiritual inheritance.

Although Bu-ston learnt the principles of Vajrayana with the Nyingmapas, he came to question the tone of their practice. Since the mandala of pure consciousness has to be brought into conformity with the mandala of ethical action, Bu-ston could not understand why the Nyingmapas of his time tended to undervalue the mind. Convinced that the mind had to be purified and used, he eventually looked elsewhere for help. Eventually he came to the Sakyapa order, where he found the same teachings coupled with a respect for scholarship and study. Since mind, chitta, is crucial to attaining Enlightenment through the transformation of chitta into bodhichitta and realized bodhi, wisdom, the Sakyapa path of action is threefold. There is the moment in which the aspirant finds himself. That moment, however, is only one of an endless series of fleeting instants, and so there has to be a Path along which the aspirant learns discernment. Though it begins in the world of the five senses as morality, it persists through degrees of mystical awareness where discernment becomes increasingly subtle. Finally, there is the attainment of Enlightenment, a moment from the standpoint of ordinary consciousness, but standing outside all moments and so not subject to change. The Path is the effort to establish a continuity of consciousness which becomes so steady and complete that the moment in which one finds oneself is the moment of Enlightenment.

Within the Sakyapa fold, Bu-ston found that he could exercise his brilliant mind in myriad directions. Even by his time the Sakyapas were renowned for their interest in every aspect of Buddhist thought. For example, being devoted to Vajrayana, they had attempted to collect and classify all the tantric texts – a formidable task, given their diverse origins and divergent symbolism. Bu-ston turned his seemingly inexhaustible energies to three tasks. He wrote commentaries on many important Buddhist scriptures and sought to elucidate the most complex Mahayana concepts. In his treatise on the Tathagatagarbha, the sphere of the Tathagata, for instance, he confronted the question of the self. What, he asked, did Buddha mean by propounding the doctrine of anatman, no self? He held that the Self, Atman, cannot be anything it could conceivably take itself to be. Light is an aspect of mind, according to Sakyapa thought, and if this is so, self cannot be anything which light illumines. Since light cannot illumine itself, self is nothing upon which light can shine. For Bu-ston, who inclined to the dialectic of Nagarjuna and believed that Chandrakirti was the supreme dialectician, this view alone did not show that self did not exist. If that were true, Enlightenment would be annihilation. Rather, if self cannot be anything that can be said to exist, that is, anything that mind illumines, then self has to be what light cannot illumine. Self is shunyata, the Void, or, using different language, there is a unity of self and reality.

Besides his seminal contributions to Buddhist metaphysics and metapsychology, Bu-ston cultivated a deep interest in Buddhist history. He wrote a history of Buddhist thought which attempted to show that each school had sought to clarify some central thread of Buddha's teaching. Whilst they diverged from one another, they were less involved with mutual contradiction than with alternative perspectives, which, if taken together, enriched one's understanding of the Path. Most of our knowledge of Buddhist history is rooted in the labours of Bu-ston and Taranatha, who belonged to an offshoot of the Sakyapa order.

Perhaps Bu-ston's most enduring achievement is the organization of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. By the time the great orders had been established, there had been a long tradition of translation. Bu-ston knew that the teachings of Buddha were dying out in India and that many Sanskrit originals had already been lost. Translation, under Shantarakshita and Kumarashila, and later under Atisha, had been feverish. In addition, Drogmi, Marpa and other teachers had translated texts. Tibet had barely had an alphabet before the arrival of Buddhist teachers, and its language was not literary. The first translations were therefore necessarily paraphrastic. Later on, however, an elaborate and rather artificial scriptural Tibetan language had been devised to convey the Sanskrit originals with an almost incomprehensible literalness. The attempts had been made to loosen up and render scripture accurately and in a form that a wide audience could read. All of this had left Tibet with a jumble of texts, and yet the monks saw themselves as the preservers of a great heritage. Bu-ston determined to assure Tibet's fidelity to what it had received from Buddha's homeland by drawing the scriptures and texts into a canon. He created almost single-handedly the Kangyur and the Tengyur.

Comparing, editing and correcting texts, Bu-ston composed the Kangyur on translations of Buddha's Word. The first section, Vinaya, deals with discipline within the Sangha. Then comes the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, including the famous Diamond and Heart Sutras. They are followed by the Buddhavatamsaka Sutra, a vast collection of discourses delivered by various Buddhas and sometimes called the Avatamsaka Sutra. The Ratnakuta or Summit of Jewels is a collection of Mahayana sutras. The fifth division, called Sutra, gathers together both Mahayana and Hinayana works, and the sixth section is Tantra. Some editions take a portion of the fifth division and make a seventh out of it under the name Nirvana. The entire Kangyur is considered to be Buddhavachana, the direct Word of Buddha, and it comprises one hundred and eight volumes.

All other works, written by great teachers and commentators, were ordered in the Tengyur or 'translation of treatises'. Filling two hundred and twenty-five volumes, it consists of three parts. The first section, consisting of a single volume, contains sixty-four hymns. The second division holds two thousand, six hundred and sixty-four commentaries on tantras in eighty-six volumes. The third part, in ninety-four volumes, contains commentaries on the Prajnaparamita, texts of the Madhyamika and Yogachara schools, commentaries on other sutras and Hinayana scientific treatises. Another thirty volumes contain texts on logic, grammar, medicine and a variety of technical subjects. Although carefully set apart from the Kangyur, the Tengyur is held in equal veneration. The greatest testament to Bu-ston's success is the fact that all Buddhist orders in Tibet recognize his arrangement as the canon, and all use it and enshrine its precious volumes in brocade in their monasteries.

Bu-ston's interests were as wide-ranging as his vast mind was capable of accommodating. Nonetheless, they were singularly spiritual. He venerated Buddha, cherished the Dharma and loved the Sangha. His devotion to the Path that leads to emancipation and his compassionate wish to aid all beings along that road channelled his remarkable energies into a creative productivity which defies categories and ready assessment. Though he turned his talents in many directions, his contribution in each was sound and enduring. By the time he died in 1364 at the age of seventy-four, he had demonstrated that one can dwell in a lineage and enhance it even while transcending schools and lineages in the flight of consciousness towards the truth it will ultimately find itself to be.