First Panchen Lama

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


I bow down to Prince Shakyamuni, all-knowing,
God of gods, who drew the great ones to follow him,
Who subdued the inner and outer demons four
And gathered to the utmost merit and wisdom. . . .

I bow down to him who, conquering darkness
By unfathomable wonderful marvels,
Led innumerable beings to the heights of Man or God.
To emancipation and the path of perfect Buddhahood.

I dedicate all merit accumulated by expressing
The merest atom of these wondrous deeds
From the jewel mountain of the Teacher's knowledge,
That I might gain omniscience for the benefit of all.

The Tathagata's form,
His attendants, life and sphere,
And his extraordinary marks –
These attributes may I and others attain.

Since the Teacher visited this world,
His Teachings illumine like the solar rays.
By brotherly accord between disciples of the Teaching.
May there be good fortune that the Teaching remain long.


Tsong-Kha-Pa's immense visible and invisible reforms cannot readily be classified as social, political or religious. Whilst he vowed to rejuvenate Buddha's Teaching in Tibet, he initiated a mission for the spiritual regeneration of all humanity. Its mysterious force has reverberated through seven centuries, culminating in the present. The dynamics of his universal vision and the efforts made by lineages of adeptic Teachers to translate it into practice cannot be encompassed by what is ordinarily called history. For Tibetans and many others who sense the living presence of wise beings in the affairs of humanity, the chain of Teachers and Guides passes beyond the world of the five senses into invisible realms accessible only to spiritual vision. Tsong-Kha-Pa himself is held by many to be an incarnation of Sangyas, Shakyamuni Buddha, a manifesting aspect of Amitabha, supreme spiritual intelligence.

From the beginning of Tsong-Kha-Pa's work his reforms had spiritual, ethical, social and political ramifications. By founding the great monasteries – Ganden, Sera and Drepung – in the vicinity of Lhasa, he made it the focus of a unified Tibet. When his disciple Gedun Truppa founded Tashilhunpo near Shigatse, the whole of central Tibet came under Gelukpa influence. Yet just as the religious reforms of Tsong-Kha-Pa slowly suffused all Tibetan orders over time, so their social and political analogues gradually spread throughout Tibetan culture. Although Sonam Gyatso, the Third Dalai Lama and the first recognized by that title, consolidated the political structure of Gelukpa reform, it was only Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the 'Great Fifth', who secured it firmly. His brilliant statesmanship and remarkable intellect reveal him as a ruler of almost superhuman capacities, but he was equally a monk of luminous spirituality who took upon himself the responsibility of transmitting tantalizing intimations of the work inaugurated by Tsong-Kha-Pa. It was the Great Fifth who initiated the line of Panchen Lamas.

Gedun Truppa, who would later be called the First Dalai Lama, looked after Gelukpa affairs from Tashilhunpo, which was founded in AD. 1447. Gedun Gyatso, the Second Dalai Lama, served in succession as abbot of Drepung, Tashilhunpo and Sera monasteries. Sonam Gyatso, the Third Dalai Lama, travelled as far as Mongolia to spread Gelukpa reforms. Yonten Gyatso, the -Fourth Dalai Lama, was the Mongolian great-grandson of Altan Khan and ruled from Drepung. By the time the Fifth Dalai Lama ascended the sacred throne, Tibetans recognized him as the fourth reincarnation of the original Dalai Lama. But they must have realized much more, for when he ventured to acknowledge that he and his predecessors were incarnations of Chenrezi (Padmapani or Avalokiteshvara), he was accepted as such with enthusiasm. Perhaps because of the faithful and joyous response he received, he felt free to release a terma, a hidden text, which showed that his teacher, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, the abbot of Tashilhunpo, was the latest in a succession of incarnations going back to Khetrup, a great disciple of Tsong-Kha-Pa. These incarnations, the terma showed, were aspects of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. From this standpoint, Amitabha blesses and renovates the world through three great lines – that of Buddha and Tsong-Kha-Pa, that of Avalokiteshvara through the Dalai Lamas, and that represented by the Panchen Lamas who reside at Tashilhunpo.

Traditional accounts of lives of the Panchen Lamas are complex, arcane and relatively inaccessible, especially in English. Scholars have attempted to explain the relationship between the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen Lamas without meditating upon the idea of spiritual hierarchies, concepts of individuality which have no reference to empirical dimensions of personality, or upon the nature of compassion and universal causation. All of these are inextricably involved in the idea of voluntary reincarnation and commitment to a particular kind of selfless sacrifice over lifetimes. Opinions as to which of the two Lamas is the higher incarnation, the more spiritual, the more senior, or any other such comparisons, cannot be more than ignorant and, at best, irreverent speculation.

Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen was born in the region of Tsang in the Iron Horse year, 1570, half a century before the birth of the Fifth Dalai Lama. When he was a young monk, the Third Dalai Lama died and his reincarnation, the Fourth, was discovered in Mongolia. Whilst the Fourth Dalai Lama strengthened Tibetan-Mongolian relations and laboured to secure Gelukpa authority throughout the land, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen studied and sought to exemplify the spiritual orientation indicated by Tsong-Kha-Pa, combining meditation and ethics in a synthesis of the sutras and tantras. After the Fourth Dalai Lama died in 1616, it took only a year to find his reincarnation, the Great Fifth, and Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, now senior in the Gelukpa Order, became his teacher. The profound mutual respect which arose between them is shown in the effects the teacher's instruction had on his disciple and the high honours the student bestowed on his former teacher. When the Fifth Dalai Lama built the Potala in Lhasa and settled there, the First Panchen Lama remained in Tashilhunpo, which was refurbished for his work. Between them, Tibet received a powerful spiritual and temporal guidance that kept the lineages strong for three centuries. When Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen died in 1662, the Water Tiger year, the Fifth Dalai Lama saw that he was interred with great ceremony, and he personally supervised the search for his reincarnation. The Second Panchen Lama, born a year later, was educated by the Dalai Lama. Since that time the elder of the two Lamas has been the teacher of the younger.

Despite the onerous burdens of looking after the welfare of the Gelukpa Order, encouraging reforms in the other orders, managing the extensive holdings of Tashilhunpo and seeing to the welfare of its lay citizens, as well as serving the Great Fifth as teacher and acting as a ruler in his own right, the First Panchen Lama sought to provide Gelukpa monks with the quintessence of Buddhadharma as formulated in the sutras and in the writings of Tsong-Kha-Pa. His writings reveal a profound experiential understanding of meditation and an equally deep insight into its pervasive connection with every arena of waking life. He wrote poems, each of which encapsulates some aspect of Buddha's Teaching in vivid, memorable form whilst intimating arcane meanings to the sensitive and receptive disciple. He also wrote synoptic texts which allowed monks to grasp the architectonics of the sutras and tantras even while threading their way through essential details of theory and practice. In his writings the First Panchen Lama emerges as a consummate teacher and guide in the spiritual quest.

There is a story, found in the Damamurkhanama Sutra in the Tibetan Kangyur, which tells of Buddha's confrontation with six Indian pandits. So vast was their learning that when they taught what they knew, their discourses took the form of seemingly miraculous phenomena. Buddha, in response, raised dialectic to alchemy and replied with magic. In his poem on Buddha's fifteen-day response, the First Panchen Lama showed the nature of this magic rising to the highest spiritual degree, passing beyond phenomena as ordinarily conceived. On the first day Buddha placed a tiny stick into the ground which grew into a wish-fulfilling tree, satiating the desires of men and gods. On the second day he caused jewel mountains to rise up around the place where he was sitting, and they burgeoned with succulent foods for humans and cattle. The third day witnessed a change in Buddha's reply: rather than satisfy desires rooted in the senses, he formed a lake "on which bloomed lotuses of laughing, radiant light". And the next day he manifested a pool from which eight streams flowed in a circular path, creating sounds which emitted the doctrine of the three vehicles – Shravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana and Bodhisattvayana.

Having gained the enraptured attention of every mind present, Buddha again changed the level at which he manifested marvels. On the fifth day Buddha allowed his smiling countenance to radiate a golden light which suffused the three thousand worlds, purifying those far from Enlightenment and giving them a foretaste of samadhi. On the sixth he granted them the power of faith by enabling them to read one another's minds and to see clearly their own dark and pure thoughts, making it possible on the seventh day for each individual present to experience existence as would a universal sovereign in possession of the seven magical jewels. And on the eighth day he completed this dimension of his Teaching by sending forth Vajrapani and five demons, who subdued the six pandits and freed their followers. Beginning with the ninth day he disclosed something of his own nature – that realization towards which all beings strive – by expanding his form to the limits marked by the heaven of Brahms and manifesting all the virtues of Nirvana and Samsara within it. And on the tenth day the luminosity of his form encompassed Samsara, forming a cloud from which a rain of happiness showered on all beings.

Buddha remained unmanifest on the eleventh day, but he expounded the Dharma with the voice of Sarasvati. Then, meditating on love throughout the twelfth day, he caused all beings to love one another as parents love their children. On the thirteenth day two rays of light emanated from his navel, and at the end of each was a Buddha from whose navel came forth more rays of light. This pattern repeated until the whole universe was filled with Buddhas of light. He took flowers offered by Udrayana on the fourteenth day and transformed them into bejewelled chariots which graced the three worlds. Then, on the fifteenth day, he shared the ambrosia of the gods with all beings and radiated from his fingertips streams of golden light which brought joy to beings in even the lowest hells. In his poem the First Panchen Lama characterized each day of marvels in such a way that the intuitive disciple can see each as a mystical stage on the path to Enlightenment and the Bodhisattva quest. Such Teaching, he warned, remains accessible only so long as it is followed in a spirit of universal brotherhood.

Two monks known for their persistent spiritual striving petitioned the First Panchen Lama to write an introductory text to mahamudra practice. Mahamudra, sometimes called the Great Seal of Voidness, constitutes the fulcrum of Tsong-Kha-Pa's teaching and is essential to an understanding of Mahayana and Vajrayana thought. The First Panchen Lama provided an overview of its nature and complexity in a short treatise, where, having made obeisance to mahamudra itself and to his guru, he defined mahamudra as "the all-pervasive nature of all things, the indistinguishable single nature of both objects of the Void and of the Void itself". Rather than restate the available written accounts of mahamudra, he combined the essentials of the sutra and tantra doctrines of mahamudra with the oral transmissions of Gelukpa and Kagyupa teachings.

In order to enter the gateway and framework of Buddha's Teachings in general, and specifically those of the Mahayana, it is essential for you to take refuge and develop an enlightened attitude of bodhichitta sincerely from your heart, not merely from your mouth.

Since realization of shunyata, the Void, depends both upon merit and the removal of obstacles, one may prepare oneself through prostrations and mantramic invocations. (Both Marpa and Tsong-Kha-Pa followed this practice before the thirty-five Buddhas.)

Then you must make repeated heartfelt requests to your root guru, whom you recognize as inseparable from the Buddhas of the past, present and future, to be able to realize shunyata.

Although one may approach the mahamudra teaching in many ways, these can all be placed under two heads – sutras and tantras. To follow the tantra system, one must successfully complete the difficult task of concentrating attention on the nadis or psycho-spiritual energy channels in one's vajra or diamond body, focussing on the central nadi. This can only be done under the direct guidance of a qualified teacher, and, when successful, it leads to the attainment of the clear light of shunyata, approached only through anuttara yoga, the controlled exercise of the highest purified consciousness. Such a method requires degrees of knowledge, access to a teacher and levels of self-control beyond the resources of most individuals. The First Panchen Lama therefore turned to the sutra method, which is within the reach of everyone. According to him, Nagarjuna held that outside these two approaches, there is no way that leads to Enlightenment.

The sutra method involves meditating upon shunyata in ways prescribed in the Prajnaparamita Sutras and expounded by an unbroken line of gurus. Their teachings involve methods of meditation which have received a variety of names, among them simultaneous production and union', 'the four letters' and 'the great encompassment'. In 'the joined amulet box', meditation involves combining bliss, ananda, and the Void, shunyata, like the two halves of a closed amulet box. The 'six equal tastes' method involves transforming six generally adverse conditions into modalities of wisdom. The six adverse conditions are distorted conceptions, moral defilements and mental delusions, sickness, harm from gods and spirits, suffering, and death. Transformation of distorted conceptions, for instance, involves altering whatever one hears into a mantra, whatever one sees into a deity worthy of meditation and so on. The 'profound Madhyamika theory' is the method devised by Tsong-Kha-Pa and based on the teachings of Nagarjuna. Whilst these oral instructions bear different names, a yogin experienced in meditation will readily see that they are complementary and aim at a full understanding of shunyata.

Whichever approach one might adopt, there are two general ways to practise mahamudra. The first begins with a preliminary understanding of the conception of shunyata and then seeks one-pointed concentration upon that understanding. The second reverses the order, beginning with tranquil one-pointedness of concentration and using it to strive for an understanding of shunyata. In this, one should select a suitable place reserved for meditation and settle in a comfortable but erect posture, the lotus position being preferred. The grossest irrelevant thoughts can be dispelled with a few breathing exercises. When dull states of mind have been put aside and clarity remains, one takes refuge in the thought of bodhichitta with a pure motive. Then one should meditate upon the guru, and with intense devotion imagine the guru dissolving into oneself. Now one is ready to concentrate on a wholly unstructured and undetermined state of mind.

This is a state of mind devoid of any preconceptions, doubts, wishes or aspirations for either temporary or ultimate purposes concerning past or future. This does not mean, however, that you should cease all conscious attention as if you were asleep or in a swoon. Rather, you should fix your unwavering memory firmly on the task of watching your mind from a distance and keep yourself constantly prepared with mental alertness to sense any mental wandering.

When equilibrium has been achieved, one can turn one's attention to the nature of mind itself as an impermanent phenomenon which is capable of clear and valid knowledge. Now attention should be 'tightened', and one should try to see the bare nature of the mind with stark clarity. If extraneous thoughts arise, one should either recognize them for what they are or cut them off as soon as they appear. With the mind focussed and clear, one should maintain meditation in a relaxed manner without letting memory slacken.

Another method of settling the mind is not to block whatever extraneous thoughts arise, but to concentrate on the nature of the train of thought that has arisen and try to comprehend it. What happens is like the example of a caged pigeon released from a ship in mid-ocean. As the scripture says, 'A bird that has flown from a ship in mid-ocean, after flying here and there, must inevitably land back on the ship from which it left.'

This practice of meditation, undertaken with patience and persistence, brings the mind to a state of clarity without obstruction or predisposition.

Although this state of mind lacks any form or structure, and in this way is as bare as space, yet it is precisely on this mind, as on a mirror, that whatever arises to consciousness appears vividly. Although you can behold this nature of the mind most obviously, you can never hold onto or point to any particular thing as 'my mind'.

The First Panchen Lama notes that most meditators claim that, having attained this stage, one can now realize whatever one's mind turns to, and that this is henceforth an easy path to Enlightenment. He suggests, however, that at this stage one has merely settled the mind, and he then goes on to expound the oral teachings of his own root guru.

From the stance of one-pointed, clear consciousness, one should, "like a small fish swimming through clear undisturbed water", explore the identity of the meditator. Who is this meditator? One will find that it is not the gross or subtle matter of the body, not the space it occupies and not consciousness. Given this, one will realize that the person who is ordinarily said to exist is only a label in the realm of the senses. Seeing that one has no ultimate or independent existence, one should proceed to meditate on that discovery. "In this way you cultivate the placement of one-pointed concentration on shunyata which is like space." Now one should concentrate on the stream of continuous clarity which is the mind until one realizes that this continuity is not a thing or particular existence but a modality beyond the ordinary categories of existence. This is the beginning of the dawning of shunyata. If one can concentrate one-pointedly on that, one will have achieved a wondrous feat.

When the period of meditation is over, one should return to the world of the senses systematically. First of all, one should dedicate the virtue gained from meditation to attaining Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. Secondly, one should closely examine the objects of sense which come to hand so that one will see their bare mode of existence. Thus one will see that they are not what they appear to be and should not be grasped. By nurturing understanding in this way, one can begin to realize that all things in Samsara and Nirvana share a single ultimate nature – shunyata.

Thus in your formal meditation session, when you concentrate one-pointedly on shunyata according to proper methods, you will become convinced that all things in Samsara and Nirvana, whether validly existent or not, are void of independent existence, which is only a mental fabrication. Moreover, when you rise from your meditation session and make further analysis of things, you will then be able to witness the unmistakable operation of independent origination based merely on the way the mind labels things. In this way things will naturally appear to you as similar to dreams and hallucinations, like mirages and the reflection of the moon in water.

The First Panchen Lama wrote such works to bring sincere disciples in line with Buddhadharma and the Bodhisattva Path. By respecting tradition while subtly pointing to the distinctions between belief and knowledge, ritual and effort, venerable tradition and direct experience, he sought to purify the ascendant Gelukpa Order and alchemize every aspect of transmission of eternal wisdom. The tone he set reverberated throughout Tibet until the present day.