When different Buddhist groups form an association, e.g. in a counry, the question of a common definition of Buddhism is sometimes raised. The idea of that is obviously to come up with a kind of essence that is something like the least common denominator, which includes all and doesn’t reject anyone. I find this difficult, not only because “essentialism” has such a bad name these days.

Someone who tries to give an answer that is based on the teachings is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He says (Lions Roar, January 12, 2017):

Buddhism is distinguished by four characteristics, or ‘seals.’ If all these four seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it can be considered the path of the Buddha.

What are these four seals? They are, as he summarizes:

– All compounded things are impermanent.
– All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”
– All phenomena are empty; they are without inherent existence. This is actually the ultimate view of Buddhism; the other three are grounded on this third seal.
– The fourth seal is that nirvana is beyond extremes.

I have no problem with any of the four seals, and also not with putting them together.  But I am uncomfortable with the idea that when any of these are not “found in a path or a philosophy,” it cannot be “considered a path of the Buddha.” Does he really mean to exclude people who do not follow the teaching of emptiness? And isn’t “nirvana is beyond extremes” very Mahayana? Moreover, is someone, like me, who has not fully grasped that “emotions are painful” and that “phenomena are empty” not a Buddhist, or not a complete Buddhist?

The more I think about it, the more I become aware that one perhaps should not try to define what Buddhism is, but rather talk about what people, who consider themselves followers of the Buddha, do.

What would that be?

All Buddhists seem to be striving—although to different degrees—in three fields: meditative practice, cognition, and conduct. With “cognition” I mean that we try to train our consciousness to recognize errors and understand how these errors function. The most basic error, according to the Buddha, is that we ignore something that actually causes suffering and often even hold it to be joyful (most prominently: the self). Through training cognition in many ways, Buddhists try to identify that error and to stop its proliferation in our mind. As soon as one has even only a little understanding of that, one can start to change one’s conduct and to integrate that understanding in meditative practice, applying antidotes against that error and habitualizing our improved understanding of reality. In that way, conduct and meditative practice become aids for an improved cognition until awakening is attained.

Okay, let’s test this against my own criticism above.

Does this formulate a philosophical position that is not shared by all Buddhists? Is this perhaps a position that ordinary people like me are far from understanding properly? The only position formulated above is that Buddhists try to recognize errors and seek to abandon them. If that would not be the case, one would not do anything.—That is why I try to describe Buddhism as something one does rather than what philosophical position one holds. Does this exclude people from being recognized as Buddhists? I hope not. Even the most humble persons who “only” practice by making offerings to the Sangha do that because they perceive a fault in this life, hope for improvement, and actually do something about it: They make an offering and put themselves in a humble state of mind.

Is this perhaps over-inclusive? Not if we agree on one point, namely that Buddhists are unique in perceiving existence—at least to some degree—as suffering and seek to end that suffering. As Khyentse Rinpoche says:

All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”

I wouldn’t narrow it down so much on emotion alone, but I do agree that it is unique in the world of religions that the Buddha has described existence—including in heavenly realms—as ultimately only suffering. But here we have the problem again that this is an ideal view that most people have not yet fully realized. Yet Buddhists do seem to be attracted to the view of the entire existence as suffering. That is a strange attraction since from the point of view of its competetive ability in the market of religions it seems to be a huge disadvantage—it seems so negative. Yet it still appeals to people. Perhaps, if we now also look through the lense of what is, we could say that Buddhism is about existence as suffering and that people are, for whichever reason, somehow attracted to that idea. To me, this attraction is one of the big misterys about Buddhism.

Jigten Sumgön explains in the Single Intention that this is so because of Buddha nature: Everyone possesses it, and because it is pure, all beings have at least the capacity to recognize the huge gap between that purity within them and existence as it actually is. The rest of this blog entry will now be devoted to how the Single Intention explains the fact that people are drawn to a teaching that speaks so extensively about suffering.

The early commenator of the Single Intention, Doré Sherab, explains this point in the context of vajra statement 6.13. Here, Buddha nature, the nature of mind, and mahamudra are treated as synonymous terms. He explains that since every sentient being posesses the Buddha nature, which is the mahamudra of the ground, they gradually understand more and more about the nature of suffering and thereby are more and more attracted to taking up disciplined conduct in all of its forms until Buddhahood is attained. He thereby draws our attention to the analogy between Buddha nature/mahamudra on the one hand, and disciplined conduct on the other: Because of the purity of the first we are disgusted by samsara and strive with the help of the purity of the other, i.e., disciplined conduct, for awakening and Buddhahood. The passage reads in the Dosherma (section 6.13):

“[Discipined conduct and mahamudra] are one by being analoguous. In general, the sentient beings who revolve in samsara have not realized true reality. Therefore, based on grasping a self, they accumulate karma, through which, as a result, they revolve in the three realms. But if they realize their mind, they are free from grasping a self, and thereby they are also without an object of desire or hatred that could arise. Since this freedom from desire and hatred is pure disciplined conduct, [discipined conduct and mahamudra] are one by being analoguous. For ordinary sentient beings too, even though they have not realized their mind, discipined conduct and mahamudra are one, as expressed in the Uttaratantra (1.40):

If there were no buddha element,
there would be no aversion to suffering,
and there would be neither a desire to pass beyond sorrow,
nor an effort and the aspiration toward it.

“From the perspective of the gradual path, having understood that the lower realms are suffering, there arises the striving for the higher realms. Even guarding merely the approximation vows is the power of mahamudra. Similarly, understanding that everything below the peak of existence is suffering, a mind arises that strives for what is higher than that. Thus, guarding the disciplined conduct up to the vows of full ordination too is the power of mahamudra. Understanding that all of samsara is suffering one sets one’s mind on the two lower awakenings,♦ 1 and that too is the power of mahamudra. Seeing all sentient beings as one’s kind mothers one has the urge to obtain Buddhahood. That too is the power of mahamudra. For instance, when the sun rises, by the rising of the first light blue dawn, the whitish dawn, and then the reddish dawn, it becomes ever so slightly more radiant, and then gradually, up to daybreak, it becomes very bright. This is all due to the power of the sun.”

1. [] Shravaka and pratyekabuddhahood.

Note for English readers: I describe here the style of spiritual songs, where a special rhythm is produced through changes in the patern of heavy and light syllables. My German translation of Nuden Dorje’s text tries to follow his rhythmical pattern. Since I am not a native speaker of English, I have not tried to achieve the same effect in my English translation of the text. For the English translation of the guru-realization, please scroll to the bottom of the page.

Dieser kurze Text wurde von Drikung Nuden Dorje (1849‒1902) verfasst. Er ist auch bekannt als Lho Bongtül und Lho Jedrung und sticht heraus als jemand, der Überlieferungen aus allen Schulen erihelt und weitergab. In dieser kurzen “Guru-Verwirklichung” verwendet er eine Grundrhythmus, wie man ihn auch aus den spirituellen Liedern von Jigten Sumgön und anderen Meistern kennt. Normalerweise wechseln sich in sieben-silbrigen Versen die schweren und leichten Silben ab (schwer: ‿ leicht:__ ):

dag la dang bar je pé dra
‿   __   ‿    __   ‿  __  ‿

In spirituellen Gesängen findet man jedoch oft Doppelsilben, die den Rhythmus bestimmen, wie z.B. in Jigten Sumgön’s Lied an Rinchen Drag:

bu nyön dang sön dang rin chen grags//
‿    __     __       ‿      __    ‿     __     ‿

Genau diesen Rhythmus verwendet Nuden Dorje auch in diesem Text bis zum Mantra—danach wechselt er dann in den “normalen” Rhythmus. Heute, am 803ten Tag des Mahaparinirvana Jigten Sumgöns, habe in meiner Übersetzung versucht, diesen Grundrhythmus wiederzugeben:

Auf meinem Kopf ein Löwensitz
‿     __    __     ‿      __   ‿  __  ‿

Da man im Deutschen oft mehr Silben braucht, habe ich gelegentlich auch an anderer Stelle eine Doppelsilbe eingefügt, z.B. so:

gütiger Wurzellama mit dem
‿ __ __  ‿  __   ‿  __   __    ‿

So etwas finden wir gelegentlich auch bei Jigten Sumgön:

ka lo tä chig dug gam mi dug som
‿ __ __   ‿     __     __    ‿    __   ‿

Manchmal hat Jigten Sumgön sogar drei leichte Silben hintereinander:

dag nal jor pa ri trö kyi glön pa trim
‿    __  __   __  ‿ __   __    ‿    __   ‿

Hier nun Nuden Dorjes Text mit Übersetzung:


Sehr kurze Guru–Verwirklichung des Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön

བདག་ཐ་མལ་སྤྱི་གཙུག་སེང་གེ་དང་༎ གདན་པདྨ་ཟླ་བ་བརྩེགས་པའི་སྟེང་༎

Auf meinem Kopf ein Löwensitz || darauf auf Lotussitz und Mond ||

རྗེ་དྲིན་ཅན་རྩ་བའི་བླ་མ་དང་༎ སྐྱབས་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་འདུས་པའི་སྐུ༎

gütiger Wurzellama mit dem || Körper der alle Zuflucht und ||
Buddhas in sich vereinigt hat, || der allen Schutz in sich vereint; ||

མགོན་གཅིག་བསྡུས་མཉམ་མེད་སྐྱོབ་པ་རྗེ༎ སྐུ་དཀར་དམར་མདངས་ལྡན་སྐྱིལ་ཀྲུང་བཞུགས༎

Schützer, der unvergleichlich ist, || rot-weißer Körper in hellem Glanz, ||
Beine im Lotussitz gekreuzt, || Hände hälst du in der Geste der ||

ཕྱག་མཉམ་བཞག་ཆོས་གོས་རྣམ་གསུམ་གསོལ༎ དབུ་སྒོམ་ཞྭ་མཚན་དང་དཔེ་བྱད་ལྡན༎

Meditation im Schoß und trägst || dreifache Dharma-Roben und ||
Meditationshut und bist mit den || Merkmal’n verseh’n, ich meditiere ||

ཡིད་རྩེ་གཅིག་མོས་པས་བཞུགས་པར་བསྒོམ༎ ཕྱོགས་གཡས་གཡོན་རྩ་བརྒྱུད་བླ་མས་བསྐོར༎

hingebungsvoll, ohne Ablenkung. || Du bist umgeben von all den ||
Gurus der Linie, rechts und links. ||

བདག་མོས་གུས་གདུང་བས་གསོལ་འདེབས་ན༎ རྗེ་ཁྱེད་ཀྱི་ཐུགས་རྗེའི་སྤྱན་གྱིས་གཟིགས༎

Wenn ich nun mit Respekt und voll || Hingabe zu dir bete, dann ||
schau mit dem Auge des Mitgefühls! ||

གནས་རིགས་དྲུག་འཁོར་བའི་སྡུག་བསྔལ་འདི༎ ཡིད་རྩེ་གཅིག་གཡེང་མེད་དྲན་པར་ཤོག།

Denk an uns Wesen in den sechs || Daseinsbereichen voller Leid! ||
Schau konzentriert, ohne Ablenkung! ||

སེམས་བསྐྱེད་རྫོགས་ཟུང་འཇུག་གི་གདམས་པ་འདིས༎ སེམས་ཆོས་སྐུར་རྟོགས་པར་བྱིན་གྱིས་རློབས༎

Dies ist die Instruktion, wonach || in meinem Geist die Erzeugungsstufe ||
mit der Vollendung vereinigt ist. ||Möge mein Geist gesegnet sein ||
in der Vollendung des Dharmakāya! ||

མ་མཁའ་ཁྱབ་སེམས་ཅན་མ་ལུས་པ༎ རྗེ་སྐྱོབ་པའི་ཐུགས་དང་དབྱེར་མེད་ཤོག།

Mögen nun alle Wesen, die || früher einmal meine Mutter waren, ||
eins mit dem Geist dieses Schützers sein! ||


Oṃ Ratna Shrī Hūng.

མཐར་ནི་བླ་མ་འོད་དུ་ཞུ༎ རང་གིས་སེམས་དང་བླ་མའི་ཐུགས༎

Schließlich schmilzt der Guru und || löst sich auf in Licht und dann ||
wird der Geist des Gurus mit || meinem Geist vereinigt, wie ||

དབྱེར་མེད་ཆུ་ལ་ཆུ་བཞག་བཞིན༎ འཛིན་མེད་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོར་སྐྱོང་།

Wasser sich mit Wasser mischt. || Diesen Mahāmudrā-Geist ||
halte ich ohne ihn festzuhalten! ||


(Dieses wurde von Lho Jedrung [Nüden Dorje] verfasst.)
(Am 14.6.2020, dem 803ten Mahaparinirvana von Jigten Sumgön, von Jan-Ulrich Sobisch in Hamburg übersetzt.)


Very short guru realization of Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön
by Nüden Dorje

བདག་ཐ་མལ་སྤྱི་གཙུག་སེང་གེ་དང་༎ གདན་པདྨ་ཟླ་བ་བརྩེགས་པའི་སྟེང་༎

I am in my ordinary form. On my crown is a lion seat, lotus and moon, and upon that

རྗེ་དྲིན་ཅན་རྩ་བའི་བླ་མ་དང་༎ སྐྱབས་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་འདུས་པའི་སྐུ༎

the benevolent root lama with the body that is the union of all refuge and buddhas.

མགོན་གཅིག་བསྡུས་མཉམ་མེད་སྐྱོབ་པ་རྗེ༎ སྐུ་དཀར་དམར་མདངས་ལྡན་སྐྱིལ་ཀྲུང་བཞུགས༎

He unites all protection. Protector! You are incomparable, your red and white body shines brightly, and your legs are crossed in the lotus position.

ཕྱག་མཉམ་བཞག་ཆོས་གོས་རྣམ་གསུམ་གསོལ༎ དབུ་སྒོམ་ཞྭ་མཚན་དང་དཔེ་བྱད་ལྡན༎

You hold your hands in the lap in the gesture of meditation, wearing triple Dharma robes and the meditation hat. You are endowed with the major and minor features.

ཡིད་རྩེ་གཅིག་མོས་པས་བཞུགས་པར་བསྒོམ༎ ཕྱོགས་གཡས་གཡོན་རྩ་བརྒྱུད་བླ་མས་བསྐོར༎

I meditate devotionally, without distraction. You are surrounded right and left by all the gurus of the lineage.

བདག་མོས་གུས་གདུང་བས་གསོལ་འདེབས་ན༎ རྗེ་ཁྱེད་ཀྱི་ཐུགས་རྗེའི་སྤྱན་གྱིས་གཟིགས༎

Now, when I pray to you with respect and devotion, please look with your eye of compassion.

གནས་རིགས་དྲུག་འཁོར་བའི་སྡུག་བསྔལ་འདི༎ ཡིད་རྩེ་གཅིག་གཡེང་མེད་དྲན་པར་ཤོག།

Think of us beings in the six realms of suffering one-pointedly, without distraction!

སེམས་བསྐྱེད་རྫོགས་ཟུང་འཇུག་གི་གདམས་པ་འདིས༎ སེམས་ཆོས་སྐུར་རྟོགས་པར་བྱིན་གྱིས་རློབས༎

This is the instruction that in my mind the generation stage is united with the completion. May thereby my mind be blessed in the realization of the Dharmakāya!

མ་མཁའ་ཁྱབ་སེམས་ཅན་མ་ལུས་པ༎ རྗེ་སྐྱོབ་པའི་ཐུགས་དང་དབྱེར་མེད་ཤོག།

May all beings who were once my mother now be one with the mind of this Protector!


Oṃ Ratna Shrī Hūng.

མཐར་ནི་བླ་མ་འོད་དུ་ཞུ༎ རང་གིས་སེམས་དང་བླ་མའི་ཐུགས༎

Finally, the Guru melts and dissolves into light. My mind is united with mind of the guru,

དབྱེར་མེད་ཆུ་ལ་ཆུ་བཞག་བཞིན༎ འཛིན་མེད་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོར་སྐྱོང་།

like water mixes with water. I maintain this Mahāmudrā mind without maintaining!


(This was written by Lho Jedrung [Nüden Dorje].)
Translated on June 14th, 2020, the 803rd Mahaparinirvana, by Jan-Ulrich Sobisch in Hamburg.

Samadhi empowerments that precede practices like that of Cakrasamvara are well-known. The name “samadhi empowerment” seems to suggest either that one’e ability to practice samadhi is empowered by this practice, or that these empowerments—instead of being bestowed by a teacher who is actually present—occur “only” within the space of one’s samadhi. Many benefits are mentioned in the texts, the most extraordinary one would be that in the best case the blessing from this samadhi is indistinguishable from an actual fourfold empowerment. Other benefits are that breaches of the pledges and corruptions of vows are healed and one’s virtuous practice increases. An important aspect of samadhi empowerment also seems to be that it enhances the perception of the guru as the Buddha.

In the “profound dharma” section of Jigten Sumgön’s teachings (zab chos), I found a brief text with instructions:♦ 1

Instructions on the samādhi empowerment

Again, the precious guru said: This samadhi empowerment is very profound! Take your yogic position on a comfortable seat, cultivate the resolve, and vividly visualize your body as the cherished deity. Imagine in that way that your principle guru dwells on a four-layered seat in the space in front of the area of the spot between the eyebrows of [the deity you] visualize. The form of his body is that of the exalted great Vajradhara. He and Vajrayogini are inseparable and enter into the union.♦ 2 They are endowed with the ornaments and garb such as the six bone ornaments. In brief, visualize vividly the guru as the body of Heruka. Then, offer once the seven limbs such as the outer, inner, secret, and true reality offerings.

After that, you supplicate three times: “Guru Mahavajradhara, grant me the empowerment!” White rays of light come forth and dissolve into the spot between your eyebrows. Imagine that thereby all veils of the body are cleared. You have received the vase empowerment. You are the essence of the body of all buddhas. Your body has the leisure of a deity. Overjoyed, think: “I have realized that.”♦ 3 Again, the guru and the consort enter into the union. From the spot between their eyebrows, bright and redish-white rays of light come forth and dissolve into your throat. Thereby the veils of speech are cleared and you have received the secret empowerment. You are the essence of the speech of all buddhas and your speech has the nature of mantra—audible and empty. Overjoyed, think: “I have realized that.”

Blue rays of light come forth from the hearts of the guru and his consort. They dissolve into your heart. Thereby the veils of the mind are cleared and you have revceived the empowerment of discriminating knowledge and primordial wisdom. You are the nature of the mind of all buddhas, the nature of mind, unarisen from the beginning, free from arising, abiding, and ceasing. Overjoyed, think: “I have realized that.”

Then, the guru Heruka with the consort turn into many-colored rays of light that dissolve into your body through the crown of your head. Thereby the impurity of holding body, speech, and mind as something different is purified. You have received the precious forth empowerment of the word. You are the essence of the primordial wisdom of the nonduality of the body, speech, and mind of all the buddhas of the three times—spontaneous sameness. Overjoyed, think: “I have realized that.”

Then, remain within that state equanimously in mahamudra. Afterwards, within that, you have to dedicate the root of virtue.

Practicing like that this samadhi empowerment as much as you can, up to 108 times a day, if the samadhi is luminous, the attainment of the [actual] four empowerments and the blessing [of this samadhi empowerment] are indistinguishable. Breaches of the pledges are automatically cleared, all corruptions are repaired, one is well, and the virtuous practice increases. Therefore, please keep this in mind and practice it!
<<end of translation – the Tibetan text is documented below the notes>>

These instructions are in the tradition of Ga Lotsawa, who is also in the transmission lineage of the Cakrasamvara empowerment that Jigten Sumgön transmitted. Ga’s method is preserved in the works of Gyalwa Yanggönpa (1213‒1258).♦ 4 Here the guru is in the form of Sahaja Cakrasamvara with Vajravarahi. The visualization of the seat and the guru is much more detailed. They are surrounded by numerous tantric deities of the father and mother tantras and of the Nyingma tantras. The offerings are also much more detailed. Before the actual empowerment, one sends out rays of light that fall upon the numerous mandalas visualized in the space. The white drop of bliss of all the male deities of these mandalas melts and dissolves into the guru as Cakrasamvara. The rays of light also fall upon the consorts of these mandalas and their red drops of bliss melt and dissolve into the guru and his consort. The essence of all mandalas is now present as this Cakrasamvara with consort.

There are not only one, but two rounds of empowerments. With the first round, one is purified through the light rays coming from the guru and the consort. With the second round, one’s body is gradually filled with nectar via the spot between the eyebrows, etc. Through that nectar one receives the actual empowerment. Finally, the guru and consort melt and dissolve into oneself and one is inseparable from the body, speech, and mind of the guru.

Through this empowerment, the text says, all transgressions and loss of pledges are healed and all veils, obstructions, and unfortunate conditions are removed. A good samadhi will arise. Even if one dwells at the dangerous places of non-humans, one cannot be harmed. All the qualities of mantra arise and increase. This practice is praised a lot in the Buddhakapala Tantra. The glorious Ga Lotsawa practiced it every night. The precios Nyö (gNyos rGyal ba lha nang pa, 1164‒1224) never broke his habbit of practicing it seven times a day. Lama Zhang (Zhang g.yu brag pa, 1123‒1193) practiced it three times at night. The disciple of Yanggönpa, who recorded this teaching, says: “I practice it every time I go to sleep and every morning. Since this is extremely important, please practice it without interruption!”

The samadhi empowerment that one finds in the works of Phagmodrupa♦ 5 is connected to the tradition of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. His teacher—here probably Sachen Künga Nyingpo—told him that it is important for great meditators (sgom chen) to have the samadhi empowerment. He tells the story of the famous translator Gö Lotsawa (‘Gos Khug-pa Lhas-btsas, 11th c.), who went to India to become a translator. He had 108 teachers, and two of them were his root gurus.  One was known for his supernatural perception and the other was very venerable. Under them, Gö Lotsawa became very learned, in particular in the Guhyasamaja Tantra. Once, he thought that there is no one as learned in the Guhyasamaja as he was. A yogi apeared, who said: “You still don’t know the meaning of the Guhyasamaja.” Gö asked him, where he could learn more. The Yogi told him to go to Nagseb and study with a very venerable teacher there. Gö went there and found in a grass hut a woman who had the color of a dove with a very beautiful body and countenance. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am the venerable lady.” He offered her a mandala with some gold and requested Guhyasamaja instructions from her. However, she said that he had a problem with previous pledges and that he, therefore, did not understand the Guhyasamaja. She said: “If you practice this samadhi empowerment, you will primordially understand the Guhyasamaja.” She gave him a brief samadhi empowerment.

The visualization is very similar to that of Jigten Sumgön’s instructions. The text mentions that Gö Lotsawa practiced the samadhi empowerment for a month. He thereby mastered the meaning of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. But the text states also that “it is very important that the nature of the guru is unchangeable [in your mind]. You will not find a guru superior to him.”

At the end, it is mentioned that Gö “bestowed it on lama Sakyapa and he bestowed it on me.” The Sakyapa lama mentioned here should be Khön Könchog Gyalpo (1034-1102), the founding father of the Sakya tradition, who was known to have been a disciple of Gö Lotsawa. But it is impossible that Khön bestowed it directly on Phagmodrupa, as the latter was only just born when Khön died. As mentioned above, it is more likely that he received it from Khön’s son, Sachen Künga Nyingpo, with whom Phagmodrupa had studied intensively before he met Gampopa.

I think that it is noteworthy in all of these texts that they deal with the way of seing the guru. In Ga Lotsawa’s text, the guru receives the white and red drops of bliss of the deities of all mandalas, and he is then understood to be the essence of entirely all mandalas. In Gö’s text, it is very important to think “that the nature of the guru is unchangeable. You will not find a guru superior to him.” His female guru, who told him to practice the samadhi empowerment, had also told him that his problem with understanding the Guhyasamaja teachings was a breach of the pledges. Could it be that this breach had been that he did not see his guru as the Buddha?

In an instruction for those of highest capacity concerning the practices of luminosity and the transference of the consciousness,♦ 6 Jigten Sumgön talks about the practice of the samadhi empowerment when he says:

“Put your mind one-pointedly and without distraction on the guru being the Buddha. As long as that has not become clear, practice with much effort! When it has become clear, the dependent origination of the guru’s blessing and one’s devotion come together and thereby it is impossible that it is not clear. The mahamudra with which one has familiarized earlier becomes sevenfold and arises automatically. Like water ist poured into water and butter into butter, one proceeds in a state of mahamudra, and the primordial wisdom that is nondual with the guru’s mind and one’s own consciousness mix inseparably in mahamudra.”

1. []Khams gsum chos kyi rgyal po thub dbang ratna shrI’i nang gi zab chos no bu’i phreng ba, Dehra Dun: International Drikung Kagyu Council, 1217, vol. 6, no. 763.

2. []This is most probably intentionally ambiguous. The Tibeta term snyoms par ʼjug means both to enter into a mental equilibrium, which is a “union,” and to join in sexual union.

3. []This reminds us of an important aspect of meditative visualization, namely that one should not only visualize the forms and activities of the deities, but also be convinced that a result is produced thereby.

4. []’Bri gung chos mdzod chen mo, TBRC W00JW501203, vol. 48, pp. 321‒327.

5. []gSung ‘bum, TBRC W23891, vol. 7, pp. 676‒682.

6. []’Bri gung chos mdzod chen mo, vol. 10, no. 814.

Tibetan text of Jigten Sumgön’s instructions on the samadhi empowerment

༄།།ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་གྱི་དབང་བསྐུར་གྱི་གདམས་པ༎ ཡང་བླ་མ་རིན་པོ་

ཆེའི་ཞལ་ནས། ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་གྱི་དབང་བསྐུར་འདི་ཤིན་ཏུ་ཟབ་པ་ཡིན།

དེ་ཡང་སྟན་བདེ་བའི་སྟེང་དུ་འཁྲུལ་འཁོར་ལེགས་པར་བཅའ། སེམས་

བསྐྱེད་ལུས་ཡི་དམ་གྱི་ལྷར་ཝལ་གྱིས་བསྒོམ། དེ་ལྟར་སྒོམ་པའི་སྨིན་མཚམས་

ཀྱི་ཐད་སོའི་མདུན་གྱི་ནམ་མཁའ་ལ་གདན་བཞི་བརྩེགས་ཀྱི་སྟེང་དུ། རང་

གི་རྩ་བའི་བླ་མ་བཞུགས་པར་བསམ། སྐུའི་རྣམ་པ་ནི་བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་རྡོ་

རྗེ་འཆང་ཆེན་པོ། ཡུམ་རྡོ་རྗེ་རྣལ་འབྱོར་མ་དང་གཉིས་སུ་མེད་ཅིང་སྙོམས་

པར་ཞུགས་པ། རུས་པའི་རྒྱན་དྲུག་ལ་སོགས་པའི་རྒྱན་ཆ་ལུགས་དང་ལྡན་པ།

མདོར་ན་བླ་མ་ཧེ་རུ་ཀའི་སྐུར་ཝལ་གྱིས་བསྒོམ། དེ་ནས་ཕྱི་ནང་གསང་གསུམ་


དེའི་རྗེས་ལ་བླ་མ་རྡོ་རྗེ་འཛིན་པ་ཆེན་པོས། བདག་ལ་དབང་བསྐུར་བར་མཛད་

དུ་གསོལ། ཞེས་གསོལ་བ་ལན་གསུམ་གདབ། དེ་ནས་བླ་མ་ཡབ་ཡུམ་གྱི་སྨིན་

མཚམས་ནས། འོད་ཟེར་དཀར་པོ་བྱོན་ནས་རང་ཉིད་ཀྱི་སྨིན་མཚམས་སུ་ཐིམ་

པས་ལུས་ཀྱི་སྒྲིབ་པ་ཐམས་ཅད་སངས་ཀྱིས་དག་པར་བསམ། བུམ་པའི་དབང་

ཐོབ། བདག་ཉིད་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་སྐུའི་ངོ་བོ། ལུས་ལྷའི་དལ་ཡིན་པ་

ལ། དེ་ལྟར་རྟོགས་པ་རེ་དགའ་སྙམ་དུ་བསམ། ཡང་བླ་མ་ཡབ་ཡུམ་སྙོམས་པར་

ཞུགས། སྦྱོར་མཚམས་ནས་འོད་ཟེར་དཀར་ལ་དམར་བའི་མདངས་ཆགས་པའི་

རྣམ་པར་བྱོན་ནས་རང་ཉིད་ཀྱི་མགྲིན་པར་ཐིམ་པས། ངག་གི་སྒྲིབ་པ་དག་

གསང་བའི་དབང་ཐོབ། བདག་ཉིད་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་གསུང་གི་ངོ་བོ་

ངག་གྲགས་སྟོང་སྔགས་ཀྱི་རང་བཞིན་ཡིན་པ་ལ། དེ་ལྟར་རྟོགས་པ་དེ་རེ་

དགའ་སྙམ་དུ་བསམ། བླ་མ་ཡབ་ཡུམ་གྱི་ཐུགས་ཀ་ནས་འོད་ཟེར་སྔོན་པོ་བྱོན་

ནས་རང་ཉིད་ཀྱི་སྙིང་གར་ཐིམ་པས། ཡིད་ཀྱི་སྒྲིབ་པ་དག་ཤེས་རབ་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་

དབང་ཐོབ། བདག་ཉིད་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་ཐུགས་ཀྱི་རང་བཞིན་སེམས་

ཉིད་གདོད་མ་ནས་མ་སྐྱེས་པ། སྐྱེ་འགག་གནས་གསུམ་དང་བྲལ་བ་ཡིན་པ་ལ།

དེ་ལྟར་རྟོགས་པ་རེ་དགའ་སྙམ་དུ་བསམ། དེ་ནས་བླ་མ་ཧེ་རུ་ཀ་ཡབ་ཡུམ་འོད་

ཟེར་ཁ་དོག་སྣ་ཚོགས་སུ་གྱུར་ནས། རང་ཉིད་ཀྱི་སྤྱི་བོ་ནས་ལུས་ལ་ཐིམ་པས། ལུས་


ཐོབ། བདག་ཉིད་དུས་གསུམ་གྱི་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་སྐུ་གསུང་ཐུགས་གཉིས་

སུ་མེད་པའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་ངོ་བོ་མཉམ་པ་ཉིད་ལྷུན་གྱིས་གྲུབ་པ་ཡིན་པ་ལ། དེ་ལྟར་

རྟོགས་པ་རེ་དགའ་སྙམ་དུ་བསམ། དེ་ནས་དེ་ཉིད་ཀྱི་ངང་དུ་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་ལྷན་

གྱིས་མཉམ་པར་བཞག་རྗེས་དེར་དགེ་བའི་རྩ་བ་བསྔོ་བ་བྱ། དེ་ལྟར་ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་


བླངས་ན། ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་གསལ་ན་དབང་བཞི་ཐོབ་པ་དང་བྱིན་རླབས་ཁྱད་མེད།

དམ་ཚིག་གི་འགལ་འཁྲུལ་ཆགས་ཉམས་ཐམས་ཅད་སོར་ཆུད་ནས། ཁམས་བཟང་

ཞིང་དགེ་སྦྱོར་འཕེལ་བ་ལགས་པས། དེ་ལྟར་ཐུགས་ལ་བཞག་ནས་ཉམས་སུ་ལེན་

པར་ཞུ་གསུངས༎ ༎


Finally! After 15 years of work, the book is now available at Wisdom Publications (https://wisdomexperience.org/product/buddhas-single-intention/). 841 pages packed with the wisdom of Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön, his fathers, and his sons.

Here is the forword of His Holiness Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoche:

It gives me great pleasure to be able to offer a few words on the occasion of the publication of Professor Jan-Ulrich Sobisch’s The Buddha’s Single Intention: Drigung Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön’s Vajra Statements of the Early Kagyü Tradition. I have been aware of Professor Sobisch’s ongoing study of Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön’s Single Intention, or Gongchik (dgongs gcig), for at least the last decade or so—first with the late Ngawang Tsering and later with several learned teachers of our Drigung Kagyü lineage. It is gratifying to now have in hand the fruit of Professor Sobisch’s hard work. In particular, with the help of Khenpo Könchok Rangdröl, former principal of Kagyu College in Dehradun, India, Professor Sobisch has produced a meticulous and complete translation of Rikzin Chökyi Drakpa’s influential Gongchik commentary known as Light of the Sun. Furthermore, this volume also includes Professor Sobisch’s careful selection of relevant passages from the two earliest surviving Gongchik commentaries—the Dorsherma and Rinjangma, both composed within fifty to sixty years of Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön’s mahāparinirvāṇa in 1217.

As the book’s title suggests, it is a window into the early, formative period of the Kagyü tradition. The root text of the Gongchik with 150 vajra statements organized into seven chapters (plus an eighth, ancillary chapter with 47 vajra statements) represents the distillation of Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön’s unique presentation of the Buddhadharma as he received from his root guru Phakmodrupa, who in turn was one of the key disciples of Gampopa, fountainhead of the Dakpo Kagyü. In particular, these vajra statements reflect Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön’s understanding that all 84,000 aspects of the Buddhadharma—the teachings classified into the so-called Lesser, Great, and Vajra Vehicles; the categories of prātimokṣa precepts, bodhisattva trainings, and tantric samayas; the division of sūtras and tantras into those of definitive meaning and those requiring further explanation—have a single, unified, holistic intention of revealing the fundamental nature (gshis babs) of all phenomena to us deluded sentient beings so that we can be freed from suffering and attain the perfect buddha state. Importantly, this fundamental nature—whether we call it sugatagarbha, emptiness, dependent origination, nature of mind, or rikpa—can best be understood in the way that virtue and nonvirtue lead to happiness and suffering, respectively and unmistakenly, and ultimately to the resultant states of nirvāṇa and saṃsāra. With this understanding, the entire path taught by the Buddha is none other than the exhaustion of all nonvirtue and the perfection of all virtue. This emphasis on the inseparability of the fundamental nature and the incontrovertible workings of cause and effect is the cornerstone of Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön’s Gongchik teachings.

The early Kagyü masters are well known for their absolute commitment to practice and to the spiritual welfare of their students. While learning and studying the Buddhadharma is necessary, early Kagyü masters such as Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, Phakmodrupa, and Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön did not engage in disputing and debating philosophical positions or composing treatises establishing tenet systems. Their energies went instead into their personal meditation practice and into guiding devoted students through personal, intimate, and direct instructions. Therefore it is my hope that with Wisdom Publications’ publishing of Professor Jan-Ulrich Sobisch’s masterful presentation of Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön’s Gongchik, readers will now not only be exposed to a major system of thought and practice in Tibetan Buddhism, but more importantly, they will take to heart these vajra statements and the related commentaries for the task of exhausting all nonvirtue and perfecting all virtue, thus leading to the perfect buddha state.

Finally, as one blessed with the name Drikung Kyabgön, I offer my personal appreciation to Professor Sobisch and to all the Drigung Kagyü teachers who have assisted in this project. This book is an important contribution to a greater understanding of the legacy of Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön and his sublime successors. May this book inspire further interest and engagement with the jewels held by the glorious Drigung Kagyü!


H.H. Drikung Kyabgön Tinle Lhundup, Head of the Drigung Kagyü Lineage

by Kyobpa Jigten Sumgon

I pay homage to the excellent gurus!

This mahāmudrā of the great master Saraha has four topics:

  1. Relax body and mind.
  2. Do not engage mental objects.
  3. Do not set up any support whatsoever.
  4. Release the mind in its natural state.

About the first, i.e., to relax body and mind, the great Ācārya Brahmin said: “There is no doubt that this mind that is bound with a knot will be freed when it is relaxed.” Therefore, you must relax body and mind.

About the second, i.e., not to engage in mental objects, [he said]: “Non-mentation is the body of the great seal (mahāmudrākāya). Yogi, have no hope for any results!” Therefore, rest without maintaining in your mind any notion of good or bad thoughts whatsoever.

Concerning the third, i.e., not setting up any support whatsoever: Rest without making channels, winds, vital essences, and whatever else your support.

Concerning the fourth, i.e., resting the mind in its natural state: Just rest in the natural state, without any activities and exertions whatsoever.

That concludes the great ācārya, the brahmin Saraha’s “Mahāmudrā Thunderbolt.”

Collected Works of Kyobpa Jigten Sumgon, vol. 2, p. 426 f.


བླ་མ་དམ་པ་རྣམས་ལ་ཕྱག་འཚལ་ལོ།། སློབ་དཔོན་ཆེན་པོ་ས་ར་ཧའི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་འདི་ལ་དོན་བཞི་སྟེ། དང་པོར་ལུས་སེམས་ཁོང་གློད།་གཉིས་པ་ཡིད་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་དུ་མི་བྱ། གསུམ་པ་རྟེན་གང་ཡང་མི་བཅའ།་བཞི་པ་སེམས་རང་སོར་གློད། དེ་ལ་དང་པོ་ལུས་སེམས་ཁོང་གློད་པ་ནི། སློབ་དཔོན་བྲམ་ཟེ་ཆེན་པོའི་ཞལ་སྔ་ནས།། འཇུར་བུས་བཅིངས་པའི་སེམས་འདི་ནི།། གློད་ན་གྲོལ་བར་ཐེ་ཚོམ་མེད།། ཅེས་པས། ལུས་སེམས་ཁོང་གློད་པར་བྱའོ།། གཉིས་པ་ཡིད་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་དུ་མི་བྱ་བ་ཡང་།། ཡིད་ལ་མི་བྱེད་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོའི་སྐུ།། འབྲས་བུ་གང་ལ་ཡང་རེ་བར་མ་བྱེད་རྣལ་འབྱོར་པ།། ཞེས་པས།་བཟང་ངན་གྱི་རྣམ་པར་རྟོག་པ་གང་ཡང་ཡིད་ལ་མི་བྱ་བར་བཞག་པའོ།། གསུམ་པ་རྟེན་གང་ལ་ཡང་མི་བཅའ་བ་ནི། རྩ་དང་རླུང་དང་ཐིག་ལེ་ལ་སོགས་པ་གང་ལ་ཡང་རྟེན་མི་བཅའ་བར་བཞག་པའོ།། བཞི་པ་རང་སོར་བཞག་པ་ནི། བྱ་བྱེད་དང་རྩོལ་སྒྲུབ་ཐམས་ཅད་དང་བྲལ་བར་རང་སོ་ཁོ་ནར་བཞག་པ་ཉིད་དོ།། སློབ་དཔོན་ཆེན་པོ་བྲམ་ཟེ་ས་ར་ཧའི་ཕྱག་རྒྱ་ཆེན་པོ་ཐོག་བབས་རྫོགས་སོ༎ ༎

Until the Dalai Lama received the Nobel Price in 1989, Buddhism had been largely portrayed as a peaceful religion. But since the 1990s, several articles and books have appeared that critically investigated this image. By now, western scholars and the public have a much more balanced view of the history of Buddhism and the violence that was a part of it. Unfortunately, not all contributions to this new critical assessment have applied the necessary care and fairness. In this posting, I would like to investigate two recent and influential contributions to the study of violence in tantric Buddhism. Both portray particular kinds of Buddhist tantric practices as involving “real” violence; both conclude that people are really getting killed here. While I do not want to argue that such a thing—killing of people in the context of mantra—did not happen in the history of Buddhism, I do want to point out that the sources that were used for these studies not only do not allow that conclusion but are actually prime examples for texts that leave no doubt that the ritual activities are only imagined (: text) and that this kind of imagining has a particular training purpose (: context).

How could such a misjudgment have come about on the part of the authors? I will show that this is mainly due to mistranslations of the texts and to a lack of cultural context.

Interestingly, Jacob Dalton’s recent book, The Taming of the Demons (2011),♦ 1 provides – despite its many attempts to prove that the texts he investigates speak of real actual violence – the best arguments for the contrary.♦ 2 In his introduction, Dalton first concedes that “[c]onclusive proof of early tantric ritual killings may never be found; indeed, it is unclear what such evidence would even look like” (p. 3). But then he speaks throughout his book of “ritual killing of actual people” (p. 3), “a Buddhist rite for human sacrifice” (p. 4), “the [bestowed] right to enact violence” (p. 14), and that “several details suggest that a live person may be intended” [to be killed] (p. 77).

Dalton knows that later Tibetans were adamant about killing “not being performed on a live person, and their ritual manuals bear this out” (p. 4). His thesis is that the old 9th century (or earlier) Tibetan texts found in the famous library cave of Dunhuang do not “bear this out,” but rather are explicit in stating instructions for actual killing of living persons.

His chief evidence for the alleged existence of actual violence in these early rites is contained in two texts from Dunhuang. One of them (PT 840/1), which he presents in Appendix C of his book, he translates thus (p. 212, my square brackets):

“When citta [the consciousness] is led forth by the mudrā, imagine that it is grabbed with ʻja’ʼ (bzung bar bsam),” … “imagine he [sic!] is led (’dren par bsam),” and “imagine that he [sic! ] is sent (bton par bsam),” [i.e., to nirvana].♦ 3

This passage of the text extends over five and a half lines in his translation. The object that is “led,” “grabbed,” and “sent” remains the same: the consciousness (citta) of the enemy. Consciousness has the neutral gender, and thus “it” is grabbed—surely “grabbed” in a metaphorical sense. But then, suddenly, in that same passage, Dalton switches to the male gender when he translates “he is led” and “he is sent” to nirvana. What justifies this switching from consciousness to a real person—for which there is no indication in the Tibetan text? Was the wish to prove that this is an instance of killing of a real person the father of this not so subtle slip? Moreover, even if one could label this as violence, one could not state more clearly that it is entirely imagined violence (note the Tibetan verb bsam in all quotes).

The second example (PT42/ITJ419) is presented as his supposedly strongest evidence of the entire book for the possibility that a real and human victim is actually to be sacrificed. It begins with the following line (in my translation):

Imagine that a demonic iron ax that one holds aloft performs the activities of the Lady of Death.

Dalton translates “holding aloft the demonic iron axe, imagine that one performs the activities of the Lady of Death.” The Tibetan text says sta re thogs pa gcig, lit. “an ax held aloft.” The gcig in this syntactic position must refer to the ax; it cannot mean “one.” Thus, it is not oneself, the performer of the ritual that one imagines to carry out the destructive activities; it is the ritual ax. Therefore, the violence is thrice removed: (1) It is imagined, (2) it is carried out by the ax, (3) and that ax is not a real ax, but a ritual simulacrum. In exactly this manner the text continues (my translation):

Then♦ 4 imagine a dark blue syllable KRONG atop the head [of the being that is liberated]. … From the DRONG (!) atop the head, many razor-[like] weapons cleave and chop, the consciousness emerges, and it is offered to the principal [deity]. (…) Having made all these visualizations (bsam ba’i rnams) clear in his mind, the master must revive the consciousness and hold it. He throws it on top of the mandala and then has to examine the signs.♦ 5

In previous passages, the enemy to be liberated, termed throughout the text “the object of compassion,” is placed in the middle of the mandala, facing west, and smeared with white mustard seed paste. Is this a real person, a real body of a living being? Even if that should be the case—for which there is no evidence—it is clear that everything else is imagined: A syllable is imagined atop the head, from that appear visualized weapons, and it is imagined that the consciousness appears and is offered to the visualized deity. The text makes this as explicit as one could wish: “Having made all these visualizations (bsam ba’i rnams) clear in his mind”—thus, the ritual master is visualizing the activity. Other than the visualized weapons there are no real weapons mentioned in the text through which a head could be chopped off. Also, what else but a visualization would be the emerging consciousness? Tibetans do not have a concept according to which any part that could be chopped out of the head would be seen as the consciousness.

Now the master “must revive (sos) the [visualized] consciousness and hold it. He throws it on top of the mandala and then has to examine the signs.” As Dalton himself has noted a few pages before (p. 79), in the Guhyasamāja Tantra, i.e., the canonical work from which this ritual manual derived, the thing that is beheaded is, in fact, a paper effigy. Moreover, in a footnote (p. 239, n. 40) he states: “The interlinear notes to the same lines in the tantra make the use of a paper effigy still more explicit (ITJ438, 53v5: ri mor bris pa de’i mgo gcad par byas pa).” The interlinear note says: “The head drawn in the picture is chopped off.” Isn’t thus the most probable scenario that the “object of compassion” is represented in the described ritual by a picture drawn on a piece of paper or by any other effigy, such as one made of dough? The signs that are to be examined after the effigy is thrown onto the mandala are in accordance with that: The effigy faces into one particular direction, it lands “face down,” or it may “split at the crown” (which indicates an effigy made of dough).♦ 6

Despite all this evidence and virtually no evidence to the contrary, Dalton insists in his translation that what is thrown onto the maṇḍala is a real head. Moreover, he describes the above ritual procedure with these words:

Certainly the most violent text to emerge from the library cave ofDunhuang is a ritual manual for the performance of the notorious “liberation rite” (sgrol ba). Many early Mahayoga writings from Dunhuang and elsewhere mention the liberation rite, but none is so explicit or detailed as this manual. … The instructions have the victim brought in and placed at the center of the ritual altar so that he faces west; the weapon is blessed and the victim purified, before being beheaded with an axe. Finally, the position in which the head comes to rest is interpreted to determine the rite’s success. The description is unusual, as it supplies so much detail yet makes no mention of an effigy.

To repeat: The iron ax is a ritual instrument that is clearly not used to chop off any heads (“imagine[!] that a demonic iron ax that one holds aloft performs the activities”); the “weapons” that arise from the syllable are visualized, and whatever activity they perform can therefore only be imagined; according to the text, it is not the head that is thrown onto the mandala, but the consciousness; and although the ritual text itself does not mention an effigy, the tantra from which it is derived and its interlinear notes do. Dalton’s above description of the ritual is forced. If this is his “most violent” and most explicit example, his thesis that the old 9th century (or earlier) Tibetan texts from Dunhuang are explicit in stating instructions for actual killing of living persons is failed.

My second example is an article by David Gray (esp. pp. 248 ff.).♦ 7 In it, he refers to an interesting passage in Atishaʼs Abhisamayavibhanga.♦ 8 Atisha discusses here destructive means in a ritual text. Gray concludes from his translation of the passage that Atisha “justifies” and “legitimate[s] such [violent] actions.” Moreover, Gray states: “This justifies violence by those who have controlled their minds, and are thus not motivated by the passions, but rather by the cool calculus of compassion (…).” Apart from his rather eccentric formulation “cool calculus of compassion,” which is obviously a contradiction in terms, and other strange expressions (“Atisha finds solace”), Gray has, in fact, not done justice to the subtlety of Atishaʼs argument. For my discussion I would like to begin the passage Gray investigates two lines earlier because these lines provide the context for Atishaʼs reply (all translations are mine):♦ 9

Query: Are, conventionally speaking, the one who is going to be harmed and the harm doer inexistent? Reply: That would be to disavow cause and result!

The interlocutor asks if the person who is going to be harmed, namely oneself (attacked by the demon or enemy) and the harm doer (namely the demon or enemy who will have to be repelled) are, conventionally speaking, inexistent. (Alternatively the one who performs the rite could be the harm doer and the demon or enemy the one to be harmed. This does not make a difference in the logic of the argument.) Atisha denies their inexistence because that would mean to disregard the teaching of cause and result on the level of conventional reality. In other words, conventionally speaking, both oneself and the enemy/demon do exist. The next query follows:

Query: Is there not a contradiction concerning a repelling by way of [seeing the enemy] as something separate?

This question concerns the teaching that all appearances are only the mind. If that is the case, is the enemy not also nothing but oneʼs mind? Is it, therefore, not a mistake to see him as a separate entity? Now follows the part that Gray has presented in his article, again in my own translation:

ཀུན་རྫོབ་ཏུ་རྒྱུ་འབྲས་མེད་པ་མ་ཡིན་གྱི། འོན་ཀྱང་ཞེ་སྡང་གིས་བསླང་བའི་སྦྱོར་བས་བཟློག་པར་བྱ་བ་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ། ཀུན་རྫོབ་ཉིད་དུ་ཡང་བྱམས་པ་ལ་སོགས་པའི་གོ་ཆ་དང་དོན་དམ་པར་སྐྱེ་མེད་དུ་ཤེས་པས་སོ། ད་ཡང་ཅི་ཞེ་ན། ཀུན་རྫོབ་ཏུ་ཆོས་ཐམས་ཅད་སེམས་ཙམ་ལས་གཞན་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ། དེ་བས་ན་སེམས་ལོག་པར་གཡོ་བ་ཉིད་བདུད་དང་བགེགས་ཡིན་ནོ། དེ་ཡང་ངན་སོང་སྦྱོར་བའི་རྒྱུད་ལས། ཇི་སྲིད་ཡིད་ཀྱིས་ལོག་གཡོ་བ༎ དེ་སྲིད་བདུད་ཀྱིས་སྤྱོད་ཡུལ་ལོ༎ ཞེས་གསུངས་སོ༎ སེམས་གཉེན་པོ་ལས་འཁྱར་བ་ཉིད་བདུད་ལ་སོགས་པ་ཡིན་ནོ༎
Reply: Conventionally, cause and result do not fail [lit. “are not inexistent”]. However [even though the enemyʼs harm is experienced as a real threat] it is wrong to repel [harm doers] by the application of a vengeful motivation because conventionally [one wears] the armor of love, and so forth, and ultimately one understands [harm doers] to be without birth. How is that? Conventionally, all phenomena are nothing but merely mind, and, therefore, the very deviation from [the understanding that phenomena are only] the mind is the Mara and the demons [that one must repel]. As the Sarvadurgati Tantra says:♦ 10

“Just as much as one wavers off with the mind,
just that much is the sphere of Mara.”

The very straying from [the understanding that all phenomena are] the mind, which is the antidote, is Mara and so forth.

Gray concludes from this:

Atisha here invokes the Yogacara theory of the baselessness of imputations of independent existence to phenomenal reality in order to deny the external reality of the demons who are the targets of the sadhanaʼs ritual violence. (…) This argument seems a bit inconsistent; if the demons do not in fact exist as independent entities, what need is there to insist that their destruction should be performed with a compassionate motivation?

Gray says: Since appearances are only mind, the demon doesn’t exist, and, thus, to say that he is destroyed with compassion is inconsistent. However, the passage translated from Atishaʼs text so far only pertains to a first and conventional part of his argument. Here, however, Atisha does not at all “justify” or “legitimate” a violent killing of a victim. On this conventional level, he instructs to apply love as an antidote to hatred and, still conventionally, to understand that the phenomenon perceived as the enemy is nothing but oneʼs mind. He also briefly alludes to an absolute level that is without the arising of such conventional phenomena like enemies and demons, but this will be only discussed later. Here, on the conventional level, one applies antidotes: love and the understanding that all phenomena are one’s mind.

One of the most important requirements for understanding this kind of ritual is that this is a training. As in all Mahayana practices, love for all sentient beings is cultivated at the beginning. Then, based on that, when there is a disturbance, one applies first of all that loving-kindness, and secondly one trains one’s understanding that all phenomena are only mind. This is the typical and well-known Mahayana training as it is expressed, for instance, in the Thirty-seven Trainings of the Bodhisattvas:

(16) Even if someone whom we have taken care of like our own child,
is seeing us as an enemy, we only increase our love for him,
like a mother for her sick child.
That is the training of the bodhisattvas.

(20) When hatred, our enemy, is rampant,
we may defeat the outer enemies, but they still increase.
Thus, one’s mental continuum is to be tamed with the armies of love and compassion.
That is the training of the bodhisattvas.

(22) Whatever appears is our mind.
Its nature is primordially free from proliferation.
Knowing that, not to indulge in the characteristics of perceived objects
and perceiving mind is the training of the bodhisattvas.

Up to this point in Atisha’s text, there is no one killed or repelled, neither with anger nor with compassion. This is a training of the mind. And here now follows in the text the crucial line:

… the very deviation from [the understanding that phenomena are only] the mind is the Māra and the demons [that one must repel].

Who or what is the enemy? It is one’s own deviating from this training. Just as much as one deviates from that, Mara can operate. The ritual practice of repelling enemies is, up to this point, explained by Atisha as a training in love and the understanding that appearances, even if they are threatening, are only one’s mind. Within a ritual practice such as the one commented upon by Atisha, the training takes place within several “frames,” from the outside to the inside: renunciation (when one contemplates the four thoughts that turn the mind away from samsara), love, compassion, and the resolve for awakening, purity and emptiness (with the shunyata-mantras, etc.), and, when appearances are mentally deleted and once again arise from the syllables, the understanding that all appearances are only the mind.

It can hardly be stated in clearer terms than Atisha provides them here, that the enemy one has to remove is oneʼs inability to cultivate these “frames” in one’s meditative practice. Whatever happens within these frames is a training of the mind to realize the true nature. The very wavering from these frames is the Mara that one must (metaphorically) “kill.” Since there is no person here that one must kill—only one’s own shortcomings in the training—to call this a “justification for killing” is to misunderstand the whole character of this endeavor as Atisha describes it. The enemy that appears is obviously an instance of training, and, as I have understood from interviews, it can become a particularly powerful training when it is done under adverse conditions, i.e., when, conventionally speaking, one perceives a real threat.

Atisha also clearly states that it would be wrong on the level of conventional truth to attack a real enemy, because the enemy conventionally exists for a deluded mind, and to attack him would have karmic consequences for the attacker in agreement with the teaching of cause and result. Therefore, the antidote to hatred for an enemy perceived as real is “the armor of love.” Once the yogi or yogini has removed the gross obscuration of hatred, he or she should train in the manner described above to realize that the threat that is perceived is nothing but mind. Atisha nowhere says, as Gray claims, that the enemy must be killed with compassion. The “armor of love” is not to prevent the yogis from karmic consequences; its purpose is to train and tame the mind.

Atisha provides the above explanation on the level of conventional truth. What follows is his brief argument on the level of absolute truth, which has been briefly alluded to with the above line “and ultimately, one understands [harm doers] to be without birth.” The text continues:

དེའི་ཕྱིར་ངེས་བརྗོད་ལས། མི་གསོད་གསོད་པ་མེད་པ་ཡིན༎ གང་གིས་རང་སེམས་ཐུལ་བ་ཡིས༎ བདག་གི་སེམས་ནི་བཅིངས་པ་ཡིན༎ གང་ལ་གང་གིས་གསོད་པ་ཡོད༎ ཅེས་པ་དང།
(…) Thus the Abhidhānottara says:

“There is neither killing nor not-killing.
One who has tamed his mind
is binding his mind.
Who is killed by whom?”

Note that Atisha does not primarily argue that “harm doers have no birth” with a mere “intellectual” argument of emptiness, but that he embeds his teaching in the “practical” instruction of binding the mind by taming it. This refers to exactly the training and taming of the mind as it was explained above, i.e., by entering successively into renunciation, love, and so forth, up to the realization of “only the mind” within the ritual of liberation embedded in mahayogatantra sadhana practice. Within such a realization of “only mind,” one must indeed ask the question “who is killed by whom?”♦ 11 Atisha concludes the argument with a continuation of the quote and his conclusion:

ཡང་། བྱམས་པའི་གོ་ཆ་བགོས་པ་དང་༎ སྙིང་རྗེ་ཆོས་ཀྱི་གོ་ཆ་ཡིན༎ ཤེས་རབ་མཚན་ཆར་ལྡན་པ་ཡིས༎ ཉོན་མོངས་བདུད་རྣམས་བཟློག་པར་བྱ༎ བཀའ་ཡི་འཁོར་ལོ་སྲུང་བ་ཆེ༎ ཕུར་བུས་བགེགས་མེད་དངོས་གྲུབ་འགྱུར༎ སྲུང་བའི་ཆོ་ག་འདི་དག་གིས༎ སྒྲུབ་པ་པོ་ལ་བྱང་ཆུབ་སྩོལ༎ གཙོ་བོའི་བཀའ་ནི་བླང་བར་གྱིས༎ རྣལ་འབྱོར་པ་ནི་གར་གནས་པར༎ བགེགས་རྣམས་ཐམས་ཅད་མེད་པར་མཐོང་༎ ཞེས་གསུངས་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ༎ དེ་ལྟར་མ་ཡིན་པར་བཀའ་ལ་ལོག་པར་རྟོགས་ཏེ་ངན་པའི་ལས་དང་ལྡན་པ་ངོ་བོ་ཉིད་ཀྱིས་འོག་ཏུ་འགྲོ་བ་ལ་ཕྱོགས་པ་ཉོན་མོངས་པ་ལ་སོགས་པའི་ཞགས་པས་བཅིངས་པ་ཟོ་ཆུན་ལྟར་འཁོར་བ་རྣམས་དང་ཁྱད་པར་མེད་པས་ལམ་ལ་གནས་པའི་རྣལ་འབྱོར་པ་ཡང་མ་ཡིན་ནོ༎

He wears the armor of love
and the armor of the Dharma of compassion.
Being endowed with discriminative knowledge as a weapon,
he should repel the afflictions, which are the Mara.
This wheel of instruction is a great protection.
With the kila it turns into the siddhi of freedom from obstruction.
With these armors of protection
awakening is bestowed on the adept.
Hold this principal instruction!
Wherever he abides, the yogi
will perceive all obstructions as not existent.

To understand the instructions not like that and, thus, wrongly [means that] one is not a yogi abiding on the path since one possesses bad karma, moves towards the lower realms through oneʼs very nature, is bound by the noose of affliction, etc., and is not different from samsaric beings, roaming [in samsara] like a water wheel.

Gray, however, concludes from the above passage:

This justifies violence by those who have controlled their minds, and are thus not motivated by the passions, but rather by the cool calculus of compassion, which calls for violence as a defensive strategy, that is, as a way preventing evildoers from committing greater acts of violence. This denial of the reality of violence …

Such a complete misunderstanding of the intention of Atisha’s texts is only possible through several translation mistakes and a biased reading. If there ever existed a Tibetan text that justified violence, then it is certainly not this one.

1. [] Dalton, Jacob P. 2011. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

2. [] The qualities and problems of this book were reviewed by Matthew Kapstein, 2013, Review of The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism by Jacob P. Dalton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 73.1: 177–84; and Cathy Cantwell, 2014, Review article of The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism by Jacob P. Dalton. History of Religions 54.1: 106–12.

3. [] Lines 37–9 in the Tibetan text.

4. [] The first sentence quoted ends with the Tibetan particle las, and Dalton connects this to the Lady of Death: “from her” appears a syllable. However, that cannot be because such a function of the las particle is only possible when it is attached to a noun. In the text, it is attached to a verb, “imagine,” and in this case it simply continues the action.

5. [] Cf. Dalton 2011, 208.

6. [] It is difficult to explain that according to one sign the effigy “does not stop shaking.” But that is as difficult to explain for an effegy as for a real human head once it is chopped off.

7. [] Gray, David B. 2007. “Compassionate Violence? On the Ethical Implications of Tantric Buddhist Ritual.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 14: 239–71.

8. [] Abhisamayavibhanga by Atisha, 188r f. Mngon par rtogs pa rnam par ’byed pa, D vol. 22, 185v7–202v3.

9. [] These and the following quotes are taken from Atishaʼs Abhisamayavibhanga, 188r f.

10. [] One of the more obvious problems of Gray’s translation is that he did not recognised the Sarvadurgati Tantra quote and has translated the words of the title and the quote as if they were part of Atishaʼs speech.

11. [] But Gray translates: “Yet those whose minds are bound kill one another,” which is syntactically impossible. He also overlooks that this is a question.

Tilopa’s famous Gangama Mahamudra‒according to tradition taught by Tilopa to Naropa at the banks of the River Ganges and later transmitted to Marpa Lotsawa‒has been translated before, e.g., by Trungpa, Tiso and Torricelli, Brunnhölzl, and Khenpo Thampel.

Why now another translation? The answer is: because we have different texts.

More then a decade ago I started collecting manuscript editions of the Gangama, that is, text editions that were written by hand and transmitted outside of the “official” canon (i.e., the Tibetan Tangyur). I soon noticed that these paracanonical manuscripts contained a text that differed in many ways from the canonical version of the Peking, Derge, Narthang, and Cone Tangyur editions of the same text.

The greatest surprise for me was to discover the vast extent of structural intervention undertaken by the redactors of the canon. The paracanonical (manuscript) versions are structured as follows (numbers refer to the lines of the Tibetan text):

1‒4: advice to listen
5‒29: introduction to the nature of the mind through the examples of space, clouds, and the sun
30: view
31: conduct
32‒37: meditative practice
38‒47: pledges
48‒52: benefits of practicing this path
53‒55: defects of not practicing like that
56‒59: practice of relying on the guru and renunciation
60‒66: ascertaining the result of view, meditation, and conduct
67‒79: abandoning distractions in the solitude
79‒86: benefits of such practice
87‒100: practice of the individuals of highest capacity
101‒104: types of individuals
105‒113: practice of the individuals of lower capacities
114‒118: results and qualities

One of the key features of this structure is that the text directly introduces with 25 lines the nature of the mind. The key feature of the structure of the canonical version as found in the Tangyur, on the other hand, is that the text teaches first a gradual teaching of 28 lines before it offers an introduction to the nature of the mind. The redactors of the canon thus have changed the very nature of the text, turning this teaching of the Indian Siddha tradition into a mainstream “gradual path” type of teaching (lam rim).

Secondly, the paracanonical manuscript tradition presents the Gangama as a text with irregular numbers of syllables per line, generally nine or eleven, but occasionally also seven and thirteen. This allows for a natural expression as we find it in many instructional texts on mahamudra, such as the poetical and spontaneous songs of the mahasiddhas and also in many of Jigten Sumgön’s songs and instructions. The editors of the Tangyur, on the other hand, have changed this into a uniform pattern of nine syllable verses with mostly four lines, thereby streamlining it to fit the style of other versified teachings.

The text that I present here as the main text is taken from the Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara and the Oral Transmission of the Dakini, both edited and arranged by the great Drukpa Kagyü master Padma Karpo (1527‒1592). According to the tradition, these teachings were received by Tilopa directly from the Dakinis when he was staying in Uddiyana. Tilopa transmitted them to Naropa and the latter to his Tibetan disciple Marpa Lotsawa, who passed them on to Milarepa. At this point, there is some confusion that was recently cleared up in an article by Marta Sernesi (2011). According to her, people have confused this oral transmission (or, as she calls it, aural since that is closer to the meaning of the Tibetan word snyan, “ear”) with the Nine Instructions of the Formless Dakini. The story of Milarepa receiving only five of these instructions from Marpa and sending his disciple Rechungpa to India to bring back the remaining four has actually nothing to do with the transmission of the Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara (or the Oral Transmission of the Dakini, which are alternative terms) itself since the Nine Instructions are only supplemental teachings to the actual Oral Transmissions. Larsson (2012: 86) and Quintman (2014: 41) still repeat the mistake, and this shows once again how dangerous it is to take such legends at face value. In truth, in the writings of the Oral Transmission, it is clear that the transmission from Marpa to Mila has been complete.

Sernesi also points out that the Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara or the Dakini are (alternative) names for the teaching, and the Oral Transmission of Rechung and Oral Transmission of Ngendzong, who was the other cotton clad yogi to receive the transmission from Mila, are names for particular lineages in which the instructions were transmitted. There also appears to be a further lineage through Gampopa and Phagmodrupa (Larsson 2012: 88), the Oral Transmission of Dakpo, possibly with abridged or essential instructions (Sernesi 2011: 180, n. 2).

The Oral Transmission of Cakrasamvara contains teachings by Vajradhara, Vajrayogini and other Dakinis, Tilopa, Naropa and other Indian masters, as well as by Marpa, Milarepa, and later disciples. According to Padma Karpo’s introduction and catalog of the Oral Transmission of the Dakini (mKha’ ’gro snynan brgyud kyi dpe tho, Torricelli 2000: 361), the Gangama Mahamudra is the first text of the collection (as arranged by him), and it is its essential instruction.

Of the already existing translations of the Gangama, Trungpa Rinpoche’s and Tiso and Torricelli’s are made from the canonical version of the Tangyur. Brunnhölzl’s translation is based on a paracanonical transmission as it appears in the 5th Shamarpas’s commentary. Within the paracanonical transmission, I observed two groups with the Shamarpa’s and the rGya gzhung manuscripts on the one side and the Oral Transmissions on the other (this is described in the introduction to my edition). The Shamarpa’s commentary and Brunnhölzl’s translation show some particular features that I pointed out in the introduction to my translation of the Oral Tradition manuscripts. The commentary of H.H. Drikung Kyabgön Chetsang Rinpoche is based on my edition of ten paracanonical and four canonical editions. Khenpo Thampel’s translation of the root text, however, seems to be based on a canonical version.

My translation and the accompanying edition are not supposed to present a definitive edition or translation of the Gangama. I aim above all to document the hitherto neglected Oral Transmission and to make the many interesting variant readings of the different manuscript families visible.

You can download my translation and edition in the downloads section in the lower part of the right column of your screen: “Tilopa: Gangama Mahamudra (Translation)” and “Tilopa: Gangama Mahamudra (Edition of Tib. text).” Enjoy!


For bibliographical references to the other translations, see my translation of the Oral Tradition.

Larsson, Stefan (2012) Crazy for Wisdom: The Making of a Mad Yogin in Fifteenth-Century Tibet, Leiden: Brill.

Sernesi, Marta (2011) “The Aural Transmission of Samvara: An Introduction to Neglected Sources for the Study of Early Bka’ brgyud,” Mahamudra and the Bka’ brgyud Tradition, Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies.

Torricelli, Fabrizio (2000) “Padma dkar-po’s Arrangement of the ‘bDe-mchog snyan-brgyud,’ East and West, 50(1/4), 359-386.

Quintman, Andrew (2014) The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa, New York: Columbia University Press.

In one of the public teachings recorded by Sherab Jungné, Jigten Sumgön quoted the Buddha, saying:♦ 1

Do not cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump,
and, because desire cannot be satisfied, abandon sense pleasures!

These two lines summarize all the Buddha’s teachings about “the thing-to-be-abandoned,” namely aversion and attachment. Similar statements can be found in the Vinaya and many sūtras such as the Vinayakṣudrakavastu:♦ 2

If one should not have bad thoughts even about a burnt stump, there is no need to mention a body endowed with consciousness! Monks, train yourself like that!

The Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra too says:♦ 3

Monks, do not cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump! Why? All sentient beings fall into the hell of beings due to their cultivation of bad thoughts!

Moreover, the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna says:♦ 4

Those who crave will not be satisfied by desire
like fire not by firewood
and the ocean not by rivers.
Therefore, desire cannot be soothed.

We usually categorize such statements as the Buddha’s teaching on disciplined conduct (Skt. śīla). In the Single Intention teachings of Jigten Sumgön, however, an instruction like “do not cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump” also has other and, perhaps, unexpected dimensions.

In his teachings on the 37 Bodhisattva Trainings, Garchen Rinpoche, too, often reminds us in the context of training five, which teaches us to avoid bad friends, that it is one thing to stay away from people who destroy our love and compassion when our spiritual capacity is low, but quite another to see faults in the spiritual teacher when we want to practice the Dharma.♦ 5 Moreover, in the context of Mahāmudrā teachings, he often says that we must view all lamas as buddhas. “When you see a fault in the lama, that is only your own fault!”

This instruction goes back to a teaching in the Single Intention, where Jigten Sumgön’s commentator, Dorjé Sherab, says that oneʼs supreme, medium, or lower accumulation of merit determines the guruʼs good, medium, or inferior qualities. If one perceives a guru who is lacking characteristics, that is only due to oneʼs inferior roots of virtue. Thus, qualities cannot arise if the guru lacks qualities since that is a sign of oneʼs own lack of accumulations.

Due to the lack of accumulations, we do not perceive our world as a pure land and its beings, including ourself, as buddhas and bodhisattvas. Therefore, we have to gather merit, and this is not done by seeing faults, but by perceiving qualities, even in inferior spiritual friends. Dorjé Sherab quotes Jigten Sumgön:

We do not follow the opinion that a contamination arises through devotion to an inferior guru. We do not follow the opinion that harm arises from making offerings to such a guru. And we also do not follow the opinion that looking at the bad as something good is a wrong view.

In other words, by perceiving good qualities even in inferior spiritual friends, no harm arises. One may not develop the qualities in his presence, but that devotion, through which the pledges remain intact, will be the cause for meeting a perfect guru in whose presence the qualities arise without impediment. That is also Garchen Rinpoche’s instruction for disciples who want to practice Mahāmudrā.

There is also a further dimension with regard to the instruction not to cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump. It is also connected to the Mahāmudrā instructions found in the Single Intention (vajra statement 6.13): “That Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct (śīla) are one is an unsurpassed special teaching of Jigten Sumgön.” There are several reasons provided in the commentaries why Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct are one, but here I want to focus only on one, namely that in both teachings—Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct—one is advised not to cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump.

Generally, Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct are both practiced to obtain liberation. To obtain liberation, the grasping of the self must be abandoned. How is the self being grasped? It is constantly grasped through our conceptions of aversion and attachment. Therefore, both Mahāmudrā and disciplined conduct abandon the conceptions of aversion and attachment. Someone who cultivates bad thoughts even towards a burnt stump and who has the hopes that his actions of desire will satisfy his desire can neither be successful in the practice of Mahāmudrā nor of disciplined conduct.

Most importantly, however, when the Mahāmudrā trainee, having mastered calm abiding and superior insight, trains to realize all stirrings of the mind as dharmakāya, whatever thought arises is watched in its essence without following after it. “Without following after it” refers to any subsequent thought activity or any other activity of body and speech that engages in the manner of aversion or attachment because one hopes to destroy the object of aversion or satisfy one’s desire. To stay clear from that is “not to cultivate a bad thought even about a burnt stump” and to “abandon sense pleasures” on the level of Mahāmudrā.

*   *   *

I would like to add a few personal thoughts. To say like Dorjé Sherab that “oneʼs supreme, medium, or lower accumulation of merit determines the guruʼs good, medium, or inferior qualities” should not be misconstrued as a free ticket for teachers to abuse students. At this time, when some spiritual teachers have caused scandals in the West by sexually or otherwise abusing their students, we need to be very clear of what is possible and what not.

Both Jigten Sumgön and his guru Phagmodrupa have strongly repudiated the possibility of sexual relations between teacher and student. It has never been Jigten Sumgön’s intention to make the disciple responsible for sexual (or any other) assaults by the teacher in the sense that the disciple would have an impure view if he or she perceives the guru’s conduct as sexual abuse. There is no place for sex in the guru-disciple relation. Abuse should be made public and not be hidden under the blanket of “pure view.”

When Dorjé Sherab points out the correlation between seeing faults in others (including the teacher) and one’s own lack of qualities, this has in mind that we generally lack the ability to see qualities and focus instead on the faults of others. We tend to divide the world into good and bad, friend and foe, Buddhist and not Buddhist. In that way, we are focusing on other people’s faults instead of learning from their qualities. We are strengthening the notion of “I” and “others.” Moreover, we are robbing ourselves of the possibility to learn from others, no matter who they are. Jigten Sumgön says in the Single Intention (1.19): “We maintain that there exists much that is virtuous by its fundamental nature to be practiced in the systems of the Non-Buddhists too.” Are we not encouraged to see the quality of loving kindness even in animals?

Thus, when we see faults in others, but not their qualities, that is a sure sign that we lack wisdom. By condemning others (including teachers) for their faults, we deepen our tendency to only see faults in others and to overlook their qualities. With such a deepened tendency, we are reinforcing attachment and aversion and the grasping of a self, and we make it less likely to create in the future the conditions for meeting a perfect teacher.

But, again, that does not mean that we should not protect ourselves and others from abuse. To protect ourselves and others, we should speak up when we see abuse, but we should not do that with an attitude of self-righteousness and hatred, but out of love and compassion. Then, nothing can go wrong.

1. [] Collected Works, vol. 12, p. 251: de bas sdong dum mes tshig la’ang // ngan sems bskyed par mi bya zhing // ‘dod la ngoms pa yod med pas// de bas ‘dod yon spang bar gsungs//

2. []Vinayakṣudrakavastu, vol. 10, fol. 95r: gang mgal dum la yang ngan sems mi bya na rnam par shes pa dang bcas pa’i lus la lta smos kyang ci dgos/ dge slong dag khyed kyis de lta bur bslab par bya’o//

3. []Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, D vol. 52, fol. 256r: dge slong dag mgal dum la yang ngan sems ma skyed cig /de ci’i phyir zhe na/ sems can thams cad ni ngan sems bskyed pa’i rgyus sems can dmyal bar ltung bar ‘gyur ro zhes gsungs so//

4. []Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna, D vol. 71, fol. 205v: me la bud shing rnams dang ni// rgya mtsho la ni chu bo ltar// sred ldan ‘dod pas ngoms pa med// de phyir ‘dod pa zhi ba min//

5. []I thank Ven. Yeshe Metog for allowing me to read her translation of Garchchen Rinpoche’s teachings on the 37 Bodhisattva Trainings.

Buddhism certainly presents itself as a metaphor: the Awakend One, the assemblage (samgha), the path, the vehicle, and so forth. Quite a number of very old metaphors are agricultural: root of merit, karmic seed, fruit to be obtained, field of merit (and later: Buddha fields), and refuge tree. Some metaphors appear to be intercultural and interreligious, for instance colours: white merit is virtuous, black is non-virtuous. Or spatial metaphors: upwards is positive, downwards is negative. Knowledge, wisdom and understanding are interculturally represented by light, ignorance as darkness. Probably through the notion of an increased visibility in luminosity, understanding is metaphorically expressed as “seeing,” not understanding as “blindness.” Some metaphors are very productive. They produce many more metaphors that produce whole clusters of metaphors, like the above cluster of agricultural metaphors, or like the metaphor of space, which is the basis for the metaphorical field containing metaphors like upwards and downwards, lack of hindrance (= succes), or pervasion (= understanding, compassion, wealth, etc.).

With this knowledge in mind, how much deeper is our understanding of Jigten Sumgön’s opening words of his Simultaneously Arising Mahamudra (Phyag rgya chen po lhan cig skyes sbyor gyi ngo sprod):

I bow down to the Gurus, who remove the darkness of ignorance of beings by pervading the sphere of the unborn pure space of true reality with a thousand lights of unhindered compassion.

From early on, the Buddha himself has created numerous similes on the basis of metaphors. The website Access to Insight lists ca. 250 such similies that occur in their translations of Pali sutras. A recent Thai Buddhist master has similarly collected 108 similes.♦ 1 There is for instance a story in an old Pali sutra (SN 35.206) where several different kinds of animals are bound togther by a rope. Each animal pulls into a different direction. This is a simile that shows how the thoughts of the mind contest for dominance. The simile builds on the metaphor of thoughts being wild animals. In this way, the figurative language of metaphors and similes was used throughout the history of Buddhism as a hermeneutical tool to explicate the doctrine.

From very early on, Buddhist philosophers and commentators have understood the power of figurative language and described its elements and functions. In a metaphor, they explained, the metaphorical term (e.g., “lotus born”) indirectly refers to a concept (e.g., “purity”). Thus, when someone says “I take refuge in the Buddha,” both “refuge” and “Buddha” are metaphors — we are not literally trying to hide behind the broad shoulders of Shakyamuni. Such figurative speech opens up a world of interpretation and understanding. The Drikungpa master Garchen Rinpoche, for instance, would explain that what we seek is not the person Siddharta Gautama, but his awakening to the true nature of the mind, which we ourselves cannot get from him, but only find in ourselves. “Going for refuge in the Buddha” is according to him a metaphor for searching for the nature of one’s own mind within oneself.

Such a deep penetration of the language of the sutras and other scriptues is on the one hand possible through the experience of a teacher like Garchen Rinpoche. But it has also been made possible through the forerunners of mahamudra yogis, the philosophers of Yogacara Buddhism. Beginning from the 3rd century they have developed a theory of language according to which not only metaphors, but actually all language is figurative: If all phenomena to which language refers are only appearances of the mind, the words that refer to such phenomena do not have a direct referent, since that referent does not exist as it appears.♦ 2 This understanding, namely that words can never refer directly to any real object, has also led them to proclaim that the ultimate truth is, therefore, actually inexpressible and completey beyond language. Paradoxically, however, it is just this figurative language that best illustrates this inexpressibility. Consider these words of the Great Brahmin Saraha (quoted in the above mentioned mahamudra instruction of Jigten Sumgön):♦ 3

If you dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to the authoritative [instructions] of the guru and strive respectfully,
there is no doubt that the simultaneously arisen will come forth.
Since it is without color, attributes, words or illustrations,
unable to express it, I will try a rough illustration:
Like a young girls joy in her heart,
Holy Lord, whom could it be told?

Apart from that, it is certainly important to keep in mind that the language of Buddhist texts, be it technical or metaphorical, refers to phenomena that do not exist as they appear. As Garchen Rinpoche pointed out in his teachings this week in Munich, all the words of the texts, however skillfully expressed, are of no particular value if the reality that is expressed at best indirectly by them is not directly experienced in meditation.


1. http://www.accesstoinsight.org and http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/chah/insimpleterms.html.

2. See the new study A Yogācāra Buddhist Theory of Metaphor by Roy Tzohar, Oxford University Press, 2018.

3. Another version is recorded by Kurtis Schaeffer, Dreaming the Great Brahmin, Oxford University Press, p. 154: Free of color, quality, words, and examples,// It cannot be spoken, and in vain I point it out.// Like the bliss of a young woman, desirous for love,// Who can teach its noble power to whom?//

I have added in the right margin (scroll down to “download PDF”) a new translation of Patrul Rinpoche’s instruction on the two truths (auch auf deutsch!). It has been translated in the past, but I think that I was able to add some precision to the translation. I also provided a number of footnotes to clarify a few points for those who have not so much experience in reading this kind of text.

Although I do not know of any systematic presentation of Jigten Sumgön’s understanding of the two truths, I think that Patrul Rinpoche’s explanation is very close to how Jigten Sumgön would teach them. The main point is that the level of truth is determined by the realization of one’s mind. Thus, already Jigten Sumgön’s guru Phagmodrupa had said (as quoted in Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa’s commentary on dGongs gcig 7.1):

E ma ho! This king that is the mind,
– if one realizes it, that is nirvana,
if one does not realize it, that is the ocean of samsara.
Apart from realizing and non-realizing
there is no obtaining and non-obtaining of the fruit.

Therefore, Chökyi Dragpa said in the same commentary: “Samsara and nirvana have no other difference than ‘realized’ and ‘not-realized.'” Moreover, since that realization of the mind is free from all extremes of proliferation – the buddhahood that is achieved in the sameness of all phenomena, the inseparable union – within that absolute result there exists no distinction between the two truths (dGongs gcig 7.1). This union on the level of absolute truth is also in accordance with Patrul Rinpoche’s instruction.

I hope you will enjoy the text!