The Purpose of Practicing Lam-Rim
by Venerable Dagpo Lama Rinpoche
Dagpo Rinpoche, also known as Bamchö Rinpoche, was born in 1932 in Kongpo, Tibet. He was recognized as the reincarnation of Dagpo Lama Rinpoche Jamphel Lhundrup, Pabongkha Dorje Chang’s root guru, by the 13th Dalai Lama when he was two. At the age of six he entered Bamchö Monastery in Dagpo Region where he learned to read and write and began to study the basics of sutra and tantra. At age 13 he entered Dagpo Shedrup Ling Monastery to study Buddhist philosophy. Having studied eleven years at Dagpo Shedrup Ling, Dagpo Rinpoche left to attend the Drepung monastic university near Lhasa. Dagpo Rinpoche has followed over forty masters, in particular the two tutors H.H. the Dalai Lama, Kyabje Ling Dorje Chang and Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang, as well as His Holiness himself. Under him he has studied the five great treatises, tantra (he has received many initiations and has done retreats), as well as astrology, grammar, poetry and history. Dagpo Rinpoche remained in Gomang Dratsang until the communist invasion in 1959 when he followed his masters into exile in India. Less than a year after his arrival, he was invited to France to assist French Tibetologists in their research. He taught Tibetan language and Buddhism at the French school of oriental studies (INaLCO), connected to the Sorbonne in Paris, for almost thirty years. Now retired, he continues personal research, practice and study. He has co-authored several books on Tibet and on Buddhism and has participated in numerous television and radio programs.
He now has several centers in France, Holland, Malaysia and Indonesia. He travels yearly to India to maintain contact with his masters and monasteries. Dagpo Rinpoche was in Malaysia in January 2013 to conduct a retreat on “THE EASY PATH TO TRAVEL TO OMNISCIENCE” by the First Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen at Kadam Tashi Choling in Petaling Jaya. Benny Liow and Hee Cher Sun from Eastern Horizon interviewed Rinpoche on the topic of lam-rim.
EH: Rinpoche could you please tell us briefly about your background – your lineage, teachers and the teachings you received?
DR: From the age of six to twelve I resided at Bamchoe Monastery where I was taught to read and write and learned the basic principles and rituals of Buddhism. My predecessor was the head lama of Bamchoe Monastery. At the age of twelve, I joined Dagpo Shedrup Ling Monastery also known as Dagpo Dratsang. A dratsang is a monastery devoted to the study and practice of Buddhist philosophy and Dagpo Dratsang is where I did the major part of my studies in Tibet.
My predecessor had been abbot of this monastery, which was renowned for its strict application of monastic discipline (vinaya), it beautiful chanting, and especially for the teaching and practice of lamrim or the stages of the path to enlightenment. Hence it was also known as the Lamrim Dratsang. I had four main teachers of Buddhist philosophy at Dagpo monastery. In 1941 when I was nine years old, I received lamrim teachings for the first time, from Pabongkha Dorjechang at Dagpo Dratsang.
When I was fourteen the monks of Dagpo Dratsang went to Lhasa to offer His Holiness the Dalai Lama a ceremony for his long life. On this occasion I received the Great Initiation of Avalokiteshvara from Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang, which was the first tantric initiation that I received in this lifetime.
After eleven years at Dagpo Shedrup Ling, I left for central Tibet to continue my studies at one of the four colleges of Drepung Monastery, namely Gomang Dratsang. I remained there for four years studying mainly under the great Mongolian scholar Gomang Khenzur Geshe Ngawang Nyima Rinpoche. Parallel to my studies at Drepung, I received spiritual instruction and transmissions from the two tutors of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kyabje Trijang Dorejechang and Kyabje Ling Dorejchang, as well as from HH the Dalai Lama himself, Lhatsun Rinpoche, Dragri Dorjechang and many other masters residing
in Central Tibet at the time. Until now I have received teachings from forty-two masters.
The masters that I have had closest contact with were my teachers at Bamchoe Monastery, my four professors at Dagpo Monastery, the two tutors of His Holiness and my professor at Gomang Dratsang, Gomang Khensur Ngawang Nyima Rinpoche.
Rinpoche, could you please explain briefly from whom you received The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience?
I received the teaching on this work from Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang in 1958 when Kyabje Rinpoche taught Liberation in our Hands for the very first time.
At the time Kyabje Rinpoche simultaneously taught five different works on the lamrim over more than a month, including the Easy Path.
How many lamrim works are there altogether?
There are many. The first was The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment by Dipamkara Shri Jnana. Kadam and Kagyu masters have written various commentaries on The Lamp for the Path and Je Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug School, wrote three – the Great Lamrim, the Middle Length Lamrim and the Lamrim of Condensed Meaning, which is also known as the Lines of Experience. Together with five other works, they are known as the Eight Great Treatises on the Lamrim.
The five other treatises are:
1. The Essence of the All Sublime Discourses, better known as the Gomchen Lamrim, composed by Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa (15th c.) who was the 2nd abbot of Dagpo Dratsang and its 1st chanting master. It is an important work as it is a synopsis of Je Tsongkhapa’s Middle Length Lamrim and the Great Lamrim, written in verse.
2. The Easy Path by the first Panchen Rinpoche Losang Choekyi Gyeltsen (1569–1662);
3. Manjugosha’s Instructions by the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617–1682);
4. The Quick Path by the second Panchen Rinpoche Losang Yeshe (1663–1737); and
5. The Essence of Refined Gold by the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso (1543–1588), a commentary of Lines of Experience.
The most recent widely known lamrim is Liberation in our Hands by Pabongkha Dorjechang (1878–1941). Many other commentaries were written during the period between the composition of the Essence of Refined Gold and Liberation in our Hands but the above eight works are the most important lamrims.
Is there any preliminary preparation that a person needs to undertake before practising the lamrim?
No there is not because doing preliminary practices such as prostrations, mandala offerings and so forth is an integral part of lamrim practice. One practices the lamrim in meditation sessions each of which includes preliminaries, an actual meditation on either the entire stages of the path or on one aspect of them, and a conclusion. The preliminaries consist of the six preliminary practices, which involve taking refuge, generating the aspiration to enlightenment, offering the seven limbed prayer and the mandala and supplicating the lineage of lamrim masters. They are done repeatedly as part of daily lamrim practice.
Rinpoche could you please explain why you chose the Easy Path over other lamrims?
I chose the Easy Path because it covers in essence the content of all lamrims and amongst the eight great treatises, with the exception of the Condensed Lamrim (the Lines of Experience), it is the shortest. While the Condensed Lamrim is too concise to serve as a basis for beginners’ meditation, the Easy Path is ideal for beginners because it contains the nectar of all the other lamrims and is a guide to lamrim meditation. It gives succinct instructions on how to reflect on each meditation topic within the lamrim.
It is well suited to those who have little time to practice.
Is lamrim similar to ngondro, preliminary practices?
The lamrim is an instruction on how to acquire all the “stages” or spiritual qualities of the path up to and including the complete enlightenment of a buddha. It begins with the generation of faith in the spiritual master and guides you step by step to realise bodhicitta, the spontaneous aspiration to enlightenment. Once you have achieved bodhicitta, you train in bodhisattva practice – essentially the six perfections-with special emphasis on the last two perfections: concentration, to achieve shamata or meditative serenity, and wisdom, to attain vipashyana or special insight. Therefore in the context of sutrayana, the lamrim is a complete instruction because it leads one to Buddhahood; consequently it is much more than ngondro, preliminaries.
You should know however that there are two versions of the lamrim – one that involves the practice of the sutrayana alone and one that includes the practice of both sutrayana and tantrayana. The version based exclusively on the sutrayana is complete for it guides one from the early stages of the path up to enlightenment. However for practitioners of tantra, in a sense it could be said that the lamrim is ngondro, a preliminary, since to be able to truly practice tantra and attain the corresponding realisations, one must first acquire all the qualities that practising the lamrim brings: bodhicitta, renunciation from samsara and the understanding of emptiness. Once one had achieved these “preliminaries,” then one can successfully practise tantra.
Most lamrim works include the tantra to varying degree. Manjugosha’s Instructions for example mentions it only briefly and is less associated with tantra than other lamrims while the Lamp for the Path refers more extensively to it.
Do the two versions of the lamrim ultimately lead to the same result?
The Buddha taught both sutrayana and tantrayana. Some people have no affinity with tantrayana teachings. The tantrayana does not suit them. For them, the Buddha taught the sutrayana and explained that one can achieve enlightenment by practising according to the sutras alone.
To other disciples, the Buddha taught both the sutrayana and the tantrayana, According to that system, one cannot achieve Buddhahood by relying on the sutrayana alone. One must also rely on the tantrayana. For those who have a connection with the tantrayana and have the necessary requisites to practise it as well, the Buddha explained that by adding tantrayana practices to sutrayana practices, one will attain enlightenment more quickly than by practising the sutrayana alone.
Is the lamrim teaching suitable for students of all levels, namely those of lesser, average and superior scope or motivation, or only for those of a particular level? Could Rinpoche kindly elaborate on this?
In the lamrim, reference is made to lesser beings, intermediate beings and great beings according to the degree of happiness they seek. In the lamrim context, to qualify as a lesser being, over and above all one must desire the happiness of a good rebirth in one’s next life. A Buddhist does not necessarily have such an aspiration. There are Buddhists who pursue happiness in this life alone. In the lamrim, between this life and next life, those who prioritize happiness in their future lives qualify as actual lesser
beings. Consequently those who are concerned with only present happiness are not considered to be genuine lamrim practitioners.
People who prioritize their happiness in future lives take refuge in the three jewels and practice generosity, ethics and so forth to ensure themselves of that result. In doing so they qualify as lesser beings. In his Lamp for the Path Lord Atisha defined them precisely: “Those, who by whatever means/ Take personal interest/ In the pleasures of cyclic existence alone/ Are known as lesser beings.”
However, the lamrim is a Mahayana teaching. Hence, the ultimate goal is to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. Thus its practitioners use the elements of the lesser beings’ path, “the stages of the path shared with lesser beings,” to evolve into great beings.
Those who aspire to enlightenment do not practice the actual lesser beings path. They meditate on topics that are common to both genuine lamrim practitioners whose goal is the happiness of all sentient beings and to actual lesser beings, who, as we have seen, seek happiness only for their future
lives and do not aspire to enlightenment.
For example, lamrim practitioners meditate on death, precious human life and the sufferings of lower realm, in order to overcome their attachment to the present life. This initial form of renunciation serves as the basis for achieving renunciation to samsara as a whole, which in turn is the basis for realising bodhicitta. Genuine lamrim practitioners do not meditate on these topics merely to achieve a high rebirth in the next life.
Once they have overcome attachment to this life, they then work on surmounting attachment to samsara in general, including attachment to a good rebirth within it. To deal with attachment to a good life in samsara, they meditate on the stages of the path shared with the intermediate beings.
Does the lamrim mention the aspiration to become an arhat?
Lamrim teaches the methods to free yourself from samsara by destroying your negative thinking and emotions, the klesha, but does not encourage you to become an arhat for your own sake as that would conflict with the lamrim’s main goal which is guide you to supreme enlightenment so that you in turn may work to lead all sentient beings to Buddhahood.
What is the objective or purpose of practicing this teaching?
On the short term and middle length term, the purpose of practising the lamrim is to end your suffering and find happiness. On the long term, ultimately, it is to achieve the enlightenment of a buddha to enable yourself to end all sentient beings’ suffering and lead them to happiness. In seeking Buddhahood if your motivation is selfish, if by it you wish to achieve just a state of personal bliss, you will never attain it.
When you meditate on the sufferings of samsara, which is part of the intermediate beings path, you reflect on them in the context of either the Four Noble Truths or the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. Once you have truly understood the sufferings of samsara, you are repelled by them and strongly desire to be free of them, which is renunciation or the wish to be free. Then you relate your understanding of personal suffering to others and reflect on their misfortunes. Great compassion thus arises as does the wish for all sentient beings’ happiness and the intention to take personal responsibility for achieving that objective. Feeling that you are incapable of realising that goal for others in your present state, you then understand that it is only by becoming a buddha that you will be able to do so. Hence, a strong aspiration to Buddhahood arises. When that aspiration has become spontaneous, an integral part of you, you have realised genuine bodhicitta and become a bodhisattva.
How can we put lamrim into practice in our daily life?
Firstly, you should learn a short but complete work on the lamrim and then reflect on it regularly, familiarising yourself with it until you have a real understanding of the different spiritual qualities to cultivate. As you gain in understanding, you naturally come to use what you have understood in daily life in your dealings with others. In this way you transform your ordinary daily activities into a lamrim practice.
Everything you experience in your life, good and bad, you may relate to the lamrim. Doing so can only enhance your practice of it. For example, when you face a serious problem in your work, if you know how to approach it constructively, you will acknowledge that it is happening to you because you are still in samsara.
If you were no longer in samsara, you would not accumulate the kind of karma that has let to this result – the problem you are facing. Your situation can therefore serve as a reminder to focus on purifying yourself of negative karma and on increasing your good karma, instead of simply being worried or upset. If you respond to the situation in this way, your anxiety and worry will lessen and even if the problem remains, you will be better equipped to cope with it.
In fact everything that you experience can reinforce your understanding of the path. For example, when you hear some good news, you can reflect that it is the result of the good karma you produced or of prayers that you carried out. This will reinforce your conviction of karma and its effects and increase your faith in the Buddha’s teaching. You can also rejoice in the good things that you observe or hear of.
For example, if someone says something hurtful to you, you should control your reaction and avoid getting angry. This can be done again by considering why such things happen to you and understanding that they are due to the maturation of your bad karma. You reflect that by undergoing this unpleasant experience you are ridding yourself of some bad karma and that if you do not wish for it to recur, you must be mindful not to create further bad karma.
Are there teachings in Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya Schools that are similar to the lamrim?
Just to mention a few, in the Kagyu School, there is a work called the Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-Fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings by Gampopa.
In the Sakya School, there is Freedom from the Four Attachments, a teaching given by Manjushri to the Sakya master Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, as well as various commentaries of it. This brief but important work is similar to Je Tsongkhapa’s Three Principles of the Path.
In the Nyingma School, there is the Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche, which is in fact a commentary on the Lamp for the Path. Due to historical context and the people for whom the works were written and taught, there are some slight differences in the above works. However, they all share the same essential principles. EH