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A Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra

A Brief Indication of the Graded Pathway Minds
(Lam-gyi rim-pa mdo-tsam-du bstan-pa)

by Tsongkhapa (Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa)
Tsongkhapa Collected Works (gSung thor-bu), vol. kha,
(sKu-’bum Byams-pa gling Par-khang edition),
p. 380 line 5 – 406 line 6
revised translation by Alexander Berzin, April 2009

First published as The Graded Course to Enlightenment, translated by Alexander Berzin, with Sharpa Rinpoche, Khamlung Rinpoche, and Jonathan Landaw, based on explanations by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.
Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1971.
Revised second edition published under the title “A Brief Exposition of the Main Points of the Graded Sutra and Tantra Course to Enlightenment” in A Short Biography and Letter of Je Tzong-k’a-pa.
Dharamsala, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1975.
Revised third edition, translated by Alexander Berzin, with Amchok Rinpoche, and published under the title “A Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra” in Life and Teachings of Tsong Khapa (Robert Thurman, ed.). Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1982.

Order this text directly from Paljor Publications.

Opening Remarks

Homage to Manjughosha. May I always be cared for by (you,) the foremost of the peerless (Dharma) expounders. Your flawless knowledge and wisdom are unimpeded even concerning the subtlest points. This is due to your familiarization, over a long time, with the methods of profound (voidness) and extensive (enlightening actions, gained) through many magnificent skillful means.

O my excellent spiritual mentor and friend, first you strove to hear and study many scriptural pronouncements. Then you spread the teachings with your excellent explanations. In the end, you made extended effort to actualize them. May your feet be firm throughout a long life!

I have received the perfectly delightful tree of your letter together with its tasteful fruit of your presents, which you have sent, my dear friend, without being requested, out of your affectionate thoughts directed toward me. Not being quenched by the well-explained accounts (already available), as an ocean (cannot be satisfied) by a great cloud-full of rain, you have requested that I write and send you in a letter further (practical advice on) how to apply yourself to the two stages (of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga. A mind of) little intelligence can indeed be easily filled by hearing (merely a few teachings), as a small pond (can be readily plenished) by a babbling brook. Thus, it is awe-inspiring that minds of superior intelligence (such as your own) are so vast they cannot be satisfied by these wonderful accounts.

However, granted that this may indeed be so, it is quite preposterous (for there to be any call) for someone like me to appease the mind of a great man (like) you. I have heard few (teachings). My intelligence is low; my Dharma actions are meager. Although I may have a few words (in my mind), I have been very lax in living up to their meaning. Nevertheless, even dandelion seeds, animated by the wind, can soar to compete with fine-feathered birds, though they lack the power to do so on their own. Similarly uplifted by your ennobling words, I shall try to offer you something in brief.

Reliance on a Qualified Spiritual Mentor

Well then, (as for lowly people like myself) we have, in fact, found the excellent working basis (of a human rebirth complete) with all the respites (for Dharma study and practice). We have, in fact, met with the precious teachings of the Triumphant (Buddhas) and have, in fact, been cared for by superb spiritual masters. With such an opportunity and when we have the power of mind to discern what is to be adopted and rejected, we must strive definitely to take advantage of such an excellent working basis.

This, of course, depends solely on our engaging ourselves with the Buddhas’ teachings. But to have engaged ourselves merely by (having) kind thoughts is not enough. Either we ourselves must know, without any disorder, the (proper) stages for engaging ourselves with the teachings or we must definitely rely for guidance on someone who does know them.

Moreover (not any teacher will do). He or she must be learned in the essential nature of the pathway minds, learned in the definite count (of their details), and learned in (the graded order and how to accord them with the disciples’) levels of understanding. (He must be) like this because if he mistakes what is not a pathway mind for one that is, or one that is for one that is not, then even if we were to actualize such (mistaken) pathway minds as he has taught us, they will be of no use. Similar to having been wrongly prescribed some medicine, (in the end) we will have received no benefit and nothing but harm.

But even if he knows the essential nature of the pathway minds well, it will still be ineffective if he (adds) extra unnecessary (stages) or leaves them incomplete. Thus, if he does not know the definite count (of the detailed points of their stages), then even while on the course of these (pathway minds), we will be unable to progress in the most direct fashion. This is because we will proceed while having omitted certain recognized essentials and will sidetrack onto the superfluous practice of what is unnecessary.

But then even if he does know the nature and the definite count (of the specific details of the pathway minds), still if he does not know which (points) to apply at each stage of our mental development as he leads us from the beginning to the middle to the end, (he will be acting as in the following example). Suppose (a doctor) thought here is a medicine and, since it is the best medicine from among (all of them), it is proper to prescribe it to (any) patient for (any) disease. If, thinking (like this) he were actually to give it (to someone it did not suit), then because it was such a powerful drug, not only might it not help (this patient), it might actually cause him the great harm of taking his life. Likewise, suppose he thought here is a sacred Dharma teaching and, since, from among the Dharma (methods) it is the most profound, what wrong could there possibly be in teaching it? If thinking like this, he were actually to lead us by means of it, then if he accords it with our level of understanding (and follows the graded order from there), it will bring only benefit. But if he does not accord it with our level of understanding, then not only will it bring us no benefit, it might actually cause us (by our own confusion) to kill our opportunity to gain one of the better rebirths and liberation. Therefore, it is especially important for him to know the graded order (of the teachings and how to accord them with the disciples’) levels of understanding.

Furthermore, even though he may be skilled in these important points of practice like that, nevertheless he must also be someone whose certainty gained about the complete stages of the pathway minds has come from his own (experience of) having been set straight in his own understanding and having been led by a hallowed being through not a cursory, nor sporadic, but a thorough (study) of the great classics themselves, as composed by the standard, valid authors. (For you see) the abbreviated, non-disarrayed, personal instructions for how to lead (disciples) through these (pathway minds) are in fact only what have been condensed from these great classics.

Actually, the very meaning of a personal instruction is that it is something to give us certainty more easily into the classics, which themselves are very extensive, the meanings of which are extremely difficult to comprehend and which, for necessary (reasons), scramble the graded order of understanding (and practice) in their showing of the teachings. Because these guidelines have been compiled (with this purpose in mind), then to take the great classics as Dharma for lecturing and the brief personal instructions as Dharma for practicing, and thereby to hold these two as disharmonious, is not to understand the important point of the teachings at all. This is so because Buddha’s scriptural pronouncements as well as their (Indian) commentaries on their intended meanings are in fact – like we recite (from Maitreya’s Filigree for the Mahayana Sutras, Mahayanasutralamkara), “hearing, debating, and eagerly practicing” – only for eager practice and aimed at accomplishing such practice.

The Motivating Mental Framework

This being so (how should we begin our practice? As Nagarjuna) has said in his Letter to a Friend (117), “What need to counsel (you) more, Fearless One? The (most) important advice that’s of benefit is this: Tame your mind! The Vanquishing Master has proclaimed, ‘ Mind is the root of (all preventive measures) of Dharma.’”

Also as (Aryadeva) has said in his Four Hundred Verse Treatise (V 4), “Because you cannot see (any action), such as going and so forth, (becoming) positive and so on except through the thought (that motivates it), therefore the mind is established as crucial for all karma.”

Thus, as these highly realized aryas, father and spiritual son, have said, the root of everything excellent and faulty is but the mind. This is because it is definite that the channels for acting with fault or engaging in what is excellent are in fact (only) three and (of these three) the body and speech are under the control of the mind.

Therefore, first of all (before any Dharma practice), it is extremely important for our motivating mental framework to be one that we have (properly) worked ourselves up to and not one that has come from mere words. Although the stages for working ourselves up (to a proper motivation) have been explained in many (different ways), the most commonly helpful scheme for minds of superior, middling and all (scopes of capacity is as follows).

First (on an initial level), we need to have made ourselves continually mindful of our (forthcoming) death and our not staying long in this world. We need also to have meditated a great deal on the two ways in which we can wander to our next life (either up to one of the better rebirth states or down to one of the worse ones), together with their causes (our constructive and destructive acts). Having turned our minds, through that, away from working with keen interest for this life (alone), we need to develop as much as possible the attitude to work with keen interest for the happiness of future lives and beyond.

Then (on an intermediate level), we need to have exerted much effort in thinking about the shortcomings of all the various (rebirth states) of compulsive existence and the advantages of the peaceful (attainment of liberation). Having turned our minds, through that, away from working with keen interest for the (so-called) good things of uncontrollably recurring samsaric existence, we need to continually enhance, for a long time, a strong attitude to work with keen interest for liberation.

Then (progressing to an advanced level motivation), we need to have seen that just as we ourselves are benefited from being happy and harmed by suffering, so too are all limited beings. Through that, we need to have thoroughly familiarized ourselves with love, compassion, and a bodhichitta aim as preventive measures. If (we’ve done that), we will have turned our motivating mental framework completely away from eagerly endeavoring for only our own aims, not caring at all about bringing happiness to limited beings and eliminating their suffering. From (having done that), we will have seen the aims of others as actually the (only) aims we strongly wish (to work for) and will have become certain that the supreme method for accomplishing these (aims) is in fact only if we become Buddhas ourselves and that alone. From (that), we need to enhance a very firm motivating mental framework of wishing to attain (the state of) a Buddha because of those (various reasons).

But concerning these (graded mental frameworks), suppose (for our practice) we had made (for ourselves) a deceptive foundation of having a partial, merely intellectual understanding of the verbal formulations (of them) and then had engaged in listening to, thinking about, and meditating (on certain Dharma practices). We might then say, with many sweet-sounding words, that “I am doing these for the sake of my future lives,” or “I am doing them because of liberation,” or “I am doing these for the benefit of limited beings.” But despite (such noble claims), I think the way in which our minds will have been working will have in fact been nothing other than one in which they have been aiming for the sake of either (benefits in) this lifetime, or for certain pleasurable fruits of uncontrollably recurring samsaric rebirth to which we have given the name liberation, or for a partial (ultimate) aim for ourselves (and not for everyone). Therefore, to develop these motivating mental frameworks in an uncontrived manner, it is not sufficient to have merely an intellectual understanding (of them). We must meditate (in order to build them up as habits).

How To Meditate

As for how to meditate, we need to actualize (these motivating mental frameworks) by acquainting ourselves over and again with discerning meditation itself, with which we meditate by discerning, in many ways, the causes and aspects pertinent for (developing) each of these kinds (of motivations) like this. (For instance, by examining many aspects of others’ suffering, we can develop compassion.)

In regard to that, even though cultivating (repeatedly meditating with the proper) focal objects and aspects for these (motivations) is the main cause (for actually developing them), just (to do) this much is not enough. In between sessions, we need to make (our development of them) firm and certain by having looked at the stainless expositions (of Buddha) and the (Indian) treatises, together with the personal instructions, that have been composed around (the themes of) these (motivations).

(In addition,) we must reach the heart (of our problems preventing us from developing them) by doing a great deal of building up (of positive force) and cleansing away (of obstacles) in order to eliminate the contrary factors and bring about conducive conditions for (developing) those motivating mental frameworks.

When we have made, like that, the causal factors (for developing these motivations) be complete in their defining characteristics and not just partial, (then to actually develop them) we need (first) to discern well, with individualizing discriminating awareness and in detail, what is detrimental and what is beneficial (for developing them) and then to meditate.

When we have done that, we will then understand deeply that by (meditating over and again), having made our focal object be such and such, the aspects be such and such, and the way of taking them to mind be such and such, we will develop on our mental continuums such and such an uncommon imprint. In doing this, we will thereby come to gain confidence in (our ability to actualize) even the subtlest points of these practices.

At such a time, we need also to be aware of the uncommon functions of each (of these motivating mental frameworks) to bring about what is beneficial and to end what is detrimental. In other words, we need to be certain of “this” being what, in fact, (each of them) rids us of and (“this” being what, in fact, each of them) brings us. (Further,) from thinking that (developing) just (some of) these (motivating frameworks) is not enough (for in fact we need to generate the entire progression), then for certain it will come about that we will never forsake any of the hallowed Dharma.

(Although) we indeed need to develop these motivating mental frameworks at the start (of our meditation sessions), it is not enough merely to develop them then: we need to maintain (these motivations) steadily and continuously (throughout our sessions). And, not only that, we need to strive to increase them more and more. Therefore, (suppose we thought that) since these are preliminary preventive measures, it is unnecessary to sustain the habit (of them throughout our sessions) and, as it is not necessary to work at all times for them not to degenerate, it is enough just to have sent (these motivations) ahead once (at the start of our sessions). Further, (suppose) we thought that as these are yogas that are (there) at the start but later, like the husks of a grain, it is all right to have left them aside and, having made them into something that didn’t count, we thought to familiarize ourselves (only) with (practices of) the actual fundamental part (of the sessions) themselves. (For us to have thought like that) is not to have understood the essential point of the pathway minds at all. This is because when (our meditations are) parted from these previously explained motivating mental frameworks, especially a bodhichitta aim in the manner explained above, then (even if they) have been done as Dharma practice, they proceed as (just) seemingly Dharma. And even if we have meditated perfectly with absorbed concentration on voidness, it is unfit (to be considered) a Mahayana (practice. This) has been said not just once.

Therefore, meditating on a bodhichitta aim at the beginning of a session and, at the session’s end, directing (the positive force from it toward everyone’s enlightenment) with great waves of prayer are a great skillful means for causing what is really constructive cultivated during the actual fundamental part of the session to hit the mark (of our intended aim) and become inexhaustible. Since (this is the case), then, without being satisfied with just anything that sometimes comes up (in our meditation), we must be certain each time (we meditate) to integrate (our motivating mental framework) with our mental continuum,

The Ethical Self-discipline of Keeping Vows

Suppose on top of having held, as something to cherish, enhancing in that way our motivating mental framework like that – in other words, (suppose on top of) having held as our foundation never letting it weaken, we (wish to) practice the two stages of secret mantra pathway minds. Well in general, whenever we enter the door of any (Buddhist) vehicle of mind, we need to set as its basis the ethical discipline of its own (set of vows). And especially when we enter secret mantra, then, as previously explained, since bodhichitta is the ultimate essential point for all the Mahayana pathway minds, it is very important for that to be firm (with the bodhisattva vows).

Moreover, concerning the close bonds and (tantric) vows that we have acquired at the time when we receive perfectly pure empowerments from a qualified spiritual master, if we never give them up by means of the causes for giving them up and never let them weaken by means of the causes for them to weaken, that would be excellent. Otherwise, we (will need to) have received (another) empowerment and thus have restored or revitalized our close bonds and vows and definitely have cleansed ourselves pure of our previous downfalls (from our root vows) and faulty actions (contrary to our secondary vows). And, having identified well the root (downfalls) and faulty actions (contrary) to the auxiliary (vows and close bonds), we will need to definitely restrain ourselves from ever breaking their continuities again in the future. And then further, we will need to make effort never to be stained by a downfall from our root (vows again) and, having recognized any further faulty actions that may have arisen, we will need to thoroughly expiate them (through the four opponent forces).

Thus as I see it (the facts of the matter are these). We must enter into the meditations of the two (anuttarayoga tantra) stages with these (tantric vows and close bonds) indispensably (set) as our foundation. Furthermore, even if we do not meditate on the two stages, still if we have received an empowerment, we are definitely required to keep them. As these are the case, we must therefore strive to develop great certainty in this (matter concerning vows). This is because (of two points Buddha has made). He has said that having received an empowerment, if we keep our close bonds and vows purely, then even if we have not meditated on the two stages during this lifetime, we can still reach the supreme attainment (of Buddhahood) in seven or sixteen lifetimes and so on (of consecutively keeping them). And also he has said that if, (treating them lightly,) we give up the close bonds and vows we have promised to keep, then even having done seemingly meditation on the two stages, we will fall to one of the worse rebirths and thereby not attain (enlightenment).

(Another point can be seen from two more of Buddha’s statements.) He has said that if our working basis for practicing secret mantra is as a householder, we must practice while continually maintaining the five (vows of lay) discipline or, if as ordained, then while maintaining either the two or three sets (of novice or full vows). Further, he has said that for upholding (and practicing) the Vajra (Vehicle of mind) it is best to be fully ordained, next best a novice and at minimum someone with householder (vows). Therefore it follows (from these statements) that (Buddha’s ) presentation (of this ranking) is by means of the number of vows that are (actually) safeguarded and not merely by the (number that are) promised to be kept. This is why (Kamalashila) has said in Beholding Reality (De-nyid snang-ba, Skt. Tattvaloka), that if someone maintaining both individual liberation and bodhisattva vows practices (secret) mantra, he or she will actualize results more quickly. (In stating this) he is asserting that the actualizations gained by having taken the (secret) mantra vows while already safeguarding bodhisattva and ordination vows are (gained) much more quickly than those from having safeguarded only the mantra vows themselves.

It is similar also in the case of actualizing the pathway minds of the (non-tantric Mahayana) vehicle of mind of far-reaching attitudes (Paramitayana, the Perfection Vehicle). The actualizations gained by having taken bodhisattva vows while having already been ordained (on one of the levels) according to the Vinaya (rules of discipline) are best (compared) to those gained by having maintained only bodhisattva vows alone. This is what (Buddha) meant when he said in many sutras that if there were two bodhisattvas equal in all respects (except that) one was a householder (with no vows of individual liberation) and the other ordained, the latter would be more praiseworthy. (Buddha has clearly set forth all these points) in his presentation of these (vows). But despite this, although people frequently appear who can explain them by expounding forth merely their verbal formulations, and partial ones at that, yet when it comes time to apply these to personal practice, those who do so appear ever so rarely. This falls in the category of something very difficult to understand.

The Proper Order of the Generation and Complete Stages of Anuttarayoga Tantra

Be that as it may, there is the statement, “The Fully Enlightened Buddha has said to those who would be well-established on the generation stage and those who would wish for the complete stage that this method (of practicing the two stages) is like (climbing) the rungs of a ladder.” (This means) that just as we must depend on climbing the lower rungs of a ladder in order to proceed to the higher ones, (likewise) we must travel (the pathway minds to enlightenment) by meditating on the generation and complete stages in their (proper) order. It will not do to (practice them) in just any order of understanding or to leave out the generation stage. As (this is what Buddha) has said, we must first meditate on the generation stage.

Even though there is no certainty that (while on its stage) its (practice) will smooth away the undesirable occurrences that occasionally befall us (such as sicknesses) or bring us the subtle actual attainments we desire (such as clairvoyance), yet it is a fact that the generation stage can bring us to the attainment of peerless enlightenment. This point has been established clearly from the tantric texts of scriptural authority and well-attested to by learned masters who themselves are valid sources. Therefore, I beg you, please, practice (first this generation stage) in the circle of a mandala.

Also on this (stage) we must perform the actions for building up the networks (of positive force and deep awareness, such as the yogas for eating, sleeping and waking), and in between sessions be mindful of (viewing everything in a) pure (form, such as ourselves and all others as meditational deities, our surroundings as a mandala palace, and so forth. Likewise we must) recite the (pertinent) mantras, make offerings, and perform the rituals of the torma offering cake. Since we need to build up (the impressions of) all these, in fact, on our mental continuums at their appropriate occasions, while remaining ever mindful of the meanings of this (point) and that, without letting ourselves just merely recite the words (of the ritual texts and mantras mindlessly), then I beg you, please, why not take pleasure (in so doing)?

How To Visualize in Tantra Practice

Then, as it is very important to know well how to meditate with absorbed concentration on (ourselves as) the meditational deities during the actual fundamental part (of our sessions), let me say a little about how to do that. It will be easier to develop certainty about how to meditate on this, in fact, if we know (beforehand) what the absorbed concentration is like that we wish to have developed when we have finished accustoming ourselves to meditating on the generation stage. Therefore, if we ask what do we wish to have developed, (it is like this).

By meditating now on (ourselves as having) the bodily colors, hand implements, jewelry and garb (of all the deity figures) of the supported (mandala), as well as (having all the details) of the supporting (mandala of the palace and its surroundings) – in short, on (our having all) the aspects of their colors and shapes – then at the conclusion (of our training) we wish to have actualized ourselves appearing clearly (in our meditation) as all of these, in toto and simultaneously, in one state of absorbed concentration. This is the meditation (toward which we need to aspire on the generation stage).

Therefore, we must train by focusing first on one focal basis (out of this entire visualization). For that, if we train by focusing (first), for instance, on (visualizing ourselves as) the main central figure (of the mandala) and ask how to train, (it is like this).

(Actually,) two traditions for (doing) this appear (in the literature). One is to train from the fine stage (upwards), by focusing (first) on one of the finest details of the body, thereby actualizing its clear appearance (and then building up from there by progressively adding more and more details). The second is to train from the gross stage of that body (downwards, by visualizing the entire body roughly from the start and then progressively filling in the details one by one. Of these,) the former is fit for only a few special individuals, while the latter is, in fact, the more commonly beneficial (method), because it is easier to develop.

Therefore, out of the two aspects of, for instance, the main figure, namely the gross (whole body) and its fine (details), we (first) need to visualize (ourselves) as the complete (deity), from the head to the feet, in merely the roughest form. When (this) has appeared, we need to have held (our attention) on just that, without mental wandering. If the general form of the body was clear, we need to have held that; and if the general (form) was unclear but a few of its parts were clear, we need to have held (our attention) on whatever was clear. If those (few parts of the body) have faded as well, we need to visualize the (entire) general (rough form once more) and have held that. If some aspect has arisen that was totally extraneous to what we have been meditating on, we need to have held our minds (only) on the main focal (object) without having followed out (any spurious ones).

For beginners in these (visualization practices), it has been said that if the meditation sessions are too long, we will not at all progress in the most direct fashion. This has also appeared to be so (from experience as well). Therefore, if we have meditated holding as many extremely short sessions as possible, our development of absorbed concentration will be without fault.

Furthermore, in the beginning, we must also have kept (our mental faculty of) detection (rtog-pa) alert and held tightly. This is because if we have not carried out our meditation while having carefully checked whether or not we have come under the power of mental dullness or flightiness of mind, we might have passed a great deal of time in a muddled state. Since, by having held (our focus) in meditation with (only) the roughest detection (of faults), we will never develop in our entire lifetime any absorbed concentration as we had wished, I beg you, please, keep a careful check (with detection for any meditational faults).

Absorbed concentration (focused) on the general form of, for instance, the main figure has four defining characteristics:

  • the powerful ability to have (the visualization) appear (clearly) whether it takes strong or easy effort,

  • the capacity to have that (visualization ability) extend throughout the (entire) session,

  • during that (session), no going under the power of either mental dullness or flightiness of mind,

  • contacting, by means of that, an exhilarating joy of body and mind and (thus) having progressed to resemble something in the direction of a stilled and settled state of shamatha.

Once we have made (such absorbed concentration) stable, (focused) on that (general form of ourselves as the main figure of the mandala), as well as held our minds on its fine details, we need to have transferred our focus to (include visualizing ourselves as) the other deities (in the mandala as well). But when (we have done so), we need to have expanded (our visualization) on top of (the basis of) not having given away our focus on that (main) deity, on which we had been previously (concentrated). Although that is the case, yet if we (have not done that and, instead) have held our focus on these latter (deities around the mandala) while having cast off (our focus on the main, central figure), how will it ever come about that we can (have absorbed concentration focused on ourselves) appearing as (all) those deities simultaneously? Therefore, since the generation stage like that is in fact an indispensable (part) of the subject matter of the precious tantras and an essential (part) of the mantra path, which has become very important and widely praised, it is extremely crucial to perform its meditations (correctly).

Complete Stage Practice

According to earlier (masters), the complete stage was famed as being twofold: the non-profound complete stage and the profound complete stage. The first of these appears (in their literature) to be constituted of meditations on the energy-channels, energy-winds, creative energy-drops, and so forth. As (that is so, their practices) are to be sought in their individual guideline instructions. The latter appears as consisting of meditations on voidness. Whether or not that twofold (scheme) works for the complete stage (and whether or not voidness meditation is exclusive to that stage) need to be investigated. But no matter which way it turns out to be, (this twofold scheme) is like what is practiced on the occasion of the complete stage.

Voidness Being the Same in Sutra and Tantra

Regarding that (investigation, Buddha) has said, concerning the view of voidness, that it is in fact alike in both the Mantra and Perfection (Vehicles). The learned masters have also spelt this out (explicitly). Because of that, then even though differences do exist, such as in the Perfection (Vehicle) the methods for generating absorbed concentration on that (voidness) are less well-known while they are more abundant and easier in the Mantra Vehicle, still there is in fact nothing better than the Perfection (Vehicle’s teachings) for methods for initially seeking an understanding of it.

Since quotations and lines of reasoning (for establishing voidness) are clearer on the side of the sutras, we must ascertain (its correct view) by listening to and thinking about (teachings) that accord with what derives from (Buddha’s) scriptural pronouncements of the Perfection (Vehicle) as well as from the commentaries on their intended (meanings. More specifically,) the foundation for that, upon which we need to base our listening and thinking, needs to be (Buddha’s) scriptural pronouncements about the profound meaning of voidness and such (Indian) treatises of sound reasoning as (Nagarjuna’s Six) Collections of Reasoning, and so forth. (Such texts as these latter) can dispel all our doubts concerning extreme (positions) extraneous (to what Buddha intended) and which would lead us to some meaning of (voidness) other than (the correct one). Thereby, in not allowing us to be misled to any aspects (of understanding) other than (the truth), they can bring us certainty (about voidness) in accordance with reality.

There do exist some special persons who have trained themselves thoroughly like this in past (lifetimes. As a result,) then even though they may not train for long in this life, they (are able to) comprehend the meaning of profound (voidness because of their instincts). But even so, such cases as these are extremely difficult (to come by). Therefore, for all of us who are other than that, we need to seek (our understanding) through (listening to and thinking about) such lines of reasoning as “parted from being either one or many.” Even though we might claim something else as the gateway for entering into a quick and easy (realization of voidness) by ascribing the name (“ speedy gateway”) to (a method that) cuts off mental fabrications in general (without such reliance on sound lines of reasoning), we will not be able to please the intelligent (masters with such a claim).

The Correct View of Voidness

When we seek (our understanding of voidness) by training like this in (listening to and thinking about) scriptural quotations and lines of reasoning, there are two ways in which such an understanding can be generated: a deviant and a non-deviant one. Of these, the first might be (as follows).

Suppose we had analyzed from the viewpoint of many lines of reasoning the arising, ceasing and so forth of phenomena. When (we had done so), the entire presentation of conventional truth had fallen apart (for us) and thereby we could not find (any way of) taking anything as being (conventionally) “this”. (Thus, we felt there was nothing conventionally true or real.) Because (of that), we might come (to the wrong conclusion) that all bondages and liberations (from uncontrollably recurring samsaric existence) are in fact like all bondages and liberations of children of barren women. Then we would go on (to wrongly imagine) that the occurrence of happiness and suffering from constructive and destructive actions was in fact no different than the arising of horns from a rabbit’s head. Thereby, we would come to a (completely false) understanding that all of conventional truth is distorted conventional truth and that all conceptual cognitions are distorted cognitions that are deceived about their conceptualized objects.

If we see the meaning of the Madhyamaka (middle path) in this (mistaken manner), there are two (further wrong conclusions we could draw). Of these, the first (would be as follows). If this were the case (that if all things lacked truly established existence, then all conventional truth would be distorted), then since the entire presentation (of conventional reality) would be improper, (we would feel that) the view of all phenomena as lacking self-establishing natures was in fact a view of nihilism and therefore not Buddha’s intention. In so thinking, we would be forsaking (the teachings of) the far-reaching discriminating awareness (the perfection of wisdom, by denying that the lack of self-established existence was what Buddha meant by voidness). Other karmic obstacles, even if unbearable, can in fact be purified away by relying on a (correct) view of voidness. Yet, even though that is the case, with this (incorrect view) we become like what (Buddha) said, “He who forsakes (voidness) and thereby comes to lack any safe direction, goes in fact to the (worst joyless realm,) Avichi Hell of Uninterrupted Pain.” In other words, since there is no other safe direction or anything else to rely upon (once we have rejected the correct meaning of voidness), we must remain in the Hell of Uninterrupted Pain for a very long time. This was said (by Buddha) in the chapter on joyless hell beings (from Placement of Close Mindfulness on the Noble Hallowed Dharma, Tib. ‘ Phags-pa dam-pa’i chos dran-pa nye-bar gzhag-pa, Skt. Aryasaddharma-smrtyupasthana).

The other (wrong conclusion from this misunderstanding would be like this). We might intellectually have taken hold of the position of voidness (as meaning a total absence of self-established existence). And (we might also have accepted that) all attitude trainings on the side of widespread actions, such as taking safe direction, cultivating a bodhichitta aim, meditating on the generation stage, and so on, as well as all actions of listening to and thinking (about the Dharma teachings) are what can be imputed by conceptual thoughts. But by (incorrectly) regarding all conceptual thoughts as (distorted and thus) functioning to bind us to uncontrollably recurring samsaric existence, we would repudiate, ignore and cast away all excellent (constructive) karmic actions. In so doing, we would only be opening the trapdoor for (us to fall to) one of the worse rebirth states.

These two (mistaken positions) are similar in that both are deep misunderstandings of the meaning of voidness, (bringing) nothing but the false arrogance (of inflatedly feeling we have understood something when in reality we have not). But (there is one big difference). With the former, (by denying that voidness means the total absence of self-established existence,) we are in fact divorced from any causes for having fervent regard for (the true meaning of) voidness (and thus any incentive to study it further and correct our view). With the latter (on the other hand), we have actually still retained the causes for such fervent regard (by at least accepting voidness as the total absence of self-established existence, although misunderstanding its implications). If, by taking voidness invertedly like this (while still accepting it, but with another, more limited meaning), we get burned, despite our fervent regard, then what need to mention those who, in taking the totally distorted position (of denying any type of voidness), are thereby hostile (to this view)?

This is (the point Nagarjuna is making when he) said in The Precious Garland (Rin-chen ‘phreng-ba, Skt. Ratnavali, IV 71), “(Consider) someone who has faith (in something) but with a faulty (understanding of it) and another who despises (that same thing and totally rejects it) out of hostility. If it has been explained that even someone with faith gets burned, what need be said about someone with his back turned in hostility?”

(Nagarjuna) has also said (in this same work, II 19-20), “This teaching (of voidness), when wrongly understood, can cause the unlearned to become ruined in fact. For, by their (misunderstanding) like this, they sink into a mire of nihilism (denying everything). Moreover, because of their having taken (voidness) incorrectly, these fools with the pride of (thinking they are) clever go headfirst to the Avichi Hell of Uninterrupted Pain as they have a nature unfit (now for Buddhahood) because of their rejection (of the correct view of voidness).”

As for the way to develop an unmistaken understanding, (Nagarjuna) has said in his Commentary on Bodhichitta (Byang-chub sems-‘grel, Skt. Bodhichittavivarana, 88), “Anyone who, in understanding this voidness of phenomena, can thereby demonstrate (the conventional existence of) cause and effect is more amazing than amazing and more wondrous than wondrous.”

Also (Matrcheta) has said in Praises Extolling the Praiseworthy (bsNgags-par ‘os-pa bsngags-pa’i bstod-pa, Skt. Varnanarhavarnanastotra), “You do not act while discarding voidness (as irrelevant), but harmonize it in fact with conventional existence.”

Thus, as has been said (in these two quotations), we must see that no matter what (object our minds) have taken as the focal aim for our grasping for truly established existence, what is conceptualized (by that mind, namely truly established existence as that object’s actual mode of existence) has not even an atom (of existence). Then, taking (this) fact of reality as a (causal) condition (to prove cause and effect), we must thereby find the deepest conviction that (conventionally) “this comes about from that” with respect to everything such as bondage and liberation, karmic actions and their effects, and so on.

Concerning these two (points), when we have taken the first part (of this realization, namely the fact that everything is devoid of truly established existence) to be on the side of what is reasonable in our own (system of assertions), we need not (make excuses) about the latter (concerning the conventional truth of the functioning of everything), feeling uncomfortable with it in our own system and therefore ascribing (conventional truth to be true only) to the face of others or on the face of deception. When it comes about that we can see how both (parts of this realization) are reasonable to our own system, then something truly amazing and wondrous has occurred. This is because we will have achieved the skillful means of understanding deeply how what appears as contradictory to ordinary persons is (in fact) non-contradictory. Therefore, with a (correct) understanding of voidness, we must come to (the conclusion) that the presentations of uncontrollably recurring (samsaric) existence and liberated (nirvanic) existence are reasonable (and function).

But suppose, while not understanding what this (voidness of truly established existence actually means), we came to (the conclusion) that if we were to understand it as being reasonable, then these presentations would not function. If (we were to reason falsely like that), then with (our position) no different from the way of understanding of those who assert truly existent phenomena, we would be formulating lines of reasoning (about voidness) without understanding at all what voidness meant. (Thus we would be asserting absurd consequences that follow only from our own mistaken notion of voidness and not from voidness as correctly understood.)

(An example would be, for instance, what Nagarjuna) has said in Root Stanzas on the Middle Way (Called “Discriminating Awareness”) (dBu-ma rtsa-ba shes-rab, Skt: Prajna-nama-mulamadhyamaka-karika, XXIV 1), “(You might argue with us debating that) if all these things were devoid (of truly established existence), then the absurd conclusion would follow for you that production would be (totally) non-existent, perishing would not exist (at all), and there would be no such things as the Four Noble Truths.” This (verse) presents the charge (based on the misconstruction that the Prasangika Madhyamaka view of voidness is tantamount to nihilism) that if everything were devoid of self-established existence, then the presentations of uncontrollably recurring and liberated existence would be improper.

In answer to this, (Nagarjuna in verse XXIV 20) has said (it is just the opposite), “If all these things were not devoid (of truly established existence), then the absurd conclusion would follow for you that production would be (totally) non-existent, perishing would not exist (at all), and there would be no such things as the Four Noble Truths.” In other words, with such lines, (Nagarjuna) has said that those things would be improper in terms of non-voidness, but in terms of the (correct) position of voidness, they are completely reasonable.

He has said this even more clearly in the same work (XXIV 14) through a statement of an implication and its converse, “Everything becomes proper for someone to whom voidness is proper and everything becomes improper for someone to whom voidness is improper.” Therefore, if the finding of a (correct) view of voidness were to entail merely having developed the understanding that if phenomena were divested of their spatial and temporal contexts there would be no way for them to be cognitively taken as anything, then it would be pointless (for the masters to have said that the understanding of voidness) is difficult (to gain). This is because even extremely dull-witted persons who have not trained (their minds) at all can understand (this point that nothing can exist independently of its context). Thus merely this much (insight) is not enough.

It will (only) be sufficient when for deepest truth we have the total stillness (or absence) of any focal support (for any cognition’s being aimed at the truly established existence of anything) and for conventional truth, which is like an illusion, we accept the entire presentation of uncontrollably recurring existence and liberated existence.

What makes the understanding of voidness so difficult, then, is that it is difficult (to hold the realization of) these two (truths) jointly (without feeling there is any contradiction). Since it is necessary to have both, it has been said that if we do not know (correctly) the division scheme of the two truths, we do not know the facts of reality as taught (by Buddha), while if we do know it, we are not muddled about what Buddha intended. And also, by building up the two networks (of positive force and deep awareness) in reliance on deepest and conventional (truths), we can go to (a state of Buddhahood, which is) the total completion of what is supreme.

(Thus, Nagarjuna) has said in Root (Stanzas on the Middle Way, Called “Discriminating Awareness,” XXIV 9) “Those who do not know (correctly) the division scheme of the two truths do not know the profound facts of reality in the Buddha’s teachings.” And (Jnanagarbha) has said as well (in The Division Scheme of the Two Truths, bDen-gnyis rnam-dbye, Skt. Satyadvayavibhanga), “Those who know the division scheme of the two truths are not muddled about the words of the Able One (Buddha). By building up the complete networks (of positive force and deep awareness), they travel to the far shore of splendor.”

It is said that this was difficult to understand even for the circle (of Buddha’s direct disciples) at the time when the Vanquishing Master Surpassing All was alive. This has been stated in The Compendium of Precious Good Qualities (Yon-tan rin-po-che sdud-pa, Skt. Ratnagunasamcayagatha), “This teaching (on voidness) of the Complete Spiritual Leader (Buddha) is profound and difficult to see. No one would be able to understand it and no one would be able to attain (its realization). Therefore after (Shakyamuni Buddha), who had the loving-kindness to benefit others, attained his purified state (of enlightenment), he taxed his mind to think who among the masses of limited beings could come to know it.”

Concerning how it is impossible for our minds to penetrate into voidness quickly and easily, together with an example for this, as well as concerning the meaning of the (quotation from the above) sutra, (Nagarjuna) has said in The Precious Garland (II 16-18), “Inasmuch as the uncleanliness of our body is something gross, an object knowable by straightforward (sensory) cognition and in fact can be seen all the time; yet, when it is the case that this does not stand out to our minds, then how can this hallowed teaching of non-abiding (in either the extreme of truly established existence or total nonexistence) quickly and easily penetrate our minds when it is so subtle, not (obvious) to straightforward (sensory) cognition, and profound? Therefore, realizing that this teaching, because it is so profound, is difficult for ordinary people to comprehend, the Able Buddha turned away (at first) from indicating this teaching.”

Therefore, since in general a (fully qualified) teacher and student of this (voidness), and in particular (such) a teacher and student of the methods for developing on our mental continuums absorbed concentration on this (voidness), are extremely difficult to find, I think that (these accomplishments) will not come about if we have approached them in just any sloppy manner. (We must study and train in them properly.)

Joined Shamatha and Vipashyana Focused on Voidness

An (actual) finding (of a realization) of the totally correct view of voidness, through stainless listening and thinking like this, is necessary and indispensable for developing totally correct absorbed concentration on voidness. Otherwise, if we have not deeply understood the very nature of the reality of (all) phenomena, then on what shall we focus in order to develop (such concentration on voidness)? Not only just that, but we must also definitely seek either an actual stilled and settled state of shamatha realized through the non-inverted methods for achieving one or a state of absorbed concentration having the four characteristics as previously explained and which would resemble a stilled and settled state of shamatha.

Once we have provided ourselves with these two, we must then actualize the absorbed concentration of the joined pair of stilled and settled shamatha and exceptionally perceptive vipashyana settled single-pointedly on the meaning (of voidness), parted from all mental fabrication. In other words, if we lack a (correct) view (of voidness) as explained above, then even if we have achieved a single-pointed settling (of our minds), they will not be settled on the meaning (of voidness) parted from mental fabrication. Because of that, then except for its being a stilled and settled state of shamatha, (our achievement) will not be what an exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana means. Likewise, even if we have found an understanding of the non-inverted view, yet lack a stable state of shamatha, our minds will waver a great deal from this focal object. Then, no matter how much we discern with detection of individual details, we will not be able to conjoin stilled and settled shamatha with exceptionally perceptive vipashyana. Therefore, when most standard classics say that both are necessary, the meaning is like that.

Closing Remarks

If I were to have written only in brief about the way to cut off all inverted deviations and thereby develop a non-inverted view (of voidness), it seemed I would not satisfy your wishes. Yet if I were to have been very extensive, it seemed that this would have become extremely overburdening with words. Therefore, today I have tried not to write (in either of these ways) in this letter.

In general, even if I were to present the (sutra and tantra) pathway minds like this (in a letter form), it did not seem as though it would be of much benefit, even in the future. Therefore, whether those who have requested me to do so, in reference to the future, have been lofty or humble, I have never in the past consented (to write such a letter). But you, my hallowed (teacher), are not like the others. Since you have requested me so earnestly please to discuss (this topic) and since other pressing reasons appeared as well from your noble letter, I have offered you these brief (words), having dispensed with much correlation with scriptural quotations and elaborate arguments to cut off extreme positions with logical reasoning. After examining over and again (what I have written), if it seems to accord with reason, I humbly request you please to implement this with your lofty practice.

(In a previous life) when you were the Master Translator Loden-sherab (Blo-ldan shes-rab), you travelled with countless difficulties to the Noble Land (of India) and served there many learned spiritual masters. By so doing, you found an exact (realization) of the total and complete points of the Triumphant One’s teachings. Because of this, whatever marvelous (works and translations) you prepared brought clarity to this land of the darkness of ignorance (Tibet). The banner of your fame still waves on among all wandering beings, including the gods, for, as this Eye of the World who had a heart of compassionately cherishing others more than himself, you attained the enlightened state of a successor to the Triumphant (Buddha).

(Now you have taken birth as) Konchog-tsultrim (dKon-mchog tshul-khrims), someone who keeps vows strictly, is learned, vastly intelligent, and who (as your name indicates) has respect for the (Three) Rare and Supreme Gems and excellent ethical self-discipline. In order to fulfill your wishes, I, Lozang-dragpa (Blo-bzang grags-pa), follower of learned masters who have exactly realized (all) the points they have heard and studied from many stainless scriptural classics and who am (now) a renunciate meditator favoring quiet places, have exhausted (my meager knowledge and insight in trying to satisfy you) in this way. By the excellent (positive) force of this constructive act, obtained from this (humble attempt), may all wandering beings understand the classics exactly as (Buddha), the Guru of the Three Realms, has well explained and thereby spread a festive array of realizations, perfect to the rule.

You with a constructive and confident mind and I are like (Buddha’s disciples, the close friends) Maudgalyayana and Shariputra. I pray that whichever of us receives the nectar (of Buddhahood) first will be able to share it with the other.

Ah, isn’t it wonderful to have had the excellent fortune of obtaining (a human rebirth with full) respites (to study and practice the Dharma) and to have met with the teachings of the Triumphant (Buddhas)! Now the (only thing) reasonable is to work day and night to make our bodies, with which we can accomplish great purposes, have their full meaning. This is because (Buddha) has said that those who make a marginal (effort) gain marginal results, while those who make a complete (effort) gain a complete result. And what sensible person would be satisfied with something partial?

(In the past) there has never been any limited being who has escaped being gobbled up by the cannibal of impermanence. As this is still only the case, mind, how can you sit and relax? Therefore, we must give up meaningless activities which, even though we might exert ourselves in, we will have to discard anyway (when we die). Instead, we need always to think in fact about the two kinds of karmic actions (constructive and destructive, the effects of) which will follow us no matter where we go. Having thought like this, then with moral self-dignity and care for how our actions reflect on others, as well as with mindfulness, alertness, and conscientious care, we will in fact be able to tame our minds well, which are so difficult to subdue.

May this thereby spread joy to our minds at the time of our deaths. May the (Buddhas’) teachings, the basis of all happiness and excellence, abide (forever). May no harm come to those who practice the hallowed Dharma. May all wandering beings’ hopes be fulfilled in accord with the Dharma, and may they never be parted from a heart of loving one another.

This “Brief Indication of the Graded Pathway Minds” has been (written) in response to a letter of request from the holy personage of Konchog-tsultrim, a great renunciate meditator who has exactly realized all the points he has heard so extensively and thus becomes a sacred close friend of the precious teachings and a guide for many wandering beings. It has been composed by the Buddhist monk Lozang-dragpa in the (Tibetan) district of E (E) at the Teura (Te’u-ra) Monastery.