Je Tsongkhapa

Lama, Yidam, Khandro, Chokyong
From Cho Yang  - The Voice of Tibetan Religion & Culture No. 6


Shakyamuni Buddha surrounded by Karma-Kagyu lineage teachersThe Buddha achieved enlightenment and taught his disciples his doctrine two thousand five hundred years ago. Since we do not have the good fortune to have heard these teachings directly from him, we depend on the unbroken lineage of teachers and disciples as the basis for becoming a Buddhist. The purpose is to achieve liberation from rebirth in cyclic existence, and attain ultimate enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Buddha is an object of refuge because, although he was also an ordinary person to begin with, he was able to abandon all faults and achieve ultimate realization for the benefit of all sentient beings. The Dharma is the truth of the cessation of all disturbing emotions and their traces and the truth of the path, which is the antidote to these disturbing emotions. This Dharma abides in the continuums of those who have realized the ultimate nature of phenomena. Because we depend on the Dharma to attain liberation, it is the ultimate refuge. The Sangha is like a reliable friend who has already attained liberation from cyclic existence and on whom the practitioner can depend for support in his or her quest for enlightenment.

H H the Dalai Lama with the late H E Ling Rinpoche   The lama (bla ma), guru or spiritual mentor, is first mentioned in the refuge recitation because he relates to his disciples the teachings passed on in a direct and unbroken lineage from the time of the Buddha. Therefore, if you really practise, the lama should be regarded no differently from the Buddha. Reverence for the lama is based on these reasons and though both the direct lama, that is the one who bestows the teachings and the indirect lamas, those in the lineage between the Buddha and the direct lama are objects of respect, special attention is paid towards the direct lama.

   A master-disciple relationship is established when a disciple requests teachings and the lama or master agrees to give them. The master then transmits the teachings when he has realized in his continuum to the disciple. The wheel of Dharma has been turned when the disciple practises according to his master's instructions and the master's realization takes root in his or her continuum. At this stage, the disciple may become master. In Tibet, such a master is called a lama.

   There are many ways of categorizing lamas according to both the systems of sutra and tantra. In Tibetan Buddhism tantra is considered the ultimate practice, but since all the paths are studied and practised simultaneously, it would be difficult to distinguish an exclusively sutra lama. One area in which a clear differentiation can be stated is in giving of the different types of vows. In this case, exclusively sutric designations are employed. These are called lamas who give instruction.

   There are eight types of vow of individual liberation. Five are for ordained people and the lama giving them is called an ordination abbot. He explains the commitments contained in the vows to those who have decided to abandon the ways of laymen and adopt those of ordained persons. In the case of the vows of full ordination, he is called the full ordination abbot. The vows are preliminary female vows, male and female novice vows, and male and female fully ordained vows. There are three types of vows for lay people and these are one day vows, and male and female lay vows. The lama who instructs disciples in lay vows is called a master.

   Besides masters of the eight types of vows, there are other functions who lend particular names to the masters performing them. At the time of taking fully ordained vows, there is a master who states the time and place of the ordination, a master of ceremony; master for matters of discretion, who takes the disciples aside and asks if there is anything about him that would make it unsuitable fir him to become a monk; the master who gives reading instruction; and the resident master, one who is always there to be consulted concerning the vows as to what is permitted or what is not.

Ven. Lama Zopa Rinpoche   Within the sutra system, there are also lamas who pass on transmissions and who give explanatory teachings. A transmission takes place when a lama recites a text passed down through a lineage of lamas to suitable disciples. Oral transmissions comprise reading important Buddhist teachings and are essential in that they ensure the integrity of the text and continuation of the Buddhist lineage through generations of Buddhist scholars. If the text were not passed down word for word and an explanation or superimposed interpretation were added, the accuracy of the contents might change completely within the lineage of a hundred or so teachers with varying degree skills of oral expression. It is important in a religious person's education that an explanation of a text accompany a transmission and thus commentaries on texts are widely available, but the root or original text is kept separate and that is what is passed down orally in a transmission.

   Early signs of the potential danger of inexact transmission were recorded in the years following the Buddha's passing away. During the Buddha's lifetime, his teachings of the three categories of knowledge were retained orally in the minds of his various disciples. Because they were not written down, perfect memorization was essential. After some years, a council was held during which all the different teachings the Buddha had given in different places were categorized. Later, when doubt arose as to changes in content due to mistaken recitation, other councils were held during which disciples and indirect disciples cross-checked their knowledge to avoid inaccuracies. This tradition of transmission based on oral recitation is thought to come from this need to keep the teachings intact.

   Explanation is introducing the meaning of a text through interpretation and clarification. The teacher may either give an oral commentary based on his experience or knowledge of the meaning of the text, or base the explanation on commentaries written by his predecessors. The purpose of the explanation is to ensure that the text does not simply remain as an oral recitation, but that through explanation, it may enter the disciple's mind and cause his or her mental development.

   From the tantric point of view, there are lamas who give empowerments, who transmit the lineage, and who give quintessential instructions.

Ritual objectsEmpowerment

Empowerment is very important, for in order to practice tantra, one must first receive initiation. In the lower categories of tantra, there is only the vase initiation. In the two higher categories of tantra, there are four: the vase initiation, the secret initiation, the wisdom initiation, and the word initiation or oral empowerment.

   From the moment a practitioner has been taken the vase initiation, the master bestowing it become his or her lama. Within the vase initiation, there are several initiations, each related to one of the five Buddhas Families: Akshobhya - water initiation, Ratnasambhava - crown initiation, Amitabha - vajra initiation, Amoghasiddhi - bell initiation and Vairochana - name initiation. In addition, there is also the master initiation. The lama bestowing the initiation is called the vajra master.

   Receiving initiation from a qualified teacher is a permission to recite the texts, to meditate on the deity and to recite the deity's mantra. Without an initiation the practice of tantra is not only not permitted, but is also considered a cause for accumulation of grave negative karma for both the teacher and the disciple. Receiving the proper initiation gives the practitioner the power to practise successfully and gain accomplishments. As stated in the following vase:

Without initiation there is no spiritual attainment,
Like a butterlamp of water.
   Once the disciple has received initiation, the lama can teach him or her tantric practices and meditations.

Initiation vase   Having received initiation into the three lower tantras, the disciple must practice the yoga with signs, which means visualising the deity and reciting the mantras, which are practices for developing a calmly abiding mind. Once calm abiding has been attained, the disciple practises the yoga without signs, which is meditation on emptiness, with meditation on the deity to develop special insight. Having received the higher tantric initiations the disciple is ready to practice the generation and completion stages.


All tantric teachings have their source in the sets of discourses. They are considered the fourth scriptural division in addition to the three scriptual divisions of the Sutras: discipline, sets of discourses and knowledge. Tantra means continuum. Transmitting the continuum means passing on the tantric teachings, which have their base in the original tantric texts. These texts include descriptions of unique tantric practices, methods of practising tantra, and explanations of attainments reached when the practices are completed.

Quintessential Instructions

When giving quintessential instructions the lama explains the profound meaning of a text in a way that is easily comprehended by disciples. There are aspects of tantric texts which are difficult to understand when merely read, and which require a lama's intrepretation. The lama must either have experience of the matter in hand, which is best, or at least a profound understanding of what it means.

Experiential Teaching

The disciple meditates and when he or she has achieved some experience, relates it to the lama who offers further guidance. The disciple adds this advice to his meditation, continues to practise and on achieving new experience relates that before receiving further instruction.

Merit field (Refuge Tree) of the Gelug traditionThe Master-Disciple Relationship

In Tibetan Buddhism, where tantra forms part of most daily practices, the master-disciple relationship is considered the basis for all realizations. The lama, because of his essential role in transmitting the Buddha's doctrine to disciples is considered as no different from the Buddha. The core of many practices is meditation on the merit field, in which the practitioner visualizes his root lama surrounded by meditational deities, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, Heroes (pawos), Skyfarers (khandros) and protectors and prays to them as a source of inspiration and merit for attaining enlightenment. The term 'merit field' means a field where merit is planted, where it grows amd flourishes in the disciples' mindstream. The deities in the merit field are all aspects o the lama. At the end of the practice, the practitioner dissolves them back into the lama, knowing that they are his manifestations. In order for this practice to be successful, faith in the lama must be unshakable, for the disciple cannot proceed confidently on the path when burdened with doubts concerning the main object of guidance and inspiration. It is not a question of how important or how knowledgeable the lama is, but the fact that he is the personal link with all the beings in the merit field that makes him essential.

   When a disciple who has once considered the lama as the same in essence as the deities in the merit field rejects that lama, it is very difficult to expect progress on the path. Meditation and devotion to the deities in the merit-field cannot continue without the lama as they were all his emanations and blessings. A disciple who has rejected his or her lama cannot expect to continue receiving blessings and inspiration from his emanations, since they are one and the same. It would be like wishing to enjoy the shade of a tree after it has been cut down. Since the lama is the link to the Buddha through the lineage, rejection of the lama greatly weakens or severs this link.

Personal Connections

One may have an affinity with a particular lama due to some connection from a former life. Two lamas may differ greatly in their scholarship or reputation, regardless of which, one or the other may arouse a special feeling and give rise to great faith and joy. A single explanation from such a lama may have the power to arouse profound understanding in the mind. The same words uttered by the lama with whom one has no such connection may not have the same effect, and, in spite of his great knowledge and fame, will not arouse faith in the disciple. In this way, karmic connections with particular lamas are considered very precious and powerful. If a lama teaches a disciple on the basis of such a connection, there is no limit to the great realizations which can be achieved, and to the speed with which they are achieved. If there is no such karmic connection, then realization is hard to come by.

Mahasiddha Naropa   For example, long ago in India, the followers of yogi Tilopa achieved varying levels of realization by practicing his teaching. Though Tilopa was their lama and they were all equally his disciples, it was Naropa who achieved high realization due to his former connections, while others achieved less and some very little. Naropa's disciple Marpa was highly realized and had heard teachings from many great Indian teachers. He had many disciples in Tibet, but it was Milarepa who was unique among them in that he attained ultimate realization in that very lifetime. Different disciples have different levels of merit, predispositions and necessary attributes for attaining realizations which were particular to them. The power of their wish for enlightenment, respect for their teacher, effort, and wisdom, also play an essential part.

   Though they are highly important, the quality and method of the lama's teachings are not the essential factor in the disciple's realization. Rather, it is the way, based on karmic predispositions, that the teachings can effect the particular disciple's continuum and have the power to stop defiled thoughts and actions and induce pure realizations.

   In petitions and prayers to the lama, the disciple requests blessings. This is an important practice as the power of the lama's blessings on the disciple's continuum does not depend on the lama, but on the disciple. If his or her faith and respect in the lama are very strong, the disciple will be receptive to the lama's blessing. If feelings towards the lama are clouded with doubt and uncertainty, his positive influence on the disciple will remain limited, however realised the lama may be.

   When the sun shines over a snow mountain, the snow melts and water flows into the valley below. If clouds obscure the sun the snow will not melt and the rivers dry up. Similarly, the disciple with faith in his or her lama will be receptive to his blessing, and their spiritual advancement will be affected, while the disciple in doubt will not reap such benefit.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama   Because progress in spiritual practice depends so much on the lama, the disciple must carefully consider a potiential teacher before engaging in a master-disciple relationship. The disciple may try to observe if the teacher acts according to the teachings he propounds, whether he is compassionate, whether he is more preoccupied by spiritual concerns that worldly ones; whether he is of stable character and does not give rise to doubt, whether he knows more than the disciple, and belongs to an unbroken lineage. Ideally a teacher should never tire of teaching a worthy disciple and accomplishing the welfare of others.

   Since it can be difficult to judge for oneself the extent of a teacher's knowledge, a prospective disciple can seek the opinions of others. However, once the relationship with a lama has been established, it must be protected at all costs.

   This may be difficult, for the lama is also a human being and a disciple will inevitably detect faults in his character. In cases where the disciple did not observe the lama enough beforehand and begins to perceive faults too outrageous to cope with, still he or she should avoid outright rejection, criticism or confrontation and remain as neutral as possible. In the case of ordinary foibles, the disciple should reflect on the faults in his or her own character and focus on the lama's positive aspects and the spiritual benefit to be gained from the relationship. The disciple should make up his or her mind that his positive aspects greatly outweigh whatever minor faults the lama may have. In the ordinary way if you regard someone with great respect and affection, their postive side greatly outweighs the negative. It is all a question of perspective.

The Advantages of Relying on a Lama

   Relying on a lama causes a disciple to accumulate great merit. This merit renders his or her actions performed either for self or others highly successful. If you study and lead a life of virtue, merit will be accumulated which will lead to a better life and good rebirth, but it will not necessarity free you from cyclic existence. However, if the practitioner dedicates merit towards the attainment of enlightenment, it will become a basis for acquiring the wisdom that realizes the selflessness of persons and phenomena. Such realization is necessary whether you aspire to attain freedom from rebirth in cyclic existence or the ultimate goal of perfect enlightenment the sake of all sentient beings. Teachings on emptiness will not appeal to persons with little merit, for their sense of self-existence will be too strong. When practitioners develop even intellectual apprecitation of emptiness and can accept it in theory, the grip of cyclic existence is greatly weakened. Their view of reality is like a woolen garment which has been eaten away by insects on the inside, while retaining its shape externally.

   If you do not have a lama, your knowledge and progress on the path will not increase. If you have a lama, but reject and despise him, as described above, great negative karma will be accumulated and no merit or progress will be derived from your practice.

Sadaksari AvalokiteshvaraYidam

The Yidam (yi dam) is a meditational deity. It is an aspect of the Buddha, and of the lama. Tantra is a quick path, which allows the ripe disciple to attain enlightenment in one lifetime. Empowerment is a means to ripen the disciple's continuum and is a preliminary for tantric practice. During an empowerment, the Buddha, personified as the lama takes the form of a meditational deity, places the disciples in that deity's mandala and confers the initiation upon them. The meditation deity is thus an indirect personificaion of the Buddha adopted in order to confer the initiation on the disciple.

Kalachakra Sand Mandala   During the initiation, the lama or vajra master generates himself as the deity with clear vision and divine pride. He instructs the disciples what to visualize and mentally places them in a mandala, or deity's abode, symbolized by a painted or a sand mandala. The lama then visualizes the meditational deity before him. He prays for the disciples to receive accomplishments and bestows on them the empowerment.

   Having receiving the initiation, the disciple is allowed to practise the tantra on the basis of the deity or yidam whose initiation he or she has received. When practising the self generation of the deity, the disciple must first meditates on emptiness, out of which they deity arises. Therefore, in order to practise tantra successfully one must have at least a firm conviction that all phenomena are mpty of inherent existence. Visualization of the deity must be very clear, therefore meditative stabilization is necessary. Clarity of visualization is the antidote to ordinary apperances. The strong identification with the deity known as divine pride is the antidote to grasping onto ordinary appearances.

   Meditational deities are Buddhas by nature. They are beyond the cycle of rebirth and in the context of the merit field, they are places on the four highest levels of the tree. Lama and yidam, mentor and deity, should be revered equally and seen as indivisible from one another. Anyone who claims that yidams are superior to lamas will not attain realization. Those who consider thm equally will gain high spiritual attainments.

Hevajra of Marpa Lotsawa lineage (Kagyu)   When Marpa went to India for the third and last time, he met his guru Naropa. One morning, Naropa told him to get up and Marpa arose, he saw the yidam Hevajra, his own meditational deity and his mandala appear vividly before him. As he stared in awe, Naropa asked whether he would prostrate before the yidam or before the lama. Marpa answered that he could meet his lama at any time, but that to have such a clear vision of his yidam and its mandala was very rare and he prostrated to the deity. Saying, 'But the deity is an emanation of the lama,' Naropa snapped his fingers. The deity, his celestial mansion and the entire mandala dissolved into his forehead.

   Naropa then told Marpa, that because of this mistaken view, his religious lineage would remain long, but his family lineage would not. He also warned him that he would not be able to attain full realization in that lifetime.

Vajradhara Buddha surrounded by 84 Indian Mahasiddhas   Therefore it is incorrect to hold the yidam as superior to the lama. It is essential to consider the lama and yidam as of the same nature, inseparable from each other. When you practise tantra, you have to visualize the lama as of one entity with Vajradhara. If you practise on the basis that the lama and yidam are of one single entity, there is hope for spiritual achievement.

   There are four kinds of yidams or meditational deities belonging to the four classes tantra: Action, Performance, Yoga and Highest Yoga Tantra.

   The ability or facility to practise with a particular yidam comes from past life connections. Some may find it easier to achieve realization meditating on Heruka, others on Yamantaka.

Vajrayogini of Naropa lineage (Sakya)   Yidam can have peaceful aspects. such as Tara and Avalokiteshvara, slightly wrathful aspects, such as Vajrayogini or Guhyasamaja or a extremely wrathful aspects, such as Yamantaka or Vajrakila. It is said that yidams take on a fearful appearance in order to scare away the interfering forces who create obstacles for practitioners. These interferences can be internal, such as disturbing emotions, or external, and cannot be tamed through peaceful means. The yidams themselves are not actually angry. Their apparent anger is motivated by love and compassion. They are aware that the beings afflicted by disturbing emptions or the interfering spirits harming practitioners are accumulating negative karma and will suffer greatly in future. Therefore, yidams take on this frightful aspect to lessen their suffering.

Vajrakilaya of Khon lineage (Sakya)   Wrathful deities can be compared to parents, who have children with different dispositions. Although they love them all equally, they must treat them differently for their own good. They reward those who behave well, but may need to punish deal sternly with the unruly. They do not act out of anger, but out of concern.

   All yidams assist the practitioner in overcoming the principal disturbing emotions: anger, desire and ignorance. However, some have particular methods for taming particular disturbing emotions. By these means the practitioner can transform them into the path by doing the practice of that particular deity. In the case of Yamantaka, anger is brought into the path. The anger which arises in the practitioner's continuum is used to eliminate anger. In the practice of Guhyasamaja, desire is generated which can eradicate desire. Like the termite born in the wood who eats the wood away, the anger or desire which are generated eat away the practitioner's anger or desire.

Khandros and Pawos

The literal meaning of Khandro (mKha' 'gro) or dakini is skyfarer. There are several accounts of their origin. One holds that in the country of Orgyen, said to be situated in the Swat vallery of present day Pakistan, there lived harmful beings like ogres which were called pawos (dpa' bo) and ogresses which were called khandros. As the tantric path developed and flourished in the area, these ogres and ogresses became Buddhist practitioners who attained high levels of realization. Thus they became differentiated from the worldly demons who harm sentient beings.

   Khandros and pawos, skyfarers and heroes, have attained at least the path of seeing, at which stage they are free from rebirth in cyclic existence.

Chakrasamvara Heruka   Another account of Khandros and pawos has it that they were harmful beings appointed by Shiva and his consort Uma to guard the twenty four important sites. Because they brought harm to the beings there they were eventually conquered by Heruka and tamed. Reaching high levels of realization, they became beneficial guardians of these sites. The pawos and khandros represented in the merit field are of this latter type. They have attained liberation from cyclic existence and are considered objects of refuge, members of the Sangha. The main abode of the pawos and khandros is the Dagpo Khacho (bdag pa mkha' spyod), the Skyfarers' Pure Land and abode of Vajrayogini. These deities take various forms to help sentient beings, especially tantric practitioners, to progress upon the path.

Vajra Panjarnatha Mahakala (Gur gyi Gonpo)Protectors

When the Buddha was teaching, he instructed some of his disciples to remain as Dharma Protectors (chos skyong), to ensure the long duration of the doctrine, to shield practitioners from harm, and to remove obstacles to their practice. Among them were the King of the Four Directions, who are represented guarding the doors of most Mahayana Buddhist temples throughout Asia.

   There are many types of protectors, such as those appropriate to the beingsof the three motivations: small, middling and great. Yama, the lord of death is the guardian of beings of small capacity, whose chief motivation is to avoid the sufferings of the lower realms of animals, hungry ghosts and hells.

Outer Yama Dharmaraja (Shinje Chogyal)Vaishravana (Namtosay)Sadbhuja Mahakala (Gonpo Chagdrugpa)

  Yama distinguishes beings according to their accumulation of virtuous or unwholesome actions. In this way, he is the protector of virtuous beings, who are sent for rebirth in a higher realm.

   Vaishravana is the protector of the beings of middling capacity, whose wish is to be freed from rebirth in cyclic existence and who adhere to ethics in the form of vows of individual liberation.

   Mahakala is the emanation of Avalokiteshvara and because he is the essence of compassion, he is the protector of the doctrine of the Great Vehicle.

Mahakali - Palden Lhamo Remati (Magzor Gyalmo)Rahula (Za Du, Kyabjug), Worldly Protector

  Dharma Protectors listen to those who command them and hold to their purpose which is to protect the doctrine. They help the holders of the doctrine, those who study it and those who practise it. Dharma Protectors came into being at many different times, some were instigated by great Indian adepts and later, in Tibet, by Guru Padmasambhava.

   There are two kinds of protectors: worldly and transcendental. Such protectors as Palden Lhamo and Mahakala are considered transcendental and have a place in the merit field. They belong to the Sangha and are objects of refuge. Some of those introducted by Guru Padmasambhava were considered worldly at that time, although they were virtuous beings and totally committed to their pledges. Some say that having continually practised since the time of Padmasambhava, they have attained high levels of realizations and are now beyond cyclic existence. In any case, because they were not so when they were appointed, they are not represented in the merit field.

Nechung - the oracle for Dorje Drakden   It is considered wrong to view worldly protectors as objects of refuge. They are not to be prostrated to and must not be the main object of devotion. In Tibetan society, some protectors manifest themselves to human through oracles. They have their mediums and are consulted about matters beyond human knowledge. People often pray to them for worldly purposes because they feel that they are more accessible than higher deities. However, they should only be considered as helpers or friends. A true practitioner would only request their assistance for well-motivated purposes, something which will benefit others and be a source for accumulating virtue. It is believed that because of their pledges to help the doctrine, this is what will please them most.

   Yidams, pawos, khandros and Dharma protectors are all aspects of the lama within the merit field. The lama correctly teaches the Buddhist doctrine to beings. The yidam is a form through which the Buddha tamesbeings and confers on them the necessary initiations to practise tantra. Protectors are those who, instigated by the Buddha's command, protect the doctrine and those beings who practise it correctly.