Table of Contents

Part 1 The Buddhist Teachings and Their Transmission

Part 1 The Buddhist Teachings and Their Transmission

Part 2 The Sakya School: Teachings and Practice

Part 3 Autobiographical Excerpts

Part 4 A Brief Overview of the Lam Dre

Part 5 Parting From the Four Desires: A Basic Teaching

Part 6 The Essential Two Wings: Concentration and Insight Wisdom

Part 7 Some Reflections on Enlightenment

Part 8 Dharma in the West: Questions and Answers

Sources and Acknowledgements

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Copyright 1998 Vikramasila Foundation

A Brief Overview of the Lam Dre


Virupa was born in a royal family and from a very young age had very special qualities. Seeing that all samsara was suffering, he renounced his station, became a monk and entered the great monastery of Nalanda. He began by studying the Sutrayana teachings and also received and practiced mantrayana teachings. He became so renowned for his learning that after the passing away of his teacher, he succeeded him as the abbot of Nalanda monastery. During the day he gave mahayana teachings to the monks, taught debate, and composed texts. In secret, however, he undertook mantrayana practices for a very long period of time. Yet, after practicing in this way for a very long period of time, he experienced no significant signs of progress or accomplishment. Virupa thought that perhaps he did not have the karmic connection with the tantric practice, and so decided to devote his efforts full-time to giving mahayana teachings.

After making this decision, on that very night, he experienced a vision of Vajra Nairatmya. Vajra Nairatmya said to him: "What you have decided is wrong. I am your karmic link deity and you must continue your vajrayana practices." So because of this vision, he continued his secret practices. Shortly afterward in his pure vision, he saw the full mandala of Vajrayogini and received the empowerment of the deity Hevajra. Every night for six nights, one after another, he attained great realizations. On the first night he attained the great realization of the first bhumi, realizing the ultimate truth. On the second night and on each night after it, he obtained one bhumi or one stage of the boddhisattva path, up to the sixth bhumi. He then became a great mahasiddha, left the monastery, performed many great miracles, and subdued those on the wrong path. Many benefitted just by hearing his name, and he did great service to the Buddhadharma.

Virupa had many general followers as well as mahayana followers, but Krishnapa and Dombipa were the two main followers of his esoteric, pith instruction. For the benefit of Krishnapa, he gave the teaching known as "Vajra Words." This very short teaching contains the essence of all the Tripitaka and Vajrayana. In the same way that butter is refined from milk, the Vajra Words are the most important essence of the Buddha's sutric and tantric teachings in the form of pith instruction. This teaching then passed to his close disciple Krishnapa, who gave it to his disciples. In this way it was passed on to five great Indian gurus. The fifth of these gurus was the Gayadhara who came to Tibet several times and gave this teaching to the great translator Drogmi Lotsawa. Drogmi Lotsawa was the first Tibetan to receive the Lam Dre teaching. He was a great master who had many male and female disciples who had very great realizations. Drogmi Lotsawa transmitted the general tantra explanations and the pith instructions to his disciples separately. He would not give the general tantric explanations to the disciples who were listening for the pith instructions, and he would not give pith instructions to those who were listening for the general teachings. Among his disciples who received the most important teachings was Seton Kunrik. Seton Kunrik received the Lam Dre teachings, attained high realizations, and gave the teachings to Zhangton Chobar. Zhangton Chobar was a kind of hidden yogi: to the general public he was an ordinary person working in other people's fields. He promised to work in many fields, and emanated his body to many places. Zhangton Chobar gave the teaching to the great lama Sakyapa, who was born of the Khon race.

The Lam Dre Lineage

The Khon lineage is believed to be directly descended from celestial beings dwelling in the rupadhatu. When the time was ripe, they felt it was necessary to descend into the human realms. Three brothers descended from the heavenly realms to the high mountains of Tibet. One of them settled in Tibet. The first name of this lineage is known as the Clear Light race. Later they mixed with the rakshas, which were the local spirits. When this mixture took place, there was some disagreement between the perfect wisdom and ignorance. At that time the name "Khon" was given, and both the name and lineage have continued to the present day. Members of the Khon lineage were formerly Bon practitioners. Later on, Khon Nagarakshita was a direct disciple of Padmasmbhava. Guru Padmasmbhava gave him many teachings - and in fact, he was one of the first Tibetans to receive full Buddhist bhiksu ordination. He was one of seven Tibetans ordained as a trial to see if the Tibetans could keep the Buddhist monastic ordination. So, Khon Nagarakshita's monastic ordination was the beginning of a very auspicious Buddhist monastic tradition. In any case, he was a very great disciple of Guru Padmasambhava, and for many generations, the descendants were great Nyingmapa practitioners. During Khon Konchog Gyalpo's time, they felt it was necessary to start a separate school, so they concealed all the ancient teachings and started the Sakya order. The first monastery was built in 1073 by Khon Konchog Gyalpo who was the father of the great Lama Sakyapa, Kunga Nyingpo.

Khon Konchog Gyalpo was a disciple of Drogmi Lotsawa and received the tantric teachings from him. However, Lama Sakyapa Kunga Nyingpo received the Hevajra tantra teachings directly from his father; but received the pith instruction from Zhangton Chobar. At first there was some hesitation on the part of Zhangton Chobar, but later when he found out that Kunga Nyingpo was the son of his dharma brother, Khon Gyalpo, he was more eager to give the Lam Dre pith instructions. When he gave them to Lama Sakyapa Kunga Nyingpo, he did so with the admonition that he should not disclose even the name of the teaching to anybody for eighteen years. The condition was that after eighteen years, Lama Sakyapa would be free to write the teachings down or give them to his disciples, because by then, he would be the 'owner' of this great teaching. So for eighteen years Sachen Kunga Nyingpo didn't mention the name of 'Lam Dre' to anybody and kept it completely secret. During this time he studied and mastered the t eachings. Lama Sakyapa was an emanation of both Manjushri and Avalokitesvara, a manifestation of all the Buddha's wisdom and compassion combined. In reality he was already a fully enlightened being, but from our ordinary perception, he appeared in human form and followed the path.

At one point during these eighteen years he became ill and actually forgot many of the teachings, because at that time there was yet no written text. Because it was a strictly oral teaching he was very worried because his guru had already passed away. At that time, tantra was practiced secretly in the high mountains or in the great forests; it was not commonly given. He thought that even if he went to India it would be very difficult to find such a teaching. So he prayed, and in a dream, the guru Zhangton Chobar, came to him and gave teachings. In this way Kunga Nyingpo remembered a lot of what he had forgotten. A second time after praying in his meditation cell the Guru Zhangton Chobar came and gave teachings, and he was able to remember the greatest part of the teachings. A third time after praying, the great mahasiddha, the guru Virupa, founder of Lam Dre teaching who received the teaching directly from the deity, appeared in the Sakya mountains.

In the vision, the huge mountain behind Virupa was covered with his body: he said 'this earth belongs to me' and then gave the full Lam Dre teaching and many other pith instructions to Kunga Nyingpo. And so, in this way, the great Lama Sakyapa Kunga Nyingpo became the owner of all the Buddha's teachings. Kunga Nyingpo gave these teaching to his sons and many of his disciples, and it has continued up to the present day. This is a very brief history of how the Lam Dre teaching was started.

The famous five Sakya teachers, the Jetsuns, are members of the Khon lineage. Sonam Tsemo was Sachen Kunga Nyingpo's son, and Sakya Pandita was Sonam Tsemo's nephew, and Chogyal Phagpa was the son of Sakya Pandita's brother.

Overview of the Lam Dre Structure

The Lam Dre teaching is very profound and very vast. Though it is one teaching, it can be practiced in many different ways. Those destined to follow the gradual path will start first with the Hinayana path and then continue with the Mahayana and Vajrayana. Others may be able to follow the direct path due to circumstances related to their state of mind and their karmic connections. So for this reason there are many different ways to present the Lam Dre teaching to disciples. The common way is to combine the whole of the Lam Dre teachings into two parts: the preliminary part and the main part.

The preliminary part is included in the preliminary teaching known as the Triple Vision. The Triple Vision consists of the base, the path, and the result. The base refers to sentient beings. Due to karma and defilements, sentient beings have the impure vision, which is the ordinary vision that we have right now. Yogis and practitioners who have enrolled in the path and practice meditation have the vision of experience. After working on the path very hard, one achieves the result, which is Buddhahood. The Buddhas have great inner qualities and pure vision. So, the triple vision refers to the impure vision, the vision of experience, and the pure vision. This is how the preliminary part is divided.


In the Lam Dre, as in all Buddhist traditions, the very first point- the preliminary practice of all the paths, the root of all dharma and the foundation of all vows is to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The practice of Refuge differentiates Buddhist practitioners from practitioners of other religions. The first meditations of the preliminary part divide taking refuge into three sections:

1. Taking refuge and creating the enlightenment thought

2. Practicing the main part of the meditation

3. Dedicating the merit

To more full understand Refuge, five additional points are used to clarify the principles:

1. the cause

2. the object

3. the way

4. the benefit

5. the rules of refuge

1-3. Regarding the cause of taking refuge: we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha out of fear, faith and compassion. The object is the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In the mahayana, the word 'Buddha' is used to refer to one who possesses three kayas [or aspects]: the dharmakaya, the nirmanakaya, and the samboghakaya. The Dharma or the teaching points us to the realization. The Sangha refers to the great boddhisattva who has already reached the irreversible state. We take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha with the Buddha as our guide, the Dharma as our path; and the Sangha as our spiritual companions.

4. As it is said in the scriptures, the benefit of taking refuge is immense. If the merit we earn in taking refuge had physical form, the whole universe would be too small to accommodate it.

5. Regarding the rules of taking refuge: there are general rules and individual rules. These will be explained in detail at another time.

The Impure Vision

There are three preliminary meditations:

1. Suffering

2. Impermanence and the rarity of human rebirth

3. The law of cause and effect

The explanation on the impure vision is given first in order to develop renunciation. This is connected to the first turning of the wheel of dharma by Buddha Shakyamuni, in which he taught the four noble truths.

The first noble truth is the truth of suffering, the second truth is the cause of suffering, the third is the truth of cessation, and the fourth is the truth of the path. In order to be free from suffering, we must first understand the nature of suffering. For example, when we are sick, we must first know the disease before we are able to get the proper treatment. It is for this reason that the first noble truth- the truth of suffering, must be understood. We begin by understanding the nature of suffering in samsara.

1. Suffering

There are three types of suffering:

1. the suffering of suffering

2. the suffering of change

3. the suffering of the conditional nature of all things.

The suffering of suffering means the visible suffering we have all experienced, such as physical pain and mental anxiety. Beings reborn in the lower realms- the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm- have an intense experience of the first suffering. In the higher realms it appears that there is a mixture of suffering and happiness, but in reality, there is no such mixture. The experience of suffering in the higher realms is merely different than it is in the lower realms. First of all, we all experience the sufferings of physical pain and mental anxiety. Also we experience the suffering of change, in that anything that is created with cause and conditions is impermanent, and anything that is impermanent is conditioned by suffering. In this sense, just as the outside world changes, as in the changing of the seasons, change is also occurring in our own lives. Young ones grow older, large families become smaller - everything is changing. The third suffering is the suffering of the conditional nature of all things. Feelings which we normally categorize as "happy" or "indifferent," exist only in relation to other feelings. In reality, there is no happiness in these relative feelings. In samsara as a whole, from top to bottom, there is no essential happiness. So although in certain ways we have less suffering and in certain ways experience more suffering, in reality, there is not a single aspect of our experience that is worthy of attachment. For example, when a poison is mixed with food, whether it is good food or bad food, the poison still is harmful. Therefore, in order to arouse renunciation the first part of the Lam Dre teaching emphasizes the meditation on suffering.

In order to fully arouse renunciation, the teachings explain the details of sufferings; especially the hell realm and the hungry ghost realm. According to the teachings, the whole universe is divided into six realms: three lower realms which include the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, and animal realm; and three higher realms: the human realm, the demi-god realm and the god's realm. But taken together, in samsaric existence there is not a single space that is worthy of attachment.

In order to arouse the inner urge to free ourselves from suffering, we have to concentrate on the first step: the different conditions, and the different levels of suffering.

2. Impermanence and the rarity of human rebirth

The second preliminary practice is to meditate on the difficulties of obtaining the precious human birth. As ordinary sentient beings we are only able to perceive the impure vision, due to our karma and defilements. We conclude that this impure vision came from our own actions; therefore, the only way to be free from this realm of existence is to practice the holy Dharma. In order to practice the holy Dharma, we need to first obtain a precious human birth.

To obtain a precious human birth is very rare. In order to be born as a human being, generally one must have created the proper causes in advance - such as having practiced virtuous deeds, especially pure moral conduct, supported by other good deeds such as generosity combined with sincere prayers. It is very rare for all of these qualities to combine together. Consider the world today, and of the many people who practice the spiritual path. Even of those who appear to practice dharma, many of them only practice externally and on a superficial level. Since the cause is rare, the result is very rare. So from the causal point of view, all of these qualities are very rare. From the sheer numerical point of view, outwardly it seems that there are so many people; however, if you think about it carefully, it is very easy to count how many people live in one house; and yet it is impossible to count how many different beings, including insects, are in the same house. So from point of view of how ma ny sentient beings exist already, human life can be understood as very rare. From the point of view of nature, generally human life is rare, particularly those who have been freed from all the unfavorable states of mind, or the human life that has all the right conditions. The additional conditions for an optimal human rebirth are to be born at the time that a Buddha has come to this universe, or in a time when a Buddha has given the teaching and the teaching is still a living tradition, or being born with functioning sensory organs, and with an eagerness to receive the teachings. Just from these factors we see that it is very, very difficult to find the Dharma. Therefore, we must think that human life is very precious, more precious than the wish-fulfilling jewel. The wish-fulfilling jewel is the most precious thing of all material things because if one has it, it can bestow all our material requirements such as food, medicine and clothing. However, the wish-fulfilling jewel cannot bestow hig her rebirth, self-liberation, or enlightenment. But with the precious human body and hard work, it is possible to achieve not only higher rebirth and personal liberation, but even ultimate enlightenment. One must not only intellectually understand the value of the precious body, but also feel that it is very precious and very rare because it is more valuable than the wish-fulfilling jewel. When one possesses such a precious thing, one then understands that there is no greater loss than losing this very rare opportunity. If one cannot make use of this precious time, one will never know whether there will be such an opportunity in the future. Therefore, it is very important for us to work when we have all the right conditions, and are free from all the unfavorable states.

In other teachings, the meaning of the precious human birth and impermanence are taught separately, but in the Lam Dre they are taught together. The precious human birth that we have now is impermanent. Since everything is impermanent we must understand that our precious human birth is impermanent also. In the Sutras, it is said that the best offering that one can offer to the Buddha is to think about impermanence, because just by thinking about impermanence will turn us away from attachments. By thinking about impermanence we will be motivated to practice and make efforts on the spiritual path. Thinking about impermanence is a great antidote to suffering, and will eventually help us to realize the ultimate truth.

In this way, we must be mindful that this human existence that we enjoy now has no definite life span. We all know people can die before birth, or soon after birth, or when they are babies or grownups, and so forth. Moreover, even if one has a certain amount of time, there is no actual reason that one will live up to that time because anything can happen. It is the same as a butter lamp with oil that can be blown out at any moment due to a sudden wind. In the same way, the precious life that we have right now, even if one is young and healthy, can be affected by outer or inner obstacles. Anything can happen, and at any moment one can die. Therefore, not only is it important to practice dharma, but it is very important to practice it quickly without wasting any time.

3. The law of cause and effect

The third preliminary is the law of karma: cause and effect. It is one of the unique teachings that the Buddha gave in order to show what one must do and what practices one must follow. Everything we see and experience, including our current quality of life has been created by our own actions. The teaching on cause and effect has two parts: the illusory vision and the karmic vision.

The Illusory Vision.

The illusory vision is sometimes referred to as the "jeweled vision." Just as in a dream, when we are dreaming the experience is as real as in our waking life, but when we awake, nothing remains of the things that we saw and experienced. In this great illusory vision, subject and the object appear separately. All sentient beings experience this illusory vision, and it characterizes the world we live in now.

The Karmic Vision.

The karmic vision consists of the different perspective each sentient being has, based on their karma. For example, some beings have less suffering, some have more suffering, and so on. In any case, the law of karma requires that whatever action we take, the result will follow; just as surely as our shadow follows us wherever we go. Similarly virtuous and non-virtuous actions are like seeds which we plant. In due course, the seed will ripen and produces the result.

There are non-virtuous, virtuous, and neutral deeds. Non-virtuous deeds are actions created out of ignorance, desire, and hatred. If the root of a tree is poisonous, the flowers and leaves that grow from it are also poisonous. In the same way, whatever actions that are generated by desire, hatred and ignorance are called non-virtuous deeds which create suffering in this life as well as in future lives.

There are three kinds of action: physical, verbal, and mental; and there are ten non-virtuous deeds. Virtuous actions are deeds done without hatred, desire, or ignorance. Actions which are motivated by loving kindness and compassion are called virtuous deeds. If the root of a tree is medicinal, then whatever grows from the tree is also medicinal. Similarly, any action that is created without the defilements is called a virtuous deed. Virtuous deeds create happiness in this life as well as in future lives.

Finally, there are actions that are neither virtuous or non-virtuous deeds, such as walking and sitting. Since these actions do not produce any negative results, they are greater than the non-virtuous deeds; yet since they do not produce any positive results, they are inferior to virtuous deeds. It is important to turn these neutral deeds into positive deeds.

If one wishes to be free from suffering, one must abstain from negative deeds. We begin by abstaining from the cause: if we indulge in a negative cause, then we can't expect to have happiness as the result. Therefore, we must abstain from even the tiniest negative deeds, and we must try our best to practice even very small virtuous deeds. In the same way that an accumulation of drops of water forms the great oceans, even tiny virtuous deeds will gradually accumulate and produce a beneficial result. Regarding indifferent actions that are neither virtuous nor non-virtuous, one should change one's motivations using the skillful means of the bodhisattva's way of life. One should try to convert negative deeds through diligent practice. This is a very brief explanation of the first part of the Lam Dre, the Impure Vision.

Some questions and answers follow, which relate in particular to the topic of the Impure Vision

Q: Are there factors that determine at what time during this or future lifetimes that the fruit of a person's virtuous actions will manifest? What are the factors?

Sakya Trizin: It depends on the action itself. There are certain actions that will ripen in this life. When the object is strong, the action is strong, and the intention is strong, then the result ripens in this very lifetime. There are certain actions that ripen in this life after this lifetime, or even in several lifetimes later. The law of cause and effect is such a subtle thing that no ordinary person can fully explain it.

Q: Sakya Pandita was very critical on the use of the term mahamudra for anything less than the highest completion practice. Would you comment on this in connection to the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism?

Sakya Trizin: Actually, Sakya Pandita did not say that we couldn't use the term "mahamudra." With any practice, not necessarily mahamudra, if we do not do it correctly, we can not achieve the result. If we do it correctly, with the right teacher, the right path, and the right method, we can achieve the result. What he said was that in order to attain enlightenment, we must follow the right practices that balance method and wisdom. Mahamudra is primordial wisdom that we experience through meditation.

Q: Please explain the concept of karma and its relationship to cause and effect and merit.

Sakya Trizin: Actually the word karma means action or activities - the work that we undertake. The life we go through now, and all of its experiences, is the product of our own actions that we have taken in the past. Nobody can make us suffer. Nobody can make us happy. Only through the main cause that comes from our own actions will we be happy or suffer. The main cause is our own action. The actions that we've taken create the effect and the result.

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