Tantra Side by Side with Sutra: The Way of Tibetan Buddhism

In his book, Diamond Sky, Lama Jampa says,

“Once bodhichitta has arisen in the space of open-heartedness, one should enter the third vehicle, the Vajrayana.”

The reason for this encouragement, he explains, is the effectiveness of Vajrayana practice as a means to achieve accomplishment on the Buddhist path.

Lama Jampa Thaye at Changlochen Ling, Dordogne, this summer when, over a period of two weeks, he bestowed a series of initiations of Tara..

Lama Jampa Thaye at Changlochen Ling, Dordogne, this summer when, over a period of two weeks, he bestowed a series of initiations of Tara..

There is no attempt in this blog to explain the Vajrayana, the path in which one puts into practice teachings contained in Lord Buddha’s Tantras. Here, we simply mention how ordinary people like ourselves can enter into this extraordinary path in an authentic manner and hence begin, over time, to realise its fruit in our own experience.

Lama Jampa quotes Sonam Tsemo, one of the founding fathers of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism:

“Tantra means one’s mind being non-dual primordial wisdom. It is an unbroken continuum from beginningless time until buddhahood.”

The body of practices in Vajrayana cannot be explained in the same manner as the Sutra teachings. While a full understanding of the Sutra teachings can be obtained through the power of reason, Tantra operates at a more subtle and fundamental level. As such, its action is more immediate, carrying within it the fruit of the practice: enlightenment, buddhahood. It is thus called the ‘fruition vehicle’ in contrast to the ‘causal vehicle’ derived from the Sutras.

Lama Jampa explains this in his Rain of Clarity,

“This is because in the Vajrayana, rather than trying to accumulate the causal factors that will produce enlightenment in the distant future, one practises with the understanding that the very goal of practice, the state of buddha, is already present, in a sense, within one’s stream of being.”

How can we gain confidence that this is so and how can we enter into such a practice?

Being Introduced to Vajrayana

To get to the point where we are ready to enter Vajrayana, we will have discovered that Buddha’s teachings are entirely grounded in the reality of our situation in the world. They bring us face to face with the facts of life and our connectedness with others - their suffering as well as our own. We can no longer seek to live in a bubble or on some mystical trip. The teachings are not spiritually romantic, but utterly realistic.

So the Vajrayana, with its ritual and seemingly ethereal deities, is likely to seem strange in comparison to practices and teachings one may have encountered in the sutric, causal vehicle. This would certainly be very confusing were it not for the Lama who is able to put these extraordinary practices into the wider context of the entire path.

Lama Jampa does this authentically and precisely, according to the Buddhist tradition.

Having been given the authority to do so by his own Vajra Masters, the Lama opens the gateway to Vajrayana practice through initiations that have been transmitted in this way over many centuries.

In his Way of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Jampa explains that initiations are “essentially ritual embodiments of the transference of meditative realisation”. Any initiation must take place in person between a master and student or group of students. All subsequent deity-based practices in Vajrayana stem from initiations. It is through practice of a meditational text, or sadhana to use the Sanskrit term, that the student is able to cultivate the meditative accomplishment ‘planted as a seed’ at the time of the initiation.

In his Rain of Clarity, Lama Jampa quotes from the Mahamudratilika Tantra:

“Without initiation one cannot obtain powers, just as one cannot extract butter from sand.”

Hence, initiation is the only single gateway into Vajrayana practice.

The Lama’s Teachings: Both Sutra and Tantra

Lama Jampa always introduces Vajrayana in the context of wider teachings on the Bodhisattva Path and teachings that lead us towards that path. For, Vajrayana is only for those who have gone some way towards awakening the aspiration of bodhichitta.

We readily see the sense, therefore, in the pattern of how the Lama appears to structure the days, weekends and other periods of his teachings. We invariably see his programmes to comprise of, firstly, a sutric dharma text - one that is derived from Sutras or commentaries on Sutras - followed by a Vajrayana initiation.

The teaching Lama Jampa gave in Bristol in the autumn exemplified this pattern. In the morning he presented a quintessential Mahayana text composed by an early Sakya master, Nupa Rikzin Drak: ‘Instructions on Parting from the Four Attachments’ and in the afternoon, he bestowed the initiation of Chenrezik for the sadhana entitled ‘Mahakarunika and Mahamudra Unified’.

In this way, in the morning, the focus was on why we need to practise dharma, what we need to practise and what the results of the practice will be. It surely could not have crossed anyone’s mind, listening to those teachings that morning, that there could be a more succinct and clear explanation of the “why” and the “how” of the dharma path.

Whereas the morning’s experience was one of engagement on the level of reason regarding recognition of truths of in our lives, the initiation in the afternoon opened up another level of meeting the dharma, well beyond ordinary reasoning. It was just as well that we had already understood the essential groundedness of the Lama who was giving the initiation. From his teaching in the morning as well as from his initial remarks before the initiation, those present came to understand clearly the context and purpose of the practice to which the Lama was introducing us.

This does not involve any kind of personal escape into a nirvanic state; for the purpose of the practice is to engender connection with and compassion for other beings. This is the Mahakarunika of the title of the sadhana: great compassion. The term Mahamudra refers to the awakening of the intrinsic buddha wisdom which is inseparable from  compassion.

Again, in London more recently, Lama Jampa followed his apparently customary pattern of teaching  a Mahayana text, this time on mind training, in the morning and an initiation of Manjushri in the afternoon.

Again and again, the Lama’s teaching helps us to see that compassion is not real compassion unless it is joined with wisdom. The morning’s mind training teachings showed the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of placing others within our concern. The initiation of Manjusri that afternoon introduced us to Vajrayana practice that will help us to develop the wisdom that needs to be merged with our developing compassion.

Through attending the Lama’s sutric teachings on these precious occasions we hear fresh insights into how we can further understand and develop our own dharma path. Through attending the initiations he bestows alongside those teachings, we can widen and deepen our understanding and practice of Vajrayana and, hence, of our dharma practice as a whole.

Many of us find that the more we attend initiations, the more familiar we become with the kind of ritual that we are introduced to in each one. Familiarity of this kind is a great aid towards the sharpening of our focus during any given initiation.

This was certainly the experience of many who were fortunate enough to attend the fortnight of initiations for the twenty one manifestations of Tara that Lama Jampa bestowed at Dechen’s centre in the Dordogne, France this summer.

Lama Jampa’s 2019 Programme

Look under Major Teaching Events on this website to find Lama Jampa's future programme of teachings at Dechen centres.

Included in his 2019 programme are teachings on two texts by Gampopa, 4th patriarch of the Kagyu, which Lama Jampa began teaching this year: ‘The Jewel Ornament of Liberation’ and ‘The Precious Rosary of the Supreme Path’. Gampopa himself is famed for bringing together the Sutra and Tantra teachings, and his ‘Jewel Ornament’ sets out the entire path to buddhahood as a graduated path. Hence it is a seminal text applicable to dharma as practised across the various Tibetan schools of Buddhism.  

This blog is the work of students of the Dechen Dharma Community. Posts are typically a result of contemplation by its authors on teachings given by their Lamas. Whilst  every effort is made to accurately reflect teachings given, any misrepresentation is entirely the responsibility of the authors. Please address any communication to blog@dechen.org.

Seeing Scientific Truth from a Buddhist Perspective

Karma Thinley Rinpoche’s elegant dharma essay, ‘Telescope of Faith’ reveals radically differing ways in which the word “truth” is used in Buddhism and in science. In his essay, Rinpoche builds on the example of how western science, with its increasingly sophisticated telescopes, has been able to describe physical details of the sun, moon and planets beyond, with great accuracy. His thesis here is that, despite the superiority of science in terms measuring and so on, its scope is limited to describing appearances and their physical causality. On the other hand, the scope of Buddha’s wisdom encompasses and penetrates into the nature of reality in its entirety.  Thus, he shows how that ancient wisdom provides a radically different, yet abiding, understanding of what constitutes truth within the Buddhist system of practice and thought.

The cover of Lama Jampa's book, Diamond Sky, depicts a vajra superimposed on the background of a photo taken by the Hubble telescope. 

The cover of Lama Jampa's book, Diamond Sky, depicts a vajra superimposed on the background of a photo taken by the Hubble telescope. 

When Buddha Shakyamuni appeared in India two and a half thousand years ago, there was already a sophisticated cosmological description of the universe. For the Buddha, that cosmology was the scientific truth of the time, although not one that benefited from the exact measuring capabilities of the modern telescope.

As Lama Jampa mentioned during a recent presentation and explanation of Rinpoche’s text, the nature of science is that theories are held to be true only until a better and more comprehensive theory can be established. That is what has happened in the case of cosmology, albeit over a span of thousands of years; the earlier Indian cosmology having been superseded by modern western descriptions and explanations. Since scientists continue to study the cosmos, in acknowledgment that there is still more to discover about the planets and the universe, it is clear that they have not yet arrived at any final explanation about the nature of the universe.

Studying the dharma, we learn that Buddha taught what is known as The Two Truths, two ways that reality is perceived. These are firstly: conventional truth which is an accurate way of describing how appearances and phenomena manifest and function in the world. Then, on the other hand, ultimate truth that points to the ineffable, ultimately true nature of reality.  

There is no statement that can be made using conventional language that provides access to ultimate truth or that is able to define it. Therefore, in the context of the ultimate nature of reality, every single statement of conventional truth, in a sense, must be declared false simply because it cannot be said to be ultimately true. For example, if one were to test the assertion: “Reality is ultimately like an onion”, asking if that is true or false? The answer clearly must be false; as is every single assertion we can think of regarding the ultimate nature of reality, however sophisticated.  

There is, however, recognition in Buddhism that conventional truth has a practical purpose in the world even though it is not able to explain the true nature of reality. In his explanation, Lama Jampa mentioned, for example, the fact that scientists and engineers are able to develop aspects of conventional truth to great material advantage so that we are able reap the benefits of modern technology in our everyday lives.

Buddhist teaching goes further than that in its application of conventional truth by making use of the Buddha’s enlightened discovery of how consciousness arises in humans and other beings.  

His discovery was not made by chance but as a result of a vow: the Bodhisattva Vow.He made this vow in an earlier life at the time of a previous buddha to dedicate himself, through a series of lives, to discovering the cause of suffering and to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, to free them from suffering. Born as Shakyamuni, he came to show beings the attainment of the state of enlightenment as complete fulfillment of that vow. .  

Buddhist teachings known as ‘mind only’ describe how consciousness arises and how that arising operates to bring about a duality between ourselves, on the one hand, and that which is falsely apprehended as real and external to ourselves, on the other. Penetrating the cause of suffering, Buddha saw this duality as the factor which generates the defilements of desire, aggression and ignorance. Hence he was able to explain that it is these defilements, and their many variations, which are the driving force behind karmic actions that rebound on us as suffering. This has not remained as a mere theory, since the Buddha has provided us with a practical means - the dharma path - to dissolve this alienating separation and gradually open to realisation of the natural state where there is no duality: nirvana, peace.

In this context, Rinpoche quotes a short verse attributed to the famed yogin of Tibet, Milarepa, in which the first line can take one by surprise:

The lord, the perfect Buddha, is also skilled in what is false.

In the light of the foregoing discussion, this line can be understood to mean that the Buddha has fully recognised the ways that appearances of reality are misread by beings and taken to be truly existent, giving rise to emotions such as desire, pride, jealousy and aggression which are falsely taken to be an authentic experience of reality.

In this way, the teachings make use of how reality is conventionally experienced by ordinary beings owing to our faulty reading of the true nature of reality. So, although the Buddha fully understands that our dualistic apprehension of reality is, in the final analysis, false, he has used the language of conventional truth to help us recognise our own misreading. This allows us to train to free ourselves from entrapment in the delusions in which we find ourselves as a result of the misreading.

Rinpoche concludes that truth as understood through science does not refer to ultimate truth as found in Buddhist teachings; and even its body of conventional has quite a different purpose and  scope than the body of conventional truth found in Buddhist teaching. Therefore, it would seem inappropriate to point a finger at scientists, saying their version of truth false, as long as they have no pretensions that science has the capability to reveal ultimate truth.

Furthermore , it would seem ungrateful to point a finger in that way, since we all benefit from the findings of science in our everyday lives and many of their findings can be used by Buddhist teachers as material, just as Rinpoche has done here, to explain conventional truth aspects of the dharma. So, from a Buddhist perspective, scientific truth remains work in progress as a constantly modifiable subset of what we have learned through our study of the dharma to call conventional truth.

As a postscript, it is noted that many practising scientists down the ages have also seen it, from their side, in a similar way. A contemporary example of this is seen in an article entitled ‘The Many Meanings of Truth’ published by a group of scientists at the University of California.

This blog is the work of students in Dechen. Posts are typically a result of contemplation by its authors on teachings given by their Lamas. Whilst  every effort is made to accurately reflect teachings given, any misrepresentation is entirely the responsibility of the authors. Please address any communication to blog@dechen.org.

What is Mind Training?

Recently Lama Jampa has been teaching the Mahayana mind training (Tibetan: lojong) at centres in the UK and America. For these particular teachings he has used a short text called The Eight Verses of Mind Training by the twelfth century master Geshe Langri Thangpa.

Lama Jampa explained that the the mind training allows us, with our ordinary self clinging and self cherishing mind, to apply its methods in our meditation and everyday life situations, and so bring about a transformation within our own being. Ultimately, that transformation will lead us to full enlightenment, buddhahood with its qualities of wisdom and compassion.

We can all take great encouragement from hearing through these teachings that, however ordinary or deficient in enlightenment  we may feel right now, diligent application of the mind training will lead us to the goal of buddhahood.

Lama Jampa showing that a sense of humour does help when it comes to practising the mind training. It can help us to lose our sense of self-importance. 

Lama Jampa showing that a sense of humour does help when it comes to practising the mind training. It can help us to lose our sense of self-importance. 

The essential method of the training is a very straightforward one for overturning our self-centredness, but our strong egos quickly find ways to duck and dive away from its unambiguous instructions.

There are several easy to recall instructions such as

‘Drive all blame into one’.

This helps me to train myself to cease looking to others or to external factors as causes of whatever seems to be going wrong in my life; I alone must take responsibility for that.

Lama Jampa explained that it is only those of us who have chosen to engage in the mind training who need to apply teachings on karma in this way. Anyone else’s karma is not an appropriate subject for our concern. The mind training is for our minds only!

In answer to a student’s question on karma, Lama Jampa noted that ‘when the Buddha attained enlightenment, unhappily for us, we did not! Enlightenment arose just in his mind stream’. In other words, mind streams are individual and this explains why the practice is sometimes called a 'secret' practice, in the sense that one's practice is private to one's own mind stream. Hence, it is an attitude we adopt towards the world that places no demands on anything or anyone external to do the changing. It is our own business and there is no need to try to re-adjust the world around us. In fact, the converse is the case. We need to try and readjust ourselves to the world. We can do things like looking for positive qualities in others and cease to elevate ourselves as we normally do. .

This is where other sentient beings come in - just as they are. Without needing them to change, we can take them into our practice. In this way, our mind training helps us actualise genuine love and compassion.

Practising the mind training involves not just changing our mental attitude but also our behaviour; for example to soften our behaviour towards others.  The practice is further deepened through specific meditation practices which we learn as we progress. A prerequisite for this is recognition in ourselves of disturbing emotions as they arise through the practice of mindfulness.

If one were to ask what qualifications does one need to start with the Lojong? Lama Jampa put it very simply and not without a dash of wry humour.

Just one's normal neurotic mind is all we need to bring to the practice. We don't need any great learning or even any great meditation power. In short, all we need to bring are our habits of self-clinging and self-cherishing; in short our neurotic  way of relating to the world. We then find a way of transforming that through the practice.

This training certainly is a radical alternative to the worldly approach we may have led ourselves to believe would lead to happiness. However, if we look carefully at our lives we may see that, as Lama Jampa said in his introduction to the teaching,

‘The only thing that will cause us to break out of what traps us in suffering is by coming to develop love and compassion for others. So, in fact, happiness, even in this life, only comes whenever I forget myself and care for another person. They evoke in me the response of love and compassion and that brings about real happiness.‘

You can listen to this teaching via this link.

Lama Jampa will continue his teaching on the text, The Eight Verses of Mind Training, in London later in the year. See the What’s On page on this website for details.

This blog is the work of students in Dechen. Posts are typically a result of contemplation by its authors on those teachings . Whilst  every effort is made to accurately reflect teachings given, any misrepresentation is entirely the responsibility of the authors. Please address any communication to blog@dechen.org.

Connecting Oneself with Bodhisattva Activity

In our previous post we reflected on the nature of the lama’s blessings and how we can receive them. But what a nonsense it would be, were we to think of these as if they were just for ourselves. As explained in that post, such blessings are an element of the Vajrayana: to enter which we must first have taken the bodhisattva vow, the resolve to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all beings; hence the only valid context for seeking and receiving blessings is to help us in our development of bodhichitta.

Patrul Rinpoche says in his Words of My Perfect Teacher that if one were to distil all the qualities of a dharma teacher into one essential point, it is that, to be genuine, he or she must be a true bodhisattva. Therefore a skilful course of action for oneself as a student is to join one's own energy to the bodhisattva activity of the teacher. Traditionally, this is expressed as serving the teacher.

An aspect   of dharma teachers' work is establishing dharma centres; and this provides one of the ways that students can engage with and support their teachers' bodhisattva activity.

An aspect of dharma teachers' work is establishing dharma centres; and this provides one of the ways that students can engage with and support their teachers' bodhisattva activity.

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Sakya Dechen Ling, London, in 2015, Lama Jampa Thaye spoke about this (hear all this short talk here) when he reminded those present that, while Buddha’s teaching shows each of us the way we can become free of suffering, as followers of the Mahayana, the root of which is bodhichitta, we must go much further than practising the path for ourselves alone. We must practise it with concern for all beings. All beings are afflicted by suffering, some having far more intense suffering at this moment than ours. All those beings are intimately connected with us, we are indebted to them. Therefore, whatever we do from this moment should be for their benefit.

For ourselves, Lama Jampa said, we could perhaps just make do with the teachings we have received and practise in isolation. But the compassionate resolve of bodhichitta means that we need to think about others - and for them to come into contact with dharma, there need to be dharma centres as there have been throughout Buddhist history. And this is certainly one area, although by no means the only one, where we can connect ourselves with the enlightened activity of our teachers.

For those wishing to pursue the Vajrayana, it is recommended to receive teachings on the classic Indian text, Fifty Verses on the Guru, using a commentary such as Opening the Door to the Precious Accomplishments by Tsarchen Losal Gyamtso. This explains how one should develop one’s spiritual relationship with, and service of, one’s vajra master. The Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche is also extremely helpful in this regard.

When teaching the latter of these texts some years ago, Lama Jampa quoted his own teacher, Karma Thinley Rinpoche, who had remarked to him that the mark of a good disciple, having strong devotion, is that they don't make a show of serving their lama. 

This blog is the work of students in Dechen. Posts are typically a result of contemplation by its authors on those teachings . Whilst  every effort is made to accurately reflect teachings given, any misrepresentation is entirely the responsibility of the authors. Please address any communication to blog@dechen.org.


The Lama’s Blessings: What are they and how can we receive them?

When we see someone we admire, perhaps because of their eloquence or just because of their apparent ability to be positive and happy, it’s natural to think, “I want some of that - some of what he or she has”. Seeing an accomplished lama, we can easily have a similar feeling of wishing we had some of what he or she has. The extraordinary thing is that we can!

The wish-fulfilling tree of the Kagyu Lineage: source of blessings

The wish-fulfilling tree of the Kagyu Lineage:
source of blessings

This is why the lama is likened to a wish-fulfilling gem. The kindness of the lama is that he or she is dedicated to sharing whatever realisation he or she has, with the wish that others, all of us, may realise our own buddha nature. But of course, as with everything in life, effort is needed on our side before any qualities can begin to become a reality for ourselves.

To quote a couple of lines from a vajrayana teaching given by Lama Jampa in Manchester recently (a summary of which is available here):

"If you see the lama as an ordinary person, you will just get an ordinary person’s blessing.
If you see the lama as a buddha, you will receive a buddha’s blessing."



How can we be certain whether a lama is truly worthy of being seen as a buddha? For who knows where an unqualified and unworthy guide may lead us?  

We are well advised to put in significant groundwork ourselves in terms of learning and investigation, before committing ourselves to anyone’s spiritual guidance, let alone seeking their blessings. First of all, we must be aware of what qualities and qualifications a lama should have to be worthy of the title.

In his recent teaching, Lama Jampa quoted from the nineteenth century Tibetan master Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher (a text he taught in full in the nineties). Patrul Rinpoche provides a whole chapter on how to find a properly qualified teacher, how to start to follow him or her in an authentic way, and thus begin to receive their blessings.

A verse early in that chapter conveys something of how we can be positively influenced by those we look to as exemplars:

Just as the trunk of an ordinary tree lying in the forest Absorbs the perfume of a neighbouring sandalwood tree,

So you come to resemble whomever you follow.

Of course, this works the other way round as well. We are all too easily influenced by those who would lead us further into the mire. So one should be very careful who one follows, who one looks to as a role model. Patrul lists four kinds of fake lama that a student is sensible to avoid.

Teachers to Avoid

Teachers like a millstone made of wood. This type of teacher has somehow been given a title, due to their heritage or some such reason, but actually has never really practised dharma properly and so has no ability to teach anyone. Consequently they are as useful as a millstone made of wood would be for grinding grain to make flour. They are all title and little else in terms of spiritual qualities.

Teachers like the frog that lived in a well. Lama Jampa retells this story of the frog in the well in his book Wisdom in Exile as an introduction to the chapter entitled ‘Conceit’. These individuals don't actually know anything beyond the narrow confines of an ordinary person's world.

Mad guides. These individuals have never studied the sutras and tantras properly under an authentic teacher, let alone been part of any lineage. But ‘though lower than ordinary beings they ape siddhas and behave as if their actions were higher than the sky’.

Blind guides. These ones lack any qualities superior to your own and lack the love and compassion of bodhicitta.

These four types of bad teacher were seen by Patrul Rinpoche, a true master in 19th century Tibet, to attract gullible followers. And so we see human traits live on, albeit in a different time and place. The power of modern communications now seems to exaggerate the confusion even more. Beware!

It is obvious that to try and see any teacher fitting one of these descriptions as a buddha would be the utmost folly.

However, there are still teachers to be found who are authentically trained, realised and free of these egoistic faults. So there is no need to be put off just because bad teachers still attract less fortunate people. Wherever there are humans ….

Training in Seeing the Lama as Buddha

The long life prayer for Ratna Vajra, His Holiness the 42nd Sakya Trizin, contains the lines:

Protector, you are inseparable from the holy lord Manjushri.
To the fortunate and unfortunate respectively, you appear or do not appear as him.

How can we become that fortunate person? The sensible answer to this question is: by gradually applying “common sense and intelligence which,” as Lama Jampa said, “are actually the same thing as each other”.

Step one is, of course, to begin learning about Buddha’s basic teachings. As Lama Jampa explains, even the highest, most subtle Mahamudra teachings rest on the basic teachings, so an authentic teacher will always return to and restate these in their original and unaltered form.

Having obtained a good grounding in the basic teachings of the Hinayana and Mahayana, one will have come to know what qualities should be evident in the teacher. His or her moral behaviour should be completely in accord with the teachings, in which they must be well versed.

After you have spent some time finding out about a teacher and decided that you can rely on him or her, from then on the Vajrayana way is to train in seeing that teacher as a buddha. In his teaching of Patrul’s text, Lama Jampa made the point that this is to be seen only in the context of the spiritual path into which we have entered. To an ordinary person, the lama is an ordinary person.

What Are These Blessings?

In the context of dharma, blessings don’t actually add anything to qualities already innate within all of us. What they do is shine a light on our buddha nature.

It is said that the lama shows us our face in the manner of a mirror. This allows us not only to get a sense of our buddha potential but also of the ‘defilements’ in us that are masking that potential.

In his recent teachings on Mahamudra from the ninth Karmapa’s The Finger Pointing at the Dharmakaya, Lama Jampa explained how the ultimate nature - buddhahood - is conveyed by the direct mind-to-mind transmission that occurs in guru yoga at the highest level:

"It is the ultimate nature that is the real guru. This is the Mahamudra itself. The human guru is simply reflecting this and alerting his student to its presence."

In the teachings, it is made clear that this is only possible when the lama is part of a lineage from which he or she has received the teachings; a lama of the words of the Buddha - sutra and tantra - having no teachings of his or her own invention; a lama of the ultimate nature, meaning that he or she has fully realised the ultimate nature.

Clearly, that is guru yoga at the highest level and it will require some years of preparatory learning and development of meditational experience before a student will be sufficiently matured to engage in it fully. However, it seems helpful and inspiring, even for a relative beginner, to know that this is where the path leads for someone who commits themselves to making the necessary effort in their study and practice.

Serving the Lama

In his text, Patrul Rinpoche explains that the skilful way to follow the lama and open ourselves for receipt of blessings as described above is to serve the Lama. That is an excellent means to join our own aspiration of bodhichitta with the enlightened activity of the Lama. A further post, to follow this one, will elaborate on that theme.

This blog is the work of students in Dechen. Posts are typically inspired by an aspect of a teaching recently given by one of our lamas and are the result of reflection and contemplation of that teaching, considered worthy of being shared. A key purpose of the posts is to stimulate readers into their own further contemplation of teachings received.


Can Science Aid The Understanding of Buddhism?

Between them, the master and scholar Karma Thinley Rinpoche, born in Eastern Tibet in 1931, and Lama Jampa Thaye, born in north west England in 1952, are very specially qualified to examine the relationship between western science and Buddhist teaching, the dharma. This is a meeting of minds that spans the two cultures of a Tibet that knew almost nothing of western science, and that of westerners  awakening to the wisdom embraced in Tibetan Buddhism.


The topic of how science relates to Buddhist teaching, when discussed by such scholars and masters as these, invokes the most profound thought. In his essay ‘The Telescope of Faith’ Rinpoche, making reference to astronomic and cosmic constellations as examples of scientific knowledge where he says:

“Just knowing the size of the universe and the distances and numbers of stars and so on is not the same as complete omniscience.

With skilful means, from his perceiving the nature of things to be the Four Noble Truths, one should know that it is the Buddha who is omniscient, possessing the unsurpassable benevolence of enlightened activities, undiminished by time”


There is clearly great profundity wrapped up in these lines. One question they raise in one’s mind is: Could any scientist, however great yet still limited to describing that which is tangible in the world, ever attain the extraordinary reach of the omniscience to which Rinpoche refers?


The reader may wonder what concern this may be of theirs?

The omniscience of a buddha, which relates to mind rather than matter, has very direct relevance to all of us; for if it were not for that, the Buddha’s insight into the nature of each and every one of our mind-streams and how they function, would no longer have any relevance. So, therefore, having confidence in Buddha’s omniscience means the world to us as Buddhists because it provides a means of removing suffering and achieving happiness and contentment.

But, why concern ourselves with how science does or does not relate to that?


Lama Jampa, in his book ‘Wisdom in Exile’ and in his recent teaching in Bristol in January on Rinpoche’s ‘Telescope of Faith’, explained that there is a need to recognise that, even as lay-people largely unversed in science, we are all influenced to some extent by the pervasive idea that a scientific approach is the most superior way of getting to the truth of things.

Science may well be the best way mankind currently has of understanding the material world and manipulating parts of it through technology based on science. But a a real understanding of mind and consciousness still eludes scientists.

In his commentary on ‘Distinguishing Consciousness and Primordial Wisdom’, Rinpoche notes the important role played by the brain that has always been known in dharma.

“It is not to be thought that the mind is the brain. Rather, the brain’s ability to perform functions is due to the power of mind’s existence.”

This is a very different perspective from that of the materialists; a point that has long been understood by Buddhist masters.

Does this mean that, from a dharma perspective, we should discount or even try to debunk science?

Nowhere does Rinpoche suggest that. During the teaching Lama Jampa gave on Rinpoche’s Telescope of Faith in Bristol recently, he related anecdotally how Rinpoche took a keen interest in the findings of Western astronomy soon after settling in Canada in the 1970s and sees no need to dispute them even though they are in stark contrast to the ancient Indian cosmology referenced in the dharma texts from which he was educated and which he mastered years ago in Tibet.

It is obviously beyond the scope of this blog to attempt to elucidate and answer these subtle points and big questions. For that, we need to study the writings of our learned teachers and, whenever possible, go and listen to their analysis and elucidation of these questions. The experience of being present when the Lama is explaining these matters cannot be bettered, if one really wants to find a way into a profound understanding of immense topics like the omniscience of buddhas and the nature of consciousness and, to bring it right on home, our own minds.

Hearing the Lama expound on such matters and then contemplating his words helps us identify, and begin to strip away, patterns of thinking that have obstructed clear comprehension of Buddha’s teaching.

There is an opportunity to hear Lama Jampa teach once again on this topic on 2nd June when he will present the second (and concluding) part of his explanation of Rinpoche’s Telescope of Faith in Bristol. See the website for full details.


Mahamudra in the Kagyu Tradition

Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje

Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje

Mahamudra, the ‘great seal’, is one of the two principal streams of practice in the Karma Kagyu tradition. The other is the Six Yogas of Naropa, a set of ‘completion stage’ practices. Introducing his teaching on mahamudra at the shedra in Manchester in December last year, Lama Jampa explained that both of these practices can only be done after completion of all the foundation practices and vajrayana preliminaries (Tib: ngondro), as well as some accomplishment of deity (yidam) practice. Although mahamudra is therefore clearly an advanced practice, it is extremely inspiring to hear about it, even as a beginner on the path.  This is because its truth is already present as a seed within our mind stream, so there is a sense in which one can begin to relate with it right away.

What is mahamudra?

In his book 'Garland of Gold', Lama Jampa says that mahamudra, which can be translated as ‘great seal’, is the ultimate teaching of vajrayana, transmitted by Buddha Vajradhara, the embodiment of the dharmakaya, the true nature of reality. Mahamudra is presented in terms of three phases - basis, path and fruit – though in reality these are one. The fruit, Lama Jampa explains, is simply the recognition of one’s buddha-nature mind. He quotes the Indian siddha, Saraha:

‘Mind itself is the one seed of everything,
Both samsara and nirvana flow from it.
To that which, like a wish fulfilling gem,
Grants all wishes I prostrate.’

Lama Jampa presented a comprehensive introduction to mahamudra when he was invited in 2015 to teach at the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute, New Delhi. Read a transcription here

The text that the Lama began to teach in Manchester in December 2017, 'Pointing the Finger at the Dharmakaya', is one of three manuals of practice of mahamudra composed by the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje (1555 - 1603).

Lama Jampa taught part of this text in the late 1990’s but this is the first time he will be giving it in full. He taught the longer text, 'Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance', in 1983 and again more recently in 2011. And, going further back, he was already beginning to give these teachings to students informally as early as 1975, the year he founded Kagyu Ling in Manchester.

The practice of mahamudra is not unique to the Karma Kagyu, as it was transmitted in the supreme yoga tantras from Buddha Vajradhara. What is special about the transmission in the Kagyu is that here there is a ‘sutra’ transmission of mahamudra, found in the discourse (sutra) teachings given by Shakyamuni Buddha. Hence, in this tradition there is a union of the tantric and sutra teachings. This unified stream of teaching is called the ‘simultaneously arising and joining mahamudra’.

At the time of Indian and early Tibetan masters such as Marpa and Milarepa, instruction on how to practise the mahamudra was given orally direct to disciples. The stages of practice as set out by Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje in his three manuals are a distillation of the original oral teaching passed down from master to disciple up until that time. The manuals present the teaching in a systematic way, from the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma, through the preliminary practices of the ngondro, to the main practices of calm-abiding and insight meditation that together lead to the experience of mahamudra.

At the shedra on 6th and 7th December last year, Lama Jampa explained the sections of the text dealing with the common foundations (the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma) and the first three of the four ngondro practices. He will resume his teaching of the text in February and conclude it in July. See the Dechen website for details.