Gyalwang Karmapa’s Teaching on “Three Primary Elements of the Path”

Karmapa 17

Compiled from { kagyumonlam.org }

Day 1

December 21, 2012

Introductory remarks

The grand Monlam Pavilion, with seating for about 10,000 monks and laypeople, is ablaze with colour in the darkness of early morning. Metal beams spanning the great height of the ceiling are draped with red and gold pleated banners giving an impression of sun rays beaming from Mount Kailash at the back of the stage.

It creates an eloquent statement about both the Buddhist tradition and the Kagyu lineage which the Karmapa uses to great effect in making his opening remarks. The theme that weaves throughout the talk is the essential unity of Buddhist schools and the destructiveness of schisms. Mount Kailash – sacred to 3 Eastern religions- towers above all.

The main teaching of the Monlam is Je Tsong Khapa’s Three Primary Elements of the Path. This particular text was chosen for the Monlam because the commentary is by the first Jamgon Kongtrul, Lodro Thaye, and the 30th Monlam is dedicated to the Kongtrul lineage. Lodro Thaye set a precedent as the Rime [non-sectarian] master who broke through the barriers of Tibetan sectarianism in the nineteenth century.

To introduce the teaching, the Karmapa explained the connection between the Karmapas and Je Tsong Khapa, “the king of dharma”. In an historic meeting on his way to China (or on the way back) the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje met a child whom he recognised. He predicted “this boy will become like a second Buddha”, gave him the Upasaka vows and a name, Kunga Chenpo. The child was Tsong Khapa.

Through the blessing of Manjushri, Tsong Khapa had a special experience and realised the Madhyamika view coming from Nagarjuna. He also held the lineage of Atisha and practised the Vinaya to such perfection that no one could dispute his conduct; although some people disputed his view of Madhyamika. “He was a great master,” said the Karmapa. The three primary elements of the path are renunciation, bodhicitta and right view. These three elements are the foundation for even crossing the threshold of either sutra or mantra.

“The most important way of honouring the great masters is to understand their experiences and try to practice what they have taught. There is no better way to honour the teacher. Jamgon Kongtrul wrote countless books and out of them all, this one is very useful.”

The Karmapa then spoke from the heart about his personal experience of divisive rumours and wrong views to dispel them publicly. Because of his prolonged stay of twelve years at a Gelugpa monastery in Dharamsala, there were rumours that he had abolished the Lama dances at Rumtek, had become a Gelugpa and that he told people not to practice Nyingma or to say the 7-line prayer of Guru Padmasambhava.

“Since the time of the 16th Karmapa nothing has been discontinued at Rumtek”, he said. ” I just came from Tibet and went directly to Dharamsala. I thought I would stay a few months in Dharamsala and then I would go to Sherabling or Rumtek. But I couldn’t go anywhere. I had to stay in Gyuto. I have been a kind of guest there for 12 years. Now the guest is almost becoming a permanent resident. Since I am staying in a great Gelugpa monastery maybe some people are spreading these kind of rumours.”

Since his childhood, he said, he has maintained a deep and abiding connection with Guru Padmasambhava.

Right from the beginning of my life my parents had great faith in Guru Padmasambhava and I would recite the 7line prayer. We were nomadic and had to move our tent to different places in the summer and winter. Everyone wanted the best place for grass and water. My father told me to recite the 7-line prayer and I would recite it all day. If my father got a good place for our tent he would say, ” You must have recited it very well”. If we didn’t get a good place he would say, “I’m sure you didn’t recite it very well”. One day there was dark red smoke in the sky. The chief of our area said there was a fire in the mountains and if the fire burned the grass, all the food for the cattle would be destroyed. I went on top of a hill and recited the 7 line prayer and blew into the air. I don’t know whether it helped or not but the fire didn’t come to our place. The chief gave me one yuan and I was very happy and showed it to my parents. I had never before received a present. I had this kind of connection with Guru Padmasambhava. Even now, I have the same connection.

To summarize:

Generally I have great faith and confidence in all the teachings of the Buddha. I have no thought that one is better or worse. All the teachings in Tibet come from India. They are not different; they just have different names. The teachers established different monasteries in different places. We come from the same teacher and the same teaching. We tend to forget this because it’s more than 2000 years since the Buddha passed away. The Buddha predicted the way the dharma would end would be when the people who hold the teachings have conflict amongst themselves. That conflict is the maras. However bad we are, we should not destroy our own teachings. We should all be very careful about this.

The differences are there to help different kinds of people, he emphasized, not because they are in essence different. The Monlam prayer book is also allinclusive, containing prayers from the great masters of the different schools and the sub divisions of the Kagyu. Reciting these prayers plants the seed for teaching according to the needs of different people.

When we take refuge it should include all buddhas, all the dharma, all the sanghas. We don’t say my buddha , my dharma, my sangha. Otherwise it isn’t refuge. We should not make this segregation. If we don’t take authentic refuge we are not authentic Buddhists. It is like giving up the dharma.

If you give up the dharma it’s worse than the 5 heinous deeds. If you commit the 5 heinous deeds you may go to the hells for some time, but if you give up dharma you create a situation where you will never be able to practice dharma.

All of you have to hold the dharma, understand the Buddha’s teaching and how to preserve it – through both teaching and practice.

Day 2

December 22, 2012

Understanding the defects of samsara is the basis for developing renunciation

The Gyalwang Karmapa began the second day of teaching on Je Tsong Khapa’s text with a playful reference to the worldwide speculation and fear that the world would end on Dec. 21st:

“Today is the second day of the 30th Kagyu Monlam. Yesterday the world ended so today we are in a new world. I would like to say good morning to all of you because today is the first day of the new world.”

In keeping with this, the Karmapa went on to stress that every hour of every day we have an opportunity to become a better human being. We should let go of the problems of our past and begin each day anew with a joyful and peaceful outlook.

Then he gave a little background information on the author of the commentary, the great Rime master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye.

You can almost say that he started the Rime [non-sectarian] movement. Even though the Rime view or principle was there in Buddhism from the beginning, later on the sectarian view grew stronger, especially during the time of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgon Lodro Thaye. One was a great Sakya master and the other was one of the main lineage holders of the Karma Kamtsang, but because they were so close, they were motivated to work very powerfully for the Rime movement and together had unequalled activity in propagating this nonsectarian form of practice.

The Karmapa went on to stress that the reason we are able to listen to the teachings by the founder of another school today is due to the greatness of Jamgon Kongtrul’s activity and that by teaching this text of Je Tsong Khapa’s he is not doing something strange or unusual, but is in fact following the tradition of Jamgon Kongtrul. Then the Karmapa continued with the main text:

The “Three Primary Elements of the Path” has three parts that reflect the three main principles of the path: renunciation, bodhichitta, and the right view of emptiness. Today we are talking about renunciation—the necessity of generating it and how to do so.

As to the first point, the necessity of generating renunciation, the Karmapa said that first we have to truly understand samsara. Because we are under the sway of karma and negative emotions all the time, we go round and round and never become free. We experience the three kinds of suffering: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive suffering. As long as we are trapped in samsara, we will have no true and lasting happiness. So, realizing this we need to generate a very clear and strong wish to be free of this shackle of samsara.

Next, in order to develop bodhichitta, first we have to have a very strong wish to free all sentient beings from samsara because we have come to understand how bad samsara is and by contrast how good nirvana is. Thus renunciation and the understanding of impermanence is also the foundation for generating bodhichitta. The Karmapa continued:

There is a saying that if you do not understand impermanence then even your practice of “Sangwa Dupa” and all the other tantras will not be very deep. But if you do understand impermanence, then even the foundational practice of taking refuge becomes very deep. Thus, how deeply our practice of dharma goes depends on our understanding of impermanence and the defects of samsara.

The Karmapa said that we may think that the Vajrayana is very deep and profound, but in truth whether our practice becomes Mahayana or Vajrayana depends on us and our motivation. Some people think that if they practice something great or high like Mahamudra they will have a very profound practice, but that does not necessarily happen. It is up to us. Likewise, those who firmly hold the three kinds of vows but do not turn their minds away from samsara are simply driven by misunderstanding. To illustrate this, the Karmapa told a famous story:

As Jowo Atisha lay dying, a yogi came to him and said, “After you die, what should I meditate on?” Atisha said, “Don’t meditate, that is very bad.” Then the yogi said, “Alright, then I will meditate sometimes and teach sometimes.” And Atisha said, “That is also not good, just forget it.” Then the yogi said in exasperation, “What should I do then?” And Atisha said, “Give up your attachment to this life.”

Next the Karmapa talked about the kind of life we need to truly practice the dharma: this is the “precious human life,” replete with the eight freedoms and ten opportunities. He said that what this phrase really refers to are those beings with freedom to practice the dharma, unlike demi-gods, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings, all of whom are deprived of the Buddha’s teachings. But even human beings could be deprived of the teachings of dharma, for instance, barbarians in the hinterlands or those with physical or mental impediments.

Also, it should be noted that even among fortunate humans, there is no dharma without the “nam shi” or four pillars: the gelong and gelongma, and the male and female genyen or upasaka. These are what are called the four followers of the Buddha, which are like the four pillars of a house.

Then the Karmapa made a surprising comment about the “nam shi” in relation to Tibet:

There is no gelongma tradition in Tibet so we are almost like those in the barbarian hinterlands. Generally when we talk about the place where the Buddhadharma spread, like in India, in Maghada where we are now, there are the four types of followers of the Buddha, gelong and gelongma, etc. And whether the Buddhadharma is really established or not depends upon whether these four followers of the Buddha are present or not.

Karmapa focused on the importance of understanding impermanence and how to make our lives meaningful. He stressed the dangers of procrastination He said, “As soon as you have the thought to practice dharma, do it then and there, rather than postponing it until you’re old.”

And he also presented a unique and skillful way to utilize impermanence:

Some people think that impermanence involves only thinking about death and becoming very worried about it. But it is not like that. Since everything is impermanent and changing, there is always an opportunity to purify the past and make yourself a new person. One way to practice is to start from the time we get up from our bed in the morning. We should feel as if we are newly born from our mother. Then when we wash our face, it is like how a baby is washed after it’s born. Then when we have our breakfast, we should feel that we are fat with our mother’s milk. And when we go to our jobs we should think we become a youth. Later, in the evening, when we come home, have dinner, and go to bed, we should think we have died. So in that way, one day is like one life.

There are two benefits of this. First you will realize that one day is as important as one whole life. So you cannot waste even a single day, because it is similar to a whole life. And secondly when death actually comes, you can accept it and go through it more easily. So this is something that I think it is important for everyone to keep in mind.

At the end of the teaching the Karmapa led the assembly in chanting the Lam Rim Monlam (Aspiration for the Stages of the Path) by Lord Tsong Khapa, followed by a five minute meditation.

……we will meditate on death and impermanence because there is nothing other than that to meditate on. Yesterday some people were saying that the world will be destroyed, and I was thinking about this as I was chanting: perhaps the ground underneath me would crack open and I would fall in. So, since many people yesterday thought the world would be destroyed, let us meditate now, thinking that five minutes from now the world will end. Please think about that when I ring the bell.

Day 3

December 23, 2012

Where to find happiness

Today as usual, the sound of the reed horns echoed in the distance and increased as the Karmapa neared the Pavilion. He entered from the side, made three bows to the Buddha, and sat on his throne carved of a rich brown wood. After prayers, came the supplications for his long life. The central aisle was filled from beginning to end with disciples holding the offerings—representations of enlightened body, (a statue), speech (a text), mind (a stupa), qualities (a long life vase), and activity (a double dorje), all tied with scarves in bright colors.

Recently, the Karmapa explained that he was teaching The Three Primary Elements of the Path because it presents the three central aspects of the Mahayana path: renunciation, bodhicitta, and the correct view. The text will benefit all who hear the teachings since they will know where to focus and can then practice with clarity about the key points. The commentary is by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye and remembering the contributions of his lineage is the essential theme of this year’s Kagyu Monlam.

Today, the Karmapa began by saying that he had talked about overturning our attachment to this life. And now he will talk about reversing our attachment to future lives. We can do this by following the advice of the root verse:

Repeatedly contemplating the unerring process of action and result and also the sufferings of samsara

Reverses preoccupation with future lives.

The Karmapa then gave a reading transmission for the commentary, The Path to Freedom for the Fortunate, by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye on renunciation in relation to future lives. He followed this with his thoughts on the main topics.

“Preoccupation with future lives” means attachment to them of which there are two types. We may harbor hopes for birth with high status and wish to lead the good life, resembling our imaginations of celestial realms. Or, without the intention to help others, we could also wish for rebirth in a pure realm, which we envisage free of problems and suffering.

Reflection on karma, the linking of cause and effect, can help to counteract these two preoccupations. In our past lives, we have taken wrong paths and created negative karma, which is so great that all of space cannot contain it. If we don’t do anything, our situation will not change. Negative karma will not finish itself off and come to an end on its own: we have to do something to purify it away. To spur us to action, we need a clear certainty, a confidence in karma’s pattern of cause and result, because merely believing does not help; we have to actually become engaged and do something.

The most universal Buddhist practice is to discard the ten unvirtuous actions and take up the ten virtuous ones. This applies to everyone who is not enlightened; it includes both lay and ordained people, all of whom should do this practice. The beginning of the path is finding an authentic teacher; then the actual practice is to work on one’s karma, trying to live the right way through the ten virtues.

I have a story to tell, which I’ve told before. It fits in here so I’ll tell it again. There was a rich man who spent his evenings counting his money. By his house lived a beggar who sang at night. The rich man thought, “I’m so rich but I have no time for singing.” He wondered what would happen if the beggar had lots of money, so while he was out begging, the rich one put a chunk of gold the size of a goat’s head in the poor man’s place. When he returned he was amazed. He thought a god had given it to him and he spent that evening thinking about what he would do with his new wealth. He forgot to sing. The rich man was watching from the window and then he understood: “Due to my wealth, I have forgotten how to make myself happy.” This is what is happening in the world today. We work hard to become happy and then we forget what makes us happy. In my own experience, happiness is not a complex thing: The simpler things are the happier and more peaceful I feel. True happiness comes from the way we think and how we experience our life.

We assume that happiness has to come through great effort. And since we don’t value what we do have, we think we need to get something new. Actually, we already have true happiness, but we don’t see what’s worthwhile. I’m completely certain that we don’t have to acquire something new. Happiness is to recognize what we already have.

Once I was going around the monastery and the weather was nice. I relaxed my mind and noticed that I was just breathing. I thought that’s not special, we always breathe, yet spontaneously, I thought how satisfactory this experience was—there was a natural joy in it. Taking one breath is a rather complex process; it depends on oxygen from trees, an elaborate system of exchange within the body, and so forth. And yet my experience of that one breath came without any effort, and I just thought, “It’s amazing that I’m alive now and can breathe so easily.” If I had had to think about creating oxygen, for example, it would have been very complicated. But I was simply happy because I could breathe. It all depends on how we think.

Happiness is always there; we do not have to bring it in from the outside, but simply recognize it within and allow ourselves to feel it. For example, we can be content with what we have, whatever it is. If we have a lot, it doesn’t mean we have to get rid of things. We are simply satisfied with that is there, be it large or small. With this contentment comes happiness. So we have to learn how to satisfy ourselves. This is extremely important as our endless greed is using up the limited resources of the world. We must think about future generations and our future lives. In some places, water is becoming scarce, so when we use water, we should keep this in mind. This is one way of thinking about cause and effect.

It’s crucial for us to become good people. If we are not, then how could we say we’re Buddhist? We need to reflect: What kind of person am I? If you’re making a golden vase, first you have to see if the material is real gold. If it’s brass, then you’re not making a gold vase. To become a good Buddhist, you have to become a good human being. It doesn’t mean that you have no anger or jealousy, for example, but that you have decreased the negative emotions. Otherwise, it’s a sham: you have the name of a Buddhist, but have not transformed yourself. Nobody can change us. We have to talk to and instruct ourselves about the right way, then change will happen.

Day 4

December 24, 2012

The brotherhood of Bodhisattvas

A cold fog has settled thickly over Bodhgaya as the fourth morning’s teaching takes place at the Pavilion pure land. Perhaps the rain of blessings has settled as snow on the cone of Kailash. “It’s quite cold today, my hand is freezing, ” says the Karmapa when teaching bodhicitta. His carved throne is garlanded with wreaths of bright orange marigolds.

We gallop through the second primary element of the path, bodhicitta. The necessity of developing it and how to generate it are both covered in a few definitive words before the Karmapa moves on to give Refuge and Bodhisattva vows.

“If renunciation is not embraced by bodhicitta it does not serve as the cause for the bliss of perfect and complete enlightenment”.

When we understand deeply that everyone of us has mistaken the cause of suffering as happiness and the cause of happiness as suffering, then we can generate great compassion. Think about it: all of us have mistaken the intention and its cause. With that deep understanding we generate the wish to pull every single being out of samsara from top to bottom.

From the text:

Carried off by the raging currents of the four rivers,
Bound by the tight fetters of karma so hard to undo,
Enmeshed in the iron net of self-clinging,
Completely shrouded in the pitch-black darkness of ignorance,

Tormented by the three sufferings without respite,
Through birth after birth in the infinite round of existence—
Such is the condition of your mothers.
Contemplating their plight, rouse the supreme motivation

We may have very strong renunciation; we may have direct understanding of emptiness; we may have miraculous powers; we may even be developing the paramitas – but without bodhicitta we cannot become buddhas. Bodhicitta increases virtue so greatly, that even giving a bit of food to someone becomes a cause for enlightenment. It closes the door to lower rebirths. Whether we become enlightened in this life or not truly depends on bodhicitta. The qualities it radiates are so manifold that if bodhicitta had a form, the vastness of space could not contain it.

The bodhisattva has his own kind of brotherhood, his own family. There are two ways of entering into it. The more courageous person will exchange self for others. More fearful mortals have to take instructions on the 7-point cause and effect. To actually put bodhicitta into action, first we have to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha because that makes us fearless.

At this point the Karmapa gave Refuge and it would seem that most of the assembly knelt to take it again. Moving on immediately to the Bodhisattva Vow, he made a distinction between taking it as aspiration and as action. In brief, generating the bodhicitta is aspiration and taking the vow to actually work on it is action. It’s up to the individual to decide which one to take. Again, it seemed the entire assembly knelt to take the vow.

We human beings are creating so much suffering to other beings who are not independent; beings who are not free, who have no protection, or health. Therefore, I who have followed the dharma and generated bodhicitta, want to help others. I want to become their protector. I would like to give freedom to those who don’t have freedom, I would like to give well-being and happiness to those who have no happiness or well-being. I want to get rid of their suffering as much as possible.

If I don’t have that kind of aspiration and don’t want to do it or don’t make an effort to do it, then it isn’t dharma practice. If dharma practice is just to make me happy or just to have a good time, then it’s not necessary.

There is one way to break the vow and that is to abandon someone. If you see that someone is unhappy and you feel that it’s alright for that person to be destroyed; if you have the power to help someone who has no protector and is suffering but you don’t do it; if you say one person is bad and you completely cut off all contact – these three ways of thinking are described as abandonment.
“If you give up a sentient being then you will completely get rid of your aspiration—no Bodhisattva Vow, no aspiration of bodhicitta.”

These ways of thinking can be purified and the bodhisattva vow renewed.

But if you really completely give up sentient beings at that very moment you become a non-Bodhisattva, you have lost the Bodhisattva Vow. If you give up the Bodhisattva Vow, you cannot become enlightened in that lifetime. Maybe in the next life you can – that’s another matter. But that’s how it is understood. This is bodhicitta.

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