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History of the thought training teachings

A multi-part course based on Open Heart, Clear Mind given at Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day from April 2007 to December 2008. You can also study the book in depth through the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) online learning program.

  • History of mind training practices
  • Bodhicitta and nirvana of enlightenment
  • Early Kadam traditions

MTRS 02: History of mind training (download)


Let’s begin by cultivating our motivation and get a sense of how fragile our human life is, how easily and quickly it can come to an end in totally unexpected ways. When the time comes to leave this body and leave everything and everyone that’s familiar to us, there’s no way to stop it. We have to go forward whether we want to separate or not. So we may have used our precious human rebirth wisely and be able to go forward with a sense of peace and confidence. Or we may have wasted our precious human life just on distraction; and therefore go forward into the dying process and death with fear and regret. Or we may have even used our precious human life to create harmful karma and then really see the visions of the future life appearing before us—the suffering that we’re about to experience that’s karmically created.

The time of death is very crucial and we tend to die in the way that we live—so if we live on automatic we tend to die on automatic. If we live being angry and losing our temper we tend to die being angry and losing our temper. If we live with kindness, we tend to die with kindness. So if we want a good human rebirth or a good rebirth in general in the future life, it’s important to prepare for the time of death now. Similarly, if we wish to attain liberation and enlightenment we need to create the causes for it—which we’re able to do with this precious human life. Therefore it’s important not to fritter away our time. Or to have this feeling that, “Oh, death doesn’t happen to me.” Or to feel that, “Oh, it might happen—but later.” Rather, to have that awareness of death that really sparks us to live in a very vibrant way with attention to our spiritual aspirations and goals. Therefore, let’s listen and think about the teachings tonight to make our lives meaningful—and especially to make our lives meaningful by aspiring for full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

History of the thought training teachings

Bodhicitta is the supreme essence of any spiritual endeavor

Last week we started on Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun. You all voted to have the oral transmission which means that I read the text while making comments on the various things and giving teachings on it. For those of you who have this version of the book, now we’re on page nine. Basically this book is a commentary by Nam-kha Pel, who was one of the disciples of Je Tsongkhapa, who gave his commentary on The Seven Point Thought Training that was compiled by Geshe Chekawa. Nam-kha Pel’s commentary incorporates the thought training practices as well as the lamrim practices. In the section we’re going through now, he’s talking about the history of the thought training teaching.

I’ll take up reading from where I left off last time:

The precious awakening mind [and remember “awakening mind” means bodhicitta or altruistic intention, that’s just the way they’re translating it here]1 is the supreme essence of any spiritual endeavor, the nectar providing the state of immortality.

Okay, now why is bodhicitta the supreme essence of any spiritual endeavor? Why bodhicitta? Why not renunciation? Why not the wisdom realizing emptiness?

Audience: They’re not the cause for buddhahood.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, those two things alone aren’t the cause for full buddhahood. And those two things alone, by not being the cause of buddhahood, prevent us from accessing all of our potential and making it useful for the benefit of all beings. So if we’re really aiming for the highest spiritual goal then bodhicitta is really important. Otherwise, forget it.

Immortality in Buddhism

Then he said, “The nectar providing the state of immortality.” Does that mean that if you generate bodhicitta you don’t die? That you live forever? Is that possible?

Audience: Well, not in this body.

VTC: Do you want to live forever in this body? So immortality, I have a feeling and like I said, I don’t have the Tibetan translation but sometimes nirvana is called the deathless state. It’s called the deathless meaning because you are not born in cyclic existence then you never die. So if you want immortality, or the deathlessness, the life of nirvana, then we have to practice specifically to attain the non-abiding nirvana of a fully enlightened Buddha. When you hear immortality it doesn’t necessarily mean that you live forever in this body. A lot of people who are non-Buddhist think, “Oh, what do I want? What do I want? I just don’t want to die because death is scary.” But then do you want to live in this kind of body forever? A body that gets old and sick even if it doesn’t die? Do you want to live in this kind of mind forever? A mind that’s constantly dissatisfied, that wants more and better, that gets angry and jealous? No!

As Buddhists we aren’t aspiring for what ordinary people think of as immortality just to avoid the fear of death. We’re aspiring for the highest enlightenment—in which there’s no birth under the influence of afflictions and karma; and so clearly there’s no death under the influence of afflictions and karma. But there is the possibility to manifest throughout the universe for the benefit of sentient beings because your mind is completely purified and there’s no end to the mindstream.

Atisha’s great faith in Serlingpa

The exalted Buddhist saint from Sumatra was a man who held the lineages of the complete spiritual systems of the great pioneers, (such as Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga, and Shāntideva) much like the point of confluence of three great rivers.

When they talk about the saint from Sumatra that’s Serlingpa. So Sumatra is in Indonesia. Actually Indonesia, all that area, used to be Buddhist many centuries ago before the Islamic invasion. Serlingpa lived in Indonesia and he was one of Atisha’s teachers who was the most precious one to Atisha. They say that Atisha, whenever he spoke of Serlingpa, always put his palms together; and that he could barely utter his name without his eyes filling with tears because he had so much gratitude and respect for this teacher who taught him the bodhicitta. What’s interesting about this is that in terms of emptiness, Serlingpa was not a Mādhyamika; he was a Cittamatra. So in terms of the view of emptiness, Atisha had the more realistic view of emptiness. But because Serlingpa taught him bodhicitta, that’s why he had so much regard for Serlingpa because of the preciousness of the bodhicitta teachings.

This is also an interesting thing—that Serlingpa and Atisha had a major difference of opinion on an important topic like what’s the correct view. But that did not at all impinge on their spiritual relationship. It’s something to think about because sometimes with our spiritual mentors we have differences of opinion like, “Should you drive at this speed or that speed?” Or, “Should you start teachings at this time or that time?” Or, “Should you paint something this color or that color?” Those are not important issues, yet sometimes our faith is so fragile that we lose it because our teacher has a difference of opinion in how to respond to a letter, or how to do some simple thing. And those are inconsequential; who cares? In the course of gaining enlightenment those issues are not important. But when our ego attaches to it then we can get so infuriated at our spiritual mentor for not listening to our opinion. Whereas here, Atisha and his teacher Serlingpa had a difference of opinion about something important like the view of emptiness; and that didn’t interfere with their spiritual relationship at all, or with Atisha’s faith and confidence with Serlingpa. That’s something to remember.

Serlingpa held this lineage of bodhicitta that was taught by Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Shāntideva. Nagarjuna taught about bodhicitta especially in Precious Garland. Asanga taught about it in his commentaries on Maitreya’s text especially the Yogacharya Bhumi, and then Śāntideva in Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life and Shikshasamucchaya: Compendium of Trainings. Serlingpa had all those lineages.


He imparted these teachings to the great Indian pandit Atīsha (982-1054 C.E.) in a way that was like the filling of one vase from another that was identical.

So the teacher and student were so close, and Atisha followed his teacher’s instructions so well that the transmission of the realization was like pouring water from one vase into the other. This vase was full and you pour it into that vase and it’s the same water and it settles down and it’s peaceful. And the first vase also fills up again; it isn’t that Serlingpa lost his bodhicitta because Atisha got it. That was the purity through which Atisha practiced the instructions that he received.

Atisha’s disciples

Atīsha had innumerable disciples from India, Kashmir, Urgyan, Nepal and Tibet, all of whom were scholars and accomplished meditators. From among them all it was the Tibetan Drom-tö-npa (1005-64), also known as Gyal-wai-jung-nae, and who was prophesied (to Atīsha before he went to Tibet by his divine ally), the goddess Ārya Tāra,

So before Atisha went to Tibet he went to Bodhgaya and I think it was one of the statues in Bodhgaya that spoke to him and told him about his upcoming trip to Tibet. I think Tara also told him his life would be shorter if he went to Tibet but that it would be greatly beneficial. Atisha out of his compassion thought, “If it’s greatly beneficial I’m going even if it means that my lifespan is decreased.” We really have to say thank you to Atisha, don’t we? So Dromtönpa,

who became the major holder of his spiritual lineages, extending the noble deeds of the master (to a multitude of followers throughout the centuries.)

Drom-tön-pa had many realized disciples as the population of the land of Urgyen northwest of Ra-treng.

Ra-treng is the monastery that Dromtönpa established. Dromtönpa was actually a lay practitioner but he established the monastery at Ra-treng. I went there when I was in Tibet and it’s also a place where Je Rinpoche began writing the Lamrim Chenmo; a very special place actually. And this land of Urgyen—that was the land where Guru Rinpoche was from—it’s said to be in the northern part of Pakistan, probably around Gilgit or Swat—in that area—which I also went to. I didn’t go to Gilgit, I went to Swat before I became a Buddhist in 1973. It was a very beautiful place. Now I don’t know if there are terrorists living there or what the story is. At that time it was quite beautiful.

Dromtönpa’s disciples

In particular there were the “Three Noble Brothers” (Potowa, Phu-chung-wa and Chen-nga-wa) who elucidated his (in other words Dromtönpa’s) teaching in an unbroken transmission of “whispered instruction,” through which they imparted the very essence of their master’s words.

Whispered instructions means that it was taught in an oral lineage from the teacher to the student; it wasn’t necessarily written down.

The most renowned of these three was the spiritual friend, Geshey Potowa (1031-1106), an incarnation of the (Buddha’s disciple), the Exalted Elder Angaja (one of the sixteen Arhats).

You know we have the statues of the sixteen arhats? He’s one of them and the sixteen arhats were all disciples of the Buddha at the time the Buddha lived. But they’re all said to be continuously alive; they’re still alive now. Geshe Potowa was seen as an emanation of this particular one of the arhats.

Geshe Potowa’s study and practice of the Six Original Scriptures

Receiving the entire scriptural teaching and hidden verbal transmission of both sutra and tantra from Dromtönpa, Potowa was very successful in his religious activity. He undertook a thorough study of and then taught the Six Original Scriptures: (“Ornament for the Great Vehicle Sutras” by Asanga/Maitreya; “Spiritual Stages of Bodhisattvas” by Asanga; “Birth Stories” by Ārya Śūra; “Special Verses Collected by Topic” compiled by Dharmatrata; “Compendium of Trainings” and “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” by Śāntideva.)

So this is a group of scriptures that was studied in the Kadam tradition. Remember I said the Kadam tradition was the tradition that was begun by Atisha. Of course, Atisha didn’t say, “I’m beginning a tradition.” But it’s just what happened. These are some of the great sutras or Indian scriptures that they mainly studied. So the first one was the Ornament for the Great Vehicle Sutras or Sutra-alamkara [Mahayana-sutra-alamkara-karika]—that was one of Maitreya’s texts and so it talks about the bodhisattva practice. And then Spiritual Stages of Bodhisattvas, so that’s Yogacharya Bhumi or Bodhisattva-Bhumi that was by Asanga. It was very sweet; I think it was in 2004 at Sera Je, I was able to be there and His Holiness taught these two texts: the Sutra-alamkara and the Yogacharya Bhumi and he went back and forth between them because Asanga commented on what Maitreya wrote. So he would read from Maitreya and comment on it and read from Asanga and comment on it. It was really quite a beautiful teaching.

The third text is the Birth Stories by Ārya Śūra and this is the Jataka Mala. So Ārya Śūra was an Indian around, I don’t know, in the early centuries C.E., And he collected a lot of the Jataka Tales. The Jatakas are tales of the Buddha’s previous lives when he was a bodhisattva. So these tales are quite inspiring. And sometimes the Buddha was a king, or a prince, or an animal; and it just tells of how he worked for the benefit of sentient beings in so many different forms and in so many different ways.

Then the fourth text was the Special Verses Collected by Topic which was compiled by Dharmatrata. And that’s in Sanskrit called the Udanavarga. So the Udanas are a set of scriptures from the time of the Buddha that were also stories; and they usually were short stories about different practitioners and how they practiced. So there’s a collection in the Pali Canon of the Udanas. And it sounds here like Dharmatrata also made a collection of them. And then the two texts by Śāntideva: Compendium of Trainings, or Shikshasamuchcha, and then his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Bodhicharyavatara. So those six texts are all ones in which you can really see the emphasis on bodhicitta. That’s what they studied: the emphasis, of course, on the conventional bodhicitta, but also the ultimate bodhicitta—the wisdom realizing emptiness.

He [Potowa] fulfilled his faith in the Buddha by maintaining the precious jewel of the awakening mind as the very heart of his practice, teaching about it and putting it into practice. He had over two thousand disciples involved in the pursuit of liberation. From among those the most prominent were Lang and Nyo from Nyal, Ram and Nang from Tsang, Ja and Phag from Kham, ‘Be and Rog from Dolpa, Lang and Shar whose fame was equal to the sun and moon in the Central Province of U, Geshey Drab-pa, Geshey Ding-pa, the great Geshey Drag-kar, and many others.

So you might say, “Who are these people?” They were great illustrious followers of Potowa; I don’t know much more about them actually.

Three main Kadam lineages

From Dromtönpa there were three main Kadam lineages. So there was the Kadam lamrimpa that mainly practiced lamrim. They didn’t do so much of the Indian philosophical treatises, but they practiced basically based on Atisha’s Lamp of the Path, and the lamrim teachings. They practiced as if the Buddha had given those teachings specifically to them. So they really practiced very strongly with this mind of whatever teachings they heard, “It was the Buddha who gave me the teachings.” And they really put that into practice.

Then there were the scriptural Kadampas. And those were the Kadampas that studied philosophy and integrated it into the path. And so this is Geshe Potowa’s lineage: from Potowa, to Sharawa, to Chekawa; we’ll get into that. So they studied the Indian philosophical texts and integrated them into the path. They could do this because they understood the essence of the philosophy and they knew how to practice it. If you don’t really think about the philosophical texts, there are some people whose minds just approach the philosophical things as an intellectual inquiry—or as something that’s intellectually challenging. And it’s fun to debate, and you learn a lot of concepts. Then you can learn all these teachings and be able to recite them and give teachings, but in terms of your own practice and making use of these things in your own life? It could be like a desert. So it’s very, very important when studying the philosophical teachings that we really think about, “How does this relate to my life” and to put it into practice in our own life.

I remember the monk, what was his name? He wrote a book. Palden? Palden Gyatso, The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk. He was the one who was in prison for 30 years in a Chinese prison in Tibet. In his book, when he was talking about being imprisoned, he was saying that at one point the Chinese Communists were really threatening them and there was one Geshe who got down on his hands and knees and was pleading with the Chinese guard not to kill him. And the monk, Palden, said that it just really shocked him because this was somebody who had studied Dharma for year after year after year but clearly had not really been able to take the essence and really use it to transform his own mind— so that when he was threatened by death he became just like an ordinary person who is sobbing and crying out. So I remember that very strongly. It was like, “Whoa, I don’t want to be like that!” So I think that’s why he told us the story in his book. So that’s important to remember.

And then the third of the Kadampa lineages was the lineage of instructions, or of pith instructions. This was a lineage where the students practiced primarily the oral instructions of their teacher. So they may have studied a little bit of philosophy or a little bit of lamrim but they primarily practiced the oral instructions from their teacher.

So what I find interesting is seeing these three different branches of the Kadams. You see that there are different strokes for different folks; that different people have different approaches to practice and different ways they like to practice. What suits one person isn’t suitable for another person; and we can accept this whole variety of ways to practice and respect all of them. So be it the people who do the philosophical teachings, or the people who emphasize the lamrim, or the people who do the ear-whispered lineage from their teachers—the pith instructions from their teachers. And then all these three Kadam lineages again came together in Je Tsongkhapa. And Je Tsongkhapa was the teacher of Nam-kha Pel who authored this book.

So he just got done talking about that from Atisha to Dromtönpa, to his disciple Potowa; and then Potowa’s disciple was Sharawa. So that’s the next paragraph.

The great Zhan-ton Sha-ra-wa (1070-1141) received the entire teaching, both scriptural and verbal, and was considered the one responsible for maintaining the transmission of his master’s deeds. He conducted many discourses on the Six Original Scriptures and other teachings, speaking to around two thousand eight hundred monastics. His most outstanding disciples were popularly known as the Four Sons. Cho-lung Ku-sheg was responsible for willing service, the great Tab-ka-wa was responsible for explaining the teaching, Nyi-mel-dul-wa-drin-pa was responsible for blessing and inspiring the holders of the monastic discipline and the great Che-ka-wa (1101-1175) was to be responsible for transmitting the teachings on the awakening mind.

So here again, Sharawa was a great master. He had many disciples. His four main students all had different aptitudes. One of them offered service and that’s how he accumulated merit and practiced the path. Another one explained the teachings to others. Another one was really strengthening the Vinaya. And then Chekawa was the one for transmitting the bodhicitta. So again we see that different people could all be the disciples of the same teachers but they have different talents. And so they all use their talents individually to benefit others.


The great Geshey Che-ka-wa first received such teachings from Nyel-chag-zhing-pa on the “Eight Verses for Training the Mind” [which we chant after lunch], a text by Lang-ri-tang-pa (1054-1123). This had the effect of arousing faith and interest in the Kadampa teachings and he set out for Lhasa [the capitol of Tibet] with the intention of seeking teachings on mind training in greater detail. Some of his worthy friends suggested that since a master of the Great Vehicle should be high in the esteem of others, like the sun and moon, it would be best for him to approach the great Sha-ra-wa and Ja-yul-wa directly. Accordingly, he went to the House of Zho in Lhasa where Sha-ra-wa was staying. When he arrived, the master was teaching about the spiritual levels of the Fundamental Vehicle’s Hearers. After listening to him, however, Che-ka-wa felt no inspiration at all, and instead became despondent and confused.

Because he was looking for the thought training teachings and instead Sharawa was teaching something from the Fundamental Vehicle.

In despair, he resigned himself to fulfilling his quest elsewhere if, when asked directly, Sha-ra-wa revealed that he did not hold the tradition of teachings on mind training, or that they could not be taken to heart in practice.

The next day, after the lunch offering had been made to the monastic community….

So there’s always this habit of the lay people offering lunch to the monastic community. Here at the Abbey people bring groceries, but if people ever want to offer lunch they’re welcome to cook it and bring it up or make an offering and someone could prepare it. So there’s this whole tradition throughout Buddhism of offering food to the monastic community and then after the meal the leader there gave a teaching. So this started at the time of the Buddha. People would invite the Sangha to lunch; they would offer lunch and then the Buddha would give a teaching. So this is the situation:

While the master was circumambulating a stupa, the reliquary monument to the Buddha mind, Che-ka-wa approached him. Spreading a cloth on a prominent ledge he said, “Will you please sit down? I have something I would like to discuss with you.”

So he was very respectful. He doesn’t just say, “Hey Sharawa, I have a question for ya.” But he spreads a cloth; he invites him to sit down, and then respectfully says, “I have a question to ask.”


The master replied, “Ah, teacher.”

And here it says, “Ah, teacher,” but I don’t think “teacher” is a correct translation. It must have been, maybe a term like “Gen,” which can be translated as teacher but it is also used when you are addressing a male of some sort. So I’m just going to skip that because it doesn’t make sense for Sharawa to call the person who is going to become his student, “teacher.” So,

The master replied, “Ah, what is it that you haven’t understood? I made everything absolutely clear when I sat on the religious throne.”

So he’s seeing if Chekawa is sincere about practicing here—if Chekawa is going to break into tears and say, “Oh, he didn’t speak very nicely to me. I don’t have any faith in him. Bye bye.” But Chekawa didn’t do that.

Che-ka-wa then produced the “Eight Verses for Training the Mind” by Lang-ri-tang-pa and said, “I was wondering whether you hold the tradition of this teaching? I’ve found that it often helps my useless self just a little when all my thoughts run wild, or in times of hardship when I’m unable to find shelter, or when I’m scorned or cast out by others. Yet I also find that there seem to be a few occasions when it is not so appropriate to practice.”

In other words, Chekawa doesn’t understand the teachings really well so he doesn’t know how to completely practice the mind training teachings.

“Therefore, I humbly ask you whether it is really worth putting into practice or not? Will the final result of such practice be actually to lead one to the fully awakened state or not?”

So Chekawa doesn’t want to invest a lot of time and energy practicing a teaching that isn’t going to get him to the goal that he wants. He doesn’t want to monkey around. He wants to know, “Is this a worthwhile teaching or not?” And so he’s asking this well respected teacher. And,

Geshey Sha-ra-wa first completed counting the round of his bodhi-seed rosary before rolling it up, [So the lamas do this, count and then roll up their rosary and put it down or put it on their wrist.] composing himself and preparing his reply. “Ah, there is no question whether this practice is appropriate or not. If you have no desire for the one and only state of a fully awakened being, you can leave it aside. [So if you don’t want to become a Buddha then forget this teaching.] However, should you yearn for such a state, it is impossible to attain it without directly entering this spiritual path.”

So he’s saying if you don’t want to attain buddhahood, forget this teaching. But if you want to attain buddhahood, there’s no other way besides learning bodhicitta.

And then Chekawa says,

Very well, as this is a Buddhist tradition, I am interested to know where the definitive reference for this practice and experience may be found. Since a religious quotation requires a scriptural reference, do you recollect where it might be?’”

So he’s not content with someone just saying, “Yes, you’ve got to do this practice.” He wants to know, “Where is it in the Buddhist lineage? What great master spoke of this? Where can we find the root of this practice?”

So Sharawa replies,

Who would not recognize it as from the impeccable work of the truly exalted master Nagarjuna? It comes from his “Precious Garland of Advice for a King,” (where it says),

“May their evil bear fruit for me
May all my virtue bear fruit for others.”

So Sharawa quotes these two lines from Precious Garland by Nagarjuna as the source of these teachings. And those two lines, they are the taking and giving practice, aren’t they? “May their evil bear fruit for me/May all my virtue bear fruit for others.” We usually think the opposite, “May all my evil bear fruit on others/May they experience the result of my negative karma, and may all their virtue bring results to me.” That’s what we want, “If there’s a problem, other people can have it. If there’s some happiness, I volunteer.” So Precious Garland was saying, “Nope, you’ve got to do it just the opposite way.” So that when there’s suffering you think, “I’ll take it on and may others be liberated. When there’s virtue, especially even my virtue which I had to accumulate with great effort, may others experience the result of that.” Just the opposite way of how we ordinary beings think.

So remember, very often we’ve talked about the different antidotes to different disturbing emotions and how the antidotes are always the last thing on the earth that you want to do when you’re in the middle of that disturbing emotion. Well, this is why, isn’t it? This is it.

Then Chekawa says,

“O, gentle sir, I have such deep faith in that teaching. Please, out of your kindness, take me under your guidance.” [So he requests Sharawa to be his teacher.] The master replied, “Then try to stay. The conditions here will sustain you.” Chekewa then asked, “Why didn’t you give even the slightest hint of this teaching to the assembly during your discourse before?” [In other words, why were you teaching something from the Fundamental Vehicle and not this?] To which the master replied, “Oh, there was no point in telling them of it. They’re not really able to appreciate the full value of this teaching and training.”

So a really wise teacher just teaches what the students are able to appreciate the value of. And so Sharawa was being more skillful to teach that particular group of students the Fundamental Vehicle teachings because that was what was more suitable for them and if he had given this teaching on the mind training and bodhicitta, it wouldn’t have worked for those people.

After making three prostrations, Che-ka-wa departed and sought out the exact verse in a copy of the “Precious Garland,” which he found among his landlord’s scriptures. Then, relying completely on the “Precious Garland,” he spent the next two years at the House of Zho, [So this is the same place that Sharawa was living in Lhasa.] during which he dedicated himself completely to that text to the exclusion of all others. In this way he perceived the (nature of) appearances as Nagarjuna had described them, such that his creation of conceptual thoughts decreased. [So he gained some realizations of what Nagarjuna was talking about.] He then spent six years at Gye-gong and four years at Shar-wa. Altogether he spent fourteen years at the feet of his master, making himself familiar with the teaching and gaining experience of purification.

So Chekawa stayed with Sharawa for 14 years, studying continuously with that and gaining experience through meditating on what his teacher had said. So this is also quite an example for us. It’s like, we hear one teaching and then we go, “Okay, I understand that. I’m going to go teach it.” And Chekawa didn’t do that. He stayed with his teacher for 14 years and just kept studying again and again (I’m sure Sharawa repeated himself many times) until he actually gained realizations. I think these kinds of examples are very good for us because you see now-a-days people say, “Oh yes, I’ll just have one short teachings and then I’ll go and teach everybody in the tea stall.” You become the chai shop guru in India. Or you study a little bit and then, “Okay, I think that’s enough. I think I’ll go teach; earn a living—something like that.” Chekawa, you can see, was a sincere practitioner.

Once this experience had arisen he said that it was so worthwhile that even if he had had to sell all his land and cattle for gold to pay for the teaching it would not have mattered, nor would he have minded being forced to sleep in the muck of the stables in order to receive them.

So when he gained realizations of these teachings, Chekawa’s saying, “Even if I had to sell everything I owned in order to have the gold to make offering to the master in order to receive this teaching, I would have done it. And even if I would have had to sleep in the muck, in the stables….”—you know what stables are like. Maybe you don’t; they’re pretty stinky. Okay—”Even if I had to sleep I the muck of the stables, it would have been worthwhile to receive this teaching.” So he’s really showing how dedicated he is. How many of us would give away everything we possessed in order to request a teaching? Would we really? We’d keep a little bit for ourselves, wouldn’t we? I mean, you need health insurance, and you’ve got to have some food tomorrow, and you need some extra this or extra that, and you need to upgrade your computer. We’re not going to give everything away for some teachings. We’re more, “I’d give the least I can give without looking like a cheap-skate,” and request the teaching. That’s how we do it, isn’t it?

So this is why we really have to understand what generosity is about and appreciating the value of the teachings. And would we sleep in the muck of a stable to hear teachings? I don’t think so. Or, to put it in Sravasti Abbey terms, would you sleep out in the snow in the winter to receive the teachings? I don’t think we would.

Audience: I’d sleep in the barn.

VTC: Would you sleep in the barn with the mice?

Audience: Sure.

VTC: And the radon? No, we want our comfortable bed, and good food, and teachings at the time when we want them, and to sit in a comfortable seat, and not to have to ask because we have other things we’re busy doing.

So when I read things like this I just look at how the great masters practice and the I look at myself and it’s like, “that’s why they’re great masters and that’s why I’m not.” It becomes real clear.

The great Che-ka-wa’s disciples included over nine hundred monastics who were devoted to the cause of liberation. Among them was the yogi Jang-seng of Dro-sa, the meditator Jang-ye from Ren-tsa-rab, Gen-pa-ton-dar of Ba-lam, the all-knowing master Lho-pa, Gya-pang Sa-thang-pa, the great teacher Ram-pa Lha-ding-pa, the unequalled master Gyal-wa-sa, and many others, who became both spiritual protectors and refuge for a vast number of beings.

So he spent 14 years with his teacher, then he started to teach and he had all these incredible disciples who were able to become great teachers themselves.

In particular, Se-chil-bu (1121-89) spent twenty-one years at his side, [So Se-chil-bu, who was Che-ka-wa’s disciple, spent 21 years with him.] just like a body and its shadow, during which time he received the entire transmission of scriptural and oral teaching, in such a way that he acquired a complete understanding as if the contents of one vase had been poured out to fill another just like it. [So the same way, that’s how close the teacher and disciple were.]

Se-chil-bu gave the teachings on cultivating the awakening mind to Lha-chen-pa Lung-gi-wang-chug (1158-1232), his nephew, and others, from whom the lineage descends. I had the great fortune to receive the complete transmission of the teachings from the great spiritual being possessing inconceivable compassion and power, Sha-kya So-nam Gyel-tsen Pel-zang-pa (1312-75).

I received the lineages of Ram-pa Lha-ding-pa and the great explanation of the Seven Point (Mind Training) by the great hero and Bodhisattva of these degenerate times, the son of the Conquerors, Thog-me Zang-pa, [who is the author of “37 Practices of a Bodhisattva”] from his disciple, the great translator, Kyab-chog Pal-zang-pa. I received Lha-ding-pa’s Seven Points, [because remember there were different editions or renditions of the “Seven Point Thought Training.” So,] I received Lha-ding-pa’s Seven Points in the form of an experiential explanation from the supreme navigator and protector of this world and the gods, the emanation of Manjushri, the easterner, [because he was from Amdo in the eastern province of Tibet] the omniscient Tsong-kha-pa (1357-1419), who said, “Of the many individual lineages of training in the awakening mind of the great pioneers, this tradition of Che-ka-wa’s seems to be an instruction derived from the exalted Śāntideva’s text, therefore it must be explained according to that. There seem to be variations in the length and sequence of the text, so if it were explained in good order it would be an instruction that pleases the wise. I shall therefore explain it accordingly.”

Questions and answers

So that finishes that section, do you have any questions so far?

[Repeating question from audience] So in terms of the Jataka Tales, which tell of the Buddha’s previous lives—and sometimes he was a king, and sometimes he was an animal—how could a bodhisattva be an animal?

Because buddhas, or the high-level bodhisattvas, are willing to manifest in whatever way is most beneficial for various sentient beings. And so through their clairvoyant powers of knowing the karma of others, they’re able to see which sentient beings’ minds are ripe at a certain time to receive a certain teaching. And so even if those beings are animals; the bodhisattva can manifest as an animal in order to teach those beings. Or manifest as an animal in order to teach some human beings who can be best taught at that particular moment. Not by an animal sitting on the Dharma seat and giving teachings but by a particular incident that’s happening then so that human being can learn something quite powerful from the animal. So bodhisattvas can even manifest as hell beings, in all sorts of different forms for the benefit of others.

[Repeating question from audience] So why did Atisha have to go all the way to Sumatra to get these teachings? And then how did the Mahayana spread into China and other Mahayana countries?

Let me deal with the second question first. The Mahayana tradition, and Buddhism in general, went to China centuries before it came to Tibet. So it went to China by two routes; one was by sea. So south through the Bay of Bengal and then around probably through the Straits of Singapore between Singapore and Malaysia, or maybe through Indonesia, and then up on the coast –the ships landed on the coast of China. That was one route. Another route was overland through Karakoram Mountains. And so the Chinese have these incredible tales of Hiuen-Tsiang [a.k.a. Huen Tsang, 603-664 A.D.] who was one of the great Chinese sages. What century did he live in? I can’t remember. And he walked from China all the way into India, and then walked around India. And there were several other great Chinese sages: Fa-shing and E-chi; I think I’m pronouncing their names properly, but several great famous ones.

And what’s really remarkable about these early Chinese sages is that they went to India and they kept journals. And so we’re left with this incredible record of what they saw and experienced when they were in India and the state of Buddhism in India all those centuries ago. And I know some of those journals have been translated into English. It’s quite fascinating because they went to Nalanda and some of the great monastic universities and outlying areas. And then also in central Asia because Buddhism was spreading into central Asia as well; all that whole area: Pakistan, Afghanistan, that northern area—that was Buddhist. Into Tajikistan and the whole central Asian area, all along the Silk Route; not that everybody was Buddhist but that’s how Buddhism spread into China.

And so these great sages usually would come from China. We hear the names of the great sages but we don’t hear the names of all the other people who went on the trip with them. And all of the other people who went on the trip with them and died because crossing these mountains all those many centuries ago was not easy. There was danger from robbers, from wild animals, from diseases, from landslides. So the people who went from China into India, also the great sages who went from Tibet into India –they really risked their lives to get the teachings and bring them back. Nowadays we just get on a plane and go to Delhi and complain because we couldn’t sleep and then take the train to Dharamsala. But so many people lost their lives; we don’t even know the names of these people. But without their kindness these great expeditions would never have happened and there wouldn’t have been the few people whose names do resound through history; who actually brought back huge bag loads of scriptures. The Chinese say they collected a huge number of scriptures. Whenever you see Hiuen-Tsiang he has a backpack filled with scriptures. And then they carted them all the way back to China. And then they set up translation schools and began to translate them.

Buddhism started going into China around, I think the earliest may have been the first century B.C., but more started around the first century A.D. And then Buddhism went into Tibet in the sixth century.

Now why did Atisha have to go all the way to Sumatra to get these teachings? It could be because Atisha lived in the late 10th and early 11th centuries; and Atisha was a prince from Bengal. The lineage may not have been very strong at that time [for these teachings]. Or perhaps the lineage holders didn’t have the complete teachings coming from Nagarjuna, Asanga and Śāntideva. It would be really interesting to find out more about Serlingpa’s life and how he got these three lineages. And did he get them in India and then did he go to Sumatra? Or, how did he learn all of this? It would be fascinating. I don’t know, maybe somebody can Google Serlingpa and see if we can find out something more about his life. But apparently he was the great teacher that Atisha had heard of and so he went on this perilous 13-month journey on the seas to get to Sumatra.

For those of you who don’t know, that area used to be very Buddhist. And there’s a huge stupa called Borobudur in Sumatra. I think it’s Sumatra. Enormous stupa, enormous— that still exists and you can go on pilgrimage there.

When you really think of the history of these teachings, it makes us see how great practitioners practiced. And really have a sense of gratitude for all those people who came before us. And when we have that sense of gratitude then of course we listen to the teachings in a different way, don’t we? We really take them in and we really see them as precious. Whereas when we think [‘no big deal’ gesture], then we fall asleep and get distracted and everything. So this is why we hear about the lineage: to really get a sense of those great practitioners and what they went through.

Audience: So when Chekawa was studying after he received the teachings from Sharawa and you said that he was gaining these realizations, was it ultimate bodhicitta that he was gaining realizations on, or was it on the conventional level? Does the wisdom realizing emptiness show up in that type of intense…

VTC: [repeating the question] So when Chekawa was staying with his teacher, Sharawa, and meditating, did he gain the realizations of the two bodhicittas or only one or the other?

My guess is probably both of them, but it doesn’t say here. But since both bodhicittas are explained in all of these texts, then he probably studied both of them and practiced both of them. Because none of the great masters would just teach one or the other; all the great masters teach a combination of method and wisdom.

Audience: Does the Gelug tradition possess the three Kadam lineages?

VTC: Yes, because Je Tsongkhapa got all of those three Kadam lineages and then Je Tsongkhapa became the founder of the Gelug tradition. But again, he didn’t say, “I’m founding a tradition.” He didn’t call it the Gelug tradition. But yes, the Gelug tradition has all of those and so does Sakya and Kagyu. And then I also think in the Nyingma tradition there’s some version of these teachings as well. So they really spread throughout Tibet because they’re so practical—so practical and essential.

Okay, so that’s all for tonight. [end of teaching]

  1. Short commentary by Venerable Chodron appears in square brackets [ ] within the root text. 

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Albert Gerome Ramos was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. He has been incarcerated since 2005 and is currently enrolled in the North Carolina Field Minister Program. Upon graduation he plans to start programs that help incarcerated people with mental health issues, drug dependency, and those who struggle from childhood trauma. He is the author of the children's book Gavin Discovers the Secret to Happiness.