January 17, 2017 – Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India
The main shrine hall at Tergar was filled to the far walls with monks who had come from India, Nepal, and Bhutan for this year’s Twentieth Winter Debates. Today the Gyalwang Karmapa began his discussion of two sections from the 8th Karmapa’s text, One Hundred Short Instructions. Both relate to the embodiment of all the Buddhas’ compassion, Avalokiteshvara, and are known as the Direct Instructions on the Great Compassionate One, Avalokiteshvara, and the Three Essential Points.
The Karmapa remarked that the numerous practices related to Avalokiteshvara along with their instructions mainly belong to five oral lineages, well known in Tibet, that descend from Atisha, Gelongma Palmo, Dawa Gyaltsen, Mitra Yogi, and Tsembupa. Today’s text stems from the tradition of the mahasiddha Tsembupa, who met Vajra Yogini face-to-face and received instructions from her. His lineage is closely related to anuttara yoga and the secret mantrayana; this practice from his tradition is complete with the preliminaries, main meditation, and conclusion. It is simple and easy to do, yet the key instructions are very profound, so much so that past masters have treated it as a secret instruction.
Turning to the life story of Tsembupa, the Karmapa remarked that actually Tsembupa is a nickname, meaning “all sewn up,” because his clothes were stitched together with patches. Nyan is his family lineage and he was born in the region of Shakpo, but it is not clear where this is and his dates are unknown. Tsembupa was well versed in both sutra and tantra and spent most of his life in isolated places doing practice.
One day when he was praying to Vajra Yogini, she appeared directly to him and taught the instruction about Avalokiteshvara. Later as Tsembupa practiced, one of the parts was not clear to him, so he prayed to Vajra Yogini again and she reappeared to teach him one more time, giving him the entire instruction. Afterward, some people offered Tsembupa a monastery, but he declined and remained in retreat focused on Vajra Yogini and becoming a realized master in his lifetime.
Tsembupa had six disciples who held his lineage. The main one was Chilhepa, who had looked at numerous sutras and tantras searching for a key instruction with all the main points, but could not find the right one. So he prayed to the Jowo in Lhasa and when Chilhepa was walking the streets of the city, he came across Tsembupa. Recognizing him as a realized master, Chilhepa asked for instruction and became realized as well. These teachings of Tsembupa have spread widely into the traditions of the Kadampas, Sakyas, and Dakpo Kagyus.
The Karmapa then turned to speak of the practice itself, which begins with the common preliminaries, the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind—reflecting on the precious human rebirth, impermanence, karma’s cause and effect, and the defects of samsara. Since this is not an explanation based on words but experience, it is important to practice these four until direct experience arises in our being; otherwise, subsequent practices will not take effect.
A Kadampa Geshe has taught that the Four Thoughts must be practiced in succession until an experience arises of each one; without this, it is not permitted to do other practices. This way, the Karmapa explained, one could spend a whole lifetime on one of the Four Thoughts and then aspire to practice the other three in future lives. However, the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje felt that this way of practicing was a bit too strict and narrow, because some people might not be able to come to an experience of the first thought (the preciousness of a human rebirth) and become discouraged. They might, however, be able to experience the second, third, or fourth one. If they are told that they must keep on practicing the first one, it might not be so skillful for them.
For example, they might be able to meditate and gain an experience of impermanence, the second thought, and the power of realizing this would help them to realize the first one. So in the beginning, we can test to see which of the four opens into experience and start there. Through using various methods, we can find one that works. In the end, the Karmapa noted, the Kadampa and 8th Karmapa’s approaches are not contradictory.
The four uncommon preliminaries cover refuge and bodhichitta (with prostrations) to make the disciples into a suitable vessel for the Dharma; mandala offerings to gather the two accumulations; Vajrasattva to purify obscurations; and guru yoga to receive blessings. “Some of you,” the Karmapa noted, “have finished the 100,000 repetitions of these four and others have not, but you can still do this practice.”
This concluded the common and special preliminaries in general, which are then followed by the specific preliminaries, the main meditation, and the conclusion related to this Avalokiteshvara practice. The preliminaries can be divided into the creation and completion phases. The Karmapa first turned to the creation phase of the visualization and read the section of the text on going for refuge.
This involves visualizing three Avalokiteshvaras above our head in three different colors with mandalas of three different elements in their hearts and three spheres of the three same colors (the essence of the Three Jewels) above each of the mandalas, and a four-armed Avalokiteshvara in our heart. To this latter one, we make fervent supplications with complete whole-hearted devotion, until we are on the verge of fainting as the text states. This is the main point here.
The next section the Karmapa read was on bodhichitta, the mind of awakening. As before there are three Avalokiteshvaras above one’s crown, and on a moon disk in each of their hearts are respectively, the First, Second, and Eighth Karmapas, who recite the six-syllable mantra for the benefit of all beings. In turn we aspire to become like each one and recite the name mantras of the three Karmapas and the six-syllable mantra.
The Karmapa explained that bodhichitta is what distinguishes this path from paths of the Listeners and Solitary Realizers. He also mentioned that Mikyö Dorje wrote the refuge and bodhichitta for this text so the form and arrangement of the field of refuge and the way of generating bodhichitta are different from other traditions.
As an aside, the Karmapa spoke about the origin of the mantra, Karmapa Khyenno (“Karmapa, know me”) or Karmapa Zig (“Karmapa, see me”). It is difficult to say when it came about, he said, but it seems that even before Buddhism spread in Tibet, the people had the custom of invoking their many gods with “Khyenno” (“Know me”) or “Zig” (“See me”). When Buddhism developed in Tibet, this custom was gradually transferred over to the new spiritual path.
We know at least, he said, that this happened after the time of the Fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shekpa, because when he was in China, at the behest of the Ming Emperor, a compilation was made of the names and mantras of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Beneath the image of Deshin Shekpa was the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara and not Karmapa Khyenno. History relates that from this time dates the tradition of many people reciting the six-syllable mantra with the understanding tha it relates to both the Karmapa and Avalokiteshvara.
The next part of the text the Karmapa read was the beginning of the main practice, when one visualizes a central lotus with four branches and in the middle a resplendent Avalokiteshvara, who is Mikyö Dorje internally. On the four surrounding lotuses appear reflections of Avalokiteshvara in four different colors, representing the Four Immeasurables, whereas in the principal figure’s heart is the syllable HRI, the essence of nondual wisdom. When the mantra are recited lights radiate, making offerings to the Noble Ones, benefitting living beings, and finally dissolving into one and purifying faults. All the merit is dedicated to full awakening.
The Karmapa thought that Mikyö Dorje probably wrote this section as well since the colophon states that he wrote “the refuge, bodhichitta, and so forth.” This passage was probably included within the “so forth.” The Karmapa concluded his explanation saying that this is a special visualization, and it would be beneficial to practice it. If there would be time later, he would like to give more detailed explanations.