Preeminent Qualities of the Author and Text

The Flourishing of Dharma

At the time when the Buddha himself was alive in India, the land of Tibet was mostly under water. Buddha prophesized that this water would drain and disappear, and then the land of Tibet would become solid ground on which his teachings would flourish. He also prophesized that in this land to the north, in Tibet, the teachings would be protected by and taken care of by Avalokiteshvara. There, in this northern land, the land of those with the red faces, they would especially flourish.

In fact, under the guidance of the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the teachings have in fact flourished very much in Tibet. If there weren’t someone such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama manifesting as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara in order to fulfill all of Buddha’s wishes and thoughts, it would be extremely difficult for the teachings to flourish as they do today. Under his guidance, all the various lineages of the Gelugpa, Nyingma, Kagyu and the Sakya schools have been able to thrive greatly. Presently, they exist in a very propitious state, because we haven’t as yet reached the prophesied time when the Buddhist teachings will completely decline. In the past, the teachings did not spread widely from Tibet much beyond Central Asia; however, now they are growing in more and more different lands around the world. This is something very beneficial for the people there. 

Buddha’s Teachings     

The actual teachings of the Buddha can be thought of in two different ways. There are the scriptural teachings (lung-bstan) and the realization teachings (rtogs-bstan). The definition of a teaching is something that acts as a method for preventing us from being reborn in a lower realm or with great suffering. It is also a means for being able to obtain a fortunate rebirth as a human or a god. Thus, upholding these two aspects of the teachings means having both of them on our mental continuums.

All living beings are the same in that all of them wish to be happy and no one wishes to suffer. Anyone with a life has these same aspirations – wishing to be happy and not to be unhappy. Nonetheless, the complete elimination of all suffering and the total attainment of ultimate happiness are only achievable with the state of Buddhahood. It is only possible to attain this state of Buddhahood if we have the working basis of a precious human body. Without this, it is not possible to attain. 

The teachings are those things that teach the methods for obtaining this ultimate state of Buddhahood and also, temporarily, for achieving the state of a human being or a god in order to work toward this state. This is what defines the teachings. They teach these methods for obtaining these goals. The actual texts that give these teachings are known as the “scriptural teachings.”

Scriptural Teachings

We can see, for instance, at present there are available in the world the 108 volumes of the Kangyur, the Tibetan translations of the collected spoken words of the Buddha. These would be the scriptural teachings and constitute this category. There are also the 224 volumes of the Tengyur, the Tibetan translations of the collected commentaries written by the Indian Buddhist masters. These also would constitute scriptural teachings. Likewise, there are the many Nyingma texts from the early flourishing of the Dharma from Guru Rinpoche himself and his 25 disciples. There are also the texts that were composed during the latter flourishing of the Dharma, which would include the texts of the Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa lineages, as well as the works of the great Kadampa masters. 

All of these likewise would constitute scriptural teachings. To uphold the scriptural teachings means, for instance, to memorize these various scriptural texts and to have the ability to recite them. This constitutes upholding the scriptural teachings. For example, in India there was the famous brother of Asanga, one of the masters we spoke of yesterday, Vasubandhu. He was noted for having completely memorized all the words of the Buddha. 


As mentioned yesterday, Asanga’s mother, Prakashashila, was a woman of the brahmin caste. Her first husband was of the royal caste and from this union came one son, Asanga. She later took another husband from the brahmin caste and the son who came from this union was Vasubandhu. These two, Asanga and Vasubandhu, had the same mother but different fathers. 

Vasubandhu could recite all the words of the Buddha, a process that would take him fifteen days. Reciting these texts for such a long period, however, would disturb the energies in his body. In Tibetan, this is referred to as “lung” disorder, a disorder of the winds or the energy in the system. In order to prevent this ailment, he would sit in a very large copper vessel filled with oil. While sitting in this tub, he would recite all the works of the Buddha and this would prevent him from getting any nervous disorder. 

There was a pigeon that would sit nearby while he was reciting. One morning, while Vasubandhu was reciting these works, the pigeon flew away to find some food. However, the pigeon came back, sat there and continued listening to the words of the Buddha that Vasubandhu was reciting. After the pigeon died, it was reborn as a human in one of the distant border regions of India. Vasubandhu was residing at Nalanda at the time, which is in the central part of India. When this child reached the age of two or three, he spoke to his parents and said, “My guru is Vasubandhu, Vasubandhu.” 

There were many merchants who traveled from the central area of India to these border regions and so the father inquired from these traveling merchants if, in fact, there was a guru in central India by the name of Vasubandhu. The merchants at that time said, “Yes, there is a master there by the name of Vasubandhu.” Therefore, the father sent his young child in the care of these merchants to be brought to this master to stay with him and study the texts.

There was a statue of Tara in close proximity to where Vasubandhu resided. The child went to a nearby field and picked some beans, brought them to the statue and placed them on the lap of this Tara statue as an offering. Being a small child, he didn’t put them in the lap very carefully and the beans spilled out and fell on the floor. The child started to cry and said, “If you won’t eat the beans, then I won’t eat my beans either.” In that moment, the Tara statue spoke and said, “I will take these beans.” In that way, he received the blessings of Tara, and likewise as a result of the instincts that he gained from having heard the teachings as a pigeon in his previous lifetime, he became very learned in the Dharma scriptures, especially in the subject matter of abhidharma, special topics of knowledge. His name was the Abhidharma Master, Sthiramati. 

Vasubandhu not only had this great knowledge of the scriptural texts and the ability to recite all the words of the Buddha by heart, but through the force of meditation, he had many great realizations as well. In this way, he upheld the scriptural teachings and, having all these realizations, he also upheld the realization teachings. He was a very great master and had more than 500 disciples.

Once, Vasubandhu went to Nepal on a pilgrimage to circumambulate the various stupas there. He encountered a manifestation of Mara, the great interferer. This manifestation appeared in the form of someone wearing monk’s clothes and carrying a large bottle of chang, which is a type of alcohol. Vasubandhu became very forlorn and depressed, saying, “Oh dear, the teachings of the Buddha have degenerated so much that here we see monks carrying around bottles of alcohol.” In this very depressed state, he passed away. From this, we can understand a little bit about what it means to uphold both the scriptural teachings and the realization teachings. 

When I was back in Tibet, there was a Geshe from Drepung Monastery whose name was Losang Chengyang and, likewise, he too had memorized and was able to recite by heart the 108 volumes of the Kangyur. I have witnessed that with my own eyes, in my own lifetime, someone who upheld the scriptural teachings to this great extent. I have seen many people who hold all the various realizations and insights on their mental continuums as well. If there were no living examples, then all of what I’ve just related would be like fables or stories; however, the fact that I have seen living examples of all of these with my own eyes causes me to have complete confidence that all of this is true. 

The teachings, as described like this, aren’t something that require an external monastery. What is required is to have the teachings within our own minds. If we have memorized and hold in our mental continuums any of the various scriptural texts, then we are upholding the scriptural teachings of the Buddha. Even if we have just memorized the dedication verse of bodhichitta that we frequently recite, we are upholding the scriptural teachings. If we have actually developed an enlightening motive of bodhichitta on our mental continuums, then we are upholding the realization teachings. 

Preeminent Qualities of the Author, Atisha

Normally, the preeminent qualities of the author of this text would be discussed at this point. To that end, in the last session we dealt a little bit with the biography of Atisha and how he turned his mind completely away from his royal inheritance to practicing the Dharma. We briefly addressed this. 

If I were to give a completely full and extensive discourse to show the preeminent qualities of the author, it would include the biographies of all the members of the lineage going from the Buddha Shakyamuni all the way down to Atisha. However, there would be no way to finish relating all these biographies, so we covered just the short biography of Atisha this time. Because there isn’t enough time, this has just been a rough abbreviated account of Atisha’s biography. Therefore, we have dealt with the preeminent qualities of the author of the text in this way, and next we will discuss the preeminent qualities of the text. 

Preeminent Qualities of the Text

One of the preeminent qualities of this text is that even though the words in it are very few, nevertheless they act like a skeleton key with which we are able to open door after door of the Dharma. It’s like a skeleton key for opening up the meanings to all the great texts of sutra and tantra, in all the various great volumes. We are able to understand their essential meanings if we are able to understand the meaning of this text. 

The actual words that convey the Buddhist teachings are incorporated in the Three Baskets, the Tripitaka. The subject matter discussed in them is the three higher trainings – the trainings in higher ethical self-discipline, higher concentration and higher discriminating awareness. We have all the essential points of the sutras and tantras included here in this text. It’s not at all incomplete. For example, if we go to a great supermarket, or one of these huge stores where we are able to buy anything, it’s similar to that. What we want specifically is to be able to incorporate all of this completely within our own minds, and so this text is written in such a way as to make it easy to do that and put its contents into practice. 

As we discussed last time, Atisha had the two complete lineages, the one from Asanga down to his own guru, Maitriyogi, and the other from Nagarjuna through to another of his teachers, Vidyakokila. Because Atisha had these complete lineages, his text is more distinguished than other texts. 

Furthermore, in various scriptural teachings we can see in one place, for instance in the sutras, that it says we should not drink alcohol and in other places, in the tantras for instance, it will say that we should drink alcohol and that it is permitted. If we study this text, another of the preeminent qualities is that we will be able to understand that there are no contradictions in these two seemingly opposite statements. For instance, we might come across two medical prescriptions: one is for someone with a fever, advising them not to eat meat, and the other for someone without a fever but who has a nervous energy disorder, advising the opposite, for them to eat meat. We can see that these prescriptions are for two different situations. Although the words of the prescriptions are seemingly contradictory, one’s saying, “Do not eat meat,” the other saying to eat meat; nevertheless, there’s no contradiction because they are dealing with two different situations. 

Moreover, by studying this text, we will be able to see that all the scriptural teachings, all the guideline instructions, are intended for one’s own practice; namely, ours. For example, if we practice the teachings described here in this text, we will understand how to develop a kind heart and an enlightening motive of bodhichitta. We can also understand that there are many different ways of presenting this topic. For instance, the Sakya, Gelugpa and Nyingma traditions each present the topic slightly differently. There are so many different ways of presenting the topic, but regardless of how it’s presented, we will be able to understand that all these teachings are dealing with the same subject, how to develop a kind heart and an enlightening motive of bodhichitta. We will realize that we should put them all into practice. 

Perhaps an example will be easier to understand. If we consider the porcelain cups that we have, manufactured in England, Japan, Tibet, or wherever, all of them are for the same purpose, to drink tea or some other hot beverage out of them. Just because we come across a different make of porcelain cup, for instance a Chinese one, that doesn’t mean that we can’t also use it for drinking tea. Likewise, when we come across a text that’s dealing with the practice of bodhichitta, we shouldn’t think that since it might be from a different lineage, from the Sakya lineage or whatever lineage, that just because of that, it’s not something that we should put into practice. Like this example of porcelain cups, they are all for the same purpose and use. This is what is meant when it says that it will dawn upon us to take all the scriptural texts as guideline instructions of what we should do. 

Fitting the Teachings Together

In our text, we have all the various teachings; for instance, for persons of the three graded scopes of motivation: initial, intermediate and advanced. To be able to put them into practice ourselves in the proper order, as we progress from being a person of one scope to the next, we need to know the outline, the way that all of the teachings fit together. We will be able to understand that from studying this text. Thereafter, if we know this outlined system, when we read the various texts from any tradition, the Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug or Sakya, and come across something that deals with the subject matter for the initial, intermediate, or advanced scope of motivation, we’ll know how to fit it within this outline and we’ll also know how to put it into practice. 

For instance, we have various containers in our kitchen; one tin for keeping rice, one for keeping flour, one for keeping sugar and one for keeping salt. Whenever we go and buy some sugar, we always put it in the sugar tin. If we buy salt, we put it in the salt tin, and flour and rice likewise we put in their individual containers. This is an example with which we can understand what it means to be able to take all the teachings as guideline instructions and be able to fit everything in properly. 

Similarly, if we train ourselves with these teachings, as presented here in this text, we will also know all the methods for actually putting the teachings into practical application. We’ll know how to practice them. If we were to study another text, for instance A Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalankara), that text starts out with the discussion of the omniscience of Buddhahood. The contents of this text are quite difficult to put into practice in the order in which they’re presented. However, if we study our present text, it indicates the subject matter in a very orderly fashion. For instance, when we go to school, we start with the lower grades and gradually progress upwards. So, because this text presents the subject matter in such an orderly practice, it’s very easy to actually apply it in a practical way. 

Similarly, Shantideva’s Engaging in the Bodhisattva Conduct (sPyod-’jug, Skt. Bodhicharyavatara) begins with a discussion of the enlightening motive of bodhichitta. This is also something very difficult to just put into practice immediately without going through all the stages for developing such a mind in ourselves. However, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, our text, starts from the initial scope teachings and works upwards in an orderly fashion. Therefore, it’s easy to put into practice and, through its study, we’ll find that all the various teachings of the Buddha will become easy to understand. 

The Greatest Mistake

If we follow these teachings and study well, we won’t have the danger of committing what is known as the greatest mistake. What is the greatest mistake, the greatest faulty thing we could do? It is to say that some teachings of the Buddha are good while others are bad, and to cast aspersions like this, criticizing Buddha’s teachings. For instance, if we were to say the Nyingma teachings are good and the Gelugpa are no good, or the Sakya are good and the Nyingma are no good, anything like this, it would be a great mistake, an extremely faulty action. If we put the teachings from this text into practice, we can understand how all the Dharma teachings are excellent and can avoid committing the great faulty action of disparaging the Buddha’s teachings. 

Yesterday, we were speaking of the general meaning of dharma as something that holds its own self-nature. In this manner, any type of Dharma teaching is something that holds the self-nature of being a method for bringing about happiness. In this way all the Dharma teachings are valid. If the Dharma teachings were to say that if we are to go out and steal as the means to become wealthy and happy, then this is something that couldn’t be established as a method for bringing about happiness. However, in fact, that’s not what the Dharma teaches. The Dharma offers various teachings and effective methods concerning how to attain happiness and these cannot be disproved when we put them into practice. Therefore, the Dharma, as taught in Atisha’s text, can be taken and accepted as true.

These, then, constitute the various preeminent qualities and benefits that come from practicing the teachings in this text. 

Introductory Lines of Homage and Promise to Compose

Now let’s begin the text itself. The text begins with the lines of homage. It starts: 

I prostrate to the Bodhisattva Youthful Manjushri.

This is followed by the homage verse offering praise and prostration and declaring Atisha’s intention for composing the text, his “promise to compose”:

(1) Having prostrated most respectfully to all the Triumphant of the three times, to their Dharma and to the Sangha community, I shall light a lamp for the path to enlightenment, having been urged by my excellent disciple, Jangchub Ö.

When the text speaks of all the Triumphant, this refers to the Buddhas of the three times: the past, present and future. As an example of past Buddhas, we have the Buddha Dipamkara (Mar-me mdzad), a Buddha of many great eons ago. This is not the same as Atisha whose name also happens to be Dipamkara – Dipamkara Shrijnana. The present Buddha is Buddha Shakyamuni, and the future Buddha will be Maitreya (Byams-pa). These are just illustrations or examples of Buddhas of the past, present and future. What the text conveys is, in fact, the teachings of all the Buddhas; therefore, great respect should be paid to all the Buddhas. 

The Enlightening Bodies of a Buddha

A Buddha has three Corpuses of Enlightening Bodies. There is the Dharmakaya or an Enlightening Body that Encompasses Everything, a Sambhogakaya or Bodies of Full Use and a Nirmanakaya or Emanation Bodies. The Dharmakaya refers to the mind of a Buddha and it has two aspects: the omniscience of the mind of the Buddha, known as the Body of Deep Awareness Encompassing Everything, and the state of abandonment or true stoppings of the two obscurations: emotional and cognitive. This state is known as the Svabhavakaya, the Body of Essential Nature Encompassing Everything.

The Dharmakaya can only be known by the Buddhas themselves. Sambhogakaya Bodies can only be met with by bodhisattvas of the arya class and upwards. Those beneath this level of achievement cannot meet with Buddhas in their Sambhogakaya forms. Nirmanakaya Bodies are divided into Supreme Emanation Bodies, Artist Emanation Bodies and Emanation Bodies as Personages. 

Buddha Shakyamuni is an example of a Supreme Emanation Body. He is completely adorned with all the major and minor physical marks or characteristics of a Buddha and fittingly teaches the Dharma very extensively. Although ordinary beings can meet with such a Buddha, this doesn’t happen without their having the extremely strong positive karmic potential to meet with such a Buddha.

As for an Artist Emanation Body, we have the example of Dhrtarashtra, King of the Gandharvas, a group of celestial musicians. He was an extremely skilled musician and was able to play a lute with a thousand strings. He had extreme pride and thought himself to be the best lute player in the entire world. In order to tame this gandharva’s pride, the Buddha manifested as someone who was an even more skilled lutist and musician. 

Buddha challenged this proud gandharva king to a contest. The Gandharva King played the lute with all thousand strings while the Buddha played his lute, breaking one string after another, playing with less and less strings until even when all the strings were broken and there were no strings at all on the lute, the Buddha was still able to play a stringless lute. The Gandharva King wasn’t able to outplay the music of the stringless lute and was humbled by this performance. This type of emanation is known as an Artist Emanation Body. 

Lastly, an Emanation Body as a Personage is best described as an emanation in the form of a regular person. As just mentioned, Buddhas manifest in a complete form of an enlightened being with all the major and minor marks, but it’s very difficult to meet with such a Buddha without an incredible amount of positive karmic potential. Therefore, Buddhas also manifest in a regular human form such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This would be an example of an Emanation Body as a Personage. 

All of these Enlightening Bodies of a Buddha would be actual instances of the Buddha Jewel of Refuge. In addition, for the sake of our practice, seeing Buddha statues or paintings would also constitute recognition of a Buddha Refuge. We can use these nominal sources of refuge as objects for developing our faith and respect. 

The text refers to their Dharma as well, and this refers to all the good qualities of the scriptures and realizations that are on their mental continuums. More specifically, what would constitute the actual Dharma Refuge would be the noble truths of true pathway minds and true stoppings (cessations) on their mental continuums. Likewise, for the sake of our practice, the scriptural texts serve as a nominal Dharma Refuge in order for us to be able to generate faith and respect. 

In this verse, the text also refers to the Sangha community. Very specifically, what it actually refers to is any person who has bare non-conceptual cognition of voidness and is thus an arya being, a noble one. Such a person is a person of the Sangha. However, in ordinary terms, when we speak of monks, for instance, then one monk does not constitute a Sangha. There must be four monks in order to constitute a Sangha. 

In this verse at the beginning of the text, prostration is thereby made to these Three Jewels. What will follow is the elucidation of the subject matter of the text, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.