Teachings by the Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Abbot of Gampo Abbey

Thrangu Rinpoche blessing Buddha statue
Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, blessing the Buddha rupa in
the main shrine room at Gampo Abbey, June 2002

We present two teachings from the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche:

Seminar on Monastic Discipline

The following teachings by the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche were originally given at Gampo Abbey in August of 1985 as part of a seminar on monastic discipline.

These talks were translated by Sonam Palden and transcribed by Thelma Habgood, who was later ordained and became known as Ani Migme Chödrön. These teachings are reproduced here with the permission of Namo Buddha Publications. They may not be reproduced without the express written permission from Namo Buddha publications. The first five were originally published in Volume 5 of the Profound Path of Peace the journal of the International Kagyu Sangha Association. They were published in 2001 by Namo Buddha Publications as "The Tibetan Buddhist Vinaya: A Guide to Buddhist Conduct." Additional teachings by Thrangu Rinpoche may be ordered online from Namo Buddha Publications. The topics covered in these teachings include:

  1. The Pratimoksha Precepts
  2. Discipline and Precepts
  3. The Vow of Individual Liberation
  4. Karma and the Accumulation of Merit
  5. Outer, Inner, and Secret Pratimoksha
  6. Nine Aspects of a Noble Being
  7. Three Aspects of the Bodhisattva Vow
  8. Five Classes of Vajrayana Precepts
The Five Precepts Observed by Lay Devotees
  1. Abstaining from destroying life
  2. Abstaining from taking what is not given
  3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct
  4. Abstaining from false speech
  5. Abstaining from anything that causes intoxication or mindlessness

The Pratimoksha Precepts

Buddha gave three main sets of teachings. The first teachings were the teachings on the Four Noble Truths which were given at Sarnath, India and became the foundation for the Theravada school. The second set of teachings were the teachings on emptiness and these were given at Rajagriha and became the foundation of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. The third set of teachings were the Vajrayana teachings and were given in many different places. The Pratimoksha precepts are currently practiced in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. In Korea and China which predominantly practice the Mahayana teachings, the Pratimoksha are also practiced but with an emphasis on the bodhichitta precepts. In Tibet all three levels of precepts are practiced: the Pratimoksha, bodhichitta, and Vajrayana precepts.

Outwardly, the rules for Tibetan monks and nuns appear to be fairly relaxed. Theravada and Mahayana monks sometimes think that Tibetan monks are so lax that they do not observe the precepts. This is not true. In India, the monks can go begging for alms in the morning and come back in the afternoon. But Tibet has no large cities and the Tibetan villages are spread far and wide. So even if the monks went out begging for alms at four o’clock in the morning, they would not be able to return until late in the evening leaving them unable to practice and study. Therefore, the Tibetan panditas and siddhas in the past decided that rather than spending the whole day begging for alms, it would be preferable for monks and nuns to spend the time on practice and study. So Tibetan monks do not go out begging for alms but rely on donations from benefactors.

Tibetan monks also eat in the afternoon which, in the view of some people, is breaking the precepts. But there is a reason for this. In India, the monks go begging alms in the morning and come back in the afternoon and do their meditation in the evening. It is not proper to beg for alms both in the morning and the evening. Since the monks depend on alms for food, the Buddha forbid the nuns and monks to eat in the evening. However, in Tibet the monks do not go for alms and so can eat in the afternoon or evening if they are still hungry to allow them to better study and practice.

Tibetan monks also eat meat whereas Chinese and other monks, do not. But again the Theravada monks do this because when they beg alms, they have to take whatever food they get from the patron, whether it is meat or fish or vegetables. Because the monk may receive meat while begging, the Buddha in the Vinaya sutra did not prohibit the eating of meat. Chinese monks do not eat meat but they eat sea food. They do not eat meat because by not eating meat the hundreds of worms that may be in the meat are saved. Similarly, in Tibet the meat that comes only from large animals is eaten. So, for example, the meat of one yak is sufficient for one monk for one year. Also, by eating vegetarian food, one might kill more living beings than one yak in the process of cultivating the various vegetable crops. Therefore the Tibetan panditas and siddhas decided that it was better to eat one yak than to kill many small animals. This then was appropriate for maintaining the precepts in an appropriate way. By eating only large animals not only are the Pratimoksha precepts maintained, but also the bodhichitta precepts and the Vajrayana precepts are maintained. This, however, is not to say that Tibetan monks are perfect precept holders.

Tibetan monks wear maroon robes while Theravada monks wear yellow and Chinese monks wear black. The Buddha instructed ordained monks to wear red, yellow, or blue robes therefore the Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist monks do not use maroon robes. However, the Tibetan panditas and siddhas rejected the color blue because this is a color worn by lay people and chose maroon instead to set the clothes of monasteries apart from the lay people.

At the time of the Buddha, the monks in India did not wear the vest that Tibetan monks wear and kept the upper part of their body naked. When Indian panditas came to Tibet, they found it was so cold that they had to wear the vest (Tib. ding ba) all the time. So the vest worn by monks was copied from the siddha’s clothes and later on changes were made in the design to symbolize the six paramitas. This then became the uniform of the Tibetan monk.

Now we are in America and ordained monks and nuns are flourishing. I believe that in a modern society it is not appropriate to go out begging alms, with it being more appropriate to eat as they did in Tibet in accordance with the customs of Tibet like eating food in the evening. However, during the time of the bimonthly purification practice (Tib. sojong) and during the rainy season retreats (Tib. yarne), it is appropriate to not eat in the evenings in memory of the Buddha’s instructions. I also believe that in the West one should stop eating the meat of small animals and eat the meat of only large animals.


Question: Rinpoche, in the West we have the idea that an animal like a dog or cow is higher than a worm or an ant.

Rinpoche: In the Buddhist tradition, everything that has life has feeling. So it doesn’t make any difference whether it is small or big. The killing of a human being, however, is regarded as a particularly bad negative action, because human beings can achieve a higher goal and be helpful to other beings. But there is no difference between dog, worm, or cow.

Question: One of the contradictions that we run into with our nonBuddhist friends is that they say that we don’t kill but we eat meat. We say yes, but it is third hand. But that doesn’t help them understand. Can you say something about meat that has to passed through three hands?

Rinpoche: The Buddha said that meat can be eaten if one is free from the threefold conceptualization, that (a) one does not kill animals directly for oneself, (b) one does not persuade others to kill animals for oneself to eat, and (c) that the animals are not actually killed by another person in order to feed oneself. If one is free from these three conceptualizations, then the meat can be eaten.

Question: In this area there are a lot of local fishermen who fish for a livelihood and brought us fish, both because we asked them for it and as a gift. I wonder how we should relate to this situation.

Rinpoche: You should stop saying, “Please bring fish for us.” But if they bring fish and offer it to you, then that is not bad.

Question: Should we buy it from them off the dock?

Rinpoche: Yes, then you are buying a dead fish. When the fish is already dead, whether you buy it or they offer it to you it is the same.

Question: If everyone stopped buying fish, they wouldn’t kill them.

Rinpoche: Even if we Buddhists would stop eating fish, there are a lot of other people who would eat fish.

Question: But what about the precept not to kill?

Rinpoche: Eating meat and keeping the precept of not killing are totally different since we are not killing the fish ourselves, we are buying it from someone else. If we refrain from killing animals for food, that is an act that is beneficial to the animal. However, if there is an animal already slaughtered, refraining from eating it does not help the dead animal and the meat will rot.

Question: But it always comes to the idea that the animal will be killed. In fact, the negative action or is left to others so you will stay pure. If you are a good bodhisattva, you should take it on yourself instead of leaving it to others.

Rinpoche: We have to undergo our own individual karma. What is most important is preventing negative actions done by ourself. It would be very good if we could persuade others not to do negative actions. But mostly it depends on the individual. For instance, I once made a similar mistake. I found a cobweb in the bathroom and thought that the spider was going to kill many other insects. So I broke the spider web with my fingers and prevented the spider from getting food for itself. Actually my intention was to protect the small insects the spider might kill and eat, but instead the spider itself was harmed because it was not able to get food and died from hunger.

Question: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche suggested that we try to be mainly vegetarian at Gampo Abbey which means that we need to have a garden. So we had to kill insects if we were going to have carrots and onions and potatoes.

Rinpoche: What is most important is motivation. Since we have the motivation not to kill any sentient beings, even if we dig in the ground to grow the vegetables that’s not very bad. What is important according to the Vinaya is not to have the intention to kill.

Question: If there are a thousand Buddhists in Boulder, Colorado and each one of them eats one chicken each week: that’s 52,000 chickens in a year. And since everything is computerized, the producers know that they will raise these extra 52,000 chickens because they know they will be eaten. If the Buddhists didn’t eat chicken, they wouldn’t raise them.

Rinpoche: If we buy say eight hundred fish at the market today, tomorrow they are replaced by eight hundred new fish. Any action is their karma, not our own. But from our own point of view there may be the foundation, but there is no intention or motivation. Thus we may have the intention of eating meat, but we do not have the intention of killing the animal. Since not all of the four factors are present, it is not a violation of the precept.

Question: What about the active intention of trying to stop others from killing? If one thousand Buddhists stopped eating chicken, they would actually have the chance of stopping the chicken breeders from killing. They wouldn’t be able to make money, so they won’t kill them.

Rinpoche: In this realm we cannot persuade others not to kill. For example, in the oceans how many small fish are killed by the bigger fish? What is important is for us to refrain from killing, and in that way we can stop killing. It is not possible to persuade others.

Question: At Gampo Abbey we take the five precepts daily. Should we formally take this precept of not killing knowing that later in the day we are going to stick a shovel through many worms or whatever. Does it make a difference if our motivation is to develop food here? Does it make a difference whether that precept for that day is formally taken or not?

Rinpoche: It’s appropriate to take the precept even though we may kill insects while working. Since we have the motivation not to kill them, then we are not killing intentionally.

Question: Very often we have to make a decision about what situation is a greater benefit. In modern society people often decide to kill some animals in order to provide bigger benefit, for instance, the control of malaria which is spread by mosquitoes. The only way to control malaria is to kill the mosquitoes.

Rinpoche: I think that if we have a pure motivation for the benefit of others then it’s not bad to kill insects. However, if we have the desire to gain importance or money from killing mosquitoes, that is a negative intention and therefore a negative act.

Discipline and the Precepts

During the reign of the first Tibetan dharma king Songtsen Gampo (617-698 C.E.), the practice of the Buddhist teachings were introduced to lay people and then about four generations later the practice of the ordained monastics was established. However, in America the practice of lay people and monastics were established (in the 1970s) within one generation. In Tibet lay practitioners wore long hair and white clothes and the ordained monks wore maroon and yellow robes. Later during the reign of king Langdarma (ruled 901-906 C.E.), the teachings of the Buddha were suppressed by persecuting all ordained Buddhist practitioners, but the lay practitioners were able to preserve the teachings. That is why lay practitioners are regarded as very important in the Tibetan tradition.

The Life of the Ordained

Taking full ordination provides the monk or nun with more opportunity to practice and study allowing them to lead a peaceful life. Ordained individuals can then engage in the paramita of discipline (Skt. shila, Tib. tsultrim) and this literally means “cool” in English. Being cool was particularly prized in India because it is such a hot country. The Buddha compared the life of lay people to a pit of fire, because their minds were constantly tormented by all sorts of worldly problems and they were constantly engaged in busy activities. On the other hand, the life of monks and nuns was like living in a cool house, because they had no worldly concerns such as children, spouses, or possessions to worry about. The life of lay people may appear to be more enjoyable because they can sing and dance and so on, but in fact monastic life is much more peaceful and harmonious. The pleasures and enjoyment the lay people engage in has no true meaning and its root is suffering. That is why, after being ordained, there is more opportunity and leisure to practice and meditate properly. After taking the vows, we might feel imprisoned because we cannot do this or that, but actually, as we abandon what needs to be abandoned, we find that we are more relaxed leading a more simple and even life.

The Four Main Precepts

There are four main precepts that monks and nuns take. The first precept is not to steal. We may think that by taking something without the owner’s knowledge, we can have it without spending any money. We may be successful the first time we steal and not be discovered or we may be caught stealing. If we are successful, our mind will not be content and we will wish for more and more material things and fall into a habitual pattern of stealing. If, however, we make the commitment in front of our teacher or a statue of the Buddha, not to steal from this time onward, we need not be afraid of anybody else. Our problem is solved and we feel we have much more freedom.

The second precept is refraining from sexual intercourse. A boy driving with his girl friend in a nice car may seem to be having a very enjoyable time, but inwardly there is always the tension that the partner may get mad or become disappointed or we might lose him or her. So if they have a good relationship they will worry that it might end and if they don’t have a good relationship, then they cause problems and suffering for each other. But if one takes the vow not to have sexual intercourse, then from that time on one is free from the suffering of constantly worrying about ,one’s sexual relationships.

The third precept is not killing sentient beings. If we have not taken the vow, we might try to solve our problems by killing our enemy and running away. But the relatives and the friends of the enemy will now also become our enemies adding to the problem. Also, we may not take the vow of not killing simply because we believe that the situation will never occur. But some day that situation might arise. Therefore, if we take the vow not to kill, we know automatically that we can’t and this frees us to be completely free from the suffering caused by these problems.

The fourth precept is to refrain from telling lies. We might think that we can escape from problems by telling lies, but this is not the case. The Sakya Pandita has said that by lying, we may have the intention of deceiving others, but in fact, we are deceiving ourself. If we tell a lie once, afterwards people will not believe us even if we are telling the truth. If we tell a lie to our enemy or to someone who doesn’t trust us, then that person will not believe us anyway. If we tell a lie to someone with whom we have a good relationship, then from that time onward they will lose confidence in us and the relationship will be spoiled. So by starting to tell lies we will become like an echo and no one will believe us.

The Four Factors

In accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, if we follow the precepts of not stealing, not killing, not having sexual intercourse, and not lying, then one’s life becomes harmonious and “cool” from this discipline.

With each of these four precepts there must be four factors or conditions met before the precept is actually broken. These are: basis, motivation, action, and final results. If we take the precept of not stealing, the “basis” is something that belongs to another person that is useful to him. If one takes something worthless like a needle and thread from someone, that is not very negative. The second factor is “motivation.” If one has impure motivation and knows that these things belong to another and wants to steal them, then that constitutes stealing. If, however, one does not have the motivation to steal, such as taking another’s belongings by mistake or taking them from a friend knowing that the friend would have no objection, then that is not a negative action. The third factor is “action.” Merely having the intention of stealing itself is does not lead to negative karma. But following up the intention with the act of stealing is a definite negative action. The fourth factor is the “final result.” If, for example, one has the intention of stealing another’s belonging and one becomes so ill that one can not actually take the possession, then that is not a negative action leading to negative karma.

For those who are ordained and have taken the vows, the basis for the precept of not killing is the human being. However, for those who are not fully ordained but who have taken the precepts, the basis is whatever has a mind (Tib. sem). The second factor of motivation, is very important. For example, while cultivating crops, we may unintentionally kill many insects and worms. Or we may throw a stone from the top of a hill which may fall and accidentally kill some animal. The third factor is “action.” Even if we have the intention to kill a human being or a sentient being as long as the action is not executed, the precept is not broken. The fourth factor is “final result.” Even if we have the motivation to kill someone and one goes through the action of killing, but the human being doesn’t die, then there is no negative action of killing.

The Buddha himself said that all four factors must be present together to constitute a negative karmic act. So if the four factors are present while relating to a particular precept, then that precept is broken, but if the four factors are not present together, then the precept is unbroken.


Question: You said that the basis for killing is having a mind. Would you explain sentient beings or higher forms further?

Rinpoche: If you cut or destroy flowers, plants and vegetables, they will die, but they don’t have feelings or a mind. So mind refers to animals, insects, worms, or whatever has feelings. Scientifically, people may distinguish various shades of animate and inanimate, but I myself distinguished animate and inanimate in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha.

Question: Rinpoche, perhaps I misunderstood what you said when you were talking about the basis. You differentiated between the basis whether one was a fully ordained person or whether one had just taken layman’s precepts. I would have assumed that the basis for the fully ordained person would be a more restricted situation, but it seems the other way around.

Rinpoche: That was not a misunderstanding, those who are fully ordained Tib. gelong) have taken the vow not to kill a human being. If they kill insects or small animals, that is a negative act, of course, but it is not a violation of the parajika vow of fully ordained monastics. But in the case of those who have taken the lay precepts, upasakas, since they have taken the vow not to kill any sentient being, if they kill an insect or small animal, then that is a violation of their vow. When I say fully ordained I am talking about gelong ordination but this includes novice monks and nuns also because they take the same vow.

Question: Rinpoche, in our sangha, drinking and sexual relationships are very widespread, which leads sometimes to chaos because people don’t know how to handle those things properly. If one took the precepts as a lay practitioner, one might be the only person in a particular sangha to do that and that might be very difficult to maintain.

Rinpoche: If one takes the precepts, that’s very good; but even if one does not take the precepts, one can still practice them. This is a matter of motivation. In the Jataka Tales the stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, there is a story when the Buddha was the captain of a ship with five hundred sailors. His name at that time was “Great Courage.” There was an evil man who wanted to kill all five hundred passengers on the ship by making a hole in the ship. Great Courage saw that this man was about to make the hole in the ship and thought it would be a great sin for him to kill five hundred people. He thought, “If I kill this man, it will save the lives of five hundred people and also stop the man from falling into hell.” So Great Courage killed him by hitting him in the head with an ax. In this particular situation killing the evil-minded man was not a negative karmic act for Great Courage, but rather it was a virtuous act. That is why motivation is so important.

Coming back to the question of alcohol and sexual intercourse which you say is contradictory to dharma practice. Based on these actions, many people will grow in intention and attitude towards dharma practice. I think that intoxicants and sexual intercourse in themselves are not bad for lay people. However, for monks and nuns who have taken vows, that’s another matter.

Question: Rinpoche, in western culture there is the notion of a “white lie” that is, sometimes you lie out of kindness for people. For example, you might tell your mother something that wasn’t completely true because you don’t want to hurt her.

Rinpoche: A white lie isn’t bad since one is telling a lie with a good motivation.

The Vow of Individual Liberation

The Tibetan word for “individual liberation” is so sor tharpa dompa or Pratimoksha in Sanskrit. The word Pratimoksha is quite similar to the word for discipline (Skt. shila) which we have already discussed. Temporary liberation means liberation from the sufferings and problems of day-to-day life. Ultimate liberation means being ultimately free from the suffering of samsara. The Tibetan word so sor or prati in Sanskrit means “individual” or “personal.” For example, if we follow the precept of not killing and don’t kill, then we are personally free from any negative results that come from killing. If we have taken the vow not to steal and don’t steal, then we are free from the causes of suffering that comes from stealing. Thus, by following all the precepts, we will be free from all suffering. The nature of Pratimoksha vows is basically refraining from harming others either directly or indirectly. An example of the direct cause of for example, killing or stealing. An example of indirect cause of harm is singing and dancing, which does not have direct harmful results, but these activities could gradually lead to something negative or harmful. So the essence of Pratimoksha is to abandon the primary cause of harming others directly as well as the secondary cause which may harm indirectly.

When we take the Pratimoksha vows, our motivation may be impure and this attitude should be abandoned. There are two types of impure motivation. The first impure maturation is that we may have expectations of temporary happiness resulting from ordination or we have the desire to protect ourselves from temporary unfavorable condition such as an illness. Second, we may expect to receive respect and veneration from others or hope that taking ordination will free us from the rules and regulations of ordinary life.

There are also two types of positive motivation. The first is the desire to eliminate all suffering in this lifetime as well as all future lifetimes. This is the motivation when taking the individual liberation vows. The second is the bodhisattva vow and this is the desire to cultivate bodhichitta for the benefit of all sentient beings. The discipline of these vows is like a wish-fulfilling jewel. If we look upon discipline as a cause of temporary comfort, then the Pratimoksha vows will bring about only temporary relief from suffering. If we abandon the thought of temporary comfort and look upon the Pratimoksha vows as the cause for eliminating suffering, then it will be the cause of freeing oneself ultimately from samsara.

When we take the Pratimoksha vow we are following the example of the arhats of the past and we proclaim that we will follow their path in the same way. First we have the motivation, then we take the vow, and finally we must keep the precepts. We proclaim:

Just as the arhats of the past followed and preserved the precepts of not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual intercourse, not lying, not becoming intoxicated, etc. so also will I follow and preserve the precepts.

In the past the arhats abandoned the thought of harming others and abandoned the cause of harming others. Having abandoned whatever has to be abandoned and having realized whatever has to be realized, they eventually attained the realization of arhat. So too will I do the same and follow the training that the arhats underwent.

At the time of taking the Pratimoksha vow we should have the yellow robe (Tib. chogo), a begging bowl, and a strainer. These three objects represent the desire to not harm others. Water which is used for drinking or washing should be stained through the strainer so as not to harm the small animals or insects that may be present in the water.

To preserve the Pratimoksha vow, we should constantly have mindfulness and awareness and constantly think of abandoning what has to be abandoned. If certain parts of the vows are transgressed, the transgression should not be left alone but should be repaired. The Buddha said that we should have a high regard for our discipline, and that we should cherish our discipline. Cherishing our discipline means that we should have continuous mindfulness and awareness and repairing the vows immediately if they are broken. The Buddha said that we should have at least one of these two factors of mindfulness and to repair the vows immediately to preserve the purity of the vows. With these factors we can develop our discipline and realize what has to be realized and attain the state of an arhat. If we have neither of these, we cannot develop our discipline and cannot attain the ultimate goal.

There were several different schools in India and each had a different Pratimoksha discipline. The Pratimoksha rules which were transmitted to Tibet was derived from the Mulasarvastivadin Theravada tradition. According to this tradition the Pratimoksha vows whether taken by a lay person, a naïve or a full-ordained monastic had two different forms: that which can be perceived and that which cannot be perceived. At the time when the vow is actually taken, it is in the form which can be perceived because others can actually see one taking the vow. From then on, it becomes the form which cannot be perceived, because others cannot see that one has, for example, abandoned the action of killing. The actions of not killing, not stealing, and not engaging in sexual intercourse are virtuous actions of the body while not lying is a virtuous action of speech. One can preserve the vows consciously, or unconsciously such as at the time of eating or sleeping, since one already has the vows within oneself.


Question: You talked about preserving discipline with mindfulness and heedfulness and secondly if one violated one’s vows, one should repair them. But it seems to me that it requires mindfulness and heedfulness to notice that one has violated one’s vows.

Rinpoche: Since the Pratimoksha is the vow with perceived form, the violation will manifest itself. For instance, we may tell a lie during a time of not having mindfulness and heedfulness, but then later, when we recollect, we think “Oh, I told a lie.”

Question: How would one make it up when the vow is broken?

Rinpoche: We makes it up by offering personal confession and during the bimonthly sojong confession ceremony.

Question: The vow seems to constitute an accessory cause of liberation because, we cannot really be purified just by outward behavior, but have to be purified by meditating. It seems to me that the vow by itself could not liberate.

Rinpoche: You are right in saying that we should meditate; meditation is very important, of course. We cannot attain enlightenment just having discipline without meditation. However, a person endowed with perfect discipline who cherishes his discipline, will never remain idle; he or she will always be engaged in practice. So by perfect discipline, we obtain the power to meditate. That is why discipline is powerful.

Question: What is the difference between the Pratimoksha and the bodhisattva vows?

Rinpoche: Pratimoksha vows are always stated in negative form, in other words, “I will refrain from killing, I will refrain from lying, etc.” Because they are stated in that way, it is always very clear whether or not they have been kept because you did something you weren’t supposed to do. In the Mahayana vows, there is the vow to increase one’s compassion which seems to be much more a matter of degree.

The discipline of the Pratimoksha is based on body and speech, so whatever mistakes we make can be perceived immediately. But the Mahayana vows deal mainly with our mind and so we cannot easily tell whether our discipline is progressing or declining. The Mahayana vow is compared to a golden vase which can be easily damaged or broken, but also easily repaired. However, the Pratimoksha vows are like a big clay vase which can be damaged easily, but once it is damaged it breaks completely.

Question: It seems that vows that just refrain from certain kinds of actions don’t solve a lot because they don’t show, for example, the essence of mind.

Rinpoche: By refraining from impure actions we are freed from all mental or psychological problems. This helps us to stay in a peaceful state so that our meditation can develop.

Question: Rinpoche, would you agree that the precepts would not work without practice, but that the practice would work without the precepts?

Rinpoche: Your question was would it work if practice is without precepts. The precepts are important to accumulate merit. But without meditation, through the precepts alone, one cannot attain enlightenment. By meditating and abandoning all negative emotions, one can attain enlightenment. In order to abandon negative emotions, one must preserve one’s discipline.

Question: Is there a natural tendency with meditation practice for the mind to go towards what is good. The precepts help, of course, but could we say, “Well, now we won’t bother taking precepts, we will become naturally good through sitting practice alone.”

Rinpoche: If we can just give up all negative emotions through practicing alone without taking precepts, that’s fine, whether they are the Pratimoksha, the bodhichitta, or the Vajrayana vows. What is important is eradication of all the impurities, all negative emotions. So it makes no difference whether one eradicates the impurities through the discipline of the precepts or through meditation. Eliminating the impurities is the ultimate attainment.

Karma and the Accumulation of Merit

The last chapter was on the Mulasarvastivadin system and the vows that exist in the perceived and unperceived forms. In general, the vows have special virtue and the power of accumulation of merit and virtue (Tib. sonam kyi tsog) are based on our commitment. There is a difference, for example, between simply not killing and not killing after having taken the vow of not killing. When we simply abandon the action of not killing, it will not result in the fruition of not killing. For example, if a dog at the moment is not killing anything, then that dog is not violating the vow of not killing, but it also is not accumulating the virtue of not killing because it has not taken the vow. The reason for this is that, at present, the cause for killing is not present so the dog is not killing anything. But later when the cause for killing turns up, the dog may then kill something. Likewise, if we have not taken the vow not to kill, then even if we do not kill, we will gain no merit. But if we have taken the vow, then when we do not kill, we are also gaining the virtue of not killing since we have the motivation of refraining from the act of killing. So, we obtain the virtue of not killing because of our strong motivation not to kill. The difference between a dog and a man who has taken the vow not to kill is that the man will accumulate virtue whereas the dog will not. For instance, if we take the vow at six in the morning, then at seven o’clock we will have accumulated the virtue of not killing for one hour, at eight o’clock, for two hours and so on. When we chant mantras, we accumulate virtue with each mantra that we chant. So once we have taken the vow, we then accumulate the virtue of the vow. When we take the vow of not killing, we are refraining from killing not just one man but are refraining from killing all sentient beings and so the accumulation of virtue grows. Since we have the strong motivation that is constantly growing, then the accumulation of virtues continues whether we are playing, eating, or sleeping. But if our motivation for not killing is somehow broken, then from that time on the virtues cease to accumulate.

How do we cultivate the virtues even when we are asleep? If a man who has not taken the vow of not killing awakens from sleep, then he might commit the crime of killing depending on whether conditions are favorable or unfavorable for killing. On the other hand, if a man who has taken the vow awakens from sleep, he has the strong motivation not to kill, so he will refrain from killing and accumulates the virtue for the period of time while he was sleeping. Thus, if we maintain the five precepts, we are accumulating the merit of these five each minute. If we preserve ten precepts each minute, we are accumulating the merit of ten precepts. After having taken the vows, we may not see how the virtues are increasing within ourselves, but nevertheless from the moment of taking the vow onwards, the merit of preserving the vow will develop. For this reason, the Buddha emphasized moral discipline.

The ultimate effect of the accumulation of merit is enlightenment. The Tibetan word for the Buddha is sang gye. The syllable sang means “awakened” from the sleep of ignorance and gye means “to open up” like a flower. So sangye means awakened from all the negativities, all the delusions. When we eradicate all the negativities, the good qualities will blossom forth. All sentient beings already have the essence of enlightenment within them, so they possess all the qualities which are ready to blossom. It is like the sky. When the sun is obscured by clouds, we cannot see the rays of the sun. Likewise, we have the qualities of the essence of enlightenment within us but they are obscured by the disturbing emotions and negativities. Just as when clouds clear away, we can see the sun’s rays, so when the obscurations are cleared away, the qualities of Buddhahood will blossom forth. That is why it is important to clear away all the defilements.

The nature of the defilements is like salty water. If we drink salty water, we become more and more thirsty and this causes us to drink even more salty water. In the same way, if we carry out the action of the defilements, it leads us to want to act again and again in the same way and so the defilements increase. The Tibetan panditas and siddhas have compared this to a pig entering a garden. As soon as the pig comes into the garden, one should hit it on the nose with a stick so that it won’t go into the garden again. But if it is already in the garden and has started to eat the vegetables, then it is not so easy to get the pig out of the garden. Likewise, one should try to stop the disturbing emotions when they first arise in the mind; just as we hit the pig on the nose when it first starts to enter the garden.

Since beginningless time we have become habituated to working with the disturbing emotions. We shouldn’t try to stop the disturbing emotions but when they first arise in the mind we should not follow them with our body and our speech. If we do not follow the disturbing emotions, then gradually our mind will be rid of the disturbing emotions. When our disturbing emotions decrease, our meditation practice will automatically progress. In this way, all the benefits are accomplished.

According to some Western psychologists, if we suppress our thoughts then the mind will be damaged and so we should immediately do whatever comes to our mind. For example, when we feel aggressive, we should tear up a piece of paper and not wait for the aggression to build up in ourselves. Someone once told me that when he gets angry, it helps him to beat his pillow. Maybe that’s true.

Maybe when a thought arises, we should just wait and see what happens to that thought. But that is not the way to preserve the vows. For instance, if a man puts sweets on the table and then says to his children: “Don’t eat these sweets” his children will develop a strong desire to eat the sweets. But in our case, preserving the vows, is quite different. It is like a man putting poison on the table and telling people: “Don’t eat that poison, otherwise you will die.” No one has the motivation to eat the poison; rather they have the motivation to abandon the poison and will try to find a way to throw the poison away.

The Buddha taught that we should refrain from the disturbing emotions because following them will cause us suffering. That is why we refrain from negative actions and to accumulate the benefits of eliminating negative actions.

It is not true that without taking the vows we cannot attain higher state of mind. In fact, in the Kagyu tradition, Tilopa, Naropa, Gampopa, and Milarepa did not take the vows, but yet by their great diligence and wisdom, they were able to control their disturbing emotions and that served the same purpose as taking the vows. Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, and Milarepa are the highest teachers and lineage holders of our tradition and were able to attain Buddhahood in one lifetime.


Question: Rinpoche, what does it mean to accumulate virtue?

Rinpoche: Accumulation of virtue is the karma of action of body, speech, and mind. Action has two aspects: virtuous and unvirtuous. So virtue consists of whatever virtuous karma is accumulated through the virtuous actions of body, speech, and mind. Conversely, unvirtuous karma is whatever karma is accumulated through unvirtuous actions of body, speech, and mind.

Question: In terms of karmic situations, by maintaining the precepts, are we just not creating further karma, or are we repairing old karma as well?

Rinpoche: In terms of preserving the precepts, when negative karma is abandoned, then positive karma can increase and the result is virtue. Karma is like a job. Our mundane life is based on what kind of job we have. If we have a good job then we can have a good life more or less, and if we don’t have a good job we may not have such a good life. So by practicing positive karma through our body, speech, and mind, we can attain Buddhahood.

Question: My understanding is that cutting through the chain of karma brings us to Buddhahood, not the accumulation of good or bad karma, since we are still in samsara, accumulating good or bad karma.

Rinpoche: Here is a very old example for this. Long ago, in order to make fire, one had to rub two sticks together very vigorously and when the fire ignites and it burns up both sticks. At the time of accumulating positive karma, negative karma is abandoned and good karma is developed. Slowly all the defilements are controlled. By this process, all disturbing emotions are gradually destroyed and karma stops automatically. During the time of practicing, we try to accomplish positive karma and abandon negative karma. It’s like the two sticks rubbing together. Gradually we are able to destroy all the negativities and karma stops by itself.

Question: Would you say something about the ripening of karma and how the practitioner experiences that?

Rinpoche: Generally, the explanation of ripening of karma is very subjective and hard to understand. The idea can be understood only through enlightened wisdom. But if we try to examine it by way of examples, then it is quite easy to understand. For instance, I was born in Tibet and if I think, “Why was I born in Tibet and why wasn’t I born in America?” I can’t think about that. The fact is simply that because of my previous karma I had to be born in Tibet. I may think why was I born in the year 1931 and why did I not die before 1959 so I wouldn’t have to endure the suffering of the Chinese invasion. I get the same answer: everything that happened was due to my own past karma. If I want to come to America, I need a visa. But if you wonder why you were born in America, who gave you the visa? Your karma gave you the visa.

Question: It sounds like it is the responsibility of the individual to shape his or her own karma. But I wonder about freedom of decision. Karmapa is said to be “the knower of the three times” and Padmasambhava made predictions about what’s happening in the future. How can you predict the future if karma is based on freedom?

Rinpoche: Clairvoyance cannot be conceived in ordinary terms. For example, a man may predict that in the future somebody will come here to build a factory and start a business. At the time of making the prediction, he will not know whether that person will come in the future or not, whether he will have the idea of building the factory or not. Also, in Tibet, prophecies were made that, in the future, a certain person will come and will have to undergo certain kinds of suffering. That is his karma that he is to undergo, but that can be predicted.

Question: But doesn’t that contradict freedom, the power of free decision, to decide in which direction you will go?

Rinpoche: That is not contradictory to make a decision for oneself because when a prediction is made that someone is going to do such and such in the future, freedom of decision has not been taken away. Instead, what is being said is that someone is going to do that in the future.

Question: Karma sounds sometimes as if it always comes from the past. But could it come from a vision of a desirable future. For example, if I see a vision to build Gampo Abbey, therefore it’s part of my karma and part of my power is to be able to fulfill that vision. I’m trying to resolve karma and freedom in my mind. What’s happening now to any one of us is simply the result of the past. Maybe it’s the result of a vision of the future. You said that Padmasambhava made a prediction. Maybe that prediction is his vision of a desirable future and he sees it is possible that it could be that way, so he makes that prediction.

Rinpoche: When Padmasambhava came to Tibet in the eighth century, he predicted that in the future the iron bird would fly west and that the dharma would flourish in that country. At that time there were no airplanes, no iron birds, but now we have them. So there doesn’t seem to be any contradiction in predicting the future even if it doesn’t exist at the present time.

Question: Rinpoche emphasized the importance of taking vows so that there would be an effective accumulation of merit. It seems to me there are two aspects to say not killing: realization that there is no need to be angry and also the understanding of how to respond in a compassionate way in the situation.

Rinpoche: For example, if we vow not to kill, we have the strong motivation not to kill then if thoughts of killing arise in our mind and our bodily action will not go along with the thought of killing. Then slowly we will become accustomed to the thought of refraining from killing, and thus the defilements of the mind will slowly be purified. Body and speech support the mind. If bodily actions always follow after the mind, then the mind becomes stronger and stronger. But if actions of body and speech stop, then the mind is no longer supported by body and speech and the mind grows weaker and weaker.

Question: It seems that there may be times when one has to do an unskillful action when there are enemies who are trying to destroy the dharma or harm the guru. How do you do that without violating your bodhisattva vow and your precepts?

Rinpoche : There are slight differences in intention among the three levels of vows. We should act from the level which is the most appropriate, the level with which we can relate most reasonably. These three levels of vows are interrelated. For instance at the Pratimoksha level, the Hinayana level, it is said that we should “suppress” the disturbing emotions. In Tibetan this word “suppress” means we should not completely eliminate the defilements, but that we should literally “press them on their heads” so that they cannot stand up. Doing this helps the meditation on the Mahayana and the Vajrayana levels.

The Outer, Inner, and Secret Pratimoksha

According to the tantric path the individual liberation vows can be classified into three types—outer, inner, and secret—which correspond to the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana path respectively. But the purpose of all three of these Pratimoksha vows is to tame the mind and free oneself from delusion. There is, however, a difference in their approach. The Hinayana vows of individual liberation is called the “path of abandonment.’ As we have said before, according to the Theravada system, we should not allow delusions to arise and should not allow actions of body, speech, and mind go along with the delusions. Unvirtuous actions of body and speech are carried out because of impure motivations of attachment, aggression, ignorance, pride, or jealousy. We should stop the delusion when it first arises in our mind and should stop the unvirtuous actions of body and speech which follow.

In the case of the Mahayana or bodhisattva vow, delusions are also abandoned, but in a different way. Rather than being rejected, delusions are transformed through the practice of love and compassion. The power of love and compassion gradually increases until it becomes vast and profound when we become a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva transforms not only his or her negative emotions, such as attachment or aggression, but also those of all other sentient beings. With the transformation of negative emotions, all delusions are spontaneously abandoned even though some of the actions of a bodhisattva may appear to an observer to transgress the vows, for example, killing or having sexual intercourse. However, internally the motivation for the actions is for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Abandonment of delusion is also the path in the Vajrayana vows. When one is in a state of meditative absorption (Skt. dhyana) , one comprehends the delusion arising in one’s mind and spontaneously liberates oneself from it. This is called shar drol in Tibetan in which the delusion arises and is simultaneously liberated.

We should practice all three levels of vows (the Hinayana, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana) at the same time. We should practice the outer discipline of the Pratimoksha in which we have the motivation of liberation for ourselves. Then the inner discipline of the Mahayana should be practiced and the attitude of the bodhisattva should be adopted. Finally, in the discipline of the Vajrayana, we still meditate on the Pratimoksha and Mahayana vows, but when we realize the true nature of phenomena, we then practice yidam meditation. These are the three-fold vows. An example of someone holding these vows is Milarepa who outwardly did not have the appearance of a fully ordained monk by wearing monk’s robes and following all the rules of the Vinaya. However, inwardly his mind was purified of all delusions, and so that is why he was a perfect practitioner. Milarepa said: “I don’t know the Vinaya, but taming one’s mind is the Vinaya.”

In the Pratimoksha, there are three kinds of transgressions: lesser, medium, and greater. The greater transgressions should not be committed. The lesser transgressions occur because we have been conditioned by negative actions carried out during previous lifetimes. Even though we may commit these lesser transgressions, we should not let them accumulate and pile up. Rather, they should be purified or repaired by means of sojong (Skt. poshadha) ceremony. The Tibetan word so means “to repair” or “heal” and the word jong means to “give up” or “purify.” In the sojong ceremony, we are asked if we realize the faults we have committed and then we promise not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. This process helps us to observe our vows properly.

After noticing our faults, we can apply the four powers of antidote. The first is the power of revulsion or regret which is knowing that faults have been committed and being disgusted with them. We can then reject these negativities. The second is the power of remedial action which is knowing the antidotes for unvirtuous actions and then applying them diligently without interruption. The third is the power of reliance which is relying on the three jewels of the Buddha who shows the path, the dharma which is the path of practice, and the sangha who are the companions on the path. The fourth is the power to resolve not to repeat the fault in the future. The most important antidotes are the power of regret and the resolve not to repeat the action.

If we commit a fault for the first time, we should resolve not to repeat it; but if we commit the same fault a second time, we should again resolve not to repeat it again and so on. By resolving not to repeat the fault each time we commit a unvirtuous action, our mind becomes strengthened not to transgress again and in this way disturbing emotions are pacified. This is how the sojong ritual is performed. But purification does not mean that we first commit a fault and then purifies it. What it mean is that by the power of regret we repents our fault and by the power of antidote we resolve not to fall under the power of disturbing emotions and repeat the fault thereafter. Not being dominated by unvirtue and delusion, our mind becomes pacified.


Question: I wonder what it means in the Mahayana to transform delusions?

Rinpoche: All delusions of attachment, aggression, and ignorance arise from cherishing ourself, cherishing “I.” When practicing the bodhisattva path, instead of cherishing ourselves, we cherish others since we have resolved to work for the benefit of other sentient beings, and in this way, we can transform all the delusions. We have loved and cherished our “I” and have tried to benefit only ourselves since beginningless time. That attitude has been of benefit neither to ourselves nor to others and it has been the cause of our endless wandering in the suffering of samsara. Understanding the faults of cherishing ourselves, we can change the object of the cherishing. Instead of loving ourself, we transform that into love for others, and thus we will be endowed with loving-kindness, compassion, and bodhichitta. In this way, we don’t focus on the delusions, we don’t judge the disturbing emotions as bad, or negative, or wrong. That is why they are transformed naturally.

If we love ourselves and consider ourself important, then aggression will arise because we will have the notion that somebody is harming us, or even that someone such as our parents or friends helping our enemies. So this aggression arises based on valuing ego. But if we change our attitude and are concerned for the welfare of other sentient beings, then the delusions are naturally transformed because we no longer hold ourself as most important.

Question: We start off in the Hinayana saying, “Don’t do these things, they’re bad” and then in the Mahayana we say, “Do these things, they’re good.” So is the Vajrayana the only way to remove all delusions ultimately?

Rinpoche: Actually, all three vehicles have the way to free us from delusions, but the Vajrayana method is quicker and more powerful.

Question: As I understand it, three of the four antidotes are in the sojong ceremony.

Rinpoche: Actually, only two of the four antidotes are included in the sojong ceremony. These are the power of reliance in which we make our confession in front of all the monks and the power of resolving not to repeat the wrongdoing in the future. The other two powers are not included in the sojong ceremony but are practiced all the time.

Question: It seems that the first power of antidote, the power of regret, would have been included because the preceptor says: “Do you see your faults as a wrongdoing?” and then you have to say, “Yes, I see them as a wrongdoing,” and admit what you did. So it seems to me that the first power should be included in the ceremony.

Rinpoche: You actually have the first power within yourself before you make a confession in the sojong. During the ceremony you are asked if you have any faults. Although there are four antidotes to practice, only two are included in the sojong ceremony, and the other two should be practiced all the time.

Question: Rinpoche, in the Hinayana Pratimoksha, you talk about delusions coming up and some sense of suppression of these delusions. Suppression somehow implies that the delusion is not really being dissolved, but is being pushed away so that it actually still exists within one.

Rinpoche: There is no place where the disturbing emotions can dwell in the mind. What suppression means is that we do not allow the delusion to arise in our mind. Shantideva gives an example for this. In a war if we try to destroy our enemy, then that enemy will go someplace else, and when he is strong enough to take revenge, he will come back to avenge himself. But delusions are very weak; they have no place to go, and no place to come back to. Once they have been removed, they cannot come back again.

Question: Rinpoche said that the lesser transgressions are due to the actions of previous lifetimes. Would Rinpoche please give examples of medium and greater transgressions, and are they also due to actions of previous lifetimes?

Rinpoche: There are two things that have to be abandoned: evil actions and obscurations. If the actions of our body, speech, or mind cause harm to other beings, either directly or indirectly, these actions are negative or evil deeds. These actions have nothing to do with previous karma or previous habitual tendencies, but rather they are connected with present motivation. Generating the motivation to kill or to steal depends solely on ourself and we have the power to stop ourself from carrying out these negative deeds.

Obscurations, which are related to mind, also do not depend on karma, but depend on our habitual tendencies. From beginningless time, we have all been habituated with the negative emotions, attachment, aggression, and ignorance. Some people have strong attachment, some have strong aggression, and some have strong ignorance, depending on how much they have been habituated with these delusions. These habitual tendencies are to be abandoned. There are two words that have almost the same meaning in Tibetan. These words are gom (spelled in Tibetan as sgom), meaning practices or meditation, and khom (spelled goms) meaning habitual tendencies. When we practice very diligently and our practice is powerful, then that’s gom, meditation. When we don’t practice wholeheartedly, don’t put our strength into our practice, then it becomes khom, just a habitual tendency. So to abandon obscurations, one has to replace gom by khom.

Of these three transgressions the lesser transgressions sometimes have not yet ripened into evil deeds but may be the seed of evil deeds later on. For example, some monks don’t wear the lower garment, the sham thab properly. At that moment, it’s not an evil deed, but it may ripen into an actual evil deed gradually.

Question: In Vajrayana postmeditation practice, what is the discipline that self-liberates delusion?

Rinpoche: One should have the two qualities of mindfulness and introspection in postmeditation. The Tibetan equivalent for the English word “post” is je thop. The syllable je means that one carries the essence of the practice within oneself and should one not lose that essence.

Nine Aspects of a Noble Being

In the Buddhist tradition there are three different types of practice, namely, view (Tib. ta pa), meditation (Tib. gom), and action (Tib. choe pa). The Pratimoksha sutra deals with discipline or action. Living in a monastery or abbey requires discipline. It requires right action which benefits both oneself and other sentient beings for the present and future generations and discipline also maintains the teachings. Noble beings who work for the benefit of other sentient beings, have nine different ways in which they help others; three which are for their own benefit, three which are for the benefit of other sentient beings, and the three last which are both for their own and others’ benefit.

Benefiting Oneself

The three ways of working for one’s own benefit are hearing (Tib. toe pa), contemplating (Tib. sam pa) and meditating (Tib. gom pa). One has to depend on someone else to show the right path and so one listens to the teachings of the Buddha. From the Hinayana point of view the Buddha taught how to free oneself from attachment in the Vinaya and how to free oneself from aggression in the Sutras and how to free oneself from ignorance in the Abhidharma. This is the Tripitaka (literally three baskets) of the Hinayana. There also exists a Tripitaka in the Mahayana and a Tripitaka in the Vajrayana.

The shastras or commentaries that help in understanding the Buddha’s very vast and profound teachings. The four most important commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings are the Madhyamaka, the Prajnaparamita, the Vinaya, and the Abhidharma. The Madhyamaka shastras deal with emptiness, the Prajnaparamita shastras deal with knowledge and wisdom, the Vinaya Shastras deal with discipline or action, and the Abhidharma Shastras deal with how one progresses along the path.

Having listened to these four treatises, one then contemplates them. One contemplates and examines what one has heard again and again and develops one’s knowledge. Finally, one then meditates on these four treatises and the teachings one has received for various practices. Gampopa has said that hearing, contemplating, and meditating should be combined. If a practitioner tries to meditate without having listened to the teachings, he or she cannot meditate because there is nothing to meditate on. It is like a man without hands who tries to climb a mountain. Listening to the teachings without meditating is also not beneficial. It is like a rich man who is a miser and does not buy good food or clothes. Listening to the dharma and meditating is like a bird with two wings who can fly in the sky.

Benefiting Others

The three ways of benefiting other beings are speech (Tib. mchid [may be ‘chad]), debate (Tib. tse) and composition (Tib. tsom). To convey the real meaning of the teachings to others, one has to speak to them so they can understand. The Buddha said that he was unable to wash away the defilements of others with water. To help sentient beings, one has to show them the right path by explaining the teachings to them. The only way the Buddha could pass on his inner wisdom to others was to talk to them. In a similar manner we also teach others the path by means of speech.

The second way of benefiting others is by debate or discussion. Discussion clears away any doubts or misunderstandings that may arise when the dharma is being explained. The Buddha said that if one wants to buy gold from a shop, before one actually purchases it, one should examine it to see if it is real or fake. Then, if one finds that it is real gold, one should test it to see if it is of good or poor quality by putting it in the fire, cutting it, or rubbing it. By doing so, one finds out if it is pure gold or not. In the same way, the teachings of the Buddha should be carefully examined and analyzed rather than simply accepted. To explain the teachings clearly to others, one should be free of doubt and misunderstanding oneself and this is the function of debate and discussion.

The third way to benefit others is composition. When one is fortunate enough to receive the teachings directly from a teacher, then one can clear away one’s doubts and misunderstandings by asking the teacher questions directly. For those who do not have this opportunity, commentaries composed by the great Buddhist masters can be read and studied and thus clarify one’s doubts.

Benefiting Self and Others

Finally, there are three ways in which noble beings help themselves and others. These are: being learned (Tib. kha pa), being well-disciplined (Tib. tsun pa), and being kind or compassionate (Tib. zang po). It is important to understand the teachings to help all sentient beings. Being learned in the teachings alone is not enough; we should also bring our learning into the practice. We should also put the Pratimoksha, the bodhisattva, and the Vajrayana vows into practice in order to help other sentient beings. If we put our knowledge into the practice, our example will convince others to practice as well. If we do not practice personally, others will not believe us. For instance, the power of the garuda protects us from harm caused by the nagas, including catching leprosy. So if a leper claims to have tried the garuda’s instructions to protect him from the nagas, nobody will believe him. So to help ourself and other sentient beings, we should be well-disciplined and practice.

The third point is being kind, compassionate. Loving-kindness and compassion are both needed to become a noble being and to help other sentient beings. The manifestation of loving-kindness is not always apparent because it may not manifest itself externally. For example, Marpa was outwardly very unkind to his student Milarepa; he scolded him and abused him by making him undergo so many difficulties. But Milarepa’s deep devotion and respect for the teachings prevented him from becoming discouraged. Because of his deep devotion, he obeyed every order Marpa gave him. If Marpa told him to build a house, he built the house; if Marpa told him to demolish the house, he demolished the house. But for other students, the externally manifested loving-kindness and compassion are necessary to bring them to the teachings and the practice.

These nine aspects of a noble being are not actually included in the Pratimoksha but are part of the practice of those who live in monasteries and are the fruition of monastic life.


Question: In the Japanese tradition there are disciplines like calligraphy, tea ceremony, or archery. How does contemplation fit into those practices or traditions?

Rinpoche: Calligraphy and the tea ceremony are good ways to hold the mind, awareness. In the Tibetan tradition, we used to practice putting a small stone in front of us and trying to focus on that stone. Also we practiced mindfulness and awareness by holding the breath, chanting, and prostrating. They are all the same.

Three Aspects of the Bodhisattva Vow

We have discussed monastic discipline from the point of view of the three-fold precepts. The Theravadins observe the precept from the Pratimoksha point of view of self-liberation. From this point of view the Tibetan practitioners seem not to be as strict and literal in observing the Pratimoksha Sutra as the Theravadins. But since they have the motivation for not only self-liberation, but also of achieving bodhichitta and maintaining the vows of the Vajrayana, the Tibetan practice of the Pratimoksha is more complete.

There might seem to be a contradiction between the practice of the Pratimoksha precepts and the Mahayana precepts because the former focus on the attainment of self-liberation and the latter on abandoning self-liberation and seeking attainment solely for the benefit of other sentient beings. In Tibet the Mahayana system consisted of the practice is of the four defeats (Tib. pam pa), the thirteen remainders (Tib. lhag ma) and the thirty transgressions (Tib. pong tung). The rest of the faults were considered to be of lesser importance. But because motivation is regarded as of prime importance, the Mahayana precepts are regarded as more important. Since an person seeking ordination has already taken the bodhisattva vow, then when he or she received the Pratimoksha vows, they were viewed from a Mahayana perspective. So in Tibet the motivation of bodhichitta which arises when one takes the first vows is emphasized, the Pratimoksha vows were not just blindly followed.

The bodhisattva vow has three aspects: abandoning faults; doing virtuous actions; and working for the benefit of all sentient beings. The first precept of abandoning harmful actions of body and speech is the same as the Pratimoksha precept. The second and third precepts, however, are special to the bodhisattva vow and are accomplished by means of the six paramitas.

The Six Paramitas

The first paramita of generosity has three aspects. The first is to give one’s material possessions, such as wealth, food, clothing, etc. to others. The second is to protect others from fear and sorrow. According to the Mahayana system, temporary help, while benefiting other sentient beings, is not as important as ultimate help. To liberate sentient beings ultimately from suffering, one must introduce them to the practice of the dharma, which is the third division, that of giving the noble teachings. The dharma should be presented to beings according to their individual dispositions or inclinations. Some beings are inclined towards the profound teachings, some towards the vast teachings, and some towards the lesser teachings. Some beings may have the inclination to practice the vast and profound teachings, but because of lack of opportunity, they have to practice the lesser teachings. Therefore Shantideva has said that the vast and profound teachings should not be given to those who do not have the capacity to practice them, and that the lesser teachings should not be given to those who have the ability to practice the vast and profound teachings. Beings should be given teachings in accordance with their ability and capacity.

The second paramita is discipline which is to refrain from negative behaviors already been talked about. The third paramita is patience. This is patience to endure hardship necessary to forebear harm from someone who doesn’t like us or our enemy, to understand the meaning of the teachings, and to accomplish the noble teachings. When someone doesn’t like us or our enemy harms us, we normally become angry with him or her. But we should not become angry because it is the nature of ordinary beings to benefit themselves and do harm to others. Therefore, if we relate to an ordinary being, naturally we will be harmed, and that harm is caused by ourself, not by the other. We can take the example of fire. The nature of fire is to be hot and burn, so if we put our hand in the fire and our hand is burned, there is no reason to be angry. It makes no sense to become angry at the fire, the fire will naturally burn us. It is our fault, not the fault of the fire. So if we make a relationship with an ordinary person, we will sometimes receive a harmful response from that person, and so we should develop patience to accomplish virtue. To attain virtue we need an object. For example, if we practice generosity, there must be someone to whom we are giving something. In the case of patience, there must be someone towards whom can we practice patience? Not to those who are good to us, but towards those who do not like us or want to harm us. So to practice patience, it is necessary to have someone who harms us and doesn’t like us to help us accumulate virtue. The third aspect of the paramita of patience is patience while practicing and realizing the teachings. We should not become discouraged by thinking that we cannot understand or cannot realize the essence of the teachings. We should continue to work with our knowledge and level of practice and put all our effort into practicing with patience.

The fourth paramita is diligence. Diligence is necessary because laziness constantly comes up on the path of dharma. One of the aspects of laziness is putting oneself down, thinking that we are hopeless, that we do not have the capacity for realization. This attitude obstructs our practice and our attainment of realization. We should give up thoughts of inadequacy and instead develop the feeling of being able to achieve whatever we want. This is like a good suit of armor that protects us in battle so that we do not fear the enemy; we can have pride in ourself and can rouse up our courage. Similarly, being discouraged is an obstacle on the path of practice which can be overcome by a strong powerful mind. This type of diligence consists of having strong faith and devotion, and turning our thoughts to the practice of the dharma. The third aspect of diligence is applying our mind constantly and uninterruptedly to the practice.

The fifth paramita is meditation. In general, tranquillity meditation (Skt. shamatha, Tib. shinay) stabilizes and pacifies the mind which is constantly wandering. This paramita is of two types, the first being mundane or worldly dhyana which consists of stabilizing the mind. The second type is transcendent dhyana in which, based on worldly dhyana, one’s practice and meditative states may progress.

The sixth paramita is intelligence or prajna which has the three aspects of hearing, contemplating, and meditating already discussed.

These six paramitas constitute the foundation for working for the benefit of all sentient beings on the Mahayana path.


Question: Rinpoche, I didn’t understand the difference between mundane and transcendental meditation. What is an example of worldly meditation?

Rinpoche: Shamatha meditation is the mundane state of samadhi or meditation. If, in addition to Shamatha, there is the wisdom of egolessness and the practice of insight (Vipashyana) meditation that constitutes the transcendental state of samadhi.

Question: Rinpoche, how useful is it to take the precepts of Pratimoksha? Many of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students have been taught in a style that doesn’t start with discipline as a function of taking the precepts. Another way of saying it is that if you are already tamed to some extent, then merely keeping the five lay precepts doesn’t provoke anything in terms of one’s practice. What is the use of having the Pratimoksha vows at all. Also Rinpoche has said that one of the functions of keeping the vows is that you are creating merit for yourself. But the question is, so what?

Rinpoche: Trungpa Rinpoche has been spreading the dharma for sixteen or seventeen years in places where the dharma has never been heard before. Different methods of teaching must be used in places where the dharma has not been spread previously. That is the reason why, for the time being, you are not going through the precepts of the Pratimoksha. That is why a monastery is slowly being established here. Trungpa Rinpoche’s idea of building a monastery here is because he sees the importance of practicing the Pratimoksha precepts. In general, it is true that it is most important to tame our mind which is like a wild elephant. In order to tame our mind, we cannot merely say, “I would like to tame my mind.” Different techniques are necessary such as taking the precepts, or mind training (Tib. lo jong), and meditation. It would be fine if we could tame our mind with just one method, but that’s not possible.

It is actually difficult to believe that once we have taken the precepts, our merit is increasing. For example, if we have a hundred animals and kill one animal on each hour then we accumulate the karma of killing an animal each hour. But if we have taken the precept not to kill and don’t then kill the animals, then each hour we accumulate the positive karma of not killing.

The Five Classes of Vajrayana Precepts  

There are four methods to bring sentient beings onto the path of dharma. The first method is to provide whatever is needed. With the motivation of helping others to attain enlightenment, others can be brought to the path of dharma by being shown the right method. The second is with kind speech; when others are brought to the path, their faith may be aroused by speaking kind words. If these two methods are based on impure motivation, they do not help; if they are supported by pure motivation, they are the perfect method; and if they are further supported by the precepts of bodhichitta, they are even more extraordinary and beneficial. The third method is to communicate directly through the teachings, showing those who have already been introduced to the dharma the proper path of practice and eradicating whatever obstacles may arise while they are practicing the path. These obstacles may cause the practitioner to lose faith and devotion so one can eliminate the practitioner’s obstacles. If the practitioner has gone off onto the wrong path, one can guide him or her back to the right path, and if that person is not evolving on the path, one can help them to evolve. The fourth method is to act appropriately with the ways of the world. For example one should practice in the same way that one explains the dharma to others.

The Pratimoksha vows are called the outer precepts in which one refrains from destructive actions of body and speech. The bodhichitta precepts of the Mahayana are called the inner precepts in which one examines the mind.

The third stage is called the “secret Vajrayana” precepts. The word sang ba is usually translated into English as “secret,” but this has an ambiguous interpretation. It’s as if Tibetan Buddhism has to conceal its practice because there is something wrong in its practices. This misconception is due to the way the words sang ba has been translated. In all the Buddhist practices, particularly in the Vajrayana practices, there is nothing that must be hidden and kept secret. There is no fault in the practice that makes it improper to show to others. Nor are Tibetan Buddhists greedy and don’t want to reveal the teachings to others. Not giving the teachings to others, is not in accord with the dharma. The word sang ba instead has the connotation of “pointing to the main issue,” and gives the idea of something powerful. At the Mahayana level, the main issue according to the sutras is emptiness which is empty and has the aspect of clarity. At the Vajrayana level of sang ba the main issue is one’s inner mind, not emptiness. For example, if a sleeping man dreams about a tiger, giving him weapons or getting his friends to help him are of no use. The only way to help him is to awaken him from his sleep and then instantly he will be free of his fear the tiger. Similarly, if we can awaken from our inner mind, we find that there is no essence in external phenomena.

When we examine our mind, we find that it is obscured by the five disturbing emotions (Skt. klesha; Tib. nyon mong): attachment, aggression, ignorance, jealousy, and pride. When these five disturbing emotions are purified, they are called wisdoms (Skt. jnana, Tib. yeshe). When we realize the nature of our mind as the same as the five wisdoms, we will then manifest the five wisdoms. This process of trying to find the main issue of the mind is called sang ba or the “secret” Vajrayana.

These Vajrayana precepts are divided into five classes according to the five Buddha families. The first precept is the samaya of Vairocana which consists, as we have already described of the path of the three activities of a bodhisattva: refraining from unvirtuous deeds, accomplishing virtue, and working for the sake of all sentient beings. Vairocana is the foundation of the other Buddha families, and the wisdom of the dharmadhatu is regarded as the foundation of all the wisdoms.

The second, the purification of aggression into mirror-like wisdom is the samaya of Akshobya which consists of always holding the vajra and ritual bell and having devotion to and faith in one’s root guru. The delusion of aggression is very powerful and in order to purify this, one must depend on one’s root guru. Aggression is transformed by the mirror-like wisdom into pacification.

The third, the samaya of Ratnasambhava which transforms pride into the wisdom of equanimity which enriches. The practice for this samaya is generosity with regard to wealth, possessions, food, etc.

The fourth, the samaya of Amitabha, transforms attachment into the wisdom of discriminating awareness. Its activity is that of magnetizing other sentient beings, and to accomplish this one must observe the three-fold precepts of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Having the knowledge of the three yanas, one can show others the path appropriate to their individual disposition.

The fifth, the samaya of Amoghasiddhi which transforms jealousy into the wisdom that accomplishes all actions. The activity in this family is that of wrathful action. By making offerings of tormas to the wrathful deities, one can accomplish one’s goal faster.

The precepts of the Hinayana are included in those precepts of the Mahayana which in turn are included in the Vajrayana precepts. Therefore to observe the Vajrayana precepts is to observe all three yanas at once.


Question: When you spoke of the samaya of Aksobya, you were speaking about the purification of anger, and then in the samaya of Amoghasiddhi you spoke about wrathful activity. Could you say how those two, anger and wrath, are different?

Rinpoche: The deities have two aspects, peaceful and wrathful. The peaceful aspect is like the bodhisattvas. The wrathful aspect is not in the form of delusion such as aggression, but rather the wrathful activity helps one to accomplish one’s goal rapidly. So wrathfulness and aggression are different. The wrathful aspect has power. For example, if a child does something dangerous and if his parents pet him and says “Don’t do that,” the child won’t listen to them. But if the parents raise a stick and say, “Don’t do that,” then the child will obey. The wrathful action of raising the stick has the power to stop the child from doing dangerous things which a peaceful method does not have. That action is not the method of aggression but rather the method of wrathful activity. Aggression in the purified state is mirror-like wisdom, the activity of which is pacification. Jealousy in the purified state is all-accomplishing wisdom, the activity of which is wrathful action. That is why aggression and wrathfulness are different.

Question: Rinpoche, how does the offering of tormas relate to that?

Rinpoche: The offerings and tormas are offered to the dharmapalas, so that is how someone’s goal is quickly attained.

Question: When practicing guru yoga, do you rouse confidence?

Rinpoche: Yes.

Question: So if your guru is three hundred miles away from you, but if you pray to him, how would you get results?

Rinpoche: If you meditate, you create a visualization and it seems to be part of the visualization that you believe in it. But obviously the visualization is not reality in the common sense because it’s a created reality. In my practice, I’m creating that mandala within my mind, and I don’t think about whether it exists out there or not.

The visualization is related to reality. For example, if you visualize the guru on the top of your head, that will be of benefit to you. If you visualize a frog on top of your head, that will be of no benefit. When we visualize, we need some foundation on which we can visualize, therefore we visualize on the foundation of tormas.

Question: Rinpoche, when you discussed the padma family and the transformation into discriminating awareness, it seems to me that you have to really understand and practice all three yanas completely.

Rinpoche: One doesn’t have to practice all three yanas in detail. By practicing Vajrayana, one is practicing all three yanas because the Hinayana precepts are included in the Mahayana, and the Mahayana precepts are included in the Vajrayana. By realizing the three yanas, when one teaches, one can give teachings appropriate to different individuals. The Buddha gave 84,000 different teachings, but that doesn’t mean that one has to go through all 84,000 of them. If one practices fully one of them, that serves the purpose of practicing all the rest of them. Since each sentient being has different dispositions and capabilities, there are 84,000 different teachings. That is also why that there are three yanas.

Question: Would the practice of Vajrayogini be one of the 84,000?

Rinpoche: Yes, that is one path of the Vajrayana included in the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha.

Question: What is the practice for the samaya of Vairocana? You said there were three precepts of Vairocana and I was wondering what they are.

Rinpoche: The samaya of Vairocana is the precepts of the bodhisattva and the fruit of that is dharmadhatu which is the foundation of all the activities, pacification, magnetizing, accomplishing, and enriching.

Question: I used to believe that this wall was more real than something like Vajrayogini which I couldn’t even imagine. So because of the effect of that belief, whether Vajrayogini is real or not real is actually not important, but the effect of Vajrayogini and offering to Vajrayogini is important.

Rinpoche: That’s very good if you have the confidence of visualizing or realizing Vajrayogini as solid as this wall, more real than the wall. The effect of that is positive, very good. The wall, like all phenomena, is empty. But according to ultimate truth, Vajrayogini is real and exists from the point of view of Shentong Madhyamaka. Ultimately all forms do exist. Since you have that attitude, and by realizing ultimate truth, you can attain your goal very fast.

Question: A teacher, not a Buddhist teacher, once said that you could take anything and put it up on a shrine and venerate it and by generating your own energy into that situation, it would become sacred. If you just sit yourself down to work with the practice and believe it has validity, then it has validity. How is that separated from your own belief in some sort of actual validity that exists beyond whether you believe it or not?

Rinpoche: Not seeing something is not sufficient reason for saying that it doesn’t exist. For instance two people may be sitting facing each other and they can see each other, but they cannot see what the other one is thinking about. The reason why we offer torma and other offerings is to show that we have confidence, devotion, and conviction in the deities to whom we are making the offerings. Whether it is to our root guru or our yidam, the most important thing is confidence. If we have no confidence, we will never accomplish our goal. Also we should have confidence in the personal deities and dharmapalas and make offerings to them, because they have the power of eliminating our suffering. It’s not that the gods are hungry or something like that.

Question: These dharmapalas are states of mind, aren’t they?

Rinpoche: According to the Hindu point of view, everything was created by a god, but we don’t believe that. The Theravada school emphasizes that there is no god at all and that is also true from the Vajrayana point of view. Also from the Vajrayana point of view, happiness and sorrow all depend on oneself. Yet an infinite numbers of Buddhas and bodhisattvas exist, some in the form of personal deities and some in the form of dharma protectors (Skt. dharmapalas). If we arouse faith and devotion to them, through their power we can receive their blessings. That is why the yidams and dharmapalas are not just the creation of one’s mind.

Question: My question is that with these torma offerings, there is sometimes the feeling, “Am I a blind believer if I do that, just believing that blessings come to me? How can that be reasonable? Am responding to blessings coming from outside which I do not see? How do I know that I receive blessings?”

Rinpoche: The offering is important. For example, there are two friends who have a very close and deep relationship with love and compassion for each other. But merely saying it is not sufficient. They must express their love and compassion to each other either by exchanging gifts or by helping each other. In the same way, to say, “I have very deep faith and devotion to the Buddha” is not enough. You must offer something to represent your deep faith in the Buddha. In some ways it is difficult to understand how we receive blessings, but in other ways it is quite easy. For instance, when we see the statue of the Buddha or a shrine, devotion arises within us. But, for instance, when that couple came here to make the film for TV and saw the shrine, they just said, “Oh, this is a colorful picture. It must be some sort of superstition that they believe in.” Although we see the same objects, the way we see it and the way they see it is different. They don’t understand what it is. So these are the blessings that we are receiving.

This Is My Monastery

An address given by the Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche to the monastic sangha at Gampo Abbey in October, 1989.

In general, monks and nuns are not the same as a family because a “regular” lay family comes together because of desire and attachment and because in a family one gives up one’s own individual freedom so one no longer has individual choice. In order to get away from the situation of desire and attachment, and to gain one’s freedom again, one becomes ordained as a monk or nun.

But having become ordained we still need within our newly gained freedom something which encourages us to practice and facilitate dealing with obstacles, such as sickness, old age, and death. These are so difficult to deal with if we are completely on our own. To solve this problem the Buddha established the sangha as a group of people who have basically given up any attachment and desire, yet live as a group to deal more easily with difficulties to practice and to encourage general perseverance and diligence. If there is no one living with us to remind us about our position, then we might easily do whatever we want and then nothing will come out of our commitment and aspiration. In other words, after our initial choice for independence or freedom, it is possible that there could actually be too much independence or freedom and we could just get lost in our own independence and freedom. Just like a wild animal we could think: “I am so happy. No one can tell me what to do. There’s nobody I have to answer to. I have no responsibilities and nothing to do. I can drink and smoke dope as much as I want and no one says anything. All I have to worry about is my own happiness, independence, and freedom.” That is not what’s meant by giving up family life.

The Buddha established the tradition of the sangha which was relying on one another and of practicing within a group. In this way the discipline of the monks and nuns was very controlled and their practice improved. There are many reasons why a monastic setting is good. In Tibet, monks and nuns who were living in a monastery had a great sense of identification with that monastery. If a monk or nun for some reason had to leave the monastery, there was always the thought, “I’m a resident of this monastery and I’ll definitely come back and live here. I am part of this monastery.” If one is mindful and aware of our adherence to the monastery, one develops very conscientious behavior and activity. Therefore this sense of identification with a monastery has great benefit. Generally, the Buddha taught the dharma by teaching discipline, meditation, and wisdom (Skt. shila, samadhi, and prajna). By identifying oneself with a group at the monastery and thinking, “I am of this monastery, a place where training in shila, samadhi and prajna are done.” enables these three practices become a part of oneself. One is constantly aware of them and so one doesn’t forget them. One thinks, “This is what is being learned in my monastery. These are my friends, the sangha, who are all practicing the dharma.” You carry this notion with you wherever you go, whether inside or outside the monastery. If you don’t have this sense of identification with the group and the whole support system of the monastery, you could easily forget these practices and the training you have undergone.

In a monastery there is an agreement among everyone that everyone keeps the same disciple and moral conduct. This makes it easy for a monastic to maintain his or her discipline because one thinks, “All the rest of the sangha keeps this discipline, so I can too.” Or “They are maintaining fifteen precepts, so I can keep these too.”

If we leave the monastery and spend a lot of time with people with a different code of moral conduct, then after a while we will start to think, “All these people are doing something else. They are not keeping my kind of discipline and moral conduct. Why am I doing it? Why am I the only one who needs to do this? Why do I have to wear these clothes, nobody else is wearing these clothes?” So slowly we forget why we were even supposed to do it. For example, if we were to go into a bar where everyone is drinking except us, and we would just sit there and do nothing and after a while we would start thinking, “What kind of weird person am I that I am not joining in on these activities?” If we stay in a monastery we wouldn’t encounter such difficulties. Nobody is drinking and everybody is keeping the same moral code. Therefore in a monastery we do not feel strange at all, but are in harmony with everyone. We can easily remember to maintain our discipline and easily remember that there are valid reasons and great benefits from doing so. It makes our whole life easier, more peaceful, and less complicated. In this way, we don’t waste our life. It is important for monks and nuns to remember the reasons and the necessity for proper discipline.

I go to Europe very often and in the past I have ordained many monks and nuns there. Every year I ordained a lot, but when I returned the next year, they were no longer monks or nuns. I then ordain more monks and nuns, but again when I came back, they were not monks or nuns any more. Therefore now when people ask me for ordination I say, “No. You probably won’t be able to keep it.” But then they say, “Oh, I really want to become a monk or nun. I’m definitely going to keep this ordination.” So I give it, but when I come back the next year, no monk, no nun. Sometimes I get letters four or five months later saying, “I am sorry I just couldn’t keep it. I’m not a monk any more.” Sometimes it even lasts a year. So I ask them, “Why? What’s the matter? Why can’t you keep your ordination?” Most of them say, “In the West it is impossible. Nobody can keep the vows.”

Well, I don’t think this is really true because there is a long monastic tradition in the West, the Catholic tradition. So I don’t think that is the reason why people can’t keep the ordination, especially as there is not much of a difference between a Buddhist monk and nun and a Christian monk and nun.

So what is the cause? I think it is because there are no Buddhist monasteries in the West. Therefore, years ago, I suggested that an organization called the International Kagyu Sangha Association be started. With the hope that the Association would eventually be able to establish a monastery. I think that the establishment of a monastery is crucial for the development of having Western monks and nuns. Once there is a monastery, then the monks and nuns can stay in it and manage to keep their vows for more than two or three months. They might even keep the vows for years.

Well, so far I have not been able to establish this monastery as I was hoping to, but at least there’s Gampo Abbey, which through the kindness of Trungpa Rinpoche has come about. So I think, because of this good luck of there being an Abbey, a monastery, that you will be monks and nuns longer than a few months.

So, for monks and nuns, monasteries are very, very important. You should think, “This is my monastery.” And if you think this way, obstacles will never come up.

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