Around 150 people from as far away as Mexico and LA gathered in Manchester to hear Lama Jampa Thaye begin teaching an important Buddhist text by the ninth Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The text, ’Pointing a Finger at the Dharmakaya’, was written by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje and is the first of three texts of instructions for the development of the ‘simultaneously arising Mahamudra’ transmitted and practised in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Wangchuk Dorje also wrote the liturgy for the ngondro (preliminary practices) commonly used by students of this tradition. As well as adding much detailed commentary to the text, Lama Jampa gave the reading transmission of both the text and the liturgy so that those who receive the teachings are fully equipped to practise.
Below is a précis of the two days of teachings and including sections transcribed verbatim.
The Transmission of the Buddhist Mahamudra Teachings within the Kagyu Tradition
Lama Jampa began by briefly describing the source of these teachings within both the Supreme Yoga Tantras of Buddha Vajradhara and some of the sutras of Shakyamuni Buddha. These two strands were brought together by the great early masters of the Kagyu tradition in this union of tantric and sutra Mahamudra – the Simultaneously Arising and Joining Mahamudra. Having been practised and realised by great Indian masters, these teachings first entered Tibet with the great Marpa Lotsawa (1016-1099). From Marpa the teachings were passed to Milarepa, then to Gampopa and from him to the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. For many years the texts were not given as texts but instead were transmitted to students at the time of initiation. It was the ninth Karmapa who first composed and recorded in writing, extensive manuals setting out the methods and stages of practice.
The Title – Pointing a Finger at the Dharmakaya
Lama Jampa explained that the text’s title refers to the definitive realisation of one who has traversed the stages of practise described: that thoughts are just the manifestation of the Dharmakaya. Such a person is able to meet whatever arises with the thought, ‘this is just the Dharmakaya’ and it is for this reason that it’s also referred to as the ‘simultaneously arising and joining Mahamudra’. In order to reach this point, a series of practises, beginning with the common preliminaries, must be completed.
Preliminary Meditations – the Common Preliminaries
The first part of the text covers the preliminaries, beginning with the common preliminaries presented as a series of meditations. The first of these is ‘reflecting on the freedoms and riches which are difficult to find’: our possession of a precious human birth ‘free from oppressive states and with space to choose and power to practise’.
The second is meditations on impermanence: ‘you will remain a completely worldly person without this reflection’. The third is reflecting on cause and effect, including the power of confession and of taking vows: ‘The best way to underpin virtuous actions is to take vows, commitments to avoid negativity and to generate virtue’.
‘Dharma puts a lot on us, treats us like adults: it’s down to us, we can choose to be free or not free. In so many ways dharma is really relentless, it is for people who want to change themselves and the world for the sake of other beings: one has to take responsibility’.
The fourth meditation session of the common preliminaries are the reflections on the shortcomings of samsara, in which Lama Jampa introduced by clarifying the way we should understand the traditional depictions of the realms of samsara:
Realms describe the types of beings with similar clusters of experience and types of disturbing emotions.… the descriptions of experiences in each of the realms are just indicative, not factual descriptions of actual places. With this sophisticated understanding we can see how they exist in my mind as seeds, and which is where I can bring an end to them. In fact, there is nothing to do but to seek liberation from all of these traps, which is why we need to hear about them, to motivate us to engage wholeheartedly with the dharma. Like a doctor describing a sickness so that we know how to cure ourselves.
Lama Jampa completed the section by explaining the importance of these meditations:
These thoughts need to infuse our values, our attitudes about life, how we choose to live. It may take a long time for us to always be connected to this but if we return to them then gradually, gradually they will become a part of us.
The Uncommon Preliminaries (Tib: Ngondro)
1.Taking Refuge and Generating Bodhichitta
The next section of the text covers the uncommon preliminaries, commencing with going for refuge and generating bodhichitta. Lama Jampa explained that the recitation of the refuges is accompanied by the making of major prostrations in which we touch all different parts of our body to the ground. This is why the practise is known as a hundred thousand prostrations, even though its essence is taking refuge and generating bodhichitta.
Lama Jampa reminded us that the act of taking refuge is what marks us as a Buddhist and that doing this at the start of a practice indicates a Buddhist practice; practices not prefaced in this way are not a part of the Buddhist path. So by beginning the uncommon preliminaries with taking refuge, we’re ensuring that our practice of Mahamudra is a Buddhist practice.
Lama Jampa then went into some detail in explaining how we should relate to each of the three jewels in the act of taking refuge:
We take the Buddha as our teacher, not as a saviour or a god or anything like that, but as an instructor who will provide us with the methods for achieving freedom from samsara and protection right now from the sufferings of samsara.
We take the dharma as the path. The direction that we want to travel to the right destination is set out in the dharma, the teachings given by the Buddha. We’ve chosen that and that’s how we look upon the dharma: as a path to be trodden. Again, this indicates we have to do something, we have to work, it’s not instantaneous enlightenment or instantaneous deliverance from suffering just by believing in the dharma. That it’s a path means you have to travel, you have to change yourself, you have to do work. The dharma is like a handbook of work to be done so it is not something we rely upon in a superstitious way, but in a completely pragmatic way.
How do we relate to the sangha? The sangha are the virtuous friends upon that path, the friends who themselves have chosen to practise the dharma and therefore their intentions are virtuous and their actions flow from that so they are very reliable as companions with whom we can walk that path, the path of the dharma.
So we rely upon these, thinking the Buddha is teacher, the dharma is the path and the sangha are the virtuous friends upon that path, and then we have to traverse that path ourselves.
Lama Jampa then described how this first uncommon preliminary is not just taking refuge but also generating bodhichitta. Just as we mark ourselves as a Buddhist and the practices as Buddhist by taking refuge, so we enter into the Mahayana, the great vehicle, and mark this subsequent practice as a Mahayana practice by generating Bodhichitta. This is why there’s always this pair of preliminaries before any Mahayana practice.
The next part of the practice liturgy describes the visualisation and Lama Jampa once more added considerable useful comment and detail in order to enable students to develop correct understanding of how to visualise and practise.
2. Meditation and Recitation of Vajrasattva
The second of the uncommon preliminaries is the meditation and recitation on Vajrasattva. Lama Jampa began by clarifying the purpose of the practice: the purification of negativity and obscurations.
Negativity means the deposit of non-virtuous actions that we have committed in the past that now appear to stain our mind. As a result of these apparent stains, it is difficult for realisation to develop in our mind. Although ultimately mind is not stained, as long as we’re attached to the notion of self as real, we cannot see the emptiness of these stains so our mind is weighed down by them.
Obscurations are of two types, disturbing emotions and ignorance, which prevent us from seeing reality as it really is. There are also more mundane obscurations such as negative influences on us caused by external influences, which affect us because we still have some karmic weaknesses. Unless we have a method of purifying and overcoming these things, and most importantly the negativity caused by breaking vows and pledges that we’ve made in the dharma, then we will not make much progress.
Lama Jampa explained that Vajrasattva is none other than the natural purity of our own mind, but we are alienated and estranged from that at the moment because of the imprints of negativity in our mind so we do not connect with this natural purity. This practice allows us to re-establish our connection with the natural purity of our mind, at which point, the weight and influence of those negativities dissolve.
Lama Jampa then walked us through the practice liturgy giving detailed instructions for how to do the practice.
3. Offering the Mandala
Lama Jampa described how, having been purified by the Vajrasattva practice, we now need to be enriched by the two accumulations of merit and wisdom for our journey to the main practice of Mahamudra. In the Vajrayana, the principle means for gathering the two accumulations is the offering of the mandala. Without this, any attempt at practising Guru Yoga to achieve the transference of the blessings of the lama for Mahamudra does not really work as we are not in a suitable state for that transference of blessings to take place. Before we can practise Guru Yoga effectively we have to prepare ourselves by first purifying our mind stream through the meditation and recitation of Vajrasattva and second, through the accumulation of merit and wisdom through offering the mandala.
As well as going into great detail on the method of practice, Lama Jampa explained that the mandala offering involves offering your body, your virtues and your possessions represented in the most beautiful way imaginable. The purpose of the practice is to overcome all clinging to the idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ so it is offering your body, virtue and possessions, imagined as being vast and filling countless universes. The merit is accumulated through the act of giving and the more you give the more you let go of the feeling ‘I am the giver, these are the recipients and this is what I’m giving’. Giving with a mind free from those concepts means that wisdom also grows in the practice. The sense we develop when the practice is really working is a sense of extraordinary enrichment, which is seemingly paradoxical because we’re giving everything up: everything that we have in life, everything that we find in life, everything even around us in life, we give it all up to the presence of the Buddhas, to the presence of Buddha Nature, to the presence of the Dharmakaya in the world. So in that way one might think it should leave one feeling depleted, but actually it leaves one feeling extraordinarily strong and rich because it’s the real richness of not clinging to or grasping at the world – which always makes us feel weak and impoverished – but of letting go and appreciating the natural beauty and natural richness of the world. In this way we also begin to develop pure vision that understands all appearances are the presence of the Buddhas, that the world really is a mandala palace. When the practice is working we get that strong sense of richness, but for this to happen there must be no sense of holding back: we have to feel that it is everything that is being given, everything, even beyond our imagination. If we say ‘I can only give this much and no more’, the mind is an impoverished one and we don’t grow, we don't go beyond our limits and therefore there’s no gathering of merit and wisdom. Gathering merit and wisdom is a way of going beyond self-imposed, small-minded limits. The mandala dissolves these limits and makes us go beyond our boundaries and this is the attitude we should bring to everything we do, particularly of course in our dharma activities. We should feel that all our dharma activities are like offering a mandala. If we have that attitude, for instance, in our dharma groups and centres, that everything we do is like offering a mandala and that it must be done with a sense of wholeheartedness and beauty and dedication then whether we give a penny or five minutes of our time or ten million pounds, either way we will be enriched, and the centres will be enriched. So it is this incredible enlargement of our capacities that is brought about by the mandala practice and it is the person who has completed this practice who is suitable for the transmission of Mahamudra, which is what Guru Yoga is all about.
Lama Jampa closed by explaining how the qualities brought about by the mandala offering practice relate to our efforts to establish dharma in Western culture:
We must… have that kind of extraordinary big vision that the mandala is encouraging us to develop. That is how dharma has survived: by the big-minded men and women who had that heroic vision and then achieved such things, and for dharma to survive it needs us to have them. Of course we are ordinary lay people living in cities and with jobs and families but I think that is really something fantastic because if we can practise still with this tremendous wholeheartedness and bravery we can really help the dharma to become part of Western culture in the fact that we’ve not set ourselves aside. Yes, we set aside time for ourselves to practise and study as much as possible every day, but we’re right here in the heart of modern culture and the modern world and yet we can show that the dharma can work, but only if we have this vast vision, this vast heroism as represented by this mandala practice.
The next part of the text will be taught in Manchester on 24 and 25 February 2018. Click here for details.