The spread of the teaching of Gautama Buddha began in India over two thousand years ago and reached perhaps its highest peak in the hidden mountain kingdom of Tibet five centuries before our time. The great illusionary of this renaissance of the religion f total peace was Tsongkapa (1357-1714). He inspired a movement that by the time Tibet was lost I 1959 saw nearly a million monks living in thousands of monasteries around the country.
Tsongkapa was the greats commentator in the history of Buddhism and wrote some 10,000 pages in eloquent explanation of the entire range of the ancient Buddhist classics. He undertook the challenge of compressing all this knowledge into a single poem. The result was his famous three principle paths, fourteen verses written for a favored student in a faraway land.
Tsongkapa masterpiece appears here with a commentary by the illustrious Pabongka Rinpoche (1878-1941), generally regarded as the foremost Tibetan teacher of Buddhism during the last century. The work has been translated by geshe lobsang thatching one of the last Buddhist masters of old Tibet.
Tsongkapa (1357-1419) Also known as Je Rinpoche Labsang Drakap is the single greatest commentator in the 2,500 years history of Buddhism. He was born in the district of tsongka in eastern Tibet and took his first vows at a tender age. As a teenager he had already mastered much of the teaching of Buddhism and was sent by his tutors to the great monastic universities of central Tibet. Here he studied under the leading Buddhist scholars of his day it is said as well that he enjoyed mystic vision in which he met and learned from different forms of the Buddha himself.
The 18 volumes of Tsongkapa collected works contain eloquent and incisive commentaries on virtually every major classic of ancient Buddhism as well famed treatises on the “Steps of the Path to Buddhabood” his student who included the first Dalai Lama of Tibet contributed hundreds of their own expositions of Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Tsongkapa founded the great three monasteries of Tibet where by custom nearly 25,000 monks have studied the scripture of Buddhism over the centuries. He also instituted the great Monlam festival a period of religious study and celebration for the entire Tibetan nation. Tsongkapa passed away in his 62nd year at his home monastery of Ganden in Lhasa the capital of Tibet.
Pabongka Rinpoche (1878-1941), also known as Jampa tenzin trinley gyasto was born into a leading family in the state of Tsanga in north central Tibet. As a boy he entered the Gyalrong house of sera mey, one of the colleges of the great sera monastic university and attained the rank of geshe or master of Buddhist philosophy. His powerful public teachings soon made him the leading spiritual figure of his day and his collected work on every facet of Buddhist thought and practice comprise some 15 volumes. His most famous student was Kyabje trijang Rinpoche (1901-1981) the junior tutor of the present Dalai Lama. Pabongk Rinpoche passed away at the age of 63 in the Hloka district of south Tibet.
Geshe Lobsang Tharchin (1921- )born in Lhasa and as a boy also entered the gyalrong house of sera mey. He studied under both Pabongka Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and after a rigorous 25 years course in the Buddhist classic was awarded the highest rank of the gehse degree. He graduated from the gyumey tantric college of Lhasa in 1858 with the position of administrator since 1959 he has thought Buddhist philosophy at various institutions in Asia and the United States and in 1975 completed studies in English at Geogretown University. For 15 years he has served as the abbot of Rahi gempil linga a kalmuk Mongolian temple in New Jersey. He is the founder of the Mahayana sutra and Tantra centers of New jersey and Washington D.C. and author of numerous translations of major Buddhist of major Buddhist texts. In 1977 he directed the development of the first computerized Tibetan word processor and has played a leading role in the re-establishment of sera mey Monastic college of which he is a lifetime director.
Michael Phillip Roach (1952-) graduated with honors from Princeton university and received the presidential scholar medallion from Richard Nixon at the white house in 1970. He studied at the library of the government of Tibet under the auspices of the Woodrow Wilson school of international affairs and then for over ten years under geshe tharchin at Rashi Gempil ling with additional course work at sera mey monastic college. He is employed in the New York diamond industry and has been active in the restoration of sera mey where he was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1983.
Yeshe Lobsang was sitting as usual staring at the ceiling with his mount wide open. We were young monks in Sera one of the greatest Buddhist monasteries of Tibet. We sat in long rows facing each other chanting once of the holiest prayers of our religion the offering to Lamas.
He was a full ten feet away still day dreaming with the wide open mouth. I was the class cut cup smart but with a mischievous streak that got worse around some of my irreverent playmates. Two were sitting with me one of each side and not concentrating much on the prayer either. I made them a bet that I could his Yeshe Lobsang right in the mouth.
We had this game called pakda which means the arrows of dough. You take a little ball of barley daough and flick it with your middle finger. This was the sort of thing I was good at since I didn’t waste much time studying as I was supposed to.
Yeshe Lobsang was still slack jaw giving a good target. As the chanting rose to a crescendo I took aim and fired the dough ball not only reached his mouth but short right through to the back and made a tremendous satisfying thwack! Sounds as it hit. And so he starts choking and spitting and my friend on each side are roaring with laughter.
Up comes the gergen our housemaster who supposed to keep an eye on us young ones during the ceremonies and spots the offenders (they’re still laughing; I kept a good straight face through the whole thing). He carries a small stick for just such occasions and begins laying it on them from the back of the row. They start crying but they can stop laughing and get a good beating and Yeshe Lobsang in still choking and I’m sitting like a good young monk and get away scot free. They told me later it was worth the beating to see yeshe Lobsang face all screwed up and they didn’t bear me a grudge that I god off free.
This little scene was very typical of my early years at sera. Like many Tibetan boys I was put in to the monastery at a young age this was I 1928 when I was only seven. At first we miss our parents and brothers and sisters but then again our house in the monastery was a wonderful place for a boy we would be with about fifty other boys our own age which made for tremendous entertainment when we could get away with it and also a deep feeling of brotherhood as we passed through the rigorous 25 year course together and finally graduated with the coveted degree of geshe master of Buddhist learning.
My own house was gylarong which was one of the larger of about fifteen house in sera Mey college itself one of the ghree great divisions of sera monastery. At its peak sera had over 8,000 teachers and disciples studying the ancient books of Buddhist wisdom.
Our monastery was located just outside of Lhasa the capital of Tibet which is the mountainous kingdom surrounded by mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayas north of India and west china. Although the Buddha was born in India Tibet is where his complete teachings have survived up to the present day. They were brought to our country over a thousand years ago translated carefully into our language and kept safe in our mountain monasteries while in the outside world the Buddhist book and monasteries and monks themselves have nearly disappeared advocates of total non-violence in violent world.
We young monks were not so noble. My house tutor would send us up to the rock cliffs behind the monastery with buckets to fetch water from the spring there and we would dawdle for hours. Sometimes we would tuck our feet into our maroon colored robes and slide down the long boulders until the cloth was ripped to shreds and again the housemaster would give us our lumps. Rock throwing was a good way to waste time and I remember feeling terrible regret. For we believe that all living creatures have feelings; that they seek to feel good and avoid pains the same way you and I do.
On our way back to the monastery a favorite trick was to lay out back to the path leading into the front gate. Our country lay in sort o a pocket behind the Himalayas and was to as cold as most people imagine the Land of snows should be some of the monks enjoyed going barefoot and we would stoop behind the wall near the gate waiting for a victim. Our giggles would start breaking out even before his feet reached the tacks and then we would race away robes flapping and flying in the wind before he could come and catch us.
Even at home I was not the model student. My house tutor the one who usually teaches us reading and writing before we begin our formal philosophical studies was Geshe Tupten Namdrol. He was very strict with me and the other boy who shared our rooms. This boy was a notorious goof-off and started to affect me too. As we entered our first courses in Buddhist logic and debate I went thought all the motions I gave my exams well memorized what I was supposed to and quickly grasped the principles of reasoning but my heart wasn’t’ in it. By the time we began the next course twelve long years on the meaning of wisdom I had gained a rather bad reputation.
Around this time my house tutor was offered the abbotship of monastery named Ganden Shedrup Ling in the district of Hloka fairly far south of the capital. It was great honor for the position had been granted by the Kashak the high council of the Tibetan government and approved personally by the Dalai Lama who is the great spiritual and temporal leader of our land. The post would bring with it a substantial income which I as Geshe Namdrol right hand man would share everyone thought this would be a good chance for me to get ahead and also bow out gracefully from the though course of study that lay before me and which it seemed I might never complete.
It was at this time that the glorious Pabongk Rinpoche the author of the commentary you are about to read came into my life. Like me he had as a young man taken his course of studies at the Seta Mey College of sera monastery in fact he was from the same house Gyalrong.
Pabongka Rinpoche was born in 1878 at a town called Tsawa Li in the Yeru Shang district of the state of Tsang north of Lhasa. His families were of the nobility and owned a modest estate called Chappel Gershi. As a child he exhibited unusual qualities and in his seventh year was taken before sharpa Chuje Lobsang Dargye one of the leading religious figure of the day.
The lama felt sure that the boy must be a reincarnated saint and even went so far as to examine him to see if he were the rebirth f this own late teacher. He was not but the sage foretold that if the child were placed in the Gyalrong house of sera Mey College something won derful would happen with him in the future.
Later on the youngster was found to be a reincarnation of the Changkya line which included the illustrious scholar Changkya Rolpay Dorje (1717-1786). The lamas of the line had done much teaching in the regions of Mongolia and China even in the court of the Chinese emperor himself and the name Changkya had very strong Chinese connotations. Already in those days the Tibetan government and people were sensitive to the pressures put on us by powerful neighbor to the east so the name changkya was ruled out and the boy declared to be “Pabongka” instead.
Pabongka also known as Parongka is a large and famous rock formation about three miles walk from our sera monastery. The very word pabong means in our language a large boulder or mass of rock. The place is historically very important for Tibetans for perched on top of the rock is the place of songtsen Gampo the 7th century king who made Tibet one of the leading nations of Aisa at the time and who helped brign the first Buddhist teachings from India.
Until songtsen Gampo time the Tibetan had no written language. The king who desire that the great texts of Buddhism be translated into our language sent a number of delegations to India with the charge of bringing back a written alphabet. Many of the young men who went died a written alphabet. May of the young men who went died in the terrible rainy heat of the Indian plains and jungles so different from our high Tibetan plateau but the minister Tonmi sambhota finally returned. He proceeded to create an alphabet and grammatical system that last to this day. And it is said that he performed this great labor in the palace of songtsen gampo atop the chiffs of Pabongka.
Pabongka rinpoche was actually the second Pabonka for it was finally agree to announce that he had been recognized as the reincarnation of the kenpo (or abbot) of the small monastery atop the rock. For this reason he was sometimes referred to as “Pabongka Kentrul” or the “reincarnation of the abbot of Pabonka”. Pabongka rinpoche full name by the way was Kyabje Pabongkapa Jetsun Jampa Tenzin Trinley Gyatso pel sangpo which translates as the lord protector the one from pabongka the venerable and glorious master shoes name is the loving once Keeper of the Buddha he is also popularly known as Dechen Nyingop which means Essence of Great Bliss and refers to his mastery of the secret teachings of Buddhism. We Tibetans feel that it is disrespectful to refer to a great religious leader with what we call his bare name such as Tsongkapa or Pabongka but we have tried here to simplify the Tibetan names to help our western readers.
Pabongka Rinpche career at Sera Mey College was not outstanding he did finish his geshe degree but reached only the lingse rank which means that he was examined just at his own monastery and did not go on for one of the higher ranks such as hlarampa. The bharampa level requires an exhausting series of public examinations and debates at different monasteries culminating in a session before the Dalai Lama and his teacher at the norbulingka summer palace. It was only after his graduation from Sera Mey and the success of his teaching tours through the countryside outside the capital that Pabongka Rinpoche fame stated to spread. Gradually he began to build up a huge following and displayed tremendous abilities as a public teacher. He was not tall (as I remember about my height and I am only 5,6), but he broad chested and seemed to fill the entire teaching throne when he climbed up on it to begin his discourse.
His voice was incredibly powerful. On frequent occasions he would address gathering of many thousands of people yet everyone could hear him clearly (in those days in Tibet we had never heard of microphones of loudspeakers). Part of the trick of course was to pack the audience in Tibetan style cross legged on the floor with the lama on an elevated platform still the audience would flow out onto the porch of the hall and sir perched above on the roof watching through the steeple windows.
Pabongka Rinpoche had an uncanny ability to relate to his audience and for this reason he become a teacher for the common man as well as for us monks Generally speaking the majority of the Buddha teaching as we learn them the monastery are extremely detailed deep and sometimes moreover we just rigorous tests of formal to analyze them as we up through our classes. There methods are important for gaining the highest goals of Buddhist practice in a systematic way and for passing these teachings on to other. But they were beyond the abilities and time of many of our Tibetan laymen. The Rinpoche great accomplishment was that he found a way to attract and lead listeners of every level.
His most famous weapon was his honor. Public discourse in Tibet could sometimes ago go on for ten hours or more without break and only a great saint could keep his attention up so long. Inevitably part of the audience would start to nod or fall into some revise. Then Pabongka Rinpoche would suddenly relate an amusing story or joke with a useful moral and sends his listeners into peals of laughter. This would startle the day dreamers who were always looking around and asking their neighbors to repeat the joke to them.
The effects on his audience were striking ad immediate I remember particularly the case of Dapon Tsago a member of the nobility who held a powerful position equivalent to minister of Defense. Public teachings in Tibet were as much social as religious affairs and aristocrats would show up in their best finery often it seemed not to hear the dharma but rather to put in an appearance. So one day this great general marches in to the hall decked out in silk his long hair flowing in carefully tailored locks (this was considered manly and high fashion in old Tibet). A great ceremonial sword hung from his belt clanging importantly as he swaggered in.
By the end of the first section of the teaching he was seen leaving the hall quietly deep in thought he had wrapped his weapon of war in a cloth to hide it and was taking it home. Later on we could see he had actually trimmed off his warrior locks and finally one day he threw himself before the rinpoche and asked to be granted the special lifetime religious vows for laymen. Thereafter he always followed Pabongka Ripoche around to every public teaching he gave.
The Rinpoche had never spent much time at the small monastery atop the Pabongka rock and his fame soon reached such proportions that the Ngaka College of sera Monastery offered him a large retreat complex on the hillside above Pabongka. The name of this hermitage was Tashi Chuling or Auspicious spiritual isle. There were some sixty Buddhist monks in residence there and as I remember about sixteen personal attendants who helped the Lama with his pressing schedule: two monk secretaries a manger for finances and so on. The rinpoche would divide his time between his quarters here and a small meditation cell built around the mouth of a cave further up the side of the mountain.
The cave was known as Takden and it was here that Pabongka Rinpoche would escape for long periods to do his private practice and meditations. The central chamber had a high vaulted ceiling so high that the light of a regular fire torch could not even reach it and the darkness seemed to go forever. In the rock which looked exactly like the outer shape of one of the mystic worlds described in our secret teachings.
In the corner of this wonderful cave an underground spring flowed form a rock and above it was another natural drawing this one just like the third eye that we see painted o the forehead of one of our female Buddha. By the way this third eye you hear about is largely metaphorical and stands for the spiritual understanding in one heart. We believed the cave was home for a dakini sort of an Buddhist angel because people often said they saw a wondrous lady come from the cave but no one had ever seen her enter.
It was in his private quarters at the Tashi Chuling hermitage that I first met Pabongka Rinpoche. He had been away on an extended teaching tour in eastern Tibet, and just returned. I was still the wild teenager and had been stuck with the distasteful job of nyerpa for Gyalrong house this means I was a kind of quartermaster and had to make sure there was enough firewood and food to keep the house kitchen going for several hundred monks. Since the Rinpoche was a member of Gyalrong we were supposed to send a committee over to the hermitage to welcome him back and present him gifts. As nyerpa I was expected to arrange some supplies and help carry them along.
In private conversation Pabongka Rinpoche was in the habit of constantly attaching “Quite right! Quite right!” to everything he said. So I distinctly remember when I came into his presence and he put his hand on my head and he said “Quite right! Quite right! Now this one looks like a bright boy!” from that day on I felt as though I had received his blessing ad some special power to pursue my studies.
In my eighteenth year the Rinpoche was requested to come across to our own Sera Mey College and deliver a discourse on the Steps of the path to Buddhahod. He would receive countless requests of this sort usually from wealthy patrons who hoped to collect some merit for the future life or from monks who wanted to receive the transmission of a particular teaching so they could pass it on to their own followers in the future. The Rinpoche would usually Promise to consider the request and then try to satisfy several at one time by delivering a large public discourse.
These discourse would be announced months in a advance. The sponsor would rent a huge assembly hall in one of the major monasteries just outside the capital or reserve one of the great chaples in Lhasa itself. We monks had or regular classes to attained but could sometimes arrange to make the hour walk to Lhasa (no cars in Tibet those days) attend the teaching and walk back quickly before the evening sessions at the monastery park. I remember the elderly monk would start out before us and return later of even get permission to take a room in Lhasa for the duration of the course since the walk was difficult for them.
This particular discourse at seta Mey went on for a full there months. We sat for six hours a day hours in the morning with a break for lunch and then three hours in the afternoon. Pabongka Rinpoche went carefully through the entire Lam Ram Chenmo the great exposition of the entire steps on the path to Buddhahood written by the incomparable Lord Tsongkapa who is also the author of the root verses explained by Pabongka Rinpoche in his commentary here. The Rinpoche referred to all eight of the classic texts on the steps of the path during his discourse which was attended by about 10,000 monks.
Like so many other in the audience I was stunned by the power of his teaching. Most of it I had heard before but the way in which he taught it and, I felt the blessing I had received from his made it suddenly strike home for me. Here I was living the short precious life of a human and fortunate enough to be a student at one of the greatest Buddhist monasteries in the world why was I wasting my time? What would happen if I suddenly died?
In my heart I made a decision to master the teaching or the benefit of myself and others. I remember going to my room to my house teacher Geshe Namdrol and declaring my change of heart to him Now the bad boy is going to study and become a master geshe! Geshe Namdrol laughed and told me. The day you become a geshe is the day I become the ganden Tripa!.
Now the Ganden Tripa is one of the highest religious personages in Tibet: he holds the throne of Lord Tsongkapa himself and wins he position by attaining the highest rank of geshe the Blarampa and then serving as the head of one the two college devoted to the study of the secret teaching my house had never gone above the tsokrampa rank of geshe so could never have become the Ganden tripa anyway and we both knew it. I got energy in a good way and swore to him that I would not only become a blarampa geshe as examination with highest honor Geshe Namdrol used to come a little sheepishly and asks in a roundabout way if I could help him pick a good topic for the day debates.
This was the great gift I received from Pabongka Rinpoche: I attacked my studies with passion keeping my mind on the shortness of life and the value of helping others up to this time I had been the house scribe sort of a clerk who wrote everyone letter home. To save time for my studies I took my costly pens and paper one day and in front of my hundreds of house mates gave them away to anyone who would take them.
Then things got serious with the government plan to send Geshe Namdrol and me to the monastic post in south Tibet. The tenure of the position would be six years and I calculated my potential loss: one remaining years in the special topics class for the middle way or correct view and the final two years in the classes on transcendent knowledge and vowed morality all extremely important Buddhist topics. It took some courage but I went to my teacher and begged his permission to stay and continue my studies at Sera Mey.
To everyone amazement he agreed and chose my happy go lucky roommate to accompany him instead. He turned over to me the keys to his apartment and left much to the dismay of all our neighbors who were convinced I would destroy the entire place. Soon though they were calling me “Gyalrong house and my studied had improved enough that I was able to obtain a miksel or special release from all other duties so I could devote every minute to my course work.
I can say I it was here that my life tuned around for three reason Pabongka Rinpoche had put some renunciation and other good motivation in my heart; I had given up wealth and position to pursue spiritual studies and I had gained the free time to devote myself to practice in this last category of leisure I would include the fact that I finally got out from under the influence of my prankster roommate and also had the good fortune to meet the Venerable Jampel senge.
As monastic custom goes Jampel Senge class (which was a year ahead of mine) had been joined with my own at a certain point in the curriculum. Like some of the famous figures mentioned in the teaching you are about to read he was originally brought up in a different religion and came to our monastery rather late in his life a confirmed skeptic. He stayed though and become a real master of Buddhism every day we would spend hours together reviewing what we had heard in class and preparing each other for the evening debates. It was from Jampel senge that I learned the value of good spiritual friends; in the end we reached the highest ranks of the geshe together. After our country was lost he travelled to Italy where he became the tutor of the famed Tibetologist professor Tucci and finally passed away there.
It was well before my finally exams that the precious Pabongka Rinpoche himself passed from this earth. After the teachings I attended at Sera Mey the Rinpoche had travelled to the Holka district in south Tibet to instruct his many disciples there. He continued on to the province of Dakpo teaching continued on to the provinces of Dakpo teaching continuously and passed away there at the age of sixty three in 1941. It is a custom in our country to cremate the body of a holy person and preserve the ashes in a small shrine and I still remember the day when they brought the Rinpoch remains back to his mountain hermitage Tashi Chuling. A shrine was constructed and a great man monks including myself came to pay our respect and make our final offering.
We Buddhists believe that although the body dies the mind since it is not destructible like physical matter continues on and eventually comes into a new body within your mother womb if you are to be born as a human. We believe that great saints if this will benefit them. Thus it is a custom for the disciples to seek the help to some great wise men and go out to find the child who is the reincarnation of their teacher.
Pabongka Rinpoche first reincarnation was born in the Drikung area of central Tibet during the troubled year when the Chinese first invaded and began to take over our country. He escaped along with many of our people over the Himalaya Mountains and came down into the Indian plain. Here most of the monks who survived the perilous journey were placed by the Indian government in a makeshift refugee camp set up in the abandoned prison at Buxall in the jungles of Bengal state west India (I myself was nearly killed during the bombardment of our monastery and upon reaching Indian was chosen by his holiness the Dalai Lama to work in the newly formed education office of the exile government at Dharmasla near the border of north India.)
Buxall prison had been built many years before by the British during their rule of India. It was a massive structure of concrete and huge iron doors built purposely in the middle of nowhere. Mahatma Gandhi and Mr. Nehru the leaders of India movement for independence had been among the distinguished inmates.
India is a poor country but did her best to help us refugees; the prison was the only immediate housing they could find in their overpopulated land. The jungle weather as steamy and humid the complete opposite of our homeland. Like the delegations of translator who had come to India over a thousand years before to bring us back an alphabet the majority of our monks came down with tuberculosis and other tropical diseases. A great many died.
Buxall prison did have one advantage thought total solitude. And for the first time in history great scholars from all the many traditions and monasteries of Tibet were thrown together in one place for over a decade. In this environment the second Pabongka Rinpoche excelled in his studies and before long was himself teaching the other monks such subjects as grammar and composition. He stood for his geshe examination at an early age and distinguished himself. During these examinations he seemed weak and in some pain and immediately after their completion was hospitalized with a serious case of tuberculosis. To the dismay of all the monks he suddenly died; his close followers could not believe that he would choose to leave them at such a desperate hour in our history we were thrown into depression and one great geshe even tried to kill himself (although we do believe that this is a sin).
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