The Four Dharmas of Gampopa
with commentary by Dorje Chang Kalu Rinpoche
Our precious human birth affords opportunity and leisure for Dharma practice and gives us access to the vast and profound tradition of the teachings of the Buddhadharma. Among these, the Four Dharmas of Gampopa provide a concise survey of the entire Path, divided into four levels.
The First Dharma: The Mind Turns Towards Dharma
This first teaching involves a thorough understanding of our situation in samsara and the different destinies within the cycle, the six states of rebirth: three lower ones — the hell realms, the hungry ghost realm, and the animal realm; and three higher — the human, asura, and god realms. Through this teaching, we learn the consequences of virtuous and unvirtuous actions, which tendencies lead to these various rebirths, and the sufferings which the beings in these realms undergo. We come to understand that although a particular karmic process may lead from higher to lower or lower to higher rebirths, samsara itself provides no means of escape, and if we rely on it, we can make no progress towards Enlightenment. At the beginning of the Path, this understanding of samsara is necessary to turn the mind towards the Dharma, and to do this we contemplate the Four Ordinary Preliminaries.
The first of these concerns the unique value of the human life we are now experiencing. Because of the blessing of the Three Jewels and their influence in previous lives, we have, at some point, developed a virtuous tendency that has brought about our present human birth, with all its opportunities, leisure and freedom to practice Dharma. Very few beings preserve this virtuous tendency (by avoiding negative actions, thoughts, and speech and encouraging positive ones), and very few achieve the resultant state of a precious human birth. If we think of the stars in the night sky as representing the multitude of beings in samsara, then a star in daytime represents the precious human birth — it is something possible, but most unlikely. Human birth is an extremely rare occurrence.
The second of the Four Preliminaries concerns impermanence. Now that we have the precious opportunity of human birth we should make the best use of it and actually realize the full potential of being human. This can be accomplished through our efforts to transcend completely the cycle of rebirth and achieve Buddhahood. In addition we must understand that mortality and impermanence are part of our existence, and that our human birth, obtained with such difficulty, will pass away. In everything we experience, there is moment-by-moment change and instability. Like a candle flame blown by a strong wind, our human existence may be extinguished at any moment; like a bubble on the surface of water, it may suddenly burst; like morning dew on the grass, it soon evaporates.
Next, to realize the full potential of being human, we must examine the concept of karma, the process of cause and effect, especially the relationship between our actions and their results. We need to recognize fully the unfailing connection between what we do now and what we experience later.
The fourth contemplation that turns the mind towards Dharma deals with the unsatisfactory and painful nature of samsara. Without an appreciation of impermanence and our own impending death, we are likely to be distracted by the pleasures of the world and indulge ourselves in emotional conflict and confusion. When that happens, we become exhausted by the life we lead and do not get to what really matters. We neither really see what is actually happening in our lives, nor make good use of our situation.
Before we know it, our life is finished and it is time to die. If we lack the foundation of a stable practice, we go to death helplessly, in fear and anguish.
By contemplating these preliminaries — the potential of a precious human existence, impermanence and the inevitability of death, the karmic process of cause and effect, and the sufferings and limitations of samsara — we turn our minds to the Dharma, and thus fulfill the first of the Four Teachings, or Dharmas, of Gampopa.
The Second Dharma: The Dharma Becomes The Path
Once involved in the teachings, we come to the second of the Four Dharmas: the teachings of the Dharma become our way of life, our path. Our attitude towards what is superior to us — the Three Jewels — begins to change, and so does our attitude towards the beings in samsara who are equal or inferior to us. The first attitude is expressed when we take Refuge, with faith, devotion and respect, in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. We realize that in Buddhahood one is omniscient and omnipresent, endowed with infinite capabilities. We see that the teachings of the Dharma, which proceed from this enlightened state, are the Path that every being can follow to Enlightenment. We recognize that the Sangha, or assembly of practitioners who realize and transmit the teachings, are companions or guides who can show us the Path. In the Vajrayana tradition, we add the Three Roots — Lama, Yidam and Dharma Protector — to the Three Jewels as sources of Refuge (for a tantric practitioner).
When the Dharma becomes our Path, we develop a second attitude, that of compassion. In contemplating the beings who are in samsara with us, we consider that space is infinite, pervading all directions, and that the realm of sentient beings extends as far as space itself. At some point in the past, every one of these numberless beings has been our mother or our father. Through innumerable cycles of lifetimes we have developed an extremely close karmic connection with each one of them. When compassion develops we see that all life is the same, and that every single being wishes to be happy: in every form of life a fundamental search for happiness goes on — but in a way that contradicts and defeats the aim of this search. Few beings understand that real happiness is the result of virtuous conduct. Many are involved in actually destroying their chances for happiness through confused and harmful actions and thoughts.
When we see this we develop real affection and compassion for other beings. This infinite compassion for all forms of life is the second at- titude involved in making the teaching our Path. Through faith and compassion the teaching that has attracted us becomes an entire way of life.
The Development of Compassion
Although we realize the necessity of working not only for our own benefit but for the welfare of all beings, we need to be honest about our own limitations and recognize that we have little power or ability to be truly effective in helping beings to free themselves. The way we become effective in this is through achieving Buddhahood or, at least, by reaching some level of Bodhisattva realization. At these higher levels we gain the ability to manifest for the sake of guiding beings out of their confusion.
The attitude of altruism is called Relative Bodhicitta; the desire to develop it is the foundation of Mahayana practice and the vessel for all virtue.
One method for developing Bodhicitta is called Tong len, which literally means "sending and taking." The attitude here is that each of us is only one being, while the number of beings in the universe is infinite. Would it not be a worthy goal if this one being could take on all the pain of every other being in the universe and free each and every one of them from suffering? We therefore resolve to take on ourselves all this suffering, to take it away from all other beings, even their incipient or potential suffering, and all of its causes. At the same time we develop the attitude of sending all our virtue, happiness, health, wealth and potential for long life to other beings. Anything that we enjoy, anything noble or worthy, positive or happy in our situation we send selflessly to every other being. Thus the meditation is one of willingly taking on all that is negative tendency to cling to what we want for ourselves and to ignore others.
We develop a deep empathy with everything that lives. The method of sending and taking is a most effective way of developing the Bodhisattva's motivation.
The kind of compassion we have described so far is called "compassion with reference to sentient beings." A dualism lingers here, however, because we are still caught by the threefold idea of (1) ourselves experiencing the compassion, (2) other beings as the objects of compassion, and (3) the actual act of feeling compassion through understanding or perceiving the suffering of others.
This framework prepares our path in the Mahayana. Once this kind of compassion has been established, we arrive at a second understanding: The realization begins to grow that the self which is feeling the compassion, the objects of the compassion, and the compassion itself are all in a certain sense illusory. We see that these three aspects belong to a conventional, not ultimate, reality. They are nothing in themselves, but simply illusions that create the appearance of a dualistic framework. Perceiving these illusions and thereby understanding the true emptiness of all phenomena and experience is what we call "compassion with reference to all phenomena." This is the main path of Mahayana practice.
From this second kind of compassion a third develops, "non-referential compassion." Here we entirely transcend any concern with subject/object reference. It is the ultimate experience that results in Buddhahood. All these three levels of compassion are connected, so if we begin with the basic level by developing loving-kindness and compassion towards all 1iving beings, we lay a foundation which guarantees that our path will lead directly to Enlightenment.
The Third Dharma: The Path Dispels Confusion
The third Dharma of Gampopa states that by traveling the Path our confusion is dispelled. The principal theme of the teaching here is the experience of emptiness — the realization of the ultimate nature of mind. In meditation we realize that our mind and all the experiences which it projects are fundamentally unreal: they exist conventionally, but not in an ultimate sense. This Realization of Emptiness is known as Ultimate Bodhicitta.
An analogy can be drawn between the ocean and the mind, which is essentially empty, without limiting characteristics or ultimate reality. This empty mind, however, has its projection, which is the whole phenomenal world. The form, sound, taste, touch, smell, and inner thoughts, which constitute what we experience correspond to waves on the surface of the ocean. Once we see, through meditation, that the nature of mind is fundamentally empty, we become automatically aware that the projections of mind are fundamentally empty too. These projections are like waves that arise from and subside into the ocean: at no point are they ever separate from it.
Although we may have some understanding that mind is essentially empty, it may be difficult to relate this idea to phenomenal existence. An example may help. At the present moment we have a physical body, and during our waking existence we are extremely attached to it. We take it to be real, a self-existent entity. But during dreams, we inhabit a different kind of body, and experience a different state of being. A complete phenomenal existence is associated with this "dream body." We see, smell, touch, hear, feel, think and communicate — we experience a complete universe. But when we awaken it becomes obvious that the universe of the dream has no ultimate reality. It certainly is not in the outer world as we know it, nor in the room where we sleep, nor inside our body; it cannot be found anywhere. When the dream is over, its 'reality' simply disappears — it was only a projection of mind. It is fairly easy to understand this in relation to the dream state. What we must also comprehend is that our experience in the waking state is of the same general nature and occurs through the same process.
Realized Mahasiddhas, such as Tilopa and Naropa of India, or Marpa and Milarepa of Tibet, were able to perform miraculous changes in the phenomenal universe. They could do so because they had realized the entire phenomenal world as essentially empty and a projection of mind. This allowed them to manifest miracles and actually change the phenomenal world. Such transformation is not possible when our mind clings to what we experience as ultimately real and immutable.
The present phase of our existence ends in death, when the karma which directs the course of this physical existence is exhausted.
At death there is a definite and final separation of consciousness from the physical body, which is simply discarded. What continues is the individual consciousness, the mind of the being entering into the bardo experience. During that after-death state, we experience another kind of phenomenal universe. Though lacking the basis of a physical organism, the mind is able to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think, and perceive in much the same way as it does now. Though there is nothing more than a state of consciousness, the mind continues to follow its habits and to manifest in set patterns. Thus our habitual conviction that experience is ultimately real continues after physical death, and what happens there resembles what happens in the dream state and waking consciousness.
A story about a monk in Tibet illustrates this. It happened not very long ago, in fact, during the lifetime of my father. Near my home in Tibet there is a Nyingmapa monastery called Dzogchen. A monk from this monastery decided that he did not want to stay there any more, but preferred to go into business. He left and went to the north of that region to become a trader, hoping to accumulate a fortune. He actually did become fairly successful. Because of his former relationship with a monastery, he was also considered something of a Dharma teacher, so he had a group of followers as well as the wealth amassed through his trading ventures.
One day he met a magician who was able to exercise a certain mental control over people. The trader didn't realize the power of this person, and the magician cast a spell that caused the trader to experience a children: he acquired a large estate and family to look after, and passed his whole life this way and became old with white hair and few teeth. Then the illusion disappeared: he was back where he had been, and perhaps only one or two days had passed. During that time the magician had stolen everything he possessed, and the trader woke without a penny in the world. He had only the memory of his long fantasy of a lifetime's activities, distractions and projects.
Just like the trader's fantasy, our own daily experiences have an illusory quality. In the Mahayana sutras, it is taught that everything the moon shining on the water's surface: everything we experience has only conventional reality and is ultimately unreal.
We experience the third Dharma of Gampopa when, first, we become convinced that we must dispel our confusion through understanding and experiencing the essential emptiness of mind, and, second, when this reveals the illusory nature of all phenomena; then the Path dispels confusion.
The Fourth Dharma: Confusion Arises as Primordial Awareness
The fourth Dharma of Gampopa is the transformation of confusion into Primordial Awareness. This fundamental transformation is effected on the level of Anuttarayogatantra, the highest of the four levels of Vajrayana teachings.
This transformation is not difficult to explain theoretically. In an ordinary state awareness is clouded and confused; if we recognize the mind's nature, then we experience Primordial Awareness. On a practical level, however, this does not happen automatically: a certain kind of skillful means is needed. To transform discursive into enlightened awareness, we use the wealth of techniques available in the Vajrayana, especially the Development and Fulfillment stages of meditation.
In our present situation as unenlightened beings, our three faculties of body, speech, and mind are obscured by basic ignorance. To transform that confusion into awareness, we must become physically, verbally, and mentally aware, so in Vajrayana practice we utilize these very faculties of our whole being to effect a complete transformation.
Considering our physical body, we can see how we are attached to it as something permanent, pure and real. Yet this physical body is temporary, composed of numerous impure and decaying substances. It is conventionally, not ultimately, real.
Our habitual and instinctive clinging to it obstructs the arising of Primordial Awareness. We must come to realize that this body is simply something that appears and that it has no self-nature. Based on the projections of the mind, the body represents the heart of the form aspect of consciousness. Until we realize this, the transformation of confusion into Primordial Awareness will not happen spontaneously In tantric practice, the body is transformed by a meditation that leads us to identify with a pure or enlightened form, for example, Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Here we put aside the fixation on our own body and instead identify with a pure form.
In doing so, it is important also to realize that the deity is pure appearance, and does not partake of substantiality in any way. In meditation we become completely identified with this form, which is empty, without solidity, without self-nature or ultimate reality beyond its pure appearance. This experience is called "The Union of Appearance and Emptiness."
Such a transformation is based upon understanding that all our experience is a subjective projection of mind, and therefore our attitude towards things is decisive. Through changing our attitude we change our experience, and when we meditate in the way described, transformation is possible. This is especially true when we focus on an enlightened form such as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The image of Chenrezi itself is a real expression of the state of enlightened compassion. It is not a fabrication. There is actually an enlightened being called Chenrezi, able to confer blessing and attainment. To experience this, certain conditions must come together. An analogy would be taking a photograph of someone.
We put film in the camera, we point it at whomever we're photographing and take the picture; the image of the person is projected onto the film, and when it's developed, we have a certain image of that person. Something similar happens when we meditate on an enlightened form. There is an "external" expression called Chenrezi. Through our efforts in meditation, we come to identify with this pure form, to have faith in it, and to realize the intrinsic compassion and state of awareness Chenrezi represents. In this way we can become a "copy" of the deity and receive the blessing of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. This is the first aspect of the transformation of confusion into Primordial Awareness based on meditation upon our body as an enlightened form.
The second aspect of transformation concerns our speech. Although it may be easy to consider speech as intangible, that it simply appears and disappears, we actually relate to it as to something real. It is because we become so attached to what we say and hear that speech has such power. Mere words, which have no ultimate reality, can determine our happiness and suffering. We create pleasure and pain through our fundamental clinging to sound and speech.
In the Vajrayana context, we recite and meditate on mantra, which is enlightened sound, the speech of the deity, the Union of Sound and Emptiness. It has no intrinsic reality, but is simply the manifestation of pure sound, experienced simultaneously with its Emptiness. Through mantra, we no longer cling to the reality of the speech and sound encountered in life, but experience it as essentially empty. Then confusion of the speech aspect of our being is transformed into enlightened awareness.
At first, the Union of Sound and Emptiness is simply an intellectual concept of what our meditation should be. Through continued application, it becomes our actual experience. Here, as elsewhere in the practice, attitude is all-important, as this story about a teacher in Tibet illustrates. The teacher had two disciples, who both undertook to perform a hundred million recitations of the mantra of Chenrezi, OM MANI PADME HUNG. In the presence of their Lama, they took a vow to do so, and went off to complete the practice.
One of the disciples was very diligent, though his realization was perhaps not so profound. He set out to accomplish the practice as quickly as possible and recited the mantra incessantly, day and night. After long efforts, he completed his one hundred million recitations, in three years. The other disciple was extremely intelligent, but perhaps not as diligent, because he certainly did not launch into the practice with the same enthusiasm. But when his friend was approaching the completion of his retreat, the second disciple, who still had not recited very many mantras, went up on the top of a hill. He sat down there, and began to meditate that all beings throughout the universe were transformed into Chenrezi. He meditated that the sound of the mantra was not only issuing from the mouth of each and every being, but that every atom in the universe was vibrating with it, and for a few days he recited the mantra in this state of samadhi.
When the two disciples went to their Lama to indicate they they'd finished the practice, he said, "Oh, you've both done excellently. You were very diligent, and you were very wise. You both accomplished the one hundred million recitations of the mantra."
Thus through changing our attitude and developing our understanding, practice becomes far more powerful.
The six syllable mantra of Chenrezi, OM MANI PADME HUNG, is an expression of Chenrezi's blessing and enlightened power. The six syllables are associated with different aspects of our experience: six basic emotional afflictions in the mind are being transformed, six aspects of Primordial Awareness are being realized. These sets of six belong to the mandala of the six different Buddha families which become manifest in the enlightened mind. The mantra of Chenrezi has power to effect transformations on all these levels.
Another way of interpreting the mantra is that the syllable OM is the essence of enlightened form; MANI PADME, the four syllables in the middle, represent the speech of Enlightenment; and the last syllable HUNG represents the mind of Enlightenment. The body, speech, and mind of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are inherent in the sound of this mantra. It purifies the obscurations of body, speech, and mind, and brings all beings to the state of Realization. When it is joined with our own faith and efforts in meditation and recitation, the transformative power of the mantra arises and develops. It is truly possible to purify ourselves in this way.
The mind aspect of the Chenrezi meditation centers in the heart region where the mantra and seed-syllable HRIH are located. Light is visualized as going out from these and making offerings to all the Buddhas, purifying the obscurations of all beings, and establishing them in Enlightenment. The mind aspect is also connected with formless meditation, simply resting the mind in its own empty nature. After practicing this for some time, a change will occur: we will have the experience that anything arising in the mind, any emotion or thought, arises from and dissolves back into Emptiness. For that duration we are nowhere other than in Emptiness. In this state, we experience mind as the Union of Awareness and Emptiness. This is Mahamudra.
The threefold Chenrezi meditation thus utilizes meditation techniques relating to body, speech, and mind. At the end of a session of practice, the visualization dissolves into a formless state, and we simply rest the mind evenly in its own nature. At this time we can experience body, speech, and mind as arising from basic, emptymind. We recognize this mind as the fundamental aspect and body and speech to be secondary projections based upon consciousness. This represents the gathering of all aspects of our experience into this, we have realized the fourth Dharma of Gampopa: confusion has arisen as primordial awareness.