Sakya Pandita's Advice For Tibetan Contemplatives translation by Dan Martin
The following poem was composed by Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, called "Pandita" because of his study of Sanskrit, who lived from 1182 A.D. to 1251 A.D. According to the colophon, it was written while he was in the "northern regions". Therefore, it was undoubtedly written after he arrived at the camp of the Mongol prince Godan in 1247 A.D. Anyone interested in the historical particulars should see Shakabpa, Tibet - a Political History, (new Haven, 1967 - pp. 61 ff.)
I forego any long introduction to the poem. Basically, those with some degree of experience reading Buddhist literature in translation will have little trouble with it. What few things require or occasion explanation or comment will be found in a section following the text rather than in footnotes. I think numbers in poems are awkward and distracting. Readers of the Tibetan will appreciate the poetic style (more or less based on Indian kavya models). Non-Tibetans readers will have to use their imaginations.
Advice for Tibetan Comtemplatives by Sakya Pandita Kun-dga'-rgyal-tshan
Om svasti siddham!
- In this land of glacial peaks are many contemplatives.
I write to them all: the superior, common, and middling in merit.
I ask that they listen with trusting hearts
Freed from wrong orientations.
- One contemplative is like a snow lion
With the turquoise many of pure conduct,
With the limbs of pure, unruffled concentration,
With the stamina and vitality of pure, unrestless vision.
- One contemplative is like a soldier going to battle
Clothed in the armour of unlimited benefit for others.
Riding the horse of the "Two Accumulations" he/she
urges it on with the whip of diligence.
He/she vanquishes the enemy hordes of affliction with
the sword of piercing knowledge.
- One contemplative benefits all beings with his accumulations.
He is a jewel mine of the three pure disciplines.
He/she gives help and confidence to others.
With his/her gift of the Dharma, he/she places them on the Path
- These three superior contemplatives should be known to comprise
The heart of hearts of the Buddha's teachings.
- Although he/she may not be able to fathom the ocean of precepts,
Visualizing the Lama at the crown of his/her head
He/she prays, tears of trust flowing from his/her eyes.
This contemplative leads others down the Path of Liberation.
- Although not freed from his/her chains through impartial vision,
He/she develops his/her mind with the precious Bodhi aspiration.
Not despairing of achieving it for others,
This contemplative is soon freed from the world of becoming.
- Although he/she cannot rightly attain the higher vehicle,
The floral bouquet of initiation vows
Protect him/her well like a helmet.
This contemplative is soon freed from the World of Becoming.
- Although not inclined towards loving regard for others' well-being,
After hearing inspired discourse and pure advice,
He/she earnestly applies him/herself to what is to be accepted and
rejected, to causes and their effects.
This contemplative blocks the passage to perdition.
- This is how (the middling contemplative) enters the threshold of
As will be known to those with spiritual understanding.
He/she should enter a path that he/she him/herself believes in
And stay with it so as to promote certainty in others.
- Not abandoning worldly activity in accordance with sacred precepts.
He/she keeps his/her mind in an obscure tranquility
Ever increasing the darkness of ignorance.
This contemplative is a groundhog in hibernation.
- His/her flow of thought untempered by faith and earnest endeavour,
He's fond of a fight. Though he stays in the lonely mountains,
His/her mind is always distracted by things of the senses.
This contemplative is a carnivore asleep in the mountains.
- Abandoning the Path of Liberation, he/she increases in every evil.
He passes his/her time amid the boulders doing as he/she pleases.
He/she does foundation-laying ceremonies at the houses of laymen for a fee.
This contemplative is a fox investigating an empty house.
- His/her desire for religious renown burns like a grass fire.
His/her "diligence" means wandering everywhere for his/her mouth's sake.
Because of his/her wrong livelihood, he/she's always preoccupied with
making a living.
This contemplative is the thief who pets the dogs at the edge of town.
- He/she wears saffron (monk's robes) and the visage of a tyrant.
He/she spins a wheel of the varied weapons of hatred and desire.
He/she promotes evil action wherever he/she goes.
This contemplative increases the three types of perdition.
- I pray that these malefactors, thieves and robbers of (the Buddha's) teaching,
Who in such ways trepass against the virtues of body, speech and mind
May be freed and turned from their spite
To deeds that point to the door of the teaching.
- May this sun enhanced with the rays of poetic metaphor
And with the waxing mandala of spiritual understanding
Which drawns in the cloudless sky of pure doctrine
Promote growth in the garden of those under discipline.
So the illustrious Sa-skya Pandita wrote these verses of advice to Tibetan contemplatives while in the northern regions.
Verse One: The meaning of the opening benediction is, in translation from the Sanskrit: "(May there be) perfect well-being!" The general structure of the poem may not be immediately evident. Verses 2-5 are on superior contemplatives. Verses 6-10 on middling contemplatives. Verses 11-16 on common contemplatives. The Tibetan word translated throughout as "contemplative" is "sgom-chen", meaning literally "great meditator".
Verse Two: Vision (drshti), concentration (or meditation, dhyana) and conduct (shila). This is a traditional group in Buddhism, called The Three Disciplines (bslab-gsum) in Verse 4. "Piercing Knowledge" translates "shes-rab" (prajna).
Verse Three: The Two Accumulations are the accumulations of Merit (punya) and knowledge (jnana) which are the positive antidotes for the two kinds of obscurations: the obscurations of affliction (klesa) and the obscurations of knowledge (jneya). The stages of the path to Bodhi are based on the progressive purification from these two obscurations in their increasingly subtle and "innate" manifestations.
The obscurations of affliction are mainly due to the false, if normal, assumption that there is a permanent subjective personality. The obscurations to knowledge are ultimately based on those external attachments which presuppose a permanent, substantial basis for external appearances (dharmas). In the practices for "peaceful abiding" (see note to verse 11) these two obscurations manifest themselves as "sinking" and "scattering".
Verse Four: For "The Three Disciplines" see the note to Verse 2. Help (material assistance), confidence and Dharma are the three gifts to which "loving-kindness" (maitri) may sometimes be added.
Verse Six: Here Lama means a personal religious preceptor or guru (and not just "Tibetan monk" as in the common English use of the word). The relationship with the guru involves an extraordinary commitment on both sides. Therefore the traditional guidelines on the characteristics of a true spiritual master should not be ignored by anyone contemplating such a commitment. There is a good reason for the emphasis in Tibetan religious literature on the necessity of a close mutual examination between the prospective guru and disciple. A common proverb runs:
"If the guru is not examined, (it's like) drinking poison.
If the student is not examined, (it's like) jumping off a cliff."
The first line of the verse just quoted may evoke images of a certain temporary event in startling vivid colours for those of us who lived through and puzzled over the news from Guyana. "Ah, but they were Christians," some may say. I think the parts faith, hope, and commitment play in the minds of people of whatever region or religion don't differ all that much and wrong commitments are by no means impossible withtin the Tibetan Buddhist milieu. The advantages of a right commitment are equalled by the possible disadvantages of a wrong one. It may be argued that we, as ordinary unenlightened humans, can't really judge, but still it is generally true that "by the
fruits you shall know them". Tibetan Buddhist literature, fortunately, doesn't leave the aspirant entirely in the dark. Those interested should consult (in translation) Ashvaghosha's "Fifty Stanzas of Guru Devotion"; and Judy Hanson's (tr.): "The Torch of Certainty", (pp.123ff).
With the reader's indulgence for the digression, I would like to quote at length from a, so-far, untranslated text by a nineteenth century author of the Nying-ma school, Dpal-sprul. First, his description of the marks of a true spiritual friend (kalyanamitra), from the "Rdzog-pa Chen-po'i Klong-chen Snying-thig-gi Sngon-'gro'i Khrid-yig:
Kun-bzang Bla-ma'i Zhal-lung" (pp. 115b ff):
Now that we have arrived at the present, degenerate age, it is exceedingly difficult to find a Lama, pure and perfectly realized in all respects, who teaches from the precious Tantric texts. That Lama on whom one should depend must certainly have these pure characteristics. Outwardly, he should observe the Pratimoksha Vows; inwardly, the Bodhisattva Vows; and secretly, the Tantric Vows. If he does not contradict these at any point, he is a pure Tantrika. He
should have much learning (but not pretentiously) in the scientific treatises, Sutras and Tantras. His heart should be graced with loving compassion towards all living beings as if they were his only child.
Part of his description of false commitments (lbid., pp. 118b ff):
Although he (the guru) has few qualities beyond those of any ordinary person, some simpletons, through faith without examination, would put him on a high level, honouring him with goods and services. This "spiritual guide" is like a haughty well turtle:
Once there was a turtle who came from the ocean to see an old turtle that
had always lived at the bottom of a well. The well turtle said: "Where do
you come from?"
"I've come from the great ocean."
"How is this ocean of yours?" he asked.
"The ocean is very great."
"Is it a quarter the size of my well?"
"Well, half then?"
"Then it is the size of my well?"
"No, much larger," he replied. "There is no way to tell you. You have to see
it for yourself."
Together they went. When the well turtle saw the ocean, he fell down senseless
and, splitting his head, dead.
(Note: the point of the story is that some gurus, using the devotion of their disciples to bolster their spiritual pride, have myopic vision like the well turtle when it comes to the possibilities of the spiritual life beyond their level of attainment, thinking that they themselves have reached the ultimate perfection.)
(Do not) depend on a Lama who has great skill as a speaker, but little learning, having made no effort in the purifying practices of the Sutras and Tantras. His "Tantras" are coarse delusions, without (the prerequisites of) mindfulness or watchfulness. He breaks vows and oaths. His qualities are even worse than an ordinary person's. He acts as if he were practicing spiritual methods while his religious commitments are gone to the wind. He is full of animosity and prejudice, lacking in loving-kindness and compassion. Such a guru is a "demented guide". He leads down wrong paths.
Having no special qualities beyond one's own, the guru who lacks the Bodhi Aspiration of loving-kindness and compassion is a "blind guide". He lacks the eye for what is to be accepted and what rejected.
One who, like a Brahmin, protects his lineage or enters to bathe in a swimming hole without knowing the source of the water (having no certain results of learning and reflection) is called the "parasite guide". He is no different from an ordinary person, having a fool's faith. He frequents places of idle talk. He is a "well turtle", becoming self-justified in his unchecked drive for wealth and fame.
Of little learning himself, he gives high levels of practice to those of low-capacity. He chops the rope that loving-kindness and compassion hang from. These "drunken guides" make wicked actions increase. With no special qualifications, he relies on the force of his reputation. Like a blind sea captain, he makes great blunders, forever wandering in the darkness of false commitments.
Some modern "gurus" like the ones who make money the measure of commitment or engage in highly questionable activities, come to mind. The "search for a guru" should mean more than "doing the Dharma circuit". The search may be less important than the effort to become a "suitable vessel". To quote Milarepa's reply to the young "dandy" who offers him his sash and sabre as payment for Dharma:
"I, the snow lioness who stays in snowy solitudes,
Have milk which is like the essential nectar.
In the absence of golden cups,
I would not pour it in an ordinary vessel.
I bind to my straight, unwavering waist
the sash of fierce devotion,
having settled the ripples of unfeigned thought.
These are the highest ornaments of all who practice Dharma:
The golden chain of perseverance
and the iron chain of faith in instructions
which bind the sheath of the student's "three confidences"
to the sabre of piercing Prahna.
Fearing the orders of the sky-goers (dakinis),
I have not sold Dharma for wealth in the past.
Even now I didn't accept your offerings
so, pray, be on your way home."
Note: My literal translation. Compare Chang, p. 171.
As a footnote to this long tangent, I would like to quote a passage from Henry Vaughn's Thalia Rediviva (1678 A.D.) which sounds remarkably like something one of the members of People's Temple might said:
"Unhappy, sad exchange! What, must I buy
Guiana with the loss of all the sky?
Intelligence shall I leave, and be
Familiar only with mortality?
Must I know nought, buy thy Exchequer?
Shall my purse and fancy be symmetrical?
Are there no Objects left but one?
Must we in gaining that, lose our variety?"
("The Importunate Fortune", line 93 ff.)
Verse Seven: Here is one form of the Bodhi Aspiration from lbid., pp. 3a-3b:
Among all the creatures of Samsara there is not one who has not acted as my father or mother. While they were my parents, they raised me with kindness, gave me the best food and dressed me in the finest clothes. Although, in their kindness, they desired happiness, they did not understand the practice of the ten virtues which are at the root of happiness. Although they did not wish for suffering, they did not understand the avoidance of the ten non-virtues which are the cause of suffering. I feel compassion for these creatures who, in their confusion, having fallen into wrong paths like a blind man abandoned in the middle of a field. Now I must learn the sacred Dharma, put it into practice, and strive for the Goal, in order that all the creatures of the six types [of Cyclic Existence] may be freed from affliction and the propensity for suffering and obtain the level of Omniscient Buddhahood.
Verse Eight: the reference is to be four Tantric initations.
Verse Nine: for "perdition", see note to verse 15.
Verse Eleven: "Obscure Tranquility" translates 'zhi-gnas bying-ba". "Zhi-gnas" means "peaceful abiding" and as such it forms a part of meditation practice, a pre-requisite to meditation, properly speaking.
"Bying-ba" and "Rgod-pa" are two extremes that must be avoided in order to keep the mind in a state of "peaceful abiding". "Bying-ba" may be translated as "heaviness", "sinking", "obscuration", or "drowsiness". "Rgod-pa" means "wildness" or "scattering" of the mind to objects other than the focus of concentration.
"Phyi-ba" means a kind of marmot. I have used an animal more familiar to Americans, the groundhog, which is also a kind of marmot. The Tibetan "Phyi-ba", according to Das's dictionary, is nicknamed "Sgom-chen", the word which I have translated "contemplative".
Verse Thirteen: "Grong-chog", translated "foundation laying ceremonies", is to be found in the Tibetan-English Dictionaries of Chodag and Dagyab.
Verse Fourteen: This verse is about the sort of person who is known in street language as the "hustler", in this case a "contemplative" with the "hustling" mentality.
Verse Fifteen: The three types of perdition (ngan-song) are: rebirth in the infernos, the animal kingdom, or the realm of the "hungry ghosts" (pretas).
- Ashvaghosha, "Fifty Stanzas of Guru Devotion", contained in Wang-ch'ug Dorje, "The Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance", Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, 1978, pp. 158-187 (also published as separate pamphlet).
- Chang, Karma C.C., (tr), "The Hundred Songs of Milarepa", Boulder, 1962.
- Kong-sprul Blo-gros-mtha'-yas (tr. Judy Hanson), "The Torch of Certainity", Boulder, 1977.
- Dpal-sprul O-rgyan-'jigs-med-chos-kyi-dbang-po, "Rdzogs-pa Chen-po'i Klong-chen Snying-thig-gi-Sngon-'gro'i Khrid-yig: Kun-Bzang Bla-ma'i Zhal-lung", a woodblock print in 307 leaves, no publisher, no date.
- Sa-skya Pandita Kun-dga'rgyal-mtshan, "Gangs-can-gyi Sgom-chen-mams-la Gdams-pa", a woodblock print in three leaves, no publisher, no date.
- Shakabpa, Tsepon W.D., "Tibet - A Political History", New Haven, 1967.
- Vaughn, Henry, "The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughn", New York, 1964.