The Middle-Length Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment ~ Je Tsongkhapa



Lamp for the Path is the root text for the topics presented in the lamrim, and it is said that the stages of the path are a great ocean of eloquent explanation that collect the thousand rivers of excellent texts on the perfect oral instruction taught in accordance with the Lamp.


Following the intention of the master himself expressed in the Great Treatise, “I hope that the understanding of all the explanations of putting them into practice will endure until the end of [cyclic] existence and serve as protections”.

As for the actual path referred to by “stages of the path,” the Verse Summary of the Perfection of Wisdom says, “Every buddha of the past, the future, and the present takes the perfections as their path and no other”.


In accordance with this, develop bodhicitta and then train in the six perfections, unifying method and wisdom on the path containing the essence of the emptiness and compassion that the Victor, having first manifested it himself, [then] taught [it…].

The Great and Middle-Length treatises say that as you meditate on the lower paths, your desire to reach the higher ones should increase, and when you hear about the higher ones, your desire to accomplish the lower ones should increase.

In line with this statement, the important implication of the name “stages of the path” is its emphasis on the need to avoid mixing up the main principles and sequence of the path instructions.


The Song of Experience says, “Enormous waves of the merit of teaching and hearing the Dharma arise from even a single session of listening to or reciting this concise instruction that distils the essence of all the scriptures. Therefore contemplate its meaning!”

Those who wish to extract the essence of life with its freedoms and endowments should endeavor in this system. We must strive […].


By the power of the two collections gathered through everything connected with this endeavor,

May the marvelous exalted activities of the buddhas and their children
and the unerring accomplishment of the stages of the path
grant spendor to the minds of those who desire liberation,
and may  the deeds of the buddhas be long maintained thereby.

I pray that […] the holy beings upholding the Dharma throughout the universe, especially the embodiment of the wisdom and compassion of all the buddhas, the one who brings peace and happiness to the world, the unsurpassable exalted lord and great omniscient master with lotus feet, live long.

May their aspiration be fulfilled effortlessly, and may the entire world and its inhabitants be free from every harm such as epidemic, war, and conflict so that the glory of joy and happiness may spread.

[From the Foreward to The Middle-Length Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment ~ Je Tsongkhapa]



Respectfully I prostrate at the feet of those venerable holy beings filled with compassion.

Blessed One, lord of this Endurance world (saha loka),
Buddha’s regent, Maitreya, lord of the Dharma,
Manjughosa, sole father of those gone to bliss (sugata),
Nagarjuna and Asanga, foretold by the Victor,
bowing to you with respect I will here explain
once more, in a summary fashion, the stages
of the path of profound view and vast conduct
for the sake of making them easy to access.

The Dharma to be presented here explains how the fortunate are led to the level of buddhahood through the stages of the path to enlightenment.

It summarises all the points of the Victor’s scriptures, […], constitutes the Dharma system of supreme beings who progress to the level of omniscience, and contains without omission all the stages to be practiced. […]

Generally speaking, all the scriptural teachings by the Victor are contained in the three precious baskets, so likewise all the realised teachings are contained in the three precious trainings.

In this regard the training in ethics is often praised in the scriptures and in the commentaries as the foundation of all excellent qualities, such as the trainings in concentration and wisdom. Therefore it is necessary, first of all, to have qualities of realisation that are based on the training in ethics.



A yak is so attached to its tail that it would sooner risk its life to save a strand of tail hair caught on a tree than part with it, even when threatened by a hunter.

[…] That is how to guard the foundation of the trainings to be undertaken in every detail.


Practice the numerous instructions in bodhicitta, which is rooted in love and compassion.

[…] Bodhicitta, which cherishes others more than oneself – arise in the heart.
This aspiring bodhicitta giving rise to engaging bodhicitta.
Excellent behaviour and engagement in the trainings following the promise to train in the vast conduct of bodhisattvas.

Gain the concentration of the generation stage in which one’s own body is seen as that of a deity and of the completion state of the indestructible vajra mind.

Guarding the commitments properly without transgressing the prescribed rules.

Courageously undertaking the trainings in the ethics of three vows, upholding them as promised.

Keeping the vows without transgressing their respective rules, and even if transgressed ever so slightly very quickly purified this with a suitable ritual for restoring the given vow.


Training in concentration has two aspects.

As for the common aspect,
the supple mind of shamatha,
and as the uncommon aspect, the utmost stability of the generation stage.

Moreover training in the yogic awareness disciplines.


Training in wisdom has two aspects. As for the common aspect, the concentration of special insight, which is the union of shamatha and special insight.

As for the uncommon aspect, the extraordinary concentration of the completion stage.


Maintaining the Buddha’s teachings.

Eliminating the taints of ignorance, misconception, and doubt whereby spreading the teachings.

Regarded as a crown jewel free from partiality.


Request to provide a pure form of the Buddha’s teachings. The teachings of Atisa’s the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment for example is a text bringing together all the points of sutra and tantra and condensing them into applicable stages, as well as other texts.

Teaching all the scriptures and instructions of sutra and tantra. Restoring the teachings that have declined, causing those that remain to flourish and correcting those that had been polluted by the errors of misconception, ensuring that the precious teachings are freed from all flaws.

There are three conditions for excellence in the composition of a text clarifying the Sage’s intentions:

being learned in the five areas of knowledge;
having received instructions on how to put into practice the meaning of those texts, which can be traced back to the instructions of the perfectly complete Buddha in an unbroken lineage of exalted masters;
and having received the permission to teach through the vision of a personal deity.

A text should be composed with at least one of these causes for excellence, and it will turn our all the more excellent if all three are complete.

As for help from personal deities, Naktso’s Praise says:

From the glorious Hevajra,
from Trisamayavyuharaja,
from heroic Lokesvara,
from the noble reverend Tara, and others,
you had visions and permissions.
Thus in dreams and through direct perception,
you perpetually listened to teachings
on the holy, profound, and vast Dharma.

Atisa held numerous lineages of gurus, such as the lineage of the common vehicle and the lineage of the Mahayana, which itself has two – the Paramitayana and the secret Mantrayana. He held three lineages in the Paramitayana: the lineages of the view and conduct, with the latter [6] having been passed on in two lineages, one from Maitreya and one from Manjughosa.

In the secret Mantrayana he has received five types of transmission as well as many other lineages, such as the lineage of tenets, the lineage of blessings, and lineages of various instructions. The gurus from whom he heard instructions directly are mentioned in the Praise:

The gurus you always relied on were
the many who had accomplished siddhis:
Santipa, Serlingpa,
Bhadrabodhi, and Jnanasri.

In particular you held
the profound and vast instructions
that had passed from one to another
all the way from Nagarjuna.

It is well known that Atisha had twelve gurus who had attained siddhis and many others too. It has already been explained that he was learned in the five areas of knowledge.

For all these reasons, this master was able to establish the Victor’s intentions skilfully.

(Excerpts from: The Middle-Length Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment ~ Je Tsongkhapa)


As for the Dharma, the source text of the present instructions is Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. Although Atisa composed numerous texts, Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment is their culmination, like a root. It indicates all the points of both sutra and tantra in a condensed manner; thus it is complete in terms of content.

It makes the gradual taming of the mind [7] its main topic, so it is easy to put into practice. […] It is a particularly noble system.


The greatness of the instructions of that text has four aspects.
The first of these is the greatness of understanding that all the teachings, everything the Victor said, is without contradiction. [Buddha realised the true nature of reality – overcame delusion].

They all come to be understood as one person’s path to buddhahood.

That is to say, some are primary points of the path, while others are secondary points.

In this regard the bodhisattva’s wish is to work for the welfare of the world.

To do this it is necessary to prize all three types of disciples and therefore train in their respective paths. For as Maitreya explained, the bodhisattvas’ goals are accomplished through knowing the paths of the three vehicles.

The Mahayana path has both common and uncommon aspects. The former includes those that originate from the Hinayana scriptural baskets, except for some peculiarities that are not shared in common, such as the aspiration for individual liberation and certain precepts.

In perfectly complete buddhahood, it is not that faults are partially ceased and excellent qualities are partially completed, but rather ever kind of fault is eliminated and every excellent quality is completed.

Since the Mahayana that achieves buddhahood brings about the cessation of all faults and the development of all excellent qualities, the path of the Mahayana encompasses all the qualities of elimination and realisation of all other vehicles.

That is why all the Buddha’s teachings are included within the various sections of the Mahayana path that leads to perfect buddhahood. For there is no utterance of the Sage that does not cause the cessation of some faults and the development of some virtuous qualities; and there is nothing among all of this that is not to be accomplished by the Mahayana practitioner.

Someone may think, “That may be true for the Paramitayana but not for those entering the Vajrayana”.

Now although the way you train in the countless delineations of generosity and so forth according to the Paramitayana differs from mantra,

both the behavioural basis (the mind generation) and the behavior [8] (the coarse form of the path of training in the six perfections)

are nevertheless the same and therefore something shared by them.

The Vajra Peak Tantra (Vajrasikharatantra) says:

Do not discard the mind of enlightenment
even for the sake of your life.


The conduct of the six perfections
must never be discarded.

This is also taught in numerous other mantra texts.

Many authentic sources of the mandala ritual of highest yoga tantra say that both sets of vows must have been taken – the common and the uncommon one – and indeed, the former refers to the bodhisattva vows.

The precious Dromtonpa also said, “My guru knows how to carry all the teachings by way of all four corners”. This statement is something to be examined in depth.


Anyone who considers the great scriptures to be expository teachings that do not contain practical instructions, who thinks that guidance on the meaning of the essential points of practice exists separately from them, and who holds that even in the holy Dharma the expository and applied teachings are found in different places, will create an obstacle for the arising of deep respect for the immaculate sutras and tantras as well as the treatises clarifying their intentions.

Be aware that the karmic obstruction of abandoning the Dharma is accumulated by despising them, saying that they only outline external knowledge without presenting their inner meaning.

For those who want liberation, the infallible supreme instructions are indeed the great scriptures. It is nonetheless possible that, due to poor intelligence and the like, you cannot reach certainty through relying on these scriptures alone as supreme advice.

In such a case you should seek certainty with respect to them, thinking, “I will seek certainty with respect to them by relying on excellent oral instructions”. But you should never think that the great scriptures do not contain the heart of the matter, thinking they only outline external knowledge while the personal instructions are supreme because they present the inner meaning. [9]

Naljorpa Chenpo Jangchup Rinchen said:

Someone who has reached certainty about a pithy guidebook cannot be said to have mastered the instructions, whereas this can be said about someone who understands all of the scriptures as instructions.

We need the kind of understanding expressed by Gompa Rinchen Lama, a disciple of Atisa. He said he had ground his body, speech, and mind to dust in a single meditation session on Atisa’s instructions, and thereby the understanding had now arisen in him that all the scriptures are instructions. In the words of the precious Dromtonpa:

If after studying the Dharma extensively you feel you need to search elsewhere for a way to apply the Dharma, you are mistaken.

If those who have studied the Dharma extensively over a long period, yet who are completely ignorant as to how to practice it, develop the wish to practice Dharma and think they must search elsewhere for instructions, then they have totally misunderstood this and err in the manner described above. As the Treasury of Abhidharma (Abdidharmakosa, 8.39) says:

The Buddha’s holy Dharma is twofold:
its nature is scripture and realisation.

In accordance with this statement, there is nothing apart from the scriptural teaching and the realised teaching.

The scriptural teaching is how the Dharma should be practiced and establishes the manner of accomplishment, while the realised teaching is what is thus established.

Since you practice in accordance with what is to be established, these two act as cause and effect

To give an analogy, when you have a horse race, you first show the horse the course, and after showing it, the race follows the same course.

It would be ridiculous to show it a course and then have the race elsewhere.

When it comes to accomplishments, how could it be appropriate to accomplish something after having determined something else through listening and reflecting?

This is also expressed in the third Stages of Meditation (Bhavanakrama):

Whatever has been realised by the two types of wisdom arisen from listening and reflecting is precisely what should be cultivated by means of the wisdom arisen from meditation.
Just like a horse runs the course it has been shown.

Thus, through summarising all the essential points of the path set forth in the scriptures and their commentaries – starting from how to rely on a spiritual teacher up to samatha and special insight – [10] they are all condensed into stages of practical application in terms of employing placement meditation where placement meditation is required and analysing with the wisdom of fine investigation where analytical meditation is required.

These instructions guide you so that all the scriptures present themselves to you are personal instructions. The conviction develops that they should be understood as supreme advice, and the misconception that they should be understood as mere background knowledge for the Dharma rather than as actual instructions is completely reversed.


Although the great texts, the scriptures along with their commentaries, are the best advice, completely uneducated beginners who delve into them cannot find their intention without relying on excellent oral instructions, and even if they find it, it takes them a lot of time and enormous effort. If they rely on a guru’s oral instructions and the like, it is easy to understand.


As explained in the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarikasutra) and the Satyaka Chapter (Satyakaparivarta), it amounts to abandoning the Dharma if you hold that some of the Buddha’s utterances are means of attaining buddhahood, dividing them into good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate, or Mahayana and Hinayana, and thereupon holding that a bodhisattva needs to train in some and not in others.

This is because you fail to understand that all the Buddha’s words directly or indirectly teach the means of attaining buddhahood. The Gathering All the Threads Sutra (Savavaidalyasamgrahaustra) says that the karmic obscuration accrued by abandoning the Dharma is so subtle that it is hard to recognise.

Concerning the very great faults that ensue if your abandon the Dharma, the King of Concentrations Sutra (Samadhirajasutra) says:

Say that someone demolishes all the stupas
found here in Jambudvipa;
the bad actions of someone who abandons the sutras
are far more grave.

Even if someone murders as many arhats
as there are grains of sand in the Ganges,
the bad actions of someone who abandons the sutras
are far more grave. [11]

Although generally there are many ways in which the Dharma might be abandoned, the one described above appears to be the most significant, which is why we should try hard to give it up.

That is to say, since this is reversed simply by gaining certainty about what was indicated above, the misdeed stops naturally. This certainty should be sought by studying the Satyaka Chapter as well as the Lotus Sutra. The other ways of abandoning the Dharma would be understood from the Gathering All the Threads Sutra.


How the Dharma possessions those two greatnesses should be listened to and explained

This has three points: how to listen, how to explain and how to conclude the session.


This has three points: contemplating the benefits of listening to the Dharma, developing respect for the Dharma and those who teach the Dharma, and the actual way to listen.


Verses about Listening says:

Through listening, the Dharma is understood.
Through listening, bad actions are reversed.
Through listening, the meaningless is abandoned.
Through listening, nirvana is achieved.

These four lines say that in reliance upon listening, and understanding of what should be adopted and discarded gradually develops.

This knowledge gives rise to the conduct that reverse wrongdoing. Then, once you have turned away from meaningless pursuits, concentration arises, and the mind stays on a virtuous object as long as you wish.

Finally, through training in wisdom realising this suchness that is selflessness, the root of samsara’s fetters is cut and you attain nirvana, or liberation.

Garland of Birth Stories (Jatakamala) also says:

One who through listening develops a mind of faith
nurtures a firm rejoicing in that which is excellent.
Wisdom is born and ignorance vanishes –
this is well worth paying for with one’s own flesh.

Listening is the lamp that dispels darkest ignorance,
the great wealth no robber can carry away,
the weapon that conquers the enemy – confusion –
the best of friends giving guidance in skillful means,
near and dear whether or not you are poor.

It is the nontoxic cure for the pains of sorrow,
the foremost army that destroys a host of faults,
the greatest treasure, fame, and splendour as well.
When you meet noble beings, it is the best gift,
and in assemblies, it is the delight of the wise. [12]

It also says:

Taking to heart the practice that comes from listening
you will be freed from the fortress of rebirth with ease.

Keep thinking again and again about these and other benefits of listening, and generate belief from the depths of your heart.


From the Ksitigarbha Sutra:

Listen with one-pointed faith and respect,
with neither mockery nor disrespect,
and worship the teachers of the Dharma,
seeing them as just like buddhas.

As this quote urges, you should view teachers of Dharma as resembling buddhas, offer them service and goods with things like lion thrones, worship them with gifts, and eliminate disrespect.

Bodhisattva Levels (Bodhisattvabhumi) says that you should be free of arrogance, be free of contempt for the Dharma and those who expound the Dharma, and hold those two in high regard. And Garland of Birth Stories says:

Sit on a seat that is very low,
fully develop the glory of discipline,
and look with eyes imbued with joy
while drinking the nectar of the words.

Bring forth respect and concentration,
with a stainless and pure mentality.
As patients heed a doctor’s words,
respectfully listen to the Dharma.


This has two points: giving up the three faults of a vessel and relying on the six perceptions.


Even if sent by the gods, rain cannot enter a vessel turned upside down.

A vessel that faces upward but is unclean will pollute the rain and render it undrinkable.

Or say a vessel is clean but the bottom leaks, then even though the rain goes in and is not spoiled by dirt, it does not stay.

In the same way, there is no great need to hear the Dharma if, when you sit in a place where the Dharma is being explained,

you do not listen well;

or if you listen but take it wrong – with a faulty motivation and the like;

or if these faults are not present, but the words and the meaning you grasped at the time of hearing are not consolidated and get lost through forgetfulness and so forth.

Therefore you should be free of these faults. [13] The antidotes to these three are set forth in three phrases in the sutras: “Listen intently, in the correct way, and keep it in mind!”

And in Bodhisattva Levels we are told to listen with a desire to understand it all, single-pointedness, a heedful ear, and integrated mentality, and fully focused attention.


This has six points: perceiving oneself as a patient, perceiving the one expounding the Dharma as a doctor, perceiving the instructions as medicine, perceiving persistent practice as the cure, perceiving the Tathagata as an exalted being, and generating the wish for the Dharma tradition to last long.


Entering the Bodhisattva Way (Bodhicaryavatara, 2.54) says:

Even when stricken with ordinary illness,
one has to follow the words of a doctor;
how much more so if a hundred
ills like desire afflict you perpetually!

Owing to mental afflictions such as attachment, we continually suffer from ills causing lasting and severe suffering that is difficult to cure. Therefore we first need to diagnose them as such. Geshe Kamapa said:

If we were not sick, then to meditate as if we were
would be the wrong procedure. In reality, however,
we are stricken with the chronic illness of the
three poisons and our illness is very grave, and
yet we do not know we are ill at all.


By way of analogy, if we are stricken with a serious illness such as a wind or bile disease, we look for an expert physician, and upon meeting one we are extremely happy, and we listen to what he says, treat him with respect, and serve him.

We should seek out a spiritual guide teaching the Dharma in the same way and, having found him, accomplish what he says, taking it not as a burden but as a treasure, treating him with respect and reverence.


Third, just as a patient greatly appreciates the medicine dispensed by the doctor, we regard the instructions and precepts taught by someone expounding the Dharma as the most precious things, and then we make an effort [14] to cherish them rather than wasting them through forgetfulness and the like.


The fifth perception consists in bringing to mind the teacher of the Dharma, the Blessed One, and developing respect for him.


The sixth perception consists in the thought “How wonderful it would be if, from listening to such a Dharma, the Victor’s teachings remained in the world for a long time”.

If, apart from that, you ignore your own mindstream while explaining or listening to the Dharma, the Dharma remaining separate from it, then whatever is being explained will miss the point.

Therefore you have to listen with the intention of developing understanding in the your mind.

To illustrate this, when you want to see whether there is dirt or some other impurity on your face, you look at yourself in a mirror, and if you find a smudge there, you remove it.

Likewise, when you hear the Dharma, your faulty behaviour appears in the mirror of Dharma, whereupon [16] you feel anguish, thinking, “That is what my mindstream has come to”. Then, as you engage in eliminating faults and attaining excellent qualities, you necessarily train in accordance with the Dharma. It is like in Garland of Birth Stories where the son of Sudasa asked Prince Candra for Dharma teachings:

Seeing the image of my bad behaviour
so clearly in the mirror of the Dharma,
anguish strongly arises in me,
and I turn toward the Dharma

Knowing this to be the thinking of a suitable vessel for hearing the Dharma, the Bodhisattva gave him teachings.

In short, thinking, “I shall attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. To attain that, I need to train in its causes. As it is necessary to listen to the Dharma for that, I will listen to the Dharma,” generate bodhicitta, contemplate the benefits of listening, and listen with joy, eliminating the faults of a vessel.


This has four points: contemplating the benefits of explaining the Dharma, generating respect for the teacher and the Dharma, the proper attitude and behaviour with which to explain the Dharma, and differentiating those to whom the explanations should be given.


The Treasury of Abhidharma (4.125) says:

Giving Dharma, free of mental afflictions,
teach according to sutras and other true texts.

Its Autocommentary says:

Therefore those who explain the Dharma incorrectly,
and with an afflicted mind that desires material gain,
respect, and fame, corrupt their own great merit.

Therefore a pure motivation to teach the Dharma is extremely important, and in accordance with Ngargompa, who said, “I have never explained the Dharma without meditating upon impermanence before the session,” it is crucial to review it beforehand.

Exhortation to the Extraordinary Attitude sets forth two groups of twenty benefits of giving the gift of Dharma without desire for material things and without concern for gain, respect, and the life.

Also, the Questions of Householder Ugra Sutra (Grhapatyugrapariprccha) says that the merit of a householder giving immeasurable material things is exceeded by that of an ordained person giving a single verse of Dharma. [17]


When proclaiming the Mother of the Buddhas, the Teacher himself arranged the seat and so on. Accordingly, since the Dharma is a field of veneration even for buddhas, one should bring to mind the excellent qualities and kindness of the Dharma and its Teacher and generate respect for them.


This has two points: attitude and behavior.


The Questions of Sagaramati Sutra (Sagaramatipariprchasutra) puts forward five perceptions: generating the perception of oneself as a doctor, of the Dharma as medicine, of the one listening to the Dharma as a patient, of the Tathagata as a holy being, and of the wish that the Dharma remain for a long time. It also promotes the cultivation of loving-kindness toward those around one.

The jealously born from anxiety over other becoming superior, the laziness of putting things off, the discouragement of fatigue from explaining things over and over, the praising of oneself and speaking of others’ faults, the reluctance to divulge Dharma texts, and the concern for material things such as food and clothing should be abandoned, thinking, “The very merits from teaching for the sake of my own and others’ enlightenment are the assurance of my happiness.”


Having washed and dressed in immaculate clothes, you sit in a clean and pleasant venue on a cushion placed on a Dharma throne. If you chant a mantra for subjugating demons, then harmful spirits and demonic kinds of gods will not come closer to you than a perimeter of a hundred yojanas, and even if they do come, they will not be able to create any obstacles, as the Questions of Sagaramati Sutra says. Therefore you should chant that mantra and, with a radiant expression on your face, give your explanations with examples, logical proofs, and quotations, which help ensure your message is understood.


The Vinaya Sutra says, “Do not act without being asked to”. Accordingly, do not teach without having been asked, and even when someone asks, examine the vessel. However, as the King of Concentrations Sutra says, knowing someone to be a suitable vessel, it is acceptable to teach even without having been asked. Further modes of conduct are set forth in the Vinaya Sutra.


The roots of virtue of teaching and listening in this way should be sealed by means of pure aspirational prayers, such as the Prayer of Good Conduct (Bhadracaryapranidhana).

There is no doubt that if the Dharma is explained and [18] listened to in this manner, the benefits stated above will arise in just one session.

When the acts of listening and explaining the Dharma have penetrated the heart of the matter, all the karmic obstructions accumulated previously by, for instance, not respecting the Dharma and those who expound it are purified, and all those newly accumulated are cut off.

When such listening arrives at the heart of the matter, the instructions will benefit the mind. Seeing this, all the holy beings of the past pursued it diligently, especially the earlier gurus of this instruction, who persevered in it with utmost diligence.

These are clearly critically important instructions. If you do not gain certainty about them and your attitude does not change, as is often the case, then no matter how much the profound and vast Dharma is explained to you, it will become like a god fallen to the rank of a demon, and that very Dharma will instead fuel your afflictions.

They say, “If you miscalculate the first month, you will err until the fifteenth,” and thus the wise strive to transform their listening and explaining into the path. Accordingly, whenever you have the opportunity to hear or to teach, you must do so in the proper way. For this is the best preliminary for teaching the instructions.



This has two points: relying on a spiritual teacher, the root of the path; and the stages of training the mind once you have relied on a teacher.


This has two points: the somewhat elaborate explanation for generating certainty and the condensed presentation of how to practice.

The somewhat elaborate explanation for generating certainty

As all goodness, starting from the development of a single excellent quality and the decrease of a single fault in the mindstream of the disciple, has its root in the sublime friend, it is important to explain the way to rely on him or her at the outset.

This topic has six points (1) characteristics of the one to be relied on, the virtuous friend, (2) characteristics of the one who relies, the student, (3) the way to rely, (4) the benefits of reliance, (5) the faults of improper reliance, and (6) a summary of the meaning of these points.


Generally speaking, a lot is said about this topic in terms of the individual vehicles in the scriptures and their commentaries. But presented here will be the virtuous friend who guides students on the path to buddhahood, the Mahayana, by gradually guiding them on the path of the three types of persons. [19]

Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras (Mahayanasutralamkara, 17.10) says that students must rely on a spiritual teacher endowed with ten qualities:

A spiritual teacher with discipline, calm, complete peace,
superior qualities, diligent, rich in scriptures,
who has understood suchness, is eloquent,
loving, and never disheartened – on that one rely!

Furthermore, it says that someone who lacks self-discipline is not in a position to discipline someone else and that therefore a guru who disciplines others must be someone who has first disciplined his or her own mind.

You may wonder, “Well then, how should one discipline it?” It is of not benefit to have done just any practice and then label it an excellent quality of realisation within your mindstream.

This is why you need a system for disciplining the mind that accords with the general teachings of the victors.

That has been ascertained as the three precious trainings, and therefore ethics, concentration, and wisdom have been set forth.

In this verse “discipline” refers to the training in ethics. The Pratimosksa Sutra says:

In accord with the unruly horse of the mind,
always straining to run away:
a bridle studded with a hundred sharp nails –
that is the pratimoksa vows.

Someone skilled at breaking in wild horses tames them with a good bridle. Like wild horses, the sense powers pursue wrong objects. Ethics subjugate them when you are drawn to inappropriate activities and makes you engage with much effort in what ought to be done. Someone trained in it has likewise tamed the horse of the mind.

“Calm” means that, having developed the training in concentration in which, based on mindfulness and vigilance with regard to engaging in good behaviour and desisting from faulty behaviour, the mind abides in a state of inner calm.

“Complete peace” means that, based on the samatha of a supple mind, the training in wisdom has been developed through fine investigation of the meaning of reality.

However, it is not enough merely to have developed, by means of the three trainings, the excellent qualities of realisation that act to tame the mind. The excellent quality of scriptural knowledge is also needed, so the text says “rich in scriptures,” which means that the three baskets of scripture and so forth have been studied extensively. According to Geshe Dromtonpa:

For someone to be called a Mahayana [20] guru, he must generate boundless understanding when he explains, and at the end of his teaching when he practices, he must demonstrate what is beneficial and directly meaningful.

“One who has understood suchness” refers primarily to someone with special training in wisdom who has realised the selflessness of phenomena or, indeed, perceived the manifest appearance of suchness. However, even if this is not present, it is said that this criterion is also fulfilled when it is realised through scripture and reasoning.

That said, if a teacher has scriptural knowledge and realisation but these are inferior or equal to those of the disciple, that is not enough. Someone with “superior qualities” is needed. As Collection of Indicative Verses (Udanavarga, 25.5-6) says:

People relying on someone inferiors sink,
those relying on one of their peers stay the same,
those who rely on the foremost achieve excellence.
Therefore rely on your superiors.

If you rely on any such masters,
endowed with ethics, complete peace,
and extensive superior wisdom,
you’ll even end up ahead of them.

Phuchungwa said, “When I hear the accounts of holy beings, I hold them in esteem,” and Thashi said, “I take the old men at Radreng as models”. Accordingly, you need someone with more excellent qualities as a model to emulate. Nonetheless, those six qualities are the excellent qualities that you yourself attain.

The remaining ones are excellent qualities for guiding others. As they say:

The sages do not cleanse bad actions with water,
they do not remove the suffering of beings by hand,
they do not graft their realisations on others;
they liberate by teaching the truth of ultimate reality.

As is expressed here, nothing beyond teaching others the path in an unmistaken manner and taking care of them can be done; one cannot cleanse the bad actions of another with water.

Among the four properties related to this, “eloquent” means experienced in the stages of guidance and skilled at conveying the meaning to the minds of those to be tamed. “Loving” means having a pure motivation to teach the Dharma, [21] teaching out of compassion without regard for material gain or respect. We need someone like Potowa, who said to Chenngawa, “Son of Lima, however many Dharma teachings I have given, not once have I expected appreciation, for there is no sentient being who does not deserve my care”. “Diligent” means always delighting in helping others. “Never disheartened” means never tiring of explaining things over and over and rather bearing the hardships of teaching.

Potowa said,

The three trainings, the realisation of suchness, and living-kindness – these five are essential.

My master Shangtsun is not highly or broadly learned, he cannot bear disappointment, and he does not even thank those who have been kind to him. However, since he has the above-mentioned five, whoever is in his presence benefits. Nyenton is by no means eloquent, and each time he dedicates an offering, the only thing he knows is that nobody understands his explanation, but since he has those five, people near him benefit.

Even if it is difficult, in this day and age, to find someone with the complete set of qualities like that, it is said that you should not rely on anyone whose faults predominate or whose faults equal their excellent qualities but on someone whose excellent qualities exceed their faults. Such a guru who brings about liberation is the root of what you have aspired to for so long. Therefore those wishing to rely on a guru should keep them in mind and make an effort to find someone with the right qualities. Those wishing for students to rely on them should also strive to acquire these characteristics.


From Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Stanzas (Catuhsataka, 12.1):

A suitable vessel, a listener, is said to be
impartial, intelligent, and interested.
The teacher’s qualities do not appear otherwise,
and nor do those of the person who listens.

As the commentaries say, someone endowed with the three characteristics is a suitable vessel for hearing the teachings. If all three are complete, the excellent qualities of the Dharma teacher appear as excellent qualities and do not appear as faults.

Not only that, the excellent qualities of the listener also appear as excellent qualities to himself [herself] and do not appear as faults. If the characteristics of a suitable vessel are not complete, the listener, under the power of his or her faults, will classify even a very pure and virtuous Dharma teacher among those who have faults, [22] and they will perceive the teacher’s faults as qualities.

In this regard impartial means “without bias”. If you have a bias, it will obscure your perception, you will not perceive excellent qualities, and therefore you will fail to find the meaning of excellent explanations. It is just as Bhaviveka says in his Essence of the Middle way (Madhyamakahrdaya):

While the mind is tormented by bias
one will never realise peace.

To be biased means to be attached to one’s own approach and averse to others’ approaches. On discovering something like this in your own mind, you should discard it.

Is that in itself sufficient?

If someone does not have the intelligence to differentiate good ways of explaining from faulty ways of explaining when they see the same, he [she] is not a suitable vessel, even though impartial. Therefore you need to have the intelligence that understands those two.

Are those two sufficient? Even if one has both impartiality and intelligence, someone who is just like one of those listening to the Dharma in a lifeless painting is not a suitable vessel. Therefore you also need to have strong interest. Candrakirti’s commentary states that, first, respect for the Dharma and the expounder of the Dharma and, second, an attentive mind are added, so that five characteristics are set forth.

That being so, we can categorise this into four: strong interest in the Dharma, a fully attentive mind while listening, great respect for the Dharma and the expounder of Dharma, and holding to good explanations and rejecting faulty ones.

Intelligence is a conducive circumstance for those four, and impartiality is what eliminates adverse circumstances. Examine whether all the qualities that would make you suitable to be guided by a guru are complete, and cultivate joy if they are. If they are not complete, strive to create the causes for their completion before your life is over.


Thus someone endowed with the characteristics of a suitable vessel should examine, as explained above, whether a teacher has the necessary characteristics, and if so, receive the kindness of the Dharma from him.

As for the way to rely on a spiritual teacher from whom, in general, you receive the kindness of the Dharma and who, in particular, guides your mind well by means of perfectly complete instructions, there are two points: the way to rely in thought and the way to rely through actions.


This has two points: the root, training in faith, and remembering his kindness so as to generate respect.


Jewels’ Blaze Dharani (Ratnolkadharani) says:

Faith, a preliminary practice, gives birth like a mother to all good qualities, guards them, and makes them increase. [23]

This says that faith gives birth to excellent qualities that have not yet arisen, and once they have come into existence, it maintains and increases them. The Ten Dharmas Sutra (Dasadharmakasutra) also says:

Faith is the foremost vehicle
leading to definite release.
For that reason the intelligent
rely on the pursuit of faith.

In those lacking faith,
virtuous phenomena do not arise,
just as in seeds burnt by fire,
no green sprout can germinate.

In terms of what is gained when it is present and what is lost in its absence, faith is said to be the foundation of all excellent qualities. Generally speaking there are many types of faith: in the Three Jewels, in karmic cause and effect, and in the four noble truths; however, here it is faith in the guru.

Furthermore, as for the way to see the guru, the Tantra Bestowing the Initiation of Vajrapani (Vajrapanyabhisekamahatantra) says:

O Lord of Secrets, how should a student see his master? Just like he would see the Buddha, the Blessed One.

Similar statements can be found in the collection of Mahayana sutras and in the Vinaya. Their meaning is this:

If you understand that someone is like a buddha, a mind finding fault with him will not arise and a mind contemplating his excellent qualities will. Likewise, with regard to a guru, eliminate any concept of fault in every respect and train the mind that conceives excellent qualities.

The above tantra also says:

Apprehend your master’s excellent qualities;
do not ever apprehend his faults!
Apprehending his qualities will gain you siddhis:
apprehending his faults will block their attainment.

You should act accordingly. Thus is excellent qualities predominate in your guru but you think about him in terms of the few faults he has, this will become an obstacle to your own siddhis.

Even if faults predominate, if you train in faith from the perspective of his excellent qualities without thinking about him in terms of his flaws, this will cause siddhis to arise.

When it comes to your own guru, whether his flaws are great or small, contemplate the faults of thinking about him in those terms, repeatedly generate a mind to eliminate this, and make it stop.

If concepts of faults arise due to carelessness, acute afflictions, and so forth, apply yourself to confession and restraint. [24] If you familiarise yourself with these antidotes accordingly, you may see that there are a few faults, but since your mind focuses on excellent qualities, it will not become and obstacle to your faith.

For instance, Atisa upheld the view of Madhyamaka, while Serlingpa upheld the view of the True Aspectarian Cittamatra, which is why, in terms of view, one guru was higher than the other. However, as Atisa discovered the general stages of the Mahayana path and bodhicitta relying on him, he regarded Serlingpa as peerless among spiritual teachers.


The Ten Dharmas Sutra says:

He looks for me, who has roamed in cyclic existence for a long time; he awakens me from enduring obscuration and torpor owing to ignorance; he pulls me out as I sink in the ocean of existence; he shows good paths to me, who has entered bad ones; he frees me, who has been bound in the prison of existence; he is a doctor to me, who is long tormented by illness; he is the rain clouds, drenching me, who has been ablaze with the fires of attachment [to ignorance] and the rest.

The Marvelous Array Sutra (Gandavyuhasutra) also says:

“These are my spiritual friends, expounders of Dharma,
exhaustively teaching the qualities of all phenomena,
thoroughly teaching the conduct of bodhisattvas”:
with these thoughts in mind I have come here.

“As they give birth to all of this, they are like my mother.
They pour forth the milk of virtues, hence they are like wet nurses;
they train me thoroughly in the branches of enlightenment.
These spiritual friends completely turn away harm,
like doctors they release from aging and death,
like Lord Indra they shower rains of nectar.
Like the full moon, they enhance the white qualities;
like the bright sunlight, they show the way to peace.
Regarding friends and foes, they are stable like mountains,
their minds are undisturbed as the depths of the sea.
They give perfect support, some say ‘like boatmen’”.
With this in mind I, Sudhana, have come here.

“Theses bodhisattvas bring forth my understanding;
they cause the enlightenment of Buddha’s children;
these beings, these friends of mine, are praised by the Buddha”:
with such virtuous thoughts I have come here.

“As they save the world they are like heroes;
they have become the captains, protectors, and refuge;
they are the eye bestowing happiness on me”:
with thoughts like these, I honor my spiritual friends. [25]

Recollect the sentiments expressed here by using a tune to go with the verses, aspiring to take the part of Sudhana yourself.


Fifty Verses on the Guru (Gurupancasika, v. 46-47) says:

What need is there for many words here?
Do everything to make your guru happy;
abandon everything he is displeased with;
apply yourself to that, examine that!

This was said by Vajradhara himself:
“Spiritual attainments follow the guru”.
Aware of this, use everything there is
and make your guru absolutely happy.

In brief, try hard to please him and to eliminate whatever he does not like.

The three means of pleasing the guru are offering him material things, serving him and paying him respect with body and speech, and practicing in accord with his advice.

In this regard Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras (17.11) says:

Through homage, offerings purely obtained, and service
and practice, you should rely on a spiritual friend.

As for the first, Fifty Verses on the Guru (v.17) says:

If through things not [typically] given – your children, your spouse,
and even your life – you should always rely
on the master of your commitments,
then needless to say, you should through fleeting possessions.

And (v.21):

Giving [to your guru] amounts to always
offering gifts to all the buddhas.
Such offering accumulates merit
that in turn leads to the highest siddhi.

Second is bathing him, anointing him, massaging him, wrapping him up, cleaning him, nursing him when he is ill, and so forth, and talking about his excellent qualities. The third is the main one, which is practicing without going against his instructions. Garland of Birth Stories says:

The offering to be made to made in return for his help
is practice that accords with his instructions.


The scriptures say that you will approach the state of a buddha, that the victors will rejoice, that you will not be deprived of virtuous friends, [26] that you will not fall to the lower rebirths, and that you will not easily succumb to bad karma and afflictions. Since you will not transgress the conduct of bodhisattvas, remaining mindful of it, your accumulation of excellent qualities will grow higher and higher, and all your temporary and ultimate goals will be accomplished.

Furthermore, through serving and paying respect to the spiritual teacher, the karma for experiencing the lower rebirths is exhausted directly in this lifetime through only slight harm to body and mind or else through experiences in dreams. It is said that the benefits are enormous, outshining the roots of virtue of making offerings and the like to innumerable buddhas.


If you take someone has your spiritual teacher and then relinquish reliance on him, you will be harmed by illnesses and evil spirits in this life, and in future lives you will have to experience the immeasurable sufferings of the lower rebirths. Fifty Verses on the Guru (vv. 13-14) says:

Never agitate the minds
of any of your masters.
If you do so out of stupidity,
you will surely roast in hell.

It was explained authentically
that all those who disparage their masters
will dwell in the horrific hells
that were taught – like the Avici.

A passage from the Commentary on Difficult Points of Krsnayamari (Krsnayamaripanjika) also says:

Whoever hears a single verse
and does not apprehend the guru
will born among dogs a hundred times
and then as someone of low caste.

Aside from that, excellent qualities that have not arisen will not arise, and those that have arisen will deteriorate and vanish.

If you rely on non-virtuous friends and bad companions, your excellent qualities will also diminish, your faults will increase, and misfortune will befall you. Therefore it was taught that this should be avoided in every way.


The instructions widely known as guru yoga should also be understood according to what has been explained above. It will be enough to perform the visualisation in a single meditation session. When you pursue a Dharma practice from the depths of your heart, you should rely on a spiritual teacher who guides you unmistakenly over a long period of time.

As Chekawa also said about such an occasion, “When you rely on a guru, you may have doubts and abandon him”. Since you will only lose without gaining in you do not know how to rely on him, [27] it becomes evident that the cycles of teachings about relying on a spiritual teacher are more important than any others; they are the root of fulfilling your long-held aspirations.

Owing to our coarse afflictions, we do not know how to rely on a spiritual teacher, or we know how but still do not do it. We have often engaged in many mistaken ways of relying on the guru while listening to the Dharma. It is difficult for us to develop an awareness of that even for the purpose of confession and restraint. However, having understood the benefits and faults as explained above, it is essential to sincerely confess any instances that do not accord with proper reliance and develop many strong resolutions.

If you act in that manner, you will become before long like the bodhisattva Sadaprarudita and like the youthful Sudhana, who was insatiable in his quest for a spiritual teacher.

(Continued on Lamrim Chenmo (2) page of this website)