The Six Perfections and the Three Trainings, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa’s Teachings on Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation

The Six Perfections and the Three Trainings, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa’s Teachings on Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation

Day One
Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, India
February 14, 2020

Before the teaching in the shrine hall of Tergar Monastery, nuns moved up and down rows of sangha, offering tea to the nuns as well as to the lay sangha of women. In front of them is the shrine platform that holds a great golden Buddha statue. At his feet is the resplendent throne of the Karmapa; his presence is invoked by a life-size photograph. He is wearing the lesha, the activity hat with its golden diamond on the front.

In the beginning, the Karmapa welcomed the khenpos, teachers, and all of the nuns as well as the lay and monastic sangha who had come for the teachings. He explained that it had been two years since he had taught the Ornament of Precious Liberation, and he felt the responsibility to finish the teachings he had started. “Since we live in the age of the Internet,” he said,” I’m taking the opportunity to use this technology to continue the teachings.”

The Ornament of Precious Liberation teaches the stages of the path, and it is the most important Dharma that we have inherited in the Kagyu lineage. He said:

I consider the opportunity to teach it an immense good fortune and also a way of serving and respecting the great Kagyu masters of the past. Please join me in this. We should not let any opportunity to listen to the Dharma go to waste. Now that we have this precious human body with all its faculties and are free of adversities, we should make efforts to receive teachings from great teachers. This will benefit us as we can put them into practice to benefit ourselves and others. We should listen with this excellent motivation.

The Karmapa began with the Eleventh Chapter, the “Presentation of the Six Perfections,” which is short and contains numerous citations from the sutras and tantras. It begins with a quote from the Lamp for the Path to Awakening, which teaches the precepts of engaged bodhicitta and lays out the path:

Those who abide within the vow of engaged bodhicitta,
having correctly trained in the three aspects of moral discipline,
will greatly deepen their appreciation of those three trainings.

There are two ways to explain this passage. From one point of view, it explains the three types of discipline: not harming, developing positive qualities, and benefitting others. From another, it teaches the Three Trainings: sila (discipline), samadhi (meditative concentration), and prajna (wisdom). Gampopa chose this second approach.

The Ornament also teaches how to rouse bodhicitta and how to take vows, and also gives numerous precepts. “Once we take vows,” the Karmapa explained, “we have to train in the precepts, because keeping them will purify our body, speech, and mind by allowing us to give up what should be given up and take up what should be taken up.” The text states the basis for practice: “Practicing the Three Trainings of discipline well, you respect the Three Trainings of the Buddha.” We need to engage in them because there is nothing that the bodhisattvas should not train in, nothing that they should not learn. The main reason for this is, the Karmapa noted, that their primary work is benefitting living beings in the short and long term. In order to do this, they need copious knowledge since living beings are at different stages, have different ways of speaking and different things that they like and do not like. The bodhisattvas must display deeds and activities that accord with all these various traits and aspirations.

The texts speak of studying the five or ten areas of knowledge, 173 trainings, and so forth. One might ask, if the bodhisattva has an unbelievable number of things to study, why does the Ornament teach only the Three Trainings? When an ordinary living being gives rise to bodhichitta and begins to travel the path of the bodhisattva, if they are told at the beginning that they have to study the 173 trainings, they could not understand them. They have to come to a certain level before that is possible. It is said that there is nothing that bodhisattvas do not study; however, they cannot study every single area, so instead, they study summary verses and outlines, which appear easily to the mind.

The Karmapa then enumerated the ways that summary verses can be made: through the prism of the two accumulations, the form and formless kayas, the profound and vast explanations of the two truths, the discipline of what and what not to do, the afflictions in terms of the Three Trainings, or the transcendent superior and mundane lesser levels. In fact, there are so many ways that it all becomes very complicated, so we choose the most important way, and here it is the Six Transcendences (generosity, moral discipline, forbearance, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom). These summarize how to engage in practice and include all that a bodhisattva needs to train in: how to take care of oneself and others and how to gather all the qualities of a bodhisattva. Therefore, the Six Transcendences are the best way to make summaries. If we condense the Six Transcendences, they are all included in the Three Trainings.

“These summaries are important,” the Karmapa affirmed, “as they resemble someone who is learned and can articulate in a few words a deep understanding and great meaning. People without many qualities can go on for hours and one learns nothing new. The Buddha is the most learned with the greatest prajna, but he used summaries such as the Four Noble Truths, which include everything that we need to practice in order to achieve liberation.” Likewise, here the Six Transcendences include all that a bodhisattva needs to study and practice. All of these are also included in the Three Trainings. The reason for condensing the Six Transcendences is that this gives us a broader understanding and brings out their features. This process brings a broader understanding because we find in the Three Trainings the whole range of Buddhism, not just the mahayana. “If we can understand them well,” the Karmapa remarked, “we have found a common understanding that relates to all the teachings and traditions of Buddhism.”

In particular, the Three Trainings taught here belong to the mahayana tradition and are said to be superior in many ways to the foundational vehicle. This is the reason why we need to understand the reason for including the Six Transcendences in all the Three trainings. The way this happens is taught in many texts, but Gampopa chose the Sutra of Explaining the Intent as the basis for his position.

“In Tibet we use the well-known terminology of view, meditation, and conduct,” the Karmapa observed, “which are basically the same as the Three Trainings.” When discussing arising or causality, we speak of the three vehicles (Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana), and when looking at the result, we speak of view, meditation, and conduct. The Karmapa observed, “The pith teachings on view, meditation, and conduct and the Three Trainings come down to the same essential point and understanding. This is extremely important. Although different traditions interpret view, meditation, and conduct in different ways, they merely seem to be different.”

When we talk of the Three Trainings of sila, samadhi, and prajna, the three are related in a line of cause and effect.  The Sutra of the Three Trainings states:

Bhikshus, if we practice discipline, we will remain in samadhi a long time; remaining in samadhi a long time, we will accomplish prajna, and through prajna we will completely free ourselves of greed, hatred, and delusion.

This illuminates how each of the Three Trainings acts as a cause for the subsequent one. The Treasury of the Abhidharma speaks of the conduct of pure discipline, and then by listening and contemplating, completely training in meditation. So the basis is pure discipline, and then by analyzing during listening and contemplating, we gain shamatha and insight, and practice resting in analytic meditation.

When identifying the Three Trainings, a commentary on the Treasury of the Abhidharma asks:

What is the superior training in discipline? Remaining in discipline, being restrained by the Pratimoksha, having proper method and focus, viewing small and great reproachable acts with fear, and training in taking the precepts properly—this is the superior training in discipline (sila).
What is the superior training in samadhi? One has withdrawn from desires, accomplished the four dhyanas (meditative absorptions) and one is remaining in that—this is the superior training in samadhi.
What is the superior training in prajna? Fully knowing as they are: the noble truth of suffering, the noble truth of the origin of suffering, the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and the noble truth of the path that leads to cessation.

This citation from the sutras presents teachings that are common to all vehicles. Why? In the Chinese scriptures, there is a text from Shariputra’s Summary of the Abhidharma, which teaches the trainings in the exact same way. This understanding of the Three Trainings is for those belonging to the common vehicle, and it is the practice of shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, a practice for middling types of individuals.

At this time, there was a tea break.

After the break, His Holiness shared some personal thoughts. He said that it had been a long time since he had taught, so words are not coming as quickly and naturally as they usually do. Also, there is normally an audience of people in front of him, which gives him an immediate inspiration to speak, drawing forth the words. On this occasion, however, the only thing before him is just a table, so the impulse to speak is absent, and he must visualize everyone in front of him. “I’m talking while imagining that all of you are there before me,” he said. “But with open eyes, all I see and all I’m talking to is a table. What I’m thinking about and what’s actually appearing before me are totally different.”

The Karmapa then returned to his teachings on the Three Trainings, reprising his thoughts on the similarity between the teachings on the Three Trainings and view, meditation, and action in the Buddhist traditions, especially in the words of the Sautrantika texts in the Foundational Vehicle. He commented that now he is simply citing texts without much explanation that speak of the essential nature of the Three Trainings. He might expand on this in the following days.

Looking at the Tibetan word “lhakpa” (lhag pa), which is applied to each of the Three Trainings, the Karmapa noted that it can be understood in two ways. It can mean “leftover,” “remnant,” or “what remains,” and it can also mean “higher,” “superior,” or “raised above something else.” It is this latter meaning that is intended here, so we are speaking of superior discipline, superior meditative concentration, and superior wisdom. Since “superior” implies a relationship to something else, what are the three superior to? There are two ways to look at this: the Buddhist Three Trainings are superior to those of the non-Buddhists, and within Buddhism, the mahayana is superior to other traditions.

The Buddhist Three Trainings are superior to those in other traditions because only Buddhists have the definitive and clear textual sources that describe each of the Three Trainings as they actually are; the non-Buddhists do not have such teachings. There are several ways in which the Buddhist tradition rises above the others. In terms of conduct, Buddhism includes going for refuge to the Three Jewels, which is absent from other traditions. It is often said that what distinguishes a Buddhist from others is taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

In terms of philosophy, non-Buddhists are defined as those who fall into the extremes of eternalism or nihilism, thinking that ultimately everything exists or does not. In terms of discipline, the non-Buddhists do practice renunciation, but it is not the Buddhist genuine renunciation that is imbued with the wish to attain complete liberation from samsara.

In terms of samadhi, the Treasury of the Abhidharma contains a meditation that focuses on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, which at that time was particular to the Buddhists. These days, since everyone is propagating this type of teaching, it is difficult to say who originated what. In terms of the actual samadhis, however, the Buddhist tradition is superior. As for prajna, the Buddhists teach a wisdom that realizes no self, the sixteen types of emptiness, and so forth, which sets them above the non-Buddhists. This explanation mainly focuses on the superiority in terms of the view.

The forefathers of the Kadampa lineage stated that if sravakas engage in the virtue of generosity but are not imbued with the wish for liberation, this action yields merit but it does not receive the name of a training or precept. For this to happen, they must be motivated by the wish for liberation while practicing generosity. Further, for bodhisattvas, whether an action is called an accumulation of merit or not depends on the practioner being motivated by bodhichitta. Without bodhichitta, a deed does not rise to the level of an accumulation of merit. This definition matches the characteristics of the accumulations taught in the Prajnaparamita Sutras, so we can also consider a practice motivated by bodhicitta to be an accumulation of merit.

The accumulations can also be discussed in terms of what they lead to. If a practice leads to realizing the Dharmakaya, it is an accumulation of wisdom; if it leads to realizing the two form kayas (Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya), it is an accumulation of merit. From this perspective, there are no accumulations for the shravakas and the pratyekabuddhas. In terms of the six paramitas, if our motivation is imbued with compassion, then the merit of generosity, for example, can be called an accumulation; however, if one’s mind is not embraced by nonreferential compassion, it cannot be called a paramita (Transcendence or Perfection). Further, if mind is embraced by nonreferential compassion, and this is connected to nonconceptual prajna or the prajna that realizes emptiness, it can be called a paramita. In sum, for all the above reasons, the Buddhist teachings can be considered superior.

It is also said that Three Trainings in the Mahayana are superior to those in the Foundational
Vehicle. For example, Mahayana discipline is superior in terms of four qualities; the samadhis are superior in terms of six qualities, and the prajna is superior in terms of nineteen qualities. The four qualities related to discipline are the classifications, common and special practices, vastness, and profundity. The main ways in which the Mahayana is superior are taught in Asanga’s Compendium of the Mahayana (Mahayahasamgraha), but it would take too long to explain each of these here, and they are difficult to understand initially. The names are given so that people glimpse a general understanding.  

As we just saw, Mahayana discipline is superior to the Foundational Vehicle in four ways: the classifications, the common and special practices, vastness, and profundity. In terms of discipline, the shravakas only hold the discipline of refraining from harming others. In contrast to this, bodhisattvas gather additional positive qualities and benefit living beings, so they uphold three types of discipline as opposed to only one for the shravakas. To step outside the category of the four qualities for a moment, bodhisattvas can also engage in reproachable actions if they benefit living beings; however, they do not become reproachable themselves due to their motivation. As explained in the Way of the Bodhisattva, they can even kill someone, which is by nature unwholesome, but the bodhisattva does it with the motivation to benefit and engages skillfully, so their actions do not become unvirtuous. Further, through myriad manifestations, bodhisattvas are able to benefit and ripen living beings. In terms of vastness, the bodhisattvas’ training, merit, intention, and support are vaster than the shravakas’ to the point of being limitless. In all these ways, the Mahayana training in discipline is superior to that of the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas.
In terms of samadhi, the Mahayana rises above through its focus, variety, antidotes, workability, accomplishment, and action. These six will be discussed in more detail tomorrow. The main point to understand is that when we practice the Three Trainings as a bodhisattva, we need to engage in the practices and activities of a bodhisattva and avoid what should not be done. Actually, the trainings of a bodhisattva are infinite—there is no Dharma that the bodhisattvas do not train in.

We need to think about this. Why do bodhisattvas need to train in everything? It is not that they want to become exceptionaly learned by training in everything. Tibet has the custom of recognizing tulkus, defined as bodhisattvas who have intentionally taken rebirth. (This may be true of some tulkus. Others are ordinary individuals who have taken rebirth due to their karma and aspirations.) The tulkus have to undertake extensive studies that cover many areas of knowledge—grammar, validity (logic), crafts (such as painting and sculpture,) healing, and of course, the Buddhist fields of knowledge, such as philosophy, practice, and so forth.

In the history of Tibet, there were an incredible number of tulkus who achieved unhindered knowledge in all of these areas. The reason why they studied so extensively was not to become rich and well-known or to have numerous resources and connections; they studied so they could actually help others according to their needs and capacities, which require different methods. If lamas know medicine, they can heal the sick through medical treatment; if they know divinations or astrology, they can benefit others with these. Being a tulku does not just mean sitting on a throne and giving teachings. If they only did that, it would be difficult to benefit a wide variety of people.

People do not always come to the lamas just for Dharma teachings: they want to be healthy, put an end to their suffering and accumulate wealth; they want children and grandchildren to study well and get good jobs. So the actual situation is that people have different goals; it is difficult to find someone who just wants to study and teach the Dharma. Of course, not everyone can do this, not everyone can be like Milarepa, so a guru has to be able to help all kinds of people in some way. A person involved in business might come and ask for assistance, and the lama can give them a wealth vase to hide in the right place and advise them to do the practice of a wealth deity and make offerings--such things are necessary in society.

When children get sick, their parents immediately go to the guru and plead, “My child is sick. Please say prayers so that they are cured quickly.” The lamas also have to give empowerments when needed. If they just say that birth, sickness, old age, and death are the nature of the world, and suffering is what we have to deal with, everyone would be disappointed and broken-hearted. So actual tulkus and lamas need to study many different areas of knowledge in order to benefit others. Once we have made the promise to become a bodhisattva, we need to engage in that activity and develop the six paramitas to help living beings.

The Six Paramitas can be summarized in the Three Trainings, which we should be able to identify, and not only that, we should know the difference between these and the non-Buddhist trainings and also the difference between the Mahayana and Foundational Vehicles. Only then can we know the Buddhist Three Trainings according to the Mahayana teachings and begin to practice them.  If we do not know the distinctions and the superiorities in relation to the non-Buddhist traditions or the Foundational Vehicle, then we might say we are Mahayana practioners, but these are just words. This is why the classifications and the differences are taught.


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2020.02.14-The Six Perfections and the Three Trainings HHGK Teachings on Gampopas Ornament of Precious Liberation