‘THE CROWN JEWEL OF KAGYU’: Origin of the ‘Four Dharmas’; Gampopa’s Collected Works, Last Testament and Textual Sources : ‘Four Dharmas’ of Gampopa by 17th Karmapa (Part IV)

“Read well the two-volume ‘Collected Works of Gampopa‘, the crown jewel of all the Kagyu. These teachings on the union of Kadampa and Mahamudra are more wondrous and greater in blessings than other works and termas. The Kagyu masters of the past all received siddhi through these profound teachings.  Meeting the Buddha’s teachings through the compassion of the guru who is incomparably kind is a great fortune. If Masters and disciples who long for the Kagyu Dharma, do as taught in Gampopa’s Collected Works, experience and realization will dawn.”

—Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851).


Yesterday, on the fourth day of HH Gyalwang 17th Karmapa’s teaching on the four Dharmas of Gampopa (see link here), the Karmapa covered how the four Dharmas are not just Kagyu teachings but considered important in all the major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism (giving examples), the importance of the Collected Works of Gampopa as sources of wisdom and realizations, a detailed consideration of the textual sources and origin of the four Dharmas of Gampopa, contained in a text called Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path (which Gampopa referred to in his last testament as being a text all Kagyu students should read), and the different wording formulations of the first Dharma: ‘may Dharma go along with Dharma’.

Here is a write-up and review of that teaching (predominantly based on the English translation] with footnote references to texts and authors cited by the 17th Karmapa. May it be of benefit!

Life-stories of Gampopa

“Over the past two days, I gave a brief intro to the life of Gampopa that are the topic of this teaching, so in a short space of time, I don’t have enough confidence about his life story. The life stories of Milarepa are often different from that of Gampopa. So due to not having time, it is hard to do it. If we think about Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa, for each of them, there are at least ten different biographies. So in the beginning, it’s difficult to know which one to read that would be best. For example, for Naropa the best one is Tsangnyon Heruka. Other life-liberation stories are more like lists, it is not like that, just a list. Through it’s story-telling and beautiful writing it is a biography that can bring out a feeling of life and can move people.

Most people in Tibet who know how to read ,have read this life story of Mila. But there is no well-known biography of Gampopa that people can talk about. So because there isn’t any, when I was teaching on his life, I looked at many different biographies and put them all in the stew and mixed them together. And for that reason, I don’t think it was of high quality or turned out well, but in the future am writing a commentary on the jewel ornament of liberation by Gampopa, I thought I would research about the life of Gampopa and write a new one. For those of us practicing Dharma, the life stories are not just lists or facts, or topics for textbooks, we need to think of them like guidebooks, they give us direction for our lives. They give us examples, it’s important to listen to them in a deep and profound way and to put them into practice.”

The four Dharmas are present in all the lineages
Gorampa Sonam Senge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge, 1429-1489)

“So now I will speak about the Four Dharmas of Gampopa himself. So the person who put them altogether was Gampopa, but the topic that they summarise are not just part of a sect or lineage of the Dharma. They are pith Instructions that point out the stages and critical points of the path, so it is not only Kagyu who speak about it, but also Sakya, Gelug and Nyingma, who also speak very highly about this summary of the four Dharmas. They consider it to have many critical points. Just to give a few examples of this, a great scholar of Sutra and Tantra in the Sakya tradition, called Gorampa Sonam Senge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge, 1429-1489) wrote in his Instructions on the Parting from the Four Attachments[i] (the title of which is A Key to the Points of the Profound Meaning (zabdon ned gi demig)) that when the Guru and great Sakya Kunga Nyingpo, was aged 12, he practiced Manjushri and saw him directly in 6 months.

Protector Manjushri said to him: ‘if you cling to this life you are not a practitioner, if you cling to samsara you have no renunciation, if you cling to your own aims, you have no bodhicitta, if there is grasping it is not the view.’ This contains the entire practice of the six paramitas. Their meaning is that if you part from this life, your mind will go along with Dharma. If you part from attachment to samsara, the Dharma will go along the path. If you part from your own aims, the path will dispel confusion. If you part from grasping to the four extremes, confusion will arise as wisdom. So, here this Sakya scholar is presenting what we need to give up, the four partings from attachment.’ So in what we need to accomplish, he is presenting the four Dharmas of Gampopa. In that way, he is combining the four partings from attachment and the four Dharmas of Gampopa.

Likewise, there was the Bodong Jigdrel, the fearless Kunkhyen Bodong, from the Bodong tradition. There are instructions from that tradition on Mahamudra called The Essence of Amrita (bdud rtsi nying po). It says, there are three parts to practice: the preliminaries, the main practice and the conclusion. The first has two parts: the common and special preliminaries. The first has four: instructions on the mind becoming Dharma, the Dharma becoming the path, the path dispelling confusion and confusion arising as bodhicitta. Here, he teaches the four common preliminaries according to the tradition progression of the four Dharmas of Gampopa.

Likewise, there is a Jonangpa scholar, called  Tsalmin Sonam Zangpo (mtshal min pa bsod nams bzang po, 1341-1433) who wrote a text called the Guru Yoga Entering into Blessings (lamai naljor jin lab jungog). It’s a very short text and in the supplication, the four Dharmas are recited, ‘may mind go along with Dharma’ and so on,  with the last line, ‘bless me that confused appearances are severed from their root’. So, in the supplication he uses the four Dharmas.

Likewise, there is a Guru Yoga given to Pagchog Chogi Gyaltsen the Single lineage, by Je Tsongkhapa. What it says is: ‘visualize above the ground of your head, precious guru bless me so that my mind goes along with dharma, bless me so the Dharma goes along the path, bless me to have no obstacles in the Dharma and so forth. This is very similar to the four Dharmas of Gampopa.’

Likewise, in the Osel Nyingpa’s lineage of the hermit, in the Gelug tradition, there is Penchen Lobsang Chogye  who wrote a root text on the Mahamudra of the precious Ganden tradition, it says: ‘In particular, the Lord Mila a student of unexcelled mantra, meditated upon and taught first, loving kindness, compassion and bodhicitta, the wish for liberation, karma, results and death and impermanence. The principle disciple of Jetsun Mila, Gampopa, who established the union of Kadampa and Mahamudra, also taught what is known as the four dharmas of Gampopa, the explanation of these is the same as the mind training of the Kadampas.’ So that is teaching that generally, Milarepa and his disciples taught: the preliminaries and in particular, the four  Dharmas of Gampopa and that these are harmonious with the instructions on the Jowo Kadamapa mind training.

Similarly, in the Nyingma lineage, the words of many scholars and meditators also recite the words of the four Dharmas of Gampopa. However, there are too many examples, and I don’t know which one to choose. There are the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind of the Kadampas, Parting from the Four Attachments in the Sakya and the Three Principle Points of the Path in the Gelug. For Dharma practitioners, there are so many precious instructions that even tens of thousands of ounces of gold could not buy them.

If we can practice all of them without them contradicting each other, then we will have entered the gate to Tibetan Buddhist Dharma, then we will have had that good fortune. If instead, we say only my lineage’s oral instructions are worth it and others are not worth it, and engage in sectarian bi-partisan thinking like that, there would not be any point. Not only that, we would be doing the grave misdeed of rejecting the Dharma. So, it is always important to give ourselves advice that we do not do the misdeed of rejecting the Dharma. We should practice the dharma as dharma, or let the dharma become the dharma. Inspiring and reminding ourselves never to criticize another individuals’ Dharma practice or the Dharma of another lineage.”

The Textual  Sources and Origin of the Four Dharmas

Gampopa’s Collected Works

“Someone might say, well since the four Dharmas of Gampopa are so important and sacred, and everyone considers them in that way, so where is the text with the four Dharmas in it? Bring me the text that says the four Dharmas. Where is the text where Gampopa wrote?’  So,  if you say ‘wait, then recite the four statements by rote memory, that is not enough, it does not help. People need a text to look at. They are not asking you to just recite the words. So, you need to look for the work. Where do we begin looking for it? In the Collected Works of Gampopa. Now, the first printed edition of his Collected Works that is still extant, is the one by Choje Sonam Lhundrub Dawa Gyaltsen, printed at Daglha monastery. This includes over forty teachings of the Collected Works of Gampopa. This is the first edition of his works. Most of the later editions used this as their primary source. There is also a collection of three volumes, labeled ka, kha and ga. Later, the Derge press printed a two volume edition labeled E and Vam.

There is also a text called the Hearing Lineage of the Peerless Gampopa, it’s not included in any of those. In its colophon, it says it was written by Dagpo Nyigung [Gampopa] on Chakrasamvara lineage from Milarepa. Later, he corrected them in the presence of Rechungpa. So, this is a text on the hearing lineage.  Also, as I  mentioned the other day a text called Treasury of Beneficial Knowledge: Stainless Swords of Dagpo Laje, a text by Dagpo Lhaje,  there is also that medical text.

There is also a handwritten manuscript Collected Works of Gampopa that I saw today. A biography of him called Dzamling Sungme (arranged by Lho Lhayagpa) and another one by Lho Layagpa. Whether these are the same as the texts on the four Dharmas we have by Lolhayagpa and Gampopa and so on, we have to check. In any case, it would be good to compare the hand-written and printed editions, and edit and compile all of Gampopa’s works. The reason for this is because there are manuscripts that are not in the printed editions. For example, last night I saw a hand-written biography of Gampopa composed by Gyalwang Khyung Tsangpa[ii]. This is something we never see. We know there was a supplication written by Khyung Tsangpa, but no one has ever heard that there is a life-story written by him. So there are many explanations like that. In summary, even though Gampopa is no longer alive, the teachings he left behind are like his representative. So we should regard them as very sacred and important. Normally, if we hear about a talking statue we think that’s really sacred and important. However, with words in texts that have come to us directly from great masters, we wrap them in cloth without paying much attention, put them in a dusty place, or on a shrine. Now, with Dharma texts we wouldn’t toss them in a rubbish bin, but it is almost like doing that.

Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol

As Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (zhabs dkar tshogs drug rang grol) (1781-1851))[iii] said: “Read well the two volume Collected Works of Gampopa, the crown jewel of all the Kagyu. These teachings on the union of Kadampa and Mahamudra are more wondrous and greater in blessings than other works and termas. The Kagyu masters of the past all received siddhi through these profound teachings.  Meeting the Buddha’s teachings through the compassion of the guru who is incomparably kind is a great fortune. If Masters and disciples who long for the Kagyu Dharma, do as taught in Gampopa’s Collected Works, experience and realization will dawn.’ So here, he is praising Gampopa’s life. Thus, it is very important to read Gampopa’s Collected Works.”

The Four Dharmas – ‘Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path’ textual sources

“So we now come to the main topic, the four Dharmas within the Collected Works.  As I explained on the first day, in the Collected Works of Gampopa, there are several teachings that elaborate on the four Dharmas. However, in terms of distinct teachings that only teach the four Dharmas, there are three. One is the Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path of the Three Individuals in Eleven and a Half stanzas, the other called The Four Dharmas: An Excellent Summary and one with no title that begins ‘Namo Guru, the Dharma must go along with Dharma’ [as I wrote previously this is listed as the former text in TBRC]. So among these three, there is a question or doubt we need to consider. In his last testament, Gampopa said, ‘in the future, individuals who think they will not meet me, please read the Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path and the Jewel Ornament of Precious Liberation.’ To do that, we first need to identify the Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path.

 There are three texts in the Collected Works that have the title the Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path. One is which I just mentioned in twelve and a half stanzas. The second is The Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path which gives Advice in Sets of Ten. The third is Conversations with Gampopa the Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path, which are notes taken by Pagmo Drupa. They are basically pith instructions on identifying the natural state, or pointing out the nature of mind. It is written in prose. The first text, in twelve and a half stanzas, is said by the Drugpa Kagyu to be the one that Gampopa mentioned in his last testament.

Kunkhyen Pema Karpo

Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (kun mkhyen pad+ma dkar po, 1527-1592) wrote in his Sun on the Path of the Three Individuals (dwags po’i chos bzhi’i rnam bshad skyes bu gsum gyi lam nyin mor byed pa/) that in his explanation of the four Dharmas it says: ‘When the teacher came to Tibet, at the request of Jowo, he wrote the Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment and this is what distils the essence of the stages of the path of the three individuals. The first path is taught briefly and the latter two in great detail. There are many who assert that it teaches the Mahayana Path but this is laughable. It only teaches the last stage of the path in great detail, thus the precious Gampopa wrote the Precious Jewel Ornament of Liberation and the Garland of Jewels of the Three Individuals, both of which teach all stages in great depth. The long explanations are probably taken from his Dharma talks. So this text identifies that text very clearly as being the Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path.”

‘Sun on the Path of the Three Individuals’ by Pema Karpo
Drawing of Gampopa (Dao Zhonu) in the Pema Karpo text

[Note: I was able to find three texts in a Bhutanese edition of the Collected Works of Pema Karpo, directly referring to this text, two of which are authored by Pema Karpo, one of which refers in the title to Gampopa’s Four Dharmas[iv].]

The 17th Karmapa continued:

“The second text is The Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path which gives Advice in Sets of Ten, such as the ten necessary Dharmas and so on. Some have eighteen and some have more than ten, but most of them are in sets of ten. If we look at the colophon of that text and where it is placed in the Collected Works, we might think that The Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path must be this text. Many Kagyupas say that it is this one. However, there is a text by the Kadampa Geshe Chegompa, that has exactly the same sets as this text of the Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path. I can’t say they are all the same, but 50 to 60% are the same. So how is that? We need to research and examine that.

The third text, Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path is the notes by Pagmo Drupa (1110-1170) , but there seems to be no one who identifies it as the correct text.  So, it would be good if Kagyupas were all to come together and discuss which text is intended here, otherwise it would be the case that we Kagyupas don’t even understand Gampopa’s last testament and that would be rather embarrassing and shameful. Yet, in Kunkhyen Pema Karpo’s Garland in verse, he says this is the root text of the four Dharmas.  There is also a commentary on that by Gompo Tsultrim Nyingpo [Gampopa’s nephew]. However, as I mentioned on the first day, with that Garland of Jewels, it only says the four Dharmas are each practiced by view, meditation and conduct but it does not clearly identify each of the four Dharmas. However, Je Gomtsul’s commentary on that specifically cites each of the four Dharmas and that each of them is taught in terms of view, meditation and conduct. So, this clearly identifies each of the four Dharmas.”

The different formulations of the first Dharma – ‘may Dharma go along with Dharma’

“Then, there are Gampopa’s two independent texts that clearly identify four Dharmas, one with a title and one without. Even though when we try to identify them there are different formulations, in Gampopa’s words there is no difference. In Gomtsul’s Commentary it does say ‘the mind goes along with the Dharma’ . I think this was probably changed at a later date. Up until now, I have not come across a clear presentation of how the change happened. However, Karma Khenchen Lodro Dargye in his Direct Instructions of Lord Gampopa on the Four Dharmas, wrote: ‘the peerless Gampopa, Chandrabrupkamvara wrote in the Stages of the Path of the Three Individuals and the Union of Mahamudra Condensed into One, that the four Dharmas are the ‘mind going along with Dharma’ and so on. Here in a different formulation, the ‘Dharma going along with the Dharma’, in meaning there is no difference. Yet, according to Dezhin Shegpa [5th Karmapa]’s text, he says if we look at the way the four thoughts that turn the mind are written, then it must have changed at the time of Dezhin Shegpa.

I have also seen Mahamudra instructions by Dezhin Shegpa’s direct disciple Mase Togden who was the founder of Zurmang Kagyu. It says that the details of the pith instructions of the Kagyu must be the four glorious Dharmas of Gampopa which are referred to as ‘mind going along with Dharma’. So they must have changed by then.

Go Lotsawa (1105-1202)

Another disciple of 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa was Go Lotsawa (1105-1202) who wrote the Blue Annals. He wrote a commentary on the Sublime Continuum (rgyud bla ma) which is probably the longest commentary on that text. In that text, on the section on refuge it says, ‘in Gampopa’s Four Dharmas, he says ‘Dharma going along with Dharma’ is the path for the lesser individual; ‘Dharma going along the path’ is the path of the middling individual; ‘the path dispelling confusion’ is for the greater individual’; ‘confusion arising as wisdom’ is for the greater than great individual. So, he takes the formulation and presents it in that same way.

Thus, here we have two teachers of the same century, one who is saying it has changed, and another saying it has not changed. Perhaps we could say the pith instructions changed, but the words of the text didn’t change.  In any case, Go Lotsawa Zhonu Pal took his Bodhisattva vows from Dezhin Shegpa and he was also one of the most important teachers of 4th Zhamarpa, Chodrag Yeshe. In his life story, which I read yesterday he was kidding around with his students. He said with my own eyes, I have met Dezhin Shegpa and Tsongkhapa, they are not the same as you! He is provoking the students who are acting like they are bigger and better. So Go Lotsawa had got the Bodhisattva vows from Dezhin Shegpa and received tantra teachings from Tsongkhapa and he considered them very important.”

Conclusioneasier to understand

“In summary, the main point is, there are different formulations of the four Dharmas but in meaning it is possible that there is no difference. However, the way the words emphasise and bring out power are different. If we say, ‘may mind go along with Dharma’, we might understand that as the mind merely needs to go in the direction of the Dharma. Yet, when saying ‘may the Dharma go along with Dharma’,  it means we need to turn away from the eight worldly Dharmas and false Dharma masquerading as Dharma and so forth, and practice the Dharma as it is taught.  So, I think this is a more profound understanding. But when you say ‘may the Dharma go along with Dharma’, it makes one think more and is not so immediately understandable as ‘may mind go along with Dharma’.  We have to think about it and say how can ‘Dharma go along with Dharma’? Some people may criticize it in that way. Perhaps that was why it changed for that reason, to make it easier to understand. It could be that, I don’t know. How do we know that happened? Drugpa Kunley said so. In one of his teachings, he says that ‘many people criticize the four Dharmas of Gampopa’ and he then explains them in terms of the ultimate reality and not the conventional reality in an extremely profound way. As Drugpa Kunley explains it in terms of the profound nature, it is difficult to explain, so I will not do that today.

That is a little explanation about the origin of the four Dharmas and their formulation. Tomorrow I will consider the Four Dharmas.”

Transcribed, written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 1st January 2021. Copyright.

[i] This is contained here in the Collected Works of Sonam Senge: bsod nams seng+ge. “blo sbyong zhen pa bzhi bral gyi khrid yig zab don gnad kyi lde’u mig.” In gsung ‘bum/_bsod nams seng+ge. TBRC W11249. 8: 461 – 474. dehra-dun: sakya college, 1979.

[ii] This appears to be the teacher who advised the famous Drugpa Kagyu master,  Lingchen Repa Pema Dorje (1128-1188) to take ordination vows.

[iii] Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (zhabs dkar tshogs drug rang grol) (1781-1851) was a Tibetan Buddhist yogi and poet from Amdo. Shabkar’s yogic and poetic skill is considered second only to Milarepa. It is said that Shabkar begin his spiritual practice early, completing a one-year retreat at the age of 16, later becoming a Gelug monk at 20. Shabkar studied with masters of all major Tibetan Buddhist schools including Gelug and Nyingma, and received Dzogchen teachings from his main root guru Chögyal Ngakgi Wangpo. He spent years in solitary retreats in various caves, woods and mountains of Tibet. See: Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol – Wikipedia

[iv] In gsung ‘bum/_pad+ma dkar po. TBRC W10736:

1)       “dwags po chos bzhi’i rtsa ba skyes bu gsum gyi lam gyi mchog rin po che’i ‘phreng ba zhes bya ba chos rje sgam po pas mdzad pa/.” 10: 535 – 537. darjeeling: kargyud sungrab nyamso khang, 1973-1974.  

2)       bsod nams rin chen/ “skyes bu gsum gyi lam rim phyed bcas sh+lau ka bcu gnyis pa’i ‘grel pa mdor bsdus pa/.” 10: 537 – 542.

3)       padma dkar po. “skyes bu gsum gyi lam gyi mchog rin po che’i ‘phreng ba/.” 10: 547 – 614.

4)       padma dkar po. “dwags po’i chos bzhi’i rnam bshad skyes bu gsum gyi lam nyin mor byed pa/.” 11: 11 – 216.

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