‘Dharma is not ‘one size fits all’: The importance of individual levels, the infallibility of karma and seeing others’ good qualities: ‘Four Dharmas of Gampopa’ by 17th Karmapa (Part VI)

“When you die, your self-aware, primordial awareness will only be accompanied by your virtuous and negative karma. It is not possible to encounter karma you have not done. It is not possible for even the slightest karma you have done not to be experienced. If one is born in the three lower realms due to non virtuous karma, how much suffering will there be there?!

Even in the best of human and god realms, there is birth, aging, death and so on. Protecting what you have, crossing paths with hostile enemies and losing friends and loved ones. For the gods, the suffering of ‘falling down’ [from the god realms] is sixteen times greater than the incessant hell. Wherever you take birth in the six realms, there is only suffering. Until you feel this at a level of utter revulsion, the ‘Dharma has not gone along with Dharma.’”

— Je Gampopa in ‘The Four Dharmas: An Excellent Summary

Yesterday, on Day 6 of HH Gyalwang 17th Karmapa’s teachings on the Four Dharmas of Gampopa, I was delighted to hear him announce that the teachings would be extended by an extra day (for eight days instead of seven), as he was keen to finish the whole teaching on the text.

Yesterday, on Day 6 of HH Gyalwang 17th Karmapa’s teachings on the Four Dharmas of Gampopa, I was delighted to hear him announce that the teachings would be extended by an extra day (for eight days instead of seven), as he was keen to finish the whole teaching on the text. HH then gave a teaching on the next part of the Gampopa text. The Karmapa re-iterated that there are two ways to make ‘Dharma go along with Dharma’: one is as he taught before, meditating on death and impermanence, the other, is to meditate on karma, cause, effect and the faults of samsara. He then spoke about what is meant by ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘great ‘ individuals as capacities and levels, and how they relate to the stages of the path. The reason Gampopa mixed together the levels of the individual paths in the four Dharmas was because he was such a skilled teacher. The Karmapa then spoke about how important and kind it is for an authentic teacher not to give the same teachings to everyone, regardless of benefit. The teacher should shape and mold their teachings to cater for that particular individual, like a loving mother with nine children would cater to them individually and not approach them with a ‘one size fits all’ attitude. If the teacher throws Dharma at students like a stone, regardless of whether it was beneficial to them or not, that would not be kind or loving.


This was followed by some of the Karmapa’s own personal thoughts on the subtle workings of karma and samsara, in which he encouraged people not to have such a narrow and simplistic view of ‘good acts immediately bring good results’ and so on. Comparing karma and interdependence to being like a game of chess, he reminded us that each piece in the game plays a role and has power and influence in the final result. In the same way, we should not think about results of karma in very narrow terms of only the actions we see ourselves and others as having performed. Some people might live healthy lives and die young and others live very unhealthy lives yet live long. That is due to the subtle workings of karma, which are not always immediately obvious.
To conclude, the Karmapa reasoned that as we do not have omniscience and cannot see or know the subtleties of karma, we should take the main advice of the Kagyu teachers, which is to look for the faults in oneself and the good qualities in others.

Below is an edited transcript of the Day 6 teaching, based on the original Tibetan and the English translation. May it be of benefit!

The importance of contemplation on death, impermanence and karma

“When we say ‘Dharma must go along with Dharma’, it means our Dharma practice needs to fit with Dharma, or have the same meaning as taught in the Dharma. In order for that to happen, we have to abandon the impediments and apply the antidotes. The impediments are as I explained yesterday. The antidotes that we must apply are the methods for making the Dharma go along with Dharma. So what helps us do that, is to meditate on death and impermanence and karma, cause and effect. Gampopa says it is important to contemplate karmic cause and effect and the faults of samsara. If you do not gain certainty in them, you may look like a Dharma practitioner, but you are not. When they take root in your mind, you will be able to utterly cast off all the affairs and concerns of this life and Dharma practice will come. These are the most critical points described above.

The first of them, meditating on death and impermanence is important. As the Bodhisattva, Zhonu Gyalchok wrote in his Commentary on the Lamp of the Path to Enlightenment, according to Jowo Atisha, if you do not develop this attitude, or it does not take root in your mind, no matter how many teachings you listen to or teach, no matter how much you meditate, you will still be someone focused on this life. However, since all monastics are deficient on this point, the pith instruction is to meditate on death and impermanence. He says, ‘we monks (dunde an old word for ‘monks’) are deficient and we don’t have enough of contemplating death and impermanence and that is a big fault.’

When we’ve meditated on that, you will gain three Dharmas, 1) gain certainty in death; 2) grasping to this life will be let go of; and 3) future lives will be seen as more important. When these take root in your being, it will give certainty about death and you will let go of the clinging, which means you will be revolted by this life. Then, you also have the thought that future lives are more important. These three will come together. The first two are to be practiced by the small individual. The third is to be practiced by the medium one.

The meaning of ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘great’ individuals

“When we talk about individuals, we should not think about it in terms of people, but more in their capacities of mind; their levels. We need to train ourselves and make ourselves stronger, and train from the smallest to the greatest individual. It is like when people are training to build up muscle and bulk. First, they build up the weights they lift from 1 kg to 2kg and then increase that gradually. If you begin by trying to lift 300 kg, you will break your back.

Jigten Sumgon, founder of Drigung Kagyu

With these four Dharmas of Gampopa, it’s well-known they can be combined with the Kadampa three types of individuals teachings. Gampopa wrote in a Garland of Jewels of the Supreme Path in verse: ‘the stages of the path of the three individuals, that teach what is taught in all vehicles, are the main highway of all the noble ones of the three times, as explained by the four Dharmas.’ Also, Jigten Sumgon wrote in his Clear Meaning: A Commentary on the Four Dharmas[i]: ‘I shall write about Atisha and the quintessence of Gampopa’s intent.’

At this point, it is clear that the four Dharmas can be combined with the three individual path teachings of Kadamapa. Talk about the medium individual is explained in the passage of the small individual, and the great individual is explained in the passage on the medium, or they are combined so that the passage of the small and medium is explained in the passage on the greater. However, I wonder if there is any difference I the meaning. The reason these different levels are mixed up, or the order has changed, is because Gampopa was very skilled at teaching individuals, as is explained in his life stories. He had many different types of students and taught them according to their levels and inclinations. There were scholars who were very learned in the philosophy, there were also great meditators who had great longing to practice meditation. There were householders who were mindful of karmic cause and effect and there were even illiterate goat-herds and elderly men and women, who were so old they were approaching death. So, when Gampo Rinpoche taught them the Dharma, he had many different ways of explaining it according to their levels and inclinations.

One way was to teach in terms of the correct, relative view and say this is the way to turn away from the lower realms and reach the higher realms. When some people first met Gampopa, they already had renunciation and the wish to seek liberation, and had already expressed the wish to take the vows of a monastic. So he didn’t say in order to attain liberation you first have to achieve the vehicle of Gods and humans, it wasn’t necessary to insist on this. Instead he would teach the correct relative and ultimate view on achieving liberation together and teach the paths of the small and medium individuals together.

Je Gampopa with student 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa

However, with people like Pagmo Drupa and Dusum Khyenpa [1st Karmapa], they had already reached a high level of study with Kadampa geshes, and they had a feeling to make bodhicitta and mahamudra  the core of their practice. So when they met Gampopa, and he taught them ‘the dharma should go along with the dharma’, he taught the path of the small, medium and great individuals simultaneously. Thus, the four Dharmas is probably not something Gampopa wrote himself. Nor was it something a learned student of his prepared and put in a proper order either. They are critical points as to how he instructed students generally, that were probably taken down as notes by students and then put together.

For example, like a loving mother who has nine children. Through her own experience of their size and preferences, she gives them food and clothes based on what will suit and fit them well.  A rather unloving stepmother, on the other hand, may just indiscriminately give all the children the same food and clothes, and not care whether they fit them or not. Similarly, when an authentic guru nurtures students, they are like a mother taking care of children. They teach what is appropriate for individual students and know what would be most helpful for those students individually. Understanding this, they nurture them with great love. Someone who thinks: ‘Whether it is beneficial or not,  take this.’ Like throwing Dharma at people like a stone [interestingly Karmapa uses a pun on the word do, which is also the word for Sutra].  Giving Dharma in that way would not be much benefit to sentient beings, like ‘one size fits all’.

We always talk about the qualities of the ten powers of a Buddha, and one of these is khyenpa nupa, the power to know, which includes the power to know the nature and capacity of students. So, I think we can say that teaching the Dharma in a way that fits the capacities of students, is why the Buddha is the ultimate in great compassion. No matter what level we are on, small, medium or great, the four Dharmas of Gampopa can be used to teach the critical points of practice, and can be taught to all of them. Therefore, it has vast and profound meaning but very few words, and so the meaning is easy to keep in mind. It is that kind of an incredible Dharma teaching.

Now we need to talk about the method (thabs) by which  ‘Dharma can go along with Dharma’. The first method I described yesterday, is meditating on death and impermanence. The second is meditating on karmic cause and effect and the faults of samsara. So in this text on the four Dharmas we are discussing now, the part on death and impermanence is a bit more extensive and karma, cause and effect and the faults of samsara is briefer. Yesterday, when I was explaining about how Dharma goes along with Dharma, I described these two ways of meditating. However, it is also good to talk about each of them individually. The reason is because the meditation on the faults of samsara is mixed with the instructions for the medium type of individuals, so it is good to separate it out. Today I will separate them into three points.

Meditating on karma, cause and effect and the paths of the three levels of individual
Section of the Gampopa text the 17th Karmapa is teaching here

“So now I will explain the second way which is how to make Dharma go along with Dharma by meditating on karma, cause and effect. This is what the text says:

‘When you die, your self-aware (rang rigs) primordial awareness (ye she) will only be accompanied by your virtuous and negative karma [las dge sdig). It is not possible to encounter karma you have not done. It is not possible for even the slightest karma you have done not to be experienced (chung za ma srid). If one is born in the three lower realms due to non virtuous karma, how much suffering will there be?!”

This is teaching on karma, cause and effect. Then the part on defects of samsara says this:

“Even in the best of human and god realms, there is birth, aging, death and so on. Protecting what you have, crossing paths with hostile enemies and losing loving friends. For the gods, the suffering of ‘falling down’ [from the god realms] is sixteen times greater than the incessant hell. Wherever you take birth in the six realms, there is only suffering. Until you feel this and reach a level of utter revulsion, the Dharma has not gone along with Dharma.”

Regarding the line: ‘For the gods, the suffering of ‘falling down’ [from the god realms] is sixteen times greater than the incessant hell.’ I looked for a source of this in The Way of the Bodhisattva [by Shantideva] and it mentions the suffering as greater, but not with a specific figure of sixteen times. In Dagpo Rinpoche’s works it is well-known that he teaches mainly for small capacity individuals who are interested in the pleasures of Gods and humans, but not categorically so because he also teaches for the middle and great individuals.

Also, in Gampopa’s Collected Works there are texts where he talks about the two ways of Dharma going towards worldly Dharma and Dharma going towards actual Dharma. So, if having understood death and impermanence and with worldly belief in karma, cause and effect, out of fear of the suffering of the three lower realms, you have a desire and wish to gain the body of gods and humans in the higher realms, and make efforts to practice virtue to be able to experience the pleasures and enjoyments of humans and gods in life, that is the path of the small individual. That is clear.

So then what else did Gampopa teach? He said there is also the Dharma that goes towards nirvana [nya ngen le depa]. There are two types of Dharma to go towards and that second type is done is via the stage of recognizing the defects of all of samsara. It is someone who has no attachment or desire for the body, pleasures and resources of humans and gods and understands this leads to the lower realms. One understands that samsara is like a pit of fire; it is like a prison or a dungeon; pitch darkness and a filthy cesspool. Samsara is an ocean of suffering. You believe it with such certainty that whatever samsaric pleasures and qualities there may be, you don’t crave them at all. Without attachment, you want speedy liberation from samsara. However, when you seek liberation, you are seeking that peace and happiness for yourself alone.  Understanding the faults of samsara like the lower vehicles of Shravakas and Pratyeka ways of thinking, one goes towards the Dharma that is nirvana.

However, these words in this place of the text are a little bit odd. At one point, some words seem to be missing. When talking about going to the Dharma of nirvana, it talks about seeing the faults of samsara as understood by the Shravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas, However, then afterwards, when talking about ‘Dharma going along with the path’, it also discusses seeing the faults of samsara according to the lower vehicles and their nirvana. So, it looks like the order was mixed up when this text was written down, and those words should come afterwards, when talking about ‘Dharma going along with the path’.

Anyway, there are these two ways of ‘Dharma going along with Dharma’: 1) the ‘Dharma that goes towards worldly births’ way and 2) the ‘Dharma that goes towards nirvana’ way. By understanding the faults of samsara, then one has no desire for its pleasures and sees samsara like a pit of fire and develops the wish to free oneself from samsara. Then, all the virtue one does is based on the wish to be free from samsara. This is explaining the practice of the medium individual.

At this point, when teaching about how ‘Dharma goes along with Dharma’ it is clear that it is taught for both small and medium individuals.  As I said before, ‘Dharma going along with Dharma’, is generally viewed as being the path of the small individual. However, here it applies to both small and medium individuals.

Then, later, on in this text, when it speaks about the ‘Dharma going along with the path’ this is generally seen as being the teachings for the medium individual; the wish to achieve liberation and enlightenment of the vehicles of the Shravaka and Self-Realisers. However, in this text it also applies to  great individuals, who are following the Mahayana, the greater vehicle motivation. That is an important point to understand.

Karma is not simple to see: like a game of chess, all the pieces are interdependent

When talking about karma, cause and effect and the faults of samsara, there is a lot to be said. However today, I am going to speak mainly about the faults of samsara and share some of my own thoughts about that. Generally, we when talk out karma cause and effect, we all have our own ideas and ways of thinking about it.  Normally we say that if it is a virtuous action, there will be an excellent result. If it is a negative action, suffering will result. However, that way of thinking about karma, cause and effect is extremely narrow and simple. For example, some people think if I work hard I will be able to lift and raise myself up and become renowned and well thought of and respect. People are even bolder than that, if I can put a bit of work in then I can get some good opportunities and become the richest person in the world. But some people don’t need to work hard at all, and they don’t even have much natural intelligence or education but are born in a rich family. From the time they are born, they have wealth riches, fame and so on. So we might think how did that happen?

If we apply it to an actual situation in our real lives, people think ‘I’ve never drank alcohol, never smoked, always exercised well, so I will not get a terrible illness’ and so on. Yet, one day, they get a serious illness and are astounded and baffled and don’t know what to so. Then you get the opposite, who drink and smoke a lot and eat only junk food. Then they live to be hundred years old. We think that’s so unfair, so karma cannot be correct or true. Why do we think that? Because we think about karma in such a childish and simple way. It is not as simple as adding one and one and getting two. In actual fact, karma, cause and effect, means good acts bring good results. Generally, if you plant wheat you get wheat. Karma is unfailing in that way. Yet, we are like the frog in the well, we have only our narrow view of it and so think if it happens like that then it cannot be correct.

All of us sentient beings live in dependence on each other. The path of the breath moving from one to another is the same. When I spoke about the vast, unfathomable universe and how all the beings in it are directly or indirectly related, and that relation is so vast that we cannot conceive or understand it.  When we think about it in that way, it is like a game like chess with white and black pieces or the Japanese game Go. When we talk about the old Kadamapa masters counting white and black stones, this is what we are talking about. Each piece has its own power and function and capacity. Each piece is an important part of the whole assembly/arrangement of all the pieces. Some pieces benefit the other; some impede or block the other. If you put one piece in the wrong place, you mess up or ruin the entire game. This universe is like a chess game. However, within a game there are only a few pieces. But if we think about it in terms of this planet, there are hundreds of millions of beings who have known each other and been connected in previous lifetimes. So they are like a big interconnected net that are dependent on each other and we all live in this mandala in which we can harm or help each other. We have that capacity of influencing each other. Normally, we think when we do an act it will produce a certain kind of result, but it is not always so simplistic as something we can easily envision with our minds. If we could aim for only what we could see in terms of results, that would be good, but it is not like that.

The sun does not shine only for a few people. It rises and sets every day because that is the way it naturally is; it is not done for the sake of a few people. We think ‘oh it shines for me’. Basically, themselves and others there is a link, a link of being able to harm or help each other that goes both ways. So, in terms of these connections of death and impermanence, it is also going vertically downwards, like mothers and children. Thus, the karmic, cause and effect going from lifetime to lifetime happens eventually, it does not always ripen in this lifetime as we think it should. It takes time for a result to ripen. If we plant a seed for a tree, it grows few years later. The tree does not grow immediately on the same day. If we do a virtuous action and put effort into it, it takes time for the result to ripen. However, many people are not afraid to put effort in but are impatient for the result.  Sometimes their hopes and expectations are too high and then they get upset. However, if it takes longer for the result to ripen it could mean a bigger result. For example, in this earth there are jewels like diamonds that take tens of millions of years to form, and only then do they become jewels. If it takes that long for a rock to turn into a precious jewel, then of course it takes that long for a result to ripen. If we want a powerful result to happen, then of course it will take a long time. No matter what we do, but particularly in relation to virtuous actions. We need to be patient and not think it will happen immediately and believe that the result will come. If we have faith and confidence in karma, cause and effect, you would never worry there will be a result from virtuous actions. You would also not fool yourself that the negative acts I have done in the past will not ripen on me either. One would not think like that. So for that reason, people need to take a vaster and long-term view of the matter.

So then a person thinks this life is for the sake of future lives, and that a small act now does have a big result. So if we analyse it, we can say it is like if you go fishing you need a long fishing line, if you have a short line then you cannot cast it very far into the water. If we have a long line we can cast it further and get a better chance of a good result. If we don’t do that and we think of our aims in the short-term, individual profit that other people cannot see, we might waste our entire life for the sake of some tiny benefit. Finally, at the end, having made all that effort and hard work, we are unable to get anything better than others, and if we cannot turn out better than others, then there is no choice and it is pointless. You worked really hard and at the end, you don’t become an important person as you wished, it is pointless. Therefore, karma, cause and effect is not just thinking ‘I need to become like that, as a single person’. ‘This is virtue and this is non-virtue’, is not something we can decide alone. We also think ‘I should do something to benefit sentient beings, and that what I am doing is alright’, but is that actually how things are? It is very difficult for that to match the reality as it is.

For example, if you work as a doctor, it is good and benefits beings in a practical way. If a mother sends her child to get a medical education, regardless of whether they have interest or ability, one might think the mother has done well for that child. Another way is to think the mother has prioritized her own aims and not really taken into consideration the child’s wishes. In the same way, we want to benefit others but we don’t necessarily benefit or think of them. We may not be thinking about them when we evaluate if it is of benefit to them or not.

Similarly, we need to think what will be beneficial to everyone, not to only ourselves. We need to include everyone in our evaluation of what is beneficial. We, as ordinary people, are unable to see a situation from every angle, but what we can do and see is rely on the direction and advice that Buddha gave us. The reason for that is because karma is so subtle and vast,  that only the omniscient wisdom of a Buddha can see and know it. We need to value the words of the Buddha and practice according to that as the basis/critical point of not mistaking what should be done and what should be given up.  We all think we know what to do, and we think about that externally. However, we actually need to look in terms of the situation and of the words of the Buddha. We need to think, ‘is my thinking right or not?’ Is my way of acting right or wrong?’

 There is a lot to say in terms of the teachings by Kagyu forefathers. One of the foremost points is to look for your own faults and for others’ good qualities.  You are the one who is doing and not doing things, if you just take your own ideas and follow your own wishes, that is not good enough. We have many faults like ego and self-clinging, so if we take that for granted, then we won’t be able to know the nature of reality as it is. So we need to make others are seen as more important than ourselves. We need to see others’ situation and the nature of things. This is a very important point.”

Transcript and article written and edited by Adele Tomlin, 3rd January 2021.


[i] ‘jig rten mgon po. “dwags po chos bzhi’i ‘grel pa don gsal/.” In gsung ‘bum/_’jig rten mgon po. TBRC W23743. 10: 365 – 573. Delhi: Drikung Kagyu Ratna Shri Sungrab Nyamso Khang, 2001.

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