“You must be your own light to dispel the darkness. You must be your own protector. To do so, hold the dharma like a lamp. Hold the dharma as a protector and guardian. The dharma is the beacon of light that shows you the way.”

–Shakyamuni Buddha’s words before he passed away

“The Victor is the teacher,
His teachings are the Sutras and the Abhidharma.
Yet, the Vinaya is both the teacher and his teachings.
Let us pay homage to that which is both the Buddha and the dharma.”

Praise to the Vinaya by Lopon Chokyi Tsongpon

“Milarepa said, “if you don’t know the subtle details about what is allowed and prohibited, what use is being learned?” If you do not know in detail, what virtues and misdeeds are, then there is no point in saying: “I am a scholar, I know and read a lot of texts.” It is of no real benefit.  It is really important to know the details when it comes to your practice,  just knowing it from what you heard or understood is not enough.”

–17th Karmapa (Day Five, August 2022)


In Day Five of the ‘Origins of Secret Mantra’ teachings (August 2022),  the 17th Karmapa picked up from Day Four with a continued discussion of the nature of the Sangha and its organisation:

  1. The democratic nature of the original Buddhist sangha and that Buddha did not pick a leader or successor to take his place after he passed away, unlike most other communities in India at that time, and even now.
  2. That the Buddha had taught the sangha that the Dharma teachings and the ‘Truth’ were the ultimate refuge and teacher after he passed away, not him nor any person.
  3. What power or authority the Buddha himself had in the original Sangha.

This was then followed by a fascinating, yet brief, discussion on some of the connections between Vinaya and Secret Mantra practice:

4. The use of mantras as medicine, to cast and break spells and to protect and so on during the time of Buddha.

5. When Vinaya seems to contradict Secret Mantra conduct and view. For example, when a monastic, who is also a Vajrayana practitioner,  wants to prostrate and show pay homage to their Guru who is a layperson, or a junior monk.  The Vinaya seem to strictly forbid a senior monk from showing deference to a junior monk or a layperson, yet the Secret Mantra is more relaxed about it.

6. The important Vajrayana text, Fifty Verses of the Guru and fourteen Vajrayana root downfalls and maintaining all the sets of Three Vows (Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana) as one. The Karmapa shared how he thought these were very important to understand and wanted to teach these in the future.

The second part of the teaching was a biographical account of the birth and life of one of Buddha’s main students, Mahakashyapa. The Karmapa spoke more about  in the following days. This was continues on Day Six. Therefore, I will publish that together with the Day Six teaching in the next post.

Clearly, in India at that time people, including Shakyamuni Buddha used mantras for all sorts of things such as protection, spells, healing and so on. Yet, the question remains as to whether or not a monastic who has to follow Vinaya can keep the three sets of vows well. This is something I will write more about in the future too. Obviously, in Tibet, great scholars and masters considered this question in detail. The 17th Karmapa himself admitted it was very complicated and difficult to do that, but it was important to know how to do that as a monastic.

Music? For the Dharma as the eternal light and truth in the troubled waters of samsara,  Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water by Art and Garfunkel “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind…..”

May we all be lights to ourselves and to others and hold the Dharma like a precious, sight-giving lamp!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 5th August 2022.



“As I lost the internet connection the day before, I thought I would speak more, about the leadership and power over the Sangha; the authority of the leaders of the Sangha. 


The Indian scholar, S.R Goyal said that during the Buddha’s lifetime, the Buddha was recognized as the leader of the Sangha. In ordinary terms, he was the boss or the leader. The reason why we can say that the Buddha was the leader of the Sangha is that the first condition for being able to enter the Sangha is going for refuge to the Three Jewels. When you go for refuge to the Three Jewels, you first have to go through the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. And so you have to think of the Buddha as the director, as the teacher, as the one who gives you guidance, who shows you the path. So you have to believe in the Buddha. The moment that you have entered the Sangha, from then on, everyone accepts the Buddha as their guide on the path and as like their leader. Goyal says this makes it clear. 

The difference here is that, at that time in India there were many various different religious traditions, or schools. Within each of them, they had their own various leaders of their own religion or a school. They were the supreme leaders of their religious communities, and they were treated with great respect. There was also their communities of monastics. The leaders also gave direction to the monastics about how they should lead their lives, what they should do and what they shouldn’t do. The person who determined these rules or guidance was also the leader of that particular school. Likewise, they also appointed the person who would be their own future lineage holder successor.  At that time, there was the tradition that the leaders of their religious groups who would appoint their own successors, the people who would continue and uphold their traditions. So, whether it was the Buddhist monastics or people outside of their Sangha, many asked who would be the Buddha’s successor/replacement? Who would take the Buddha’s place and lead the Sangha?  Many people asked this question.

Image of Devadatta trying to kill the Buddha. 

Similarly, there was also a lot of disharmony between Buddha and Devadatta, there was a conflict between the two. Devadatta was the Buddha’s cousin, he was a son of the Buddha’s paternal uncle, so they were cousins. The main reason there was a dispute between the two of them is that Devadatta had the hope that he would be made the successor to the Buddha and that the leadership of the Sangha would be passed on to him. This was his hope. Not only did he have this hope, but he also said to Buddha “Please give me your students, I will take care of them.” He explicitly said this to the Buddha, but the Buddha did not accept it. For this reason, there became  a big conflict between the Buddha and Devadatta.  So there are all these stories about what Devadatta then did in order to take revenge on the Buddha.

What this shows is that actually the Sangha of that time actually ran according to democratic procedures. In other words, the Sangha was controlled by the Sangha not by an individual person. This is what it shows, the Indian scholar says. Likewise, even for the Buddha, whom we normally call the teacher (ton-pa). As the Buddha gives instructions about what the actual ultimate nature is, and what we should do and what we should not do. He is merely a guide, someone who gives instructions, the one who points out what you should do and should not do. However, he is not like a King who gives commands to the members of the Sangha. The Buddha himself said he was not some person who had authority or power over the Sangha. For this reason. It shows that the Sangha primarily followed democratic procedures. Likewise, Buddha said to the Sangha, 

“You must be your own protector, you must be the true  your protector and refuge.”

He taught that you need to be your own protector, there was no other person who can be your protector. He also said you must to go refuge to the Dharma. Generally, when we go for refuge, we go for refuge to the Three Jewels, right? However, among the three jewels which is the one who really protects you from danger? It is the Dharma. We often say this and it’s a similar here. So you’re actually going for refuge to is the true dharma. Other than that, you don’t go for refuge to some successor to the Buddha, or to some person. 

Likewise, the Buddha also advised his disciples not to consider the teacher’s body to be important. Instead, what they should value are the instructions and teachings that the teacher gave. In particular, at the time that the Buddha was passing into nirvana, according to the Theravada tradition, or according to the original Buddhist scriptures, if we look at the way it’s described there, when the Buddha passed into nirvana it is like a fire being extinguished, all the aggregates would cease without any remainder. So for that reason, he would not be able to do anything in the future for the Sangha. So, the testament or the Will he left us was his encouragement to consider the true dharma to be the refuge. In particular, he said, that you should take the Pratimoksha sutra as your teacher. The Indian scholar Goyal thinks that this is probably true. 

So for this reason, after the Buddha had passed into nirvana, there was the kingdom of Magadha, there was a great minister, Vashakara who asked Ānanda. In the future, what individual will lead the sangha, who will be the sangha leader?  Ananda said immediately ” in the future, the Sangha will follow the directions of the instructions of the true dharma.” The Buddha never said who would be his successor. He said the Sangha must follow the true dharma that the Buddha himself taught. 


For these reasons, to sum it all up. The Buddha organized the sangha to have democratic procedures. Also, he taught that when a dispute arises within the Sangha they needed to say who was right or wrong, that would be resolved democratically. As I said before, in the Vinaya when there is a sangha community, there are many different Sangha communities, not just a single one. So the sangha members dwelling within a single boundary became autonomous units. Those in another set of boundaries were their own autonomous group. So, the Sangha members who are living within a single boundary, had their own senior elders. And so that they senior members of the Sangha, where it would then gather the Sangha together. When there were disputes within the Sangha, most of them were resolved by the two sides of the dispute coming together in the gathering and meeting face to face. 

Also, as in the Vinaya, they had a way of voting using counting sticks, we call them vote counters. The benefit of using these counting sticks is that, at that time, there were many members of the Sangha. Thus, they could tell what opinion was the most supported and strongest among the majority of the Sangha by counting the number of counting sticks. In this way, they could determine what opinions were most prevalent in the Sangha. Also, the person who took care of these counting sticks was seen as a the vote counter, and he would count the votes when they’re cast. 

If there was a great dispute unable to be resolved in the ordinary ways, they would then make a separate group to resolve the conflict. This was another procedure that they had. According to the Theravada sutra, the Parinirvāṇa Sutra མྱང་འདས་ཀྱི་མདོ) . Also in our Tibetan Vinaya texts. The Buddha taught the people in the area of Vaiji (Yul Phongchepa),  this is probably a place that was near Vaishali. So there was a bit of a dispute between the people of Vaiji and Magadha. So, the Buddha taught the people of this area, the seven Dharmas that prevent the degeneration of Dharma, in order that they could turn out well and be prosperous. He also taught the Sangha many times the the Non-Virtuous Dharma that causes degeneration. So, there is quite a bit to say there, but because of time I will not speak about them in detail. 

[The seven essential principles (satta aparihaniya dhamma), or the seven rules governing conduct, were taught by the Buddha to the Vajjians of Vesali (in present-day Vaishali in Bihar, India). The Buddha gave these teachings during his stay at the Sarandad shrine in Vesali. These seven essential principles prioritize living in unity, solidarity, and righteousness, reflecting the prime concerns of Indian kings of the time. They contain the principles of governing individuals, families, societies, and the state. It is said that if any nation or society follows these seven essential ideals, they will prosper and suffer no defeats , see The Seven Essential Dharmas: Principles of Unity and Good Governance – Buddhistdoor Global][i]


In brief, the organization of the Sangha was a democratic institution. the Sangha as a whole had the authority. So then the question is, “what kind of authority did the Buddha have within the Sangha?” 

In terms of our own thinking, modern researchers have many different positions, The Japanese scholar, Ui Hakujo said that the Buddha had no real particular power. The Buddha himself was just a member of the Sangha community. He was just a one individual in the Sangha. He didn’t have any particular authority, and that is how the Buddha thought about it, he says. Then another scholar, S. R. Watanabe, says in terms of the practice of Buddhist practice, there’s really no question about who has authority or not in the Sangha. There are no such procedures within Buddhism, he says. There is also a scholar, S. Dati who says that among Buddhists, there wasn’t any person who had the fundamental power, or ability to exert influence over the entire Sangha. There is also a scholar named Matsumoto, who says that during the Buddha’s lifetime, and also for 100 years after the Buddha passed into nirvana, there was no leader of Buddhism who could be considered the Buddha’s successor.

Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke

Also. the scholar, Kulatissa Nanda Jayatilleke   (1920 – 1970) says that in all the teachings in the Buddhist scriptures, we take as its foundation, only the Buddha’s thought. We take that as authoritative. Therefore, the Buddha must have had some degree of authority. Likewise, there is a scholar named Kirtigawa, who says that when the Buddha was alive, he did have authority. The reason is that because all of the Sangha’s views, the view, meditation and practice were determined according to the Buddha’s thought and what he taught. However, when the Buddha was about to pass into nirvana, he expressed his hope to his students, that they would only go for refuge to the Dharma. Yet, the Dharma is not something that can really make itself known to our to us. So his students took the instructions that the Buddha gave and whatever explanations they offer, as their basis when they practiced the Dharma. So, in this way, the Buddha is considered an authority and as someone who is considered to have some influence and power, that was his position. 

In any case, when we look at these scholars, some people say that the Buddha had particular authority, some say that he did not have any particular authority. They have given many different reasons with a lot of different evidence for their positions. However, there are many such points on which their evidence and thoughts are contradictory. One way to think about it, is as  the Indian scholar said,  that when the Buddha passed away, he told the students you need to consider yourself to be like a lamp or light, and take the true dharma as the refuge. If we consider it at the time of the Buddha himself, the Buddha did not accept that he himself had authority even during his lifetime. If he thought he had authority, he would not have said “you need to protect yourself, you need to be your own protector.” The Buddha said that you had to stand on your own two feet, you have to lift yours. 

Another thing we need to think about is that Ananda never asked the Buddha who would be his successor and who would hold his lineage. That is the reason why external people like Vajrakara asked, why did Ananda not ask that question. There must be a reason for this.  Likewise, if the Buddha’s students decided and recognized that dharma is the ultimate refuge and the ultimate authority, if they said Dharma alone has the final authority, according to this Indian scholar’s way of thinking, the Dharma is basically the path taught by the Buddha and so this is the same as recognizing the Buddha as being authoritative and having power. Who taught the Dharma? The Buddha taught it.  So, when you talk about his teachings as being authoritative, then you naturally think that the Buddha is authoritative, this naturally happens. 

 In brief, when the Dharma first spread, people believed that the Buddha had discovered or revealed the true dharma. They didn’t think that it was something that Buddha made up or created, they recognized it was something he had discovered. He discovered the true nature, and he revealed the true nature. Then the Buddha taught his experience. So, when the Buddha awoke to perfect enlightenment, only then did he understand the true nature nature as it was, and then he taught it as it is to his Buddhist followers. Otherwise, whether the Buddhas appear or not, the nature of the Dharma endures forever.

This thinking is very similar to the opinion of Korean scholar Chai Shinu (?), he says that S.R Goyal’s explanation is good. He explains that when the Buddha’s teachings initially spread, the Buddhists recognised any instructions that he gave as being authoritative and they followed them, if you think about it from historical  perspective that must have been how it is. The reason is the person who originally taught the Dharma was the Buddha. We take the words of the Buddha as being authoritative, we say that they are as they are, we believe in them, and we follow them. So, I think if we take this Korean scholar’s thoughts, he says that the Indian scholar’s ideas are about right,  and that is useful. 

Later on,  many people gave very different explanations of the Buddha’s thought. There are many different ideas about what happened. Yet, during the time of original Buddhism they only practiced the teachings of the Buddha as far as they were. They didn’t go beyond them or give many different other teachings or instructions. They just took whatever Buddha had said literally and practiced it in that way. Later, gradually, the followers of the Buddha began to give different explanations of the Buddha’s words. As they gave more and more explanations, then they said the Buddha said that is the guiding or expedient meaning, and that is the definitive meaning, that is greater than that and so on. Yet, that occurred later, during the time of original Buddhism, there is probably nothing like that, he says.

What I would like to add here is that when we look at the sutras that were translated into Tibetan. at the time the Buddha passed into nirvana, he said his successor was the Pratimoksha Sutra. There is a text called In Praise of the Vinaya (Dulwa la Topa: འདུལ་བ་ལ་བསྟོད་པ་) that is by Lopon Chokyi Tsongpon [ii] and this is in our Tibetan Tengyur. Now there is one verse of that, which is put in the beginning of the Pratimoksha sutra. What it says is:

“The Victor is the teacher,
His teachings are the Sutras and the Abhidharma.
But the Vinaya is both the real teacher and his teachings.
Let us pay homage to that which is both the Buddha and his dharma.”

This saying of the teachings given by the Buddha explains that out of the treatises or, the three baskets of the Sutras, the Vinaya, and the Abhidharma, the one that is both a teacher and the teachings is the Vinaya. The other two baskets are just teachings but they are not the teacher. They are the successor, or the representative of the Buddha is the Dharma. the representative of his speech is the Vinaya. At this point, we’re talking about the Vinaya, the Prātimokṣa Sutra, not overall .

So, these days, in terms of the successor to the Buddha, we follow the Vinaya of the Buddha Dharma. if we talk about the general procedures of Buddhism, we would not point to an individual as being the leader of the Sangha, we would point at a text and that text would be like the legal code of the Vinaya, the Prātimokṣa sutra. What this shows is that the group of students that became an organized order, or group was the monastic Sangha. The lay people did not have such thing. There were the five groups of monastics in the Sangha, these were not led by a single individual, but they followed the Vinaya, and they had democratic or consensual procedures. We could say that the Buddha bequeathed these procedures and institutions upon his followers. That he was very kind in doing so.

Stupa with relics of Ananda (Buddha’s attendant monk and cousin), with Asokan pillar, at Vaishali, Bihar, India.

“I am supposed to be speaking about the origins of the secret mantra.  Maybe next year I will get to that actual topic. It takes a long time before we even get to the beginning of the secret mantra. Before we discuss that, we need to speak about the origins of the sangha, the monasteries and the Vinaya.

Generally, when we look at Buddhist history, at how the Sangha appeared, at how monasteries and Vinaya developed, these are very important. They are a significant part of history, and there is no choice but to speak about them. In particular, when we’re speaking about the origins of Secret Mantra, then it’s very important to speak about the Sangha and the Vinaya. The reason is because in the Vinaya there’s a lot of discussions about situations that involved mantra. 

For example, there is the story about how a beautiful, outcaste woman whose name was Bhadra  found Ananda very attractive and fell in love with him. She thought, “I need to enchant him, I need to bring him to me”. In order to do this, she went to someone who was skilled at spells and mantras and had him cast a mantra in order to influence Ananda. So Ananda, felt compelled, because of the power of the spell or the mantra, to go to where the girl was. Later the Buddha, through mantra broke the spell and freed him from the danger of mantras and spells. So this is one story that  discusses mantras. 

Another time, in the region of Vaishali, there was a big epidemic. Probably something like the corona virus or COVID epidemic that we have these days. So at that time, there was a big epidemic and the Buddha specifically sent Ananda to Vaiśālī and told him to recite a mantra and verses, while he was walking there. He taught him the Sutra of Entering the City of Vaiśālī [Vaiśālīpraveśamahāsūtra]. What are these verses? They are also the auspicious prayers that we recite during purification (Jangchog) ritual are chosen and said those become sovereign. 

[Transcriber’s note: “Invited to visit the city of Vaiśālī, which has been ravaged by a terrible epidemic, the Buddha instructs Ānanda to stand at the city’s gate and recite a proclamation, a long mantra, and some verses that powerfully evoke spiritual well-being. Ānanda does so, and the epidemic comes to an end. One of the mahāsūtras related to the literature of the Vinaya, this text, like other accounts of the incident, has traditionally been recited during times of personal or collective illness, bereavement, and other difficulties.” For translation of this see here .]

So there’s a verse that says “those miserly ones…” and so forth. So this is a verse that we say during that ritual. There is also the verse, which says “spirits who have come here, and those who live underground” and so forth, that verse was also spoken at that time. All of these are taught in the Vinaya. 

Likewise, there is also student, the Buddhist monk Upasena (Nedey), who was bitten by a poisonous snake and it felt as if his body was going to just split into pieces it hurt so much. When this happened,  the Buddha said the verses that begin: “greed, hatred and delusion are the three poisons of the world.” These are also verses that we recite during the Janchog rituals. This is a story of Buddha teaching a mantra that pacifies the danger of poison [3}. 

So, when you read the Vinaya, in the society of that time, when someone had a physical illness, they would either go to a doctor, or use a mantra as  medicine. For example, when we get sick, we take medicine right? At that time, they would apply and use mantras for certain illnesses. They recognized that mantras and medicine had the same power and were considered very beneficial. For this reason, even within the Buddhist Sangha, there was a practice of reciting both non-Buddhist and Buddhist mantras. 



Generally, within our Vajrayana teachings, when we talk about the meaning of the word mantra,  the word mana– means mind and -tra means protection. When you combine the two, it means mind-protection. That is how we should understand the mantra. That is one way of explaining the meaning of the word mantra. 

If we think about the meaning of this explanation, in the Vinaya, it speaks about “the true words of the noble beings” in order to protect the mind and so on. It speaks about that many times. So in this way, I think all these ‘true words’ could probably be called mantras.  So even within original Buddhism, there are the seeds of a secret mantra, There are more than a few situations related to secret mantra. This is one reason why we need to pay attention to this. 


If we think about it from another perspective, there is one other point why we need to think about the Vinaya in order to speak about the origins of secret mantra. The reason is because the people in the Theravada say that there are many discussions of the contradictions the Vinaya. For example, in the secret mantra often monastics bow to lay people and so forth. In the Vinaya, it says one only bows to seniors or to Bhikshus, not to lay people or to juniors. Senior means oldest in terms of having taken the vows. There is no one else who you should bow to. In the Vinaya they say that it is completely against the rules for Bhikshus to bow to lay people or to their juniors. For that reason, they say secret mantra is completely contradicting  the Vinaya. There seems to be a point here. 

If we want to look at this, it is difficult for us to do all the research, but it is something that needs to be researched but we don’t have time to do it. However, if we look at it  how it’s described in the scriptures and so forth,  there is a textbook called Blaze of Reasoning (Skt. Tarkajvālā; རྟོག་གེ་འབར་བ་, Toge Barwa) [this is said to be Bhavaviveka’s auto-commentary to his Heart of the Middle Way (Skt. Madhyamaka-hṛdaya; Umai Nyingpo). Now some people say it is taught by Bhaviveka and some say it is not, but I do not have time to speak about that. In any case, it’s a commentary on the Vinaya.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara image – (9th century CE). See:

What it says in that text is that Bodhisattva, such as Avalokiteshvara, wear layclothes. If you look at them, they look like laypeople.  so we might think that when we look at Avalokiteshvara this is actually a layperson, if we think that way, it is actually not. Chenrezig and some of the other bodhisattvas are not actual laypeople. Instead, they wear the lay clothes, and have all the signs and the external appearance of a lay person, but just having the appearance of a lay person, just wearing their clothes does not necessarily make you into a lay person. The reason why bodhisattvas have the appearance of lay people is in order to ripen sentient beings. To go into society and to make connections to people. If you wear monastic robes, and if you go and keep the monastic rules, then it is a little bit more difficult to make connections to many people in society. So this is why the Bodhisattvas wear lay-clothes. 

For example, even in the scriptures of the Shravakas, in their sutras and treatises, there, a lot of discussion about how the Buddha emanated himself in the form of a blacksmith, or sometimes a hunter. When the Buddha is showing such an emanation, when you look at it from the outside, it looks like an ordinary human being, with an unvirtuous form performing unvirtuous actions, it appears this way. Yet, that alone does not mean that it’s not the Buddha. The reason for this is the actual Buddha, it is an emanation of Buddha, so it is still a worthy object of veneration.

Vimalakirti in debate with the bodhisattva Manjusri, detail from a wall painting in Cave 103 of Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, dated to the Tang Dynasty, 8th century.

In the Vinaya itself, there is a story. They are called the good group of five. Then following that there were another group of five students, they are called the  ‘near group of five’. Among the first of these was the one named Vimalakirti. When he met the Buddha, he was a layperson and was wearing lay clothes. Yet, even while he was wearing lay clothes and appeared in the form a layperson, he achieved arhatship. When the Buddha gave him the instructions on the four Noble Truths, right there and then he achieved the state of arhatship. As he had achieved the level of an Arhat, the Buddha spoke these verses of praise to him. We also normally recite them:

“Bedecked in jewelry
those whose conduct is peaceful and subdued
have vows and chaste conduct.
Those who give up harming all sentient beings
are Brahmins, monastics, they are Bhikshus.”

So, Vimalakirti is wearing lay clothes but he achieved the state of an arhat. As he had achieved that state, he was an actual Bhikshu, he was an actual monastic, he was an actual Brahmin. This  is the praise the Buddha created about him. There is not much to speak on that in any case. 

So if you appear as a lay person, whether you’re an emanation or not, some people say they may not prostrate to them. That it is not right for the monastics to prostrate because they are wearing lay-clothes. Now, if you say that it is not alright, you need to think  about what are you actually prostrating to? This is what it says in a Blaze of Reasoning.  Who are you prostrating to? Are you prostrating to the qualities? The person has qualities and because of those qualities, those are the main thing you prostrate to them. You prostrate to them because of their qualities, not because of their clothing or their appearance. You are prostrating to the qualities of abandonment and realization within their continuum. They have these qualities that are different from anyone else. That is what you are prostrating to. So for that reason, the way you speak about it is not right. 

Just as a drawing of a lamp can not give light, so monastics without qualities cannot give anything useful.

It says in this, as it says in many different talks. There are many who have gone forth but not achieved emancipation. People who wear brown robes of a monastic but that haven’t abandoned the mental faults. There are many who carry alms bowls but are not vessels for qualities. There are many who wear the monastic robes and have a monastic appearance but in actuality, they are not really Bhikshus and not really lay people. You cannot say they are laypeople because they have monastic robes. You cannot say that they are Bhikshus either because they have not developed revulsion for samsara. So they are like clouds with no rain or wells with no water. That kind of monastic are just like drawings of a butter lamp. The drawing of a butter lamp cannot dispel darkness, right? So just merely having the appearance or robes of a monastic is not something that you should be arrogant about. 

For monastics who lack qualities it is actually appropriate for them to prostrate to lay people who are rich in qualities. For someone who doesn’t have qualities is appropriate to prostrate to someone who does have qualities. It also says in the teaching of the 18 original schools, in the teaching of the foundation vehicle, that one must pay homage to bodhisattvas. For example, in the Mahasamgika school it is said that the members of the fourfold community should prostrate to the regent Maitreya. So it is not true that the foundation vehicle (Hinayana) states that monastics should not prostrate to lay people. Distinctions are made in terms of the qualities, not in terms of their outer robes. This is what it says in the Blaze of Reasoning.

Aśvaghoṣa, c. 80 – c. 150 CE

Now I will consider what it says in the Vajrayana scriptures. One of the most important Vajrayana texts is The Fifty Verses of the Guru [Skt: Gurupañcāśika; Tib: Lama Nga-chu-pa བླ་མ་ལྔ་བཅུ་པ་) by  Aśvaghoṣa, (སློབ་དཔོན་དཔའ་བོ།, Lobpon Pawo) [iv]]. The most important texts are the Fifty Verses of the Guru and the discussion of the fourteen root downfalls of the Vajrayana, these are important fundamental texts of the Secret Mantra.

During the time of the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje and the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchug Dorje, they established particular tantric colleges for studying Tantra. We cannot say in detail what they studied. However, if we roughly consider what they were teaching,  first, they would teach the Fifty Verses of the Guru. Then, they would teach the fourteen root downfalls. Following that they would go order through the other Tantra texts.

My hope is that in the future,  I can eventually teach you the Fifty Verses the Guru and the fourteen root downfalls. I will not say a lot, but there is a short commentary on the 50 Verses by the seventh Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso [ Annotations on the Fifty Verses བླ་མ་ལྔ་བཅུ་པ་མཆན་བུ་དང་བཅས་པ་ [v]]. There is also a short commentary by Karma Khenchen Rinchen Dargye.

Among the commentaries I’ve seen, the one that I think is special is the commentary by the great Je Tsongkhapa [Fulfilling the Hopes of the Student: Commentary on the Fifty Verses བླ་མ་ལྔ་བཅུ་པའི་རྣམ་བཤད་སློབ་མའི་རེ་བ་ཀུན་སྐོང། [vi]] and the commentary by Sachen Lobsang Gyatso. I think both of these are special.   I cannot remember if it is Sachen Lobsang Gyatso or another of the great Sakya masters.

[Transcriber note: this seems to be the text The Concise Meaning of the Fifty Guru Verses (bLa ma lnga bcu paʼi bsdus don) by Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158) Sa chen kun dgaʼ snying po).]

Fifty Verses of the Guru. First folio from Narthang Tengyur edition.

In any case, what it says in the Fifty Verses of the Guru:

“To avoid criticism in the world, those disciples place the true dharma and such in front, and mentally pay homage to lay people, or their juniors. To lay people, give service such as preparing seats, standing during their work, those with discipline do the work but avoid doing the unorthodox in public.”

So, when the student is a monastic, a senior Bhikshu, but the Guru is a layperson, or  a junior monastic – someone who’s newly taken vows,  if a monastic or a senior Bhikshu, prostrates to such a guru then they will be criticized by worldly people in the society. Everyone in India knows that seniority is determined by the order of precedence of vows. So if the elder monk prostrates to the junior this would be something that everyone in society would criticize. 

Instead, when the Guru is in front of them, one can place volumes of the teachings, or a Buddha statue, or a stupa, and prostrate to that. In your mind, you are prostrating to the guru. With your body and speech, you are actually prostrating to the stupa or the volume of texts, or the statue. 

So, one should not pay homage by washing their hands and serving them, but you should still pay a service such as preparing seats and standing when they come in, and  during their work, and so forth. One should do all of this. It’s not saying that you should pay no respect to the guru at all. That is what it says in the 50 Verses of the Guru. 


Now, when I look at this, there is quite a bit in the Indian texts about the secret mantra vows and secret conduct. I think that there are kind of two different traditions, one where there’s a strict observance of the Vinaya, and one with a more relaxed observance of the Vinaya. For example, there is a commentary on the Difficult Points of the 50 Verses of the Guru in a Tibetan translation that says (I’m not going to read the words literally just keep to the meaning), it says that a Bhikshu can only prostrate to two people: one is the Buddha and one is a senior monk, someone who’s taken full ordination earlier than you did. For that reason, when we say that no matter who the Guru is, you prostrate, if you think this doesn’t match what said in the Vinaya, of course that is true. However, those who say there are only these two people they can prostrate to, that is the way of the Shravakas, the foundation vehicle. It is not the way of the Bodhisattvas. We are speaking about the traditions of the Bodhisattva. In particular, the secret mantra custom.

So, in the secret mantra tradition there is no fault for a monastic to prostrate  to a layperson. This is a more relaxed view of the mantra, this is one that is not worrying too much. This is one that is saying that the secret mantra conduct is more important than the Vinaya discipline.  That is one view. 

Kalacakra mandala

There is also a commentary on the Kalacakra called The Stainless Light [Vimalaprabhā, Tib. Drimé Ö དྲི་མེད་འོད། ]  which cites the same passage from the 50 Verses, the one I just described. It says if the Guru is a lay person, or a junior monk who has recently taken the vows, that if a senior monks needs to prostrate to them, what should they do? The answer that he gives in this commentary is that in terms of washing their feet and prostrating your five limbs, you don’t need to do those. However, when the Guru comes, then you should of course, be respectful and treat them well. Invite them, make offerings and so forth. You should treat them with respect. 

When the Guru is teaching the Dharma, then at that point, you have to prostrate to their mind. If you prostrate directly to the Guru, then the worldly people might criticize you. So you arrange Dharma texts and sutras and so forth in front and prostrate to those. This is a more strict observance of the Vinaya tradition. This is one is more assiduous, or showing more respect to the Vinaya. 

It also says in the Stainless Light commentary, if the empowerment recipient is a Bhikshu they are more important than novices or laypeople.  As for the one giving the empowerment, out of a Bhikshu, novice or a layperson, the best is the Bhikshu. If at that time there is a Bhikshu vajra holder, and if you have any lay people who are vajra holders come to consecrate temples and so on,  that is not okay. It is considered to be actually denigrating the Buddhist teachings because there are tantric practitioners who are Bhikshus. So, if they give  all the power to a layperson, having the layperson do everything, then this is going to denigrate, or diminish the Sangha. So it advises not to do that. This is what it says in the Stainless Light, which seems to have more consideration to Vinaya discipline.

Now, there are also Indian experts who say that you do not really need to pay much attention to the Vinaya tradition practices. There are both of these traditions.


Milarepa. Painting by 17th Karmapa.

In any case, there are Pratimoksha vows, the Bodhisattva vows and the Secret mantra vows and practice. There are many points when the vows come together, you have to bring the practice of them to a single point. This is really complicated, it is not easy at all.

One thing that we talk about in Tibet as practicing the teachings, is the union of Sutra and Tantra. When we speak about this, we say great sounding things about this. We might say that secret mantra is only in Tibet, but I don’t think that we can say that with hundred percent certainty. I’m not sure that is really the case. However, as the place where it remains still flourishing and has not degenerated, then Tibet is probably the best place for that. However, it is easy to say impressive things, but to actually put them into practice is not at all easy. 

Milarepa said, “if you don’t know the subtle details about what is allowed and prohibited, what use is being learned?” If you don’t know in detail, what virtues and misdeeds are, then there is no point to say “Oh, I’m scholar, I know a lot and read a lot of texts.” is of no real benefit.  It’s really important to know the details when it comes to your practice,  just knowing it from what you heard or understood is not enough.

 Similarly, the Indian master Atisha taught these stages of the three paths, the types of individuals. Likewise, there are many Indian, especially Tibetan scholars, who wrote so many treatises on the three vows. For example, Sakya Pandita’s Treatise on the three types of vows (Dom Sum Rabje). There are a lot of texts on the three types of vows and, and I think that there’s a really a great need to emphasize studying them. The reason is, because whether we know the three vows or not, you have to know how to practice them in a way that doesn’t come into conflict. You can practice them in union, the outer of Pratimoksha, the inner as bodhisattva, and the secret as mantra. This is really difficult and complicated, but it is also important to know how to do it and actually put into practice.


To conclude this discussion of the origins of the Vinaya and the Sangha. I will speak about the importance of the sangha in Buddhist history and the positive effects that it has had. According to the Indian scholar, S. R Goyal, the whole community of Buddhist Sangha has played a particular function in Buddhist history and a particular benefit in Buddhist history, and in the history of India and other Asian countries. That benefit is because of the presence of the Sangha community there was even more capacity and power for the Buddha’s teachings to spread. And the members of the Buddha Sangha went through almost the entire area of India. They brought the teachings of the Buddha to all these areas and also spread the words of the Buddha into all the different countries of Asia. If there had not been a community of the Sangha if there hadn’t been the help given by the Sangha, there would be no Sangha. If there is no community of monastics, then the Buddha Dharma could not possibly have been considered one of the great religions of the world. Buddhism would not have become a major world religion. Whether there are three or four types of Buddhism, would not have been able to expand without mainly the monastic community.

Likewise,  the basis for the Buddhism to spread to different areas, was primarily the  Sangha. Also, the places where Buddhism was formed and where they studied became great centres of learning. If we think about it, for many centuries in India the highest levels of education and also the basic levels of education, in terms of the measurable level, were primarily in the Buddhist monasteries and nunneries. 

The Sangha were educated not only in Buddhist subjects, but also studied non Buddhist schools and different areas of knowledge. As an example, there is the University of Nalanda’s great monasteries, they studied all the different areas of knowledge and the different schools and other topics of study. Similarly, the Buddhist monasteries were reliable wellsprings for Buddhists, for art and learning. The reason we can say this is there are many historically significant statues and paintings that were made in monasteries. For example, there are the caves and Ajanta and Ellora.  There is also the art from the region of Ghandhara, those statues are primarily mainly from old Buddhist monasteries. If we think about in terms of Indian cities and areas, the Buddhist monasteries are also very important and significant. It was due to the kindness of monasteries and the Sangha that the Indian languages, Indian knowledge, Indian Arts and so forth were then spread to other countries. The best tool for doing this was the Sangha and the Buddhist monasteries. 

For example, the paintings in Ajanta, had a strong influence on the frescoes of Dunhuang in China. There was also a Sri Lanka (Senge Do) where there are many paintings there that were influenced strongly by the caves in Ajanta. To add to that, if we think about Tibet, the Indian knowledge and Indian religions have had a tremendous and influence, particularly the Buddha Dharma spread well in Tibet and the Buddha’s knowledge was brought into Tibet. Due to the influence of that, we have had a very strong influence from the Indian culture and Indian traditions. If you think about it from many different perspectives in the community, the sangha of the monastic community is really good not only within India but within the world, for the influence of Indian culture. Buddhism has primarily come up because of the monasteries and the Buddhist community as well as the teachings on the practice, and so forth. Now, these were things that I planned to speak about the day before yesterday, but because the internet connection was lost, I was unable to.”


[i] In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon, these seven essential principles are listed as: 

Always gathering together through regular meetings and assemblies;

Attending the meeting in unison and leaving together at the end of the meeting and performing the proposed work of the meeting together;

Refraining from introducing any bad ideas or policies in any organization or state, not omitting any good trends or policies of the past, and to abide by all the traditional laws or policies of the past that have been passed down through the tradition;

Honoring and respecting elders and senior citizens and to obey their orders and advice;

Respecting women and not violating their rights, and according them freedom and autonomy;

Preserving, honoring, and worshiping all the religious locations, shrines, and monasteries in the village or town and not abandoning but keeping active the pre-existing religious activities of the sacred places;

Religiously protecting the arahats and the virtuous religious gurus, arranging the well-being of the arrival of new arahats and inquiring whether the arhats are living in safety.

These seven essential principles were subsequently followed by the Vajjians of Vesali. The Buddha said that no one could defeat the Vajjians as long as they followed these principles.

[ii] sLob dpon chos kyi tshong dpon. “ʼDul ba la bstod pa.” bsTan ʼgyur (dpe bsdur ma), translated by Cog ro kluʼi rgyal mtshan, Par gzhi dang po, vol. 93, Krung goʼi bod rig paʼi dpe skrun khang, 1994–2008, pp. 1125–29. Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), 

[iii} Upasenasūtra of Saṃyuktāgama, T 99, no. 252, k. 9, p. 60c14–61b28; original Sanskrit published By E. Waldscmidt, Das Upasenasūtra, ein Zauber gegen Schlangenbiss aus dem Saṃyuktāgama, Nachrichten der. Akad. Der Wissens. in Göttingen, 1957, no. 2, p. 27–44. – Corresponds to the Pāli Upasenasutta, but with an important addition: Informed of Upasena’s death, the Buddha declared that he would not have died if he had recited certain stanzas (gāthā) and certain magical syllables (mantapada). 

Another story about a snake bite is in Anguttara, II, p. 72–73. – At Sāvatthi, a bhikṣu whose name is not given is bitten by a snake and dies. The Buddha declares that he would not have died if he had included in his loving-kindness four families of snake-kings (ahirājakula): 1) Virūpakka, 2) Erāpatha, 3) Chabyaputta, 4) Kaṇhāgotamaka. The Buddha then formulates a Parittā ‘charm”’ to ward off snake bites. (Source:

[iv] Aśvaghoṣa, was a Sarvāstivāda or Mahasanghika Buddhist philosopher, dramatist, poet and orator from India. He was born in Saketa in northern India which is also known as Ayodhya. He is believed to have been the first Sanskrit dramatist, and is considered the greatest Indian poet prior to Kālidāsa. It seems probable that he was the contemporary and spiritual adviser of Kanishka in the first century of our era. He was the most famous in a group of Buddhist court writers, whose epics rivalled the contemporary Ramayana.  Whereas much of Buddhist literature prior to the time of Aśvaghoṣa had been composed in Pāli and Prakrit, Aśvaghoṣa wrote in Classical Sanskrit.

[v]  Karma pa sku phreng rim byon gyi gsung ʼbum phyogs bsgrigs, vol. 30, dPal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib ʼjug khang, 2013, pp. 502–17. Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), [BDRC bdr:MW3PD1288_FF21E3

[vi] This is a commentary explaining the relationship between the guru and the devotee; written at the behest of the Drigung Kagyu ( ‘bri gung bka’ brgyud) masters, gu shrI don grub rgyal po and chos sgo ba bkra shis rin chen.

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