For this latest installment of our Great Masters series, we turn to a contemporary master, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, often referred to by Tibetans as Gyalwa Rinpoche or Kundun. As with previous posts, this is not intended to be a complete biography but rather a look at His Holiness’s teachings through the lens of his books, mostly the two dozen published by us, though a few others are included here. For those looking for a biography, His Holiness’s autobiography, Freedom in Exile, is an excellent starting point.
While His Holiness is not formally the head of Tibetan Buddhism (there never was one) nor even of the Gelug tradition (that title belongs to the head of Ganden Monastery, the Ganden Tripa), he is the figurehead and ambassador of Tibetan Buddhism and culture to the world. Considered the emanation of Avalokiteshvara, he is beloved by practitioners of all the Tibetan traditions. He has taken initiations and teachings from the many branches of the Tibetan Buddhist tree and has worked tirelessly to preserve the rich set of lineages. Most importantly, His Holiness is a living example of the Buddha’s teaching that through study and practice, we can all embody the sublime qualities that are to be cultivated on the path.
His Holiness’s books in English fall generally under two categories: books for general readers who may be interested in what Buddhism has to say about contemporary issues like ethics, science, how the mind works, the environment, etc., and secondly, books specifically for Buddhists on the path. This latter category can be further broken down into overviews of the Buddhist path; the bodhisattva path of the Mahayana; Tantra; and finally Dzogchen and Mahamudra.
For General Readers
There are five Shambhala and Snow Lion books by His Holiness for more general audiences.
The Pocket Dalai Lama, which can fit in a shirt pocket, is a sampler of His Holiness’s writings across the many more secular topics he often addresses to broader audiences, including religion, happiness, democracy and human rights, forgiveness, nonviolence, and world peace.
Policy of Kindness: An Anthology of Writings by and about the Dalai Lama, published shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, is an introduction to his background and daily life and his views and teachings. Currently available only as an eBook, Shambhala plans to reissue it with additional material.
Consciousness at the Crossroads: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Brain Science and Buddhism records the Dalai Lama’s conversations with many leading scientists who specialize in how the brain works. The Western approach of the scientific method meets the Buddhist approach of the science of experience. Questions of perception, dualism, categories of consciousness, memory, dreams, the nature of mental illness, and the mind during and after death are all explored. Discussing the difference between the brain and the mind, he states,
“Generally speaking, awareness, in the sense of our familiar, day-to-day mental processes, does not exist apart from or independent from the brain, according to the Buddhist view. But Buddhism holds that the cause of awareness is to be found in a preceding continuum of awareness from one life to another. Whence does this awareness arise initially? It must arise fundamentally not from a physical base but from a preceding continuum of awareness.”
In Answers: Discussions with Western Buddhists, His Holiness responds to a wide range of questions (from Western non-Buddhists as well!), on topics such as the idea of a creator god, how to reconcile Western physics and Buddhist teachings, Buddhism’s essence versus its cultural forms, vipassana in sutra and tantra, tantric meditation, and guru devotion.
Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, one of the most widely read of His Holiness’s books, includes a series of talks covering the fundamentals of Buddhism (the four noble truths, karma, the six perfections) as well as topics appropriate for a general audience, like religious values, compassion in global politics, and religious harmony. On this latter topic, he says,
“Philosophical teachings are not the end, not the aim, not what you serve. The aim is to help and benefit others. . . . If we go into the differences in philosophy and argue with and criticize each other, it is useless. . . . Better to look at the purpose of the philosophies and to see what is shared—an emphasis on love, compassion, and respect for a higher force.”
Books for Buddhists
For Buddhists, His Holiness’s books fall roughly under the following categories (click to jump to each one): overviews of the Buddhist path; the Great Vehicle of the Mahayana; Tantra; Dzogchen and Mahamudra.
Overviews of the Buddhist Path and Multi-Themed Works
Several of His Holiness’s books fall specifically under the category of Lam Rim teachings, or graduated stages of the path to enlightenment. Lam Rim teachings combine all the core practices of the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions as taught in unbroken succession from the Buddha down to today. The Lam Rim teachings are a corpus of teachings that began with Atisha’s The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, which is itself based on the Maitreya/Asanga text the Abhisamayalamkara, or Ornament of Clear Realization, on which there is a rich body of literature in Tibetan. What many consider the most detailed of Lam Rim teachings is Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.
The Path to Enlightenment is His Holiness’s section-by-section commentary on The Essence of Refined Gold, penned by the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso, which itself is a distillation of Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise. As with other Lam Rim texts, it covers the entire path, and while Lam Rim is typically considered specific to the Gelug tradition, as His Holiness says, “in that its source is none other than the doctrines of the Buddha as gathered and clarified by prophesied Indian masters such as Nagarjuna and Asanga, every Buddhist tradition should be able to see reflections of their own practices through the Lam Rim.”
In The Path to Bliss: A Practical Guide to Stages of Meditation, His Holiness presents the Lam Rim of the Fourth Panchen Lama, Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen, entitled The Path to Bliss Leading to Omniscience. He gives the origin of Lam Rim teachings and then goes into the preliminary practices followed by the main meditation practices of the Lam Rim.
The most recent book on Lam Rim is From Here to Enlightenment: An Introduction to Tsong-kha-pa’s Classic Text The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. There is a very moving, short video of His Holiness explaining how precious Tsongkhapa’s text is to him. This is a great way to approach this classic text, and His Holiness makes it very accessible.
The Buddhism of Tibet begins with a concise overview of the entire Tibetan Buddhist path from sutra to tantra. This is followed by a translation of His Holiness’s text explicating the meaning of emptiness entitled The Key to the Middle Way. Supplementing these two sections is a translation of Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland—a text also published as a book by Snow Lion under the same title with more extensive background and including the Tibetan—and finally the Seventh Dalai Lama’s The Song of the Four Mindfulnesses, a short poem encapsulating the essentials of both sutra and tantra.
While addressing a Western audience, the lectures contained in The Dalai Lama at Harvard: Lectures on the Buddhist Path to Peace go deep into the fundamental teachings of Buddhism and its philosophy. He presents the ground of the path, covering topics such as the condition of cyclic existence, karma, emptiness, and the meditation techniques for liberation, but then he bridges these topics to the universal ideals of altruism, love for enemies, and wisdom.
Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective covers the whole Buddhist path but focuses on the specific topic of overcoming the powerful emotion of anger by cultivating patience as prescribed in Shantideva’s classic text, The Way of the Bodhisattva.
In the first half of Lighting the Way, His Holiness covers the Four Noble Truths and mind training, or lojong, as laid out by Kadampa master Langri Tangpa. The second half is devoted to a commentary on Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, the source text upon which the Lam Rim, or graduated stages of the path, is based. A longer commentary on this text by the late Geshe Sonam Rinchen is also available.
While many of the books above also include presentations of the Mahayana, the following are deep dives into some of the most important Mahayana texts and ones His Holiness has returned to many times in his teachings around the world.
His Holiness has frequently taught on Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, or Way of the Bodhisattva, sometimes translated as Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, considered one of the most important texts of the Mahayana canon. The Dalai Lama said that Shantideva “turned his own weapons upon himself, doing battle with his negative emotions. Therefore, when we teach or listen to this text, it is important that we do so in order to progress spiritually, rather than making it simply a subject of academic study.” Having received the transmission of this text from Khunu Rinpoche, who received it from Patrul Rinpoche (whose teachings on the text were said to be accompanied by auspicious signs like the blossoming of flowers with an incredible number of petals), His Holiness has prized this text and taught it widely.
In For the Benefit of All Beings, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group, who also translated one of the most popular versions of the Way of the Bodhisattva, His Holiness gives an overview and commentary on each chapter of the text, distilling the key messages on the benefits of bodhichitta, offering and purification, carefulness, attentiveness, patience, endeavor, concentration, wisdom, and dedication.
The ninth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara, on wisdom, is considered one of the most profound and requires deep study and practice to truly understand. In Transcendent Wisdom, the focus is this chapter. Here His Holiness goes deep into the subjects of the methods needed to cultivate wisdom, what identitylessness means, and how the notion of true existence is refuted.
Another set of texts His Holiness has taught on are the so-called Bhavanakrama (“Stages of Meditation”) texts of Kamalashila, who composed three versions of this text in Tibet. In Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom, the Dalai Lama gives the fundamental teachings on how to meditate, based on the middle-length version of these texts. He also relates very moving circumstances about how he came to receive the transmission of this text from the Sakya abbot Sangye Tenzin in Bodhgaya.
Another text His Holiness frequently teaches on is the Eight Verses for Training the Mind, written by Langri Tangpa. The most common teachings on lojong, or mind training, are the Seven-Point Mind Training, which come from Atisha, the great Bengali master who went to Tibet and reinvigorated the traditions there. Langri Tangpa was a student of his student, and this book is another explanation of mind training. This version is a set of audio CDs, though there is also a commentary in book form by Geshe Sonam Rinchen.
In the foreword to The Practice of Kalachakra, the Dalai Lama explains the importance of tantra:
Tantric practice is more powerful than the general sutra trainings for a number of reasons. One of these is that it fully integrates the factors of method and wisdom. In the sutra path one meditates on emptiness, or the non-inherent existence of phenomena, within the framework of the compassionate aspiration to highest enlightenment. Meditation on emptiness is the factor of wisdom, and the bodhisattva aspiration is method. However, in the sutra path these two cannot be generated simultaneously within one moment’s consciousness by a practitioner on ordinary levels. In the tantric path, as method one generates the mandala and deities, and then focuses on their empty nature. In this way method and wisdom arise simultaneously in the entity of one mind.
While traditionally works on this subject were kept secret and not distributed widely, the fact that there has been so much misunderstanding and misappropriation of tantra and its methods made the Dalai Lama feel that “translating and distributing an authoritative book may help to clear away the false superimpositions.” The results of this wish are below.
A key element in tantric practice is guru yoga, as it acts as a foundation upon which the rest of the tantric framework is built. In The Union of Bliss and Emptiness: Teachings on the Practice of Guru Yoga, the Dalai Lama explains this practice, using the Lama Chopa of Lobsang Chökyi Gyalsten, the Fourth Panchen Lama, as the vehicle.
There are three books by His Holiness that form a series focused on Tsongkhapa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of Mantra, sometimes translated as The Great Exposition of Secret Mantra, which, along with his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, is considered by many his most important work. In this text Tsongkhapa presents the differences between sutra and tantra and the main features of various systems of tantra. Each of the three books below begins with the Dalai Lama contextualizing and commenting on the points presented in Tsongkhapa’s text, followed by a translation of the corresponding part of the text itself.
In Tantra in Tibet, His Holiness first lays out the foundation of motivation, refuge, and the Hinayana and Mahayana paths. He then gives an overview of tantra, the notion of Clear Light, the greatness of mantra, and initiation or empowerment.
Continuing his commentary in Deity Yoga, His Holiness discusses deity yoga at length with a particular focus on action and performance tantras (the first two categories of tantra as it is described in the sarma, or “new translation” schools).
Then in Yoga Tantra: Paths to Magical Feats, the Dalai Lama details the practice of the next level of tantra, yoga tantra. With a preliminary overview of the motivation, His Holiness explains this level, which focuses on internal yoga, which here means the union of deity yoga with the wisdom of realizing emptiness. He details the yoga, both that with and that without signs, and then briefly explains how gaining stability in these practices is the foundation for some other practices that lead to mundane and extraordinary “feats.”
An explanation of highest yoga tantra is not included in these works, but an excellent resource is Daniel Cozort’s Highest Yoga Tantra as well as the recent and upcoming publications on Tsongkhapa’s text from Columbia.
His Holiness, who has given the Kalachakra empowerment to hundreds of thousands of the devoted in Asia and the West, discusses the practice in From the Heart of Chenrezig, a collection of teachings on Tantra by eight of the Dalai Lamas.
Dzogchen and Mahamudra
Dzogchen and Mahamudra are two related bodies of teachings and practices that are considered by some to be the pinnacle of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Mahamudra, or The Great Seal, while often associated in the West with the Kagyu school, has a rich set of traditions in the Sakya and Gelug schools as well. The latter tradition, which has both sutra- and tantra-level teachings on the subject, is revealed in The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra. This book is based on the text by the First Panchen Lama, Khedrup Je, entitled The Main Road of the Triumphant Ones, which is included in translation. His Holiness presents a commentary both on the root text and Khedrup Je’s autocommentary.
The Dalai Lama has received empowerments from all the main Tibetan lineages, including, extensively, that of the Nyingma. He is a student of the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who gave him extensive instruction in the practices of Dzogchen, or Great Perfection.
His Holiness has said,
As is said in an oral transmission by the great lama Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, when the great Nyingmapa adept Longchen Rabjam gives a presentation of the ground, path, and fruit, he does so mainly from the perspective of the enlightened state of a Buddha, whereas the Sakyapa presentation is mainly from the perspective of the spiritual experience of a yogi on the path, and the Gelukpa presentation is mainly from the perspective of how phenomena appear to ordinary sentient beings. His statement appears to be worthy of considerable reflection; through it many misunderstandings can be removed.
Longchen Rabjam’s view is implicitly presented in Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, in which His Holiness teaches on Patrul Rinpoche’s commentary to Garab Dorje’s famous Three Words That Strike the Vital Point, also using other texts such as Longchenpa’s Cho Ying Dzod, or Treasury of Dharmadhatu.
We will close this Great Masters post with a quote from His Holiness included in Matthieu Ricard’s anthology On the Path to Enlightenment:
When the teachings say we need to reduce our fascination with the things of this life, it does not mean that we should abandon them completely. It means avoiding the natural tendency to go from elation to depression in reaction to life’s ups and downs, jumping for joy when you have some success, or wanting to jump out the window if you do not get what you want. Being less concerned about the affairs of this life means assuming its ups and downs with a broad and stable mind.