Spring Teaching 2024 • Fifty Verses on the Guru • Day 1
3 February 2024
The Gyalwang Karmapa opened the new cycle of teaching for the nuns with greetings to Drupon Dechen Rinpoche, the Kagyu nuns, as well as all other Sangha members joining over the internet.
Rationale for the Teaching
The Fifty Verses on the Guru prevailed over many suggestions for the topic of Arya Kshema teachings and the grounds for His Holiness's decision was the deep significance this text has for Vajrayana students in terms of: creating a guru-student connection, the manner of receiving the empowerments and transmissions and methods for following and pleasing the guru. In his Elucidation of the Fifty Verses on the Guru, Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen says that the text is so named because it contains fifty stanzas on the methods for pleasing the guru.
The Tibetan term ‘lama’ has as its source the Sanskrit word “guru”, meaning ‘heavy’. The ‘heaviness’ here refers to the weight and number of qualities – essential requirements for a guru, as both sutric and tantric sources agree. The student must examine these methodically.
Once found and evaluated, the authentic guru is to be followed properly in both thoughts and actions. For this, the student's motivation is of the greatest consequence. If the motivation is even slightly mistaken – many greater mistakes will ensue in the course of time.
If the student’s guiding principle is the guru’s fame, the large number of students he or she has, or even their good looks – such motivation is not right, not pure and, accordingly, the future outcomes will bring many difficulties. Our motivation should be to practise the dharma.
This is the reason some say they only meet bad gurus. But here it is important not to place blame on others, but to check one’s own motivation and make distinctions most assiduously.
Motivation dictates the outcome. When we buy a thing that costs a single dollar, we can buy even with eyes closed but if something costs hundreds or thousands, we pay close attention and take a lot of care over our purchase.
Similarly, here we are talking about following someone not only for the rest of this life but in all our future lives. The choice of guru surpasses in significance all other choices in our lives so we must not overlook even the slightest mistake in our motivation.
While we do say: “This is most important,” upon closer examination we can see where we miss out on the details which later translate into a more significant outcome. If we approach this carefully it will work out well.
In all vehicles of the Buddha’s teachings, the way we approach a teacher is vitally important. This is true above all in Secret Mantra Vajrayana where the attainment of all common and uncommon siddhis depends on the guru.
That is the very foundation of our Dharma practice.
For this reason, all the great beings of the past would begin the initial training with the Fifty Verses on the Guru and the Fourteen Root Downfalls which refer to samaya with the guru.
His Holiness emphasised the following reason for teaching this text:
Some give incorrect explanation to students. They say: “You must follow the guru and do whatever the guru says!” Then they use it as a method to gather students and gain control over them. They give wrong, incomplete and strange instructions!
Therefore, this subject warrants a complete and proper explanation.
All in all, the main intended audience for this teaching is the nuns at the Arya Kshema and other monastics. In addition, there are students from all around the world who need to receive the complete information so they won't be influenced or deceived by incomplete teachings on this matter in the future.
The Karmapa remarked on his discomfort when teaching on the guru because he himself had been given the name of “guru” and some people might feel as if he was asking such respect for himself. However, this was not his motivation; he was merely explaining what is in the text. This is not an issue among the Tibetan audience as the idea of the guru is deeply embedded in Tibetan culture but could be an issue in other Asian and Western cultures.
“Sometimes, even if uncomfortable,” he asserted, “I still have to teach it.”
In terms of the history of the text, he opted for telling the story of the Chinese source first, leaving the Sanskrit manuscripts for later.
There is an old Chinese translation, catalogued as #1687 in the Taisho Tripitaka, which gives the author as Master Aśvaghoṣa. The translator is listed as Master Richeng. Translated into Sanskrit, this name is Ravikīrti; [Eng: Famous Sun] and may refer to Master Ravikīrti who led a group of translators He was an acharya from Central India- who came in the sixth year of the reign of the Sung emperor Renzong Qingli (1046.) to the capital of Bianjing (汴京). The emperor gave him the title of Xuānfàn Master (宣梵大师). He translated several texts, like The Compendium of Trainings (Śikṣā-samuccaya) by Śāntideva, The Sutra Teaching the Karmic Paths of the Ten Nonvirtues, and others; among them, the Fifty Verses on the Guru.
Among several Tibetan translations, the most famous one is from Derge, (Toh. D3721, in the Tohuku catalog of the Tengyur). It has Aśvaghoṣa listed as its author and the Indian scholar Padmākaravarma as the translator while Bhikshu Rinchen Sangpo was the one who finalized it by teaching and listening. Je Tsongkhapa’s commentary mentions an additional, later translation by Chak Lotsawa.
There is an extant Indian commentary called Commentary on the Difficult Points of Serving the Guru translated by Gö Lotsawa Shönnu Pal. Some identify its author as Pandita Nakkyi Rinchen, but His Holiness disagrees, clarifying his argument by way of the colophon which merely states Nakkyi Rinchen was his Sanskrit teacher and not that Nakkyi Rinchen wrote the commentary.
The 4th Shamar Chennga Chökyi Drakpa’s life story of Gö Lotsawa The Supremely Spreading Tree of Precious Qualities says that the Commentary on Difficult Points of Following the Guru has no colophon, so it seems that the author is unknown.
The Karmapa assumes the possibility that Gö Lotsawa Shönnu Pal translated this commentary after studying the Fifty Verses and Root Downfalls (among many other teachings) from Je Tsongkhapa in the autumn of 1415, when they met for the first time.
The two most well-known and oldest Tibetan commentaries include:
- Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen’s Elucidation of the Fifty Verses on the Guru and
- Drogön Chögyal Pakpa’s A Summary of the Fifty Verses on the Guru.
Further, there are:
- A commentary by Ngok Shedang Dorje
- Je Tsongkhapa’s Fulfilling All the Student’s Wishes: An Explanation of the Fifty Verses on the Guru
- The Seventh Karmapa Chödrak Gyatso’s Annotations on the Fifty Verses on the Guru
- Tsarchen Losal Gyatso’s Opening the Gateway to Precious Accomplishment: A Commentary on the Fifty Verses on the Guru
- A commentary by the Mahasiddha Lingrepa [a Drukpa Kagyu master]
among others (mostly from the Gelugpa tradition, it seems).
The Five Points
His Holiness thought this text is best explained through five general points as classified in Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen’s Elucidation of the Fifty Verses on the Guru.
1. Who is the author of the text?
2. What tantras he based it on?
3. What is the reason for writing it?
4. What is the time it should be taught?
5. The summary.
1. The Author
There are different views on who the author of the Fifty Verses is. The two principal contenders are Aśvaghoṣa and Master Bhavilha. Some consider them as the same person, but the Karmapa disagrees as their life stories are different. Certain Japanese scholars say that the terms used in the text such as Vajrasattva, Vajradhara, vajrācarya, mantra and tantra appeared at the end of the period when Vajrayana flourished in India, so it is difficult to say it was written by Aśvaghoṣa. Likewise, the 49th stanza teaches the fourteen root downfalls, which indicates that it must have appeared after the Unexcelled Tantra had spread.
Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen writes in his Elucidation of the Fifty Verses on the Guru:
The master who wrote this is known as Bhavilha. His caste was that of King . Candra. He gave up royal power and went forth at Nalanda monastery. His gurus were Jetari and Sudhana. He became a great pandita but was denied a patra and had a dispute with the panditas in the university, so he went to Bengal in the east.
Some say he was originally a learned non-Buddhist scholar who later converted to Buddhism. Having arrived in Bengal, he went to worship the statue of Tara of the Land that had been built by Candragomi out of sand. While there, a ship arrived from the charnel ground of Īśvara’s Forest on the island of Chuta, where humans had only one leg and could only walk in a machine with two people. They were amazed to see the Master as a human from Jambudvīpa who had two legs and they took him away.
Strange as that is, His Holiness commented, the one-legged people of Chuta were mentioned in The Final Elucidation of the Sakya tradition, as well.
While captive there, some people of Chuta helped him reach the Tara statue and the master spent his time practicing meditation, but he thought: “There is no dharma on this island, and it would be beneficial for beings if I returned to my own country, but there is no way I can go.” So, he supplicated Tara. One night, she appeared in his dream saying: “When you lie down to sleep, picture in your mind’s eye the land where you want to go and point your head in its direction with the wish to go there.” He did so, and when he woke up, he found he had been transported to the other side of the ocean, to Nālandā.
To his surprise, the older scholars in Nālandā had all passed away and the pupils he had taught to read had all become full panditas. Thinking that he had missed the opportunity to benefit people, he felt downhearted. Out of anger, he performed the ritual of quaking the earth using the seven-syllable mantra found in the 41st chapter of Cakrasamvara. In doing so, he destroyed his own house as well as those of others. Unknowingly, he killed and destroyed the animals and humans from the island of Chuta, including those who had helped him find the statue of Tara.
One night, in his dream, Tara appeared and said: “A Mahayana practitioner benefits sentient beings, but you have killed many sentient beings, so in your mind stream, you have the misdeed of abandoning loving-kindness for sentient beings. It is indispensable that you confess.” The master thought: “I must go to Wutaishan in China and confess to Mañjuśrī.” But Tara responded: “That will not purify such grave misdeeds. Instead, you must write about the Fourteen Root Downfalls and the Fifty Verses on the Guru for beginners in the Vajrayana ,as well as commentaries on many tantras.”
As a way to give up his disdain for gurus and show devotion to them, Bhavilha wrote the Fifty Verses on the Guru. In order to not violate the samayas of the five families, he wrote the Root Downfalls. He wrote commentaries on The Empowerment of Vajrapāni, Susiddhikara, The Abhibodhi of Vairocana, The Union of the Buddhas, the Four Seats, Vajra-Dākini and Cakrasamvara.
Master Bhavilha was said to have three deities:
1. The special deity for accomplishing mahāmudrā, Cakrasamvara;
2. The special deity for removing external obstacles, Tara
3. The special deity for removing inner obstacles, Acala.
And for this reason he was known as “Three Deity”
There was another very learned Indian master called Manjuśrikīrti whose text on the Root Downfalls of Samaya was the basis of Karmapa Rangjung Dorje’s text on the root downfalls. Since his story differs from the story of Aśvaghoṣa, this is just one of many reasons that lead us to believe that they are not the same person.
At this point, His Holiness brought the first teaching session to a close.