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Library: Member Essays

Early Buddhist Monastic Tradition and Today

Spiritual Life as the Buddha Planned It

It should go without saying that the heart of the Buddhist movement is the monastic tradition of monks (bhikshus) and nuns (bhikshunis). This is not a tradition, however, that modern Western culture knows much about or gives much support to. It is therefore extremely important to take some time and consider the value of such a tradition. How did the Buddha perceive the behaviour and role of monks and nuns?

Buddhist monasteries and hermitages originally came into existence thanks to the donation of wealthy patrons and, in the Buddha's lifetime, local princes. Their maintenance was also supported by charitable endowments. Early Buddhism encouraged the idea of making offerings (i.e., food and support) to contemplatives, ascetics and meditators, rather than sacrificing to deities, idols or religious shrines. Thus the support of the monks and nuns was in and of itself presented as a spiritual act or service that every Buddhist might perform. This certainly made great sense at the time, and is a consideration it would be wise to contemplate today.

The first monasteries were established in Parks (aramas), marked off by a boundary, and turned over to the Order through binding title-deeds. Individual huts were erected in these Parks for the residence of the monastics, who lived individually, with their personal time given up to meditation. Since these early monastics acquired all their food, already cooked, from the local village that supported them, their lifestyle and needs were very simple indeed.

The Buddha did not want lazy, self-indulgent individuals to take advantage of this system. If people were giving assistance to support the monks and nuns, he wanted to ensure that all who chose the monastic life were worthy of receiving such support. Thus rules were set in place from the beginning, concerning who could take ordination and how the monks and nuns should live, including their proper obligations to society.

Although monastics lived separated from each other in huts scattered throughout these beautiful Parks, they also came together as a group for regular gatherings. There was no regulation against monastics spending time together, for conversation, human companionship or communal work. They were not exclusively hermits, even though their lifestyle was in general what is called eremetical (i.e., solitary & independent). From the beginning, there was also specific gatherings, especially during the annual Rains Retreat (varshavasa).

Early monastics in India tended to wander from village to village and place to place throughout much of the year. The Buddhist monastic Order, however, made it a custom for all monks and nuns to gather together and live stationary lives during the monsoon period – the three month Rains Retreat. The retreat began on the first day of Sravana and came to an end on the last day of the month of Asvin: roughly from July to the end of September.

It was customary to assign huts to each monk or nun taking residence in a given Park (i.e., monastery), at the beginning of the Rain Retreat period; better huts were given to the elders, and smaller or lesser dwellings to new monastics and novices. It was from the customs of this early monastic tradition that the full-blown habits of a Buddhist monastery have evolved. Respect for elders (i.e., those who have been monks or nuns the longest) led to a certain order of precedence or seniority. Living together (although individually) within the same Sima-boundary resulted in the development of a monastic rule (Vinaya).

The Development of a Communal Rule

It has been said: "The greatest genius of the Buddha lay in the organization of the ascetic order and the creation of a code of rules and regulations for the conduct of monastic life."1 This is true, but the real genius of the Buddha lay not so much in making up rules per se, but in devising a Rule that allowed for the greatest degree of personal independence and freedom.

In general, religious orders are typically governed by a single person in authority, an Abbot, or a council of leaders, and the rule of the Order (for example, the Rule of St. Benedict) reflects this, by demanding a vow of obedience. Christian monasticism, like its Hindu counterpart, demands the three vows: obedience, chastity and poverty. There is no vow of obedience for monks and nuns in the Buddhist Sangha. Only Novice monks and nuns (sramanera/sramanerika) live in obedience to their elders, in the Buddhist system.

The early Bhikshus and Bhikshunis organized themselves in such a way that they were subject neither to a single leader (abbot), or group of leaders (council). What they sought was a way of living together, in a community, without sacrificing personal and spiritual independence.

The idea of having a society without a leader of some kind, the idea of a spiritual society of self-responsible beings capable of leading themselves, was extremely novel at the time when the Buddha proposed it, and still sounds quite anarchistic to our present day way of thinking. But this is what the Buddha proposed. His revolution in thought was for the religious community of monks and nuns to govern themselves by following the Dharma (teachings) and Vinaya (rule of law), rather than any form of religious leader, appointed, elected or otherwise. When Ananda asked him about this, the Buddha explained:

"If [some other] community (sangha) of ascetics should feel the need to have a leader watch over them, and that those ascetics should give obedience to him, that is up to them. But the Tathagata2 does not believe that he should watch over the community of monks or that the community of monks should give obedience to him… The Tathagata, Ananda, believes you should live with yourself as an island, with yourself as a refuge, taking no one else as a refuge; having the Dharma and Vinaya as your refuge alone."

As recorded in the Mahaparinirvana-sutra, we are told that the Brahmin Vassakara, a government minister of Magadha, asked Ananda how was it that the Buddhist Order could exist without a leader, without a pontiff in charge? He was astonished to witness the prevailing accord and unity of the Buddhist community, in spite of there being no authoritarian leader (appatisarana). "But we do have a leader," said Ananda. "The Dharma and Vinaya is our leader."

The way that the monks made this work was by coming together twice a month, on the New Moon and Full Moon days, to recite the rules of the Vinaya as a community. As Ananda explained to Vassakara, "We have a treatise called Pratimoksha listing all the rules formulated by our Omniscient Teacher and which all the monks living in the same boundary (gamakketta) have to recite when they assemble on the Posadha-days. Should there occur any doubts concerning the conduct of the Bhikshus, such doubts are thus settled in accordance with the Dharma."3 When decisions were to be made about the governance of the community, then those decisions had always to be made jointly, not by majority vote, but by consensus. "Consensus" meant that no individual Bhikshu could be dictated to by a majority group. There is something amazingly wonderful about this.

As long as a monk or nun followed the conduct laid down in the Vinaya, he or she was an independent person, free to live the Spiritual Life in the community (sangha) of the Buddha.

As A.K. Warder has pointed out,

"At various places rules governing formal procedures by the Buddhist community were worked out. It becomes clear that this community consists simply of any number of small groups in different localities. If these number twenty or more monks they are fully autonomous and can perform any "action', if they are smaller than that there are some actions which they cannot legally perform. These communities were defined by demarcating boundaries within which certain individuals were normally resident, and which were narrow enough to permit the whole of each community to meet in one place regularly without difficulty. To be legally valid, any action taken by a community must be approved when it is complete: all members must be present except in very exceptional circumstances, such as illness, or when an opinion or vote could be conveyed by proxy. The business of these meetings was made effective in the form of resolutions, which had to be approved unanimously to be valid. It is laid down that every endeavour should be made, by argument and compromise and conciliation of dissident opinions, to attain this unanimity. Failure in this would threaten the community with a schism, which was regarded as extremely dangerous. No higher authority than the separate communities was set up, other than…the doctrine [dharma] and discipline [vinaya] as promulgated by [the Buddha]."4

The Buddha did not sit down and write out the Vinaya as such. He let it evolve as required. When an event occurred requiring a rule to be made, then the matter was clearly examined and a suitable rule was fashioned. This allowed the monk's and nun's legal system to develop, based on actual circumstances requiring skillful means.

The Buddha did not make up rules simply for the sake of doing so. In fact, in principle, he appears to have been against the idea of having rules that would in any way unnecessary restrict, imprison and bind the life of the religious seeker. Buddha was a believer in individual freedom. But he did realize that rules were necessary. Concerning the Vinaya, his approach was:

"Vinaya is for the sake of discipline, discipline for the sake of freedom from remorse, freedom from remorse for the sake of relaxation, relaxation for the sake of rapture, rapture for the sake of calm, calm for the sake of bliss, bliss for the sake of samadhi, samadhi for the sake of insight and knowing things as they are, insight and knowing of things as they are for the sake of disenchantment, disenchantment for the sake of dispassion, dispassion for the sake of liberation, liberation for the sake of insight and knowledge of liberation, insight and knowledge of liberation for the sake of total unbinding without clinging." (Pv.XII.2)

In fact when Sariputra first asked the Buddha to establish some rules for the running of the Order, he resisted. Only as the need arose, did he allow regulations to be formulated.

The Buddha at one point said:

"The Teacher did not lay down rules for his disciples as long as there were no cases where faults had arisen in the community. But when there arose cases where faults started arising in the community, then the Teacher laid down a training rule for his disciples, so as to counteract those very conditions."5

To give an example, there was once a group of Bhikshus who were bathing in a pond. Beginning early in the day, they continued on for many hours, splashing about and thoroughly enjoying themselves in the water. This meant that some of the lay people had to wait until late afternoon for the Bhikshus to finish, so that they could bathe. By the time the citizens got their bath, the gates of the city were locked for the evening, and they couldn't get back in. The Buddha heard about this situation and consequently was forced to create a rule stating that all healthy Bhikshus and Bhikshunis must not bathe more than once every fortnight. But then under different circumstances, this became prohibitive. Therefore, when certain situations occurred and the Buddha was consulted, he then made exceptions to this rule. For example, if a monastic was sick, if the weather was exceedingly hot, if the monastic has done manual labor or walked for a long time, then he or she is exempt from the rule and may bathe. So there are rules, but only by paying close attention to the circumstances under which each rule was established, are monastics able to see the Buddha's real purpose and only thus are they able to adapt the same to present circumstances.

We discover that the creation of a Vinaya was not only for the external wellbeing of the monastic community, i.e., for the sake of organization and social harmony, but also, and to a large extent primarily, for the internal wellbeing of the individual whose life is dedicated to spiritual endeavour. Over the course of time, due to circumstances as they arose, the Buddha in company with his leading disciples, formulated some 250 rules for the smooth operation of the Order and the wellbeing of the disciples. These rules form the Pratimoksha that is recited today, and which is elaborated on in the Vinaya.

The original customs of the Buddhist Order and the rule of law upon which it was founded, evolved into the traditions that we see today. The early Aramas or "parks' evolved over time into the established Monasteries. Twice monthly recitations of the Pratimoksha kept the original tradition alive.

The Role of the Teachers

Spiritual authority in the early Buddhist communities of monks and nuns was vested in the first set of preceptors (upadhyaya) and teachers (acarya) instituted by the Buddha. It is evident that the role of these teachers was not that of leaders in the sense of rulers (leaders) over the society, but rather they were the preservers and teachers of the Dharma. Their job was one of instruction. They became leaders only to the degree that the monks and nuns looked up to them to pass on the teaching.

The Buddha made it clear that his Dharma should be easily available to all. This meant that it should be taught in the language and dialect of those being taught. At the time when the Buddha lived, it was customary for the Brahmin priests to recite the Holy Veda (the "bible" of Hinduism) in ancient Sanskrit. This was similar to the custom of promulgating Christian doctrine in Roman Latin amongst people for whom Latin has long become a dead language; or, for example, reciting mass in Old Slavonic by the Orthodox Church to a people whose language is now modern Russian. When, therefore, asked if Dharma might be recited in ancient Sanskrit, the Buddha said no, it should be taught in the "language of the people". The requirement in the Vinaya6 where the Buddha states, "I require, O Bhikshus, that the Buddha-word be recited according to the dialect of the people!" (Anujanami bhikkhave saka niruttiya Buddhavacanam priyapunitum), had in consequence very great significance for the acceptance and rapid spread of Buddhism in the early days.

The Buddha entrusted his teachings, the Way to Enlightenment, to the care of his foremost disciples. These leading disciples became the first preceptors and teachers of the Buddhist Community and were treated with special respect.

The role of preceptor and teacher were clearly defined from the beginning. The preceptor was the higher authority, the abbot-professor of a monastery, entrusted with overseeing the promulgation of the Dharma by the various teachers. The teacher or Acarya was the individual responsible for the instruction of a body of monks (or nuns). A monastic could be raised to the status of Acarya after six years as an ordained person, and might become an Upadhyaya after ten years.

The Monastery thus became the power house of a Buddhist community, and amongst Indian society a thousand or so years ago, the monasteries were frequently centres of education in general. In the early days a novice or new monk or nun was expected to live in dependence (nissaya) on an Acarya for at least five years, before being able to go out on their own as an independent Bhikshu or Bhikshuni. To live "in dependence" meant to be under obedience to that Acarya's instruction and direction. This period of dependence made certain that new Bhikshus and Bhikshunis became properly familiarized with the Buddha's teachings, the complete Dharma and Vinaya, before going out into the world, and before presuming to teach others.

Certainly there is something to be appreciated here, which is that a Bhikshu or Bhikshuni should not presume to teach Dharma to anyone, until they have first fully lived the life for at least six years; i.e., not until they are qualified as an Acarya. There are some modern monastics, especially in the West, who could well take heed of this principle.

In the early days the relation between teacher and student was likened to that between father and son, or mother and daughter. "The Acarya, O Bhikshus, ought to consider the student as a son; the student ought to consider the Acarya as a father," said the Buddha (Mahavagga, i, 32, I). Thus an Acarya could benefit from the presence of a number of novices who would attend to the Acarya's comfort, while the novices could benefit in turn by receiving instruction and guidance in the Vinaya and Dharma. Eventually the son (or daughter) would graduate into a mature spiritual seeker, an independent Bhikshu or Bhikshuni, and then their term of dependence would be past. Henceforth, able to live in accord with Dharma, they would go forth with no other refuge but their own selves.

When the Buddha sent his Bhikshus out on their own, he said to them:

"Go forth, O Bhikshus, for the good of the people, for the benefit of the people, out of compassion for the world, for the betterment, the blessing, the happiness of angels (devas) and men. Let not any two go by the same route. Teach, O Bhikshus, the Dharma that is good from beginning to end, according to its spirit and letter; proclaim a perfect, fulfilling, virtuous and chaste life of holiness. There are beings with little dust in their eyes, who not hearing the Dharma are lost, but were they to hear the Dharma, they would quickly attain liberation."

We see that the Buddha placed great emphasis on his monastics, once they had concluded their novice years, in going forth for the betterment of the world. This is too frequently overlooked by those for whom religion is predominately a form of self-indulgence; for whom, making the world a better place, too often means making their personal worlds a better place for themselves. On the other hand, the view expressed by the Buddha is that making the world a better place for others is simply essential for spiritual development to take place in the first place. The chief mark of a holy person is compassion; and compassion means empathy for the suffering of others.

Going forth for the good of the people, for the benefit of the people, out of real compassion for others, was in and of itself, an original aspect of the Buddha's mission. Not only did he dedicate his own life to teaching the Dharma for others, but he encouraged his monks and nuns to do the same. Knowing that the development of compassion, in and of itself, is necessary for both the expansion of consciousness and an awareness of the unity of all life, the Buddha established "going forth for the betterment of the multitude" a basic principle of his Dharma.

Far too many so-called spiritual types, including those who have taken ordination, are inordinately self-centred, even though claiming to be religiously motivated. The attainment of Nirvana might be the ultimate goal of the Buddhist monk or nun, but to attain it without at the same time showing others the importance of its attainment merely amounts to a taint of selfishness. To be puffed up with pride for one's own spiritual advancement is no more than a sign of spiritual infantilism; maturity comes only as we reach out to the spiritual needs of others.

The whole world thirsts for the light. It was this love and compassion that animated the early monks and nuns who, following the Buddha's directive, first went forth to preach the Dharma in order that groping Humanity might come to know there is such a thing as a Path to Enlightenment.

According to the Buddha, the success by which the Dharma might be propagated amongst the people should depend upon the following five factors:

  1. The easiness with which the Spiritual Path might be followed; for it is a Middle Way, shunning excess and asceticism.
  2. The tolerant spirit by which the Dharma should be taught and practiced.
  3. The skilful means adopted in its promulgation.
  4. The superiority of rational logic and dialectic disputation as distinct from blind or irrational beliefs and dogmas.
  5. The fact that the Dharma should appeal directly to the betterment of the people themselves.

Early Division Into Different Orders

The missionary efforts of the early monastics led to groups of students becoming the followers of specific teachers and preceptors. In the Majjhima-nikaya we read of Sariputra, Maudgalyayana, Kasyapa, and so on, each having ten to forty novice monks under their tuition. The same was true in the Order of nuns, amongst whom women such as Khema, Bhadra, Gautami, Sakula, Dharmadinna and others were foremost teachers. As the first generation of teachers in the Order passed away, their position was taken by one or another of their own leading disciples. Over time this led to the formation of specific lineages (kula) that could trace their origin back to one of the disciples of the Buddha himself. Gradually these Teacher-lineages branched like the limbs of glorious enlightenment-trees.

One of the earliest designations for a specific school or lineage in Buddhism is the term Acaryakula. The word Acaryakula is significant in that it shows how the various orders of the Buddhist community came into being. When today we refer to the Theravada of the south and the various schools of the north, almost as if they were different sects, we should understand that each of these Orders grew from original Teacher-lineages, or Acaryakula.

Over time, exactly how the teaching was transmitted, and the precise set of rules (i.e., the Vinaya) by which the community of monks and nuns were to be governed, was remembered slightly differently according to one lineage than another.

In an attempt to establish uniformity, sometimes a large council would be called by a significant number of monastics in any given area. When we examine the history of these councils, we find that they were generally under the patronage of certain kings. This meant that the council in question concerned the community of monks and/or nuns then living within that king's territory. Within less than a hundred years after the Buddha's lifetime, Buddhism had so spread out across the continent that no one council could have included all monks and nuns of the time. Therefore the outcome of the early councils was to create conformity amongst a given broad community (maha-sangha) of monastics, and it was those broad communities – having evolved as Teacher-lineages—that formed the first Orders (vada).

The Eighteen Orders all evolved from individual Teacher-lineages and each was distinctive in having its own Vinaya. What is remarkable is not that these Vinayas, or sets of rules for governing the conduct of the monks and nuns, have their own distinctive features—what is remarkable, is how similar they all are. Basically the different Vinayas are the same throughout. Sometimes the numerical series in which the rules are recited are different, nevertheless when the individual rules are themselves compared, they are found to be the same. Some Buddhist Orders had more rules, but again, we find that the additional rules pertain only to the very minor category of rules of training. An examination of the Vinaya-code of the different schools results in the discovery that over some two thousand five hundred years, each Buddhist Order, regardless how geographically separated, has succeeded in remembering virtually one and the same set of rules throughout. Given that it was many centuries after their inception before these rules were actually written down, this is a phenomenal feature, not to be found in any other religious tradition.

Of the Eighteen Orders of early Buddhism, four appear to have been predominant. These four seem to be the main trunks from which the other Orders branched off. These four main trunks of the Buddha's lineage were the Mahasanghika, Sthaviravada, Sarvastivada and Sammitiya. They each evolved in different territories or regions of the sub-continent, before spreading to other parts of the world.

When Islam swept across the Middle East to eventually lay waste to much of India, Buddhism was virtually destroyed in the land of its origin. Consequently, today it appears that only two main Orders of monks and nuns survive. The southern branch of Buddhism all follow the Vinaya of the Sthaviravada. This Order today is known by its Pali name, Theravada. The northern branches (divided nationally into Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, Japanese Buddhists, Vietnamese Buddhist, and so on) tend to follow the Vinaya of the Sarvastivada or Mula-Sarvastivada.

The differences between Theravada and Sarvastivada, southern and northern Buddhism, may at first seem very great, but when we look at the conduct for monks and nuns as it is laid down in the respective Vinayas, we find that the two branches are very close indeed. The concept of sectarian division is a misnomer.

Kagyu Monastics

The monastic tradition in the Kagyu school was founded by Gampopa, the disciple of the white robed Yogi Milarepa. The venerable Lha-je Gampopa was already a Khadampa monk when he applied to Milarepa for instruction and guidance.

The Khadampa monastic tradition was founded by the Indian monk Atisha Dipankara-sri-jnana (982-1054). Therefore the modern Kagyu monk or nun descends from Atisha's monastic Khadampa lineage. In Ngawang Nyima's biography, we read that at the age of 29 the excellent aspirant Atisha applied to the Upadhyaya Silaraksita of Odantapuri for Mahasanghika ordination. From the above, you will have noted that the Mahasanghika was one of the four main monastic Orders of early Buddhism. It was after becoming a Mahasanghika monk that Atisha acquired the name Dipankara-sri-jnana, his ordination name.

The Mahasanghika code of rules, or pratimoksha, is considered today to be closest to the original Vinaya designed by the Buddha. An examination of the Theravada code shows that it has ten additional rules, which the old Mahasanghika does not. The implication is that additional rules were added later, gradually over time, after the original Buddhist pratimoksha had been formulated. The Mula-Sarvastivada code consists of 253 rules of training. By way of comparison the Theravada pratimoksha consists of 227 rules and the nuns who take the Chinese Dharmaguptaka ordination find they have 348 rules to observe. However, it is important to remember that the major rules for all these different ordinations are actually the same; it is only the very minor rules that differ.

After receiving pravrajya ordination, Atisha Dipankara devoted himself to the study of the Buddhist scriptures in depth. He specialized in Abhidharma under the renowned master Dharmaraksita of Odantapuri and then went on to study Madhyamaka philosophy from Bodhibhadra, the great professor of Nalanda University. From the teachers Santipada and Suvarnadwipi of Sumatra he then proceeded to study the Yogacara doctrines of Maitreyanath and Asanga. Through this course of study he acquired a full spectrum of Buddhist knowledge.

Further, he also absorbed the secret tantric meditation instructions of Avadhutipa and the Mahasiddha Naropa. He willingly faced all hardships and difficulties in striving for the Truth, first applying himself to intellectual study and then to actual meditation practice, so that his realization might be balanced and complete.

During the reign of King Mahipala, Atisha Dipankara was raised to the exulted position of head professor of Vikramasila monastic college. Under his direction, we are told that the Vikramasila prospered greatly, attracting some of the greatest professors to its faculty and many fine students. Later in time, records state that Vikramasila was graced by two excellent, life-size statues: one was that of Arya-Nagarjuna, the exponent of Madhyamaka, and the other was of Atisha Dipankara, an exponent of Yogacara. These two statues were placed on the two sides of the main entrance to monastery and it is said they were erected by the students and faculty to especially honour the two masters who they considered most great in all of Buddhist history.

Atisha Dipankara was invited to Tibet by the king Lha-lama Yeshe-O. Before his departure for Tibet the Mahasiddha Naropa paid a visit to Vikramasila and spoke to Atisha about the importance of his future role in guiding the Tibetan people. "From this day forth, the responsibility of the monastic order and the Dharma will rest on your shoulders," Naropa told him. When Atisha protested that he was not worthy, Naropa continued: "No, it is time for you to fulfil your commission. You alone are fit for such a responsibility. I am old and am not going to stay long in this world. So the duty of guiding the course of Dharma is falling into your hands." After saying this, the great Master Naropa departed from Vikramasila for the south. Twenty days later he passed away into Nirvana.

It was in 1040 AD that the excellent Lord Atisha started for Tibet. The trip was measured in stages. First he went to Nepal and resided there for one year. In 1042 he reached Mang-yul, where he was given a grand reception by representatives of the Tibetan king.

There was in Tibet at this time a great scholar, translator and monk practitioner of Buddhism named Rinchen Zangpo. At first Rinchen Zangpo was inordinately proud of his knowledge. But there was a great difference between Rinchen Zangpo and Atisha Dipankara; while his was theoretical, Atisha's was based on inner experience. In the beginning Rinchen Zangpo's pride formed a bit of an obstacle to his getting to know and appreciate the Indian Acarya, but fairly quickly this pride was dissolved by Atisha's natural humility and obvious wisdom.

When Rinchen Zangpo's faith in Atisha matured, he knelt down and offered everything he had to the master as a sign of discipleship. But Atisha Dipankara, who required no material possessions, said, "Rather than wealth, what you should offer are your services in helping to establish the Dharma, and accompany me as my interpreter." This is how the relationship of son and father developed and became of benefit to all the people.

A little while later Atisha Dipankara travelled to the temple of Pu-rang-gyal in Mang-yul. It is there that he met Dom-ton-pa, who would become his leading disciple and lineage holder. The Master then went on to central Tibet accompanied by a big party of officials. His continuing work in Tibet both revived Buddhism, which had fallen into a decayed state, throughout the country, and laid the foundations for the Khadampa lineage.

At the age of 73, after spending twelve years spreading the Dharma in Tibet, the excellent Lord Atisha passed away. The year of his death was the wood-horse, according to the Tibetan calendar, or 1054 AD according to ours.

Kagyu monasticism is a thorough training in the Buddhist path. Individuals who enter this path, like their brothers and sisters elsewhere in the Buddhist world, are seekers of Enlightenment who understand the need to discipline their lives around the one central goal.

Since the Kagyu is a tantric school, monks and nuns not only practice meditation, but train in tantric ritual and the various esoteric practices for which the school is famous. They learn to work with the important Sadhanas of their individual monasteries, which means having to study ritual arts, torma-making, chanting, mantra recitation, and other performances. In the case of bringing the monastic tradition to the West, this also involves developing such performances in Western languages.

Lha-je Gampopa was a Khadampa monk in Atisha's lineage. Gampopa's leading disciple Karmapa Du-sum Khyenpa was similarly ordained as a monk of the Khadampa school. The first Karmapa received empowerment and instruction in the spiritual practice of Sri Hevajra and the six doctrines of Naropa. Especially his attainment of the first practice, gTum-mo (kundalini), was boosted by the fierce determination of his compassion for others, and this produced rapid results. He spent four years in contemplative retreat and attained complete Enlightenment.

After attainment of realization the first Karmapa's teaching activity was intense. At the age of 58 he founded a monastery at Kampo Nenang. He later established an important seat at Karma Gon in eastern Tibet and, at the age of 74, another seat at Tsurphu in central Tibet, in the valley of the Tolung, which feeds into the Brahmaputra. Du-sum Khyenpa even acquired fame in India, and the abbot of the Buddhist monastery at Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, sent a conch shell to Dusum Khyenpa at Tsurphu, as a token of the latter's significance for the spread of Buddhism.

The first Karmapa's chief disciples were Tsangpa Gyare, founder of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, and Lama Khadampa Desheg. The latter was, as his name implies, also a Khadampa monk. He founded Kathok Monastery in far eastern Tibet, which now is a leading Nyingma monastery of very great repute. People say of Kathok that it is a place were over a hundred practitioners have attained "Rainbow Body" (i.e., complete realization and bodily ascension).

So, basically, the monastic tradition of the Kagyu is Khadampa, and this was epitomized in Gampopa's fundamental text, the "Jewel Ornament of Liberation."7

Daily schedule for monks and nuns in many Kagyu Monasteries generally begins around 5 am in the morning, with Morning Service maybe at 7 o'clock, followed by breakfast. The main meal of the day is at noon. The afternoon is normally reserved for silent study or meditation, when ever possible.

Because we are a tantric school, generally a Kagyu Monastery will focus on a selection of tantric practices that form the specific lineage of the head Lamas of that monastery. Vajrayogini, Cakrasamvara, Hevajra, Guhyasamaj and Guhyagarbha, Vajrakilaya and Mahakala spiritual practices are fairly routine in Kagyu monasteries, but each monastery has its own specialty. Some monasteries are noted for having adopted certain "nyingma termas", such as the Longchen Nying-t'ig of Jigme Lingpa or the new treasure-texts of Chokgyur Lingpa. Guru Rinpoche practice is very common in the Kagyu tradition.

The system of practice in our tradition is called Triyana, three ways. The first or basic way, known as the Hinayana, focuses on the discipline of the physical desires and natural drives by advocating a strict adherence to the Vinaya. The great way of the Mahayana focuses on the importance of love and compassion, which opens the heart to the higher emotions. The third way, known as secret Vajrayana, focuses on awakening the intellect through the inner mystical practice of the Tantra. Thus, in our school we are able to say that "gut, heart and head" are all equally balanced, in a completely harmonious development of the whole being. The fourth way, Mahamudra, then leads the seeker of truth into a direct cut-through to the core of Reality itself. What could be more excellent?

To preserve the pure monastic tradition, to bring it to the West, to show young men and women that this is truly the path of higher spiritual endeavour—this is the great aim of the Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa. In heartfelt prayer, may this be of enduring benefit for all of humanity, and ultimately lead to our global world becoming a better, gentler, more peaceful place in general.


1 The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. 1, p. 587.

2 Tathagata: "this one" or "that one who stands before you", the "thus come"—this the impersonal term by which the Buddha referred to himself.

3 See: Nalinaksha Dutt, Early History of the Spread of Buddhism and the Buddhist Schools, Rajesh Publications, New Delhi, 1930.

4 A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1970.

5 Bhaddali sutta, M65.

6 See the Pali Vinaya, CV., v. 33, 1.

7 Herbert V. Guenther, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation of, Shambhala, Berkeley 1971. Gampopa (translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen), The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Snow Lion Publication, Ithaca 1998. Both of these are excellent translations: Guenther uses a much finer English than the latter, but Khenpo's is considerably easier to follow in terms of its Tibetan exposition.


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