Ornament of Precious Liberation - Introduction

A welcome new translation of Gampopa’s classic overview of the Buddha’s teachings.



376 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9781614294177

Add to Cart »


eBook Bundle (PDF, epub, mobi)


ISBN 9781614294320

Add to Cart »

The work translated in this volume is the well-known Ornament of Precious
Liberation by Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079–1153). It has been familiar
to Western readers for over fifty years as The Jewel Ornament of Liberation,
thanks to the translation by Herbert Guenther, which was so welcome and
excellent for its time. The text presents Gampopa’s explanation of the essential
elements involved in a gradual ascent of the bodhisattva path, from the
beginner level up to the final awakening of supreme buddhahood. Gampopa
was a founding master of the Kagyu tradition and is famous within
it as the one who integrated the spiritual and literary legacy of the Kadam
Ornament of Precious Liberation is the main textbook for the study of
Mahayana Buddhism in the Kagyu monastic schools and colleges. It is
seen as a meditator’s textbook, inasmuch as it is not an eloquent, scholarly
masterpiece or an elaborate discussion but a need-to-
know manual of essentials for a meditator. The language is down to earth and direct. The
eminent twentieth-century Tibetan scholar Kyapje Kalu Rinpoche, recognized
as an authority by lamas of all Tibetan schools, presented this text as
an enlightened being’s (i.e., Gampopa’s) overview of the vast scriptures of
nontantric Buddhism and commented, “Even if you want to spend the rest
of your life meditating in a cave, you must know Gampopa’s Ornament of
Precious Liberation by heart and you must understand Maitreya’s buddhanature
teachings.” In this work, Gampopa carefully picks out the most
salient points on each topic and, more importantly, provides students with
an overall Dharma framework of topics into which subsequent studies can
easily be slotted. Gampopa is always careful to back up his statements or
summaries with quotations from the two main Indian Mahayana lineages.
Although this is a textbook for Vajrayana meditators, the work remains
exclusively a Mahayana treatise except for one or two minor references to
his guru Milarepa and to the practice of Mahāmudrā.
The writing, like most such texts, is not, and is not meant to be, an
immersive read, unless one is already intimate with the terrain. Meanings
are not elaborated. The discursive work is left to the Dharma master who
teaches it. Once learned by heart as an aide-memoire, however, it provides
teacher and student alike with an instant, multi-tiered reference for the
structure of the bodhisattva path.
This work is a manual of the “stages of the doctrine,” or tenrim (bstan rim),in the tradition of the Kadam monastery of Sangphu.3 The tenrim genre
aims at leading students to transform their outlook and lives by internalizing
a series of ascending spiritual truths through a series of preparatory
reflections, beginning with the preciousness of their human birth and then
moving on to its precariousness—the contemplation of mortality turning
students’ minds away from the things of this life. Reflecting on the consequences
of harmful deeds that will be experienced at the time of death and
in the life to come inspires a strong desire to ensure that one’s future birth
is in a pleasant realm. Then, reflecting on the drawbacks of life in all realms
in the wheel of existence (samsara), even human and divine ones, inspires
students to desire liberation (nirvana). Yet personal liberation for oneself
alone is also not a perfectly satisfactory solution. The student is encouraged
to strive compassionately for the highest spiritual goal—the perfect
awakening of a buddha in order to benefit all living beings. Such altruistic
aspirations and practices are characteristic of the bodhisattva, and the
bodhisattva practices leading to buddhahood are the main subject of this
text, practices for developing such qualities as universal compassion and the
highest insight into the nature of reality. The treatise ends with a chapter
extolling the virtues of a buddha’s awakening, the highest destination on
the path.
Readers of Tibetan Buddhist manuals on beginning practice will be
familiar with the preliminary contemplations described above, which parallel
the so-called four thoughts that turn the mind, four contemplations
that inspire a person to reject worldly life and pursue spiritual practice: the
reflections on (1) the difficulty of finding a well-endowed human existence
and on (2) the impermanence of life (which together turn the mind away
from this life and toward future lives); and the reflections on (3) the defects of samsara and on (4) the workings of karmic causality (which together induce the mind to reject samsara and desire liberation). Many beginners’manuals in Tibetan Buddhist literature draw on these contemplations and proceed in a graduated manner through the specific practices. Tenrim works largely descend from Atiśa. Unlike most lamrim works, tenrim texts do not frame their presentation around the three spiritual capacities, although they may certainly mention these three types of beings. Tenrim texts are Buddhist manuals that expound the “stages” (rim pa) of the Mahayana “doctrine” (bstan pa). Works of this genre were first transmitted via students of Atiśa (982–1054) at Sangphu Neuthok Monastery south of Lhasa. The earliest major text of the tenrim genre we have today is the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Doctrine, or simply Great Tenrim, of Drolungpa Lodro Jungne (eleventh–twelfth centuries). Drolungpa’s work was perhaps the most extensive compendium of Buddhist teachings attempted by a Tibetan when it first appeared.
Gampopa Sonam Rinchen
Gampopa, also known as Dakpo Rinpoche, was born in 1079 in the Dakpo
district of central Tibet.4 He originally trained as a physician, hence the
other common title he is known by, Dakpo Lhaje (“Doctor of Dakpo”). He
began his adult life as a married layman and only began intensive religious
practice after experiencing the shock of the sudden deaths first of his children
and then of his beloved wife when he was still in his early twenties.
After extensive studies in other traditions, he eventually became a foremost
disciple of Jetsun Milarepa (1040–1123). He had received full monastic
ordination at the age of twenty-five and had sought out tantric initiations
in Lower Dakpo from the master Maryul Loden. He had also studied
intensively in Phenyul under masters of the Kadam tradition such as
Jayulpa, Nyukrumpa, and Chakri Gongkhawa. Jayulpa (or Jayulwa) Shonu
O (1075–1138) was a student of Chengawa Tsultrim Bar (1038–1103), and
Nyukrumpa was in the lineage of Geshe Naljorpa Chenpo (1015–78). Following
significant dreams, Gampopa left these teachers to seek out (with
difficulty) Milarepa, from whom he received the Kagyu key instructions,
especially those on “inner heat” ( gtum mo), which he intensively and very
successfully practiced for thirteen months in 1110–11. After meditating
for an additional three years, he attained awakening. He returned to see
Milarepa twelve years later (1123), but the master had just passed away. As
instructed by his guru Milarepa, he continued a primarily contemplative
life in solitude at Daklha Gampo for some years, but his karma inexorably
drew talented disciples to him, and thus naturally began, as predicted for
him there by Milarepa, his time as a guru and Dharma master.
For his multitude of disciples, Gampopa established the first Kagyu
monastery at Daklha Gampo. It is not for nothing that virtually the entire
Kagyu lineage in Tibet calls itself the Dakpo Kagyu (literally, “teaching
lineage of Dakpo”) in his honor. The broad-spectrum Buddhism he taught
was nurtured by four main disciples, including the Karmapa and his subsequent
lineage of reincarnations. The so-called four major and eight minor
Kagyu lineages trace themselves back to him and stem from those main
The chapter on Gampopa in the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa
by Tsangnyon Heruka (1452–1507) tells more about his life story and indicates
his spiritual standing as a tenth-level bodhisattva who had “served
thousands of buddhas” before his birth in Tibet. It also identifies him as
the person predicted by the Buddha in the King of Meditation Sutra to perpetuate
the teachings of that sutra at a later age, appearing as a doctor in
Tibet. Those teachings, on the absolute nature of reality and particularly of
one’s own mind, are known in the Kagyu tradition as Mahāmudrā and constitute
its greatest treasure. Gampopa is seen as being the reincarnation of
Candraprabhakumāra, the main interlocutor of the Buddha in that sutra.
He became the perfect heir, through Milarepa, to the Marpa Kagyu
twin lineages of first the Mahāmudrā teachings of the great adept Saraha
and secondly the highest yoga tantra practices gathered by the Indian
great tantric adept (mahāsiddha) Tilopa.6 Gampopa was also, as we have
seen, an accomplished scholar within the early Kadam tradition. Thus, in
Gampopa, we find a fusion of three elements. First, he was an exemplary
monk, and Dakla Gampo Monastery was the start of monasticism within
the Kagyu lineage. Second, through his mastery of the Kadam tradition, he
was a great exponent of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, transmitting both of
its major streams—those from Nāgārjuna and Asaṅga. Third, he was a main
tantric disciple of the famous yogi Milarepa and holder of the tantras and
Mahāmudrā teachings mentioned above, that Milarepa’s guru, Marpa, had
so meticulously sought in three major journeys to India.
The great Indian master Nāropa had predicted that the Kagyu lineage
descending from his disciple Marpa would, like the offspring of the divine
raptors the garuḍas, go from strength to strength over the generations. This
proved true in the way its later masters integrated into it other lineages of
teachings, compared often to new tributaries joining a river and strengthening
its flow. In this context, Gampopa is famous among the earlier Kagyu
hierarchs for his work integrating monasticism and the bodhisattva teachings
of the Kadam tradition. However, Gampopa’s case is not so much one
of bringing to the Kagyu what was not already present but one of codifying
and then establishing those particular elements of Dharma for the Kagyu
Unlike the earlier Kadam master Atiśa, Gampopa was neither a reformer
nor a restorer. Contemporary Kagyu masters, such as Khenchen Thrangu
Rinpoche and Khenpo Lhabu, make it clear that it would be a serious misunderstanding to think that the teachings in the Ornament were newly
inserted into the Kagyu lineage by Gampopa. A thorough knowledge that
the deities of highest yoga tantra are intricate, perfect symbols (brda) is
implicit to the “view” needed for their practice. What they symbolize by
literally putting a face on them are primarily the basic Buddhist teachings
of Abhidharma and Mahayana, meaning that an excellent grasp of those
teachings is required of a tantric meditator and especially of a master.
Marpa had to have mastered those nontantric aspects of Dharma while
in India for his tantric practice to be successful. His two main teachers
there, Nāropa and Maitripa, had indeed been eminent scholars earlier in
their lives. Although Marpa’s Dharma heir Milarepa is seen romantically
by many these days as a poet and a simple hermit, no one knows just how
much of the doctrinal Dharma inheritance Marpa had passed on to him in
their years together before the latter set off to his famous twelve years of solitary retreat. Milarepa’s teaching songs about topics like the six perfections
betray a “master class” quality that only someone sufficiently learned could
have. Milarepa’s heir, Gampopa, unlike his predecessors who had relatively
small followings, is said to have attracted more than fifty thousand disciples
to the mountain retreat where he first practiced in solitude. This gave him
the ideal opportunity to lay solid and broad-based Dharma foundations
for the Kagyu lineages that would stem from him. In particular, this work
embodies the Mahayana material he presented as being what Kagyu followers
need to know, both for its own sake and, very importantly, for the sake
of their practice of tantra.
Ornament of Precious Liberation
Like the Great Tenrim of Drolungpa, which probably preceded it by a few
decades, Ornament of Precious Liberation (Dam chos yid bzhin gyi nor bu
thar pa rin po che’i rgyan) is a systematic exposition of the bodhisattva’s
path. In its overall structure, it is both more penetratingly and more broadly
conceived than Drolungpa’s work, though it omits none of Drolungpa’s
main topics. Its structure thus may represent an original plan conceived or
adapted by Gampopa. He confirms his connection with Atiśa’s tradition
by quoting Atiśa’s Lamp for the Path to Awakening prominently numerous
Within the Kagyu tradition, masters often speak of Gampopa’s three key
works. This one, his longest, is a tenrim, whereas his short stanza the Four
Dharmas (chos bzhi) is traditionally explained at some length, through oral
tradition, as a lamrim, presenting the three types of Dharma practitioners.
His middle-length work, Jewel Garland of the Supreme Path (Lam mchog
rin chen ’phreng ba), is a compendium of his personal advice (man ngag)
concerning all levels and vehicles of practice. They are held to be the short,
middling, and long versions of his overview teachings, as opposed to his
specialized texts.
Gampopa divides his treatise into six main topics:
1. The prime cause for attaining highest awakening: the buddha
nature (tathāgatagarbha)
2. The corporeal ground for achieving awakening: the precious
human existence
3. The contributing condition that impels one to achieve it: the
Dharma master
4. The means for achieving it: the instructions of the Dharma
5. The result that is so achieved: the bodies (kāya) of buddhahood
6. The enlightened activities that follow the attainment of buddhahood,
i.e., the spontaneous benefitting of living beings through
buddha activities free from conceptual thought
To expound these topics in more detail, Gampopa divides his treatise into
twenty-one chapters, one for each of those six main sections except for section
4, to which he devotes sixteen chapters. This is justified by the fact
that section 4 contains the general instructions—the bodhisattva’s perfections
and so forth. We should note that, unlike earlier tenrim authors,
Gampopa expounds the prime cause—buddha nature—as his first chapter.
Gampopa also includes at the end of his treatise a distinct section
on the enlightened activities that manifest spontaneously for one who
attains buddhahood.
The six topics are causally related and can be illustrated through the oftused
metaphor of a plant. The whole genetic code determining the result
is contained in the prime cause, the seed of buddha nature. Nothing else
on earth has that. The seed needs to be planted in the right ground, a precious
human existence, so as to germinate properly. The Dharma master is
like the sunlight, warmth, rain, and nutrients that are contributing conditions
triggering and nourishing the germination of the seed. The chemical
interaction that determines the transformation is the means, the teachings
suitable for each disciple. The full result comes with the fruition of enlightenment, and enlightened activity provides all the nourishment to beings and
disperses the seeds for its own replication. Gampopa, in short, gives us the
ultimate gardening manual.