Lam Rim Meditation — What is it?

by Gan Starling

“Lam Rim is exactly what we need most in our life today...”
Geshe Tenzing Sherab, Abbot
Gyuto Tantric University

Go to your average local bookstore and inventory their collection on Tibetan Buddhism. Like as not you will probably find a number of scholarly works devoted to such topics as psychic heat, protector deity worship, Highest Yoga Tantra, Mahamudra, Dzogchen and experiences in the bardo. I very much doubt that you will find anything at all about Lam Rim. This is like having a pharmacy in which they put all the most dangerous (but still useful) medications out on open shelves for anyone to grab, but keep the vitamins and mineral supplements out of stock so that you have to special order them.

Most people don’t know that the Indo-Tibetan tradition also presents yet another meditative system in addition to Shamatha and Tantra. It was set forth by Atisha, one of the foremost meditation masters ever to set foot outside of India. His own training was acquired over the course of many years while traveling far and wide to sit at the feet of the most renowned teachers of his time, and at a time when Buddhist culture was still in full flower throughout the whole of that part of the world. He journeyed even as far as Indonesia, which was then also a major hub of Buddhist practice. His fame as a pandit spread everywhere, even to Tibet.

Recaping in brief from the more in-depth article Atisha and the Origin of Lam Rim also in this series, the reader should know that early Buddhism in Tibet had suffered greatly from oppression by militarily powerful non-Buddhist kings. One of the few remaining lesser kings still devoted to the Dharma heard about Atisha and wished to invite him there in the hope of sponsoring Buddhism’s revival. He sent several petitions to India, but these either failed to return or were refused. Tibet was not at all an inviting place in those days. The political atmosphere was so oppressive that the Indians doubtless thought the attempt futile. The king then went in search of funds with the hope that he might amass an impressive offering in gold so as to better demonstrate his sincerity. This led to his being captured by an enemy king who held him for a ransom equal to his weight in gold. But when the ransom had been nearly all collected (save for the weight of his head), the captive king insisted that his subjects carry it to India as an offering instead. There they would give it to the elders of the great monastic university at Nalanda in the hopes of persuading them to send Atisha to teach in Tibet. It was by no means a sure thing, yet in doing so the king gave up his life. Hearing this, Atisha came.

Upon arrival in Tibet, Atisha’s pious conduct soon drew a following of devoted Tibetan students who ardently sought the pure Dharma. Among them the new king. They begged him to compose a text which would summarize the whole path for them. Tibetan translations of Buddhist texts were fewer then and hard to come by. They felt their own prior training had been sorely lacking because of it. So he laid it out step by step in a work called "Lamp on the Stages of the Path." When a copy of this found its way back to India, the elders there were astounded at its clarity and depth. They remarked that had Atisha not been forced to distill all the many volumes of Indian scripture for the benefit of these stupid Tibetans, this jewel of a teaching would never have been produced. It is said that they too made extensive use of it thereafter.

Lam Rim means Stages of the Path. And it is just that, the path to Enlightenment divided into stages. Whereas Tantra amounts to a vertical ascent straight up the uncharted and ever-shifting face of one’s own ego by sheer force of will, clinging as if by fingers and toes, the Lam Rim is a well-lit path winding carefully up its more vulnerable passes. The Lam Rim is a map dividing the journey into uniform segments with appropriate stopping places for rest and reflection. True, you don’t get to the top quite as fast -- but you don’t have to risk going splat either. As a novice climber, you would not begin with a free ascent up the bare face of Yosemite Park’s El Capitan. You would build up your skill and stamina by hiking along the better traveled trails and passes first. And even as an experienced climber you would not spend every waking moment trying to drag yourself up it’s most dangerous overhangs. You would instead exert your efforts in a balanced and reasonable way. Whenever your strength ebbed temporarily you would regain it by briefly returning to a less daunting (but still upward) route. This is not backsliding. By switching back and forth between the paths, you are better assured of gaining the summit unscathed.

Lam Rim is a complete practice. By that I mean it contains all those parts which are usually segregated into different, more specialized practices in other systems of meditation. Lam Rim is devotional, analytical and single-pointed all at once. You begin with refuge prayers and offerings, proceed to analysis of various topics, develop a view regarding each one in turn, and then dwell single-pointedly in this view for as long as you can. When you loose your concentration, there are techniques for getting it back. And when you loose your motivation, there are techniques for that. It doesn’t matter at all how often or how badly you may stumble. Lam Rim will keep you pointed in the right direction so long as you keep getting up again. The only way to fail at Lam Rim is to quit. And even then, you will still retain much benefit from whatever helpful karmic inertia you will have accumulated during your efforts up till then.

That is how it prepares you for Tantra. I practiced Lam Rim for nearly two years before entering into Secret Tantra. It is now five years later and I am by no means adept in any respect. And I still continue to practice Lam Rim today. I am also told that no few highly realized Tantric masters continued to engage in Lam Rim throughout their lives, even though they had long since been initiated into the most rarefied strata of Vajrayana. Kyabje Phabonkha Rinpoche is one such highly revered adept from history. And it is his own copious instructions on Lam Rim practice which you yourself may follow today. He gave these in public, under the open sky and before a vast crowd. They were written down, printed and widely distributed without need of initiation. They have even been translated into English.

Where may you obtain these? They are to be found in a hardcover book entitled, Enlightenment in the Palm of Your Hand, from Wisdom Publications for $37.50. This is the translation most recommended by Vice Abbot Tenzing Sherab of Gyuto Tantric College. Or you might opt for the three-volume softcover translation, Liberation in Our Hands, published by the Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press for $12.50 per volume. Ven. Ngawang Jangchup, a Lharampa Geshe from Drepung Gomang Monastery presently visiting West Michigan likewise recommends the first example but adds that some people find this second version more clear. The latter has diagrams to aid in the refuge and merit field visualizations.

The above two are direct translations of Kyabje Phabonkha Rinpoche’s famous twenty-four day oral instruction. In addition, a more modern but no less exhaustive hardcover treatise (1096 pages!) is available from Tushita Press. This is called Path to Enlightenment, by Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, and sells for about seventy dollars.

Some shorter Lam Rim manuals exist as well, mostly softcovers for under twenty dollars. These are: Essence of Refined Gold, by the Third Gyalwa Rinpoche & Glenn H. Mullin; Path to Bliss, by H.H. the Gyalwa Rinpoche, Tenzin Gyatso; The Essential Nectar, Meditations on the Buddhist Path, by Geshe Rabten; and The Meditation Handbook," by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

The above are primarily Gelupa texts. It may be that you relate better to Gampopa’s The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a Kagyu manual. Or The Jewel Ladder, from the Nyingma tradition. Whichever you prefer, all are available either from Snow Lion or from Wisdom Publications. You may wish to obtain at least one of them as I plan to try and reference as many as possible by page number in future editions of this continuing column of Three Treasures. The telephone-order number for Wisdom Publications is 1-800-272-4050. The number for Snow Lion is 1-800-950-0313.

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