“Right now we are very much beginners” said the Master

Midway through his ‘River of Memory’ (2021), Lama Jampa relates an observation made while attending a conference of western dharma teachers in Germany in 1995:

What was particularly noticeable about this meeting, and other similar ones that I’ve attended over the years, is just how detached from the ongoing traditions of Asian dharma many of the participants seem to be. Rather than view themselves as apprentices within a particular tradition, whose authority to teach is entirely dependent on their own masters, clearly they regard themselves as self-sufficient authorities. What is more, they intend to bring about a ‘Buddhist Reformation’ in line with their predictable cultural predilections.

Lama Jampa, since taking refuge at the age of 20 with Karma Thinley Rinpoche, has always firmly eschewed any such intention. Within an account that is at once straightforward, ornamented with gems of wisdom and lightened at times with humour, Lama Jampa tells of an extraordinary progression: youthful inquiry; recognising of truth sought; total commitment to dharma practice; soon followed by apprenticeship to some of the greatest Tibetan masters of the twentieth century. All leading to commitments to teach in many countries of the world, East and West. So the work can be read as a chronicle ‘from apprentice to master’; one that has followed a blueprint, tried and tested through the centuries, first in India, then Tibet. The fact that Lama Jampa Thaye was born as David Stott in Lancashire in 1952 does imbue this particular story with a historical as well as a spiritual significance – inspirational as it is to Westerners – as dharma spreads across a newly ‘globalised’ world. 

Later in the same chapter of his book, Lama Jampa makes another observation; this time with respect to people drawn towards the Buddhism here in the West.

He notes that ‘outside this circle of serious practice there were also many other people who attended our classes. Some … stayed longer, and some gained real contemplative experience, thus demonstrating that the Vajrayana works in the West.

He goes on to say that ‘distinct levels of engagement seem typical of all dharma communities in the West’ before making the point that ‘it is certain that to progress along the Vajrayana path one must be properly educated in vows and pledges intrinsic to the tantric teachings.’

This is why Lama Jampa has continued, over the years, to teach texts on the particular vows and pledges along the path, starting from refuge, through the bodhisattva vow, to the pledges relating to different levels of tantra. He has always taken care to explain exactly when and how those pledges apply and, just as importantly, when they do not apply.

It was just such a teaching from a text by Sakya Pandita that the Lama gave recently in London. The text concerned takes the form of a letter composed by this outstanding figure of 13th century Tibet. His letter covers the essential points of his longer detailed text, ‘Discriminating the Three Vows’. Those vows are, firstly, the Pratimoksa vow of individual liberation concerned with restraint from harmful behaviour; secondly, the bodhisattva vow that embodies the Mahayana motivation of aspiring to enlightenment for the benefit of all beings; thirdly, the vows relating to Vajrayana commitment and practice. In both the extensive work and this shorter letter, Sakya Pandita draws attention to erroneous understandings that can occur at each stage of the path, and shows how these errors can be corrected. 

The following is how Lama Jampa introduced that morning of teachings which was to become quite technical.

“It is important before receiving teachings that we examine our motivation for doing so. From a dharma point of view, it is said that the outcome of all actions is principally dependent on our motivation. So if one were to ask what is the proper motivation for receiving the dharma, it must be a motivation that is in accord with the dharma itself. The dharma was given by Lord Buddha originally in order to help beings discover how to achieve happiness in this world and in future lives. But, in fact, if we examine that happiness, we will see that although initially we may be attracted to practise dharma by that motivation, what exactly constitutes happiness demands deep examination. And so we will come to understand that, as Buddha said, there is no lasting happiness to be found in the cycle of birth and death.

Now, that may take us some time to discover and so to be installed as our motivation for practising the dharma: liberation from all suffering.

Until that time, by practising the dharma as we understand it with sincerity, we can create happiness for ourselves and others in this life and future lives. So, even if we don’t have the deep motivation of wishing to achieve liberation, we will find a degree of happiness and contentment in applying the Buddha’s teachings in our life and in our way of dealing with the world and dealing with others.

But, eventually, we will come to the point where we see that truly there is no essential happiness to be found while we are still in the kingdom of self-clinging which is samsara. So, we need to put an end to that and develop strong renunciation for samsara once we understand that point.

However, even that is not the full motivation in accord with Buddha’s own example, which is that it isn’t even sufficient to practise for one’s own liberation from suffering because that would be to ignore the way in which all other sentient beings are bound by the same kind of chains due to ignorance and so on, as we are. How can we ignore them and just privilege our own freedom? We must therefore commit ourselves to emulate the example of the Buddha: that is, to set out for enlightenment, a state characterised by possession of transcendental wisdom, compassion [that] embraces all beings, and power attained through the overcoming of self-clinging that enables one’s compassion and wisdom to be effective in the world. The deepest motivation is to develop this bodhichitta.

Right now I guess it’s true to say that we are very much beginners and therefore, perhaps at best, our motivation is a mixture of these three. That is, we wish for happiness, we wish for liberation and, finally, we wish to reach the state of buddhahood.

If that is the case that we have this mixed motivation, it is still a place to start – still a force by which we can start the path. And gradually, as we study and apply the teachings; as we hear them, think on them and meditate on them, our motivation will get purer and purer and come eventually to be nothing less than the motivation of bodhichitta.

So, that is the way we should approach receiving dharma teachings. It is a very ambitious motivation, one may say. But, at the same time, it is one that recognises that we start perhaps being prompted by problems caused by our own difficulties now that we seek to do something about.”

Please note that posts in this blog are not intended to represent full accounts of teachings given by the Lama. They focus on particular aspects of teachings that the authors think may be of interest to people coming new to the Dharma, and other fellow students. They represent the understanding of the authors who bear responsibility for the content. Please address any comments to blog@dechen.org