Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism

The following article is from the Winter, 1999 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Gem Ornament of Manifold Oral Instructions


by His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche
205 pp., ISBN 1-55939-117-0 #FOTIBU $16.95

Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism contains the fundamental practices of Tibetan Buddhism. After an explanation of the major paths that Buddhists follow, Kalu Rinpoche details the correct manner in which to practice the taking of refuge, prostrations, Dorje Sempa purification meditation, mandala practice, guru yoga and the guru-disciple relationship. Then he discusses the vows of the lay person, the bodhisattva an the tantric practitioner. He then ends with a wonderful explanation of meditation with an without and object and the key points of mahamudra meditation.

The late Kalu Rinpoche was born in 1905 in Eastern Tibet. He was schooled by his father, a renowned scholar, and was ordained at the age of thirteen. At fifteen, he gave his first public teaching and soon afterward entered the traditional three-year, three-month retreat. From the age of eighteen, Rinpoche studied with several eminent teachers in Tibet and then began a period of mountain retreat. After twelve years, H.E. Tai-Situ Padma Wangchuk requested that Rinpoche leave his ascetic study and practice to become the director of a prominent retreat center.

Rinpoche spent many years teaching and directing retreats in Tibet. By 1955, he had revitalized the Shangpa Kagyu lineage and was a senior lama of the Karma Kagyu lineage when the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa sent him to India and Bhutan to prepare for the anticipated exodus of Buddhists from Chinese-occupied Tibet. Rinpoche was given a site for a monastery, retreat center, and residence in Sonada, India in 1962.

In 1971, H.E. Kalu Rinpoche was sent on a teaching journey to the West by His Holiness Karmapa. He traveled many times to the West, during which he founded numerous dharma and retreat centers for serious study in the Kagyu tradition in France, Sweden, Canada and the United States before his passing in 1989.

The following is an excerpt from the Mahamudra chapter of the book.

The Mahamudra experience and approach is perhaps the quintessence of all Buddhadharma. In order for this quintessential approach to be effective, we must have some understanding of the nature of the mind that we are attempting to discover through the Mahamudra techniques.

Mahamudra has three aspects: foundation, path, and fruition. Foundation Mahamudra is the understanding which is based on our appreciation of the nature of mind. This must be augmented by the process of path Mahamudra, which is direct experience and acclimatization to that nature of mind through meditation. Finally, there is the fruition or result aspect of Mahamudra, which is the actualization of the potential inherent in the nature of mind. This actual aspect of transcending awareness includes the Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya as the facets of completely enlightened experience. It is not beneficial to speak of Mahamudra lightly; we must not ignore any of these three aspects of the Mahamudra approach.

Foundation Mahamudra implies a deep appreciation and understanding of the nature of mind. When we say that this is the correct view, we do not use that phrase in a casual sense. Very often, we say, Well, in my view, such and such is the case, but this does not necessarily mean that we have understood it at all. We may say, I believe in previous existences, or, I don't believe in future existences, but very often our talk is not based on experience and appreciation, but merely on an idea to which we give lip service. What is meant in foundation Mahamudra is a thorough appreciation of the nature of mind itself, the mind with which we are working, and the mind which we are attempting to discover.

To get a deeper understanding of the nature of mind itself, we can quote the authority of enlightened masters of the lineage as a guide. The third Karma, Rangjung Dorje (Rang.byung.Rdo.rje), wrote aprayer of aspiration for the realization of Mahamudra in which he said, It is not existent because even the Buddha could not see it, but it is not nonexistent because it is the basis or origin of all samsara and nirvana It does not constitute a contradiction to say that mind neither exists nor does not exist; it is simultaneously existent and nonexistent.

Let us consider the first part of the statement that the mind does not exist. We take into account that the mind is intangible. One cannot describe it or find it. There is no fixed characteristic that we normally ascribe to things, that we can ascribe to mind. Consciousness does not manifest with any particular color, shape, size, form or location. None of these qualities have anything to do with the nature of mind, so we can say that the mind is essentially empty of these limiting characteristics.


The value of intellectual knowledge is that it is a springboard to deeper, more intuitive experience.

Even the fully enlightened Buddha Shakyamuni could not find any thing that is mind, because the mind does not have identifying characteristics. This is what Rangjung Dorje meant when he said, It does not exist because even the Buddha could not see it.

So, then, is mind nonexistent? No, not in the sense that there is nothing happening. That which experiences confusion, suffering, frustration and all the complexity of samsaric existence is mind itself. This is the origin of all unenlightened experience; it is within the mind that all unenlightened experience happens.

On the other hand, if the individual attains to enlightenment, it is mind which is the origin of the enlightened experience, giving expression to the transcending awareness of the various kayas.

This is what Rangjung Dorje meant when he said, One cannot say that it does not exist, because it is the basis for all samsara and nirvana. Whether we are talking about an enlightened state of being or an unenlightened one, we are speaking about the state of experience that arises from mind and is experienced by the mind. What remains if mind neither exists nor does not exist? According to Rangjung Dorje, this is not a contradiction, but a state of simultaneity. Mind exhibits, at one and the same time, qualities of nonexistence and qualities of existence. To state naively that mind exists is to fall into one error; to deny the existence of anything at all is to fall into another error. This gave rise to the concept of what is called the Middle Way or Madhyanika. Finding a balance between these two beliefs, where there is simultaneous truth to both, is the correct view, according to the Buddha's description of the nature of mind.

When we hear a guru make the statement, Mind does not exist; mind does not not exist; but it is at the same time existent and nonexistent, and this is the middle view, we may say, Fine, I can accept that, but that is not enough. It is an idea that may appeal to us, a concept with which we are comfortable, but that kind of understanding lacks any real spirit or depth. It is like a patch you put on your clothes to hide a hole. One day the patch will fall off. Intellectual knowledge is rather patchy in that way. It will suffice for the present but it is not ultimately beneficial. This is not to say that intellectual knowledge is unimportant. It is crucial because it is that which gives us the ability to begin to develop personal experience of what is being discussed. However, mere understanding on a superficial or intellectual level should not be mistaken for the direct experience. We can only arrive at that through meditation and the continued analysis of our own experience. The value of intellectual knowledge is that it is a springboard to deeper, more intuitive experience.

First, then, we say that mind is essentially empty, that it is not ascribable as some thing. Other than using the label, mind, there is no thing that could be further described in terms of form, shape, size, color or any distinguishing characteristic. Beyond this essential emptiness, we can make the statement that mind is like space. Just as space is all-pervasive, so is consciousness. The mind has no problem conceiving of any particular place or experience. While we have attempted to describe the indescribable by saying that mind is essentially empty, that is not the complete picture. We are speaking of something that is being experienced.

Another aspect of the nature of mind is its luminosity. Normally we think of this term in a visual sense. We think of a luminous body like the sun or the moon which shines and gives off light. However, this is merely a metaphor to give us some idea of what is being hinted at. To say that the mind is luminous in nature is analogous to saying that space is illuminated. For example, we can have empty space and there might be no illumination; then the space would be obscured. There is space, but no ability to see clearly; there is no direct experience possible in complete darkness. Just as there is clear vision in illuminated space, so in the same way, while mind is essentially empty, it exhibits the potential to know, which is its luminosity. This is not visual experience per se, but the ability of mind to know, perceive and experience. ä_æ

Table of Contents
ξ ξ ξ
Editor's Preface ix
Acknowledgements xi
Foreword xiii
I. The Three Yanas 1
II. Ordinary Preliminary Practices 21
III. Ngondro: Refuge and Prostrations 39
IV. Ngondro: Dorje Sempa Meditation 49
V. Ngondro: Mandala Practice 57
VI. Ngondro: Guru Yoga Practice and Guru-Disciple Relationship 67
VII. Lay Vows 85
VIII. The Bodhisattva Vow 101
IX. Vairayana Commitment and the Fourteen Root Downfalls 113
X. Shamatha: Object Meditation 129
XI. Shamatha: Objectless Meditation 147
XII. Four Causes of Rebirth in Dewachen 161
XIII. Mahamudra 169
XIV. Concluding Remarks 179
Glossary 197
Bibliography 203
Dedication 204
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