The Lamrim genre, present in many Tibetan Buddhist traditions, stems from Atisha’s classic, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. Tsongkhapa wrote several works in this class of teachings.
The Lamrim Chenmo (completed 1402) [Lam gyi gtso bo rnam gsum]
Tsongkhapa's main contribution to this genre is the famous Lamrim Chenmo or The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. It is also generally considered his most influential work, studied and practiced by tens of thousands today.
The background to this work is on one of Tsongkhapa’s own letters to a lama, included in Art Engle's The Inner Science of Buddhist Practice, where he describes it as building on Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment: “It is clear that this instruction [introduced] by Dīpaṃkara Śrījnāna on the stages of the path to enlightenment . . . teaches [the meanings contained in] all the canonical scriptures, their commentaries, and related instruction by combining them into a single graded path. One can see that when taught by a capable teacher and put into practice by able listeners it brings order, not just to some minor instruction, but to the entire [body of] canonical scriptures. Therefore, I have not taught a wide variety of [other] instructions.”
In other places Tsongkhapa referred to the Ornament of Realization or Abhisamayalamkara, as the other basis for the Lamrim.
Engle describes Tsongkhapa's Lamrim in Inner Science of Buddhist Practice, discussed below:
Thus, a key point to recognize about the Lamrim teaching is that at its heart it is a systematic collection of oral instructions that make use of the entire range of Buddhist literature to present a comprehensive program for spiritual transformation. In addition to copious citations from traditional Indian Buddhist literature, Je Tsongkapa’s Great Treatise includes many pithy and insightful sayings of the early Tibetan teachers known as followers of the Kadampa School. The instructions begin with the most fundamental elements of Buddhist doctrine and then gradually introduce the student to the requisite meditation practices that will enable him or her eventually to become fully engaged in the vast and profound tradition that is Mahāyāna Buddhism.
Here is a short video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama discussing how this is the one work he personally carried out on his escape from Tibet in 1959.
This text is, of course, three volumes, so you may prefer to start with an introduction to it that is a bit more concise, and there are several good options.
One is His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s From Here to Enlightenment: An Introduction to Tsong-kha-pa's Classic Text The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment.
The other is Introduction to Emptiness: As Taught in Tsong-kha-pa's Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, which presents one of the more challenging aspects of Mahayana Buddhism using contemporary examples.
Three Principal Aspects of the Path (Lam gyi gtso bo rnam gsum)
This is the shortest Lamrim text Tsongkhapa composed. Tsongkhapa wrote the fourteen stanzas of this classic distillation of all the paths of practice that lead to enlightenment. The three principal elements of the path referred to are: (1) renunciation, tied to the wish for freedom from cyclic existence; (2) the motivation to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others; (3) cultivating the correct view that realizes emptiness.
The Three Principal Aspects of the Path: An Oral Teaching
In this book, Geshe Sonam Rinpoche, the teacher of countless Westerners for decades in Dharamsala, unpacks these verses and explains how to put them into practice.
This text is also included in Cutting Through Appearances: Practice and Theory of Tibetan Buddhism in which Geshe Sopa annotates the Fourth Panchen Lama’s instructions on how to practice this text in a meditation session.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches on this text, and this is included as the chapter “The Path to Enlightenment” in Kindness, Clarity, and Insight.
Lotsawa House also includes a translation of these fourteen stanzas.
Another work where Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim is featured is in Changing Minds: Contributions to the Study of Buddhism and Tibet in Honor of Jeffrey Hopkins. There are three chapters devoted to Tsongkhapa:
- Guy Newland’s Ask a Farmer: Ultimate Analysis and Conventional Existence in Tsongkhapa’s Lam Rim Chen Mo
- Daniel Cozort’s Cutting the Roots of Virtue: Tsongkhapa on the Results of Anger
- Elizabeth Napper’s Ethics as the Basis of a Tantric Tradition: Tsongkhapa and the Founding of the Gelugpa Order
One of the components of The Great Treatise is Abhidharma; indeed, understanding some Abhidharma is highly valued in the Lamrim teaching system. This connection is explored in Art Engle’s Inner Science of Buddhist Practice: Vasubandhu's Summary of the Five Heaps with Commentary by Sthiramati which has nearly 100 references to him.
Teachers of the Lamrim tradition viewed learning at least some Abhidharma material as essential to one’s spiritual practice. In his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path, Je Tsongkapa makes a passing reference to Sthiramati’s work when he states, “I have explained these ten mental afflictions according to the descriptions that are found in The Compendium of Higher Learning [i.e., Asaṅga’s Abhidharmasamuccayaḥ], The Levels of Spiritual Practice [Asaṅga’s Yogācārabhūmiḥ], and [Sthiramati’s] commentary to the Summary of the Five Heaps.” Je Tsongkapa also quotes the early Kadampa teacher Gönbawa Wangchuk Gyeltsen (1016–1082) as saying, in part, “To learn the essential characteristics of the mental afflictions, you must listen to teachings on the Abhidharma. At a minimum, you must receive instruction on A Summary of the Five Heaps.