A Brief Discourse on the Non-conflicting Essence of the Manifold Lineages of Buddhism


Khenpo Sodargye

Our sublime teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni, expounded numerous methods of Dharma practice, diverse schools of teaching, and various paths to liberation, suitable for the respective capacities and aspirations of sentient beings. Although the distinct methods or practice rituals may vary in different traditions, all the teachings ultimately share the same core principle, for the masters of the different traditions are inseparable in essence. Padmasambhava of the Nyingma tradition, Je Tsongkhapa of the Gelug tradition, Jowo Atisha of the Kadam tradition, Dhakpowa of the Kagyu tradition and Kunga Gyaltsen of the Sakya tradition are all emanations of one. Various great masters have attested to this essential truth. The fourth Panchen, Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen, said:

The siddha Padmasambhava of supreme wisdom manifested as the Glorious Atisha and was incarnated as Tsongkhapa. In no one else but him, I take refuge.

The Second Dalai Lama, Gedun Gyatso, also declared:

Siddha Rigdzin Padmasambhava; Atisha crowned with five hundred ornaments; Buddha Vajradhara Tsongkhapa, dancing freely in different bodies, to you, I pay homage.

The embodiment of Manjushri, Gungthang Rinpoche, said, as well:

Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to the Land of Snows; Atisha, who diligently cultivated that very teaching; Tsongkhapa, who dispelled the adverse views against the Dharma; All three were nothing but one by scripture authority.

Biography of Padmasambhava indicates that:

Shakyamuni Buddha made an oracle that Tsongkhapa, the incarnation of Atisha, would appear in the mountains of Dokham. His emanation would grace Tibet with bliss.

The Unbiased History of Buddhism quotes Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol, who said:

In the early history of Tibetan Buddhism, the emanation of Shakyamuni Buddha,

Padmasambhava set alight the Dharma lamp; in the later history, he appeared as Jowo Atisha, who then manifested in many figures, one of whom was the virtuous teacher, Tsongkhapa.

In addition, a similar account, and further elaboration, can be found in A Brief History of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism by Setsang Lobsang Paldan. The great Thuken also confirmed the point in his book on wisdom:

Jowo Atisha, peerless Dhakpowa, and Dharma King Tsongkhapa, are all manifestations of Guru Rinpoche.

Pema Kathang, the Chronicle of Padma — a biography of Guru Rinpoche states:

Born at Sa’gya to his father named Manju and mother named Droma, Kunga Gyaltsen will be my incarnation to restore my holy palace.

These words predicted that Sakya Pandita would be the embodiment of Padmasambhava. Many Tibetan masters have testified that Sakya Pandita, Tsongkhapa and Longchenpa, all three are manifestations of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. Patrul Rinpoche affirmed:

The master of the five sciences, Sakya Pandita, the source of exoteric and esoteric instructions, Tsongkhapa, and the maestro of all the Dharma teachings, Longchenpa, I pay homage to these three emanations of Manjushri in the Land of Snows.

It is hereby demonstrated that Guru Rinpoche is no different from buddhas and bodhisattvas. Tertön Orgyen Lingpa describes in Pema Kathang:

Infinite Light Bodhisattva (Amitabha) of the Buddhafield of Bliss, Protector Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, and the Lotus Born from Dhanakosha (Padmasambhava), though they appear in three different incarnations, their identity is indivisible.

The book further reveals:

King Samantabhadra of primordial expanse, Vajardhara of Akanishtha, Shakyamuni Buddha of Bodhgaya, all are inherently the Lotus Born himself.

The aforementioned citations make it evident that the masters of the various lineages are as one in essence. Furthermore, in the eyes of the Yogis, who have realized the inseparableness of phenomena and emptiness, there is no fundamental difference between the core practices chosen by those masters, whether it is Great Perfection (Dzogchen), Mahamudra, Great Madhyamaka, Yamantaka, or the Realization of True Nature in Chan practice. The Omniscient Gangshar Rangdrol said:

Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Madhyamaka, all of which reveal a consistent truth to the wise; only the foolish would reject one or another.

Mipham Rinpoche writes in his Beacon of Certainty:

If someone claims that his Dzogchen lineage is superior to Mahamudra or other lineages, then he has not transcended the relative concepts and attained true realization; for an enlightened mind will recognize that all of these teachings speak the one absolute truth.

The book further affirms:

Great Madhyamaka, free from any concepts and elaborations, and Great Perfection, realizing the luminous nature of mind, offer the same most extraordinary teaching under their different labels and expressions.

The self-arising Vajra, Third Karmapa, also said:

Great Madhyamaka, free from any concepts and elaborations, and Mahamudra, free from analysis and logic, are one, with the all-encompassing Great Perfection.

Milarepa writes in his Elaborated Teaching on Chakrasamvara:

The indivisible oneness of luminosity and emptiness of the nature of mind is expressed by Mahamudra as “non-discrimination”, by Dzogchen as “absolute expanse”, and by Prajnaparamita as “empty nature”.

It is said, in A Brief Discourse on the Realization of the True Nature:

The Three Emptinesses realized through the trekchöd practice in Dzogchen is similar to the realization of the True Nature in Chan, the rainbow body achieved by the thödgal practice in Dzogchen is comparable to the all-transcending Dharmakaya in Chan. The attainment in Chan relies only on self-cultivation without many skilful means for the transference and therefore progresses slowly; while Tantrayana practice draws empowerment from the Buddha to complement the practitioner’s self-effort and provides guidance with skilful means, which accelerates the fruition of realization.

A Treatise on the Essential Gateway to Truth by Means of Instantaneous Awakening also states:

Dhyana (Ch’an) is the cessation of deluded thoughts; samádhi is the realization of one’s original nature through meditation.

PrajnaParamita Sutra says:

I pay homage to the inconceivable transcendental wisdom that takes us to the other shore of enlightenment. This wisdom is empty by nature, unborn and unceasing, the same wisdom that is realized individually (by various holy beings), and is the wisdom which is the mother of all buddhas of the past, present and future.

There is a lot more exoteric and esoteric scriptural evidence, such as Longchenpa’s Treatise on the Web of Magical Illusion, which discusses the indivisible essence of varied teachings. I will not quote them all here but rather save that for a future elaboration.

All of these profound Dharma teachings also have to do with the practitioners’ karmic connections from the past. As Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo wrote:

I studied Sakya scriptures and became proficient in Nyingma tantras instead – such is the amazing karma from previous lives;
I practiced according to the resultant vehicle of Secret Mantra, yet attained the self- manifested Great Perfection – such is the amazing karma from previous lives;
I prayed to Lord Yogisvara, but received blessings from none other than Padmasambhava – such is the amazing karma from previous lives;

All of these lineages are inseparable from Esoteric Dharma. The Japanese work, Mikkyō kōyō (Essentials of the Esoteric Teachings), quoted what Master Kūkai said to his emperor:

Each Dharma lineage has its own merit, but none of them deviates from the Tantric teaching. There would not be any schools of Buddhism without the Tantric teaching, for Tantraya is the manifestation of the minds of all buddhas – What would be a Buddhadharma teaching without the Buddha-mind? Therefore Tantric Dharma is the most complete, most skilful, and most expeditious method of all; it is the surest path to enlightenment for all buddhas of the past, present and future.

These words reveal the exceptional qualities of the Esoteric Dharma. Je Tsongkhapa received teachings from Nyingma Dzogchen master Lhodrak Namkha Gyaltsen. This was recorded in River Ganges’ Flow: A Record of Teachings Received. Tsongkhapa’s work on Dzogchen, A Rosary of Supreme Medicinal Nectar, is now included in the ‘Complete Works’ of his. In addition, accounts of various great Masters from the Jonang and the Kagyu tradition studying Dzogchen can be found in their respective biographies and Guru Tashi’s Dharma History. These days, an increasing number of revered Masters, holy beings, and intelligent people worldwide, especially within China, have developed faith in Dzogchen and devoted themselves to practicing this supreme Tantric transmission, which makes attaining complete liberation in this lifetime possible.

The realized beings and great sages from Tibet and China throughout history, holding unbiased views towards various lineages, embracing and drawing strength from diverse practices, set fine examples for the practitioners of today to follow suit. Although no fundamental difference exists between the varied traditions, it is only natural for an ordinary and discriminating mind to categorize them differently. That said, one should never insult or criticize the instructions from another tradition should they deviate from his or her own opinion, for the profound teaching of buddhas and bodhisattvas is beyond the conception of an ordinary man.

Chakrasamvara Tantra says:

The manifestations of the Buddha’s teaching are as immeasurably varied as the capacities of sentient beings; for a transmission that is different from one’s own, do not criticize it, but vow to be able to understand it in the future.

Mahāvairocana Tantra has quotes as follows to elaborate this point:

Children of the Buddha! The Buddha educates beings through numerable skillful means, according to the variety of faculties of individuals. There are sentient beings that can be trained by bodhisattvas, shravakas or pratyekabuddhas, those that can be subdued by gods, nagas, or kings, and those that can be transformed by meditation, Dharma study, clairvoyance, or miraculous power.

Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Garland Sutra) also confirms:

Sugata (refers to the Buddha) manifests in limitless forms, which identify with sentient beings, in order to approach and guide them.

The Union of Father and Son Sutra acknowledges:

The Buddha may liberate beings by assuming a demon form.

In short, it is impossible for us ordinary beings to fathom where there may be an embodiment of buddha or bodhisattva; therefore, one should always maintain pure perception. My kind teacher, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, used to always explain how the Dharma lineages do not contradict one another, by presenting doctrinal evidence and reasoning to his students in Tibet, China and other countries. He also earnestly advised: although the essences of various traditions are in accord, one shall primarily study, reflect on, and practice the teaching of one’s own lineage to receive the blessings from the unbroken transmission. Wandering aimlessly from one school to another would never lead you to the all-comprehensive View.

Unfortunately this degenerated age has witnessed more than enough wrongful doings against the sages’ advice. For instance, some Tibetans falsely accuse the Chinese Buddhist lineages of being unauthentic. I’d like to ask the accusers: Have you ever read any of the works by Chinese Chan masters or the precious scriptures translated by the Three Great Translators from Tang Dynasty? If not, then your accusation is merely an unfounded slander. On the other hand, there are some who are prejudiced against Tibetan Tantric teaching, claiming it is not genuine Dharma and should not be followed. I urge those people first, to study, contemplate on, and master, the vast ocean of Tibetan Vajrayana scriptures such as Eighteen Tantras from the First Propagation Period. Otherwise, jumping to reckless allegations, without any knowledge of Tantric doctrines, would only be committing sins of maligning Esoteric Dharma. It is therefore crucial in our studies to regard all the transmissions and realizations of Buddhadharma with genuine faith and pure vision. In contrast, if one becomes grossly arrogant for the meager intelligence that one may have in certain areas, or forms attachment to one’s own lineage, or bears resentment and jealousy against those of others’, or exhibits ignorance, or slanders holy teachings and thus commits cardinal crimes, one will end up nowhere else but in the Vajra Hell. Hence one must prudently guard oneself against these behaviors.

Uttaratantra Shastra (Treatise on the Sublime Continuum) says:

He, who turns to wicked friends and displays aggression against the Buddha, who kills his parents, who kills Arhats, or who creates schism in the society of Sangha, can still find redemption by contemplating on Dharmata; he who holds aversion toward the Dharma, however, is beyond deliverance.

Sutra of the Heart of the Sun says:

I would rather shatter my body than slander the Dharma.

It is said in Moon Lamp Sutra:

If someone were to destroy all of the stupas in the Continent of Jambudvipa, and if another were to slander the Dharma, the latter’s crime would be the much more severe;

If one were to kill as many Arhats as sand-grains in River Ganges, and if another were to slander the Dharma, the latter’s crime would be the much more severe.

Transcendent Wisdom in Eight Thousand Verses says:

The five crimes with immediate retribution are not as heinous as that of slandering the Dharma.

It is also said:

He who slanders the Dharma,
In the millions of years to come,
Will suffer agony in hell, then
Take rebirth in the animal realm, and
Be reborn as an evil man,
Without the sense faculties intact, and
Thus would never hear of The Three Jewels.

Many more scripture authorities can be found regarding the offense of slandering the Dharma. Mipham Rinpoche says in his Essential Consistency in the Three Sets of Vows as well:

Taking sides between one lineage and another is like a father’s two sons arguing about them having two different origins.

All this goes to say, for us Buddhist disciples, that, even if we could not accomplish the great mission of propagating the Dharma and benefiting beings, we should at least avoid intentionally defiling the nectar of Buddhadharma. As Sakya Pandita said:

One may lack the ability to spread the Dharma, but one should never denigrate its teaching.

It is better not to say anything than to utter words of disrespect. As said in the Jewel Garland: The unwise had better stay quiet. This concurs with what sages often say: When the foolish close their mouth, the Dharma will be free from harm.

In summary, Buddhism in China can be categorized as being of eight or ten sects, including Chan(dhyāna) sect, Pure-land sect and Avataṃsaka sect, etc. In Tibet there are eight traditions, including Nyingma and Gelug, with the former further divided into sub-lineages such as Katok, Dzogchen, Palyul, and so on. No matter how they are individually identified, they all represent the transcendent and complete wisdom from Sutrayana and Tantrayana, taught by buddhas, such as Shakyamuni and Samantabhadra. These authentic instructions have been faithfully upheld by various lineage masters, and continue to guide many to realization, up to this day. We must not deny the authenticity of one or another, nor arbitrarily accept one and reject another. Je Tsongkhapa said:

If one sees through the manifold lineages to their consistent core, one will grasp the pith instructions from all scriptures, and readily embody the Buddha’s real underlying message.

Only when we adhere to such an attitude can Buddhism welcome the auspicious future, to which the president of the Buddhist Association of China, Zhao Puchu, has always aspired:

May the presence of Dharma endure,
Adorning our land with glory and harmony,
Offering sentient beings welfare and bliss!

Written with reverence at Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy, 3 Sept, 1994