The Lineage of the Teachings

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
(Archive #091)

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche explained the lineage of the teachings at the 9th Kopan Course in 1976. This teaching is an edited excerpt from Lecture Five, Section One of the course. Click here to read more.

The great Indian scholar and yogi, Lama Atisha

The whole teaching, the whole Buddhadharma is divided into two—the extensive path and the profound path. The extensive gradual path is a teaching that explains the path of method and the profound gradual path is a teaching that explains the path of wisdom. Just as a bird flying in space depends on two wings or it cannot fly, in order to cease the suffering realm of samsara and receive enlightenment, we depend on two wings. We depend on actualizing both of these paths—the path that is method and the path that is wisdom—and if one of these paths is missing, we can never receive enlightenment.

The profound gradual path was handed down by Guru Shakyamuni Buddha to Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. Then, from Manjushri it was handed down to Nagarjuna, the highly realized one, who was one of the most well-known Mahayana philosophers and a great Indian pandit, who received enlightenment and attained the state of Vajradhara in his lifetime. Then, from Nagarjuna it was handed down to the great pandit, the bodhisattva Shantideva and many other pandits. After Nagarjuna, the special lineage of these teachings passed through about nine specific followers, to the last one, Lama Rigdul Kuju. From there, the great bodhisattva, the Indian pandit called Atisha, received the lineage of the teachings, the profound gradual path.

The extensive gradual path was handed down by Guru Shakyamuni Buddha to Maitreya Buddha, who handed it down to about thirteen followers of the specific lineage of these teachings, including Asanga. Then, from there Lama Serlingpa, the great bodhisattva, received the lineage of the teaching of the extensive gradual path.

So, Atisha received both lineages of the teachings—the profound gradual path from Lama Rigdul Kuchu and the extensive gradual path from Lama Serlingpa.

The great bodhisattva, Atisha was invited to Tibet to establish Buddhadharma, and he developed and spread the teachings so much in Tibet. He revived the pure Buddhadharma that had degenerated in Tibet before, and he wrote in Tibetan, specifically for the Tibetan people. During those times, people had many wrong conceptions and conflict in their minds about different aspects and teachings of the Buddhadharma, the path—the Hinayana, Mahayana, Paramitayana and Vajrayana. They had much conflict and wrong conception in their minds about how one person could practice all these.

So, Atisha wrote the teaching called Lam.Dron, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. It is a condensed teaching that is only a few pages long, and it is simply written so ignorant beings who don’t have much wisdom and have many wrong conceptions can easily understand. The teaching contains clear guidance and explanations on how to start to follow the path to enlightenment—how to begin and how to practice all these paths—the lesser vehicle path and the greater vehicle, the Mahayana, the Paramitayana path and the shortcut path to enlightenment, the Vajrayana path.

Atisha clearly explained how these three paths are not opposite, not like water and fire, for one person to practice and receive enlightenment. He clearly explained how all of this is a path for one person to reach enlightenment. This teaching of three or four pages contains all the teachings, as I’ve just explained—the gradual profound path and the gradual extensive path. The whole sutra and tantra is contained there.

Atisha received the lineage of both these teachings, of these two paths, and he handed down the teachings to his followers, the Kadampas. Kadampa means that they know how to use any of the Buddha’s teachings, any of the Buddha’s words—even three, four, five, or two words—in order to receive enlightenment. They understand, they don’t find confusion and they see it as a path to enlightenment. All the different teachings that are shown and explained by Buddha, even a few words, they see as a path to receive enlightenment for a person. So, therefore, these special followers of Atisha are called Kadampas.

After Atisha, there were three different ways of studying the Lam.Dron or the gradual path to enlightenment, and there were three Kadampa forms of studies. So these followers of Atisha, the Kadampas, took different forms of study. Some studied teachings on the gradual path to enlightenment by studying all the philosophical teachings—the profound, wide explanations already written by the learned, highly realized Indian pandits. Some studied the teachings on the gradual path to enlightenment by studying the essential teaching. This teaching explains the essential path, such as the teaching written by Atisha, the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.

The first ones are called Kadam Shungbawa; shung means discourse, and they studied the wide subjects that contain many details. The second ones are the Kadam Lamrimpa, who studied and practiced by following the summarized teachings, such as the lam-rim, the path to enlightenment. The third ones, the Kadam Menngapa, were the Kadampa followers who took teachings from the guru and tried to understand, practice and actualize the teachings and meditation techniques that had been given by the guru orally. So, according to the level of mind and level of intelligence, there were different ways to study.

There are about twenty-six Kadampas who practiced the specific lineage of this teaching on the gradual path to enlightenment that was handed down by Atisha to the Kadampas. One is the great saint of Potowa, who was named after the place where he lived. Then there are Nagajan, the great abbot, and also Lama Tsongkhapa, the highly realized yogi who existed in Tibet after Atisha passed away.

Lama Tsongkhapa is a transformation of the buddha called Manjushri, who is the manifestation of all the buddhas’ wisdom, and guides sentient beings into enlightenment. This highly realized Lama Tsongkhapa received the lineage of these three forms of study of teachings on the gradual path to enlightenment that came from Atisha. It had been a long time since Atisha, this great bodhisattva, passed away in Tibet, and in the cave of Lion Rock, Lama Tsongkhapa wrote the request prayers to the lineage of these teachings on the gradual path to enlightenment, called Opening the Door of the Sublime Path.

By saying this request prayer to the lineages, we receive the door of the sublime gradual path to enlightenment, and the door of the path opens within our mind. When Lama Tsongkhapa was writing this prayer in his cave called Lion Rock, he saw all the lineage lamas, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, Maitreya and Manjushri—just as we visualize them and see them in paintings and thangkas. The great bodhisattva Atisha had communication with these lineage lamas and enlightened beings, and they absorbed into Atisha and his followers, Potowa, Sharawa and Dromtönpa. 1

For months, Lama Tsongkhapa saw the great bodhisattva Atisha and those three other followers in his cave and had communication with them. Afterwards, the three followers absorbed into the great bodhisattva Atisha, who put his hand on Lama Tsongkhapa’s head and said, “You do great work in the Dharma, in the teachings, and I will guide you and help you.” So then Lama Tsongkhapa wrote the commentary called the Great Teaching on the Gradual Path to Enlightenment. The Tibetan text is very long—it has many pages and is a commentary to the short teaching written by Atisha on the gradual path to enlightenment.


1 See also Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, pp. 71-74. [Return to text]