“Pabongka Rinpoche was probably the most influential Gelug lama of this century, holding all the important lineages of sutra and tantra ….”
In 1921, some seven hundred Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people gathered at Chuzang Hermitage, near Lhasa, to receive a Lam-rim discourse from the renowned teacher, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche. For the next twenty-four days they listened to what has become one of the most famous teachings ever given in Tibet. The term Lam-rim — steps on the path to enlightenment — refers to a group of teachings that have developed in Tibet over the past millennium based on the concise, seminal text, A Lamp on the Path, by the great Indian master Atisha (Dipamkara Shrijnana, 982-1054).
In some ways, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand represents the culmination of the Lam-rim tradition in Tibet. Certainly for Westerners, this book has become one of the most significant Lam-rims ever taught. Over 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha spent about forty-five years giving a vast array of teachings to an enormous variety of people. He did not teach from some predetermined syllabus but according to the spiritual needs of his listeners. Hence any individual studying the Buddha’s collected works would find it extremely difficult to discern a clear path that he or she could put into practice. The importance of Atisha’s Lam-rim was that he put the Buddha’s teachings into logical order, delineating a step-by-step arrangement that could be understood and practised whoever wanted to follow the Buddhist path, irrespective of his or her level of development. Not only did Atisha rely on what the Buddha himself taught, he also brought with him to Tibet the still-living oral traditions of those teachings — the unbroken lineages of both method and wisdom, which had passed from the Buddha to Maitreya and Mafijushri respectively, and then on down through Asanga, Nagarjuna and many other great Indian scholar-yogis to Atisha’s own spiritual masters. Thus as well as writing the first Lam-rim text, Atisha also conveyed these extremely important oral traditions, which still exist today, and are being transmitted to Westerners through such great contemporary lamas as His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Atisha’s disciples formed a school known as the Kadam, most of whose traditions were absorbed into the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, which was founded by the great Tsongkapa (1357-1419).
Many Kadam and Gelug lamas wrote Lam-rim commentaries and the most famous was Tsongkapa’s master-work, the Great Stages of the Path (Lam-rim Chen-mo): Pabongka Rinpoche followed the general outline of this text in the 1921 discourse that was to become Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. However, while Tsongkapa’s work has a scholarly emphasis, Kyabje Pabongka’s focuses more on the needs of practitioners. It goes into great detail on such subjects as how to prepare for meditation, guru yoga and the development of bodhichitta. Thus Liberation is a highly practical text and as relevant to contemporary Western practitioners as it was to the Tibetans who were there. Among those present in 1921 was Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang (1901-1981), one of Pabongka Rinpoche’s closest disciples, and later Junior Tutor to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and root guru of many of the Gelug lamas who fled Tibet in 1959. Trijang Rinpoche took notes at the teachings, and over the next thirty-seven years edited them painstakingly until they were ready to be published in Tibetan as Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand.
Pabongka Rinpoche was probably the most influential Gelug lama of this century, holding all the important lineage of sutra and tantra and passing them on to most of the important Gelug lamas of the next two generations; the list of his oral discourses is vast in depth and breadth. He was also the root guru of Kyabje Ling Rinpoche (1903-1983), Senior Tutor of the Dalai Lama, Trijang Rinpoche, and many other highly respected teachers. His collected works occupy fifteen large volumes and cover every aspect of Buddhism. If you have ever received a teaching from a Gelug lama, you have been influenced by Pabongka Rinpoche. A Lam-rim text like Liberation may never be written again, which is why I say that this book represents the culmination of the Lam-rim tradition.
There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and all have Lam-rim teachings, but the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu schools do not emphasize the Lam-rim as does the Gelug. Although generally in the Gelug monastic curriculum the Lam-rim is not taught to the monks until quite late in their careers, it is often the first teaching given to Westerners. And Liberation is the Lam-rim that Gelug masters teach most. It has been a favourite of such lamas as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his two tutors, Serkong Rinpoche, Song Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Geshe Rabten, Geshe Sopa, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche. In his brief introduction, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche conveys a strong sense of what it was like to be there. Indeed, this text is unusual among Tibetan works in that it is the edited transcript of an oral discourse, not a literary composition. Hence not only do we receive some very precious teachings — the essence of the eight key Lam-rims — but we also gain insight into how such discourses were given in Tibet. The points that detail the special features of this teaching may be found in Trijang Rinpoche’s introduction and at the end of Day One. ……. As Pabongka Rinpoche makes clear throughout, dedicating ourselves to the development of hodhkhitta is the most meaningful way of directing our lives, and the graded realizations summarized in Day One lead us to that goal. At the end of the book, Pabongka Rinpoche says, “Practise whatever you can, so that my teachings will not have been in vain . . . But above all, make bodhichitta your main practice.” ……
A NOTE TO THIS TRANSLATION: I have tried to make this translation as readable as possible without sacrificing accuracy. However, since Trijang Rinpoche was a poet of renown, there can be no doubt that some of the beauty of the Tibetan text has been lost. Nevertheless, I think that I have preserved the colloquial, down-to-earth nature of Pabongka Rinpoche’s discourses, giving this work the immediacy and power of the original. Heartfelt thanks go to my precious root guru Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey