1 – H.H. The Drikung Kyabgön, Chetsang Rinpoche on Mahamudra

Dr Luciano Villa and Eng Alessandro Tenzin Villa with His Holiness The Drikung Kyabgön, Chetsang Rinpoche: The term maha refers to the highest realization

Dr Luciano Villa and Eng Alessandro Tenzin Villa with His Holiness The Drikung Kyabgön, Chetsang Rinpoche: The term maha refers to the highest realization

As part of our Pilgrimages to India following His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Teachings, we had the great honor and pleasure to be received several times in audience by His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche Tenzin Konchok Kunzang Trinlay Lhundrup, the 37th Drikungpa. The head of the Kagyu school received us in audience in his official residence in Dera Dun in October 2008, at the Pyang monastery in Ladakh in August 2009 and in July 2014. They were intense and deep moments marked by the great kindness and generosity of His Holiness who provided us with wonderful tips and immeasurable wisdom, which enabled us to establish a great connection with him and that he wanted to give us the gift of a sacred Buddha statue, as an object of meditation.

Notes and questions by Dr. Luciano Villa and Eng. Alessandro Tenzin Villa within the project “Free Dharma Teachings” for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Question. How many systems of Mahamudra there are?

His Holiness the Drikung Kyabgon, Chetsang Rinpoche. In the great Dakpo Kagyu lineage, the ”blessing lineage,” there are two systems of Mahamudra practice: the sutra system and the tantra system. In the sutra system, Mahamudra is described as freedom from elaboration, non-duality, without subject or object. In the tantra system, it is explained as the inseparable unity of bliss and emptiness, the coemergent primordial wisdom. Dharma Lord Gampopa emphasized practice according to the sutra system based largely on the Uttaratantra teachings from Buddha Maitreya. Because of this emphasis, Lord Phagmo Drupa taught his disciples that way, and his lineage comes to us through Lord Jigten Sumgon, the founder of the Drikung Kagyu. There were many other great lamas who specialized in this teaching, such as the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje and the Eighth Karmapa Mingyur Dorje from the Karma Kagyu, the great scholar Pema Pakpo from the Drukpa Kagyu, and the omniscient Takpo Tashi Namgye. All these renowned Dakpo Kagyu masters practiced the Utturutantra teachings to actualize the meaning of Mahamudra. This specific lineage of Mahamudra comes from the Indian master Saraha, who taught Maitripa, one of Marpa Lotsawa’s principal teachers. Saraha’s particular specialty was action meditation practice. One day he was in a flower garden holding a skull cup filled with nectar. Glancing into the cup, he saw that all the flowers, mountains and trees were reflected in the nectar. Simply observing this phenomenon awakened his great realizations developed over many past lifetimes, and he spontaneously realized Mahamudra. He saw that all manifestations exist as a reflection of the mind, just as the trees and so forth were reflected by the nectar. This realization led to his attainment of the ultimate state and all excellent qualities. Saraha is known for his doha (spontaneous songs of realization) and for his text called The Ten Suchnesses. The lineage passed to Maitripa, and from him to Marpa and, through them, to all the great Kagyupas. After receiving teachings on The Ten Suchnesses from Maitripa, Marpa practiced and realized the ultimate meaning of Mahamudra, which he commemorated in a song:

By attending the great Maitripa,

I practiced the Mahamudra

The meaning of which is free from all elaboration.

In this state there are no objects to bring into the mind.

This meaning is also stated in the Abhisamayalankara, another text from Buddha Maitreya:

In the mind’s ultimate state

There is nothing to bring into the mind,

No faults or mistakes to dispel.

One merely needs to see mind’s own nature directly. When one can do this successfully, it is called “perfection.” The Uttaratantra mentions that Buddha-nature is not stained by any obscurations. The inseparable nature of all the Buddha’s qualities means that they are always present. Their nature is clear, calm, free from all obscurations; no matter what happens, it cannot be stained. This is the truth of Mahamudra.

For example, the eyes of a person with jaimdice will cause him to perceive a white conch shell as yellow. This perception of a yellow shell demonstrates the relative, or samsaric, state, and the reality of the white conch shell is the absolute state. Even though the jaundiced person will see it as yellow, the shell itself has no fault to dispel. When the disease is cured, he will see the shell as it exists. Similarly in the relative, samsaric state, all these appearances manifest through the “sickness” of ignorance. In reality their nature is all-pervading emptiness. They are not stained in their absolute state, and we have only to purify our temporary obscurations to see this. This is the essence of Mahamudra. This system of presenting Mahamudra by way of five aspects has a long history. The great Indian pandit Mitrazogi approached the practice and the teachings of Mahamudra in this way. The tradition was passed down to Marpa’s disciple Milarepa who, in turn, taught his disciples this approach, particularly his great disciple Lekzebmn. Milarepa presented Mahamudra by teaching that one generates oneself in the form of Noble Chenrezig and meditates on the fivefold aspects of the teaching. However, it was Dharma Lord Gampopa who isolated this as a distinct teaching, and the name was provided by his disciple Phagmo Drupa.

Question. What is the fivefold practice of Mahamudra?

His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche. Therefore, this fivefold practice should be understood to be a presentation of the entire path of Mahamudra, containing all aspects of the Buddha’s teachings in five categories which are presented and practiced one after the other:

(1) The first aspect is our motivation: generation of the bodhisattva attitude.

(2) The second is generating the deity as the yidam.

(3) The third is establishment of the guru, or lama.

(4) The fourth is the actual Mahamudra (shamatha and vipashyana).

(5) The fifth is dedication.

When we speak of generating the bodhisattva attitude, there are two types: the conventional and the ultimate. The ultimate bodhisattva attitude is none other than the realization of Mahamudra itself, the ultimate state of awareness, or enlightenment. So, the first aspect of the five, the generation of the bodhisattva attitude, contains the actual Mahamudra because the ultimate bodhisattva attitude is Mahamudra.

So it is also with the second of the five, generation of the deity or yidam. This contains Mahamudra because the yidam here is Chakrasamvara together with his consort. When one generates the yidam Chakrasamvara and his consort within oneself, one achieves the experience of the union of bliss and emptiness, thereby realizing the Mahamudra.

The third aspect of the fivefold Mahamudra is generation of the lama. The lama has four aspects, or four bodies:

(1) the manifestation body or Nirmanakaya, which is Lord Buddha Shakyamuni;

(2) the perfect enjoyment body or Sambhogakaya, which is Buddha Vairochana;

(3) the truth body or Dharmakaya, which is the Buddha Vajradhara; and

(4) the nature body or Svabhavikakaya, which is mind itself, the realization of the absolute or ultimate nature of mind, which is Mahamudra.

The fourth is the actual Mahamudra practice. This is the cultivation and perfection of shamatha and vipashyana. This first is a state of perfect mental quiescence (shamatha), whereby the full power of one-pointed mind is established. The second is the state of perfect insight (vipashyana), whereby the mind penetrates into the nature of ultimate reality. These two are joined together in the actual practice of Mahamudra.

The fifth is dedication, which is called the perfect or ultimate dedication and is associated with the Buddha Samantabhadra, wherein the one who dedicates, the object of dedication, and the dedication itself are not separated. In their ultimate nature, they are realized to be an undifferentiated unity. That non-differentiation of subject and object in the dedication is, in fact, the state of Mahamudra, the unity of all opposites and the realization of non-duality This fivefold Mahamudra is the common heritage of all of the schools of the Kagyu lineage. However, within this single heritage there are different commentaries, different ways of explaining all of the fine points of the fivefold Mahamudra. In particular, there are ten major commentaries. This presentation will be from the point of view of the commentaries of the Drikung Kagyu lineage. These emphasize the cultivation and practice of the fivefold Mahamudra in the context of a three year retreat in which the Six Yogas of Naropa are practiced.

The unique quality of the Drikgung Kagyu interpretation of the fivefold Mahamudra comes from Lord Jigten Sumgon. By the time he was practicing under his guru, Phagmo Drupa, he had already fulfilled the purpose of all the preliminaries: the accumulation of merit and the purification of obstacles. Having done this, he approached his teacher for the actual instructions. Lord Jigten Sumgon explained that, by the kindness of his lama, he had been able to purify his obscurations and accumulate all the merit necessary to engage in the highest practice. From that point on he wanted just one practice on which to focus rather than many different types of cultivation and meditations on various things-just one path he could follow from then on. So Phagmo Drupa gave him this fivefold Mahamudra practice, telling him that from that moment, until he attained the perfect, peerless state of Buddha-hood, he need rely on nothing else but this path of fivefold Mahamudra.

Question. How do we engage in this practice of fivefold Mahamudra?

His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche.

The practice is divided into two parts: the preliminaries and the actual practice.

1 THE preliminaries

The preliminaries are divided into three categories:

I. The outer practices, which are the common, or shared, practices;

II. The internal practices, which are uncommon, or unshared; and

III The special, exclusive practices of Mahamudra.

I. The external, common practices of the preliminaries are fourfold:

(1) Contemplation on the difficulty of attaining the precious, fully endowed human existence;

(2) Contemplation of impermanence and death;

(3) Contemplation of karma and causality;

(4) Contemplation of the faults of cyclic existence (suffering).

These are the four external, shared, or common preliminaries.

What does it mean to say that they are “shared” or “common”? It means they are practised in common by the three vehicles: the lesser vehicle (Hinayana), the great vehicle (Mahayana) and the secret vehicle (Vajrayana). All three vehicles share these four external preliminaries.

II. The four inner, or unshared, preliminary practices are:

(1) refuge;

(2) Vajrasattva practice;

(3) mandala offering; and

(4) guru yoga.

These inner preliminaries are not shared with Hinayana and Mahayana; that is, they are exclusive to Vajrayana.

III. Next are the preliminaries which are special to fivefold Mahamudra practice. There are three exclusive requirements:

(1) generating loving-kindness;

(2) generating compassion;

(3) developing the bodhisattva attitude (bodhicitta).

They are special, or particular, to this fivefold Mahamudra practice not because they are not found elsewhere, but because they are developed in a different way They are used as an actual part of the preliminaries for Mahamudra so that at each stage one accumulates 100,000 repetitions of each of these practices.

Lord Phagmo Drupa taught the very special qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta in the context of Mahamudra practice. He said we should look upon these three as being necessarily connected with each other. This connection can be illustrated by the example of growing a plant: Loving-kindness is like the soil into which we put the seed. Compassion is like the water and the fertilizer which we put in the soil, allowing the plant to grow. Bodhicitta is like the plant itself, like the tree of enlightenment (the bodhi tree). And so, this “bodhi tree” of the bodhisattva attitude is planted in the soil of loving-kindness and watered and fertilized with compassion. Then it grows greater and greater until it finally produces its fruit, which benefits all living beings.

This fruit is the three bodies of a Buddha—two form bodies and one formless body. This, then, gives us a total of eleven preliminary practices: the four common, the four uncommon, and the three special practices.

In general, there are two necessary elements for any Vajrayana practice—the empowerment and the subsequent instructions, or commentary for practice. These develop, ripen, and purify the continuum of the disciple just like a vessel, which is first cleansed of any defilements and then filled with the necessary fluid or substance. First you must cleanse all the defilements so that you do not adulterate or weaken whatever you place inside. That is the function of the empowerment and of the instructions for practice which are given subsequently.

The practice of Tantra has two phases—the phase of generation and the phase of accomplishment, or perfection. During the phase of generation, we generate ourselves as the deity generate the realization, or presence, of the deity In the phase of perfection, we actually enter into meditation on Mahamudra and perfect the realization of Mahamudra. These two phases are present with any Tantra; one generates the deity and, after having done so, one stabilizes the mind on this meditation, and gains the realization of ultimate reality.

The eleven aspects of the preliminary practices, then, are completed with the generation of the bodhisatlva attitude.


After the preliminaries, one is able to go on to engage in the actual practice of Mahamudra. The first phase of the practice is meditation on the yidam; that is, the cultivation of oneself as the deity which in this case is Chakrasamvara in consort with Vajravarahi.

It is important to understand the purpose of this practice of meditating on the yidam, or deity yoga. It is not just to imagine oneself as being this deity but rather to completely transform one’s reality Usually we think of ourselves as being ordinary human beings with various ideas of the world – all of our connections, all of our thoughts, all of our dichotomies—basically immersed in the ordinary world, or samsara.

Before we can attain insight into reality that is, the practice and realization of Mahamudra, we have to get beyond this illusory reality of samsara. To do that, we generate ourselves as the deity not just thinking of ourselves in some simple way but actually visualizing ourselves, experiencing ourselves, as the deity with the consort with all of the attributes, all of the powers, the entire environment of the deity.

When we have accomplished or cultivated our meditation to the point where we really experience ourselves in that way then we have cut ourselves off from all of the delusions of the ordinary samsaric world and all of the thoughts of me, mine, desire, hatred, and delusion. All of these things having to do with the ordinary world are cut off through this visualization, the accomplished visualization of oneself as the deity. Only from that point of view, being free from the ordinary world, can one then enter into the contemplation and meditation on ultimate reality or Mahamudra. So, we free ourselves from attachment to ordinary reality by cultivating this higher, more pure, more powerful reality of the deity in the mandala, surrounded by the divine, heavenly environment possessing all the divine attributes.

Once we free ourselves from that by generating ourselves as the deity, then there is a subsequent tendency to become attached to that higher divine reality just as we are presently attached to all of the phenomena of our ordinary self and our ordinary world. To free ourselves from that higher attachment, we have the stage of perfection, which is the direct contemplation and meditation on Mahamudra. This will free us from the divine sphere.

Following the practice of deity yoga, or meditation on the yidam, there is the meditation on the lama, or guru yoga.

This practice is somewhat different here in the context of Mahamudra. Guru yoga is an important part of all Buddhist practice. The transmission of the blessings of the lineage from master to disciple is vital in all its phases. It is even more important in the practice of Vajrayana, where strictly relying on and adhering to the word of the lama is critical in order to gain the blessings of the lineage. And particularly in the Kagyu lineage, there is great emphasis on the transmission of the actual blessings, which make practice and accomplishment of practice possible. So, here we have the lineage from the great teachers of India—the great Mahasiddhas such as Saraha, Tilopa, Naropa, and all those down to the present day. In each spiritual generation the entire blessings are transmitted from master to disciple.

In the fivefold Mahamudra practice of this lineage, then, guru yoga is particularly important. In this practice, the transmission has to do with the very nature of mind itself. This realization is what is passed from the master to disciple.

Above and beyond all the techniques and descriptions of practice, there is an actual transmission whereby the realization of the nature of mind from the master is planted in the disciple.

The practice of guru yoga has four sections. First is the manifestation body of the guru (nirmanakaya); second is the body of complete enjoyment (sambhogakaya); third is the truth body (dharmakaya); and fourth is the nature body (svabhavikakaya). The nirmanakaya of the gum is cultivated as, or in the form of, the Lord Buddha Shakyamuni, golden in color; the sambhogakaya is cultivated in the form of the Buddha Vairochana; the dharmakaya is cultivated in the form of the Buddha Vajradhara; and the svabhavikakaya is cultivated as Mahamudra itself, the pure and ultimate nature of mind.

The third aspect of the actual practice of Mahamudra (the first being deity yoga, the second guru yoga) is the actual meditation on Mahamudra itself, and this has two different stages:

(1) the cultivation and achievement of mental quiescence to stabilize and clarify the mind; and

(2) the cultivation and achievement of pure insight, or the highest insight into reality using mind to penetrate into the nature of ultimate reality

So this is the body of the meditation on Mahamudra.

The next practice, done after the practice of Mahamudra, is the conclusion consisting of the various aspects of the dedication of merit.

The practice of Mahamudra, then, is formed by the instructions of the preceptor, the lama, who shows the different ways in which to actually engage in the practice. This depends on the disciple’s abilities, the sharpness of her faculties, and her diligence. The practices are described generally in terms of four levels of practitioners.

(1) Lower Level. This is the ordinary person who needs to be given this practice in discrete steps. First, mind is focused and stabilized until one has attained the state of shamatha, or mental quiescence. Having achieved mental quiescence, one begins to cultivate special insight, vipashyana. With mental quiescence as the basis, one develops special insight, and attains the realization of Mahamudra, of ultimate reality, of the nature of mind. This is the lowest, or ordinary stage.

(2) Middle Level. This is the more highly developed, sharper, more accomplished practitioner. At this stage, the preceptor teaches how to join mental quiescence and special insight into one practice. For instance, if one were meditating on the deity Chakrasamvara, this would be a meditation on his appearance and his emptiness at the same time, conjoined into one (emptiness being the ultimate nature of the deity) So, the appearance and ultimate nature are joined into one at this middle level of practice.

(3) High Level. To the very sharp, able practitioner, the preceptor gives Mahamudra practice in the form of first mastering the philosophical view of Mahamudra, then meditating on that view without engaging in other types of meditation. One goes directly to the meditation of this highest view of reality and masters that, and thereby obtains Mahamudra.

(4) Supremely High Level. This would be persons such as Tilopa or Naropa, those who need just a little push in order to realize the ultimate enlightenment of Mahamudra. For them, a special instruction, some key words, a special action or word will break the final barrier to the supreme realization. It is presumed that these practitioners have accomplished these other levels in former lifetimes . In this lifetime, they need only that final push in order to achieve the ultimate goal.

Two years of the three-year retreat are dedicated to this practice of fivefold Mahamudra. The other year is devoted to the Six Yogas of Naropa. In a retreat situation when one is concentrated day and night on the practice, it takes two years to investigate what we are covering now in this book. We will not attempt to go through all of the texts from Phagmo Drupa on down, but rather will offer an overview of these so as to enable us to enter into this practice and to perfect it in the future.


Next, to understand what is meant by Mahamudra, we will look first at the word itself and say something about its meaning. The term in Tibetan is chak-gya chenpo; in Sanskrit, Mahamudra. The order is reversed so that chak-gya means mudra, and chenpo means maha. First, chak-gya in this context refers to all phenomena without exception, everything subsumed within samsara and nirvana such that no phenomenon, nothing whatsoever, is omitted or left out. So it means the entirety of everything. Chenpo means great, or the highest. So this is the highest, most conclusive view which realizes all phenomena of samsara and nirvana as they actually are.

The term mudra, or chak-gya, has the commonplace meaning of a seal you would stamp on a document. Here, it signifies the seal which is “stamped” on all phenomena. It is a seal which shows validity which testifies that something is real or valid. Therefore, the meaning is that this Mahamudra testifies to the real, or ultimate, nature of all phenomena. It is also said to be like the seal of a king under which all things of the kingdom exist. There is nothing in the kingdom which does not fall under the authority of the king. So likewise, there is nothing within samsara or nirvana which does not fall under this Mahamudra, there is no phenomenon that escapes it or exists apart from those things subsumed under Mahamudra.

The term maha in Mahamudra is also variously described.

In one interpretation, the term mudra indicates quantity and the term maha indicates quality. The quantity here is infinite, or all-inclusive. The quality indicated by the term maha is understood as the highest, the most sublime.

The term Mahamudra is described in a commentary to the Kalachakra Tantra written by Padma Chin. There, he explains the essence of Mahamudra as being the actual Prajnaparamita; that is, the wisdom which is the source of all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. They all arise from the Prajnaparamita, the ultimate wisdom, and that ultimate wisdom is none other than Mahamudra. In the context of Vajrayana, Mahamudra is that which unites bliss and emptiness into one, and is the ultimate realization. This occurs both through the Karma Mudra and the Wisdom Mudra. Through both of these, bliss and emptiness are united into the experience of highest enlightenment, and this is what comes together in the Mahamudra practice.

Dharma Lord Gampopa said that the mudra aspect of the word indicates the nature of all phenomena, including everything in samsara and nirvana, all phenomena without exception. What mudra means here is that all these phenomena are, in their ultimate nature, non-arising. That nature, or ultimate state, the ultimate truth of all phenomena, is referred to by this term Mahamudra. In his description, Lord Gampopa divides this term mudra into its two syllables, each with a meaning. The first syllable of the Tibetan term chakgya, chak, refers to the non-arising nature of all phenomena, without exception. The second syllable, gya, refers to the beginningless nature of this. Together, they mean ”from beginningless time all phenomena are non-arising in their ultimate nature.”

The term maha refers to the highest realization of this, and the mudra aspect refers to the reality itself. It is not enough that things merely exist in this ultimate way; they have always existed in this ultimate way. What we need is the realization of that nature. The state of enlightenment, or Mahamudra, is only accomplished through the realization of that ultimate nature. Just like being afraid of a piece of rope in the dark, thinking it is a snake—it is not enough that it’s only a piece of rope if we think it’s a snake and are terrified. We have to turn on the light and actually discover it is a piece of rope before the problem is solved.

Put another way maha describes phenomena as being naturally non-arising, or naturally free of all delusory elements. If you tie a snake into a loop and toss it away, the snake will untie itself through its own knowledge or its own ability and go about its business. It doesn’t need anyone to help it. So, the ultimate realization of Mahamudra can be compared to a snake by saying that it frees itself; it does not need any assistance. Mind does not need to be fixed or amended by something from the outside; rather, it frees itself. The implication of this is that all phenomena without exception are non-arising, which means that their very nature is unobstructed. They are ultimate bliss and freedom; enlightenment is their very nature. There is nothing to be added or changed to achieve the ultimate nature of things because this is what exists from the beginning.

This term Mahamudra, then, has all of these associations and ultimately refers to the natural state of all things as being perfect or ultimate or non-arising. All of these terms point to the fact that the nature of reality is pre-existing, or has always existed in this way Therefore, we have many synonyms for Mahamudra—the absolute truth, emptiness, or shunyata, the ultimate nature of reality the lack of inherent existence, and freedom from inherent existence.

The explanation of Mahamudra can also be divided into three:

(1) the basis;

(2) the path;

(3) the result.

(1) Basis. The basis, or foundation, of Mahamudra is the nature of mind itself. This is the pure, or ultimate, nature of mind, which is the same as the ultimate nature of all phenomena, completely free of inherent existence.

(2) Path. After accepting the basis, we cultivate the realization of that ultimate nature of all phenomena through the three phases of the path. The teachings are first acquired, then cultivated and, finally, realized. These are the three steps of Mahamudra practice——first, hearing, or studying; second, thinking, or contemplating; and third, meditating, or actualizing.

These are the teachings of Mahamudra, of the ultimate nature of all phenomena: they are like clear light, or pure emptiness, lacking even the tiniest amount of inherent existence.

(3) Result. Third is the result, or the fruit, of Mahamudra practice. The fruit of this process is the realization of complete non-duality so that appearances and emptiness have one taste. They are not seen as different. The conventional and ultimate are perceived simultaneously in their ultimate state of non-duality and non-differentiation, which is the highest state of realization.

Question. – When you realize Mahamudra by way of deity yoga, is that realization different from the Mahamudra you realize through vipashyana?

His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche – No, they are the same as long as you accomplish the practice to the point of actually realizing the nature of mind. If it’s done through deity yoga, you are doing the twofold practice of the generation stage and the perfection stage. First you’re generating yourself as the deity and then you are intemalizing the deity in the perfection stage. Having internalized the deity or become one with the deity then mind focuses on its own nature. If it realizes that nature, then Mahamudra realization is complete. Likewise, if you practice shamatha and vipashyana, you first make the mind calm, stable and focused through shamatha. On that basis, you analyse the nature of mind. If through that you realize the ultimate nature of mind, then you have realized Mahamudra.

There are not two Mahamudras being realized, it’s all the same goal.

Question. – What is the purpose of deity yoga? It appears that we are just substituting attachment to one illusion for another.

His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche – The basic cause of our being stuck in cyclic existence, in samsara, is our excessive attachment to various objects. It’s always one object or another. To become liberated from cyclic existence, it is ultimately necessary to be free of all attachments. As for particular attachments along the way such as attachment to the state of identifying oneself as a deity or attachment to some type of experience that arises in meditation, or attachment to the guru-any of these things can become an obstacle if one holds on to them too long. The antidote is to practice in the overall context as prescribed. In other words, each of these has its place. Each of these is cultivated along the way for a particular purpose. As long as one keeps the goal of ultimate enlightenment in mind, then all of thesewill be used as tools along the way and not viewed as ultimate goals in and of themselves.

Question. – In many of the visualizations we use the term “root lama. ” Sometimes the root lama is identified as a particular deity and other times they say it is your personal root lama. What do we mean by “root lama? “

His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche – There are various types of root lamas, depending on the context. In receiving an empowerment you have the root lama who grants the empowerment. The lama who gives you the transmission is the root lama for the transmission. The lama who gives you the pith instructions on the recognition of the nature of your own mind is a root lama. Literally this is called “the lama who bestows the three kindnesses,” the one who gives the empowerment, transmission, and pith instructions. Now it’s possible for a person to have more than one root lama. When Marpa went to India, he had 500 lamas. His principal lamas were Naropa and Maitripa. The originator of the Shangpa Kagyu, for example, had five root lamas who were dakinis. So it’s possible to have many root lamas. There is also the root lama in the context of practice. This would be the lama in whom you have great confidence and with whom you have a clear relationship of teacher and disciple. This does not necessarily involve the other categories (empowerment, etc.), but rather is the lama who imparts teachings to you and in whom you have confidence.

Another root lama would be Lord Iigten Sumgon because he made certain prophesies. He said that after he left that body (in which he was Lord Jigten Sumgon) he would return to the world. In particular, “after sixteen or seventeen generations, in times of great difficulty and problems in the world, I will return in many forms. From that time on, the practitioners may look to me as their root lama.” So it’s appropriate to look to Lord Jigten Sumgon as your root lama because he promised to stay in the world manifesting in various forms to guide living beings until the time when the Buddha of the future, Maitreya, manifests in this world.

Question. – How does one determine who one’s personal root lama is?

His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche – The identification of the root lama is something that arises out of contact and experience with the lama. It’s something which arises naturally and the signs are one’s feelings toward the lama, one’s feeling of connectedness. These feelings are not based on vows, are not something you make up or force, but rather they arise on the basis of previous karma, that is, from the connection with that lama in a former lifetime. So, it is something that arises in your own mind, in your own perception with regard to a lama in whom you feel an uncommon sense of trust, confidence, and inspiration.

Question. – Sometimes when people are meditating, very disturbing thoughts or feelings come up. What suggestions do you have to work with this?

His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche – This type of phenomenon is very common and is actually a good sign. It’s a sign that you are mentally standing still long enough so these thoughts catch up with you. Most of the time our minds are running so fast in order to keep away from unpleasant thoughts and the things that are troubling us. Our minds go from one idea to another, always escaping the more difficult things. So when you sit in meditation, instead of creating a lot of new things, a lot of the old ones naturally arise. It’s important at that time to recognize that this is in fact a sign that your mind is staying still and this is very good. Do not worry about the arising of those things, but allow them to pass also. It’s necessary for the beginner to be patient and to understand that this occurs and not to be disturbed by it. Rather, one should cultivate a sense of distance from those disturbing thoughts. To be able to back off, watch them arise and anticipate that they will arise, and not be too caught up in them, that’s the first step. Then when they arise, part of the mind recognizes that they are disturbing thoughts that should be cut off and can be cut off, and then proceeds to cut them off. As one develops, one gets better and more skilful at cutting them off.

Lord Jigten Sumgon had a simile for this. It’s like a particular type of bird that stands right at the edge of a great river in Tibet. At a very broad and calm place, this bird looks for fish. Being very skilful, he can see the slightest ripple and indication of the fish about to surface. As soon as that fish surfaces, he’s right there to scoop it up. So, that is what we cultivate in the meditation, that ability to stand back and observe the quiet flow of mind and always be ready to catch any disturbing thought or conception before it goes on and really disturbs the quiet stream of our consciousness. One method of dealing with these disturbing conceptions is to just cut them off as they arise. Another method is to let them go. Once we become more familiar with the nature of the conceptions, the reality behind them, then we become less disturbed by them and we get to the point that we don’t have to cut them off. Recognizing their nature, we are not disturbed by them and we just let them be. Let them pass. They are then rendered incapable of disturbing the calmness of mind.