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The Great Medicine Which Conquers
Clinging To the Notion of Reality

Steps in meditation on the enlightened mind

Root text by Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Namgyal
Explained by by Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche

Part one of a monthly series

The Great Medicine that Conquers Clinging to the Notion of Reality was written by a remarkable master named Shechen Gyaltsap Gyurme Pema Namgyal, who lived at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. He was a disciple of some of the greatest luminaries of the 19th century including Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrol Lodro Thaye and Lama Mipham Rinpoche. Shechen Gyaltsap was indisputably one of the most learned and accomplished lamas of his time, which is quite evident when looking through the large collection of his writings. Within the thirteen volumes are found many lucid and profound commentaries on various aspects of philosophy and practice.

Shechen Gyaltsap was also an accomplished practitioner. He spent much of his life in retreat above Shechen Monastery and achieved many signs of accomplishment. Once he started a three-year retreat based on the Vajrakilaya practice, but to everyone's surprise after only three months he emerged saying that he had completed his intended program. The next morning, his attendant noticed that a footprint had appeared in the stone threshold of the hermitage. The stone was later removed by Shechen Gyaltsap's disciples and kept hidden during the Cultural Revolution; it can still be seen at Shechen Monastery in Tibet. That was just an outer sign of his inner realization of the Vajrakilaya practice.

He was the first root teacher of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and also of Dzongzar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, both of whom received teachings from him at his hermitage. He was also the one who recognized Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche as being an emanation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. In his autobiography Khyentse Rinpoche wrote this about Shechen Gyaltsap:

"While he was giving empowerments, I was often overwhelmed by the splendor and magnificence of his expression and his eyes as, with a gesture pointing in my direction, he introduced the nature of mind. I felt that, apart from my own feeble devotion causing me to see him as an ordinary man, he was in fact exactly the same as the great Guru Padmasambhava giving empowerments to the twenty-five disciples. My confidence grew stronger and stronger, and when again he would gaze and point at me, asking 'What is the nature of mind?' I would think with great devotion, 'This is truly a great yogi who can see the absolute nature of reality!' and I myself began to understand how to meditate."


Like all traditional texts, this text consists of three parts: the virtuous beginning, the virtuous middle and the virtuous end. The virtuous beginning is the introduction, the virtuous middle is the main teaching itself and the virtuous end is the colophon and dedication. The introduction itself has four parts: the title, the homage paid by the author, the reason why he has written this text and the need for such a teaching.

The Title

The full title of the teaching is the Great Medicine that Conquers Clinging to the Notion of Reality: Steps in Meditation on the Enlightened Mind. Depending on one's knowledge, realization and intellectual capacity, the title of a book can have various functions. Those with the highest intelligence and understanding merely need to hear the title to immediately understand what the subject is, as well as its depth and breadth. When a very skilful doctor reads the name of a medicine he or she knows exactly the entire spectrum of that medicine's use and how it should be administered. Likewise, when you simply mention a title to an accomplished wise and knowledgeable practitioner, he or she will know exactly what it is about. Someone of average intelligence will at least know to which aspects of the Buddhist teachings it pertains—in this case the teachings of Mahayana. Finally for those of us with lesser faculties the title simply makes it easier for us to find the book!

The Homage

Namo Guru Buddha Bodhisattva
Homage to the gurus, buddhas and bodhisattvas!

The homage is written in both Sanskrit and Tibetan, both of which mean "Homage to the gurus, buddhas and bodhisattvas!"

The roots of this teaching are traced back to the source of the Buddhist teachings, which were first expounded in Sanskrit in India. Therefore the homage is included in Sanskrit to remind us of the authentic origin of the teachings and that most of our canonical teachings were translated from Sanskrit. So, by including Sanskrit at the beginning, although a text such as this may not be translated directly from Sanskrit, it is based on the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, which originated in India. Also, in this way it carries the blessing of the Buddha's lineage and creates a propensity for us to learn the original language used for the Buddha's teachings.

Next comes the four-line verse of the extended homage, which is usually paid to whoever—a buddha, bodhisattva or spiritual master—is most closely related to the teachings or is its source.

I bow to all the masters
Who have attained supreme primordial liberation
And out of compassion remain here,
Dredging the depths of samsara.

This homage is offered to the spiritual master, the teacher. The meaning of "spiritual teacher" varies depending on the depth one's practice and the purity of one's vision. In the Hinayana path of individual liberation one's teacher is simply considered as a spiritual friend. In the path of Mahayana, the teacher is considered as a bodhisattva. In the path of the Secret Mantra, the Mantrayana, the teacher is perceived as a buddha in person.

Since this text refers to the Secret Mantra Vehicle, we pay homage to the teacher as being one with the Buddha himself. When we say "Buddha" here, we are not referring only to the notion of the historical figure Gautama Buddha who began with an ordinary human existence and then gradually attained buddhahood in that particular life. Instead we view the Buddha from the Vajrayana perspective, as one who has already attained buddhahood and recognized the primordial perfection, the ultimate nature of things and manifests in our world in order to show the path to sentient beings—showing how to accumulate merit and wisdom, and ultimately achieve buddhahood. His compassion for all sentient beings is the only reason the Buddha again manifested as a spiritual teacher in an ordinary samsaric existence, intent upon "dredging the depths of samsara" and freeing all sentient beings from suffering.

The Author's Intention

The next verse is a declaration of the author's purpose for writing this text and includes an introduction to the subject. He announces his teaching, saying:

I will speak a little about how to destroy one's clinging to the notion of reality
With the great medicine, bodhichitta,
The essence of the Mahayana path,
The road travelled by all the buddhas and bodhisattvas.

"Bodhichitta," the altruistic wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, is the indispensable life force of the Mahayana path to enlightenment and suffices unto itself. Chandrakirti's Entry into the Middle Way states, "The arhats and listeners, the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, all achieved their respective levels by listening to the Buddha's teachings and putting them into practice." But the Buddha himself achieved buddhahood chiefly through bodhichitta and compassion, which are the very root of buddhahood itself.

Bodhichitta is the quintessence of the Mahayana. It is through the practice of bodhichitta that all buddhas and bodhisattvas, without exception, have achieved enlightenment. And if bodhichitta is "the great medicine" then our sickness is our clinging to a self, to the notion of personal identity and to the reality of phenomena. This clinging is the cause of suffering and the main obstacle to achieving enlightenment. The remedy to clinging to notions of self and other, is the medicine of compassion and an altruistic mind that aspires to free all beings from suffering.

The last section of this introduction explains why there is a need for such a teaching. If we contemplate our existence we can see that in most cases, we lead an ordinary existence amidst great confusion, with a strong clinging to the way things appear and not the way they actually are. We are constantly caught in the mechanism of repulsion and aversion -- trying to hold on to our possessions, our relatives and whatever else we consider ours. Trying to destroy our enemies or to discard what seems to be threatening to this self keeps us caught in a constant pattern of delusion. Here is an example:

Keep this in mind when in dire straits, Upon the vast plain of clinging to life's appearances, Surrounded by your enemies – the obscuring emotions – You are about to be robbed of the supreme wealth–virtue.

All this clinging creates a great plain of deluded existence, where we cling to whatever appears and take for granted that things actually exist as they appear. We travelers on the journey of existence are under the constant threat of bandits and enemies—the afflictive emotions and all negative mental states. These bandits are trying to steal our positive qualities. Obscuring emotions rob us of the most precious treasure that we carry on this journey, namely all the positive aspects of mind that allow us to travel the path to enlightenment. So we need advice on how to vanquish these bandits.

Translated by Ani Jinba Palmo.

Continue with part two.

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