A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages: Teachings on Guhyasamaja Tantra

A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages: Teachings on Guhyasamaja Tantra


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Tsongkhapa's A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages (1419) is a comprehensive presentation of the highest yoga class of Buddhist tantra, especially the key practices - the so-called five stages (pancakrama) - of the advanced phase of Guhyasamaja tantra. Beginning with a thorough examination of the Indian sources, Tsongkhapa draws particularly from the writings of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Candrakirti, and Naropa to develop a definitive understanding of the Vajrayana completion stage. Whereas in the generation stage, meditators visualize the Buddha in the form of the deity residing in a mandala palace, in the completion stage discussed in the present volume, meditators transcend ordinary consciousness and actualize the state of a buddha themselves. Among other things, Tsongkhapa's work covers the subtle human physiology of channels and winds along with the process of dying, the bardo, and rebirth. This definitive statement on Guhyasamaja tantra profoundly affected the course of Buddhist practice in Tibet.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861714544
Publisher: Wisdom Publications MA
Publication date: 04/16/2013
Series: Library of Tibetan Classics , #15
Pages: 636
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Tsongkhapa Losang Dragpa (1357-1419) is arguably the finest scholar-practitioner produced by the Buddhism of Tibet. Renowned for both his written works and his meditative accomplishments, he founded the Gelug school, which produced the lineage of the Dalai Lamas.

Gavin Kilty has been a full-time translator for the Institute of Tibetan Classics since 2001. Before that he lived in Dharamsala, India, for fourteen years, where he spent eight years training in the traditional Geluk monastic curriculum through the medium of class and debate at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics. He also teaches Tibetan language courses in India, Nepal, and elsewhere, and is a translation reviewer for the organization 84000, Translating the Words of the Buddha.

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A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages

Teachings on Guhyasamaja Tantra
By Tsongkhapa

Wisdom Publications

Copyright © 2012 Tsongkhapa
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780861714544

Introduction (partial)


Buddhist tantra of the kind found in Tibet and other Himalayan regions was mostly brought from the Indian subcontinent between the eighth and eleventh centuries in two great waves known as the early and late translations. These tantras were gathered by a few brave souls who made the perilous journey from Tibet to India to locate them. Sometimes they were translated in India with the help of experienced Indian pandits. Occasionally, Indian pandits traveled to Tibet to assist in translation. Also, one or two Indian Buddhist masters journeyed to Tibet, bringing with them tantras that were then rendered into Tibetan.

So what is a tantra, and how does it differ from that other genre of Buddhist teachings known as sutra? All Buddhist teachings are designed to lead the disciple from the unsatisfactory state of existence, known as samsara, in which we are prone to a host of unwanted experiences grouped under the term "suffering.” The essential component of samsara, or the "cycle of existence,” is that we are not in control of our destiny but languish under the sway of various mental afflictions that bring about this suffering. The teachings of the Buddha are designed to place us on the path that leads to the cessation of suffering (nirvana) or to the higher state of the enlightenment of buddhahood. The practices that lead to the cessation of suffering and especially to enlightenment can be grouped under the headings of method and wisdom. Method deals with goal-oriented, aspirational practices such as the development of love and compassion, patience, perseverance, and so on, while wisdom concentrates on penetrating the depths of reality.

Method and wisdom are said to be the two wings of the bird that flies to enlightenment. Two wings are needed because the goal of buddhahood is essentially twofold: the resultant and enlightened state known as the dharmakaya, or "wisdom body,” which refers to the unencumbered knowledge of the Buddha, or his enlightened mind, and the resultant embodiment of that enlightened mind, known as the rupakaya, or "form body.” The wing of method accomplishes the rupakaya, and that of wisdom accomplishes the dharmakaya. The reality or final truth of all phenomena, which is obscured by our omnipresent unknowing state of mind, is sought out by the practices grouped under the category of wisdom. This reality is not something invented by the Buddha or added by later Buddhist commentators. In that sense, it is not a Buddhist truth; it is the actual way phenomena exist, and has existed, since time immemorial. Because of this, any Buddhist wisdom practice—sutra or tantra—aimed at discovering this truth is seeking out the same reality. There is no difference between sutra and tantra in terms of the ultimate truth.

However, the practices of method in tantra are generally recognized to be superior to those of tantra. This is especially true in the highest class of tantra, known as highest yoga tantra (anuttarayoga tantra). There, method refers to two exclusive practices not found in nontantric Buddhist practice. First, method can refer to the type of mind that focuses on the ultimate truth, or emptiness. Normally, a mind dedicated to the perception of emptiness belongs to the wisdom side of practice as mentioned above. But in tantra this mind is combined with a great bliss that is produced by bringing the inner winds, or energies (vayu), into the central channel (dhuti) of the body. This manipulation of the bodily winds is achieved by a variety of methods, described in the present text. The bliss and the consciousness focused on emptiness are united as one. Such a bliss-consciousness is a very powerful and fast method to develop the wisdom that understands emptiness. The bliss consciousness also is transformed through yogic practice into the form of the deity of the tantra. This is method, and the mind cognizing emptiness is wisdom. Because these two are essentially one entity, method and wisdom in tantra are said to be of one mind. This is not found outside of tantra. In sutra practices, wisdom is supported and supplemented by method practices such as compassion, and method is accompanied by the wisdom practices of understanding impermanence and the nature of phenomena, but they are never of one entity.

The other type of method found in tantra is the development of a form known as the illusory body. This body is created from the subtle inner winds and is in the aspect of the resultant buddha form that is the goal of the practice. This illusory body is the exclusive cause of the form body of a buddha, the rupakaya. Alongside this practice is the wisdom development of the mental state of clear light. This is in the nature of a very subtle level of mind and is the exclusive cause for the enlightened mind, or dharmakaya. These two practices are explained in great depth in the text and are not found in the sutra path. Tantra, therefore, is a fast method for gaining the two enlightened forms and is characterized by exclusive method practices.

Generation stage

The practice of tantra follows an order of two stages: the generation stage and the completion stage. This works deals exclusively with the five stages of the completion stage. The generation stage, which must precede the completion stage, is characterized by the repeated visualization or imagination of yourself and your personal environment as enlightened forms. The purpose of these complex practices, known as sadhanas or self-generation practices, is to displace the ordinary view of yourself and personal environment and to replace it with a divine or enlightened view. This is only an imagined process and not an actual transformation; the generation stage is a preparatory ripening before the completion stage, during which these imagined enlightened forms are made real.

Generation-stage practices, therefore, consist of sequenced visualizations, usually beginning with a dissolution of the ordinary self and environment. From that state of emptiness arises a Sanskrit syllable, which by way of a few more transformations arises as an enlightened form such as a deity or a mandala. These transformative processes are repeated many times during the recitation and practice of the sadhana. In the form of the deity, many enlightened activities such as initiations and blessings take place, all performed to reinforce the imagined transformation of yourself from an ordinary being to a divine one. Repeated practice ripens you for the higher completion-stage practices, in which these imagined processes are made real though manipulation of the inner winds and psychic penetration of various vital points in the body known as chakras, or channel wheels.

Completion stage
This text begins at the point where the yogi, or practitioner, has been ripened by prolonged practice of the generation stage, which itself has to be preceded by an empowerment or initiation (abhi?ekha) into the practice of that particular tantric deity by a qualified master. The completion stage completes or perfects what was begun on the generation stage.

The completion stage itself is subdivided into stages. Commonly there are five, giving us the "five stages” (pañcakrama) in the title of this book, but the first one is itself divided into two, giving us six in all: body isolation, speech isolation, mind isolation, illusory body, clear light, and union. Confusingly, the completion stage is also sometimes described in terms of the "six yogas.” These are described in the eighteenth and final chapter of the Guhyasamaja Tantra, which is also classified as a separate work called the Guhyasamaja Later Tantra. These six yogas are also the means by which the completion stage of the unique Kalacakra Tantra is taught. Tsongkhapa spends a lot of time correlating the six yogas with the five stages.


The three isolations

The three isolations of body, speech, and mind are so called because through their practices the yogi isolates body, speech, and mind from ordinary perception. This is different form the imagined transformation from the ordinary to the divine found in the generation stage because the completion stage is characterized by the yogic practice of bringing the winds into the central channel, or dhuti. These inner winds are of vital significance in the realm of tantra. The winds exist within the human body and were first created at conception alongside the other components of the physical body. They are classified into five major, or root, winds and five secondary winds. Classification is according to function. These functions essentially concern the inner mobility of the human body and include such things as breathing, digesting food, and expelling waste. They also have their areas of the body in which they primarily operate. The main wind is called the life-sustaining wind (pra?a), or just life wind, which as its name suggests is the most vital wind of the body. Imbalances in this wind can cause serious illness and even death.

As mentioned above, the winds are formed through a gradual process at conception and birth. Likewise, at death they follow the reverse process, dissolving gradually into the center of the heart cakra. In this process of creation and dissolution, or withdrawing, the winds carry with them various conceptual states of mind. These states of minds, which are called intrinsic natures (prak?ti), become increasingly coarse as they are created in the womb and increasingly subtle as they withdraw at death. Winds and the mind, or consciousness, are together like a horse and its rider. The horse is equated with the winds and the rider with the mind, because like the horse, the winds carry the mind to where it is directed. Mind has no power to move without the accompanying horse of the winds. The natural arising and withdrawing of the winds is used in tantra to achieve its aims. In fact, many of the body’s natural functions are harnessed to various tantric practices.

As the winds and conceptual states of mind withdraw during the death process, so the winds and consciousness become subtler. The subtle mind and subtle wind are ideal for the development of the exclusive causes of the dharmakaya and rupakaya, respectively, of a buddha, as described earlier. Therefore it makes sense to tap into them for this purpose by recreating such subtle states while still alive and employing them on the completion-stage path. Just as the winds withdraw into the central channel at death, so completion-stage practices, such as the three isolations, bring the winds from the two side channels into the central channel though the psychic penetration of the chakras, which loosens the channel knots there. Such a practice brings forth the subtle mind accompanied by the subtle wind, and this mind is then focused on the nature of reality, or emptiness, as described above.

Therefore, although body isolation involves similar practices to the generation stage in its visualization of various parts of the body as different deities, it is characterized by the bringing, or the ability to bring, the winds into the central channel. Nevertheless, as Tsongkhapa points out, there are those who include body isolation wholly or partially within the generation stage, and thus is not considered a separate stage from speech isolation.

Speech isolation is not an isolation of actual speech in the sense of separating the articulated sounds of the vocal cords from ordinary existence. It refers to practices called vajra repetition and pra?ayama, or "subduing the life-wind.” These make use of the inner winds and breath, which are often regarded as the root cause of speech. This practice follows body isolation because speech isolation, the form of mantra recitation exclusive to the completion stage, has to be recited by a practitioner who has gained the body vajra of body isolation. Mantra repetition on the completion stage is not vocalized chanting but an identification of the tones of the movement of the inner breath with the three fundamental syllables—o?, a?, and hu?.

The final isolation, isolation of mind, is practiced because in order to attain enlightenment, the practitioner must understand the nature of mind in tantric terms and use that mind to focus on ultimate reality by way of the exclusive tantric methods described above. This practice involves understanding the intrinsic natures described above, and making use of the processes of withdrawing the winds, accomplished in vajra recitation, to develop the wisdoms associated with each stage of the process.

The union of the two truths

The last three stages involve the practice of uniting the illusory body with the clear light to form the final stage of union. This indivisible union is the second type of method-and-wisdom union described earlier. Method and wisdom united refers either to the union of bliss and emptiness, as was done earlier, or to this type of union in which the illusory body is method and the state of clear light is wisdom. Method illusory body is also referred to as conventional truth, and wisdom clear light as ultimate truth. In sutra teachings, the two truths are levels or modes of existence, but in tantra they are also the two causes for the two enlightened forms. Conventional-truth illusory body is the exclusive cause of the rupakaya, and ultimate-truth clear light is the exclusive cause of the dharmakaya.

The creation of an illusory body is necessary because without it the yogi would have no exclusive or substantial cause of the rupakaya, or form body. It is an exclusive cause because it is formed from the subtle wind within the body, and the form body too must be a product of the subtle wind. They are therefore in a direct causal chain. The illusory body is also a nonexclusive or cooperative cause of the dharmakaya, which is in the category of wisdom. The exclusive cause of the dharmakaya is the following stage of clear light. Therefore the illusory-body stage comes before the clear-light stage. This subtle wind from the illusory body is activated or induced through the processes of withdrawing the coarse winds in the isolation meditations. Although this illusory body is separate from the coarse body, and can even travel outside, it is not a separate identity.

In a normal death process, the consciousness withdraws through a series of stages, during which various appearances occur, until it reaches a state known as death clear light. This is a very brief state, often not even noticed by the dying person. After it passes, the person, now officially dead, passes into the intermediate state, or bardo, in the form they will adopt in their next life, which is determined by the karma that has ripened at that time. This intermediate-state physical form is not one of flesh and blood or even matter but is constructed of the same subtle wind that creates the illusory body. The intermediate-state body is even said to be a kind of illusory body. It is these normal life and death processes that are manipulated in completion-stage practice. Therefore, during the death process, the yogi will replace the intermediate state with a deliberately created illusory body in the form of the deity of the tantra they are practicing. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the advanced completion-stage practitioner does not have to wait for death but can recreate the same illusory body during meditation in life. The often-repeated statement that in tantra you can attain enlightenment in one life is based on the fact that if you achieve an illusory body in life, you will attain enlightenment in that life or at death.

The illusory body is generated to enhance the potency of the wisdom of clear light, which will eradicate the final hindrances to enlightenment known as the obscurations to omniscience (jñeyavara?a). This is done by withdrawing the illusory body into the clear light. As we saw, an actualization of clear light occurs naturally in the death process. Many instances of clear light are also manifested by yogic practices on the earlier stages, where they are used to focus on the reality of phenomena, or emptiness. However, here clear light refers to the direct realization by innate bliss of the very subtle reality. When the illusory body withdraws into this clear light, the illusory body itself disappears, but the remaining clear light is known as the actual clear light, as opposed to the illustrative clear light found on earlier stages. Only when the illusory body itself is purified by the clear light will it remain. This is achieved by using the withdrawing and creating processes, which correspond to the processes of death and the intermediate-state. The clear light is first achieved by the withdrawal, or dissolution, of the illusory body, and in the subsequent process of creation corresponding to the arising of intermediate state, the illusory body is again produced, but this time in a purified form. This purified illusory body will not vanish when the actual clear light is actualized. This is the beginning of union, the last stage.

The stage of union represents the union of method and wisdom, conventional and ultimate truth, pure illusory body and actual clear light, and when perfected, the indivisible union of the rupakaya and dharmakaya of the enlightened state. These two wings of practice run alongside each other throughout tantra—and in sutra practice too. Complementing and supporting each other, they reach their zenith when inseparably joined as bliss and emptiness or as illusory body and clear light. The development of these two is the very essence of all Buddhist practice, but in tantra they take on a special significance, becoming fast and powerful methods for attaining the state of a buddha.

[After this, the introduction continues with a history of the Guhyasamaja tantra in India and Tibet and introduces the texts that form the foundation of Tsongkhapa’s commentary.]


Excerpted from A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages by Tsongkhapa Copyright © 2012 by Tsongkhapa. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

General Editor’s Preface
Translator’s Introduction
Technical Note

Core Teachings on the Glorious Guhyasamaja, King of Tantras

1. Homage and Introduction

Part 1. Divisions of Highest Yoga Tantra
2. The Two Types of Tantra
3. Specific Explanation of Guhyasamaja Method Tantra
4. Praise of Guhyasamaja
5. Commentarial Traditions

Part 2. The Path of Guhyasamaja
6. Training in the Guhyasamaja
7. The Two Stages
8. Explanation of Evam, and Bliss and Emptiness
9. The Necessity of Penetrating Vital Points on the Body

Part 3. Divisions of the Completion Stage
10. The Core Instructions
11. The Five Stages

Part 4. Body Isolation
12. Identifying Body Isolation
13. Types of Body Isolation
14. How Body Isolation Is Incorporated in the Six Yogas
15. The Practice of Body Isolation

Part 5. Speech Isolation
16. Identifying Speech Isolation
17. Divisions, Functions, and Movement of the Winds
18. Significance of the Mantras
19. Pranayama Meditations
20. Vajra Recitation
21. Experiences in Pranayama Meditation

Part 6. Mind Isolation
22. The Nature of Mind
23. The Three Appearances and the Intrinsic Natures

Part 7. The Conventional-Truth Illusory Body
24. Gaining Instructions on the Illusory Body
25. Methods of Attaining the Illusory Body
26. The Mixings

Part 8. The Ultimate-Truth Clear Light
27. Stages of Attainment
28. The Outer and Inner Mastery
29. The Two Meditative Absorptions
30. How the Path of Tantra Must Occur on the Sutra Path
31. How Clear Light Is Incorporated into the Six Yogas

Part 9. The Stage of Union
32. The Two Truths Inseparably Combined
33. How the Stage of Union Fits into the Six Yogas

Part 10. Tantric Activities
34. General Presentation on Activities
35. Highest Yoga Tantra Activities
36. Rituals for the Three Activities
37. The Attainment of Complete Enlightenment

Colophon and Dedication

Table of Tibetan Transliteration

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Working from an extremely difficult Tibetan text, Gavin Kilty has succeeded in making his translation readable and comprehensible while at the same time most careful and accurate. I read Kilty’s translation alongside the Tibetan and believe it to be the kind of exemplary achievement every translator should aspire to.”—Yael Bentor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“The Guhyasamaja Tantra and its circle of texts changed the face of tantric Buddhism. Kilty’s translation is at once accurate and a pleasure to read. It represents a major contribution to our growing knowledge of this profound and beautiful tradition and will be valued by scholars and practitioners alike for many years to come.”—Jacob P. Dalton, UC Berkeley, author of Tibetan Tantric Manuscripts from Dunhuang

“Another masterful translation by Gavin Kilty! The teaching of Guhyasamaja Tantra is the fundamental purpose of the Gelukpa tantric colleges, and Tsongkhapa’s Lamp is the foundational guide through this most profound system. Gavin Kilty has again presented us with a most accessible, accurate rendering of this central text in lucid translation.”—Jeffrey Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of Tibetan Studies, University of Virginia

“This important work, the great Tsongkhapa's final major masterpiece, brings to English readers the most authoritative account of the highest, most esoteric practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Gavin Kilty should be congratulated for having produced a highly readable translation of a very difficult and complex text.”—Daniel Cozort, Dickinson College, author of Highest Yoga Tantra

“Tsongkhapa’s Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages stands as one of the greatest literary contributions to the genre of highest yoga tantra ever written. In his translation of this extremely profound text, Gavin Kilty has successfully captured both its meaning and eloquence with such precision and grace that it will stand as the benchmark to which future translations of similar material must aspire.”—David Gonsalez, translator of Source of Supreme Bliss

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