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Lam Rim (Tibetan: lam "path", rim "stages") is a Tibetan Buddhist textual form for presenting the complete path to enlightenment as taught by Gautama Buddha. In Tibetan Buddhist history there have been many different versions of the Lam Rim, presented by different teachers, of the Nyingma, Kagyu and Gelug schools. The Sakya have a somewhat similar textual form called the Lam Dre. However all the versions of the Lam Rim are based on extensions of Atisha's 11th Century root text A Lamp for the Path.


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When Atisha was invited and came to Tibet he was asked by Changchup Od to give a complete and easily accessible summary of the doctrine in order to clarify wrong views - especially the apparent contradictions found across the Sutras and their commentaries. Based upon this request Atisha (whose presentation of the doctrine became later known as the Kadampa tradition) taught what came to be known as the Lam Rim for the Tibetans. Later he was honored very much for this by the Pandits of his original monastery Vikramashila, in India.

The Kadampa monk and student of Milarepa, Gampopa, introduced the Lam Rim to his disciples as a way of developing the mind gradually. Gampopa's work on Lam Rim is known as The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-Fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings and is studied to this day in the various Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism founded by his disciples.

As Tsongkhapa's Gelug school is derived from and mainly based upon the Kadampa school, it comes as no surprise that Tsongkhapa wrote one of his masterpieces on Lam Rim: The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment (Tib. Lam Rim Chen Mo) which has about 1000 pages, and is primarily based on literary sources. There is also a medium Lam Rim text by Tsongkhapa (200 pages) and a short one, called Lam Rim Dudon (Tib.), which is often recited daily by Gelugpas and is about 10 pages long.


Authenticity of the Lam Rim teachings

Vajrayana Buddhists believe that the teachings of the Lam Rim are based on the sutras that the Buddha taught near the city of Radgir in India, and that the Buddha taught the short, middling and extensive wisdom sutra simultaneously. These wisdom sutras were taken by Maitreya and Asanga as starting point for their encyclopaedic work, the Abhisamaya-alamkara (Ornament of clear realizations) in which they emphasised the hidden meanings of the sutras. The hidden meanings are believed to be contained in the number and order of the subjects. The number and order of the subjects are vital if someone wants to put the philosophy into practice. Atisha took the number and order of the subjects in the Abhisamaya-alamkara as the basis to write the first Lam Rim text: “the lamp of the path” that therefore contains the essential points of all sutra and tantra teachings in their logical order for practice.

Three kinds of motivation

The foundational criteria of the Lam Rim is the tripartite division of practitioners, based upon the motivation of their religious activity. (Note that this division is distinct from the Triyana).

Excluded from this division were individuals whose motives revolve around material benefits within this life. Striving for a favorable rebirth is the minimum requirement for an activity or practice to be classified as spiritual.

Atisha wrote in "Lamp of the Path" (verse 2) that one should understand that there are three kind of persons:

  1. Persons of modest motive
  2. Persons of medium motive
  3. Persons of high motive

Persons of modest motive are searching with all means for happiness within Samsara; their motive is to achieve high rebirth. Buddhists traditionally considered that this domain included followers of most non-Buddhist religions who strive for a rebirth in a heaven.

Persons of medium motive are searching for their own peace and abandon worldly pleasure. This includes the paths of the Pratyekabuddhas and Sravakabuddhas, the traditional goal of Hinayana practice (personal liberation).

Persons of high motive seek (based on their insight of their own suffering) by all means to stop the suffering of all beings. This is the Mahayana paths of the Samyaksambuddhas.

Subjects of the Lam Rim

Although the Lam Rim texts cover the same subject areas, the subjects are arranged in different ways.

The Lam Rim of Atisha starts with Bodhicitta, the altruistic mind, followed by taking the Bodhisattva vows, whereas Gampopa's lam Lam Rim starts with the Buddha nature, followed by the Precious Human Life and Tsongkhapas texts start with reliance to a master, followed by the Precious Human Life, and continues with the paths of the low, medium and high scopes.

Gampopa and Tsongkhapa expounded the short root-text of Atisha into an extensive system to understand the entire Buddhist philosophy. In this way, subjects like karma, rebirth, Buddhist cosmology, the practice of meditation, up to and including tantra are gradually explained in logical order.

The most common used outline for Lam Rim teachings today is that of the book Liberation in the Palm of your Hands by Pabongka Rinpoche. Below you find an abbreviated and annotated outline to show the importance of the structure of the Lam Rim

  1. the greatness of the author of the Lam Rim, to establish the authenticity of the teaching
  2. the greatness of the Lam Rim itself, to gain respect for it
  3. the way the instructions are to be received and given
  4. the way the students are to be guided through the subjects

this forth subject has two divisions:

  • the way to rely on a spiritual guide
  • the way to train your mind on the basis of the correct way to rely on the spiritual guide

This last heading contains the rest of the instructions under the headings:

  • the way to encourage yourself to take the essence of this precious human rebirth
  • the way to take the essence of this precious human rebirth (that is: training your mind in the paths of the three scopes included within the Lam Rim)

The path shared with persons who have the modest scope motivation (striving for a rebirth in the upper realms)

  • the reality that this life will end and that you will die
  • the suffering in a rebirth in the lower realms (a rebirth as hell being, hungry ghost or animal, which you want to avoid)
  • (so you) take refuge to the three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
  • (and adjust your behaviour of body, speech and mind according to the) law of cause and effect/ karma

which will lead you to a favourable rebirth within cyclic existence in the human-, demigod-, or god realm.

The path shared with persons who have the medium scope motivation (striving for liberation of cyclic existence)

The truth of suffering (in cyclic existence in general, including the favourable rebirths)

  • The truth of the causes of suffering (the afflictive emotions, especially ignorance)
  • The truth of cessation (there is a state that is free of suffering and its origins)
  • The truth of paths (the way to attain this state free of suffering and its causes by practising ethics, concentration and wisdom)

Another presentation of the middle scope subjects is the presentation of the 12 links of dependent arising

The training in the medium scope path will lead to the development of the wish to be liberated from all un-free rebirths in cyclic existence through the power of afflictive emotions

The path of persons who have the high scope motivation(striving for complete buddhahood)

  • the advantages of the mind of enlightenment (the wish to become a buddha for the welfare of all sentient beings)
  • the way to develop the mind of enlightenment
  • the 7 point instruction of seeing all sentient beings as your mothers (from previous lives and contemplating their kindness towards you)
  • the instruction on how to exchange your self-interest for others-interest (by looking at the drawbacks of self cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others)
  • the way to train your mind after developing the mind of enlightenment
  • training in the perfection of generosity
  • training in the perfection of ethics
  • training in the perfection of patience
  • training in the perfection of joyful effort
  • training in the perfection of concentration
  • training in the perfection of wisdom

for a more detailed outline, see the external link "Lam Rim: The gradual Path to Enlightenment, Thubten Chodron's online Lamrim Outline"

The Lam Rim teachings are in essence very similar to the Lamdré (lam 'bras) teachings of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Further reading

Classical Lamrim Books (in historical order)

Modern Lamrim Books & Commentaries

  • Practicing the Path: A Commentary on the Lamrim Chenmo, Yangsi Rinpoche, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-346-X
  • Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, Volume 1: A Commentary on the Lamrim Chenmo, The Foundational Practices, by Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-303-6
  • Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, Vol.2: Karma : A Commentary on the Lamrim Chenmo by Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Wisdom Publications, ISBN 0-86171-481-4
  • Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment, TDL Publications, ISBN 0-9623421-6-5
  • Joyful Path of Good Fortune: The Complete Buddhist Path to Enlightenment, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1995) ISBN 978-0-948006-46-3
  • The New Meditation Handbook: Meditations to Make Our Life Happy and Meaningful, Tharpa Publications (2003) ISBN 978-0-9817277-1-4
  • Path to Enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism, Geshe Archarya Thubten Loden, Tushita Publications, ISBN 0 646 16500 3
  • Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment, Geshe Archarya Thubten Loden, Tushita Publications, ISBN 0 646 27043 5
  • Essence of the Path to Enlightenment, Geshe Archarya Thubten Loden, Tushita Publications, ISBN 0 646 34241 X


External links


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