Preliminary Points

Buddhist Philosophy | Tibetan MastersPatrul Rinpoche

English | བོད་ཡིག

Patrul Rinpoche

Dza Patrul Rinpoche

Further Information:

Preliminary Points

To be Explained when Teaching the Buddha's Word or the Treatises

by Patrul Rinpoche

Generally, for any kind of Dharma teaching, there is (I) an explanation of preliminary points that precede the teaching and (II) the actual teaching of the topic to be explained.

I. The Preliminary Points to be Explained

In this there are three parts:

  1. How the teacher teaches
  2. How the students listen
  3. How both the teacher and students proceed while teaching and listening.

1. How the Teacher Teaches

When the teacher is a fully enlightened buddha, he teaches through his three types of miraculous ability. Through the miraculous ability of his magical form, he is able to attract disciples who are not already included within the gathering and inspire devotion in those who have gathered. Through the miraculous ability of his universally communicating mind, he is able to teach the assembly precisely according to their mental receptivity and the keenness of their faculties. Through the miraculous ability of his guiding speech, he teaches in accordance with beings’ particular capacities, speaking with the voice of Brahmā in all the various languages of the six classes of living beings.

Arhat teachers teach by means of three pure factors. Firstly there is the pure vessel of the listener. This means that the arhats use their supernatural powers of cognition to examine the students in the assembly before teaching the Dharma only to those whose mindstreams are pure. Then there is the pure speech of the teacher. This means the arhats teach without any afflictive emotion, in a pleasant style that is free from any verbal impediment or any flaws in terms of grammar or syntax. Finally there is the pure topic of the teaching, which means that the arhats teach exactly what they heard from their own teachers, the perfectly enlightened buddhas. They do not add or omit even so much as a single word on account of their infallible powers of recollection.

You might wonder why the great arhats do not teach the Dharma through the three types of miraculous ability. Arhats are unable to teach using these three miraculous abilities because they have four causes that prevent them from knowing certain things. They lack knowledge about distant locations, as for example when Maudgalyāyana did not know that his mother had been reborn in the buddha field called Possessing Light Rays. They also lack knowledge about distant times, as when Śāriputra did not know that the householder Palkyé possessed the seed of liberation. Nor do they know the infinity of results that spring from an infinite number of causes. As it is said:

To know all the various causes that produce
Just one of the bright colours in a peacock’s tail
Requires omniscience; such things are unknown
To anything else besides all-knowing wisdom.

They lack knowledge of the Buddha’s many qualities; they do not know his ten powers, four fearlessnesses, eighteen unshared attributes and so on.

When it comes to the teaching style of a learned paṇḍita, there are two approaches. The paṇḍitas of the glorious monastic university of Nālanda would teach the Buddha’s words in terms of the five perfections and the treatises by means of five principal considerations. The paṇḍitas of the monastic university at Vikramaśīla would begin by making their audience suitably receptive and then describe two certainties regarding the origin of the teaching.

If we now adopt the first approach [i.e. that of Nālanda] to explain a treatise such as The Precious Wish-Fulfilling Treasury, then because it is not the direct word of the Buddha, we must explain it by means of the five principal considerations, as follows:

  • Who then, one might wonder, is the text’s author? He is the omniscient lord of Dharma, Pal Ngakgi Wangchuk [i.e. Longchenpa], who possesses all three qualifications of someone composing a treatise—the highest qualification of seeing the truth of reality itself, the middling qualification of gaining authorization from the yidam deity and the lowest qualification of being well-versed in the five sciences—and who has crossed to the distant shore of the ocean of our own and others’ philosophical views through his wisdom of study, reflection and meditation.

  • From which scriptures does the text draw? It draws from the three piṭakas of the sūtrayāna and the four classes of tantra of the mantrayāna, together with their respective commentaries.

  • To which category does it belong? Generally, among the two vehicles, i.e., the hīnayāna and mahāyāna, it belongs to the mahāyāna, and among the two categories of sūtra mahāyāna and mantra mahāyāna, it belongs to the category of the unsurpassed mantra.

  • What is its basic theme from beginning to end? It shows the nature of saṃsāra, which is to be abandoned, and the nature of nirvana, which is to be adopted.

  • For whose benefit and for what purpose was it composed? Generally, we could say that it was composed to set all beings, infinite in number, on the path to liberation. More specifically it was written for the sake of fortunate disciples, to lead them to the level of Lord Vajradhara within a single lifetime and a single body through study, reflection and meditation and understanding what in samsara and nirvana is to be abandoned and adopted.

Explaining the five principal considerations like this is necessary because it engenders confidence in the authenticity of the teaching.

2. How the Students Listen

It is important to listen while avoiding the three defects of the container, the six stains and the five wrong ways of remembering, and while relying on the four metaphors and applying the six transcendent perfections.

As regards the three defects of the container, it is said:

Not paying attention is to be like a container turned upside down.
Not remembering is to be like a container with a hole in it.
Mixing what you hear with mental afflictions is to be like a container with poison inside.

These three should be avoided. As the sūtra says:

Listen well with full attention and remember what you hear.

The six stains are mentioned in Well Explained Reasoning:

Arrogance, lack of faith,
Lack of any interest,
Outward distraction, inward tension,
And discouragement are the six stains.

The five wrong ways of remembering are remembering the words but forgetting the meaning, remembering the meaning but forgetting the words, remembering them both but with no understanding, remembering them with a wrong understanding and remembering them in the wrong order.

The four metaphors are given in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra:

Noble one, think of yourself as someone who is sick,
Of the Dharma as the remedy,
Of your spiritual teacher as a skilful doctor,
And of diligent practice as the way to recovery.

The Tantra of the Clear Realization of Instructions on all Dharma Practices says:

Make perfect offerings such as flowers and cushions,
Set the place in order and control your behaviour,
Avoid causing harm to any living creature,
Offer prayers to your teacher,
Listen undistractedly to his instructions,
And ask questions to clear away your doubts—
These are the six practices of Tārā.[1]

3. How both the Teacher and Students Proceed while Teaching and Listening

Vasubandhu said:

Those who wish to teach the meaning of the sūtras,
Should be given a few words of practical advice.
The practical instruction I refer to is as follows:
Relate the teaching’s purpose and its basic theme,
The meaning of the words and how its parts fit together,
And offer a response to any possible objections.

As this states, every section of the teaching should be understood in terms of its purpose, showing the reason why it is presented in a certain way, and also by means of a synopsis, which is a summary of the most important points. It should also be understood through an accurate explanation of the words of the text, including their grammatical features, as well as its sequence, showing how the various earlier and later sections of the text fit together, and by addressing any points of controversy or sources of doubt with a response to possible objections. These are known as the five major structural themes.

One can also teach in any of the following three ways: dividing the text into sections, which is likened to the leaping of a tigress; covering every word of the text, which is compared to the slow crawl of a tortoise; or reviewing a section, which is likened to the majestic posture of a lion.[2]

II. The Actual Teaching of the Topic to be Explained

This has three sections: the virtuous beginning, the meaning of the introduction; the virtuous middle, the meaning of the main part; and the virtuous end, the meaning of the conclusion.

The first of these has three parts: stating the title, the expression of homage and the commitment to compose the text.

The explanation of the title consists of stating why a title is necessary and describing the meaning of each of its words. With regard to the necessity of a title, firstly there is an explanation of why all things in general are given names. As it is said:

If things were not given names,
The world would be bewildered.
So Lord Buddha, skilled in means,
Applies names to phenomena.

In particular, there is a purpose for giving names to treatises. Beings of the highest capacity will realize the entire meaning of a text from beginning to end just by seeing its title, in the same way that doctors can determine all the health problems in a patient’s body, from head to toe, just by checking the pulse rate. Those of middling capacity will know into which category a text falls, just like a badge on a soldier’s uniform. For people of lesser capacity a title makes it easier to find a text, as with medicine containers, which are given labels to indicate their contents.

Secondly, there is an explanation of the words of the title. This has three parts: explaining the title in Sanskrit, explaining the title in Tibetan and explaining the meaning of the title by showing the correspondence between the two languages. With regard to the first part, there are various reasons why the title is given in Sanskrit. Generally, the Sanskrit title is given at the beginning of the works that were translated by the lotsāwas and accomplished Indian paṇḍitas during the earlier and later periods of transmission because it inspires confidence in the authentic origin of the text. The Sanskrit title is also given in treatises composed in Tibet to indicate that the teachings ultimately derive from India, but also to show that the author is not ignorant when it comes to language, and to create the auspicious conditions for teaching the Dharma to beings in their own languages, such as Sanskrit (the language of the gods), once one ultimately attains awakening.

The explanation of the words of the title begins with “In the language of India…”

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, Rigpa Translations, 2005.


Tibetan sources

bKa' bstan spyi bshad bya'i yan lag in dPal sprul o rgyan ’jigs med chos kyi dbang po’i gsung ’bum, 8 vols. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2003, vol. 2, 142–149.

Secondary sources

Patrul Rinpoche. The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1998.


  1. sgrol ma yan lag drug dang ldan.This last line of the quote is given slightly differently as nyan po yan lag drug dang ldan in Kun bzang bla ma'i zhal lung. See dPal sprul o rgyan ’jigs med chos kyi dbang po’i gsung ’bum vol. 7, p. 23.  ↩

  2. The metaphor is of a lion majestically turning its head and looking behind at the ground it has covered.  ↩

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