Devotion in the Three Yanas, Karma Dzong, Boulder, CO, Nov 17-19, 2000

Length: 9 hr; Format: Audio; Recording Quality: Good.

Rinpoche taught on Devotion in the Three Yanas, at the Karma Dzong, Boulder (Boulder Shambhala Center, November 17-19, 2000.

See below to read summaries of these teachings.

Teaching 1 – Friday

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Teaching 2 and 3 – Saturday

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Teaching 4 and 5 – Sunday

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Talk 1

There are 3 stages of devotion:

  1. inspiration 
  2. longing to have qualities of teacher
  3. understanding which brings irreversible confidence.  We need to support heart devotion/faith with understanding.

Devotion to the teacher is used as a medium of meditation; to the degree that you have devotion is the degree you receive blessings.

Devotion is not conceptual – it’s an open, non dual state of mind which helps you experience your true nature by letting go, letting be, becoming one with an uncontrived state of mind.  We need to have strong trust in ourselves to be able to say, “Whatever happens, it’s ok.”

Devotion does not need to be communicated verbally to lama.  It’s more a heart connection. Take devotion as a path.

Question: Why would you want not to get too close to your teacher?

Answer: You want to keep your devotion as a path, not based on the personality of the teacher.  If you’re too near, you’ll just be seeing  your own projections as the teacher’s  faults .

Question: What about a teacher who lies to you?

Answer: You need to test/examine a teacher before taking them as your root guru.  You need to know that there’s no one better or more reliable than the one you have chosen.  Then you can be free of doubt… One has to be careful.  At the very least, teacher has to have a certain amount of compassion, understanding/experience of the teachings, and willingness to teach.

If you’re disappointed, you don’t need to criticize or follow blindly.  Be diplomatic!

Question:  What if you’re not sure who your teacher is, but you feel connected to a teacher who has passed away.

Answer: No problem with a teacher who has passed away.  They are your present teacher.  It’s even better sometimes!  Learn from anybody you can; don’t be too fussy!

When you see your teacher as the real Buddha, then you yourself can teach.  You can gauge your progress by looking at your devotion.

It’s okay to be devoted to more than one teacher.

Question:  What’s the difference between a devoted father and devotion to the guru?

Answer:  A devoted father is committed and responsible, whereas devotion in a guru is where your heart is open and trusting.

Question: What is the correlation between great devotion and blessings?

Answer:  All your qualities are already there within you, so you don’t receive blessings from the outside, but you need to uncover those qualities.

Talk 2

Yesterday I discussed how Tibetans practice devotion.

In the West, there’s a feeling that you “must” have devotion and that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t.  This is a misunderstanding of devotion.

Two types of devotion:

  • Devotion might manifest as an emotion for people who are feeling types, but for
  • people who are more skeptical or analytical, there is a valid path of devotion based on study, exploration and then understanding. The more you understand the dharma and find the teachings help you, the more you can integrate dharma into your life and become grateful to the teacher.  The devotion that comes from this understanding and experience is very stable. This  kind of devotion is based on transforming oneself by slowly absorbing the teachings over time. First you have understanding, then confidence and then devotion.         

This is how you establish lineage.  You don’t have to know every detail of the teachings, but it’s the experience you acquire that counts.  It doesn’t matter how you express it, if you have assimilated the essence of the teachings inside yourself.  If you are genuine, you can’t contradict yourself even if you express yourself differently.  

The main relationship between the teacher and student is the teaching.

You can have a devoted relationship with a teacher who is deceased or you have never met.

There are 3 traditions of receiving teachings:

  1. Kama (Tib: bka’ma): oral lineage passed down from teacher to disciple
  2. Terma (Tib: gter ma):  “treasure finding”: teachings are found in rocks, caves, walls.  Sometimes terms are in the form of books with faking script, sign language; sometimes  very miraculous.  It’s always relevant for the time. Gongter (Tib: gdongs gter): mind teachings that tertons write down without pause. 
  3. Dagnang (Tib: dag snang):  “pure vision” can happen through dream or vision: you receive teachings and write them down.

How to gauge authenticity

The only way to prove the Buddha is authentic is to examine his teachings.  Buddhist logic is: the teachings are authentic, therefore the Buddha is authentic.

Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana

Make Mahayana the basis of Vajrayana.  Then nothing can go wrong.  

(Vajrayana may not be correctly understood if you go directly – that is why it’s not taught to everybody, why Vajrayana is “secret”, not because of miserliness.

The three yanas are just three different kinds of thinking and understanding:

Refuge in the three yanas

  1. Going for refuge to the Buddha is Mahayana, Vajrayana: Buddha is the focus, enlightenment is the ultimate goal, our true nature
  2. Going for refuge to the Dharma is Pratyekayana: the experience of the method, the path showing us the true nature. At first, we are only interested in solving our problems.  The Dharma shows us.  The Pratyekas don’t want to be told what to do by anybody. They are intelligent and arrogant.  They acquire devotion through understanding.
  3. Going for refuge to the Sangha is Shravakayana: Shravakas are easily influenced by groups, need encouragement from others, need communities, chameleon-like.  Discipline (vinaya), how you live your life, is what’s important to the shravakas because they tend to focus on structure, behavior.  Sangha have a positive influence on conduct, act as guides. 

Talk 3 – Saturday p.m.

Use devotion as the medium for practice. 

In the Vajrayana,  the yanas are: Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. In Vajrayana, refuge to the lama , guru (means “heavy with learning and compassion” in Sanskrit), teacher, comes before the buddha, dharma and Sangha. 

In the Mahayana, the divisions are: shravakayana, pratyekabuddhayana, bodhisattavayana. 

Going for refuge to the guru is totally Vajrayana.  Guru represents the 3 refuges: Mind = Buddha, Speech = Dharma,  Body = Sangha.

Different levels of Guru: 

  1. ultimate, inner guru is not your teacher, but your own Buddha Nature, which you want to manifest.
  2. the outer guru is a means to bring out your inner guru (primordial natural state, through blessings, as with guru yoga, which is almost totally based on devotion. Outer guru also gives empowerments, teachings.
  3. the sign guru is anything we encounter through our 5 senses, from which we can learn.
  4. guru through example is what shows us the way.
  5. root guru gives you the pointing out instructions.  Other lamas you refer to as “my guru”.  It depends on each person, how many root gurus or gurus you have.  Lots of lamas have many root gurus.  Decide for yourself who you want to trust and rely on as teacher.  You use that as a basis.
  • In practice of Guru Yoga, you visualize the teacher as various deities, Karmapas, lineage teachers, all put together.  In fact, you can include anybody (even not Buddhists) who you see as enlightened.  
  • It’s the feeling that is important, whether the guru is visualized on top of your head, in front or within your heart.  Your mind becomes united with the guru. 
  • You can have many kinds of guru yogas: Karmapa, deities, lineage holders, your own living teacher, Vajradhara, the Buddha. Focus on not just one person, but on all enlightened energy: concentrate on pure, positive and joyful energy. 
  • The more we focus on positive qualities, the more our mind becomes positive.
  • the reverse is also true: if we just focus on a problem, the problem takes us over.


teaching with practice

permission to practice: 

  1. 5 precepts for vinaya is very clearcut (hinayana)
  2. Bodhisattva vow, based on compassion (mahayana) and on intention
  3. Vajrayana has 3 empowerments

“Ground empowerment”: you first get instructions on how to practice

“Path empowerment”: practice itself – OM, AH, HUM: Body, speech and mind (form, sound, thoughts) purifications come from guru in form of blue, red and white lights into our forehead, throat and heart, and then all together.   Daily practice.

“Result empowerment”  At the end, the lama enters into us and our mind and enlightened mind become one and remain uncontrived.  This is called “Seeing the face of your inner Guru”.  If your mind is one with the Buddha’s mind, just let it be, vs. second-guessing.

The key word is “uncontrived”.  Be in the present, aware, but not holding on to experience.

Question:  How do you see irritation, upheavals as the “Sign Guru”?

Answer:  Take these irritations, etc. as teachers, “patience testers”, which show up your weaknesses and sore points.  In the West, teachers need to point out positive to students, if they lack self-confidence.  Traditionally, however, teachers point out deficiencies.

Talk 4

Rinpoche brings to the course a recording of Longchenpa’s prayer (in Tibetan) of devotion.

Discussion of devotion with students:

#1 Person upset that Rinpoche said devotion of Western students is less than with Eastern students.

#2 Person who was Catholic but left Catholicism because Mother Mary not tangible enough, whereas  Trungpa Rinpoche was tangible.

#3 Person coming from Hinduism see devotion as “totally trusting the teacher”.

#4 Person asks if devotion is unconditional acceptance of teachings after initial examination of guru.  

Answer: main connection to the teacher is the teaching, i.e., the Buddha was authentic  teacher because his teachings are authentic.  

The more we understand the dharma, the more we are suitable vessels for Vajrayana.  First we study Hinayana (Sravakas, these people are more social and like to be told what to do, easily influenced), then Mahayana, then Vajrayana.  We actually have any number of yanas, but the easiest way to understand is the 3 yanas and 3 refuges to Buddha (Vajrayana: Buddha is the  ultimate example of enlightenment), after which comes the Dharma – the experience and method (Pratyekabuddhists, who want to find out for themselves, loners, proud) and the Sangha as the medium for the Dharma (Sravakas).

Mahayana is fundamental to Vajrayana.  You have to build foundations first!

Most people think of the solution to their problems as their goal vs. thinking about the Buddha. “I don’t want to know the name of the buddha; I just want self-help strategies.”

Insight has more to do with Vajrayana.

As you understand dharma better, then you understand the Buddha better.  Sangha are beings who have some experience with the Dharma.  Conduct and discipline are important in Hinayana, Mahayana.  Vinaya developed through incidents. Rules were implemented to correct misbehavior.  It’s really up to you what disciplines you keep.  Everything is a habit, many negative.  We try to abandon those.  Process of transformation and letting go.

 In these times, the Dharma is the most important catalyst for devotion.

Teachings are the tools to practice on yourself – you are the practice!

Talk 5


  • Question: How do we join creation and completion stage practice with devotion?  How is visualization of the deity, guru yoga, especially as it’s from my own mind? 
  • Answer:  You can do creation practice at 4 different stages, 4 empowerments:
  1.     vast: see everything as appearance/emptiness,
  2.     secret: union with complete peace
  3.     wisdom: inseparable from true lama, union and non duality
  4.     the word empowerment stage: non-conceptual wisdom

You just let natural manifestations of your mind arise as the deity, whatever arises is the deity.  We realize the mandala and train in that reality.  You see the deity (and ourselves) as inseparable from the guru.

(Story about Padmasambhava)

  • Question:  Quote from Ajahn Chah (famous Theravadin teacher) on instructions at time of death re. letting everything go.  Should we do this only at death or anytime?
  • Answer:  If you prepare to die without regret, then you can live joyfully and without anxiety.  (short version of long answer).  
  • Question: How to be of help?
  • Answer: If you find out how to help, then do it.  If not, then just improve yourself so that later on you can help others. 

Tolstoy’s story about 3 questions: “Who is the most important person for you, what is the most important time and what is the most important thing to do?”

“The most important is the person who is with you; the most important time is now; the most important thing to do is to help, however you can.”

  • Question: Why is white, red, blue associated with body, speech and mind?
  • Answer: I don’t know, exactly.  It’s too complicated.
  • Question:  What about calling on God, Jesus or your teacher as you’re dying?
  • Answer: If you understand the view of the nature of mind and a really good practice, then there’s no need to call the guru for help.  But if you have confidence in your teacher, then it’s good to rely on that teacher and focus on him.
  • Question: I don’t feel a connection to the Sakyong.  Should I study with him?
  • Answer:  As long as the teachings are ok, then I think it’s ok.  No one is perfect.  We always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.
  • Question:  It’s hard to see teachers because they are always traveling.  How much effort should I make to see them?
  • Answer: I’ve studied with teachers from many lineages, even studied English from the Bible and somebody in Sikkim tried to convert me.  I didn’t plan to study with many teachers – it just happened that way.  But it’s not easy to receive teachings from great masters.  Just receive teachings from teachers who are available.  Now communications are much easier than before so you can fax, email, make a phone call.
  • Question:  Why are dakinis needed to help make terma available?
  • Answer:  I don’t really know.  But they are necessary.
  • Question:  How do I realize inner guru?
  • Answer: It’s all about interdependence.  If there are the right conditions (blessings, devotion, etc.) then amazing things can happen…

Summaries by FM

Note: These teachings were originally recorded on cassette tape, and were spliced together. Short gaps in the audio occur at around 45 and 90 minutes in the recordings.

Boulder Shambhala Center

Shambhala Boulder Shrine room (Image credit: Shambhala Boulder website)