The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment

Cover image of the Great TreatiseThe following article was written by Joshua W. C. Cutler and published in Mandala Magazine in 2004.

I am happy to announce that a complete translation of Lama Tsong-kha-pa’s Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam rim chen mo) is now available. In 1991 I organized the Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, a group of twelve translators who would work on seventeen different sections of the text under the auspices of the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (TBLC ), of which I am executive director. Besides translating one of the sections, my job was to edit these different sections into one voice, keeping faithful to a list of translation equivalents that the translators agreed upon in three translation conferences. I was assisted in this capacity by the brilliant Guy Newland of the University of Central Michigan, who also took full responsibility for editing the 249-paged insight (lhag mthong) section, as well as translating one section of it. I wanted the translation be as authoritative as possible, so TBLC sponsored the Venerable Denma Lochö Rimpoche and Loling Geshe Yeshe Tapkay to stay at the TBLC facilities over a number of summers and give a commentary on the text. These two teachers are highly revered in the Tibetan community and are expert in the meaning of Tsong-kha-pa’s works. They gave a commentary on the first 564 pages; the remaining pages constituted the insight section, and the translation of this was checked over by His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translator Geshe Thupten Jinpa, who also closely reviewed some difficult sections specified by Guy Newland.

By the end of 1994 most of the sections of the translations were in my hands, so I began the painstaking work of carefully checking the translations against the 250 hours of Lochö Rimpoche and Geshe Yeshe Tapkay’s commentary that I had taped, and then editing each translator’s contribution. Now that my twelve-year immersion in the text is finished I can reflect on the whole undertaking. It is interesting to consider how I could maintain my enthusiasm in order to complete this immense undertaking. My motivation seems to be an assemblage of various concerns–the general need for a complete translation, the need at TBLC for a textbook, the personal challenge and need to know more, etc. But once I look more closely, I can trace a growing admiration for the author as the primary reason that I was able to devote such a large part of my life to this work. 

My introduction to Tibetan Buddhism was a lam rim text, read to me and a group of students in 1969 by then Harvard doctoral candidate Bob Thurman. The text was a commentary on Lama Tsong-kha-pa’s root verses called the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. I was so inspired by the experience that I immediately decided to study Tibetan language with Bob for the final semester of my senior year at Harvard. I am sure that Bob mentioned the Great Treatise many times, but the most memorable connection with it was when my Buddhism professor, Dr. M. Nagatomi, mentioned it to me with great respect for the prodigious scholarship. This made a deep impression on me.

Two weeks after graduating college I came to the TBLC to study with its Kalmyk Mongolian founder Geshe Ngawang Wangyal. I lived and studied with him for the next thirteen years until he passed away, and I have devoted my life to continuing his work here at TBLC. Although Geshe-la had been born Buddhist in the Gelug tradition and trained in it as a monk since he was five years old, he would occassionally read to us from the works of the other Tibetan traditions with equal fervor. Geshe-la always evinced a keen ability at independent inquiry and a deep faith. For Geshe-la the Buddha’s Teachings were like a sugar cube, sweet from whatever side you took a bite. Of course, Geshe-la taught us many of Lama Tsong-kha-pa’s works, especially those in verse, and once translated to us a section of the Great Treatise. During the period of time that he was reading to us from the Great Treatise I once walked into his room and found him poring over the Tibetan text with great enthusiasm. He looked up at me and exclaimed, “This is such a beautiful book!”

After Geshe-la’s death in 1983 I have lived my life while keeping in mind such incidences as well as the many things that Geshe-la told me, but one thing he said impacted me deeply. He once turned to me and said, “The reason that I am so interested in what Je Tsong-kha-pa taught is that his teacher was Manjushri.”

Geshe-la’s words took on a new meaning in 1990 when Denma Lochö Rimpoche was residing at TBLC for a few months and giving a commentary on the Quick Path by Panchen Losang Yeshe. In this lam rim text Losang Yeshe points out that Manjushri instructed Lama Tsong-kha-pa to compose the Great Treatise with the special feature of blending the teachings on the persons of the three capacities with the three principal aspects of the path. So now in my mind the Great Treatise was much more than a beautifully written book with impressive scholarship; it was directly inspired by Manjushri!

It was only one year later that Geshe Yeshe Tapkay and University of Michigan professor Don Lopez, who were visiting teachers at TBLC, proposed to me that a group of translators under TBLC auspices translate the Great Treatise. Needless to say, I eagerly accepted the responsibility. 

It has been about three months since I finished making the final changes to the galleys so that the book could be printed. For the entire time of working on it I was focused on determining what the meaning of the Tibetan words and sentences were and how best to convey that meaning in clear English. I could not step back and take a look at the whole text until I finished this task. For the same reason I did not take a close look at the author. When I now reflect on the whole experience, I feel a profound sense of awe with regard to the book and its author. I know that I have been near someone and something great. 

I can now see that while I worked on the translation, my admiration for Lama Tsong-kha-pa gradually deepened. Though my focus was on the task at hand, I was constantly moved by one passage after another. One such passage in the second volume particularly caught my attention: “Nowadays, from among the six perfections—the center post of both the sÒtra and tantra paths—there exist in slight measure the stages of the practice of meditative stabilization, but the stages of the practice of the other five perfections have disappeared. Therefore, I have explained the key points of their practice in abbreviated form and a little of the method for generating certain knowledge of them.” These words gave me a sense of where Lama Tsong-kha-pa’s own experience of the teachings had brought him. The Great Treatise is a meditation manual that leads the meditator from the very beginning through a series of transformative experiences that puts him or her firmly on the Mahayana path. Lama Tsong-kha-pa was writing it from the perspective of someone who had transformed himself through these experiences.

What does the book reveal about the author as a person? This kind of text is not like our modern books where authors share something personal about themselves, but one can certainly get a sense what Lama Tsong-kha-pa was like. His most obvious characteristics are his wisdom and compassion. The great care that Lama Tsong-kha-pa puts into his presentation of each stage on the path shows a far-reaching compassion. He demonstrates a multi-faceted intelligence. His clear explanations incisively get to the heart of the matter. He reveals an immense breadth of knowledge in his choice of citations from the sutras and their Indian commentaries, as well as the sayings of the Kadampa gurus. Furthermore, he shows a practicality that is reminiscent of his Kadampa predecessors. Of course, he also conveys a profundity that keeps one thinking. In writing the Great Treatise he fulfills his own aspiration in Aspirational Prayers to the Pure Land of Bliss: “In short, distinguishing the words and meanings of the scriptures with the wisdom that is free of defective intelligence, may I be like the revered Manjushri and perfect all the deeds of the bodhisattva through the wisdom of skill-in-means.” 

I am sure that repeatedly reading the Great Treatise will increase my admiration for this great being, but one characteristic that really struck me is his deep reverence for the Buddha’s word revealed in his repeated exhortations to study, reflect upon, and meditate on the entire corpus of the Buddha’s teachings. This reminds me of the sentiment in his verse in his Praise of Munindra from the Viewpoint of His Teaching on Dependent-Arising: “Among all your deeds/Your speech is supreme./As this is so, it is from this viewpoint/That the wise should follow you, Buddha.” 

In Buddhist history great events are often accompanied by natural phenomena. On the weekend before I finished working on the last part of the manuscript, we had a large snowstorm that left about ten inches of snow. It was December and the thought that we would now be locked into winter until March was most oppressive. It was an external manifestation of the internal weight I had carried on my shoulders for the past twelve years. When I went to sleep on Wednesday, I knew that I would be finishing the next day. That night we had a heavy rainfall, and I awoke the next morning to a landscape completely devoid of even a speck of snow! This is a northern climate zone, and I had never seen such a phenomenon. Neither had the man who delivered our oil that day and felt compelled to remark to me about how unusual it was. The next day my wife Diana and I prepared the manuscript to send to my editor Susan Kyser at Snow Lion Publications. When we stepped out the door to go to the car, the snow was falling again, but this time with a good effect. It fell slowly and gently, and the flakes were large. It seemed like flower petals were falling from the sky. And this continued all along the three miles to the post office and back to TBLC. The effect upon me was joy. I am not sure how to interpret these events but I am hoping that they mean that the Great Treatise will bring happiness to many more people now that it is in English.