Sapan Fund: Cyrus, first of all, thank you for taking the time to do this interview while you’re engaged in your monumental three-year project of translating Ngorchen Könchog Lhundrup’s two main Lamdre commentaries. Why do you think H.H. the 41st Sakya Trizin asked you to translate these particular Lamdre texts, out of the plethora of major Lamdre commentaries written in Tibet?
Cyrus Stearns: The teachings of the Lamdre, or Path with the Result, come from the great Indian adept Virūpa (ca. seventh–eighth century), as first recorded in his Vajra Lines. Two brief sections in this work summarize the preliminary practices and the main section of tantric meditation (which focuses on the deity Hevajra). These two topics are basically what Sakya masters teach when giving the Lamdre. The preliminary practices are known as the Three Appearances (Snang gsum), and the main section is known as the Three Continua (Rgyud gsum). In the course of the last one thousand years in Tibet, many different texts were composed for the purpose of teaching, studying, and practicing the Three Appearances and the Three Continua. The first and briefest work was written by Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147–1216), the fifth Sakya Trizin. The most extensive texts were written in 1543 and 1552 by Ngorchen Könchog Lhundrup (1497–1557), the tenth abbot of Ngor Monastery. Over the last five hundred years, Könchog Lhundrup’s two works have assumed a crucial role in the transmission and practice of the Lamdre in Tibet, and now in other countries of the world.
As you mention, I’m only translating these two texts into English because His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin asked me to do so. In his letter to me, His Holiness noted “an increasing tendency to teach the Lamdre Tsokshe by Ngorchen Könchog Lhundrup rather than other versions.” This is the reason His Holiness wants the works to be available in English. He is thinking of the future need to transmit the Lamdre throughout the world on the basis of these two specific texts.
SF: You have already published two large volumes of Lamdre translations: Taking the Result as the Path (Wisdom, 2006), consisting of 11 texts by various great masters, and Treasury of Esoteric Instructions, by Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen (Snow Lion, 2011). These two books contain more than 1,200 pages. How do the writings of Ngorchen Könchog Lhundrup relate to this corpus of work?
CS: Taking the Result as the Path contains translations of Virūpa’s Vajra Lines, one of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo’s (1092–1158) eleven commentaries on that text, and a group of works from the Tsarpa transmission that present the special teachings of the Lamdre Lobshe, mostly written by Tsarchen Losal Gyatso’s (1502–66) great disciple Jamyang Khyentse Wangchuk (1524–68). Two of Khyentse’s works focus specifically on the Three Appearances and the Three Continua, as do those of Könchog Lhundrup that I’m now translating. Khyentse’s works are briefer, with fewer quotations from canonical texts and earlier writings of the Lamdre tradition, and present special details of practice from the teachings of his master, Tsarchen. Könchog Lhundrup’s writings on the same subjects are much longer and contain a great number of quotations from scriptural sources and earlier Lamdre texts. Lama Dampa Sönam Gyaltsen’s (1312–75) Treasury of Esoteric Instructions is an extensive word-for-word commentary on Virūpa’s Vajra Lines. I translated this work at the suggestion of H.H. the 41st Sakya Trizin, who considers it to be the clearest explanation of Virūpa’s basic text. Since the teachings of the Three Appearances and the Three Continua were originally presented in Virūpa’s lines, they are also explained in Lama Dampa’s commentary.
SF: It’s clear that the works of Ngorchen Könchog Lhundrup would be of great benefit to any Lamdre practitioner. Which works in Taking the Result as the Path would be most useful to read first?
CS: I would suggest first reading Khyentse Wangchuk’s Expansion of the Great Secret Doctrine, which is filled with stories of the lives of the great masters of the Lamdre tradition, and also the following work, Blazing of a Hundred Brilliant Blessings, by Kunga Palden and Loter Wangpo (1847–1914). This second text is a supplement to Khyentse’s work, providing stories of Lamdre masters up into the late nineteenth century. I have always been greatly inspired by reading these works. Stories of the lineage masters (and the longer biographies that have not yet been translated) are of crucial importance, as often emphasized to me by Dezhung Rinpoche (1906–87) and Chogye Trichen Rinpoche (1919–2007).
SF: You have studied with some of the great lamas of our times. What is some valuable off-the-cuff (and-off-the-page) advice they have given that would be helpful to Western Dharma practitioners?
CS: The first thing that comes to mind is, again, the importance of stories, autobiographies, and biographies of the people who have practiced and gained realization of the Lamdre teachings in the past. These show us the way by actual example. Of course, the most important thing is to really spend time with great masters in person today, but this is often not possible for most people. Reflecting on the lives of past masters is a wonderful source of inspiration. Dezhung Rinpoche noted that the preliminary practices are even more profound than the advanced tantric practices, because the deepest changes in a person’s perspective on life come from absorbing the initial teachings on the unsatisfactory nature of worldly existence, the indisputable truth of impermanence, and the certainty of death. Chogye Rinpoche used to mention how Westerners often asked him for instructions on emptiness and the nature of mind, but he did not think these were the best place to start. More important, in his view, was the need to understand the nature of seemingly external appearances, and to gain confidence that what appears to us, or is perceived by us, is fully determined by our own states of mind. Only after that can instructions on emptiness and the nature of mind really make a difference. Dezhung Rinpoche also emphasized that he found it necessary to carefully read Dharma texts at least ten times before he began to really understand them. That is certainly not how people read books these days!
SF: On behalf of Dharma practitioners in general, and Lamdre students in particular, I’d like to thank you and wish you Buddha Speed in completing your current work; these two volumes seem destined to become standards.
CS: I feel very honored and lucky to be able to work on these translations. And I’m grateful to Sapan Fund for your kind and generous help.