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Manual of Vinaya - Reading One: Je Tsongkapa’s Epistle on Ethics

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The reading for this class consists of the entire text of Je Tsongkapa’s Epistle to Ngawang Drakpa on the Occasion of the Ordination of the First Monks of Gyalrong.

Master Ngawang Drakpa, also known as Tsako Wonpo (“the friar of the lineage of the Kings of Tsako”), was one of Je Tsongkapa’s closest disciples.

After he had trained him in the Dharma, Je Tsongkapa sent Ngawang Drakpa to a distant region in east Tibet, entrusted with the mission of establishing a number of monasteries and training Buddhist monks.

The ensuing correspondence between the teacher and his faraway disciple has provided us with several true classics of Buddhist thought, including the following demonstration of the role of an ethical life in developing one’s ability to meditate and perceive emptiness. Another letter from Je Tsongkapa to Ngawang Drakpa during this period contains the famous Three Principal Paths, which along with the commentary of Pabongka Rinpoche has been translated in the book The Principal Teachings of Buddhism.

The introduction to this book also contains more detail on Master Ngawang Drakpa’s life, and his close relationship to Je Tsongkapa.

Please note that the version of the letter available for translation contained a number of printing errors that have been corrected to the best of our ability; we hope to obtain another edition later for comparison.

I bow down to my Lama, Gentle Voice.

I bow down to the matchless Teacher,

Unknown to us our most loving friend,

An ultimate and a peerless companion,

The one brother we the needy possess.

I have seen that the only sustenance

For living kind is his teachings alone;

And so in love I impart these words

To the one who is my disciple.

The high Dharma of the Victorious Ones

Is a goldmine of happiness for all beings;

And you, my son, are its fearless keeper—

I pray you may reign for a thousand years.

Wise one the news is that you have brought

The sunlight of the Able One’s word

To that dark far land, and filled it with princes

Of Buddha kings practicing hard and pure.

A letter informing me of these tidings,

Lovely thoughts in lovely stars of words,

Has due to your kindness reached me here,

Borne by several freed from the family life.

When the note touched my hand

The wind of your immaculate deeds

Swept up the cotton wisp of my mind

And carried my thoughts to you there.

The entire teachings of the Victors reside

in the three collections of scripture;

Thus the essence of what they have taught

can be found within the three trainings.

The very first one of all these three

is training in an ethical life,

And its home the Buddhas have spoken to be

the teachings on discipline.

This too is why so much of the Dharma,

so high and spoken so pure,

Has by the Buddhas been devoted

to the way of discipline.

It explains as well why all those masters

who understand the order

Of subjects to learn all take delight

in the teachings on discipline.

The training on perfect concentration,

quietude, must come

Before one can ever the develop the one

on wisdom, the ultimate vision.

Only a trace of this truth can be heard

anymore, and not a peep

On the fact that good concentration can’t come

without first training in ethics.

Some people find only the courage to pledge

themselves in word to this training,

Then later discard their commitments like trash;

they are lowest in a world of low.

The way of the holy is different; they make

every conceivable effort

In keeping whatever ethical rules

they may have committed to.

Once you have realized this fact

you must rely on watchfulness

And awareness; constantly checking all three

of the gateways for any wrong deeds,

Depending as well on a sense of care

and propriety to control

With all your strength the wild horse

of the senses, seeking to keep

This steed from taking you to a path

that leads you all astray.

With this state of mind you’ll be able to hold

your concentration perfectly


Fixed on any virtuous object

at your heart’s content.

Thus is the ethical life commended

for perfect concentration.

This state of mind is totally free

of the dirt of broken morality,

And is never disturbed or distracted from

the object of goodness you choose;

Therefore suchness, the lack of a self,

is perfectly clear to it,

Just like the moon’s reflection on water

undisturbed and crystal clear.

A perfect understanding of all of the

essential points like these

Within the path of the three trainings

depends precisely upon

An understanding of all the three

collections of Buddhist scripture;

Thus you should take yourself to a master

and train in the three collections.

The greatest teachers of all time

have said, no single time,

That the whole point of the trainings is reaching

actual attainments.

Take then whatever amount of the teachings

you understand so far,

And without procrastination, with speed,

put them to work in your life.

I have written the above lines as just a very brief presentation of the reasons why an ethical way of life is the very basis of the Buddhist path. As such I hope that you will cherish them, and review them again and again. I am extremely pleased by the fact that you have been able to ordain so many individuals, and give so many teachings on discipline, there in what from a Buddhist point of view is a wild and barbarian land.

If one focusses primarily on the taking of vows, and then fails in the practical aspects of keeping them seriously and restoring them when they are damaged, then there is absolutely no way that one’s practice of the ethical way of life can be pure.

As such it is essential that you now go on to help your new monks keep their vows well by learning to identify what constitutes breaking them. So too you must institute a regular practice of purification and restoration, whereby the monks learn to confess past errors and restrain themselves from future error, in the event that—because of one of the four factors, such as not understanding the vows properly—they should ever transgress them. They must learn never to take it lightly when they break a vow; they must be taught the proper methods of restoring vows in every instance where they are broken. In this way, and through developing a sense of shame and propriety, as well as watchfulness, awareness, and similar tools, they will come to lead a perfectly ethical way of life.

From an overall point of view, the Buddhas have described certain benefits that derive from virtuous deeds, and serious problems that derive from nonvirtuous deeds. We tend to think of the benefits as something that has no relevance until we are lying on our deathbed. And we view the descriptions of the problems as though they were some kind of veiled threat. We should rather try to develop, in the very depths of our hearts, the recognition that they are absolutely true.

In a more specific sense, we must meditate extensively upon the benefits of maintaining an ethical way of life, and upon the serious problems of failing to maintain such a code. This will bring us to a full recognition of their truth. Should we fail to do so, and if keeping up this ethical way of life becomes for us something motivated only by a concern about how we look to others, or about the honor and gifts we might obtain thereby, then the real point of ethics is lost.


The obstacle that prevents us from leading an ethical way of life for the right reasons is our enthusiasm for the activities of our present rebirth. And this in turn comes from viewing our present life as though it were a place where we are going to be spending some substantial amount of time. The most profound cure for this way of thinking is to maintain, on many levels, an awareness of our coming death. As such it is absolutely essential that you meditate, again and again, on the fact that you will die.

In a nutshell, the ability to perceive in detail the infallible workings of the deeds we do and the consequences we reap is a quality which is unique to beings who are omniscient. As such we must refer constantly to such scriptures as the Sutra on Awareness, the Hundred Deeds, the Hundred Stories of Past Lives, the Sutra on the Wise and Foolish, the Accounts of Scripture, and a wide variety of other sutras and classical commentaries.

By doing so we can make our recognition of the laws of karma and its consequences ever more firm. We must purify the bad karma we have collected in the past, until we reach the point where we are sure it has been erased. We must restrain ourselves from engaging in any new bad karma, until we reach the point where we are sure we have discontinued this behavior completely.

We must take the good karma we have been able to accomplish so far, and multiply its power through highly effective kinds of prayer. We must look at the good karma we have not yet been able to accomplish, and make it happen, not through any limited kinds of activity, but rather through a whole variety of different means.

Whatever of the above we may be able to carry out, it will all be infinitely more effective if we can learn to do it while keeping our minds soaked in the wish for enlightenment, whether in its full form, or even just in some partial form.

Remember too that the victorious Buddhas have recommended in countless open and secret scriptures that we seek the correct view of emptiness, the one that absolutely destroys every tendency to grasp to indications as objects themselves. This then allows us to avoid the two extremes of thinking either that things exist independently, or that—if they don’t exist independently—they cannot exist at all.

A well-founded grasp of the laws of karma and its consequences complements correct view; the very activity of being extremely careful to do the right thing in the arena of good and bad deeds, down to the smallest detail of our lives, gives us the ability to eliminate in ourselves entirely the two extremes of thinking “everything exists” and “nothing can exist.”

The vast majority of beings fall into one of two traps. Some have a misconception about things that are in nature empty which would necessitate their being unchanging. Others have a misconception which would obviate the entire way in which deceptive reality exists; which would necessitate the end of these very objects.

The actual truth therefore is extremely difficult to perceive, and even among those who have the capacity to do so there are infinitely few who could ever become a vessel worthy to receive the teachings. Therefore anyone who has any hope of seeing these things must first address the causes that would bring it about; they must accumulate the power of good deeds and purify their bad deeds, and make a great many holy prayers. They must take themselves properly to a spiritual guide who is a master of these things, and acquaint themselves well with the scriptures that describe them. Finally they must seek the truth by using their intellect to examine closely every point, and never be satisfied with only a rough or incomplete understanding.

Your understanding of, and conviction in, all the points I have just explained will continue to increase if you alternate your time between meditating upon them and studying them formally. This same practice will simultaneously begin to work as a cure for all your mental afflictions. As such I entreat you to practice this way.

Your respect for the word of Those Gone to Bliss

Is complete, and your intellect’s power imposing;

You walk in the footsteps of mighty beings

With wisdom, my Ngawang Drakpa.

Come now, follow the things I’ve taught you,

Make in your lives your deeds and prayers

Match mine, and on our enlightenment day

I’ll give you the first sip of deathlessness.

The above is an epistle written to that great master of Tsako, the pure spiritual guide known as Ngawang Drakpa. It constitutes a reply to a communication from him describing how he had founded a very special group of monks by ordaining a number of disciples in the eastern land of Gyalrong, something that had never been done before. The reply itself was composed by the glorious monk Lobsang Drakpa (Je Tsongkapa), and dispatched from his place of retreat named Teura, near the place called Eisa. May goodness ever increase!

See also