The one gate to 84,000 Dharmas:
A hermeneutical synthesis of the Buddhist Yana system
Andrea Loseries, Austria

SSEASR Regional Conference
New Delhi, January 27-30, 2005
Cultural and religious mosaic of South and Southeast Asia: Conflict and Consensus through the ages

In the summer 2004 I was invited as a guest speaker to the 8th Sakyadhita International Conference of Buddhist Women in Seoul, South Korea (1). More than thousand women from over thirty countries assembled there, where issues of Buddhist Women Studies were presented and discussed in scholarly lectures. However, for me the highlight experience was, that on top of the scientific aim the participants practiced meditation together. In the early morning we met at the main assembly hall of Sangha-University (2), where every day a different Buddhist tradition was introduced by a senior nun. In this way we were able to get the taste of the various Buddhist meditation traditions of Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan al. For me it opened up the vision of the one (advaya) encompassing gate to all the 84.000 Dharmas taught by the Buddha, a consensus of different cultural approaches in time and space, transgressing philosophical arguments and sectarian tendencies. Therefore I will present here in brief a hermeneutical synthesis of the Buddhist Yana system with references to the outlines of the Tibetan non-sectarian movement (Ris med) founded at the end of the 19th century.

The term Yana (Skr. and Pali, tib. theg pa, chin. Sheng, jap. Jo, ‘vehicle’) defines the different spiritual paths proposed by the Buddha for attaining enlightenment. It is a vehicle for passing from the state of ignorance to the state of liberation. Therefore it is a path, a medium for transgressing the path. From the perspective of the Hinayana, Mahayana and the Vajrayana there are various numbers of vehicles and different classifications. Under the broad heading of Tripitaka, collections of voluminous teachings have been preserved in three baskets of palm leave manuscripts. In the course of time various interpretations came into existence leading to manifold modes of practice. Buddha Gautama is said to have taught the doctrine inclusive of the Vinaya rules in accordance with the ability of grasping of a listener. As a result, the teachings of Buddha Gautama available now appear varied, diverse and exhaustive. Modes of meditation for one's spiritual attainment thereby have been manifold. Soon after the Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, at the first council (ca. 486 BC), the disciples recited the Tripitaka, which at the second council (110 or 137 years after the Mahaparinirvana) led to a split of the Sangha in the Mahasanghika and the Sthavira. As a result of that the Vinaya rules, the methods in practice of meditation and manner of life became diverse. About one thousand years after the Mahaparinirvana of Gautama the Buddhist Sangha had been divided into no less than eighteen sects and subsects. Huien Tsang (629-645) witnessed more than twelve hundred monasteries in India and Kashmir belonging to different schools of the Buddhist monks.

Despite that the Buddhists could establish unity in diversity when the Buddhayana has been expounded which aims to attain nothing than Buddhahood. It unifies the diversity existing elsewhere. The conception of Buddha as supra-mundane (lokattara) has been fostered in meditation and, thereby, mundane (laukika) attributes of Buddha Gautama have tended to develop the Trikaya of the Buddha (parimanakanya, sambhogakaya, dharmakaya). In the Dharmakaya, Buddha is immanent as well as transcendent. He, who is Awakenend, develops upaya-kaushalya, paramita and other characteristics of practice so that he manifests all over the worlds. In fact, the Buddhists differ in their opinions regarding the conceptions of Buddha and that tends also to grow many schools in Buddhism. (3)

Tibetan Lamas usually open their oral instructions by explaining that the Buddha has expounded 84,000 different Dharmas as antidotes for the 84,000 different defilements (klesha) the sentient beings are suffering from. He gave 28.000 different teachings on the Vinaya as an antidote to the mind poison desire; 28.000 Sutras as an antidote to hatred and 28.000 Abhidharma teachings as an antidote for the mind poison ignorance. The various paths or vehicles are for the benefit of various people with various capacities and levels of understanding. Each path implies a particular view, a particular meditation practice and a particular ascetic way for attaining enlightenment as a result. According to another classification we speak of the Vehicle of Cause or Characteristic (laksananyana), which are Theravada and Mahayana, and the Vehicle of Fruit (phalayana), which is the Vajrayana or Guhyamantrayana. The Vajrayana or Buddhist Tantras speak of nine Yanas, each being divided into four parts, namely the view (drishti, tib. lta ba), the meditation (dhyana, tib. sgom pa), the practice (carya, tib. spyod pa) and the fruit (phala, tib. 'bras bu) (4). This classification is attributed to the great Indian sage and mystic Padmasambhava, who introduced in the 8th century during the reign of King Trisong Detsen the Vajrayana in Tibet. (5)

We find this classification in the text “The Pith-Instruction Garland of Views” (Man ngag lta ba’i ‘phreng ba) written by Padmasambhava, where he expounds a hermeneutical approach of the Buddhist Yana system. (6)

The first three vehicles constitute the original divisions as they existed at the time of the three convocations or councils, which were held after the Mahapariniravana of Buddha Gautama: Sravakayana (Nyan thos theg pa), Pratyekabuddhayana (Rangs rgyal gyi theg pa) and Bodhisattvayana (Byang chub sems dpa'i theg pa). The development of 'fruit' of the first three is the Vajrayana or Mantrayana which is divided into three outer stages: Kriyatantrayana (Bya ba'i rgyud kyi theg pa), Upayatantrayana (spyod pa rgyud kyi theg pa), Yogatantrayana (rnal byor rgyud kyi theg pa), and three inner stages: Mahayogatantrayana, Anuyogatantrayana and Atiyogatantrayana (ati yoga'i theg pa). Atiyoga is considered to be the highest of all. This is the pure Advaita-Tantra in which all is realised as the Great Perfection (rdzogs pa chen po). According to the System of the Great Perfection all phenomena are empty, from the beginning pure, luminescent light, Nirvana and perfect Buddhahood. Besides these, Sahajayana and Kalachakrayana have also been counted as distinct approaches to attain Nirvana.

We are speaking here of different approaches with distinctive views, methods of meditation, behaviour and result as listed in the text. For example: as the ascetic practice of the Sravakas consists in the 'Three Virtues' (7), the ascetic practice of the Bodhisattva is 'the performing of faultless actions guided by compassion'. The ascetic practice of the highest Tantrikas is 'to remain unsoiled like a lotus, although one is indulging in the five Kleshas'.

Therefore, the Yana system offers different paths for dealing with 84.000 kinds of afflictions or passions caused by the notion of 'mine' and 'other' being the root of Samsara, the ocean of suffering. As it is said in the Samantabhadra Pratisthana (Kun tu bzang po smon lam):

The spontaneously arising ignorance is the abyss of unawareness.
The all differentiating ignorance is the grasping of 'mine' and 'other'.
Both, the spontaneously arising ignorance and the all-differentiating ignorance are the fundamental error of all sentient beings.

The 'Vehicle of Cause' offers the Path of Giving up (the unwholesome) and Taking (vows as protections from the passions). In the Tantra-Vehicle the practitioner uses the passions and transforms them into wisdom, this is the Path of Transformation. Atiyoga or Dzogs chen is the Path of Self-Liberation, where all outer and inner appearances are realized to be empty in nature. It depends entirely on the capacity of the practitioner which vehicle will lead him to liberation. Padmasambhava said (9):

Treasure the Three Jewels as dear as your eyes. The different vehicles each have their own approach, and through anyone of them the fruition can be attained.

And also in his advise to Dharma teachers of future generations he said (10):

Spiritual teachers of Tibet who are educated and endowed with good qualities, you should carefully study reading and writing, listen to the teachings, and reflect upon them in the presence of a learned and accomplished master. Thoroughly train in all the teachings of the different vehicles, the Tripitaka and the outer and inner Secret Mantra.

It happened that over the centuries in Tibet where different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism kept their identity through a particular lineage of teachers, misunderstandings occurred because the teachers confined their studies to the literature of their own tradition. However, the philosophical differences are so subtle that they are extremely difficult to grasp in the right perspective (11). In Tibet there was a heated debate between the exponents of the rang stong ('in itself empty') and gzhen stong ('empty from other') philosophies. The latter describe Dharmata as 'ultimately real', while the Rang stong philosophers fear that this interpretation might lead to the concept of a 'soul' (atma) (12). The point was which interpretation phrases the teachings the best to present the least danger of misinterpretation (13). There, but also in other places, different schools practiced and studied in their own isolated environments and thereby lost much of the contact with other schools and lineages. Non-communication breeds misunderstanding and doubts. And even where there was no misunderstanding or disrespect of other schools, some practitioners, in their ardent enthusiasm to keep their own lineage pure and undiluted, went so far as to refuse any teachings from the masters of other lineages. This is the area where in Tibet the non-sectarian Ris med movement of Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) and Jamyang Khentse (1820-1892) had most to contribute (14). The Ris med teachers always took great care that the teachings and practices of the different schools and lineages and their unique styles do not become confused with one another. Non-sectarianism is not a way of uniting different schools and lineages by emphasizing their similarities. It is basically an appreciation of their differences and acknowledgement of the importance of having this variety for the benefit of practitioners with different needs. To retain the original style and methods of each teaching lineage preserves the power of that lineage experience. Jamgon Kongtrul and Jamyang Khentse made great efforts to retain the original flavour of each teaching, while making them available for many. The teachings of each lineage were taught clearly and intelligible without confusing the terms and concepts of other teachings. Jamgon Kongtrul wrote (15):

The ultimate subject we need to define is the Ultimate Nature, or Dharmata, of phenomena. The Prajnaparamita Sutra says: 'Dharmata is not knowable (with the intellectual mind) and cannot be perceived in concepts.' The great saints (siddhas) and scholars examined it from different aspects, and each of the ways outlined by them has many reasons and logical consequences. If we follow the tradition of our own lineage and study our own lineage masters in depth, we shall find no need to feel sectarian. However, if we confuse the terms and systems of different traditions, or if we try to introduce the ways of other systems, because we do not have a deep understanding of our own tradition, we shall surely make our minds as muddled as the yarns of a bad weaver.

The Ris med concept was not original to Kongtrul and Khentse - neither were they new to Buddhism. Lord Buddha forbade his students even to critize the teaching and teachers of other religions and cultures. Why then, are there so many debates and criticism among the different schools? There is an old saying in Tibetan:

'If two philosophers agree, one is not a philosopher. If two saints disagree, one is not a saint.' (16)

The difference lies only in the words used to describe the Absolute. We experience all phenomena on the relative level. In reaching the meditative state all extremes of ideas completely dissolve. When I have visited the Karla caves (4th till 2nd century BC) in Maharastra after attending the Somaia-Conference in Mumbai 2004, I was extremely moved by the simplicity of those dwellings, which these early followers of the Buddha have used, a plain caitya having being at that time the only object of symbolic worship. What a difference it makes to the rich iconography of the Tibetan, Chinese or Korean pantheon! Yet, it is the spaciousness of contemplation, the practice of meditating on the nature of one's mind, which is common to all Buddhist ways.

In our present times I consider a revision of ethical views and conduct a personal and global necessity. There is nobody who does not aspire happiness and who does not want to be free from suffering. For attaining the utmost, unchangeable happiness the Buddha has taught the sacred Dharma. The 84,000 ways the Buddha has shown for liberating us from the 84,000 different kinds of affliction have all the same aim: the recognition of one’s own mind, the unwavering awareness as the innate nature (sahaja). To tame the mind is the root of all teachings. Mind (citta) is the basis of Samsara and Nirvana. Pleasure or pain is experienced on the basis of ego-clinging as attachment or aversion. Once the mind stops clinging, everything appears like a dream, a mirage, there is neither need nor harm involved. All the teachings of the Buddha are of one taste, many skilful paths leading to enlightenment, all arriving at the naked freshness of Suchness beyond the limits of the three times. It is the Dharmakaya sphere of unbounded wholeness (chos sku thig le nyag cig), a dimension that is both infinitely variable and altogether unified. This truth transgresses religious views, cultural differences. It is the realisation of the innate nature (sahaja). It is a path towards cross-cultural understanding and religious consensus while keeping the diversity as an ornament, as the dynamic expression of enlightened compassion.

No view, no tradition can be definite, when the centre is ‘indefinite’. The Dzogs chen tradition says, when it comes to reality, even Samantabhadra cannot say ‘It is like this’. The one gate embracing all 84,000 Dharmas is innate, it is the unbounded wholeness of reality, the one sphere found within.

Dr. Andrea Loseries, an Austrian national, has studied Tibetoloy, Cultural Anthropology and History of Art in Paris, Santiniketan/Westbengal and Vienna. She is an expert on Tantric rituals and Tibetan Iconography. Her scientific approach is integrative and focuses on themes of cultural identity and gender roles.


(1) See the forthcoming Proceedings; particularly the key-adress note of Prof. Anne Klein inspired me for presenting this paper.

(2) Belonging to the Jogye-Order of Korean Buddhism

(3) See Pathak, S.K.: Ekayana-Buddhayana, in: Variety and Unity of Buddhist Taught and Practice. Proceedings of the 8th international Buddhist conference. Bodhgaya 1982: 131ff.

(4) See also Kazi Dawa-Samdup: Sri Cakrasamvara-Tantra. New Delhi 1987(1919): Introduction.

(5) Padmasambhava was prophezised by Buddha Sakyamuni in many Sutras and Tantras and therefore is called in Tibet the second Buddha; f.i. Immaculate Goddesses-Sutra, Sutra of inconceivable Secrets, or in the Tantra of the Ocean of Ferocious Activity, cited in: Tsele Natsok Rangdröl: The Lotus-Born. The Life Story of Padmasambhava, composed by Yeshe Tsogyal; transl. by Erik Pema Kunsang, Shambala, New Delhi 1999:8ff.

(6) see Loseries, Ulrich: Guru Padma Sambhava's "Die Kette der Anschauungen". Bonn 1989.

(7) see Pratimoksasutra: Not doing anthing unwholesome, but ever practicing wholesome deeds and to tame the mind thoroughly, thus is the teaching of Buddha.

(8) Lhan cig skes pa'i ma rig pa / shes pa dran med g.yang sa yin / kun to rtags pas ma rig pa / bdag gzhan gnyis su 'dzin pa yin / transl. by Loseries, A., text see Dawa Samdup Kazi 1987 (1919): 160.

(9) Advise to the kings of Tibet. In: Tsele Natsok Rangdröl: The Lotus-Born. New Delhi 1999:156.

(10) Tsele Natsok Rangdröl: The Lotus-Born. New Delhi 1999:163.

(11) For example the main debate between Sautrantika and Prasanghika Madhyamikas is wether to say 'the form is empty' or 'the form is ultimately empty'. This legendary debate of Candrakirti and Candragomin lasted more then ten years.

(12) In bKa' rgyud and rNying ma Tantric traditions both are used, as the Rang stong view is for dissolving concepts and the gzhen stong way expresses better the experience side.

(13) See Ringu Tulku: The Rime Movement of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. In: Proceedings of the 7th Conference of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. Graz 1995.

(14) S. K. Phatak kindly pointed out to me that one of the reasons why the Ris med movement was first started in East Tibet (Kham) was that the presence of Christian missionaries and their pressure made such an ecumenical Tibetan Buddhist movement with a broad socio-religious consensus essential.

(15) See Ringu Tulku: The Rime Movement of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. In: Proceedings of the 7th Conference of the International Association of Tibetan Studies. Graz 1995.

(16) Cited by Ringu Tulku 1995: lta ba mthun na mkhas pa min / dgong pa ma nthun na grub thob min //