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A Brief Presentation of the Nine Vehicles
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A Brief Presentation of the Nine Vehicles by Alak Zenkar Rinpoche Thubten Nyima
Our teacher, the fourth guide of this fortunate aeon, the incomparable lord of sages, Śākyamuni, gave infinite teachings as means to enter the Dharma of the causal and resultant vehicles, in accordance with the particular temperaments, spiritual faculties and attitudes of disciples. Nevertheless, they may all be included within the three vehicles, which, in turn, may be further subdivided into nine successive stages.
As it is said in The General Sūtra:
And The Immaculate Confession Tantra says:
The samayas of the nine successive vehicles—
Three vehicles related to the three piṭakas of characteristics,
The outer three of kriyā yoga and so on, related to tantras of asceticism,
And the inner three yogas related to tantras of skilful methods.
three outer vehicles of leading from the origin [of suffering) or those related to the three piṭakas of characteristics,
three inner vehicles of Vedic asceticism or those of the three outer classes of tantra, and
three secret vehicles of powerful transformative methods or those of the three inner classes of tantra.
It is said in The Condensed Sūtra:
This refers to the literal meaning of the Sanskrit term yāna, a vehicle or means of conveyance, since it is that which carries us along the paths and bhūmis, bringing us ever greater enlightened qualities.
I The Three Outer Vehicles Leading from the Origin
Why are these three called ‘vehicles leading from the origin’?
The Śrāvaka Vehicle
The śrāvakas are motivated by a feeling of renunciation, the wish to escape from all the realms of samsara by themselves alone. With this motivation, they receive one of the seven sets of pratimokṣa vows,
those of a male or female lay practitioner, novice monk or nun, probationary nun, or fully ordained monk or nun, and having received these vows, they practise moral restraint, keeping their vows unimpaired, repairing any impairments that do occur, and so on.
They do not understand that all material and conscious phenomena are devoid of true reality, and, asserting a truly real partless particle in perceived objects and an indivisible moment of consciousness, they fail to realize the absence of phenomenal identity.
They realize the state of śamatha by abandoning obstacles and cultivating factors conducive to samādhi, according to the nine stages of resting the mind and so on, and generate the wisdom of vipaśyanā by meditating on the sixteen aspects of the four truths.
They attain any one of eight levels of fruition, corresponding to the degree to which they have abandoned the kleshas of the three realms. There are eight levels because the four results of stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and arhat are each divided into the two stages known as the emerging and the established.
Pratyekabuddhas, or ‘self-awakened’ are so-called because, having a more profound depth of wisdom than the śrāvakas, they manifest their own awakening through the power of their own wisdom, without needing to rely on other masters.
i. Entry Point
When it comes to their path, and their practice of meditation, the uncommon approach of the pratyekabuddhas is to meditate on how the twelve links of interdependent origination arise in their progressive sequence and how they cease in the reverse order.
Moreover, they reach their final existence as a result of three specific aspiration prayers. They pray that their last existence may be in a world without buddhas and śrāvakas, that they may attain awakening by themselves, without relying on any teacher, and that they may teach the Dharma silently through physical gestures.
It is called the vehicle of bodhisattvas because once it has been entered it has the power to lead someone to great enlightenment, because its domain of experience is vast, in terms of its extensive skilful methods and its profound wisdom,
because it brings about benefit and happiness, in the higher realms in the short term, and ultimately at the stage of definitive good, and because it carries one to greater and greater qualities as one progresses along the paths and stages.
I will now a give a brief outline of its initial entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results.
i. Entry Point
They are motivated by bodhicitta, which has as its focus all sentient beings and is characterized by the wish to establish them all at the level of perfect buddhahood, free from the causes and effects of suffering and endowed with all the causes and effects of happiness.
Concerning the basis of their path, how they determine the view, if we speak in terms of philosophical tenets, the approach of Mind Only is to assert that outer objects are not real and all phenomena are but the inner mind, and to claim that the self-aware, self-knowing consciousness devoid of dualistic perception is truly real.
the two obscurations including habitual traces, and realizing everything that must be realized, included within the knowledge of all that there is and the knowledge of its nature. They accomplish the two types of dharmakāya for their own benefit and the two types of rūpakāya for the benefit of others.
These are the three outer classes of tantra:
It is because the three outer classes of tantra stress aspects of ascetic conduct, such as ritual purification and cleanliness, and in this respect they are similar to the Vedic tradition of the brahmins.
i. Entry Point
The initial point of entry to the path of secret mantra vajrayana is ripening empowerment, so here one receives the water empowerment, which establishes the potential for ripening into the dharmakaya, and the crown empowerment, which establishes the potential for ripening into the rūpakāya.
In terms of determining the view, the basis of the path, one realizes that the ground of purification, the nature of mind itself, is the wisdom of empty clarity, and is ultimately beyond all extremes of elaboration, such as existing, not existing, appearing or being empty. Then one views the aspects of relative appearance, which are what must be purified, as the characteristics of the completely pure deity.
As for the path and the way of practising meditation, it centres around the four realities: the reality of oneself and the reality of the deity are practised by means of the six aspects of the deity, by visualizing oneself as the samaya form and then invoking the wisdom being into the space in front,
considering oneself as a servant and the deity as one’s master. One then focuses upon the reality of the mantra recitation which is the sound, and on the mind and the ground, and meditates upon the reality of concentration, which consists of remaining in the ‘flame,’ continuation of sound and culmination of sound.
In the short term, one becomes a desire realm vidyādhara, and ultimately one attains awakening as Vajradhara of one of the three buddha families: of the family of enlightened body, Vairocana, of the family of enlightened speech, Amitābha, or of the family of enlightened mind, Akṣobhya.
I will now say a little about its entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results.
i. Entry Point
One is matured by means of the five empowerments, which include the empowerments of the vajra, bell and name in addition to the water and crown empowerments, and then maintains the samayas of caryā tantra, as described in the particular texts themselves.
The view is determined in the same way as in the yoga tantra, so it will be explained below.
One visualizes oneself as the samaya being and visualizes the wisdom deity, who is regarded as a friend, in front of oneself, and then practises the conceptual meditations on the syllable, mudrā and form of the deity, and the non-conceptual meditation on absolute bodhicitta by means of entering, remaining and arising.
The conduct here is the same as in kriyā tantra.
Its entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results are as follows:
i. Entry Point
Having been matured through the eleven empowerments—the five empowerments of the disciples (water, crown, vajra, bell and name) as well as the six empowerments of the master (the empowerment of irreversibility, empowerment of seeing secret reality, authorization, prophecy, confirmation and praising encouragement)—one keeps the samayas as described in the particular texts.
The view is to regard all phenomena as the deity of the vajradhātu, through the blessing of the emptiness and clear light in which all phenomena are realized to be beyond conceptual elaboration on an ultimate level.
One meditates on the yoga of skilful means, visualizing oneself as the deity by means of the five aspects of awakening and the four miraculous things, and summons the wisdom being, who then dissolves into oneself, and is sealed by means of the four mudrās, and so on. There is also the yoga of wisdom, in which one rests in a state in which ultimate non-conceptual wisdom is inseparable from the relative appearance of the deity of the vajradhātu.
As a worldly attainment, one becomes a celestial vidyādhara, and as the supermundane accomplishment, one attains enlightenment in Ghanavyūha, as one of the five buddha families (in addition to the four families previously mentioned, there is also Amoghasiddhi’s buddha family of enlightened activity).
These are the three inner classes of tantra:
The vehicle of mahāyoga, or ‘great yoga,’ is so-called because it is superior to ordinary yoga tantra since all phenomena are realized to be a magical display in which appearance and emptiness are indivisible.
i. Entry Point
Once one’s mind has been matured through receiving the ten outer benefiting empowerments, the five inner enabling empowerments and the three secret profound empowerments, one keeps the samayas as they are described in the texts.
By means of extraordinary lines of reasoning, one establishes and then realizes the indivisibility of the [two] higher levels of reality, according to which the cause for the appearance of the essential nature, the seven riches of the absolute, is spontaneously present within the pure awareness that is beyond conceptual elaboration, and all relative phenomena naturally appear as the mandala of deities of the three seats.
When it comes to the path and the practice of meditation, the main emphasis is on the generation stage. In the practice of generation stage yoga, one sets up the practice through the three samādhis, ensures that the three of purifying, perfecting and ripening are complete within the visualization, and, once the visualization is complete, seals it with the instruction on the four nails securing the life-force. In the practice of the completion stage yoga, one activates the vital points of the vajra body, its subtle energies, essences, luminosity and so on.
One maintains elaborate, unelaborate and extremely unelaborate conduct.
In the short term one reaches the four vidyādhara levels, which are the results belonging to the path, and finally one gains the ultimate fruition, and reaches the level of the Vajradhara of unity.
The vehicle of anuyoga, or ‘following yoga’, is so-called because it mainly teaches the path of passionately pursuing (or ‘following wisdom, in the realization that all phenomena are the creative expression of the indivisible unity of absolute space and primordial wisdom.
Once again, let us say a little about its point of entry, view, meditation, conduct and results:
i. Entry Point
Through logical reasoning one determines that which is to be known, the fact that all phenomena are characterized as being the three mandalas in their fundamental nature, and realizes that this is so.
Meditation practice here consists of two paths. On the path of liberation one practises the non-conceptual samādhi of simply resting in a state that accords with the essence of reality itself, and the conceptual samādhi of deity practice,
i. Entry Point
The meditation consists of the approach of cutting through resistance to primordial purity (kadak trekchö), through which the lazy can reach liberation without effort, and the approach of the direct realization of spontaneous presence (lhundrup tögal), through which the diligent can reach liberation with exertion.
Perfecting the four visions of the path, one gains the supreme kāya, the rainbow body of great transference, and attains the level of glorious Samantabhadra, the thirteenth bhūmi known as ‘Unexcelled Wisdom’ (yeshe lama).
An earlier version of this translation was published in Kyabje Zenkar Rinpoche & Pema Lungtok Gyatso Rinpoche, The Nine Gradual Vehicles: Two Complementary Presentations. Brussels: Wisdom Treasury, 2015.
An alternative translation sometimes given is ‘the inner vehicle of gaining awareness through austerities’ but that would not accord with Zenkar Rinpoche’s explanation given later in this text.
i.e., The Condensed Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.
According to The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, vol. 2, p. 169:
1) Wearing clothes found in a dust heap,
2) owning only three robes,
3) wearing felt or woollen clothes,
4) begging for food,
5) eating one’s meal at a single sitting,
6) restricting the quantity of food,
7) staying in isolation,
8) sitting under trees,
9) sitting in exposed places,
10) sitting in charnel grounds,
11) sitting even during sleep, and
12) staying wherever one happens to be.
This is rather a free translation of 'dod pa bsod nyams kyi mtha'
Curd, milk and butter.
‘Entering’ refers to the realization that all phenomena are beyond arising, ‘remaining’ means to abide once the non-conceptual nature has manifest and ‘arising’ means developing intense compassion for all beings who do not realize this.
The aggregates (skandha) and elements (dhātu) are the seats of the male and female buddhas, the sense faculties and their objects are the seats of the male and female bodhisattvas, and the limbs are seats of the male and female wrathful ones.
1) The yoga of the aspiring spiritual warrior on the path of accumulation,
2) the yoga revealing the great enlightened family on the path of joining,
3) the yoga of great assurance on the path of seeing,
4) the yoga of receiving great prophecy on the path of meditation, and
5) the yoga of perfecting the great creative power on the ultimate path.
1) The stage of uncertain transformation,
2) the stage of stable foundation,
3) the stage of significant purification,
4) the stage of continuous training,
5) the stage of supportive merit,
6) the stage of special progress through stability,
7) the stage bringing focus on the result once the path of seeing has arisen through clear light,
8) the stage of steadfast remaining,
9) the stage of expanding reality, and 1
0) the stage of riding on perfection.