Teachings by the Venerable Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche teaching at Gampo Abbey
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche teaching a Nitartha class at Gampo Abbey in 1998

Venerable Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche visited Gampo Abbey a number of times in its early years. His first visit was in September of 1990. The Nitharta Institute was founded in 1996 by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche under the guidance of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. The Institute was held at Gampo Abbey for its first three years.

Vinaya Beyond Do’s and Don’ts

This teaching was given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at Gampo Abbey.

Vinayapitaka, Sutrapitaka and Abhidharmapitaka

The entire Canon or teachings of the Buddha, the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana, are classified into three Pitakas or Baskets, namely the Vinayapitaka, the Sutrapitaka and the Abhidharmapitaka. As we know, the Lord Buddha turned the wheel of the Dharma three times and the Vinaya belongs to the first turning, the Hinayana, which took place in the Deer Park of Sarnath in Varanasi. The Vinaya itself is concerned with the disciplines or precepts of the bhikshus and bhikshunis, the novice monks and nuns, and the lay-practitioners, the upasikas and upasakas, but as we shall see, in the Vinayapitaka the Buddha deals not only with the monastic precepts, but with the development of social harmony in the society as a whole.

Is Buddhism a religion or a science?

In general I feel that Buddhism is not a religion but rather a pure philosophy, an inner science of insight, a human science dealing with our mind and our emotions, dealing with the development of the basic purity, basic positive energy that all sentient beings possess, our basic goodness. When we speak of religion, there is the sense of worshiping someone or something, but in Buddhism it is not a case of worshiping the Buddha. The inner science of insight studies the ‘cause and effect’ of karma and how situations perpetuate themselves. Buddhism deals with uprooting the cause of suffering. To do that, we must first realize what suffering itself is and then search for the cause of suffering, so that we can relinquish it. By studying and meditating with this Buddhist scientific approach, we develop faith or confidence that we have this positive energy, the buddha nature, that we have the strength to work with ego. I prefer to use the word confidence instead of faith.

The Vinaya must relate with the times, society and country

The bhikshus have 253 precepts and the bhikshunis have over 300. Each precept originated from a situation where a follower of the Buddha had done something wrong resulting in a bad reputation or social upset amongst the villagers. When this situation was reported to the Buddha by Ananda or another of his close students, even though, in his wisdom, he was already aware of it, the Buddha said: “From this time on, we can’t do this.” This shows that many of the precepts are related to the contemporary Indian culture of the time of Shakyamuni Buddha and may consequently not seem very relevant to today’s society.

This view is also supported by a very important teaching that the Buddha gave before passing into parinirvana. His students asked him: “How can we continue our society and our Vinaya rules when you have gone into parinirvana?” and the Buddha answered: “You do it in accordance with the times and with society.” This teaching has been quoted in many texts and commented on by many Vinaya commentators: “The Vinaya must relate with the times, society, and the country.” Therefore when Buddhism came to a new country like Tibet, it changed its outward form, it did not keep the ancient Indian form of Buddhism.

Tantrayana and its symbolic practice

It is easy to see that the Sutrayana, likewise, is a science, a pure philosophy, rather than a religion. However, when we come to the Tantrayana, at first the outer form seems to suggest a difference in view, but still we cannot say that tantric practices are religion because when we really study the philosophy of tantra, we find that the teachings are very symbolic, very metaphoric. There are various deities and protectors, but it is all symbolic practice, having a greater meaning beyond the outer form. And so when we go deeply into tantric philosophy, we find that it too is a pure science rather than a religion.

In this way Buddhism is like a clear crystal ball that has no colour of its own, but when it is placed on a sheet of red paper, it reflects the red and appears red, or when it is put on a sheet of white paper, it appears white. So the material of the crystal ball, its nature, does not change, but its appearance changes. Different cultures, different countries, different languages are like the different sheets of coloured paper; the form of Buddhism changes with each. Looking back in history, we see that when Buddhism came to Tibet or China, everything was translated into Tibetan or Chinese, and the structure of the Buddhist society was adapted to the country. And then persons like Milarepa practised solely in Tibetan, without any knowledge of Sanskrit or of Indian culture, and attained complete realization. Therefore, when Buddhism travels to different countries, Europe or North America, it has to be transformed, adapted. The Vinaya teaches that we can see that culture is not the essence of Buddhism. Buddhism is free of nationalities, it’s free of citizenship and it is free of language.

Distinguishing feature of Buddhism

One of the main features that distinguishes Buddhism from other religions or philosophies is the fact that Buddha said “You can become like me”. I think that this is a very important point because in other religions, if one says that one wants to become Allah, or that one wants to become a god, it can be the greatest sin that one can commit, challenging Allah or Krishna or whatever. But the Buddha said: “You can become like me. You have all the qualities that I have.” The fact that all sentient beings possess the basic positive energies is the greatest distinguishing feature of Buddhism, and this was taught in the Sutrapitaka of the Bodhisattvacarya.

Individual rights, non-violence practice and social concern

The whole of the Buddha’s teachings of the three yanas, the Vinaya of the Hinayana, the Bodhisattvacarya and the karmas of the Tantrayana are all connected with mundane or social welfare.

Hinayana: Individual rights

When the Buddha presented the Vinaya the main purpose was the preservation and promotion of the real cause of social harmony. Based on this view, he laid down its principal structures, emphasizing the individual’s rights and benefits. We can see, in the Vinaya, how the Buddha protected individual rights, for example, by ensuring that major decisions could not be taken in the absence of any individual member of the monastic sangha. And in the Vinaya it is said that even if all members are present but one of them is dozing off and wakes up after the decision has been made, then the decision is invalid. So even if he is present, he has to be aware of the situation. If there is disagreement, a decision is made by majority. If one is over twenty years old, one can become a bhikshu or bhikshuni and then one has equal rights which include the right to vote.

Practice of non-violence and social harmony

Simultaneously the Buddha encouraged the individual, if necessary, to give up his or her own rights and to practise the non-violence theory or the non-violence precepts of the Vinaya for the cause of greater social benefits. In this regard the Buddha introduced the ten virtuous actions (T: dge-ba bcu) to overcome the ten non-virtuous or unwholesome actions. The three unwholesome actions of the mind are 1] maliciousness, 2] covetousness or bearing a grudge and 3] wrong view, which is not believing in cause and effect, karma. These are the cause of the three unwholesome actions of body, i.e. 1] killing, 2] stealing and 3] sexual misconduct, and the four unwholesome actions of speech, i.e. 1] telling lies, 2] slander or causing schism, 3] harsh words, and 4] gossiping which causes kleshas to arise. This practice of non-violence is the main method for promoting the development of social harmony and protecting the peaceful atmosphere in the society, and at the same time it is the safeguard of the individual rights and benefits. Due to this outlook the philosophy of the Buddhist Vinaya, which was developed first in India, spread later to other countries.

Buddhists always talk about benefiting sentient beings. But it is possible that this could remain at the level of big vision alone. In order to materialize this theory, the Buddha introduced as a further method the taking of ordination in the presence of at least two other bhikshus or bhikshunis. In this way one makes a very strong commitment to them, almost like the samaya in the tantric terminology. It is simple and easy to keep a pure commitment to these two persons whom one considers to be one’s dharma brothers and sisters. This basic unit is based on the essence of the spiritual heart, its purpose is to connect with this basic spiritual heart. That is the basic idea of the Buddha, how to take his vision into practice, first relying upon working with a small group, and then growing bigger and bigger, commiting onself to the greater sangha, which in India, was not very numerous. In general in the Vinaya, emphasis is placed on maintaining a good relationship with the entire human realm because human beings are more precious than other beings. According to the Vinaya rules, killing a human is one of the four “defeats”, the most serious misdeeds, but killing an animal is a “downfall”, a less serious misdeed. This shows that if we look at the Vinaya strictly from the viewpoint of the rules, although the goal is individual salvation, so-sor thar-pa (T) or pratimoksha (S), actually there is a great meaning behind the rules. So there is social concern in the Vinaya, but it is more directed towards humans than to other beings.


First, the Buddha introduced the practice of non-violence, then, gradually, he introduced the practice of the six paramitas. We can look briefly how each of the paramitas works for social welfare.

First, dana [S] or generosity has the sense of sharing one’s wealth with others who don’t have it, an equal distribution of wealth.

Secondly, discipline or shila [S] promotes social harmony by the practice of the ten virtuous deeds, basically avoiding violence, practised by monks and nuns as well as lay people.

Patience or kshanti [S] actually consists of having tolerance of others’ violence and criticism. If one does not react to the criticism or violence of another person, then that other person can cool down. Reacting to violence with violence does not solve anything; in fact, it creates further problems. And so it is pretty clear how patience helps to bring about social harmony.

The fourth paramita is exertion or virya [S], having diligence in the practice of Dharma. Working hard for the welfare of society is the practice of exertion.

Fifth, meditation or samadhi [S] is the purification of one’s mind, making one’s mind clear, in order to bring benefit to others, to develop sanity.

Then finally transcendental knowledge, prajnaparamita, the source or basis of all social harmony because it deals with selflessness, and tries to overcome the strong self-centered view which causes the biggest social problems.

Although the paramitas as such do not appear in the Vinaya, nevertheless, their basic flavour is there. The Hinayana deals with selflessness of the individual, whereas the Mahayana, with the practice of the fifth and especially the sixth paramita, goes beyond that and deals with the two selflessnesses, that of the individual and that of phenomena. So the attainment of prajnaparamita enables one to understand and practise what is right and beneficial for society. First one thinks about others, what one can do for others, rather than for oneself, the “I” , “me”. In this way the practice of the six paramitas is viewed from the point of view of social welfare, rather than from the point of view of individual liberation.

We have observed that the social concern in the Vinaya is directed more towards humans than to other beings. However, when the Buddha taught the Bodhisattvacarya with its greater social concern, he gave equal rights to all sentient beings. Thus whether one kills an ant or a human, that act constitutes a root downfall in the Bodhisattvayana. Again, of the ten non-virtuous actions, the Buddha permitted bodhisattvas to carry out seven (the three of body and the four of speech) in special cases where there would be greater social benefit for others, whereas the three non-virtuous actions of the mind should never be permitted because these are not beneficial for social welfare. Thus, between the Vinaya precepts and the Bodhisattvacarya, there is an increased sense of social welfare.

For example, in one of the Jataka stories, the Buddha was a bodhisattva travelling in a ship full of wealthy merchants. One of the passengers, an evil man, very envious of the others’ wealth, tried to bore a hole through the bottom of the ship, to kill all the people on board, including himself. But the future Buddha killed the evil man. Of course killing is a non-virtuous action and uncomfortable for both of them, killer and killed, but since his intention was pure, the merit of this action was multiplied for 90,000 kalpas. There are other Mahayana methods for avoiding violence. For example, in his text, Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva says “You cannot destroy your enemies because although you may succeed in destroying one enemy in one place, if you go to another place you may create another enemy there, and then you have to struggle again to destroy the new enemy. In this way the whole world (potentially) becomes your enemy.” The analogy that Shantideva gives is that, rather than covering up the whole surface of the earth with leather, one can just cover up the soles of one’s feet by wearing leather sandals. And so he says that if one can destroy one single enemy, i.e. one’s own anger, that is like destroying all the enemies that one has in the world. So this is another practice of non-violence.

We have discussed the practice of generosity. Generosity may be difficult for some people. In that case, they can apply an old Kadampa practice mentioned by Atisha that has been used to generate the aspiration of generosity which consists of taking, say, a dollar bill in one’s right hand and then giving it to one’s left hand, back and forth, while visualizing that one has given it to someone else. After that one can start giving vegetables, cookies and so forth to others and slowly one can reach the point where one can give one’s own body as Buddha did to the hungry tigress. So we, too, after practising generosity, can reach that level.


In the Tantrayana, even greater sacrifices are performed for the social welfare. The four tantric karmas, pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and destroying, are performed only in the context of greater social welfare and with the three essential points necessary for any tantric practice. These are, first, having maitri and bodhicitta, secondly, having correct view, i.e. the right understanding of emptiness which is connected with sampannakrama [T: rdzogs-rim], the absorption aspect of tantric meditation, and thirdly, renunciation. Renunciation is basically the same as in the Theravadin practice, renouncing the world, renouncing samsaric pain and suffering. In renunciation, we renounce a small world and go towards a big world of freedom, of liberation. So it is said that if tantric practice lacks any one of these three, it is not proper tantric practice.

This was a brief survey of the stages from Hinayana to Vajrayana in regard to how they are related to benefiting and building a better society.

So the three-yana stages constitute a process of helping, unifying our world in the greater sense. Sometimes I joke and say “It was not the United Nations that gave us human rights, it was the Buddha, 2500 years earlier.”

Vinaya beyond do’s and don’ts

You might still wonder what all this has to do with “Vinaya beyond do’s and don’ts”?

Usually when we look at the Vinaya, we look only at a specific part of the Vinaya, for example, the precepts of the bhikshus and bhikshunis, and we think that the Vinaya has nothing to do with the lay community or that the Vinaya does not have any philosophy, that it’s just decree, you can’t do this and can’t do that. But if we look closely at the Vinaya, we see there is an underlying philosophy beyond these do’s and don’ts. So I think this “beyond” is the social philosophy of Buddhism because it deals mainly with society, social science, and doesn’t talk about emptiness extensively like the Madhyamika, nor does it talk about tantric precepts. It is simply talking about society, but at the same time it has a philosophy. What is missing now is a pure Buddhist society, a social infrastructure of Buddhism.

Let us look at what happens in many monasteries. I’m not criticizing monasteries, but we have to look at what are the facts. It’s more like a feudal system. There is one person at the head, the boss. Under him there is a chain of maybe four or five, each of whom directs the next one under him, and finally the public. This monastic structure is not very helpful in a certain sense. Moreover in many ways the daily program, and the educational and ritual programs are often mechanical. You don’t know what you’re doing, but you do it, like turning the same wheel day after day. You do a puja for a whole day or perhaps for weeks, but you never get an explanation of why you are doing the puja. You might not even know to which part of the Buddhist canon it belongs, sutra or tantra. But what you do know is how to do the puja, what melody you should use for which section, what cymbals you should play, what gyaling music you have at which point, and where you should drink tea.

What’s the use of this? We are not in a monastery to kill time. We are looking for something more, maybe seeking liberation. What does it help if you drink tea at this point of the puja? What does it help for liberation? If you play gyaling at this point, what is that good for if you don’t know why you are blowing the gyaling? If you don’t know the purpose, the whole thing doesn’t make any sense.

This kind of structure exists and has been going on for centuries and it still goes on. What I miss is this ‘beyond’, beyond do’s and don’ts. There are always these commands but no reason why you can’t do this and why you have to do that.

There should be a good curriculum for the monastery to follow. As the Buddha said: “When you enter the monastery, there are only two things to do, practise and study.” If you are introduced to ‘real’ practice and ‘real’ study the day you enter the monastery, based on a good curriculum you will tame your kleshas, your ego, and then it is not necessary for someone else to control your behaviour. Buddha’s method of teaching is to control oneself. Buddha didn’t want to look after each individual, saying “You can’t do this.” Nobody likes that, and in this way you cannot become a pure practitioner.

The basic concept of Buddhist education is very advanced, the basic material that we have from the Buddha and his earlier Indian commentators is very advanced. The emphasis of the early Buddhist society was on developing strength. A strong wind makes a fire burn more.


Question 1: How does observance of the precepts change from one culture to another? Who makes the decisions?

Rinpoche: According to the Vinayasutra, the abbots and the learned bhikshus and bhikshunis, who have full understanding and confidence in the Vinaya, discuss the problems of the present time and then make the changes. For example, in India the colours of the robes were saffron, red and blue. However, in Tibet blue was considered a royal colour because of Chinese influence and was fashionable and expensive. So the blue colour was changed to maroon which was inexpensive and not a popular colour. But the change is a very slow process.

Question 2: If one looks in greater detail at the practices of the Hinayana, at the rules of the Vinaya, one could sometimes get the impression that the Buddha did not grant equal rights to men and women. Could you comment on that?

Rinpoche: One could interpret some parts of the Vinayasutra as saying that women are inferior. Also the Vinaya states that bhikshunis must follow more rules than bhikshus. However, these customs are connected with the conventions of the contemporary society at the time of the Buddha. There is the saying “ Rome was not built in one day”. The Buddha could not change the society of his time in one day. In order to propagate his teachings, the process of change had to be slow. If, at the very beginning, he had said that all are equal, regardless of sex or caste, it would have been much more difficult for him to develop his teachings in India. In this way, seeing the obstacles, he took the slow course, first not accepting the bhikshuni sangha and then gradually accepting it and giving it more and more equal rights. So many scholars say that this was not the true or definite meaning of the Buddha [T: nges-don], but rather the literal meaning [T: drang-don], which needs interpretation because it is related to the cultural context of the society of Buddha’s time.

Question 3: Could Buddhism adapt to a new culture without monasticism?

Rinpoche: In general, bodhisattvas can adapt to any culture and the Bodhisattvayana does not follow all the Vinaya rules. But the Buddha said that the Vinaya is his Regent, that it represents the Buddha. The Vinaya represents the Buddha’s society, how the Buddha lived and how it was formed at the beginning. Therefore the correct infrastructure of the Vinaya society is a good example for any society of lay practitioners. Buddha said “Out of the three Pitakas, Sutra and Abhidharma cannot represent him.” It is the Vinaya which represents him. The Vinaya is the root or source of Sutra and Abhidharma, because when you are free of concerns about livelihood then you have more freedom to spend more time on practice and study so that it is more likely that you can have a deeper understanding. So it seems that monasticism is important for Buddhism itself. But the Vinaya is not necessarily the same as occurs in the infrastructure of monasteries which in many ways is similar to the feudal cultural system.

Question 4: Rinpoche, could you give some specific examples of how the Vinaya rules at the time of the Buddha helped to create social well-being?

Rinpoche: One of the greatest contributions of the Vinaya to social welfare, in which the monastic sangha played a great role, was the breaking of the caste system. For the Hindus, among other restrictions, the lower castes were denied entry into the shrine hall and were, of course, unable to become priests. The Buddha removed these prohibitions, saying “Among my followers there is no segregation.” And so desegration first took place in the monastic sangha and gradually the effect of this was felt in the lay community. The privileges enjoyed for ages by the Brahmins changed somewhat. Besides that, the arhats were responsible for lifting many restrictions imposed on their subjects by the kings, and for pacifying the wrath of the kings and their cabinets.

Question 5: Would you say that the society has to be based on encouraging individual curiosity?

Rinpoche. Yes, that was strongly emphasized by the Buddha. His purpose was to change society through the individual’s own understanding of what is right and what is wrong. He made people understand by giving reasons. A monastic institution should be based on the rules of the Vinaya and then there would be no problems. If any problem arises, then we can look back into the Vinaya, find out if that has happened before, and if so, then there is a method of amending the problem. That’s a lot easier than trying to create an entirely new structure for the society. The main point is that one has to understand the use of any particular practice.

Question 6: Rinpoche, you helped to organize the Students Welfare Union at the Shedra in Rumtek. Can you talk a little bit about that.

Rinpoche: We call it Students’ Welfare Union of Karma Shri Nalanda Institute and we started it in 1982. First, in a conference between students and teachers, it came up that students needed help, medical aids, financial support, etc. and had questions concerning education, teachers, programs, etc. So we started to set up the Students’ Welfare Union. The students elected four members to work on the administration staff and I was one of the elected ones to serve the society. I worked there for over two years.

Question 6: Could you say more about the notion of union?

Rinpoche: I think that is very clear, because if we look at the precepts of the monks, it talks about schism and causing schism. So that means you have to be united, not fall apart in different groups. And also if you look at the basic philosophy of Buddhism, Buddha introduced the concept of non-violence. That means not killing, not stealing, not harming others, etc. And on top of that we have the practice of the six paramitas which is sharing with others your wealth, etc. So all these teachings seem to have the sense of uniting people or creating harmony within the society. Schism is one of the five heinous crimes, next to killing your father, killing your mother, etc. So it is a very serious downfall according to Buddhist scriptures. My idea of the union concept is based on the philosophy or science of the Buddhist teachings. I am presenting a basic concept of Buddhist society, of Buddhist sociology.

Question 7: Were you following western methods when you introduced voting?

Rinpoche: Oh, voting is not a western method. It was first introduced by Buddha, 2500 years ago. And so we followed that structure. I think the western idea got it from the Buddhist scriptures [Laughter].

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