Upaya Kaushalya: The Tibetan highway to nirvana

Laden Tshering Samdup

Laden Tshering Samdup

By Laden Tshering Samdup

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 24 July 2016

Like everyone else, I too remember my schooldays. My fondest memories are of my Tibetan friends Tseten, Chewang, Dorje, et al. Even now, their memories never fail to make me smile — jolly, full of jest and always full of buffoonery. Jokes, not at all at the expense of others but upon oneself. Make others laugh. Looking back, I find it was an invaluable lesson and these friends did ingrain in me, right from my childhood, so easily and jokingly, the profound thought of compassion, the happiness for others, the Bodhichitta, chang chub kyi sem. The other implication of this lesson was even more important — Upaya Kaushalya, the expedient means which the Buddhist Master often uses to teach his student some inexplicable subject. My friends were my master and the Upaya Kaushalya they used on me was humour.

Upaya Kaushalya is a very important concept in Tibetan Buddhism. It is what we nowadays call ‘the action plan’. However there is no prescribed method of Upaya Kaushalya and you have to devise the wise way yourself and only your imagination is the limit. I share with you some of the bizarre and unbelievable Upayas of Tibetan Buddhism adopted by Gurus to enable their students to push themselves to Nirvana or the idyllic state of enlightenment.

Tilopa grinds sesame seed

On the advice of Nagarjuna, Tilopa during his formative years had to work as a helper of a woman. During the day he used to help her to grind oil out of sesame seed, and by night had to act as pimp soliciting customers as well as bouncer, as she was a prostitute. The sesame seed which he used to grind also gave him the name Tilopa, til meaning sesame seed in Sanskrit.

Such an apprenticeship was a Kaushalya Upaya devised by his guru Nagarjuna to enable Tilopa from a royal family to be rid of arrogance, considered as one of the five poisons of the mind or Kleshas, and which was hindering Tilopa from reaching enlightenment.

Tilopa subsequently became one of the 84 Mahasiddhas or Realized Beings. His forte was Anuttarayoga Tantra — tantric practices which enabled one to realize enlightenment speedily. He occupies the numero uno position amongst the gurus depicted in the Refuge Tree of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

Naropa jumps off the cliff

Naropa occupies the second slot in the Kagyu refuge tree. He was an extra-ordinarily intelligent person, quickly mastered all the academics, and rose to the position of the Abbot of Nalanda Mahavihara. He was often praised as jewel-like, fit to be kept on a shrine, but enlightenment still eluded him. He realized he would not succeed in his mission if he did not obtain the guidance of Mahasiddha, Tilopa. Thus began his odyssey of Twelve Minor Hardships while searching for Tilopa, and Twelve Major Hardships while under his tutelage.

It is said that one of his Hardships began when Tilopa adamantly refused to be his guru and walked away. Now, Tilopa walked with super natural speed and Naropa was unable to catch up with him. Tolerating all pain, thirst, hunger he ran after Tilopa for days on end and finally caught up with him on top of a high cliff where Tilopa said, if I had a student he would jump off this cliff.

Instantly Naropa jumped off the cliff and broke every bone in his body. When asked by Tilopa how he was feeling, Naropa replied ‘the pain is killing me’ and thus got his name Naropa. ‘Na’ in Tibetan means pain and ‘ro’ means killing.

This Upaya Kaushalya was contrived by Tilopa to test Naropa’s sincerity and the strength of the master-student bond that could be established with Naropa.

Angulimala running endlessly

Sakya Muni also utilised Upaya Kaushalya liberally. Angulimala was one such benefactor. Anguli means fingers and mala means rosary, because he used to kill people and make rosary of their fingers. Having completed a rosary of 999 fingers, he was planning to slay his mother to obtain the last one finger to make 1,000 which, he believed, would give him power, fame and joy.

But Sakya Muni intervened, attracted his attention, and began running slowly to entice him to run after him. Angulimala fell for the trap and could not catch Sakya Muni however hard he would try, which made him wonder who he was.

His interest thus kindled, made it easy for Sakya Muni to make him his disciple. Sakya Muni further played on Angulimala’s craving for power, and was able to convince him that to be powerful he needed to first make his own mind powerful.

Trison Detsen’s shredded robe

Then there is the first-time meeting and stand-off between Guru Rinpoche, Tibet’s ‘Precious Master’, and Tibet’s king Trisong Detsen, with the problem, who will bow first? However, Guru Rinpoche utilised his super natural powers to shred to tatters the king’s robe and thereby his arrogance.

King Trisong Detsen picked up a piece of a white silken robe and offered it to Guru Rinpoche, acknowledging him as Buddha and thus starting the Tibetan custom of offering khatak. This custom is to acknowledge the presence of Buddha in every being and to offer a Khatak to respect this inherent greatness in him.

The bell and vajra as reminders

The lama holding the bell and vajra is a physical representation and perennial reminder of Upaya Kaushalya. The bell represents wisdom, and the vajra its application. Here the lama sets the only prerequisite and essence of Upaya Kaushalya. The lama intends to tell the audience: What use is the knowledge if it is not put to use, and what good the knowledge if it is not put to good use.

Therefore gain knowledge and put it to good use, just like atomic theory is used to generate electricity instead of atomic bombs.

And the here and the now

You could say this article is also Upaya Kaushalya, telling interesting stories to grab the interest of the novice to encourage them to follow the path of Tibetan Buddhism, the Wisdom of the Orient.

Don’t get flummoxed by all the din of noises of the monastery and the volumes of liturgies. Tibetan Buddhism is mostly about you, and the religion is only a guide to enable you to be rid of your sufferings.

It’s a good idea to take up the topics one at a time, giving more emphasis on its practice. For starters I would recommend practising loving-kindness — loving-kindness for all things living as well as non-living. And be part of His Holiness Dalai Lama’s wish to form the Green Order of Tibetan Buddhists to make this world a better place to live.


About the author

Laden Tshering Samdup is a retired businessman, living in Kathmandu. He has MA (Hons) economics from Birla Institute of Technology and Science from Pilani, Rajasthan, India. He can be reached c/o Boudha Peace School, Phulbari, Kathmandu, Nepal.

More articles by Laden Tshering Samdup on Tibet Sun.

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