Michael Richards on Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche

In 1921, some seven hundred Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people gathered at Chuzang Hermitage, near Lhasa, to receive a lamrim discourse from the renowned teacher, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche. For the next twenty-four days they listened to what has become one of the most famous teachings ever given in Tibet.

The term lamrim — steps on the path to enlightenment — refers to a group of teachings that have developed in Tibet over the past millennium based on the concise, seminal text, A Lamp on the Path, by the great Indian master Atisha (Dipamkara Shrijnana, 982-1054). In some ways, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand represents the culmination of the lam rim tradition in Tibet. Certainly for Westerners, this book has become one of the most significant Lam-rims ever taught.

Over 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha spent about forty-five years giving a vast array of teachings to an enormous variety of people. He did not teach from some predetermined syllabus but according to the spiritual needs of his listeners. Hence any individual studying the Buddha’s collected works would find it extremely difficult to discern a clear path that he or she could put into practice. The importance of Atisha’s lamrim was that he put the Buddha’s teachings into logical order, delineating a step-by-step arrangement that could be understood and practiced by whoever wanted to follow the Buddhist path, irrespective of his or her level of development.

Not only did Atisha rely on what the Buddha himself taught, he also brought with him to Tibet the still-living oral traditions of those teachings — the unbroken lineages of both method and wisdom, which had passed from the Buddha to Maitreya and Manjushri respectively, and then on down through Asanga, Nagarjuna and many other great Indian scholar-yogis to Atisha’s own spiritual masters. Thus as well as writing the first lamrim text, Atisha also conveyed these extremely important oral traditions, which still exist today, and are being transmitted to Westerners through contemporary lamas such as His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Atisha’s disciples formed a school known as the Kadam, most of whose traditions were absorbed into the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, which was founded by the great Tsongkapa (1357-1419). Many Kadam and Gelug lamas wrote lamrim commentaries and the most famous was Tsongkapa’s master-work, the Great Stages of the Path (Lam-rim Chen-mo). Pabongka Rinpoche followed the general outline of this text in the 1921 discourse that was to become Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand. However, while Tsongkapa’s work has a more scholarly emphasis, Kyabje Pabongka’s focuses on the needs of practitioners. It goes into great detail on such subjects as how to prepare for meditation, guru yoga and the development of bodhichitta. Thus Liberation is a highly practical text and as relevant to contemporary Western practitioners as it was to the Tibetans who were there.

Among those present in 1921 was Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang (1901-1981), one of Pabongka Rinpoche’s closest disciples, and later Junior Tutor to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and root guru of many of the Gelug lamas who fled Tibet in 1959. Trijang Rinpoche took notes at the teachings, and over the next thirty-seven years edited them painstakingly until they were ready to be published in Tibetan as Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand (rNam grol lag bcangs).

Pabongka Rinpoche was probably the most influential Gelug lama of this century, holding all the important lineages of sutra and tantra and passing them on to most of the important Gelug lamas of the next two generations; the list of his oral discourses is vast in depth and breadth.

He was also the root guru of Kyabje Ling Rinpoche (1903-1983), Senior Tutor of the Dalai Lama, Trijang Rinpoche, and many other highly respected teachers. His collected works occupy fifteen large volumes and cover every aspect of Buddhism. If you have ever received a teaching from a Gelug lama, you have been influenced by Pabongka Rinpoche. A lamrim text like Liberation may never be written again, which is why I say that this book represents the culmination of the lamrim tradition.

There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and all have lamrim teachings, but the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu schools do not emphasize the lamrim as does the Gelug. Although generally in the Gelug monastic curriculum the lamrim is not taught to the monks until quite late in their careers, it is often the first teaching given to Westerners. And Liberation is the lamrim that Gelug masters teach most. It has been a favourite of such lamas as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, his two tutors, Serkong Rinpoche, Song Rinpoche, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Geshe Rabten, Geshe Sopa, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche.

In his brief introduction, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche conveys a strong sense of what it was like to be there. Indeed, this text is unusual among Tibetan works in that it is the edited transcript of an oral discourse, not a literary composition. Hence not only do we receive some very precious teachings — the essence of the eight key lamrims — but we also gain insight into how such discourses were given in Tibet. The points that detail the special features of this teaching may be found in Trijang Rinpoche’s introduction and at the end of Day One.

As Pabongka Rinpoche makes clear throughout, dedicating ourselves to the development of bodhichitta is the most meaningful way of directing our lives, and the graded realizations summarized in Day One lead us to that goal. At the end of the book, Pabongka Rinpoche says,

Practise whatever you can, so that my teachings will not have been in vain. But above all, make bodhichitta your main practice.

A NOTE TO THIS TRANSLATION: I have tried to make this translation as readable as possible without sacrificing accuracy. However, since Trijang Rinpoche was a poet of renown, there can be no doubt that some of the beauty of the Tibetan text has been lost. Nevertheless, I think that I have preserved the colloquial, down-to-earth nature of Pabongka Rinpoche’s discourses, giving this work the immediacy and power of the original. Heartfelt thanks go to my precious root guru Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.

~ Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand: A Concise Discourse on the Path to Enlightenment. Pabongka Rinpoche, edited by Trijang Rinpoche, translated by Michael Richards. Wisdom Publications 1991


Michael Richards is an Australian scholar who lived in the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala for many years and translated Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand in consultation with many lamas there.

[Extracted from: www.dorjeshugden.info]

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  1. Lamrin is great text we should rejoice for this great text is so complete that cover the the buddha teaching in one text .

  2. Om

    May all those negative influences that harm the teaching of the victorious ones through their perverted aspirations –
    Those with form and those without form (Shugden) –
    All those who work with malicious intentions,
    Be annihilated through the truth of the Three Jewels !

  3. In this pure realm, surrounded by snow moutains,
    Is the source of complete happiness and benefit,.
    Avalokiteshvara, Tenzin Gyatso.
    May you stand firm until the end of existence.

    May you live thousands of years for Buddha Dharma and for all sentient beings ! May all your wishes come true for better world and peace on earth ! Remeber, 99 % Tibetan people are still following you and standing by you ! You are sunshine in this universe !! We love you till the end !

  4. E Ma Ho !
    May all those negative influences that harm the teaching of the victorious ones through their perverted aspirations –
    Those with form and those without form (Shugden) –
    All those who work with malicious intentions,
    Be annihilated through the truth of the Three Jewels !

  5. In the LAMRIN ,” Kyabje Pabongka’s focuses on the needs of practitioners. It goes into great detail on such subjects as how to prepare for meditation, guru yoga and the development of bodhichitta”. We are literally given a step by step guide book to liberation. That is how kind and compassionate the high lamas and Buddhas are. They know that we are in the kaliyuga age of degeneration such that our fate/karma to meet the precious Dharma or real Guru is rare and almost impossible. We are so engrossed in worldly desires that we will discard the Dharma or even if we chance on it we do not realize its preciousness. For example,there is no way we can gain liberation as did Milarepa during his time. We would not be able to go through the type of training Milarepa went through with his kind guru Marpa. Most of us would have given up whilst on the journey.

    Now the lamas have to find “short cuts” for us to be Enlightened. Lamrin is one of such. In one book it contains all of the 84000 sutra and tantra teachings of the Buddha. We should rejoice and be really grateful to high lamas like Kyabje Pabongkha and Trijang Rinpoche for making the Lamrin available to us.

    May all the high lamas have long life to continue to turn the wheel of Dharma to benefit many sentient beings.

  6. As buddhist and practitioners we are indebted to the kindness of the scholars who have made it possible to access the teachings in current settings and times. Thank you Michael Richards for making it accessible to English proficient Buddhists.

  7. I like to read Liberation in the Palm of your hand because it is easy to understand and Kyabje Pabongkha Rinpoche has given many examples that are very relevant to our lives for us to comprehend the teachings. Lots of information we need to know about Buddhism are well explained in this book. Everyone who wants to study Buddhism should get this book.

  8. Thank you Michael Richards for translating Liberation in the Palm of Your Hands to benefit the English speaking Buddhists. I cannot express how grateful I am to your work.

  9. The Lamrim has been written in contemporary English that is easy to understand. Everyone should get one to read it. It is the gem among gems.

  10. Dear Dalai Lama,

    Since you started the cruel ban against the 350 year Dorje Shugden practice, how has it benefit your Tibetan society and Buddhism in the world? Things have become worse and most educated Tibetans can see this. They don’t speak out not because they don’t see your ban as wrong, but you instill fear in them and not respect. It is like fear of a dictator. I am sorry to say so. Everyone is divided. There is no harmony. Before your ban there was more harmony and unity.

    By enacting the ban, you split the monasteries, split so many families, split regions in Tibet apart, split your disciples from you, split your own gurus from you, split Tibetan Buddhism apart. You have created so much disharmony.

    It is not democratic what you have done to ban a religion within your community. You always talk of tolerance and acceptance and democracy and yet you do not accept and tolerate something different from your beliefs. When people practice Dorje Shugden you ostracize them, ban them from seeing you, ban them from using Tibetan facilities. You know you have done that. There are videos that capture your speech and prove this point. You even had people expelled from monasteries just because they practice Dorje Shugden. Some of the monks you expelled have been in the monastery for over 40 years. Many older monks shed tears because of this.

    Many young educated Tibetans lost confidence in you as they saw the damage the Dorje Shugden ban created and they lose hope. Many have become free thinkers. They reject what you have done. So many people in the west left Buddhism because of the confusion you created with this ban against Dorje Shugden which is immoral.

    You could of had millions of people who practice Dorje Shugden to support, love and follow you, but you scared them away. They are hurt and very disappointed. They loved you and respected you deeply before the ban. It has been 60 years and you have failed to get Tibet back. Your biggest failure is not getting Tibet back after 57 years in exile. Now you are begging China to allow you to return to Tibet to the disappointment of thousands of people who fought for a free Tibet believing in you. So many self-immolated for a free Tibet and now you want Tibet to be a part of China with no referendum from Tibetans. Just like a dictator, you decide on your own. It was your government and you that lost Tibet in the first place. Your policies and style of doing things do not benefit Tibet and Buddhism. You have been the sole ruler of Tibet your whole life and you still have not gotten our country of Tibet back for us. Our families and us are separated. Yet you create more pain by creating a ban to further divide people. Please have compassion.

    No other Buddhist leader has banned or condemned any religion except for you. It looks very bad. You are a Nobel laureate and this is not fitting of a laureate. You should unite people and not separate them by religious differences.

    You said Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not do right to the Rohingya people in Myanmar due to religious differences, but you are doing the same thing to the Shugden Buddhists within your own society. There is a parallel in this. You separate the Shugden Buddhists from the others in Tibetan society.

    You have lost so many people who would have loved and supported you. You have lost so much support around the world. The Shugden Buddhists who love you number in the millions. When you are fast losing support from governments and private people, it will not do you well to lose more.

    After you are passed away in the future, the rift you created between the Dorje Shugden and non-Dorje Shugden people will remain for a while and that will be your legacy. Disharmony. You will be remembered for this. Not as a hero but a disharmony creator.

    Dorje Shugden will spread and further grow, but you will be no more as you are a human. No one wishes you bad and in fact we hope you have a long and healthy life, but we have lost so much hope and have so much despair because of you. All the hundreds of Dorje Shugden lamas, tulkus and geshes are maturing and there are hundreds of Dorje Shugden monasteries in Tibet who will not give up Dorje Shugden. You have made a mistake. These hundreds of teachers and teachers to be will spread Dorje Shugden further in the future.

    The gurus that gave us Dorje Shugden as a spiritual practice and you have called these holy gurus wrong and they are mistaken in giving us Dorje Shugden. How can you insult our gurus whom we respect so much? If they can be wrong, then you can be wrong. Then all gurus can be wrong. So no one needs to listen to any guru? You have created this trend. It is not healthy. Your own gurus practiced Dorje Shugden their whole lives. Your own gurus were exemplary and highly learned.

    Dalai Lama you have created so much pain with this ban against so many people due to religion. You are ageing fast. Are you going to do anything about it or stay stubborn, hard and un-moving. You show a smile and preach peace and harmony wherever you go. But will you do the same to your own people? Please rectify the wrong you have done. Please before it is too late. You can create harmony again or you can pass away in the future with this legacy of peace. May you live long and think carefully and admit what was a mistake in having this unethical ban against Dorje Shugden religion.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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