Below is a summary of the main phases of textual teachings and meditation practices you can learn and practice in Dechen.
Buddhist Training in the West
Some believe that the traditional teachings and practices should be ‘re-invented’ for a Western audience to make them more accessible. In Dechen we believe that Westerners should have the opportunity to receive and practice the teachings originally taught by the Buddha and practiced in India and Tibet. We focus on the proven methods of transmission and practice and distinguish between cultural custom and the actual teachings.
It took many generations for Buddhist teachings to become established in Tibet and had many challenges. The Tibetans became meticulous in learning the original teachings transmitted from India and emulating their predecessors’ approach to practice. We should follow their example and learn and practice the authentic Buddhist training and teachings while remaining natural in our contemporary social setting.
The introductory teachings on Buddhism can be summarized under the following topics:
- The life of the Buddha and the lineage
- Taking refuge
- The four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma
- The four noble truths and eight-fold noble path
- Loving kindness and compassion
- The thought of enlightenment (Bodhichitta)
- The six perfections
We can learn about these topics through classes, courses, discussions with experienced Buddhist practitioners and through attending formal teachings given by visiting lamas.
The principal forms of meditation at this level are:
- Calm abiding
- Loving kindness and compassion
Once we have learnt the rudiments of calm abiding meditation we can establish a daily practice at home. This will commence with the stabilizing technique of the twenty-one breaths, then moving on to the observation of the out-flow and in-flow of breath at the nostrils and finally letting go of even this object of meditation. This process of training may take a number of months.
Having become established in calm abiding meditation and having gained some familiarity with the introductory textual teachings we may feel a strong connection with Buddhism. At that point we may decide to become a Buddhist through taking refuge.
Alongside the practice of calm abiding we can practice meditations on loving kindness and compassion. These support the development of bodhichitta, the mind of enlightenment, through which we may decide to enter the mahayana through taking the bodhisattva vow.
We can deepen our understanding by receiving traditional texts that present the mahayana path in a detailed manner. Most importantly these texts show us how to bring together understanding and practice.
In Dechen Sakya centers and groups the principal texts taught and studied are:
- The Thirty-Seven Practices – Thokme Zangpo
- The Cycle of Parting From the Four Attachments – Sachen Kunga Nyingpo
- Jewel Rosary of a Bodhisattva – Atisha
- The Eight Verses of Mind Training – Langri Thangpa
- Letter to a Friend – Nagarjuna
The textual transmission and explanation of these texts are given from time to time by visiting lamas. They are then discussed in study groups led by experienced practitioners.
Having attained stability in calm abiding meditation and having taken refuge we may decide to practice vajrayana meditation. This can be done through receiving initiations, transmissions and instructions from a vajrayana teacher (lama).
For Sakya students the usual deity-practice one adopts initially is Chenrezik, the Buddha of Compassion. The student will then complete at least the required number of mantra recitations for their chosen deity, although in many cases, on the advice of the lama, they will continue the practice well beyond this point. Chenrezik is also the principal regular group vajrayana practice carried out in Dechen centers and groups.
For those with the right aptitude who are well versed in the preceding textual teachings, further study of the mahayana is immensely valuable to the advanced meditations of the vajrayana. This level of teaching was traditionally taught in Tibetan shedras, or Colleges of Study, and the curriculum would vary between the different traditions.
In the West there are no established monastic communities where shedras are regularly given and most Buddhist practitioners are lay men and women. However, the core texts of the shedra curriculum are regularly taught by Lama Jampa Thaye in Dechen centers and groups. In Dechen Sakya centers the following core shedra texts are taught periodically:
- The Triple Vision – Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrup
- Clarifying the Thought of the Sage – Sakya Pandita
- Entering the Bodhisattva Conduct – Shantideva
- Discriminating the Three Vows – Sakya Pandita
- The Collection of Tantra Sets – Sonam Tsemo
By receiving these teachings over a number of years, personal study and attendance of study groups you will be able to learn and understand these core texts for a complete traditional Buddhist training.
In tandem with textual studies, Sakya students typically complete the Buddhist training of the vajrayana preliminary (ngondro) practices of The Path and Its Fruit cycle. The ngondro comprises: reflection on the Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind to Dharma; 100,000 prostrations; 100,000 bodhisattva vow recitations; 100,000 Vajrasattva mantra recitations; 100,000 mandala offerings of the universe; and 100,000 guru yoga recitations.
Also important at this level are the guru yoga of Sakya Pandita and the sadhana of Bhutadamara. Beyond this will be the cycles of practice of Vajrayogini and Hevajra, the chief deities of the Sakya school, whose development and fulfilment stages lead to the obtaining of all spiritual realizations.