Requesting Energy to Realize Emptiness: A Structural Analysis of Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan’s Guru Pūjā

Christopher Emory-Moore, PhD Candidate, Religious Studies, University of Waterloo.

This paper is based on a chapter of my M.A. thesis, The Systematic Dynamics of Guru Yoga in Euro-North American Gelug-pa Formations, supervised by Dr. James Apple at the University of Calgary and published in 2012 as Tibetan Guru, Western Disciple (Saarbrucken: LAP Lambert).


Since Athanasius Kircher’s 1667 second-hand account of Tibetans’ devotion to the Fifth Dalai Lama in the pages of his China Illustrata, Euro-North American scholarship on Tibetan Buddhism has housed a particular fascination with the exalted position of the spiritual guide (Skt. guru, Tib. bla-ma). Toward an improved understanding of Tibetan guru devotion traditions, this paper re-describes the ritual of ‘uniting with the spiritual guide’ (Skt. Guru yoga, Tib. Bla-ma’i rnal-’byor) as a system of exchange relations. I employ a structuralist method of textual analysis drawn from the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Hans Penner to identify the basic conceptual mechanics of the principal guru yoga ritual text in the Gelug-pa school of Tibetan Buddhism, “Offering to the Spiritual Guide” (Skt. Guru pūjā, Tib. Bla-ma mchod-pa), compiled by Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan (1570-1662) in the mid seventeenth century. I argue that the puja operates as a ritual gift economy between guru and disciple (offerings given, blessings received) with the final aim of this binary’s dissolution in emptiness (the lack of inherent existence of phenomena).

Guru Yoga and Guru Puja

In his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Tib. Byang chub lam rim chen mo), Tsongkhapa concludes a five-part explanation of “How to rely on the teacher, the root of the path” (Tsoṅ-kha-pa 2000, 69) with an appeal to the reader to repeatedly engage in “the instruction that is renowned as ‘guru yoga” (ibid. 91). The Fourteenth Dalai Lama explains that “in India there was no manual exclusively for guru yoga practice, although you will find in many Indian sadhanas a guru yoga at the beginning, for the purposes of accumulating merit. In Tibet, however, there are many guru yoga practices” (Dalai Lama 2009, 16). Alex Wayman notes that “While it is reasonable that the practice existed in India, it is undeniable that the Tibetan form is quite elaborate, suggesting a further native development” (Wayman 1987, 209-10).

Wayman is referring in particular to the elaborate imagery associated with the Tibetan guru yoga practice of visualizing the ‘field of merit,’ or tsoghs zhing (field of assembly), often configured as a ‘tree’ of lineage gurus extending from one’s root guru all the way back to Buddha Shakyamuni or his tantric form of Vajradhara. Roger Jackson explains the function of the tsoghs zhing “as both a ‘map’ of the Tibetan sacred cosmos and as an index of the guru’s crucial role in the tradition as a mediator between the practitioner on the one hand and the diachronic lineage of teachers and the synchronic pantheon of deities, on the other” (Jackson 1992, 157). According to Peter Bishop, its elaborate visualization is “one of the clearest and richest imaginative statements about transmission in Tibetan Buddhism” (Bishop 1993, 108). Guru yoga’s most popular Gelug-pa ritual formulation, Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan’s seventeenth century Bla-ma mchod-pa (hereafter spelled Lama Chopa), takes as its principal object of worship, seated at the top of the central tree, the deified image of Tsongkhapa himself.

The literary genre of Lama Chopa has traditionally been used for guru devotion rituals in each of the four major Tibetan Buddhist schools: the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug-pa. The genre consists of “ritual texts in which a guru is taken as the object of his disciple’s meditation and is worshipped as the most sublime being, inseparable from Buddha” (Donovan 1986, 26). Mark Donovan cites Janet Gyatso’s explanation that Bla-ma mchod-pa (guru puja) is a ritual of offering directed to the lama, and the closely related Bla-ma’i rnal-‘byor (guru yoga) is “a specialized form of sadhana in which the practitioner meditatively assumes the knowledge and wisdom of his teacher, here equated to the Buddha” (ibid. 55). Guru puja is an offering-based ritual of worship whereas guru yoga is a ritual meditation practice often associated, and done in conjunction, with such worship.

Donovan lists the common components of guru yoga texts in each of the four Tibetan schools:

a visualization of the practitioner’s lama in an idealized form, a sevenfold office (…), prayers, including a prayer requesting that the lama bestow the four initiations, the lama’s subsequent granting of these, and a meditative visualization of union between the guru and disciple. (ibid. 40)

According to the Dalai Lama, who describes Lama Chopa as a practice of guru yoga, “It is through such a method that one should try to achieve a transference of the guru’s realizations to one’s own mental continuum” (Dalai Lama 2009, 117).

Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan’s Lama Chopa

Gareth Sparham connects Lama Chopa’s visualization practice to ancient India: “[T]he devotee imagines the guru extending to include all the goodness in the entire universe, a notion that goes back at least to the time of the great Indian epic the Mahabharata” (Tsoṅ-kha-pa and Sparham 1999, 26). This is affirmed by David Barker:

Lama Chöpa … is a ceremony as ancient as Guru Yoga and expressed in as many varied forms. Its roots are common to both Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the Indian tantric practices brought to Tibet it held a position of supreme importance. … So the traditional materials from which they developed their unique form of the Lama Chöpa were right at hand for the Gelugpas. (Barker 1975, 51)

This brings us to the divergent emic and etic origin accounts of the Gelug-pa’s Lama Chopa.

According to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s account of Gelug-pa tradition, Lama Chopa was transmitted along with the shorter guru yoga practice, Ganden Lhagyama, “by Buddha Manjushri to Je Tsongkhapa in a special scripture known as the Kadam Emanation Scripture” (Gyatso 2005, 33). It is said to have then been transmitted orally in what is known as the “Uncommon Whispered Lineage” (ibid. 33) from Tsongkhapa through a successive line of gurus and their disciples to Togdan Jampal Gyatso, Baso Chokyi Gyaltsan, Mahasiddha Dharmavajra (Chökyi Dorje), Gyalwa Ensapa, Khadrub Sangye Yeshe, and finally Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan, the First Panchen Lama (ibid. 35-8). In Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan’s lifetime, “However, because times were becoming more and more impure, and because sentient beings had less and less merit, the Panchen Lama worried that this precious lineage might soon be lost altogether; and so to preserve it for future generations he decided to write it down” (ibid. 39). Gyatso also explains that the First Panchen Lama “compiled” (not composed) Lama Chopa “so that faithful disciples could practice the fourth great guide [of guru yoga] as a preliminary to the actual Mahamudra” (ibid. 39).

This account of Chokyi Gyaltsan’s altruistic reasons for composing Lama Chopa stands alongside the political motives apparent to a secular historian. Barker explains that in the 1640s, following the Fifth Dalai Lama’s rapid rise to rule over the whole of Tibet with the support of Gushri Khan and his Mongol army, Gelug-pa monks:

needed to come up with something which would legitimate this new order. … its solution was both elegant and simple, drawing from ancient religious sources and combining them into a new synthesis: Tsong Kha Pa, the scholarly monk who had founded the Gelugpa sect 230 years earlier, became elevated to the status of a universal mystic master, creator of a new order which represented all of the major mystical lineages of philosophy and tantra. His disciples of succeeding generations were thus able to lay claim to the most important mystical strands of national experience, just as they had asserted their control over their political processes. Not surprisingly, the Gelugpa’s most venerated living sage was the chief author of this new cult of Tsong Kha Pa. Among the voluminous writings of the First Panchen Lama is a short ritual text which quickly attained a position of supreme importance to the church. It is … generally known among Tibetans as Lama Chöpa, and it is probably the most important single document which pressed the claim of universal mystical authority for the Gelugpa Church. (Barker 1975, 50)

In his own colophon, Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan states that the text was compiled in the High Level Victory Banner dormitory of Tashi Lunpo monastic college. It would have been compiled within the last twenty years of the author’s life, since Gushri Khan’s final military victories leading to the establishment of the Gelug-pa as the “supreme spiritual and temporal authority in Tibet” did not occur until 1642 (Smith 2001, 120). Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan’s own sacred biography (namtar) affirms that it was after the Fifth Dalai Lama’s rise to power that Chokyi Gyaltsan, abbot of Tashi Lunpo monastery since 1601, worked in earnest to spread the Dharma through teaching, gathering disciples, and composing numerous treatises (Willis 1995, 96). It also describes the warring period from 1635-42 as a deeply troublesome time for the First Panchen Lama, when people “were completely carried away by the evil forces of the five forms of degeneracy” (ibid. 95-6)—an angle on events surrounding the Lama Chopa’s composition that may help bridge the conflicting emic and etic historical accounts of Gyatso and Barker.

Losang Chokyi Gyaltsan’s Guru Puja “is written in a highly ornate poetic style, filled with allusions and symbols that operate on several levels” (Lopez 1997, 376). It is composed in metered verse, consisting of eighty-eight stanzas of four lines with nine syllables per line (Barker 1975, 80), and bears the full title, A Method of Offering to the Guru, The Profound Path Entitled the Indivisibility of Bliss and Emptiness (Tib. Sablam Lama Chopai Choga Detong Yermema) (Dalai Lama 2009, 8). It is traditionally chanted daily or bi-monthly by all Gelug-pa monks (Barker 1975, 80). Although the text is often recited silently, and the activities it prescribes are principally mental (ibid. 82), the puja becomes an important cultural event when performed in publically: “When the ritual is performed in large assemblies with complex chanting and hand gestures by participants dressed in magnificent ceremonial clothing, with elaborate butter sculptures and distinctive music, it represents perhaps the most complex expression of Tibetan religious culture” (Tsoṅ-kha-pa and Sparham 1999, 26).

English translations of Lama Chopa have been published by David Barker (1975), Alexander Berzin (Blo-bzang chos-kyi rgyal-mtshan 1979), Donald Lopez (1997), Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (2005), and the Dalai Lama with Thubten Jinpa (2009). The following analysis relies principally on Gyatso’s translation and commentary.

The Explanatory Theory: Structuralism

Hans Penner, the leading supporter of structuralism in the contemporary study of religion (Capps 1995, 150), defines structure as “a system of elements that are defined holistically” (Penner 1989, 8). Following Ferdinand de Saussure’s comparison of his structural linguistic project to learning the game of chess (Penner 1998, 127), the following analysis investigates Lama Chopa as a synchronic system of signs; signs defined by relations; relations defined by rules; rules that represent the logic of the ‘chess game’ of guru yoga.

Lévi-Strauss’s well known analysis of the Oedipus myth and Penner’s analysis of the Pali legends of the Buddha provide two methods of holistic structural analysis which can be extracted from their studies of myth and fruitfully applied to our study of Tibetan ritual. Lévi-Strauss describes the method of structural analysis he applies to the Oedipus myth:

The technique … consists in … breaking down [the myth’s] story into the shortest possible sentences, and writing each sentence on an index card bearing a number corresponding to the unfolding of the story. Practically each card will thus show that a certain function is, at a given time, linked to a given subject. Or, to put it otherwise, each gross constituent unit will consist of a relation. (Lévi-Strauss 1998, 52)

With the myth’s basic elements before him (variously called mythemes, relations, functions, actions) he approaches the list as a musical score and charts the myth’s “harmony” by bundling the sentences together into columns “according to what he asserts to be a common property” (Sturrock 1993, 120). Lévi-Strauss then declares particular pairs of these relation bundles to be the concept binaries forming the basic conceptual structure of the myth. More than the details or results of his Oedipus analysis, of interest to us is his method of distilling a text into its most basic action elements, and then discerning the structural pattern of oppositional ideas therein.

The results of Penner’s analysis of the Pali myths of the Buddha are presented in the same terms as Lévi-Strauss’s binary relations: “[T]he simplest set of oppositions that define this religion and its myths is the relation ‘conqueror versus renouncer,’ or ‘king versus monk,’ or ‘householder versus renouncer,’ a relation that is given its supreme status in the pair ‘Universal Monarch versus the Awakened One’” (Penner 2009, 121). This basic oppositional pair of householder/renouncer is made into a “coherent religious system” (ibid. 202), with the introduction of a third element, the gift: “What mediates that set of relations is … the gift, which entails the twin transcendental doctrines of karma and merit. The Buddha and the Universal Monarch, the prince and the king, householder and renouncer are inseparable; the one defines the other mediated by the gift” (ibid. 219).

While he documents ample evidence for viewing Gotama’s “births, deaths, and rebirths … as a series of punctuated appearances as monarch / renouncer” (ibid. 122), Penner divulges no particular method for discerning the terms of his triadic atom of Buddhism, other than ‘holism,’ the strict application of what Penner calls de Saussure’s central rule: “never consider a religious element or term in isolation from the system of which it is a part” (Penner 1989, 189). He concludes that, “The relation ‘householder <—-> renouncer’ is the basic definition of Buddhism” (Penner 2009, 3). It is important for Penner that this basic oppositional structure of the Pali myths is understood not as the meaning of the myths but as their syntax, or their narrative constraint—“a necessary condition for [their] meaning … and thus a requirement for a proper interpretation of the mythical language” (ibid. 122).

We can thus proceed in search of the set of oppositional relations which provide Lama Chopa with its own distinct syntax, or conceptual constraint. The techniques of Lévi-Strauss and Penner are used sequentially and in conjunction: first, to break Lama Chopa into its basic actions or events, and second, to distill this function list into the puja’s fundamental concept binary and have a go at discerning that binary’s mediating term(s).

Structural Analysis of Guru Yoga

In Gyatso’s first appendix, “The Condensed Meaning of the Text,” the formal meditation practice of the “the guru yoga of Je Tsongkhapa,” the Lama Chopa itself, is divided into three sections: the preliminary practices, the actual practice, and the concluding stages (Gyatso 2005, 280). The subsections looks like this:

(The preliminary practices)

  1. Going for refuge and generating bodhichitta
  2. Self-generation as the Deity
  3. Purifying the environment and its inhabitants
  4. Blessing the offerings

(The actual practice)

  1. Visualizing the Field of Merit and inviting and absorbing the wisdom beings
  2. Offering the practice of the seven limbs and the mandala
  3. Making praises and requests
  4. Receiving blessings
  5. Gathering and dissolving the Field of Merit

(The concluding stages)

  1. Dedication

It should be noted that in the translations of Barker, Berzin, Lopez, and the Dalai Lama, ‘going for refuge and generating bodhichitta’ comes after ‘self-generation as the Deity’ and ‘purifying the environment and its inhabitants.’ The Dalai Lama explains: “In this text, the practices of self-generation and consecration of the environment come first. There is a tradition where these are performed later, but they can be done in this order too … which is the tradition of Khedup Sangye Yeshe” (Dalai Lama 2009, 53). Presumably Gyatso is following this other tradition mentioned, although the different traditions are not mentioned in his commentary.

It appears Lévi-Strauss’s function charting is already almost complete. We need only cite the most representative Lama Chopa verse(s) from each section, condensing them where possible, and identify their most important concepts.

(The preliminary practices)

  1. For the sake of all … beings I shall attain the state of the Guru-Deity, the primordial Buddha. Therefore I shall practice the profound path of the yoga of the Guru-Deity (Gyatso 2005, 59).
  2. From the state of great bliss I arise as the Guru-Deity (67).
  3. Light rays radiate from my body, blessing all worlds and beings in the ten directions. Everything becomes an exquisite array of immaculately pure good qualities (69).
  4. By nature exalted wisdom … and functioning as objects of enjoyment … to generate a special exalted wisdom of bliss and emptiness, inconceivable clouds of … offerings cover all the ground and fill the whole of space (71-72).

(The actual practice)

  1. Within the vast space of indivisible bliss and emptiness … on a lion throne ablaze with jewels … sits my root Guru … the very essence of all the Buddhas (77).
  2. O Vajra Holder I prostrate at your lotus feet (117); I offer you these vast clouds of various offerings (125); I confess all [my] … negative actions (162); we rejoice in all [beings’] … happiness and … virtue (165); please send down a rain of … Dharma (169); we request [you] to remain unchanging … without passing away (170); I dedicate all the … virtues I have gathered here, so that [I may] attain the Union of Vajradhara (171).
  3. You are the Guru, … Yidam, … Daka and Dharma Protector; … please hold me with the hook of your compassion, liberate me from the fears of samsara and peace, be my constant companion, and protect me from all obstacles (192).
  4. [W]hite, red, and blue light rays and nectars … arise from the places of my Guru’s body, speech, and mind, and dissolve into my three places … I receive the four empowerments. I attain the four bodies and, out of delight, an emanation of my Guru dissolves into me and bestows his blessings (195);

[I seek your blessings to realize all the stages of the path;] If by the time of my death I have not completed the path, I seek your blessings to go to the Pure Land (261).

  1. Due to my making requests in this way, O Supreme Spiritual Guide, with delight, please come to my crown to bestow your blessings; and once again firmly place your radiant feet on the anthers of the lotus at my heart (271).

(The concluding stages)

  1. Through the force of [all the virtues I have gathered here] … may I complete the paths of renunciation, bodhichitta, correct view, and the two tantric stages (275).

These section titles and action sentences already give us a good sense of the text’s structure. Working through the concepts above, we can chart and then re-describe the text’s ‘harmonies.’

The puja contains at least two levels of relative symmetry, structured something like a sandwich within a sandwich, or two concentric cycles. Gyatso explicates the verse we’ve cited above under section one: “Having gone for refuge, we now generate a special motivation of bodhichitta … the wish to become a Buddha to free all mother sentient beings from the sufferings of samsara” (ibid. 57). Where section one opens the practice generating the intention for engaging in it—to complete one’s path to Buddhahood for the benefit of others—section ten dedicates the completed practice to the same end. Sections one and ten are thus the motivational brackets setting and sealing the intention for the guru yoga practice. Between the end pieces of this first sandwich of intention there are the remaining three sections of ‘the preliminary practices’ and the five that comprise ‘the actual practice.’

Considered on its own, ‘the actual practice’ forms the puja’s second sandwich-like structure. The general features of guru yoga listed by Mark Donovan correspond to the sections of ‘the actual practice’ in Gyatso’s breakdown. In Donovan’s words and Gyatso’s numbers, these are: 5) an idealized visualization of the lama, 6) a sevenfold office, 7) prayers and requests, 8) the lama’s bestowing of the four initiations, 9) a meditative visualization of union between the guru and disciple. Section five and nine are an obvious binary: visualizing the field of merit arising out of “indivisible bliss and emptiness,” and then visualizing its dissolution into one’s own mind, transforming it into the mind of “spontaneous great bliss” mixed indistinguishably with emptiness (ibid. 272). What does this binary of appearance and dissolution initiate and conclude? In short, an energy economy.

The primary verbs in Gyatso’s titles for sections six, seven, and eight are ‘offering,’ ‘requesting,’ and ‘receiving.’ The disciple gives things to the guru, asks for things from the guru, and finally in the puja’s culmination, receives things from the guru: “The essence of Guru yoga is to develop strong conviction that our Spiritual Guide is a Buddha, to make prostrations, offerings and sincere requests to him or her, and then to receive his profound blessings” (ibid. 13). The things offered are praise and objects of enjoyment, both material and imagined. The things requested are the guru’s blessings, principally to help the disciple gain the realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment. Through offering, the disciple accumulates merit; through requesting, she receives blessings.

Gyatso equates ‘merit’ with good fortune, defining it as “the positive energy that results from virtuous actions” (ibid. 115), and as “the potential power to … produce happiness” (ibid. 368). Merit thus refers to the karmic imprints of virtuous actions left in one’s mental continuum, or simply ‘good karma.’ Seen as living Buddha, the “Spiritual Guide is a powerful field for accumulating merit, purifying negative karma, and receiving blessings” (ibid. 8). The accumulation of meritorious potentialities in the mind is thus the principal function of the seven-limbed offering, section six of this guru yoga. It is not, however the principal function of guru yoga. Twice we’ve seen Gyatso state that the ritual’s primary function is to receive the guru’s blessings (ibid. 1, 13). Where merit is willfully accumulated through acting virtuously, blessings are a gift that must be received from a holy being.

Gyatso defines ‘blessing’ in reference to its Tibetan equivalent, jin gyi lob, which means ‘to transform’ (ibid. 175). A blessing is “the transformation of our mind from a negative state to a positive state … through the inspiration of holy beings” (ibid. 360). Although a blessing is defined here as an event, the language of ‘receiving the guru’s blessings’ seems to emphasize the guru’s inspiration itself, more than the mental transformation—causal energy more than resultant event. The analogy most often used to relate merit and blessings is agricultural:

Our mind is like a field, and engaging in spiritual practices … is like sowing seeds in that field; but without the rain of the Guru’s blessings nothing will grow. … When we receive the blessings of our spiritual guide our mind is transformed into a powerful, virtuous field in which the crops of Dharma realizations flourish; but a mind without blessings is like a dry, arid field in which nothing virtuous can grow. (ibid. 175)

The transformation of a blessing is thus the germination of merit in one’s mental continuum. In dependence on the merit field of the guru, the seeds of happiness and realization are planted by the practitioner’s virtuous actions; a necessary condition for their fruition is the water of the guru’s inspiration. Potential energy requires active energy to ripen as insight experience.

Here, then, is a very interesting economy: the disciple gives objects to the guru and accrues the energy potentials for her own realizations of dharma; the disciple requests the guru’s energy to germinate her own energy potentials; the guru gives the disciple his energy and thereby bestows upon her insight and happiness. Sections five and nine are thus the binary visualizations which enable and terminate, respectively, the exchange of offerings and requests for the positive energies of merit and blessings in sections six, seven, and eight.

To what end is all this positive energy amassed? We know from sections one and ten that the ritual is to be enacted with bodhichitta—the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all. More specifically, Gyatso explains that the Lama Chopa text was composed “as a preliminary practice for Vajrayana Mahamudra” (ibid. 1). Mahamudra is a meditation method referred to as the quick path to enlightenment: “Many of Je Tsongkhapa’s faithful followers have reached enlightenment in three years by practicing the Vajrayana Mahamudra of the Gelugpa Tradition” (ibid. 18). In this context Vajrayana Mahamudra refers to the ‘completion stage’ practices of ‘highest yoga tantra’ whose objective is the union of the mind of bliss with the object of emptiness: “’maha’ means ‘great,’ and refers to spontaneous great bliss; and ‘mudra’ here means ‘non-deceptive,’ and refers to emptiness” (ibid. 62). The subtle mind known as ‘spontaneous great bliss’ is prized for the reason that it mixes so readily with the object of emptiness (ibid. 79). Gyatso defines emptiness as “lack of inherent existence, the ultimate nature of all phenomena” (ibid. 364). Emptiness is understood to be the way things actually exist, and the reality of which sentient beings are utterly ignorant. It is the realization of emptiness which liberates oneself from the cycle of suffering known as ‘samsara’ (ibid. 3).

It is at the close of section nine, having received the guru’s blessings and visualized his dissolution into her mind at her heart that the disciple engages in mahamudra meditation. Having just conjured the spiritual guide in an idealized form, and used this guru-deity to procure the positive energies of merit and blessings, the ritual culminates in the utter dissolution into emptiness, not only of the visualized guru, but of oneself and the universe:

With delight, [our Guru] comes to the crown of our head and … descends through our central channel to our heart. We feel that our Guru’s mind of spontaneous great bliss mixes with our subtle mind, and as a result our mind is transformed into spontaneous great bliss. With this mind of bliss we then meditate on emptiness … We should try strongly to imagine that everything has dissolved into emptiness, and that our mind has mixed with this in a space-like equipoise. … This is definitive Guru yoga. (ibid. 272)

It is in emptiness—the disciple’s perception of which is the final aim of guru yoga—that the distinction between guru and disciple is eliminated. The exchange of energy functions finally, therefore, to accomplish the complete merging of its parties in emptiness.

With ‘the actual practice’ explicated and the concept of emptiness introduced, we can now return to sections two, three, and four. The meditation in section two contains an abbreviated version of that which concludes section nine: “Gradually, from the outer edges of the universe everything … dissolves inwards, leaving behind only emptiness, until everything has dissolved into our body. Then our body slowly disappears … Now everything has become emptiness” (ibid. 65-66). One then imagines emerging from this emptiness in the form of their personal tantric deity (ibid. 67). The generation of pure appearances from emptiness is continued in section three when light rays radiate from one’s deity body and transform all beings and environments into “an exquisite array of immaculately pure good qualities” (ibid. 69). Finally, particular emphasis is placed on purifying the substances, laid out and imagined, that will form the basis of the offerings made to the field of merit in section six. The purified offering substances arise out of emptiness as well as bestow upon their recipients the realization of emptiness (ibid. 71). The role of these three single-verse ‘preliminary practices’ is fairly clear: before the offering recipient of the field of merit is generated from emptiness, the offerer, her environment and peers, and her offerings, must be similarly purified in emptiness.

Our Lévi-Strauss-ian analysis is now complete. Gyatso’s list of ten subsections provided us with descriptions of the ritual’s basic elements. We then explored the major concepts in each section and charted how these elements relate to form the system of guru yoga. We’ve discovered that this system can be described as an energy economy bracketed by the setting and sealing of intention, whose participants—guru and disciple—are generated and dissolved in emptiness. From here it is not difficult to isolate, in the manner of Hans Penner, the mediated binary relation at the puja’s centre. The results are remarkably similar to those which Penner drew from his Pali myth analyses.

Of the action sentences cited in the tenfold list above, the most prominent binary set of relational terms are those highlighted in bold: ‘I’ or ‘me,’ and ‘Guru-Deity’ or ‘Guru’ or ‘Vajra Holder’ or ‘Spiritual Guide.’ Not surprisingly, in a ritual of guru devotion, the central concept binary is guru/disciple. How are these concepts mediated? Our analysis appears to have isolated two mediating concepts, the first of which reaffirms Penner’s findings: the gift (offerings/blessings) and emptiness. As the principal means of exchange or two-way communication between guru and disciple, the gift is indeed the binary’s mediator. Emptiness, however, does not facilitate an exchange between guru and disciple, so much as enable and effect their transvaluation. We can conclude then, using Penner’s language, that in the guru yoga ritual of Lama Chopa, guru and disciple are inseparable; the one defines the other mediated by the gift, transvalued by emptiness.


Peter Bishop opens the penultimate chapter of his work, Dreams of Power: Tibetan Buddhism in the Western Imagination, with a sweeping assertion and cluster of questions: “Spiritual transmission is the most profound and paradoxical idea to be found in all mystical traditions. But what is it? What actually is transmitted? Is there anyone who transmits or who receives? Is there really any transmission?” (Bishop 1993, 107). Our analysis of Lama Chopa has demonstrated that in Tibetan Buddhist guru devotion ritual, spiritual transmission takes the form of a meditative ‘gift’ exchange between guru and disciple, believed to procure for the disciple the potential and active energies of merit and blessings—the former generated by the disciple, the latter transmitted by the guru. Together, the ‘seeds’ of the disciple’s merit and the ‘rain’ of the guru’s blessings are thought to ripen as the disciple’s realizations of Buddha’s teachings, which the guru is believed to possess. Guru yoga’s technology of transmission is thus rooted in the inequality between guru and disciple even while it aims to overcome that inequality through ripening the disciple’s realization of its emptiness.


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Tsoṅ-kha-pa, Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa. 2000. The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume 1. Trans. Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. Ithaca: Snow Lion.

Tsoṅ-kha-pa, Blo-bzaṅ-grags-pa, and Gareth Sparham. 1999. The Fulfillment of All Hopes: Guru Devotion in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Wisdom.


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