The Jewel Ornament of Liberation


In this skillful translation, Herbert Guenther offers English-speaking readers's comprehensive and authoritative exposition of the stages of the Buddhist path. A masterly survey of Tibetan Buddhism, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation explains how an enlightened attitude is strengthened by practicing the six perfections (generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and knowledge) and offers a concise presentation of Buddhism as a living experience.

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In this skillful translation, Herbert Guenther offers English-speaking readers's comprehensive and authoritative exposition of the stages of the Buddhist path. A masterly survey of Tibetan Buddhism, The Jewel Ornament of Liberation explains how an enlightened attitude is strengthened by practicing the six perfections (generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and knowledge) and offers a concise presentation of Buddhism as a living experience.

As Chögyam Trungpa writes in his forword: "It is in the flow of karma that this book materialized in 1959 on the very eve of the destruction of the spiritual land of Tibet. Professor Guenther was instrumental in making available the only commentary and guide in English to the bodhisattva tradition of Tibet, Japan, and China. The book remains the classic text of all Buddhists."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781570626142
  • Publisher: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/28/1959
  • Series: Clear Light Series
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,410,067
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author, who lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, was the organizer of the Kagyü order of Tibetan Buddhism.
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Read an Excerpt

The Jewel Ornament of Liberation

By Sgam-Po-Pa

Shambhala Publications

Copyright © 2001 Sgam-Po-Pa
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1570626146

Chapter One


We need to attain unsurpassable enlightenment by freeing ourselves from the confused state of samsara. But, is it possible for inferior persons like ourselves to achieve enlightenment even if we make the effort? Why wouldn't we attain enlightenment if we made the effort! All sentient beings, including ourselves, already possess the primary cause for enlightenment, the Essence of the Well-gone One. As is stated in the King of Meditative Absorption Sutra:

The Essence of the Well-gone One pervades all migrators.

The Small Parinirvana Sutra says:

All sentient beings have the Essence of the Thus-gone One.

Also, the Sutra of the Great Parinirvana says:

For example, as butter permeates milk, likewise the Essence of the Thus-gone One pervades all sentient beings.

And in the Ornament of Mahayana Sutra:

Even though suchness is not different for any being, One is called "Thus-gone One" when it is fully purified. Therefore, all beings are of its essence.

By what reasoning can it be shown that sentient beings have Buddha-nature? Because all sentient beings are pervaded by the emptiness of Dharmakaya, because there are no differentiations in the nature of suchness, and because all beings have a "family." For these three reasons, all sentient beings are of the Buddha-nature. The Unsurpassed Tantra says:

Because the perfect form of the Buddha radiates,
Because there are no distinctions within suchness, and
Because all are in a "family,"
All sentient beings are always of the Essence of

To explain the first reason: "all sentient beings are pervaded by the emptiness of Dharmakaya" means that the ultimate Buddhahood is Dharmakaya, Dharmakaya is all-pervading emptiness, and emptiness pervades all sentient beings. Therefore, all sentient beings are of the Buddha-nature.

Saying "there are no differentiations in the nature of suchness" means that the suchness of the Buddha is identical to the suchness of sentient beings. None is better or worse; none is bigger or smaller; none is higher or lower. So, because of that, all sentient beings are of the Buddha-nature.

"All beings have a 'family'" means that all sentient beings can be categorized into the five families of the Buddha. What are they? The summary:

The disconnected family, the indefinite family,
The Hearer family, the Solitary Realizer family, and
The Mahayana family--
These are the five families of the Buddha.

I. Disconnected Family. First, what does "disconnected family" mean? It refers to those who have six traits such as no concern for what others think, no modesty, no compassion, and so forth. The great Acharya Asanga said it this way:

Even if they see the suffering and faults of the vicious samsara,
they are not moved.
Even when they hear of all the great qualities of the Buddha,
they have no faith.
They have no modesty, no thought for what others may think,
no compassion at all, and
Do not experience even a single regret when they repeatedly
commit nonvirtuous actions.
Those who maintain these six attributes have no chance to
work toward enlightenment

This is also explained in the Ornament of Mahayana Sutra:

There are some who only commit nonvirtuous actions.
There are some who consistently destroy positive qualities.
There are some who lack the virtue which leads to liberation.
So, those who have no virtue do not possess the cause of

Generally, it is said that those who have these attributes constitute the disconnected family. They will wander in samsara for a long time, but this does not mean that they will never achieve enlightenment. If they made the effort, eventually even they would achieve enlightenment. Buddha said in the White Lotus of Great Compassion Sutra:

Ananda! If a sentient being who otherwise had no chance to
achieve enlightenment would visualize the Buddha in space and
offer a flower up to that image, the result would bring that being
to nirvana. Eventually that person would achieve enlightenment,
so, for him, nirvana is attainable.

II. Indefinite Family. The nature of the indefinite family depends on contributory conditions. If they attend a Hearer spiritual master, associate with Hearer friends, or study the different Hearer texts, then those persons will awaken in the Hearer family. They will study and follow that path and become part of the Hearer family. Likewise, if those persons meet with a Solitary Realizer or a Mahayana master, then respectively they will become part of the Solitary Realizer or Mahayana family.

III. Hearer Family. The family of Hearers consists of those who fear samsara and yearn to achieve nirvana, but who have little compassion. It has been said:

One who is afraid upon seeing the suffering of samsara
And yearns to achieve nirvana
But has little interest in benefitting sentient beings--
These three are the marks of the Hearer family.

IV. Solitary Realizer Family. The Solitary Realizer family includes those who possess the above three attributes and in addition are arrogant, keep their masters' identities secret, and prefer to stay in solitary places. It has been said:

Fear at the thought of samsara, yearning for nirvana,
Little compassion, arrogance,
Secretive about their teachers, and enjoying solitude--
A wise one should understand that these are the marks of the
Solitary Realizer family.

So these two families, the Hearers and the Solitary Realizers, engage in their respective vehicles and even though they achieve the results of their practices, these results are not the final nirvana. How do they abide when they achieve their fruits? They maintain unafflicted states of meditative concentration, but those states are based on the psychic imprint of ignorance. Since their meditative concentrations are unafflicted, they believe that they have achieved nirvana and remain that way.

If their states are not the final nirvana, then one might argue that the Buddha should not have taught these two paths. Is there a reason the Buddha should teach such paths? Yes. For example, suppose great merchants from this Jambudvipa are traveling the ocean searching for jewels. After many months at sea, in some desolate place, they become completely fired and exhausted and think, "There is no way to get the jewels now." When they feel discouraged and prepare to turn back, the merchant captain manifests a huge island through his miracle power and lets all his followers rest there. After a few days, when they are fully rested and relaxed, the captain says, "We have not achieved our goal. Now we should go farther to get our jewels."

Similarly, sentient beings without courage are frightened when they hear about the Buddha's wisdom. They believe attaining Buddhahood is a great hardship, and think, "I have no ability to do this." There are other people who are not interested in entering the path, or who enter the path but turn back. To counter these problems, Buddha presented these two paths, and allows them to rest in these states. As said in the White Lotus of Sublime Dharma Sutra:

Likewise, all the Hearers
Think that they achieved nirvana,
But they have not achieved the final nirvana
Revealed by the Buddha. They are only resting.

When these Hearers and Solitary Realizers are well rested in those states, Buddha understands this and encourages them to attain Buddhahood. How does Buddha encourage them? He awakens them through his body, speech, and wisdom mind.

"Through wisdom mind" means that light radiates through the Buddha's wisdom and touches the mental bodies of the Hearers and Solitary Realizers. As soon as the light reaches them, they arise from their unafflicted meditations. Then the Buddha appears physically in front of them. With his speech he says:

O you monks! You have not finished your deeds; you have not
finished all that you are supposed to do. Your experience of nirvana
is not the final nirvana. Now all you monks have to work
toward enlightenment. You should attain the realization of the

From the White Lotus of Sublime Dharma Sutra, in verse form:

You, monks, today I declare:
You have not achieved the final nirvana.
In order to achieve the primordial wisdom of the
Omniscient One,
You must cultivate great perseverance.
Through that, you will achieve the wisdom of the
Omniscient One.

Being motivated by the Buddha in this way, these Hearers and Solitary Realizers cultivate bodhicitta. They practice the bodhisattva's path for many limitless kalpas and eventually achieve enlightenment. The Gone to Lanka Sutra relates the same thing. Also, the White Lotus of Sublime Dharma Sutra says:

These Hearers have not achieved nirvana.
By thoroughly practicing the bodhisattva's path,
They will achieve Buddhahood.

V. Mahayana Family. What kind of family is the Mahayana? The summary:

Classification, definition, synonyms,
Reason it is superior to other families,
Causal characteristics, and marks--
These six comprise the Mahayana family.

A. Classification. This family has two classifications: the naturally abiding family and the perfectly workable family.

B. Definition. Second is the explanation of the respective "essences" of these individuals. The naturally abiding family has, from beginningless time, had the potential to develop all the Buddha's qualities through suchness. The perfectly workable family has the potential to achieve all the Buddha's qualities through the power of habituating themselves in root virtue. Thus, both have the chance to achieve enlightenment.

C. Synonyms. The synonyms of family are potential, seed, sphere-element, and natural mode of abiding.

D. Superiority. The Hearer and Solitary Realizer families are inferior by virtue of the fact that they fully purify their families by dispelling only the obscuration of afflicting emotions. The Mahayana is superior because it fully purifies its family by dispelling two obscurations--afflicting emotions and the subtle obscurations to enlightenment. Therefore, the Mahayana family is superior and unsurpassed.

E. Causal Characteristics. The causal characteristics of the family are described as "awakened" and "unawakened." The awakened family has achieved the fruit perfectly, and the signs are very obvious. The unawakened family has not achieved the fruit perfectly, and its mark is not obvious. What would cause this family to awaken? This family can awaken through freedom from unfavorable contributory causes and through the support of favorable conditions. If the opposites occur, then they cannot awaken.

There are four unfavorable conditions: being born in unfavorable circumstances, having no habitual tendency toward enlightenment, entering into wrong conditions, and being heavily shrouded by the obscurations. There are two favorable conditions: the outer condition of a teacher, and the inner condition of a mind with the proper desire for the precious Dharma and so forth.

F. Marks. The marks of this family are the signs which indicate the bodhisattva family. The Ten Noble Bhumis Sutra says:

The family of wise bodhisattvas
Can be recognized by its signs
Just as fire is known by its smoke
And water is known by water birds.

In that case, what kinds of marks are there? Their bodies and speech are naturally gentle without dependence on a remedy. Their minds are less deceitful, and have loving-kindness and clarity toward sentient beings. Thus, the Ten Noble Bhumis Sutra says:

No harshness or arrogance,
Avoiding all deceit and cunning,
Having a clear, loving attitude toward all sentient beings--
This is a bodhisattva.

In other words, in whatever preparatory actions a bodhisattva undertakes, he always cultivates compassion for all sentient beings, has a great inclination toward the Mahayana teachings, has no hesitation to endure hardships, and perfectly performs the root virtue of the perfections. Thus, the Ornament of Mahayana Sutra says:

Developing compassion at the preparation stage,
Devoted interest, patience,
Perfectly performing the virtues--
These are the signs of the Mahayana family.

Thus, of these five families, those who are in the Mahayana family are very close to the cause of enlightenment. The Hearer and Solitary Realizer families will eventually lead to Buddhahood, but the cause is farther away and it will take a long time. In the indefinite family, some are close and some will take a long time. The disconnected family is known by Buddha to wander in samsara for a long time, but this does not mean that they absolutely will not attain Buddhahood. They can attain Buddhahood, but it will take a very long time. Therefore, since all sentient beings belong to one of these families, all sentient beings are of the Buddha-nature.

Thus, by the above three reasons, it has been demonstrated that all sentient beings have the Buddha-nature. Furthermore, consider these examples: silver abiding in its ore, oil abiding in a mustard seed, and butter abiding in milk. From silver ore, we can produce silver; from mustard seed, we can produce oil; and from milk, we can produce butter. Likewise, sentient beings can become Buddhas.

This is the first chapter, dealing with
the primary cause, from
The Jewel Ornament of Liberation,
the Wish-fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings.


Excerpted from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Sgam-Po-Pa Copyright © 2001 by Sgam-Po-Pa. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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