Aro Podcast Notes: 01-Part1

These are my personal notes taken while listening to the Aro Buddhism Podcasts which can be found for free on the Apple I-tunes store.  This post covers the 1997 San Francisco lecture by Ngak’chang Rinpoche:  Aro01: Part 1 – Compassion and the Vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism.

There are many ways to classify Buddhism.  Ngak’chang R. describes the classic method used by the Nyingma Sect/School as shown below:

The 4 major Buddhist sects in Tibet are Vajrayāna sects as shown in the diagram on top.  Vajrayāna also exists outside of Tibet but in smaller numbers.

Ngak’chang R. further speaks of two sanghas (strand of practice) inside of the Nyingma School (classified by the color of their robes): The Red Sangha (monastics) and the White Sangha (lay yogis — this is Aro’s sangha).

To the right is another unique classification used by Nyingma to classifying the whole of the Buddhist path into 9 yāna within the three main yāna.

In the first lecture, Ngak’chang R. is speaking about shravakayana which, in Sanskrit, means the Listener Yana.

For the big picture of the yanas and dzogchen and the principles and functions, see this post.

“Buddhism is 99% method.” — Ngak’chang R.

Ngak’chang R. also discuss emptiness and form for which I have a little post here.

Below are a few more glossary  terms used in Ngak’chang R’s lecture.

Tibetan Sanskrit English
nying-ma ancient
byang chub kyi sems (wyl)
boddhichita “awakening-mind” (Sk)
Also translated: the compassionate wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
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Nebulosity vs. Pattern

“Emptiness” is a crucial concept in all Buddhisms.  In Theravada Buddhism Emptiness is a cultivated insight, in Mahayana Buddhism it the fuel of meditation.  Emptiness is contrasted with “Form”.  Above are qualities associated with both of these perspectives as delineated by the Aro tradition– A Vajrayāna sect.  I find these qualities useful to aid my understanding of the use of the terms.

Emptiness carries many undesirable connotations in English so that David Chapman has offered “Nebulosity” as a translation, which I enjoy.  He then describes “Form” as “Pattern”.

Transcibe, Transliterate, and Translate

We must translate between languages, but if a language uses a different script than our own script, we must also consider transliteration and transcription.  Thus, when writing about a Tibetan word, the writer has three choices:

  1. Translation:  Faithful to the meaning:  come up with some English word/phrase whose meaning or use best matches the use of the Tibetan word.  But anyone who speaks more than one language knows, this is not as easy as it seems — especially when the word comes from a very different language family.
  2. Transliteration: Faithful to the script:  take each symbol in the Tibetan word and give a Roman alphabet equivalent.  There are many different systems for this. Wylie is the most common.
  3. Transcribe:  Faithful to the pronunciation:  Come up with Roman letters that represents the way the Tibetan word actually sounds, not how it is written.  There are different systems for this too.  For like English, many letters in Tibetan are silent or change the sounds of other letters.

Given these three major problems, we can see why the same Tibetan word can be written many different ways between all the various books on Tibetan Buddhism.  Hopefully this diagram helps illustrate the challenge and show the use of these three words.


Tibetan Scripts

Diagrams help me remember. Here is my understanding of the various Tibetan Scripts. Read Tashi’s posts (below) for details.

Sources from Tashi Mannox (master calligrapher):

“Every lama his own doctrine”

I found the following interesting Tibetan proverb:

“Every district its own dialect;
Every lama his own doctrine.”
-a Tibetan proverb

Turrell Wylie quoted this proverb in his 1959 article in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies where he humorously added this next line:

“Every scholar his own transcription”
-Wylie, 1959

Interestingly, it is Wylie’s Tibetan transcription method which is one of the most popular in scholarly journals. I got a kick out of the Tibetan proverb–it speaks volumes as does Wylie’s addition.

Virtue Meditation

Above is a visual model for a method of combining the four immeasurable virtues in one meditation.

Buddhism has many meditative practices — each with different results. Each tradition emphasizes different practices and adds their own flavors. ” Virtue meditation” or “virtue contemplation” is common to many traditions. In the Vajrayāna tradition, meditation on the four immeasurable virtues is used as a means to cultivate healthy emotions.

You can find many books and websites describing techniques for meditating on any of the “Four Immeasurables” — each virtue is important in its own way. Vajrayāna monk, Matthieu Ricard has a book called “Why meditate? Working with Thoughts and Emotions” which also has superb examples of each of these individual meditations. But what I found most interesting about Ricard’s book was his description of a method which integrates these four meditations into one meditation. This combined method guards from pitfalls from each of the individual meditations taken by themselves.  The pitfall avoidance is done using the sophisticated notion of “near” and “close enemies” in Buddhist psychology.  Finally, the combination meditation illustrates how the two wings of enlightenment (Wisdom and Compassion) work together.   Perhaps a bit confusing is that though “compassion” (the first wing) is one of the four immeasurables, it is also the general term used to describe the state resulting from the mastering of the four immeasurables. .   “Wisdom”, the second wing, is added to the mediation by closing with focus on “interdependence” (緣) which is seen as a primary principle of Wisdom.  Thus, this one meditation skillfully cultures Compassion and closes with Wisdom uniting many Buddhist skills in one meditation.

It is my hope that this diagram captures all these concepts in an easy to remember image to facilitate the practice.  The following Ricard description of the method (pgs 86-7).  I added bracketed brown comments so you can see how my diagram fits his description.

Continue reading

Two wings to fly

Black-necked Crane

“Understand that, just as a bird needs two wings to fly, you must develop wisdom and compassion simultaneously.  Wisdom is a correct understanding of reality and compassion is the desire for all beings to be liberated from the causes of suffering.”
Ricard, 2008 p87

Matthieu Ricard trained for years in Tibet, so I found this picture of a Tibetan crane as I tried to image what he may have seen in his mind while thinking these words. In East Asia, cranes are a symbol for longevity, peace, friendship, love, happiness.  What better symbol for the benefit of the coordinate use of the wings of wisdom (般若) and compassion (悲).

Tibetan Flash Cards

I love flash cards.  Here are some very simple cards to learn the Tibetan Script (pdf):  Sabio’s Tibetan Script Flash Card.  Below is the key to explain each side of the flash card.  Cut the paper, fold and paste.  Below is the key to explain both sides of the cards.

  • Wylie” is the most common transliteration system
  • THL” is a newer transliteration system
  • IPA” = International Phonetic Alphabet
  • “Pronunciation” is given for the vowels.

Classifying Tibetan

Below I will illustrate two ways of classifying languages:  (1) by their writing and (2) by their grammar/vocabulary.  The first is called “orthography” and the second is called “language family”.   To study Tibetan Buddhism, knowing a bit about its orthography (writing system) can be helpful especially as you will see inconsistent spellings between books on Tibetan Buddhism.  I would wager that very little would be gained by studying Tibetan grammar for reading English books, but the basics of orthography and its history seems helpful.  More later on that — for now, let’s look at those two classifications.

Tibetan is a syllabic alphabet.  See this interesting site on “Ancient Scripts“.  Below is a diagram of just some languages in the 5 different classes of orthography.  I was happy to see I have already studied some orthography in each type (which I put in purple). But I must say, aesthetically, Tibetan has always been the most beautiful script on the planet for me!

But the script of a language does not tell you much.  Tibetan, for instance, was borrowed from Sanskrit (mother of Devanagri).  Japanese and Chinese are unrelated but Japanese borrowed Chinese characters.  Turkish and English are totally unrelated but modern Turkish now uses the Roman alphabet but like English. All these share scripts (orthography) but share no grammar similitude.

So another way to look at language is by their language families.  Below I listed the top 10 groups and gave the percentage of speakers — the data is taken from Wiki.  I have only tasted three different families — but I have played in the grammar minds of 69.1% of the world ! 🙂  Most people have only studied langauges in one language family, but if you learn a language in a different family, you will soon learn what a FOREIGN language is.

Mac Transliteration Shortcuts



American Buddhism Diagram

I have created the above diagram for a friend who is recently considering visiting Buddhist groups in the USA. I hope this chart helps add some order to his understanding of the myriad of Buddhist Schools in America. My goal was to keep the diagram fairly simple, name the big groups, and show classification according to the 3-Yāna system which is both easy on the eye and the mind while capturing some usefulness. As always, feedback is deeply appreciated.

Yāna Classification

Buddhism, like all religions, has naturally proliferated into many sects.  I don’t use “sect” pejoratively at all, but instead as a religious-studies term.  Christians invented the pejorative connotation with “sect” and thus don’t refer to their own sub-groups as “sects” but instead uses the term “denominations”.  Buddhists have various ways of describing their own sects.    Likewise Buddhists also have a special term for their sects.   The “3 Classic Yāna” taxonomy below illustrates a common classification of the sects.  See my diagram here to see how Buddhist sects fall into these three Yānas.

But as a commentor has rightly pointed out, the use of “Yāna” has other uses.  A Yāna is also a “path” or an “approach” to a practice and thus any given sect could incorporate any of the various, more detailed, A Yānas listed in the “9 Secondary A Yāna” list.  My diagram below illustrates the Nyingma classification scheme next the the “Classic 3 Yāna” scheme.  More specifically, this is the  Aro understanding.  The chart also shows how Aro sees functions and principles relating to their taxonomy of the Yānas into yet another 3-grouping: Drogchen, Tantra Yāna, and Sutra Yāna.  I hope people find this diagram helpful.


I look forward to feedback from those who can correct my mistakes.

Types of Dzogchen

To assist my visual learning I have put together this diagram to explain how “Dzogchen” is seen in the Aro lineage of Nyingma.  All corrections, suggestions and kudos are appreciated.


Resources: