The Practice of the Four Doors


Lerab Ling, 4 November 2012

The Practice of the Four Doors

Lerab Ling, 4 November 2012

During a Pema Khandro drupchen at Lerab Ling, having tirelessly illuminated more than fifteen annual drupchens with practice advice, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche decided it was time to point out where western Vajrayana practitioners fall short.


One of the instructions that it’s customary to give during drupchen practice stresses the importance of pointing out – on a daily basis – the elements of practice that participants ignore, and explaining how to do the practice. Lama’s usually do this by reading out loud the relevant section of the Drupchen Digest[1]The Digest that Rinpoche uses in general was composed by the 15th Karmapa Khakyap Dorje for the Tukdrup and Vajrakilaya practices. In this teaching Rinpoche explains the mantra recitation section: Karmapa 15 Khakyap Dorje, ‘‘bla ma’i thugs sgrub rnam pa gnyis dang phur pa spyi khyab kyi tshogs sgrub skabs nyer mkho’i gtong thun rdo rje’i rgyud mang’’ In Chokgyur Lingpa et al. thugs sgrub bar chad kun sel gyi sgrub chen skabs kyi ’don cha. Bir: Peme Ewam Gyurme Ling, n.d., 774-779., which is a compilation of instructions that includes the three phases of practice (approach, accomplishment, and activity). But as it’s in Tibetan, most of you are unable to understand it. All the Tibetans here have participated in numerous drupchens and have heard the teachings in the Digest many times – I have also given them copies of that text. So today, for the benefit of you westerners, I want to speak more freely.

Precious Human Birth

This lifetime, all the yogis and yoginis gathered in this shrine room have obtained a human body endowed with all the freedoms and advantages. People fall into categories depending on their relationship with Dharma: some don't know the Dharma at all, others are unable to put the Dharma into practice, and some even dislike the Dharma. All these categories of people have also obtained a human birth, but as they are not Dharma practitioners, their rebirth cannot be described as a meaningful ‘precious human birth’. Their lives therefore are described as ‘mere human existence’.


In addition to a precious human birth, Dharma practitioners also need to develop renunciation. We practise the Dharma to free ourselves from the cyclic existence that is samsara, which means we need to generate a strong desire to escape that cycle of suffering.


Once we have a deep longing to get out of samsara, we must then employ the most important method taught in the Causal Vehicle of Characteristics: bodhichitta. And we must use both its aspects: the bodhichitta of aspiration and bodhichitta in action. The generation of a genuine sense of bodhichitta is the unavoidable basis for Dharma practice.

The bodhichitta of aspiration is to develop an appreciation of bodhichitta; acting on that aspiration is bodhichitta in action. For example, the least you should do is, as you breathe in, apply the visualization of taking on all the suffering of sentient beings; then as you breathe out, send them all happiness. If you apply this practice a minimum of seven times every day, you are definitely following the Mahayana path. And by maintaining the discipline of that practice, you will gradually become more and more familiar with it. The signs that your practice is having an effect are that your selfish desires become fewer and you think more about others, and they are also the signs that you are following the Mahayana path of bodhichitta. When such results starts manifesting, try putting the six paramitas – the first five paramitas are held with the view, which is the sixth perfection, the paramita of wisdom – into action as often as you can.

The Challenge of the Vajrayana

Having aroused renunciation and bodhichitta in your mind, you must now reflect on whether or not you want to follow the Vajrayana path. In India, people think hard about whether they really want to be Vajrayana practitioners or not, before stepping onto the Vajrayana path, and only few truly broad-minded people actually go ahead and do it. Most choose not to.

The Mahayana approach to spiritual practice is based on the wish to benefit all sentient beings and to maintain the view of emptiness. These two approaches are very challenging for most people, because they lack the openness to be able to relate to them. They are frightened by bodhichitta and the view of emptiness, and the Vajrayana is even more terrifying. But no one in this room seems daunted by these teachings, and anyway, you’ve all stepped onto this path so the time for reflection is over.

What is it that is so frightening and daunting about these teachings?

The teachings say that to accomplish benefit for all sentient beings as numerous space is vast, we should practice the paramita of generosity, and part of that practice is to be able to give up our limbs, head and other parts of our body, if our sacrifice will help others. The paramita of generosity won’t be accomplished, or perfected, until we have made generous offerings for three countless great eons – and the perfection of generosity is just the first of the six perfections. That is just an example to give you an idea of how long we would have to toil to perfect all five paramitas.

Once you understand the first five paramitas and have aroused the appropriate motivation, you can then turn to the paramita of wisdom. As Shantideva said:

All these branches of the Doctrine
The Enlightened Sage expounded for the sake of wisdom.[2]Way of the Bodhisattva, IX, 1. This means that “The paramitas of generosity and so forth, explained in the preceding chapters of The Way of the Bodhisattva, were taught by the Buddha the great sage for the sake of wisdom” Mipham Rinpoche. The Wisdom Chapter: Jamgön Mipham’s Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of The Way of the Bodhisattva. Shambhala Publications, 2017, 80.

For wisdom to arise, we must first definitively establish the view of the Prasangika Madhyamika, which is ‘emptiness free from all conceptual elaboration’. What is this view?

When something and its nonexistence
Both are absent from before the mind,
No other option does the latter have:
It comes to perfect rest, from concepts free.[3]Way of the Bodhisattva, IX, 34.

You will intellectually understand emptiness the moment “when” you recognize this absence and think of it as emptiness. When this understanding is also “absent from before the mind” and you are completely free from any reference so that no mistake is possible, this is the view of emptiness.

For many, including many Buddhists – for example, the followers of the Shravakayana, the Sautrantikas, and the Vaibhashikas, and even the Mind Only school – this view is daunting. But what this view teaches is buddha nature, and buddha nature is inherently present in all sentient beings.

We are not concerned with the outer Kriya, Upa or Yoga tantras here. What we are doing is going further into the Great Yoga, the Mahayoga. In that context, the Secret Mantra Vajrayana teachings explain that the ground of buddha nature is present in the minds of all sentient beings, and that this mind is the Buddha right now! This statement can be extremely unsettling.

No one I see in front of me today really understands what this teaching is saying. All you can do is think, “This is probably what it’s like. The lamas say it’s like this and the books explain it like this.” But you can only manage to think ‘it might be true’ because you haven’t fully understood that the Buddha is your own mind, or reached that undeniable conclusion. Therefore, none of you holds a high view. When you hold a high view, you actually experience it.

The ultimate point taught by Mantra Vajrayana is that all phenomena are the kayas and wisdoms. But if you think that realizing everything is the kayas and wisdoms is an excellent understanding and that as you haven’t realized it, you must be an inferior practitioner, you haven’t understood the view.

For people who don’t realize the view and for whom it’s still obscure – which is most of us – the methods for eliminating these habitual tendencies are meditation on the deity, recitation of mantra, and so on. When you accomplish the deity nothing comes to you from the outside, you simply actualize the view.

Drupchen Practice

This is why we do ritual practices – which I’ve explained at length to you in the past and which I believe that you have heard.

Now, the most important things for you to know about are the four ‘doors’, or ‘handles’, of Secret Mantra Vajrayana.

The Four Doors of Secret Mantra

1. The Door of the Words that Call to Mind the Absolute

This is the first door and it corresponds to the words that guide us towards actualizing the essence of phenomena, the absolute – basically, how things abide – and corresponds to what you refer to in English as the ‘sadhana’ text.

You must enter that door, right? Actually, you will have to pass through all four doors, but first, to cross the threshold of this door of words that help you call to mind the absolute, you must bring to mind the meaning of every single word in the sadhana as you recite it, from the first syllable of the refuge prayer, to the last word of the prayer of auspiciousness. As it is said,

Secret Mantra is recitation and meditation.

This means that you practise the Vajrayana by saying the words of the sadhana text as you actualize or meditate on their meaning. For the most important sections of the sadhana, the ‘tradition of the lineage vidyadharas’ is to sing or chant them slowly so you have more time to think about what they mean, and to actualize and meditate on that meaning.

I really hope that you are able to pass through this first door – here at Lerab Ling I have often spoken extensively about different sadhanas and how to do this kind of practice. Sometimes sadhanas are practised elaborately, or concisely, or somewhere in between, but the meaning behind those words come down to pretty much the same thing.

2. The Door of the Secret Mantra to Summon the Crux of Deity Meditation

Right now, you think the deities look different from you because of your notions about what is good and what is bad – basically, you haven’t yet accomplished the deity. Here, you summon the crux of deity meditation by uniting the deity and yourself as one. This is done through the three phases of mantra recitation: approach, accomplishment, and activity. Having entered this doorway, you recite the mantra.

3. The Door of Mind in Samadhi, Single-mindedly Focussed on the Practice

Next, you meditate on samadhi, focussing single-mindedly on the practice. The roots of this aspect of practice are the four nails that bind the life-force of the practice – I have spoken about them several times in the past. These four nails are incredibly important – in fact, they are crucial. If you practise ‘the Mahayoga teachings that emphasize kyérim practice’ without knowing about these four nails, you are practising without knowing the main points. The fourth and last nail, the ‘nail of unchanging wisdom mind’, is especially important.

4. The Door of the Dance of Mudras: Significances, Symbols, and Correlations

Mudras are symbolic gestures that point to a deeper meaning. You perform mudras when you actualize your body, speech and mind as the three vajras – enlightened body, enlightened speech and enlightened mind – or the five buddha families and so on; or when you invite the wisdom beings and offer prostrations, offerings, praises and so on. To cross the threshold of the ‘door of the dance of mudras’ you must perform mudras.

These four doors therefore correspond to deity, mantra, mudra, and samadhi, as mentioned in the tantras. If one of these four doors is missing, the practice is incomplete.

How to Correct Your Practice of the Four Doors

Actualize the Meaning as You Read the Words

You must apply these four doors when you do a Mahayoga practice that emphasizes the kyérim of the Secret Mantra Vajrayana – for example, when you are doing a ‘great accomplishment practice’ (drupchen). Having entered each of the four doors, you will eventually see the mandala. These four points are extremely important.

Many of you are able to chant as we practise in this temple, because the practice texts have been translated. So as you chant, your mind must be thinking about the meaning of the words of the prayers – no? It is impossible to simply follow the words with your eyes and chant without focusing your mind on the meaning – right? As you read, your mind must necessarily be involved – your eyes alone are not enough. Try it and you’ll see I’m right. If you say the word ‘buddha’, for example, the sound will leave your mouth only after the mind has thought it – mind and mouth come together. It’s therefore crucial that practitioners are able to recite the practices in their own language – I have mentioned this extremely important point many times over the years.

At least here at Lerab Ling a translation appears underneath the Tibetan phonetics. This should be acceptable for those of us who practise Vajrayana on an aspirational level.

Chant the Mantra!

I notice that many of you appear to recite the mantra. During a drupchen the mantra should be chanted out loud, yet even though there are three or four hundred people here, your voices can hardly be heard! Everyone joins in when you chant Sogyal Rinpoche’s long life prayer, so it can easily be heard – perhaps because you are more used to it.

Basically, mantra brings incredible blessings. Yesterday I spoke about the nine ways of relating to mantras. Chanting the mantra is very beneficial. As it says in the tantras,

Even if space should cease to exist, the accomplishments of mantra will never cease.


I imagine that you are all trying to meditate in some sort of samadhi. Westerners, in particular, love to meditate – but I can’t tell if you are actually meditating, or just very good at looking as if you are. At Bodhgaya, for example, you will see many Buddhist monks, Tibetans and Bhutanese people, all folding their hands in devotion and offering prayers, while the Westerners just sit in meditation postures, as though in deep samadhi. Whatever it is that you are doing, for now I’ll assume that you are actually meditating.

If you are practising Dzogchen meditation and therefore maintaining the continuity of the recognition of the nature of mind, there is no better meditation. If you do that, you don’t need to meditate on the deity – that is, if you know how to practise Dzogchen properly. But if all you are doing is counting thoughts, that’s not useful.


With our bodies we must perform mudras. But here at Lerab Ling, most of you aren’t practising this element. A few at least attempt to do the mudras, but most of you leave your hands in your laps – you’re no better than armless people! Noone here is physically incapable of forming mudras so all you have to do is copy someone else. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about – in fact, quite the opposite. What you should be embarrassed about is participating in a mantra practice but not do the mudras because you don’t know how to copy others. You must perform the mudras.

For example, the Causal Vehicle of Characteristics speaks about accumulating one hundred thousand prostrations as you take refuge, yet it’s far more valuable to perfect a single revolving lotus mudra and a clear visualization in a Secret Mantra Vajrayana practise than to accumulate prostrations. In Mantra it is said that, “All movements are great bliss”. This means that even if you are not able to do the mudra well, you will still derive some benefit from trying because it involves physical movement.

To introduce mudras properly requires a great deal of explanation – including the presentation of the ‘arrangement of channels, the moving winds, and the tiglés of bliss’. An entire chapter of The Secret Essence Tantra (the Guhyagarbha Tantra) is devoted to explaining mudras.

I felt I really had to bring these points to your attention – although that doesn’t change anything to me.

Be Confident

There is no longer any question about it, you are all yogis and yoginis. A yogi is a person who, having received the empowerment, practises the three yogas, which you are all doing.

Dilgo Khyentse called himself the ‘fortunate, aimless yogi Mangala’, and by so doing demonstrated that we must all recognize we are yogis or yoginis. Yogis need view, meditation and action; if you recite a sadhana once every day without fail, all three will be covered.

Acquire the Vajrayana Practice Implements and Substances

When you receive an empowerment you acquire quite a few samayas. The five most important are the samayas of the five buddha families. The samaya of the Vajra Family of Akshobhya is:

Cleave properly
To the mudras of vajra and bell.

Which means that you must have a bell and a vajra and that you should use them.

Wisdom and skilful methods are the nature of all things and we must bring them together in our Vajrayana practice. The vajra and bell symbolize wisdom and skilful methods. This is why you must “cleave properly to the mudras of vajra and bell”.

Vajras and bells are very easy to get these days. In India you can buy a set for just two or three hundred rupees – about five euros. Vajrayana practitioners must have a bell and vajra.

Some years ago, I went to do a drupchen at Tashi Jong – which is near Bir, in India –where there was a tokden called Chölik. Chölik often got wound up about all kinds of things. One year, during the practice break, he asked every monk in the line for the toilet, “Do you have a vajra and a bell?” Most of them said they didn’t, including one of our Chokling Monastery monks. Chölik then asked our monk, “Do you have a mala?” Again the monk said he didn’t have a mala.
“How long have you been a monk?” asked Chölik
“Fifteen years,” replied the monk.
“Unbelievable!” exclaimed Chölik. “How is that possible? You’ve been a monk for fifteen years and you don’t have a bell, a vajra or even a mala. I can’t believe it! It’s impossible!”

So, you also need a good mala with the right characteristics[4]See Karme Khenpo Rinchen Dargye’s commentary on Mawe Senge’s sadhana found in Sechen Gyaltsap, and Rinchen Dargye. A Practice of Padmasambhava: Essential Instructions On The Path To Awakening. Translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee. Ithaca, N.Y: Snow Lion, 2011.. Of all the malas I have seen here, there’s hardly a single good one – and I’ve see quite a few because almost everybody comes and asks me to blow blessings onto theirs.

Not having a good vajra and bell, and a proper mala, are signs that you are not good Dharma practitioners; you should start by getting the articles that support Dharma practice, and in particular the special ‘samaya substances and articles’ required for Secret Mantra Vajrayana. So, make sure you have all the required equipment. It should be of good quality and have all the right specifications – which is actually very easy. Not like meditation.

After Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche passed away, Rabjam Rinpoche and those who helped him, organized various ceremonies to which lamas and monks from all traditions were invited. Lamas and monks from the five Buddhist traditions – the four schools and the Jonangpa – were present, and so were the Bönpos. This meant that three or four hundred monks came together every day to practise, so the ceremonies were organized in the spirit of Rimé. But many hadn’t brought vajras and bells with them and the organizers ended up providing them for everyone.

For the conclusion of the ceremonies, we also invited some ‘benza acharayas’ – Vajrayana Buddhists of the Nepali tradition. About three hundred and sixty practitioners came to do their Vairochana practice, and each one brought his own vajra and bell and used them – some sets were more than one thousand years old. I was quite amazed by that. Not only had they brought their own vajras and bells, but they were really good, old sets. Only two or three of them had newly made Nepali vajra and bells, all the rest were old! Rabjam Rinpoche and I checked out each set and found one that was very special. It was almost the same as a bell Namkhé Nyingpo had revealed as a terma. We asked the Nepali to show it to us, but he said, “I am not allowed to do that: my vajra and bell can not be touched by anyone else, so you can’t put your hands on them.” Then he added “They are my samaya articles; no one else can touch them.” So, I think these Nepalis still maintain the practice tradition of Secret Mantra.

Translated by Gyurmé Avertin
Edited by Janine Schultz

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