In the 8th century, Buddhism came to Tibet. Among the first and most important Indian emissaries was Padmasambhava, who is venerated by all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, but particularly by the Nyingma tradition. Anticipating the persecution of Buddhism, Padmasambhava is believed to have hidden Buddhist texts to be discovered by future generations. Many of these "treasures" are claimed to have been found. Some are physical texts. Others are "mind treasures," recovered in the course of meditation. Among the most significant treasure hunters was the 18th century monk Jigme Lingpa. In the course of a long period of meditation, Lingpa is believe to have received a teaching from Longchen Rabjam, a 14 century master and scholar of the the Nyingma tradition. The teaching is understood, however, to have originated with Padmasambhava. Lingpa set it to writing as The Heart Essence of the Great Expanse, a cycle of teaching that become central to the Nyingma tradition and was passed down from teacher to student for centuries. In the 19th century, Patrul Rinpoche put into writing a portion -- the preliminary practices -- of this teaching as he learned it from his guru, Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu. It is titled Kunzang Lama'i Shelung, or The Words of My Perfect Teacher.
The Words of My Perfect Teacher is an extremely popular exposition of important ideas of the Tibetan tradition. Its popularity stems in part from it clear, direct prose. Divided into three parts, The Words provides an account of "The External Preliminaries," "The Internal Preliminaries," and "The Swift Path of Transference." "The External Preliminaries" explain how ordinary human life is uniquely situated to bring about liberation in that beings in lower realms (animals, pretas, and hell-beings) experience too much suffering and delusion to achieve enlightenment, while beings in higher realms (asuras and devas) experience too little suffering (and delusion) to seek enlightenment. Second, "The External Preliminaries" point out the impermanence of all things, particularly human life, underscoring the importance of seeking enlightenment as one has a rare chance in this human life. It goes on to point out the ubiquity of suffering, how karma applies to our actions, the benefits of liberation, and the methods for following a spiritual teacher. These preliminaries are "external" in that they largely describe the context in which one finds oneself in pursuit of liberation and overt techniques to do so.
"The Internal Preliminaries" addresses techniques for controlling and developing one's mind to further one's progress to enlightenment. This begins with "taking refuge" in the Buddha, the Dharma (the teaching), and the Sangha (the community of Buddhists). "Taking refuge" might be understood as placing one's faith in these three "jewels." Just as a traveler might place his or her faith in a map maker, in the map, and in his or her fellow travelers to reach the destination, the Buddhist places his or her faith in the three jewels. Furthermore, The Internal Preliminaries discusses what is perhaps the most critical aspect of mental development: the development of bodhicitta (the enlightened mind). This is an attitude of unconditional love and compassion for all sentient beings. Developing bodhicitta will purify one's past negative actions and generate the strength to pursue the path to liberation. The techniques involved in developing bodhicitta involve in part concentration and meditation on mandalas and mantras.
The practices involved in The Internal Preliminaries require a spiritual guide, i.e., a qualified teacher. In the Tibetan tradition, these teachers directly descend from the Buddha through Padmasambhava, known as the Second Buddha. Some are believed to be reincarnations of important bodhisattvas. The Dalai Lamas, for example, are thought to be reincarnations of Avalokitesvara. Reliance on a spiritual guide is a salient feature of Tibetan Buddhism, sometimes called "Lamaism," though some authors reject this as an overestimate of the importance of the veneration of the spiritual guide. In any case, The Words of My Perfect Teacher (in its title alone) does emphasize veneration of the spiritual guide and presents the guide as critical to one's progress toward enlightenment, though when one does not have access to a genuine lama, a simple monk or even lay Buddhist can serve as at least a beneficial substitute.
The third part of The Words describes the transference of consciousness at the time of death. Five sorts of transference are possible: transference to the dharmakaya, the sambhogakaya, and the nirmanakay, as well as "ordinary transference" and transference performed for the dead by a spiritual guide. Transference to the dharmakaya is the supreme transference, where the person's consciousness becomes one with the true and auspicious qualities of the Buddha. The dharmakaya is the abstract, cosmic Buddha-nature. Transference to the sambhogakaya occurs when one's consciousness becomes one with the Buddha-nature that is instructive to all bodhisattvas, and transference to the nirmanakaya occurs when one's consciousness is capable of becoming reborn as a buddha in a worldly realm. Ordinary transference involves rebirth into "a pure land of great bliss" and transference performed by a spiritual guide at the time of death will prevent rebirth in a lower realm. The rituals involved in this last transference are described in the Bardo Thodol or The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The content of The Words of My Perfect Teacher are limited to the expounding the preliminary practices in the larger work The Heart Essence of the Great Expanse, which continues by describing the rest of the path to liberation. The continuation involves three phases: the generation phase, in which one visualizes oneself as a buddha and employs mantras and mandalas in meditation to make spiritual progress; the perfection phase, in which the meditative practices become a living experience; and the Great Perfection, in which one comes to understand the ultimate nature of the mind and immediately experience Buddha-nature itself.
The Words of My Perfect Teacher certainly lives up to its reputation. I have read few expositions of the central ideas of Buddhism that are clearer or more simply expressed. I would recommend to readers who don't necessarily have a deep background in Buddhism, though it is a classic which anyone interested in Buddhism would benefit from reading. Of particular interest are the chapters on impermanence, training the mind through meditation on impartiality, love, compassion, and sympathetic joy, arousing and developing bodhicitta, practicing the Six Perfections of generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. These ideas, however, are presented along with chapters dealing with culturally specific religious ideas which will strike a Western reader as superstitious or at least mythic. Nonetheless, taken as an anthropological text, even these make for fascinating reading.