Analysis Of A Clear Differentiation Of The Three Codes

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Analysis of A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes (sDom pa gsum gyi rab tu dbye ba) by Sakya Pandita


A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes was composed by Sakya Pandita Kuenga Gyaltshen (kun dga’ rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251) sometime around 1232, when he was about 50. One of his primary concerns throughout his life was the correct transmission and preservation of the Dharma and this text most clearly represents such a concern. While the central ideas in the text were not unique to Sakya Pandita (Sapan), he was already a widely renowned teacher at the time of its writing—he was known by the respectful title of “Lord of the Dharma” (chos rje pa) even by his contemporaries—and it carried great weight (Gyaltshen, 4).

As the title anticipates, the text is primarily about the correct observance of “the three codes” or “the three vows” : the prātimoksa; the bodhisattva; and the vajrayāna. The essential point of the text is that the three sets of vows should be clearly delineated and not “mixed up.” In this way, it can be read as a reaction to syncretic accounts of the three vows that minimized the difference between them. While Sapan does not clearly express a theory that indicates the relationship between the three, it is clear that he regards the vajrayāna as the highest (Gyaltshen, 5). At the same time, Sapan argues against the teaching that the vows are completely distinct from one another. Instead, all three are taken as part of the Vajrayāna initiation.

In a manner consistent with Sapan’s other writings, the Three Codes is firmly grounded in the belief in the efficacy of rational, critical analysis in determining the legitimacy of various doctrinal positions. Moreover, Sapan considered it a moral imperative to dispel false teachings and to extend to other Tibetans the education he received from his Indian teachers (Gyaltshen, 5-6; 20-21). As a result of its highly critical nature, it was received as a polemic attack on the traditions it addressed. Sapan continues to be associated with the polemical nature by modern scholars (Davidson 753; Jackson 67).

The single doctrinal issue with which the Three Codes is primarily concerned is that which is the purpose of the three sets of vows: right conduct (yang dag spyod pa) (Gyaltshen, 18). However, as it is a critical text, dispelling erroneous teachings was obviously a central part of the work. As Rhoton summarizes, the teachings that Sapan primarily questions are:

“1) Certain interpretations of the ‘matrix of the Tathāgatha” (tathāgatagarbha); 2) The identification of specific levels of tantric yoga with specific stages of insight; 3) The theory that liberation can be attained through reliance on a single means; 4) The view that karmic effects are inevitable, even for the Buddha; 5) The doctrine of unvarying virtue and vice; 6) The concept of the dharmadhātu as transferable virtue; 7) The view that the vows of Individual Liberation (prātimoksa) can endure until the attainment of buddhahood; 8) The view that Gnosis of the Great Seal (mahāmudrā) can be achieved merely by stopping all mental activity; 9) The opinion that practice of the bodhisattva’s ‘exchange of self for others’ can produce ill effects; 10) The conferring of Mind-Only (Yogācāra) vows of bodhisattvahood through defective rites; 11) The cultivation of tantric yoga without prior initiation; 12) The construing of the Vajra Sow (Vajravārāhi) empowerment as a license to practice the anuttarayoga tantras; 13) The transmission of vows and initiations according to certain dreams; 14) The ritual imparting of the vows of the ultimate bodhicitta-generation (paramārthabodhicitta); and 15) The fabrication of bogus sūtras, tantras, relics, and tantric precepts” (Gyaltshen, 21-22).

In this sense, it must be emphasized that the Three Codes is not strictly about the taking of or adherence to vows. Instead, it is deeply historical and philosophical and touches on a wide range of topics.

Structure and Content

Between a brief prologue and epilogue, the text is divided into three sections: Vows of Individual Liberation; Vows of the Bodhisattva; and Vows of the Vajra Vehicle. In the section on the Vows of Individual Liberation, Sapan devoted significant attention to the question of whether or not the prātimoksa vows endure after death, as this is intertwined with deeper philosophical issues. The section concludes with the demand that “With a sense of shame, all conduct/that is contrary to the monastic rule/ should be rightly confessed…” This demand is clearly motivated by the fear that ignoring misdeeds would cause irreparable damage to the Doctrine. Sapan writes, “How astonishing/ that people will not practice the rites/ taught by the Buddha, even though these are easy,/ but will exert themselves to practice those/ he did not teach, even though they are difficult!/ If such practices are accepted as authentic/even though they contradict the Buddha’s words,/ one will be unable to call other wrong practices false” (Gyaltshen, 71-72).

The section on the Vows of the Bodhisattva is the shortest of the three sections and essentially delineates between the rites for cultivating bodhicitta employed by Madhyamaka and Mind-Only schools and goes on to illustrate that they share an understanding of what constitutes a lapse in the vows (Gyaltshen 804-84)

The final section on the Vows of the Vajra Vehicle is the longest and focuses on clearly defining the importance of the proper form of initiation. He begins by dispelling the notion that a blessing-rite or inauthentic initiations are sufficient to begin practicing meditations (Gyaltshen, 95-100) and adamantly opposes practice without proper initiation. He cites the Mahāmudrātilaka(tantra) and writes, “Whosoever, out of pride, explains/ tantras and precepts to the uninitiated/ causes both master and pupil to be reborn/ in hell immediately upon their deaths,/ even though realizations may have been attained./ Therefore, make every effort to request/ initiation of a master.’ As other tantras/ say the same, be very diligent about this” (Gyaltshen, 100).

Likewise, Sapan writes extensively regarding the importance of maintaining vows. He begins by pointing out what must have been a relatively common query: “Some of the Indian non-Buddhist sectarians have asked Buddhists:/ “What is wrong with being a non-Buddhist/ as long as one rejects evil and is virtuous?/ What benefit is there in being a Buddhist if one lacks virtue and practices evil?” Sapan responded by writing, “The Indian non-Buddhist sectarians lack vows, and thus,/ although they may perform virtues, these are mediocre,/ nor can they possibly achieve those virtues/ that proceed from vows./ …If one’s virtues are not those of vows,/ even though one may practice the most profound path of means,/ the Buddha has declared that enlightenment will not be attained” Gyaltshen, 114). The section moves beyond initiations and vows, however, and addresses Sapan’s understanding of the Great Seal, which he argues had been confused with the Chinese “simultaneous” approach (Gyaltshen, 118). As noted above, numerous other subjects including Gnosis, pilgrimage and etymology are addressed.

The Three Codes was composed in the format of a Sanskrit śāstra and employed the “objection-and-reply (brgal lan)” style. That is, the teachings of the schools that are challenged in the text are first cited or paraphrased and then refuted based on scriptural authority or logical argumentation (Gyaltshen, 6). Rather than cite specific teachers or traditions by name, the teachings are generally introduced with such phrases as “some say…”, “some claim…”, or “certain Tibetans…”, and the specifics are only understood through the notes provided by later commentaries. However, there are occasions in which Sapan specifically cites false teachings. For example, he writes, “Do not accept as authentic the sūtras or tantras/ composed by charlatans. The Kaushika’i mdo,/ the ‘Phags pa shig can, the bLo gros/ bzang mo chung ngu, and the like are all sūtras/ written by Tibetans./” (Gyaltshen, 167).

By employing this form, Sapan formally engaged those whose positions he was challenging in a dialogue that was consistent with the standard scholastic method of Indian Buddhists for both oral debates and written criticism (Gyaltshen, 7). Indeed, Sapan’s training in epistemology and logic, in both Tibetan and Sanskrit, set him apart from his contemporaries, as did his deep concern with maintaining the Indic authority of the teachings. While Sapan accepted the possibility of revelation through dreams and visions—provided, of course, that they were logically consistent with the historically affirmed sources—he was very much a traditionalist and gauged the legitimacy of teachings by their historical foundations. This is made clear through the “objection-and-reply” style as he placed contemporary teachings against historical doctrines. Sapan spared no tradition he considered doctrinally flawed from critique as the Three Codes includes a criticism of virtually every lineage of Tibetan Buddhism on one teaching or another. Interestingly however, his focus was on illustrating the way in which later adherents had violated the teachings of their own traditions rather than dismissing their established scriptures wholesale (Gyaltshen, 20). Sapan writes, “For instances, a wrongly practicing follower of the Great Vehicle Perfections/ cannot be confuted by the argument,/ ‘This conflicts with Mantra texts.’/ By the same token, even if certain followers/ of the Mantra tradition practice wrongly,/ they cannot be refuted by pointing out a contradiction/ with Perfections scripture./…Similarly, if a Kadampa or anyone else/ who acknowledges the writings of Lord Atīśa/ is found to contradict Lord Atīśa’s tenets, this will disprove the Kadampa’s position,/ or if a Great Seal adherent who reveres Nāropa contravenes/ Nāropa’s writings, that will disprove/ the Great Seal adherent’s position…” (Gyaltshen, 160-161). In determining which teachings should be considered authoritative, Sapan insists, “accept as authoritative either the Buddha’s/ highest teachings of definitive meaning/ or that which is established by objectively grounded reasoning” (Gyaltshen, 166).

However, by specifically citing positions held, the text gave the impression that it was intended as a personal attack against specific teachers or teachings. Considering the importance of complete respect for one’s guru in the Vajrayāna tradition, it is understandable why such pointed criticisms would be received in this way. Furthermore, Rhoton argues the Three Codes inspired such an adverse reaction in part because it was written in a straightforward manner that left the impression of direct attack, but also because this type of treatise was rare in Tibet at the time, even though it was commonplace in Indian scholarship. This is further evidenced by the fact that the earliest written responses came in the late fifteenth century, two and a half centuries after the composition of the Three Codes (Gyaltshen, 7-8).

However, Rhoton also explains that Sapan’s younger brother, Sangtsha (1184-1239) recognized that the text would be received as polemic and could have been potentially destabilizing for the secular interests of the Khön clan. He urged Sapan to refrain from completing the treatise, and the former apparently agreed until he had a dream that reinforced his conviction that it was necessary to dispel false teachings. Sangtsha’s unease was evidently the result of rumors that were spreading to the effect that Sapan was composing his criticism based on sectarian animosity. While Rhoton seems to dismiss this as mere “gossip,” it seems difficult to believe that Sapan had absolutely no personal animosity toward at least some of the teachers he was refuting (Gyaltshen, 9). Sapan himself writes, “If, perchance, I have lost my composure/and disparaged another, I renounce and confess that misdeed” (Gyaltshen, 178). In the end, Sapan’s justifies any excess critique on the grounds that harsh criticism is a moral imperative when faced with the ramifications of allowing false teachings to flourish (Gyaltshen, 180).


Davidson, Ronald M. 2004. “Sakya Pandita” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol II edited by Robert E. Buswell. New York: Gale. pp. 752-754.

Gyaltshen, Sakya Pandita Kunga. 2002. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions Among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems. Translated by Jared Douglas Rhoton, edited by Victoria R. M. Scott. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jackson, David. 1994. Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the “Self-Sufficient White Remedy (dkar po chig thub). Wien : Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.