Gyaltsap Dharma Rinchen and the Four Levels of Buddhist Teaching
One of Tsong-kha-pa’s students, Gyaltsap Dharma Rinchen (1364-1432), wrote these lines in “Illumination of the Essential Meanings” of (Nāgārjuna’s) Precious Garland of the Middle Way (64a.2).
The four levels presented below are quoted in Jeffrey Hopkins’ translation of Precious Garland: Nagarjuna’s Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation. This is a book presenting the Tibetan Gelugpa Prasangika Madhyamika approach to Buddhism. In this system, the realization of emptiness outranks the nondual collapse of the subject/object duality and seeing everything as the apprehending subject. In other words, the four steps are in harmony with the Prasangika system.
Gyaltsap Dharma Rinchen’s steps serve as a map or a guideline for which students are the best candidates for which types of Buddhist teaching. They are sure to be controversial, because this is merely one school’s assessment.
Just as a grammarian first has students read a model of the alphabet, the Buddhas do not teach trainees from the very beginning doctrines that are difficult to realize. Rather, they teach the doctrines that they can bear as objects of their minds. The stages are as follows:
1. To some they teach doctrines to turn them away from ill-deeds such as killing; this is so that these trainees who have the thought-patterns of beings of small capacity may achieve the ranks of gods or humans as fruits of their merit.
2. To some trainees who have the thought-patterns of beings of middle capacity they teach doctrines based on the duality of apprehended object and apprehending subject and that cyclic existence is one-pointedly to be abandoned and nirvana is one-pointedly to be adopted.
3. To some trainees they teach ultimately established consciousness empty of a difference in substantial entity between apprehended object and apprehending subject, thereby teaching to them [doctrine that is] not based on duality.
4. To some trainees of highest faculties, who will achieve unsurpassed enlightenment, they teach [doctrine] that has an essence of emptiness – the profound mode of subsistence [of phenomena] frightening to the fearful who adhere to the true existence of things – and compassion.