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The "three types of persons" in Tibetan Buddhism
March 14th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The "three types of persons" in Tibetan Buddhism

The "three types of persons" are of lower, medium or greater capacity.
Such a presentation relies on describing the current 'views' of the persons, rather than intrinsic limitations (which would contradict buddha-nature).

Persons of lower capacity are still wholly ignorant of the nature of the self, causality, etc. The teachings for such persons thus focuses on presenting karma, but also on looking death face-to-face (and realise that no possession will help at the —unknown— time of death, a realisation which should later lead to "taking refuge in the Three Jewels")…

Persons of medium capacity can see different forms of sufferings, and thus understand that cyclical existence itself is the issue, not just the lower rebirths. They are able to follow the Hīnayāna paths to Enlightenment.

Persons of greater capacity, having realised selflessness and impermanence, and having understood suffering, can see how interdependence does not really allow for individual Liberation to make sense while other sentient beings are still suffering.
In  ཙོང་ཁ་པ། (Tsong-kha-pa)'s views, those attaining nirvāṇa, the fruit of the Hīnayāna path, will indeed be exhorted by a buddha to join the ranks of those of greater capacity.

But one's views, as mental fabrications, influence one's goals and the three types of persons can be presented as relating to three scopes of motivation.

The person of lower scope of motivation aims, for oneself, to 'higher' rebirth.

The person of medium scope of motivation aims, for oneself, to the complete cessation of suffering.

The person of greater scope of motivation aims, for the benefit of all sentient beings, to the complete Enlightenment.

The teachings for the three types of persons must thus not only be appropriate for their respective capacities (it is usually an monastic offence to teach emptiness to whoever is not ready!) but also a source of inspiration in relation to their respective goals. The inspiration is very much used as a means to lift the capacities to higher levels.

In both cases, it is important to realise that these are not 'inherent' characteristics of persons. The three types of persons describes stages on the Common path, rather than inherent limitations for inherently-different people.
To understand this (i.e. buddha-nature) is important in order to allow other connections, e.g. to the understanding of conventional truth of karma, then emptiness of karma, then the "two truths", or e.g. to the Three bodies (Trikāya) or the three self-natures of the Yogācāra school, or even the three levels of truth-claims of Candrakīrti.

The Lam-rim Chen-mo of  ཙོང་ཁ་པ། (Tsong-kha-pa) relies on the "three types of persons" from Atiśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna (although the notion pre-existed) but makes it clear that a person is at a particular stage only because form is not negated by emptiness: yes, persons may manifest views and motivations as different forms, which require different teaching devices to move toward Enlightenment… but these 'forms' are impermanent. Everyone has buddha-nature.

One reason of greatness of the Lam-rim is to show how the various teachings of the Buddha are not contradictory, but merely an appropriate response to where specific auditors were at.

One way to visualise the three types of persons is to see the scopes (of understanding or of motivation) as concentric circles rather than disjoint/separate. Each level includes any lower level; rather than relying on independent teachings, each level extends the area and depth covered.

#Buddhism   #Dharma   #lamrim   #buddhistcircle  
photo: © +mamo delpero, more info at
The intensity of the gaze comes from caring beyond oneself…