Practice Overview

Foundational Vehicle (Theravada), Mahayana and Vajrayana

The following description is from

Tibetan Buddhism is commonly associated with the Vajrayana, which may be translated as the Adamantine Vehicle, but it includes the Foundational Vehicle and Mahayana teachings as well. For the most part, Buddha Shakyamuni presented Foundational Vehicle and Sutra Mahayana teachings, while Guru Padmasambhava taught the Vajrayana. Both revealed the complete and perfect path to awakening so that individuals of all capacities would benefit.


Most of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings address ordinary beings and offer a direct way to understand the nature of our experience. They present a non-esoteric view that appeals to common logic, with tenets that can be verified by close observation of the elements that constitute our everyday world. With this knowledge, you can move toward enlightenment. This is the basic intention of Sutra Mahayana.

The Vajrayana is also known as Tantra. Tantric teachings are based on the Sutra Mahayana, but offer a more subtle understanding of our experience and additional methods to realize enlightenment. Vajrayana practice encourages us to take a deeper look at our perceptions, recognize our primordial nature, and maintain our mind in its natural state.

Description of Tibetan Buddhist Practices

Although different methods of classification have been applied to the Buddha’s teachings over the course of time and by different Buddhist communities, the Buddha himself did not systematize how he presented his insights.

The following is a framework found in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, but other approaches are possible and may be more beneficial.

Daily practice might include:

  1. Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind
  2. Ngondro or Special Preliminaries
  3. Shamatha Meditation or Calm Abiding
  4. Vipashyana Meditation or Penetrative Insight
  5. Mahamudra Meditation or Great Seal
  6. Deity Meditation

In the text that follows, a brief overview is given of each area. For further info please feel free to contact the centre.

At Karma Tashi Ling, the main focus of weekly public practice is on Deity Meditation and Shamatha. Please see the Dharma Practice page and the Sunday Sadhana page for practice description. Information on the other forms of practice is available; please write to or contact our resident teacher, Ani-la Kunsang, at 780-633-6157.

Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind

The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind are contemplations that help the practitioner see the shortcomings and illusory nature of our usual way of viewing things. Spending time thinking about these four subjects aids one in taking up a more meaningful relationship with others and with the world around them. The Four Thoughts are:

  1. Appreciation of Our Precious Human Existence
  2. Understanding the Implications of Impermanence
  3. Karma and the Causality of Action and Experience
  4. Awareness of the Sufferings and Limitations of Samsara

Thrangu Rinpoche’s website has a teaching on the Four Thoughts by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche that provides further information.

Ngondro or Special Preliminaries

The Tibetan term ngondro means “something which precedes”. These methods prepare the road for practice to continue in a certain direction. They are usually considered to be foundational for subsequent meaningful engagement with more advanced teachings. These practices are often done in the following order:

  1. Refuge and Prostrations
  2. Vajrasattva Meditation
  3. Mandala Offering
  4. Guru-Yoga

Usually the practitioner does 100,000 repetitions of each of the above practices, although a particular lama may give a different number in certain cases.

Shamatha Meditation or Calm Abiding

Descriptions of shamatha meditation are numerous and varied. Basic instructions include how to sit, how to place the mind, what to focus on, and other important aspects. Two useful ways of practicing this form of meditation are to do shamatha with an object of attention, or shamatha with no particular object of attention. Shamatha with an object may focus on the breath, or a physical sensation such as a taste or a sound, or on a visual object like a statue or just a pencil in front. Shamatha with no object involves allowing the flow of thought and impressions to take place, while limiting commentary and projections on the part of the meditator. His Holiness the Ninth Karmapa Wanchug Dorje gave this advice:

Place your mind, without consciously adopting or abandoning, in a fluid, natural state of being here and now, in which you are not manufacturing your ordinary, usual types of cognitions about the present moment.

From: The Mahamudra: Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance

Vipashyana Meditation or Penetrative Insight

Vipashyana meditation requires a settled mind, so usually it is practiced after a strong foundation in shamatha is achieved. There are several forms that vipashyana can take. The meditator can look at the nature of the mind when it is in “full, perfect mental quiescence”. The meditator can also look at the nature of mind when it is moving or when thinking is taking place. The meditator can also look at the mind as a mirror of appearances, or the mind in relation to the body. All of these approaches are described in the above-mentioned Mahamudra text by the Ninth Karmapa.

Usually it is best only to undertake vipashyana meditation under the guidance of a qualified teacher, due to the high possibility of ending up on the wrong track with this approach, and even making things worse.

Mahamudra Meditation or Great Seal

Because Mahamudra is state beyond the limitations of intellectualization, it is difficult to describe it in words. Also called Maha Ati, it is the culmination and quintessence of meditation forms practiced in the Kagyu tradition, and it is practiced in other Tibetan schools as well. A lineage forefather in the Kagyu tradition, Tilopa, uses The Song of Mahamudra to explain it. Here is an exerpt:

Though words are spoken to explain the Void,
The Void as such can never be expressed.
Though we say “the mind is a bright light”,
It is beyond all words and symbols.
Although the mind is void in essence,
All things it embraces and contains.

For a number of variations on how this poem has been translated into English, please see the Natural Awareness website.

In the Kagyu tradition, the Mahamudra lineage starts with Tilopa, who was one of the great mahasiddhis of India. His student was Naropa, who taught the practices to Marpa, the translator, who brought the teachings to Tibet. This meditation form has been transmitted in an unbroken stream through a lineage of masters, including the Karmapas, down to our present day.

The Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, wrote Aspirations for Mahamudra, a poem and prayer for gaining the insights of Mahamudra. Here is a verse:

The great bliss of non-attachment is continuous.
Sheer clarity without fixations is free of obscurations.
Passing beyond intellect, non-thought is naturally present.
May these experiences continually arise without effort.

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, who established Karma Tashi Ling, holds the complete lineage of the Karma Kagyu Buddhist tradition, including the practices of Mahamudra. For those interested, he gave a teaching with commentary on this poem, which may be found on his website.

Deity Meditation

Deity meditation is described on the Sunday Sadhana page of our website. As a further description, here are a couple of lines from the Karma Thegsum Choling website, another Karma Kagyu centre:

… sadhanas are designed to reveal the true, stainless, and pure nature of our mind. In addition, the sadhanas help us to develop Bodhicitta, compassion for others, by expanding our awareness of their suffering. By studying and practicing sadhanas, practitioners attain deeper states of meditation, and transcend the ordinary state of confusion. Disturbing emotions such as desire and anger melt away, replaced by mental clarity and peace. Proper sadhana practice, combined with daily meditation and accumulation of merit, can lead to realization of one’s true nature, and ultimately to enlightenment.