Lamrim (Tibetan: "stages of the path") is a Tibetan Buddhist textual form for presenting the stages in the complete path to enlightenment as taught by Buddha. In Tibetan Buddhist history there have been many different versions of lamrim, presented by different teachers of the Nyingma, Kagyu and Gelug schools.[1] However, all versions of the lamrim are elaborations of Atiśa's 11th-century root text A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradīpa).[2]

When Atiśa, the originator of the lamrim came from India to Tibet,[3] he was asked by king Jang Chub Ö to give a complete and easily accessible summary of the doctrine[3] in order to clarify wrong views, especially those resulting from apparent contradictions across the sutras and their commentaries. Based upon this request he wrote the Bodhipathapradīpa ("A Lamp for the Path to Awakening"), teaching what came to be known as the lamrim for the Tibetans.[3] Atiśa's presentation of the doctrine later became known as the Kadampa tradition in Tibet.

According to Tsong Khapa, in his Lam Rim Chen Mo ("The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment"), Atiśa took the number and order of the subjects in Maitreya-natha and Asaṅgas Abhisamayalankara ("Ornament of clear realizations"), which was based on the wisdom sutras, as the basis to write the Bodhipathapradīpa. In the Abhisamayalankara they emphasised the hidden meanings of the sutras.[4] Tibetan Buddhists thus believe that the teachings of the lamrim are based on the sutras that the Buddha taught[5][6] and therefore contains the essential points of all sutra teachings in their logical order for practice.

Gampopa, a Kadampa monk and student of the famed yogi Milarepa, introduced the lamrim to his disciples as a way of developing the mind gradually. His exposition of lamrim is known in English translation as "The Jewel Ornament of Liberation" and is studied to this day in the various Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug school which is primarily based on Atiśa's Kadampa school, wrote one of his masterpieces on lamrim: The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path of Enlightenment (Tib. Lam-rim Chen-mo)[2] which has about 1000 pages, and is primarily based on literary sources. There is also a medium-length lamrim text by Tsongkhapa (200 pages) and a short one, called Lam-rim Dü-dön (Tib.), which is recited daily by many Gelugpas and is about 10 pages long.[note 1]

The Lamrim was the first Tibetan text translated into a European language by Ippolito Desideri, a Jesuit missionary, who visited Tibet and made an extensive study of Tibetan Buddhism from 1716–1721.[7] Desideri studied the Lam Rim Chen Mo of Tsongkhapa, and his manuscript describing Tibet was one of the most extensive and accurate accounts of Buddhist philosophy until the twentieth century.

The starting point of the lamrim is a division of Buddhist practitioners into beings of three scopes, based upon the motivation of their religious activity. Disregarded in this division are individuals whose motives revolve around benefits in their current life. Striving for a favorable rebirth is implicitly the minimum requirement for an activity or practice to be classified as spiritual.

Atiśa wrote in "Lamp of the Path" (verse 2) that one should understand that there are three kind of persons:

One of the formulaic presentations of the Buddhist path in the Nikayas is anupubbikathā, "graduated talk"[8] or "progressive instruction,"[9] in which the Buddha talks on generosity (dāna), virtue (sīla), heaven (sagga), danger of sensual pleasure (kāmānaṃ ādīnava)[10] and renunciation (nekkhamma). When the listener is prepared by these topics, the Buddha then delivers "the teaching special to the Buddhas,"[9] the Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariya-saccāni),[11] by which arises "the spotless immaculate vision of the Dhamma."[9][8] In the Tibetan Lamrim teachings, the Bodhisattva-path, with its training of the six perfections, is added to this formula.

Although lamrim texts cover much the same subject areas, subjects within them may be arranged in different ways. The lamrim of Atiśa starts with bodhicitta, the altruistic mind of enlightenment, followed by taking the bodhisattva vows. Gampopa's lamrim, however, starts with the Buddha-nature, followed by the preciousness of human rebirth. Tsongkhapa's texts start with reliance on a guru (Tib.: lama), followed by the preciousness of human rebirth, and continue with the paths of the modest, medium and high scopes.

Gampopa and Tsongkhapa expanded the short root-text of Atiśa into an extensive system to understand the entire Buddhist philosophy. In this way, subjects like karma, rebirth, Buddhist cosmology and the practice of meditation are gradually explained in logical order.

An example of the outline for lamrim teachings is that of Liberation in the Palm of your Hand by Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo. An abbreviated and annotated outline follows to show the structure of this lamrim:[note 2]

Striving for liberation of cyclic existence. The training in the medium scope path will lead to the development of the wish to be liberated from all un-free rebirths in cyclic existence through the power of afflictive emotions and karma. It consists of: