Jetsun Tāranātha on the meaning of ‘three confidences’

This morning, I was sent a short text by Tāranātha on the life story of Padmasambhava[i].  The translation is by David Teasdale and published on the Lotsawa House website here.  Its title is ‘Three Reasons for Confidence: A Work Telling the Life and Liberation Story of the Great Master Padmākara’ or The Life and Liberation of Padma According to the Indian Tradition (slob dpon chen po pad+ma ‘byung gnas kyi rnam par thar pa gsal bar byed pa’i yi ge yid ches gsum ldan)[ii]. It is an interesting and valuable text and Teasdale is to be congratulated for translating it and making it available for free download.

My short note here, however, is in relation to Teasdale’s uncertainty about the reason why Tāranātha called it ‘Endowed with Three Confidences’ (or Three Reasons for Confidence, as Teasdale translates it). He states in his footnote 1:

‘It is uncertain what the title Three Reasons for Confidence (yid ches gsum ldan) refers to. Generally, the term three confidences (yid ches gsum) implies that a given teaching is in accordance with 1) the scriptures taught by the Buddha, 2) the understanding gained from one’s personal experience, and 3) what the spiritual teachers have taught, and that it is therefore authentic, reliable and to be trusted. The three reasons for confidence could also refer to the three versions of the Royal Narratives—the testimonies of the Ba Clan, the Lama and the King. Tāranātha states later on in the text, that since he has faithfully explained these three authoritative accounts of Padmākara’s stay in Tibet, his text will be a source of confidence (‘dir de dag gung spros te bshad na/ shin tu yid ches pa’i gnas su ‘gyur ro/). It is likely that Tāranātha had both meanings in mind and employed a wordplay with the term three confidences.’’

In my view, it is likely that Tāranātha is referring to the three confidences, as explained in his major commentary on the Kālacakra tradition and practises, A Hundred Blazing Lights: A Supplementary Commentary on Meaningful to See, Instructions on the Profound Path of Vajra-yogas[iii] (excerpts published here in English for the first time).  Tāranātha states, citing the main extant commentary on the Kālacakra Tantra, that being endowed with the three confidences are, 1) confidence in the tantras (or scriptures), 2) confidence in the teacher and 3) confidence in oneself:

‘‘From the Glorious Stainless Light Commentary:[iv]

This mantrayana vehicle, endowed with the three confidences was taught by the Buddha. First, is the confidence in the tantras.  Then, confidence in the teacher.  Then, confidence in oneself. Endowed with these three confidences, it is the completely perfect path of complete and full awakening.  There is no way of guiding other than with these three confidences. If the lama teaches a path to the student, which is not endowed with the three confidences, one will not attain the completely, pure and full result of Buddhahood. This is because the student has a foolish faith. Since it is conventionally true, it will be a worldly result.

Here the meaning is: if someone endowed with the three confidences encounters the path, one is a very fortunate person who will be able to attain the level of full and complete awakening in one life and one body. If someone only has confidence in the tantras, but does not have confidence in the teacher, in future rebirths, the cause for obtaining Buddhahood is indeed still there after a long time has passed.  However, since the immediate experiential realisation will not arise, there is no power to attain the supreme result in this lifetime. If there is no confidence in the tantras, then the fully complete confidence in the guru will not arise. Even if one presently experiences a little trust like that in the master, and there may be a few realisations, it is not a sign of having actual confidence in the authentic path. It is said that even though it is possible to generate a little experience, which is like the completion stage and a small accumulation of virtuous activities[v], it will not become the authentic, actual path.

As for that which is connected to the three confidences, some say that if it is a hypocritical and deceptive Dharma created by a foolish person, or merely imputed sophistry of mere intellectual assertions, then all one’s aims will remain empty and unfulfilled. Some say, even more than that, if it is created by those with negative spirits on the side of darkness[vi], then any temporary blessings that seem to appear, will be deceptive.  If one generates confidence in lowly merit [such as sacrificing animals], this life will be inauspicious and in the next life, it will lead one to the lower realms.  Even if it is the perfect Dharma taught by the Victorious One, but in the periods between that the blessings of the lineage have been severed, then one will not have the ability now to generate temporary experiential realisations.  Or if there is no lineage whatsoever, yet oneself takes up the practice of the secret mantrayana, it is renowned as a cause for going to the hell realms. Even if one’s mindstream engages in practises and recitations that have been correctly arranged and chanted, if the practice lineage is broken and the blessings of the lineage have vanished, then it is a mere reflection.

Furthermore, some say, generally, even if it is the pure, authentic Dharma and the blessings have not been severed, the generation stage is authentic yet one imputes the name of completion stage onto the yoga on the subtle drops or on the meditation on emptiness, this is not a sign[vii] of having present confidence. Even when those with sharp faculties meditate on these, they will not attain the supreme result in this lifetime because it is not the complete, perfect path for accomplishing Buddhahood [it lacks the three confidences]. However, it is possible that within that, one may accomplish merely the worldly siddhis alone. The meaning of the path endowed with the three confidences, is that it will become the complete and perfect path, the completely unmistaken path that accomplishes Buddhahood.’’

Tāranātha then goes on to explain each of the three confidences in detail (see some brief translated excerpts below):

  • Confidence in the tantras

‘So from this, there is the confidence in the tantras. In terms of Dharma, it is necessary that it has been clearly taught by the Buddha in the tantras.’

  • Confidence in the teacher

‘The second point is confidence in the teacher. [The teacher] must be from a lineage, whose direct source begins with the Shakyamuni Buddha, which has been transmitted directly from one teacher to another, up until one’s own root lama. Also it must be [a teacher] in which the blessings have not deteriorated and in which the experiential realisations are continual without interruption.’

  • Confidence in Oneself

‘As for having confidence in oneself, by practising this Dharma, the level of experiential realization will be in accordance with the capacity of one’s own practise.  Through one’s own experiential realisation of this practise, the student yogi themselves will acquire incontrovertible confidence in that Dharma.’

For Tāranātha’s detailed explanation on what is meant by ‘confidence in the teacher’ please see my previous post here.  I hope this note is of benefit and may we all have the good fortune to enter onto the path endowed with three confidences, the complete and perfect path, the completely unmistaken path that accomplishes Buddhahood!


[i] Thanks to Dharma friend and sponsor, Gonpo Jack for ending the text and his continual support and inspiration.

[ii] Cited by Teasdale as being in Rin chen gter mdzod chen mo/ (Vol. 1), 191-234. New Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2007-2008.

[iii] Zab lam rdo rje’i rnal ‘byor gyi khrid yig mthong ba don ldan gyi lhan thabs ‘od brgya ‘bar ba. I have translated the common preliminaries section of this text, which will be published in the near future. There are three editions of this text uploaded onto TBRC. The first is the Tagten Phuntshok Ling block print edition of the Collected Works of Tāranātha (gsung ‘bum/_tA ra nA tha, rtag brtan phun tshongs gling gi par ma), Scanned from reprints acquired from Takten Puntsok Ling Monastery and published in Leh, Ladakh. TBRC W22277, vol. 3, pages 457 – 815.  The second edition is in the Dzamthang woodblocks print of his Collected Works. Contains numerous writings not included in the printings from the Takten Puntsok Ling woodblock carvings, reproduced in Ladakh. (gsung ‘bum/_tA ra nA tha/ (’dzam thang par ma/). TBRC W22276, vol. 4, pages 123 – 381. The third edition is a computer input text that combines versions from the Dzamtang and Ladakh printings. Published in Peking, 2008 by the Thrungo Borigpa (krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, gsung ‘bum/_tA ra nA tha/ (dpe bsdur ma/). TBRC W1PD45495.  There is also an edition published by the exile Jonang Well-Being Association, 2010, that was used mainly in this translation. I have also referred to the Thrungo edition above as well.

[iv] Quote is from the Vimalaprabha which means ‘Stainless Light Commentary’ (dri med ‘od) a commentary to the Kālacakra tantra. Composed by Pundarika, the second Kalkin king of Shambhala, and said to have been introduced in Tibet in the 11th century, it is the basis for all Kālacakra commentaries. Quote is: sngags kyi theg pa ‘di la yid ches pa rnam pa gsum bcom ldan ‘das kyis gsungs te/dang por re zhig rgyud las yid ches pa dang/de nas bla ma las yid ches pa dang/de nas bdag nyid las yid ches pa ste/yid ches pa ‘di gsum gyis yang dag par rdzogs pa’i sangs rgyas kyi lam yongs su dag par ‘gyur ro//.  Found in Derge Tanjur, D1347, tha 107b-da 297a7; and rKTs n°:846 – D845: bsdus pa’i rgyud kyi rgyal po dus kyi ‘khor lo’i ‘grel bshad_/_rtsa ba’i rgyud kyi rjes su ‘jug pa stong phrag bcu gnyis pa dri ma med pa’i ‘od ces bya ba_ dus ‘khor, shrI 1b1-469a7 (vol. 102).

[v] This is referring to the worldly siddhis.

[vi] This is referring to negative spirits who are against the Buddha Dharma like gyalpos, thedrang and so on.

[vii] A sign would be realisation of empty forms.