The various paths of Buddhism

“To illustrate the differences taught in the various yanas [i.e., paths], Dudjom Rinpoche always used to recount the story of the poisonous plant. The plant is a symbol for emotional defilements or negativity. A group of people discover that a poisonous plant is growing in their backyard. They begin to panic, as they recognize that this is very dangerous. So they try to cut down the plant. This is the approach of renunciation, which is taught in Hinayana as the method to eradicate the ego and the negative emotions.

Another group of people arrive, and, realizing that the plant is dangerous, but that simply cutting it will not be sufficient since its roots remain to sprout anew, they throw hot ash or boiling water over the roots to prevent the plant from ever growing again. This is the approach of the Mahayana, which applies the realization of emptiness as the antidote of ignorance, the root of ego and negativity.

The next group of people to appear on the scene are the doctors, and when they see this poison they are not alarmed; on the contrary, they are very pleased, since they have been looking for this particular poison. They know how to transform the poison into medicine rather than destroying it. This is the tantric approach of the Vajrayana, which does not abandon the negative emotions, but through the power of transformation uses their energy as a vehicle to bring realization.

Finally, a peacock lands, and dances with joy when it sees the poison. It immediately consumes the poisonous plant and turns it into beauty. It is a Tibetan belief that the peacock owes its beauty to the fact that it eats a particular species of poisonous plant. The very nature of the peacock is such that it can actually consume poison, and THRIVES on it; hence it does not have to transform the poison, but eats it directly. The peacock represents Dzogchen, the path of self-liberation, the fruition of all the nine yanas. ” (Sogyal Rinpoche, Dzogchen and Padmasambhava, 1990, Rigpa Fellowship)

Tibetan Buddhism is practised throughout the Himalayan region, and, indeed, throughout the world. It dates back to the royal period of the so-called ‘Yarlung dynasty’, especially the time of King Trisong Detsen, during whose reign great Indian Buddhist masters like Shantarakshita, Guru Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra were invited to Tibet, and the country’s first monastery was founded at Samyé. Later this foundation of the Vajrayana in Tibet became known as the Nyingma or the “Old School”.  Subsequently several schools developed over the following centuries, the foremost among them being the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyü and Gelug.