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The Nature of the Instruction
Buddha Shakyamuni made great efforts to arouse and accomplish the mind of enlightenment in order to benefit the countless sentient beings. Accounts of his training can be read in the Jataka Stories as well as in various sutras and later works. After attaining enlightenment he turned the Wheel of Dharma for beings of good fortune, revealing what must be overcome and what must be accomplished in order to transcend the stages and levels leading to higher rebirth, liberation and omniscient perfection. Indeed, his teachings are like an eye through which can be seen all levels of reality, a fabulous medicine able to open the doors of conventional and ultimate wisdom. These diamond methods were transmitted through, and clarified by, an unbroken chain of Indian masters such as Nagarjuna and Asanga. Eventually they spread throughout India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Tibet and the entirety of Central Asia. In all of these countries the pure Dharma was molded and shaped in accordance with the experiences of the lineage masters, who expressed the teachings in ways most suited to the time, culture and dispositions of those training under them. Thus Buddhism came to have many faces; but the essence of all valid transmissions remains the same: to overcome negativity, to increase goodness and to cultivate and liberate the mind.
Buddhism was transmitted through a number of lineages in Tibet. Although each of these manifests slightly different ways of presenting the teachings in accordance with theneeds of the disciples and the times and areas of Tibet where the lineages were introduced, in that all accept the four seals of Buddhist doctrine, all practice a path combining the Sutrayana and Vajrayana, and all possess methods whereby enlightenment can be accomplished in one lifetime, the differences are not that important. Again, there are differences in details of practice within Theravadin, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism, yet the essential thread from which they are woven is the fundamental substance of Buddha's golden speech. The differences are more in the way of ornaments placed on top of the thread in order to further delight trainees with specific needs. We do not need one form of Buddhism, just as the world does not require one religion. Although all humans are equal, each of us has our individual background, our unique way of seeing and appreciating things, our own spiritual and philosophical tastes. Just as the world has developed a variety of foods to fulfill the individual fancies of different peoples, the variety of religions and subjects within religions is something positive, providing paths for a wider spectrum of trainees. In Tibet we encouraged this type of personal religious freedom to the point that there emerged the saying, "Every lama is his own sect." Diversity is both beautiful and necessary.
Although the last century has seen a great decline in religious interest throughout the world, the hope that the materialistic approach devoid of spiritual foundation can bring lasting happiness has been rapidly evaporating over the last decade. People are once again beginning to appreciate the need for inner development as opposed to the usual hand-to-mouth animal existence. Technology and materialistic endeavor are not negative forces in themselves, but when not coupled with spiritual training they do not bring any deeper knowledge and happiness to the mind, and are very dangerous to the world. The bomb, chemical pollution and police state societies controlled by ultramodern spying and killing devices are a few such examples. There is great hope for our world if technology and spiritual development can go hand-in-hand, but if we continue in our present direction of using our technological and scientific knowledge for little more than exploitation of people and resources, for power politics and international business intrigue, then it becomes very difficult to say how pleasant the outcome will be.
Many spiritual traditions still thrive throughout the world. The great lack is not in the teachings but in our not having the inclination to study and practice them. There are many masters alive today who can show us the paths and practices, but we do not take up training under them. Who can we blame but ourselves if in this way we generate no spiritual experience?
THE THIRD DALAI LAMA:
To the feet of the accomplished masters,
Embodiment of the Three Jewels,
Profoundly I turn for spiritual inspiration;
Bestow upon me your transforming powers.
Here, for spiritually inclined beings who wish to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by human life, is a treatise on the Lam Rim tradition of meditation, a tradition known as Stages on the Spiritual Path Leading to Enlightenment.
What is the Lam Rim tradition? It is the essence of all teachings of Buddha, the one path traveled by high beings of the past, present and future, the legacy of the masters Nagarjuna and Asanga, the religion of supreme people traveling to the earth of omniscience, the unabridged synthesis of all practices included within the three levels of spiritual application. This is the Lam Rim tradition.
Lam Rim is an especially profound aspect of Dharma, for it is a tradition of practice sound in origin. It has neither fault nor shortcoming, for it is a complete training perfectly uniting both method and wisdom aspects of the path. It provides all levels and grades of the techniques passed through Nagarjuna and Asanga, from the practices meant for beginners up to and including the final technique before full buddhahood, the stage of non-practice.
This structured Dharma of taintless origin is like the wish-fulfilling gem, for through it, infinite beings can easily and quickly accomplish their purposes. Combining the rivers of the excellent teachings of both the Hinayana and Mahayana scriptures, it is like a mighty ocean. Revealing the principal points of both the Sutrayana and Vajrayana, it is a complete tradition with complete teachings. Outlining the main techniques for taming the mind, it is easily integrated into any practice, and, being a teaching combining the lineages of Guru Vidyakokila, a sage of the Nagarjuna School, and Lama Serlingpa [Dharmakirti], a sage of the Asanga School, it is a precious ornament. Therefore, to hear, contemplate or meditate upon a Lam Rim discourse is fortunate indeed.
To quote Jey Rinpochey's Song of the Stages on the Spiritual Path,
From Nagarjuna and Asanga,
Banners unto all mankind,
Ornaments amongst the world's sages,
Comes the sublime Lam Rim lineage
Fulfilling all hopes of practitioners.
It is a wish-fulfilling gem,
Combining the streams of a thousand teachings;
It is an ocean of excellent guidance.
The two Indian formulators of the Lam Rim lineage are Nagarjuna and Asanga, both of whom were prophesied by Buddha Shakyamuni in many sutras and tantras. The ultimate source of the lineage, however, is Buddha Shakyamuni himself who, in terms of his personal kindness to the beings of the present age, is a white lotus amongst the thousand Buddhas of this fortunate aeon. Buddha Shakyamuni turned the wheel of 84,000 teachings, which were passed to his successors principally through two lineages: the profound wisdom lineage that eventually came down to Nagarjuna; and the method lineage of vast activities, that eventually came down to Asanga. Both of these masters studied extensively, made intensive retreats and attained great realizations. They wrote numerous texts elucidating the doctrine and structuring it for effective study and practice. Eventually these two lineages came to Dipamkara Atisha, who unified them and brought them to Tibet. When asked to teach an oral tradition method that would best suit the disposition of the Tibetan people, he transmitted the Lam Rim teachings. The tradition has been passed on in an unbroken lineage from that time to the present day.
The Lam Rim is a most excellent teaching, for it incorporates all the instructions given by Buddha, including those of both the Sutrayana and Vajrayana. Containing basic as well as high teachings, it can be practiced by people of all levels of intelligence and development. Thus it is a vast ocean containing the jewels of every Dharma method, jewels producing benefits that extend not only to the limits of this life but reach far into future existences, even to the goals of liberation and omniscient enlightenment. Should we be able to complete the fundamental Lam Rim practices and engage in the extraordinary trainings of Highest Tantra, even full enlightenment in one lifetime becomes possible.
The aim in the beginning of Lam Rim practice is to gain an appreciation of the human potential and to become aware of the unsatisfactory nature of lower existences. We then become mindful of the karmic laws of evolution and seek inspiration from the Enlightened Ones, the Teachings and the Spiritual Community. The aim in the middle stage of practice is to transcend the hope of high rebirth and to inspire the mind to seek nirvana, or liberation from the most subtle forms of samsaric suffering. As nirvana is accomplished through the higher trainings in discipline, meditation and wisdom, these practices are introduced here. Finally, once stability in these two levels has been accomplished, one contemplates how not only oneself but all beings are immersed in samsaric suffering. One thus generates the bodhimind, the Mahayana attitude of universal responsibility that aims at the attainment of omniscient enlightenment as the supreme method of benefiting the world. One then enters into the practice of the six perfections, four ways of amassing. trainees, and two stages of tantra, as expedient methods of accomplishing enlightenment and benefiting both oneself and all others without exception in a final and ultimate way.
This is the vast and profound spectrum of practices of the Lam Rim as embodied in Atisha's short treatise, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. Atisha passed the transmission to Lama Drom Tonpa, who split it into three lineages which he eventually passed to the three Kadampa Brothers. These three masters of the Kadampa Order widely propagated the Lam Rim teachings. The lineage coming from themthe Shungpawa or Scriptural Tradition, Man-ngapa or Oral Tradition, and Lam Rimpa or Experiential Tradition became known as the "Three Kadam Streams." Lama Tsongkhapa received all three of these lines and unified them once again. In accordance with the nature of the "Three Streams," he composed three commentaries to Atisha's A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.
In the first of his three commentaries, the Great Exposition of the Stages on the Spiritual Path, Tsongkhapa puts aside the branches and leaves of the teachings and goes directly to the essential practices, placing special emphasis upon meditative concentration and profound insight. This section of the work is presented from his personal reflections and provides a unique approach based upon his own meditations. The text abounds in quotations from early Indian scriptures, thus indicating the sources of the various Lam Rim practices.
Tsongkhapa's second commentary, An Intermediate Exposition of the Stages on the Spiritual Path, embodies the oral tradition Lam Rim teachings. Much shorter than the Great Exposition, it is less encyclopedic and is structured for a more streamlined practice.
Finally, his third commentary, A Concise Exposition, which is also known as Song of the Stages on the Spiritual Path, is a poem expressing his own experiences in Lam Rim training. The Third Dalai Lama's Essence of Refined Gold is largely a commentary to the meaning of this short work.
Over the centuries many Lam Rim scriptures have been written by the great practitioners and lineage gurus. One of the most important of these writings is the Third Dalai Lama's Essence of Refined Gold. It has remained one of the most popular Lam Rim manuals since its composition some four hundred years ago.
In the Lam Rim view, the deepest impulse of all sentient beings is to experience happiness and to avoid suffering. Different cultures throughout the world have made many systematic investigations into how these two goals may be achieved. Many philosophies of human happiness have emerged and many methods whereby happiness may be gained have been developed. Most of these methods, however, aim at producing a type of happiness that reaches only within the limits of this lifetime. Their basis and scope is fundamentally materialistic. They demonstrate an amazing lack of knowledge of death and its significance, and of the spiritual processes that give peace to the mind in this life as well as a knowledge that enables one to enter the stage after death with fearlessness and competence. In this context Buddha Shakyamuni said, "He who fears when there is no cause to fear is a fool. He who does not fear when there is a cause to fear is a fool. Both fall from the way." To ignore death and its implications will not prevent us from dying nor will it help us to enter the after-death state with any degree of spiritual maturity.
The difficulty with a purely materialistic interpretation of life is that, in addition to ignoring an entire dimension of the mind, it does not deal effectively with the problems of this life. A materialistic mind is an unstable mind, for its happiness is built on transient, physical circumstances. Mental disease is as high among the affluent as it is among the poor, which is a clear indication of the limitations of the approach. Although it is essential to maintain a reasonable material basis on which to live, the emphasis in one's life should be on cultivating the mental and spiritual causes of happiness. The human mind is very powerful and our worldly needs are not so great that they must demand all of our attention, especially in light of the fact that materialistic success solves so few of the many challenges and problems that confront men and women throughout their lives, and it does nothing for them at death. On the other hand, if one cultivates spiritual qualities such as mental harmony, humility, non-attachment, patience, love, compassion, wisdom and so forth, then one becomes equipped with a strength and intelligence able to deal effectively with the problems of this life; and because the wealth one is amassing is mental rather than material, it will not have to be left behind at death. There is no need to enter the after-death state empty-handed.
It is definite that all of us must die. Although what occurs to the mind after the body dies cannot be held up and demonstrated to the eye as can a material phenomenon, from accounts given to us by sages, philosophers and people with clairvoyance, there can be little doubt that the mind continues to evolve. Moreover, the types of living beings in existence are not limited to those having gross physical bodies, such as the people, animals, insects, etc., that we witness around us. Not only Buddhism, but many independent spiritual cultures throughout the world have perceived the existence of other realms, such as hell beings, ghosts, various celestial beings, and so forth.
The nature of samsaric evolution is not such that death is followed by nothingness, nor that humans are always reborn as humans and insects as insects. On the contrary, we all carry within us the karmic potencies of all realms of cyclic existence. Many beings transmigrate from higher to lower realms, others from lower to higher. The selection of a place of rebirth is not directly in our own hands but is conditioned by our karma and delusions. They who possess spiritual understanding can control their destiny at the time of death, but for ordinary beings the process is very much an automatic chain reaction of karmic seeds and habitual psychic response patterns. Totally unprepared for the spiritual situations that confront them after death, untrained persons are thrown into a fit of confusion and terror. Unable to recognize or relate to the states of consciousness that arise, eventually they seek a womb in which to escape their sorrow, and wander until they find the realm and conditions most suited to their spiritual level and to the karmic forces of previous actions that are propelling them.
Death holds very little hope for ordinary worldly persons with no spiritual experience. Having passed their entire lives ignoring death and sheltering themselves from thoughts of it, when it strikes they become utterly shocked and lose all courage and confidence. Everything that confronts them is unknown, for they never took the time to apply the methods that reveal the nature of mind, birth, life and death. Control over one's future evolution is to be won during one's life, not at the time of death. The yogi Milarepa said, "Fearing death I took to the mountains. Now I have realized the ultimate nature of the mind and no longer need to fear." The root cause of one's spiritual development is oneself. Buddha said, "We are our own savior or we are our own enemy." Until now we have lived largely under the power of delusions and, as a result, although we instinctively desire happiness we create only the causes of frustration and sorrow. We wish to avoid suffering, but because our minds are not cultivated in wisdom we run directly towards suffering like a moth caught in the light of a flame.
Our repeated experience of frustration, dissatisfaction and misery does not have external conditions as its root cause. The problem is mainly our lack of spiritual development. As a result of this handicap, the mind is controlled principally by afflicted emotions and illusions. Attachment, aversion and ignorance rather than a free spirit, love and wisdom are the guiding forces. Recognizing this simple truth is the beginning of the spiritual path.
Our present condition is not something causeless nor is it something caused by chance. It is something we ourselves have steadily constructed through our series of past decisions and the actions of body, speech and mind that arose from them. To place the blame upon an external person or thing is just a source of further confusion and negativity, increasing rather than solving the difficulty.
How can one break the cycle of compulsive, uncontrolled evolution? Only by going to its root cause, the deluded mind that binds and controls us and that causes us to engage in the endless string of meaningless and negative ways that do little but fatigue the spirit. Buddha said, "Mind is the forerunner of all events." A sage with a mind of wisdom, compassion and power dwells in joy and creates only causes of joy. Conversely, the more deluded one is, the more miserable is one's present condition and the fewer are the causes of joy created by one's activities throughout life. Spiritually developed persons benefit both themselves and others as a spontaneous expression of their exalted state of being, whereas undeveloped persons just bring suffering and confusion to themselves and others. The presence of a delusion within the mind in itself creates tension, and its effects upon one's stream of activities creates infinite seeds of future problems. A mind of serenity brings peace and calm into its environment wherever it goes, whereas a negative mind spreads only negativity. If we want happiness for ourselves and if we want to give happiness to others in our communications with them, there is no alternative to cultivating a state of spiritual harmony within our mindstream. When one's state of consciousness has been purified of distorting elements and emotional afflictions, when ignorance is replaced by wisdom and weakness by strength, then the stream of activities that spontaneously arises gives birth to countless seeds of happiness and joy.
Spiritual happiness is not like that gained through materialistic, political or social success, which can be robbed from us by a change in circumstances at any moment and which anyway will definitely be left behind at death. As spiritual happiness does not depend solely upon deceptive conditions such as material supports, a particular environment, or a specific situation, then even if these are withdrawn it has further supports.
To purify the mind means to counteract and uproot all sources of emotional disturbance and delusionboth those inborn and those conceptually formedtogether with the seeds of the previous karmic instincts that we have accumulated upon our mindstream over our lives since beginningless time. When the delusions are totally removed, one no longer has the mental conditions that cause one to create further negative karma; and when the seeds of negative karma are purified, one no longer carries within oneself the causes of frustration and misery. This is why persons who seek happiness and wish to overcome suffering are wise to exert themselves in spiritual methods.
Nagarjuna writes in his Letter to a Friend, "We wish happiness but we chase sorrow. We wish to avoid sorrow but we run directly to it." The meaning here is that we waste our time in superficial and negative ways instead of cultivating spiritually wholesome disciplines. If we hope to eliminate the control that karma and delusion exert over our mindstream, we must apply an effective method. All beings seek happiness; but most of them, lacking knowledge of how to gain it, find themselves continually immersed in frustration and pain. What we need is an effective approach.
There is no realm in samsara where we have not taken birth, no samsaric pleasure we have not enjoyed and no form of life we have not known over our countless stream of previous lives. Yet even now as humans most of us are like blind animals, unable to discern the patterns of life unfolding within us, leaving spiritual aims behind and chasing only the biological and emotional needs of the senses. Totally unaware of the spiritual methods that produce everlasting joy, we admire the ignoble and have distaste for the noble. Rather than giving ourselves to vain and negative pursuits, we should take note of the words of the Kuntang Rinpochey: "Having found a rare and precious human rebirth, guard it with the stick of mindfulness. Stretch to the realm of liberation."
At this time when we have a human body and mind and have met with the profound teachings of the Great Way, we should take advantage of the opportunity and engage in spiritual methods. If we do not practice now while we have an incarnation most suitable to the attainment of enlightenment, what hope do we have for progress in the future? Many types of sentient beings, such as dogs and insects that live near a temple, meet with the teachings but, not having an appropriate physical or mental basis, they are unable to comprehend them or put them to use. No matter how much we love an animal, we are not able to teach it how to meditate and cultivate spiritual qualities. Whenever Atisha would meet a dog he would stroke it lovingly and whisper into its ear, "Because of your previous negative karmic actions you are now unable to practice the holy teachings." Atisha did not do this out of a lack of compassion but because the dog lacked a basis capable of practice and he wished to lay an instinct of the teachings upon its mindstream.
Unlike animals, we human beings are capable of engaging in the highest meditations and of attaining enlightenment in one lifetime. Moreover, if we engage in negative ways and wrong views instead of applying ourselves to spiritual methods, or if we are born in remote areas where a lineage of instruction does not exist, then our human life does not give us the same opportunities for growth. For example, although for centuries Tibet was a country rich in the study and practice of the Great Way, the Chinese have prohibited spiritual activities there for several decades now. To lack this basic freedom is a great obstacle to the attainment of enlightenment. Those of us who have the opportunity to study and meditate are indeed fortunate. As Shantideva said, "Now when we have ability and have met with the teachings, we should engage in spiritual practice."
Human life is something rare and precious, but it is also quite impermanent. Even as we sit here it is undergoing continual change. If we look around us and ask ourselves how many of our friends and acquaintances have died over the last year, the ever-present reality of our impermanent nature becomes obvious. When someone dies there is great sorrow and lamenting on the part of friends and relatives, but before long this feeling is gone. The corpse is burned or buried, all possessions are disposed of, and soon even the name of the deceased is forgotten. We all intellectually realize that we ourselves are going to die, but the mind always tries to insulate itself from this fact. Somehow we feel very solid and we imagine the reality of our death to be somewhere very far away in the future. But every moment it creeps closer to us, and not one of us can guarantee that we will remain alive even until this evening.
An aspect of death that most terrifies many beings is that suddenly one is totally alone and unsupported by anything but one's spiritual knowledge. When this is strong one is able to deal effectively with every circumstance that death brings; but when it is weak, one must enter the dangerous path of the bardo empty-handed. Then one's heart will fill with regret and one will realize the error of not having pursued deeper goals.