I will now recite a verse from Nagarjuna’s salutary verses to the Buddha from the Mulamadhyamakakarika.
I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha,
The best of teachers, who taught that
Whatever is dependently arisen is
Unannihilated, not permanent,
Not coming, not going,
Without distinction, without identity,
And free from conceptual construction.
Yesterday we discussed renunciation and today we shall be talking about bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment. In Lama Tsongkhapa’s text Three Principal Elements of the Path, he identifies the three key aspects to the path. These are renunciation, bodhicitta and the correct view of emptiness. For a Buddhist practitioner the ultimate object of aspiration should be the attainment of liberation, which is technically called the state of definite goodness. There are two levels of this definite goodness or liberation. One is the attainment of individual freedom from suffering and the delusions. This liberation is attained by the combination of renunciation and the correct view of emptiness. These are the two principal factors that lead to the attainment of liberation from samsara. The combination of bodhicitta and the correct view of emptiness are what lead to the attainment of full enlightenment.
However the approach in lam-rim is slightly different. In lam-rim there is an understanding that this is a process which will take successive lifetimes of effort. Therefore an emphasis is also placed on the preparatory path. These preliminary practices involve accumulating the causes and conditions for an attainment of the right kind of environment. Those are the physical surroundings that would enable the individual to engage in the path that would eventually lead towards liberation. Therefore in lam-rim there is an emphasis placed on the appreciation or recognition accorded to us as human beings.
The conditions leading to the attainment of a fully endowed human form are principally explained in terms of observance of moral discipline based on the framework of avoidance of the ten negative actions and leading to a disciplined life.
With regard to the conditions that enable us to obtain such a fully endowed form of human existence that is suited to the pursuit of the path that leads to the ultimate attainment of liberation, the basis of this preliminary stage is the observance of a disciplined way of life within the framework of morality by avoiding the ten negative actions. Although one could say that, so far as the general principle underlying karmic law is concerned of positive actions yielding positive results and negative actions leading to negative consequences, this very general principal perhaps is quite obvious to all of us. What is more difficult to understand according to Buddhism is the subtle aspects or workings of karmic law. These are said to be very hidden or obscure phenomena that we as ordinary human beings do not have at this point a rational recourse nor any other possibility of fully understanding. It is only enlightened beings who are totally free of obstructions to full knowledge who are capable of understanding all the subtleties of the workings of karma.
We can see here that Buddhism has an appreciation of different levels of reality, different kinds of objects of knowledge. There are objects of knowledge, which are obvious or apparent to us for which we do not need to use any reasoning. There is a second category which is said to be slightly obscure or hidden which though not obvious to us, through a reasoning process we can infer their truth or reality. However the subtle workings of karmic law falls into a third category that is very hidden phenomena. For example the fact that we are experiencing a particular sensation at this very moment in this very congregation, although we can in principle accept that this must have a cause, as to what exactly was the cause and exactly the origin of this karma is too subtle for us.
The practice of karmic law has to be grounded in the taking of refuge in the Three Jewels; Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. When it comes to the practice of taking refuge in the Three Jewels, two principal conditions should be present. These being a sense of fear for the potential dangers that exist if we were to take rebirth in an inferior state of existence and also a sense of confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha that they have the capability to protect us from such potential danger.
This immediately takes us to the question of the possibility of rebirth, what happens after our death. In one sense one could say that the next life is a distant future but from another point of view it is not really that far. The demarcation between the present life and the next life is only a breath away. The moment it stops the next life begins. Therefore the importance of the contemplation of death and impermanence is emphasized in the lam-rim. As I pointed out yesterday the significance of reflecting upon the suffering of the inferior states of existence is not to enter into some sort of morbid contemplation but rather to instill within us a strong wish to really obtain protection from them. It is to emphasize to us that we as human beings have the potential to seek freedom from this.
This is the general approach one finds in the lam-rim teachings. However within the category of the teachings known as lam-rim there are slight divergences in the approaches. For example we find in Geshe Sharawa’s lam-rim approach, the practitioners reflect upon the presence of Buddhanature in all beings. This is particularly true in Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation in which he states that the internal quality that is required for attainment of enlightenment is the Buddhanature. The external condition is the guidance from an experienced spiritual master. We find that there is a tremendous emphasis placed on the full recognition of the fact that we as sentient beings possess within us ultimately the seed for enlightenment. This suggests that there is the possibility of cleansing our minds of all its pollutants.
However in Lama Tsongkhapa’s approach in both the longer and middling versions of lam-rim, Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, he does not start the practitioner with the contemplation on the presence of the Buddhanature in all of us. It begins with the reflection on the recognition of the value of reliance on a spiritual teacher and so on. In fact Tsongkhapa himself very explicitly states that the source material for his approach in lam-rim is Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara (The Ornament of Clear Realization). So it seems that in order to have a full understanding of the approaches that are set up in lam-rim, one needs to also have a good understanding of a text like Abhisamayalamkara.
Another unique quality of Lama Tsongkhapa’s approach in the lam-rim literature is that when he is dealing with the skillful means aspect of the path such as bodhicitta, compassion and so on, he tends to emphasize citations from the literature of writers like Asanga and Maitreya. Whereas when it comes to discussion of the correct view of emptiness then the emphasis shifts to the citations of work by Nagarjuna and his followers, the Madhyamika literature. Constantly he substantiates his points and grounds them in either sutras attributed to the Buddha or the Indian commentarial literature. One could almost say that lam-rim texts are like a key that allows us to open the whole treasure of the Mahayana Buddhist literature.
As you are all probably aware the principal approach in Lama Tsongkhapa’s lam-rim literature is to arrange all the elements of the Buddhist path within the framework of practitioners of three capacities or scopes; initial, middling and great. I personally feel perhaps the ultimate source of this kind of approach of classifying all of the Buddhist path within the framework of the three scopes comes from Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way. There is a very explicit passage where he states that the correct sequence in which the practitioners of Dharma should approach their path to enlightenment is that in the first stage they must engage in practices that would enable them to counteract the negative manifestations of their delusions. In other words one has to first curb the negativities of one’s behavior such as bodily, verbal and mental actions. This is the first stage. This practice really refers to leading a way of life that is within the morality of the avoidance of the ten negative actions.
The second stage directly counteracts the delusions that give rise to such negative behavior. The delusions such as hatred, anger, attachment and also ignorance are at the root of all negative behaviors. The second stage is to counteract the delusions through the practices of the three higher trainings, particularly the higher training in wisdom, the essence of which is the cultivation of insight into emptiness. The third stage is to counteract even the imprints left by the delusions.
When we are talking about bodhicitta, which means the mind of enlightenment, generally speaking there are different kinds of enlightenment. One can say the enlightenment of Sravakas, the Listeners, the solitary realizers and the enlightenment of the Buddha. When we talk of the mind of enlightenment we are referring to the full enlightenment, Buddhahood.
The Tibetan word for enlightenment is byang chub, which etymologically carries a sense of two different aspects. One is the purification aspect where the state represents a total elimination of all the impurities. The second aspect is the realization of full wisdom. One could say that in the very etymology of the term enlightenment or byang chub, contains this dual aspect. The dimension of purification represents a state of total elimination of all impurity and fault, afflictions of the mind. The second aspect refers to the realization that represents the totality of the full awareness of knowledge or wisdom.
The state of Buddhahood is said to be a state of great enlightenment because it represents the total fulfillment of the potential for awakening. The liberation of the Buddha is said to be totally unlimited and also. Although both the Sravakas and Pratyekabuddhas are said to have attained full realization of emptiness, their realization of emptiness isn’t in some sense complete with all its potentialities. Whereas the Buddha’s realization of emptiness is complete with all its potentialities fulfilled, as the other complimentary factors such as great compassion and bodhicitta are present.
Bodhicitta, which literally means generating the mind for enlightenment, carries the sense that we are generating within ourselves a genuine aspiration to attain enlightenment not just for the sake of ourselves but rather for being of benefit to all sentient beings. There is a sense of courage and expansiveness. Therefore it is said that genuine bodhicitta is endowed with two aspirations. One is the causal motivation, the motivation that gives rise to the aspiration to be of benefit to all sentient beings. This is the compassionate, altruistic motivation. This motivation leads to the arisal of the genuine aspiration to seek enlightenment. Therefore bodhicitta is said to be endowed with two aspirations; altruistic aspiration and the aspiration to seek enlightenment.
Although in terms of sequence the altruistic aspiration to be of benefit to others arises first and the aspiration to attain liberation arises later, in terms of the actual order of practice I think it is very important to first develop some conceptual understanding of what liberation consists of. What is this state we are aspiring to attain? Just as I emphasized yesterday in the context of cultivating renunciation, it is important to have knowledge of what the state of renunciation consists of and also what liberation means, as this makes our desire to attain them firm and committed. Similarly in the case of bodhicitta ideally one should have at least a clear understanding of what the state of enlightenment consists of so that our aspiration to attain it is very firmly rooted and increases the sense of commitment.
Therefore it is stated in the scriptures that the ideal practitioners of the Mahayana path are the bodhisattvas who have a high level of mental capacity where in fact they will enter into the Mahayana path by first cultivating the correct view of emptiness. This correct view of emptiness will not only reinforce the altruistic aspiration but in fact will give the underpinning that is required to bring about the attainment of the altruistic aspiration.
For these kinds of practitioners first the understanding of what enlightenment consists of arises. This again would be based on an understanding of emptiness. As in the case of renunciation again here we see the critical role the realization of emptiness plays. This is not to suggest that one can not attain bodhicitta or altruistic aspiration without an understanding of emptiness. Of course there are possibilities for people out of strong faith, trust and confidence in the Path without actually having a deep understanding. On the sheer strength of faith, deep trust and admiration to the teachings of the Buddha, it is possible to attain bodhicitta. Such bodhicitta would not be very firm. It wouldn’t have the stability or strength of conviction which otherwise it would have.
The significance of having altruistic aspiration grounded in the understanding of emptiness is that one realizes that there is a possibility of a way out from one’s state of unenlightenment. Once one has a full understanding of this, one’s compassion for other sentient beings will increase tremendously, as one knows that we are all imprisoned against our will and are ignorant of the way out.
The key to the attainment of bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment, is the cultivation of great compassion. Great compassion is a state of mind that focuses on the suffering of sentient beings and cultivates the strong wish to see these sentient beings free from not only the manifest suffering but also from the causes and conditions that lead to suffering. The principle feature of the compassionate mind is to focus on sentient beings and the strong wish for these sentient beings to be free of suffering and their causes.
Depending upon the strength of the great compassion that one generates; it can lead to different forms of bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment. For example in the sutras there is the mention of three different kinds of bodhicitta. One is called king-like attitude, the cowherd-like attitude and the attitude of a raftsman. In the case of the cowherd mentality the person’s strength of compassion is such that only after leading all sentient beings to full enlightenment that he/she is prepared to experience full awakening for themselves. Until this point the person is totally committed to striving for the attainment of enlightenment for others.
This is not to suggest that the different bodhicittas are somehow inferior or superior but seem to be definitely the way in which compassion arises in us. There seems to be differences at least in the kind of tonality of bodhicitta that we experience. Asanga states in the Ornament of Mahayana Scriptures that the root of bodhicitta is compassion. Generally speaking compassion is defined in terms of an aspiration that seeks to see other beings free from suffering. Love is defined as the opposing dimension, which is to wish to see all sentient beings as enjoying happiness.
Depending upon the complimentary forces the scriptures also mention three different levels of compassion. One is the simple compassion where there is the wish to see other sentient beings free from suffering. The second level of compassion is reinforced by the full awareness of the impermanent and transient nature of all sentient beings even while sentient beings continue to cling on to some notion of permanence. The third level of compassion is non-objectifying compassion firmly grounded upon a full awareness of the empty nature of all sentient beings even while sentient beings continue to cling on to some kind of intrinsic reality to their being. Thus they imprison themselves in a perpetual cycle of unenlightenment. One can see that the compassion reinforced by awareness of emptiness is the most profound.
All the teachings of the Buddha which are embodied in the various traditions such as the Theravada and the Mahayana, all share a common feature of being grounded in the principal of compassion. However there is a slight difference in emphasis. For example in Mahayana Buddhism the compassion one speaks of is not just the wish to see other sentient beings free from suffering; rather, for that compassion to be truly great it must be accompanied by a sense of responsibility. The practitioner is willing to shoulder the responsibility themselves to make the aspiration to become a reality. This is the unique characteristic of the Mahayana compassion, the great compassion.
When we talk about compassion I think it is important to point out that we should not confuse compassion with pity. In a genuine experience of compassion there is no sense of superiority or sense of inferiority to the object of compassion. This is often the case of having pity towards someone who is in an unfortunate situation. True compassion is a state of mind where one actually views the object of compassion as supreme just as the Eight Verses on Mind Training which states, “ May I view all sentient beings as being supreme from the very depths of my heart”.
In order to cultivate such a strong sense of compassion there needs to be a sense of intimacy or closeness. This empathetic feeling towards others should not be confused with attachment. This sense of intimacy should be unbiased, and should in principal universally spread to all sentient beings. Such a sense of connectedness, a genuine closeness to other sentient beings, can not arise within our normal state of mind where we have a discriminatory attitude towards our enemies, friends and neutral persons. The key to cultivating this sense of genuine closeness and connectedness to other sentient beings is to develop a sense of endearment to all other sentient beings.
Two different systems are suggested. One is the approach of exchanging and equalizing of self with others, which is found in texts such as Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. The other is to cultivate a view of all sentient beings as being dearest to us modeled on one’s mother or someone who one considers to be the greatest source of kindness. Through this way one cultivates a sense of closeness towards one’s object of compassion.
Now I will explain briefly the approach of exchanging and equalizing oneself with others. The first stage in this approach is to cultivate equanimity towards all sentient beings. The essence of this equanimity towards all sentient beings in this context here is to cultivate the understanding that insofar as the wish to seek happiness and avoid suffering is concerned, there is no difference between oneself and others. In this context what one is trying to do is to cultivate the reflection that just like oneself, all other sentient beings as infinite as space, all of us are fundamentally equal in having the instinctual desire to seek happiness and avoid suffering. Yet all are constantly confronting suffering and constantly devoid of the happiness we seek.
Similarly just as I myself have the nature, the potentiality, to eliminate suffering, all sentient beings also have this potential. Just as I myself posses the Buddhanature, the essence for enlightenment, similarly all sentient beings do too. Also just as I myself have the potential to develop a correct understanding of emptiness, irrespective of how difficult it may be for me, similarly so do all other sentient beings of course with great difficulty just like myself.
One of the key practices the bodhicitta practitioners are trying to attain is to cultivate and enhance the altruism within themselves. In fact altruism for a Buddhist bodhicitta practitioner is the root of all goodness. It is the source of all goodness. Altruism can not be enhanced or fully developed without some kind of practice or training. The greatest obstacle to this is one’s negative emotions like hatred and anger. Therefore it becomes critical for a bodhicitta practitioner to find a way of dealing with and overcoming anger and hatred. Again this can only be obtained through training and practice. The key practice here is the cultivation and enhancement of tolerance and patience. This again comes only through practice and training. Here without someone provoking us or the presence of an enemy to bring out our negative reactions, we don’t have the opportunity to enhance our practice of tolerance or patience. So seen from this point of view, the presence of an enemy becomes a source of tremendous inspiration and teaching so much so that instead of feeling anger towards them one should feel grateful for the opportunity to practice. This is the kind of attitude one must develop.
In this context I really feel tremendous admiration for the Kadampa’s mental attitudes. Some Kadampa masters say, “I value people’s criticisms, not people’s praises, as praise will only increase my pride and arrogance whereas criticism will give me insight into my own weaknesses and faults”. Similarly the Kadampa masters say, “I value hardships and difficulties because then I will be experiencing the fruits of my negative deeds whereas if I am experiencing a joyful life then I will be exhausting the positive fruits of karma”. These kinds of attitudes reflect a certain mentality, a kind of strength of character which is truly a miracle for a Dharma practitioner. Such types of practices are called transforming adversity into favorable conditions.
In fact one could argue that so far as our enemies are concerned instead of them being an object of hatred or anger, the appropriate response should be to have compassion for them. As Aryadeva states in the Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way, the Buddhas do not see enemies as enemies but rather the delusions within them as the true enemy. If one’s understanding of the Dharma practice is correct then we will have a deep sense of conviction that the true enemies are the delusions that exist within us. Therefore when we confront a situation where we are provoked by harm inflicted on us by a human being, instead of feeling angry towards them we will feel compassion towards them. They are in an unfortunate position where they have fallen under the power or control of the delusions.
When one thinks along these lines, one starts to appreciate the sentiments expressed in Lama Tsongkhapa’s prayer, “May I be able to cultivate courage and the attitude of closeness to those who continue to inflict harm upon me”. One begins to appreciate these kinds of sentiment. Of course I am not suggesting that these kinds of practices are something simple or easily attained; however it is a fact that through training one can begin to become familiar with this sort of mentality and begin to have some experience closer to this kind of thought. Just as Shantideva states there is nothing that can not be made easier through familiarity and training.
I can tell you from my own personal experience, although I am not claiming that I have high realizations of bodhicitta and the view of emptiness, I can assure you in my own little experience that through training and constant familiarization, one can begin to see real change within one’s mind. I will tell you about my own personal experience, it may be useful to you as an example. I started to take seriously the practice of lam-rim from the age of fifteen or sixteen. Around the age of twenty-five events led to my having to leave Tibet and become a refugee in India. Around the age of thirty I began to take seriously the practice of emptiness. As a result of my persistent practice of emptiness I began to sense that liberation or nirvana was a real possibility. Thus I developed a strong desire to seek that liberation or moksha.
However interestingly at that point, my wish was that if I attained liberation then I can really take a long break. Although I had tremendous admiration for bodhicitta, I never really took it as a possibility for myself as something I could realize in myself. My wish for liberation was rather selfish. Around the age of thirty-five I started to take seriously the practice of bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment. I felt deeply affected and inspired by the practice. Now today when I even talk about bodhicitta I feel a tremendous sense of closeness or familiarity. Please do not misunderstand, I am not claiming to be a bodhisattva. I’m also not claiming that I have realized emptiness.
The point I am making here by giving you this example is to show that things can change, one can actually have experiences and realizations. Also another point of this story is to show the time element. The practice, the real change, takes place over time. One should also understand that developing an intellectual understanding is one thing but having the experience is something else. Many of you may confuse intellectual understanding with experience.
First one has to develop an understanding through study and listening. Through contemplation one arrives at a deeper understanding. Through meditation and practice one gains a sense of conviction that it is possible to realize the goal, and a sense of confidence arises. Through practice one gets to a point where when you actually think about it there is a real effect and change present, the moment one stops the change or the effects disappear. This stage is said to be having a simulated experience or realization. Through further practice the simulated experience which requires an effort on one’s part can culminate in what can be called a spontaneous realization where a mere thought of something immediately gives rise to the experience. There is no longer any need for conscious effort on one’s part. When a practitioner has attained a very spontaneous, genuine aspiration to attain liberation, at this point the practitioner has entered the first of the Five Paths to liberation, the Path of Accumulation.
Similarly when a practitioner attains a genuine, non-simulated, spontaneous realization of bodhicitta, that is when they have entered on the Mahayana path and realized the Path of Accumulation. Such a Mahayana practitioner will then move on to the second Path of Accumulation and then the third and final stage into the Path of Linking or Preparation. This culminates in the direct realization of emptiness which is the Path of Seeing. This is when the Ten Levels of the Bodhisattva Path begin.
We have quite a long way to go. Don’t be spoiled by the rhetoric in tantra about attaining liberation, enlightenment, within a single lifetime. When I was young I remember expressing a sentiment to Tathang Rinpoche, one of my tutors that the sutra path to enlightenment seems so long and arduous perhaps I may have a hope from the tantric path. I remember being scolded by Tathang Rinpoche for harboring such a sentiment. He pointed out to me that the person for whom the tantric path is suited is someone who has a tremendous courage. Even if the person has to wait for eons to get full enlightenment, there is a deep sense of willingness and commitment. For such a person then the tantric path if it is used then could be effective. If someone is disheartened by the time required in the sutra path and then seeks the tantric path because it is faster, then this is the wrong motivation.
Therefore I find the passage in the Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, “As long as space endures, as long as sentient beings remain, May I abide in this world to dispel the miseries of the world” so powerful and inspiring. This is how one should train one’s heart and mind. Once the practitioner is able to cultivate genuine compassion towards even one’s enemies a major stumbling block in one’s path has been removed. This is a very important breakthrough. It is through such a process that one cultivates the genuine sense of intimacy and closeness towards all sentient beings.
Also it is very important to subject the two types of attitudes, the self-cherishing attitude and the thought that cherishes other sentient beings, to analysis of the pros and cons. What are the merits of harboring thoughts which cherish only our own self-interest? One could say that up until now since beginningless time we have harbored within ourselves the twin evils, the self-cherishing thought and the thought grasping at the true existence of our self. In some sense one could say that we have been up till now seeking protection from these two attitudes. If it is true that they have the capacity to make us experience and attain enlightened happiness, they should have been able to do so by now. They have had enough time.
When one thinks carefully the course of one’s life is as if one is groping in the dark aimlessly. If one is to reverse one’s normal way of thinking then seek the friendship of the altruistic aspiration that cherishes the wellbeing of others and the wisdom realizing emptiness instead of the friendship of self-cherishing and self-grasping. Although one does not really have any experience in this one can take the example from the lives of great beings like Nagarjuna and the great compassionate Indian masters of the past. If one looks at their life stories one can feel confident enough that their lives testify to the power of altruism, the power of reversing the self-centered way of living and turning towards a more other-oriented, altruistic way of being.
In my own personal case when I think about my own way of being, I feel that the little bit of strength of mind I have, doesn’t arrive from the title Dalai Lama nor from my appearance as a fully ordained monk. Rather I think the real source of the strength lies in my admiration and commitment to the practice of altruism such as bodhicitta and also my conviction in the validity of the truth of emptiness. I feel that these are the genuine sources of any strength I may have as an individual person.
The greater one’s capacity for altruism the greater one is able to develop one’s good heart and warm-heartedness. This is how the genuine altruistic aspiration to seek happiness for all sentient beings arises within one. This will then be able to induce within one the thought to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. Also it is a fact that until one attains full enlightenment one will not be able to fulfill the welfare of other sentient beings, as one would be prevented by one’s own limitations. Therefore in order to fully realize the welfare of other sentient beings, the first step is on one’s own part to free oneself of all obstructions to knowledge and all impediments. One is then fully able to utilize one’s potential to be of help to all sentient beings.