The Importance of the Three Principal Aspects of the Path

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
France, 2003 (Archive #1446)

To escape from suffering and find everlasting happiness we have to study and practice the teachings on the path to enlightenment. The teachings of the Buddha were first formulated into what we call the lam-rim (the steps of the path) by the great Atisha (982-1054).

An essential feature of the lam-rim is its division into three principal aspects: renunciation, right view and bodhicitta. In this short teaching, Lama Zopa Rinpoche emphasizes the importance of these key points.

From a private teaching given in France, 2003, transcribed by Ven. Holly Ansett and edited by Dr. Nicholas Ribush. This teaching was first published in Mandala magazine in August 2004 and is now available at Mandala Online.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche after the first US course in California, 1975. Photo: Carol Royce-Wilder.

Even if we have total renunciation of the desire realm through having meditated on the suffering experienced by the desire realm beings, we still need to renounce the form and formless realms in order to free ourselves completely from samsara. When we see the desire realm as totally in the nature of suffering, we may see the form realm as a better place to be, but we also have to see life there as suffering in nature. The same applies to the four levels of the formless realm—limitless space, limitless consciousness, nothingness and the peak of samsara. We have achieved the form and formless levels of the deva realms countless times in previous lives through having perfected our meditation on single-pointed concentration, but we are still not free from birth, aging, sickness, death and rebirth. This is because we have not developed renunciation of the whole of samsara from top to bottom.

What we need to do is see all of samsara like an unbearable prison—something we can’t stand being in and day and night think only of escaping from. The texts say that living in samsara we should feel as if we’re sitting next to a poisonous snake. Without feeling all of samsara—the desire, form and formless realms—to be in the nature of suffering and having complete aversion to it, there’s no way we can enter the path to liberation, no way we can escape from the ocean of samsaric suffering and its cause: delusion and karma. Therefore, the first of the three principal aspects of the path is renunciation.

However, even if we have generated the fully renounced mind, without realizing emptiness, we cannot cut the root of samsara. Even though the various Buddhist philosophical schools talk about emptiness from various points of view, in reality there is only one correct point of view. Since there is only one root of samsara, there can be only one right view to cut it—the view of the Prasangika Madhyamika.

The ignorance that the Prasangika view counteracts is extremely subtle. The correct view of phenomena is that they exist as merely labeled by the mind, but the extremely subtle ignorance sees something existing on the object slightly above and beyond what is merely labeled by the mind and believes this to be the object’s true mode of existence.

The views of the lower schools with respect to the object to be refuted are quite gross, but as we progress up through them, from Vaibhashika to Sautrantika to Cittamatra to Svatantrika Madhyamaka, it becomes more and more subtle, increasingly refined. The object of refutation of the Prasangika Madhyamaka—something appearing from the side of the object slightly more than what is labeled by the mind—is extremely subtle. That particular ignorance is the actual root of samsara and it can be countered only by the Prasangika Madhyamaka view, which sees the emptiness of that which appears from its own side. Even Svatantrikas think that although things exist as merely labeled by the mind, still there has to be something from the side of the object, but even that is completely non-existent.

However, this doesn’t mean that things don’t exist. They exist by being merely labeled by the mind relating to a valid base, and that base is also merely labeled by depending on another base, and so on. Therefore, everything down to the tiniest particles of matter and the shortest space of time is totally empty; nothing exists from its own side. But while things are totally empty, they still exist—they exist in mere name. While they exist in mere name, they are empty of existing from their own side.

This is what’s special about the Prasangika view—the unification of emptiness and dependent arising—and the discovery of this truth, on the basis of which Guru Shakyamuni Buddha guides sentient beings from suffering, is what Lama Tsongkhapa praised him so highly for.

Therefore, no matter what other realizations you might have, without the wisdom realizing emptiness you cannot cut the root of samsara, you cannot remove the delusions forever, such that they will never arise again. In order to eradicate the imprints that are the seed from which delusions arise, you must perceive the Prasangika view of emptiness directly. This, then, is the second of the three principal aspects of the path.

Finally, there’s bodhicitta. Without bodhicitta you can’t liberate other sentient beings, you can’t bring them to enlightenment, you can’t work perfectly for all sentient beings. With renunciation and the realization of emptiness you can remove the disturbing thought obscurations and attain liberation from samsara but you can’t remove the subtle obscurations that prevent enlightenment. Only by completing the accumulation merit by practicing the six paramitas and so forth and realizing bodhicitta can you conjoin this with your wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, remove the subtle defilements and thereby achieve enlightenment.

Therefore, study and practice of the lam-rim is essential. If, so far, you have not generated realizations of the steps of the path to enlightenment, you need to listen to and reflect and meditate on the teachings until you have achieved each realization so that you can not only free yourself from samsara but also attain enlightenment in order to enlighten all sentient beings.

Furthermore, if, on the basis of study and practice of the lam-rim, you practice tantra, you can attain enlightenment much more quickly than by simply practicing sutra. In degenerate times such as these, through the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra you can even attain enlightenment in a single lifetime, like Gyälwa Ensapa and many other great practitioners did. In that way you can enlighten sentient beings sooner, so that they don’t have to suffer as long as they otherwise would. And that, in the end, is the ultimate goal of our life, the purpose of our being alive.

The lam-rim is the basis of all this. That’s why it’s important.

The importance of emptiness
Many people spend their whole life practicing vipassana, just doing breathing meditation. Even though what they’re doing may be a correct practice, it’s just a tiny part of the path to liberation, let alone enlightenment. So, even if you invest your whole life in that, you won’t achieve much. It might help you control strong anger or desire while you are meditating and protect your mind in that way, but that’s not enough to overcome your delusions completely. Insight meditation alone cannot put an end to your delusions because it doesn’t eradicate their seed; their imprints remain on your consciousness.

In order to remove your delusions forever you need to cultivate the wisdom that directly perceives emptiness; that is the only thing that leads to the path of seeing. If the teaching you practice contains not a word on emptiness, especially the Prasangika view, even if you meditate on your breath for thousands of years, you never make any preparation in your mind to realize emptiness; you never do anything to threaten the root of samsara. Thus, your mind remains under the control of ignorance and it’s the same old samsaric story: you die with ignorance, you are reborn with ignorance and you continue to suffer with ignorance.

Even loving kindness and compassion, even realization of bodhicitta, cannot directly cease your delusions or their seed. As I have said again and again, the only thing that does that is the wisdom realizing emptiness.

In order to gain liberation from samsara and attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, we need to study the entire path to enlightenment, not just bits of it. The essence of all the Buddha’s teachings is found in the lam-rim and we are extremely lucky to have encountered this profound and practical philosophy.