The great eleventh century Indian master Atisha said,
Human life is short,
Objects of knowledge are many.
Be like a swan,
Which can separate milk from water.1
Our lives will not last long and there are many directions in which we can channel them. Just as swans extract the essence from milk and spit out the water, so should we extract the essence from our lives by practicing discriminating wisdom and engaging in activities that benefit both ourselves and others in this and future lives.
Every sentient being aspires to the highest state of happiness and complete freedom from every kind of suffering, but human aims should be higher than those of animals, insects and so forth because we have much greater potential; with our special intellectual capacity we can accomplish many things. As spiritual practitioners, we should strive for happiness and freedom from misery not for ourselves alone but for all sentient beings. We have the intelligence and the ability to practice the methods for realizing these goals. We can start from where we are and gradually attain higher levels of being until we attain final perfection. Some people can even attain the highest goal, enlightenment, in a single lifetime.
Although we want all happiness,
We ignorantly destroy it, like an enemy.
Although we want no misery,
We rush to create its cause.2
What we want and what we do are totally contradictory. The things we do to bring happiness actually cause suffering, misery and trouble. Shantideva says that even though we desire happiness, out of ignorance we destroy its cause as if it were our worst enemy.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, first we must learn, or study. By asking if it’s possible to escape from suffering and find perfect happiness, we open the doors of spiritual inquiry and discover that by putting our effort and wisdom in the right direction, we can indeed experience such goals. This leads us to seek out the path to enlightenment. The Buddha set forth many different levels of teachings. As humans, we can learn these, not just for the sake of learning but in order to put the methods into practice.
The real enemy
What is the cause of happiness? What is the cause of misery? These are important questions in Buddhism. The Buddha pointed out that the fundamental source of all our problems is the wrong conception of the self. We always hold on to some kind of “I,” some sort of egocentric thought, or attitude, and everything we do is based on this wrong conception of the nature of the self. This self-grasping gives rise to attachment to the “I” and self-centeredness, the cherishing of ourselves over all others, all worldly thoughts, and samsara itself. All sentient beings’ problems start here.
This ignorant self-grasping creates all of our attachment to the “I.” From “me” comes “mine”—my property, my body, my mind, my family, my friends, my house, my country, my work and so forth.
From attachment come aversion, anger and hatred for the things that threaten our objects of attachment. Buddhism calls these three—ignorance, attachment and aversion—the three poisons. These delusions are the cause of all our problems; they are our real enemies.
We usually look for enemies outside but Buddhist yogis realize that there are no external enemies; the real enemies are within. Once we have removed ignorance, attachment and aversion we have vanquished our inner enemies. Correct understanding replaces ignorance, pure mind remains, and we see the true nature of the self and all phenomena. The workings of the illusory world no longer occur.
When ignorance has gone, we no longer create mistaken actions. When we act without mistake, we no longer experience the various sufferings—the forces of karma are not engaged. Karma—the actions of the body, speech and mind of sentient beings, together with the seeds they leave on the mind—is brought under control. Since the causes of these actions—ignorance, attachment and aversion—have been destroyed, the actions to which they give rise therefore cease.
Ignorance, attachment and aversion, together with their branches of conceit, jealousy, envy and so forth, are very strong forces. Once they arise, they immediately dominate our mind; we quickly fall under the power of these inner enemies and no longer have any freedom or control. Our inner enemies even cause us to fight with and harm the people we love; they can even cause us to kill our own parents, children and so forth. All conflicts—from those between individual members of a family to international wars between countries—arise from these negative thoughts.
Shantideva said, “There is one cause of all problems.” This is the ignorance that mistakes the actual nature of the self. All sentient beings are similar in that they are all overpowered by this ego-grasping ignorance; however, each of us is also capable of engaging in the yogic practices that refine the mind to the point where it is able to see directly the way things exist.
How the Buddha practiced and taught Dharma
Buddha himself first studied, then practiced, and finally realized Dharma, achieving enlightenment. He saw the principles of the causes and effects of thought and action and then taught people how to work with these laws in such a way as to gain freedom.
His first teaching was on the four truths as seen by a liberated being: suffering, its cause, liberation and the path to liberation.3 First we must learn to recognize the sufferings and frustrations that pervade our lives. Then we must know their cause. Thirdly we should know that it is possible to get rid of them, to be completely free. Lastly we must know the truth of the path—the means by which we can gain freedom, the methods of practice that destroy the seeds of suffering from their very root.
There are many elaborate ways of presenting the path, which has led to the development of many schools of Buddhism, such as the Hinayana and Mahayana, but the teachings of the four truths are fundamental to all Buddhist schools; each has its own special methods, but all are based on the four truths. Without the four truths there is neither Hinayana nor Mahayana. All Buddhist schools see suffering as the main problem of existence and ignorance as the main cause of suffering. Without removing ignorance there is no way of achieving liberation from samsara and no way of attaining the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood.
Utilizing the four truths
Buddhism talks a lot about non-self or the empty nature of all things. This is a key teaching. The realization of emptiness was first taught by the Buddha and then widely disseminated by the great teacher Nagarjuna and his successors, who explained the philosophy of the Middle Way—a system of thought free from all extremes. Madhyamikas, as the followers of this system are called, hold that the way things actually exist is free from the extremes of absolute being and non-being; the things we see do not exist in the way that we perceive them.
As for the “I,” our understanding of its nature is also mistaken. This doesn’t mean that there is neither person nor desire. When the Buddha rejected the existence of a self he meant that the self we normally conceive does not exist. Yogis who, through meditation, have developed higher insight have realized the true nature of the self and seen that the “I” exists totally in another way. They have realized the emptiness of the self, which is the key teaching of the Buddha; they have developed the sharp weapon of wisdom that cuts down the poisonous tree of delusion and mental distortion.
To do the same, we must study the teachings, contemplate them carefully and finally investigate our conclusions through meditation. In that way we can realize the true nature of the self. The wisdom realizing emptiness cuts the very root of all delusion and puts an end to all suffering; it directly opposes the ignorance that misconceives reality.
Sometimes we can apply more specific antidotes—for example, when anger arises we meditate on compassion; when lust arises we meditate on the impurity of the human body; when attachment to situations arises we meditate on impermanence; and so forth. But even though these antidotes counteract particular delusions they cannot cut their root—for that, we need to realize emptiness.
Combining wisdom and method
However, wisdom alone is not enough. No matter how sharp an axe is, it requires a handle and a person to swing it. In the same way, while meditation on emptiness is the key practice, it must be supported and given direction by method. Many Indian masters, including Dharmakirti and Shantideva, have asserted this to be so. For example, meditation upon the four noble truths includes contemplation of sixteen aspects of these truths, such as impermanence, suffering, and so forth. Then, because we must share our world with others there are the meditations on love, compassion and the bodhicitta, the enlightened attitude of wishing for enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to others. This introduces the six perfections, or the means of accomplishing enlightenment—generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. The first five of these must act as supportive methods in order for the sixth, wisdom, to become stable.
Removing the obstacles to liberation and omniscience
To attain buddhahood the obstacles to the goal have to be completely removed. These obstacles are of two main types: obstacles to liberation, which include the delusions such as attachment, and obstacles to omniscience. When the various delusions have been removed, one becomes an arhat. In Tibetan, arhat [dra-chom-pa] means one who has destroyed [chom] the inner enemy [dra] and has thus gained liberation from all delusions. However, such liberation is not buddhahood.
An arhat is free from samsara, from all misery and suffering, and no longer forced to take a rebirth conditioned by karma and delusion. At present we are strongly under the power of these two forces, being reborn again and again, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. We have little choice or independence in our birth, life, death and rebirth. Negative karma and delusion combine and overpower us again and again. Our freedom is thus greatly limited. It is a circle: occasionally rebirth in a high realm, then in a low world; sometimes an animal, sometimes a human or a god. This is what samsara means. Arhats have achieved complete liberation from this circle; they have broken the circle and gone beyond it. Their lives have become totally pure, totally free. The forces that controlled them have gone and they dwell in a state of emancipation from compulsive experience. Their realization of shunyata is complete.
On the method side, the arhat has cultivated a path combining meditation on emptiness with meditation on the impermanence of life, karma and its results, the suffering nature of the whole circle of samsara and so forth, but arhatship does not have the perfection of buddhahood.
Compared to our ordinary samsaric life, arhatship is a great attainment, but arhats still have subtle obstacles. Gross mental obstacles such as desire, hatred, ignorance and so forth may have gone but, because they have been active forces within the mind for so long, they leave behind subtle hindrances—subtle habits, or predispositions.
For example, although arhats will not have anger, old habits, such as using harsh words, may persist. They also have a very subtle self-centeredness. Similarly, although arhats will not have ignorance or wrong views, they will not see certain aspects of cause and effect as clearly as a buddha does. Such subtle limitations are called the obstacles to omniscience. In buddhahood, these have been completely removed; not a single obstacle remains. There is both perfect freedom and perfect knowledge.
The wisdom and form bodies of a buddha
A buddha has a cause. The cause is a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva trainings are vast: generosity, where we try to help others in various ways; patience, which keeps our mind in a state of calm; diligent perseverance, with which, in order to help other sentient beings, we joyfully undergo the many hardships without hesitation; and many others.
Before attaining buddhahood we have to train as a bodhisattva and cultivate a path uniting method with wisdom. The function of wisdom is to eliminate ignorance; the function of method is to produce the physical and environmental perfections of being.
Buddhahood is endowed with many qualities—perfect body and mind, omniscient knowledge, power and so forth—and from the perfection of the inner qualities a buddha manifests a perfect environment, a “pure land.”
With the ripening of wisdom and method comes the fruit: the wisdom and form bodies of a buddha. The form body, or rupakaya, has two dimensions—sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya—which, with the wisdom body of dharmakaya, constitute the three kayas. The form bodies are not ordinary form; they are purely mental, a reflection or manifestation of the dharmakaya wisdom. From perfect wisdom emerges perfect form.
As we can see from the above examples, the bodhisattva’s activities are based on a motivation very unlike our ordinary attitudes, which are usually selfish and self-centered. In order to attain buddhahood we have to change our mundane thoughts into thoughts of love and compassion for other sentient beings. We have to learn to care, all of the time, on a universal level. Our normal self-centered attitude should be seen as an enemy and a loving and compassionate attitude as the cause of the highest happiness, a real friend of both ourselves and others.
The Mahayana contains a very special practice called “exchanging self for others.” Of course, I can’t change into you or you can’t change into me; that’s not what it means. What we have to change is the attitude of “me first” into the thought of cherishing of others: “Whatever bad things have to happen let them happen to me.” Through meditation we learn to regard self-centeredness as our worst enemy and to transform self-cherishing into love and compassion, until eventually our entire life is dominated by these positive forces. Then everything we do will become beneficial to others; all our actions will naturally become meritorious. This is the influence and power of the bodhisattva’s thought—the bodhi mind, the ultimate flowering of love and compassion into the inspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all other sentient beings.
Love and compassion
Love and compassion have the same basic nature but a different reference or application. Compassion is mainly in reference to the problems of beings, the wish to free sentient beings from suffering, whereas love refers to the positive side, the aspiration that all sentient beings have happiness and its cause. Our love and compassion should be equal towards all beings and have the intensity that a loving mother feels towards her only child, taking upon ourselves full responsibility for the well-being of others. That’s how bodhisattvas regard all sentient beings.
However, the bodhi mind is not merely love and compassion. Bodhisattvas see that in order to free sentient beings from misery and give them the highest happiness, they themselves will have to be fully equipped, fully qualified—first they will have to attain perfect buddhahood, total freedom from all obstacles and limitations and complete possession of all power and knowledge. Right now we can’t do much to benefit others. Therefore, for the benefit of other sentient beings, we have to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible. Day and night, everything we do should be done in order to reach perfect enlightenment as soon as we can for the benefit of others.
The thought characterized by this aspiration is called bodhicitta, bodhi mind, the bodhisattva spirit. Unlike our usual self-centered, egotistical thoughts, which lead only to desire, hatred, jealousy, pride and so forth, the bodhisattva way is dominated by love, compassion and the bodhi mind, and if we practice the appropriate meditative techniques, we ourselves will become bodhisattvas. Then, as Shantideva has said, all our ordinary activities—sleeping, walking, eating or whatever—will naturally produce limitless goodness and fulfill the purposes of many sentient beings.
The life of a bodhisattva
A bodhisattva’s life is very precious and therefore, in order to sustain it, we sleep, eat and do whatever else is necessary to stay alive. Because this is our motivation for eating, every mouthful of food we take gives rise to great merit, equal to the number of the sentient beings in the universe.
In order to ascend the ten bodhisattva stages leading to buddhahood we engage in both method and wisdom: on the basis of bodhicitta we cultivate the realization of emptiness. Seeing the emptiness of the self, our self-grasping ignorance and attachment cease. We also see all phenomena as empty and, as a result, everything that appears to our mind is seen as illusory, like a magician’s creations.
When a magician conjures up something up, the audience believes that what they see exists. The magician, however, although sees what the audience sees, understands it differently. When he creates a beautiful woman, the men in the audience experience lust; when he creates a frightening animal, the audience gets scared. The magician sees the beautiful woman and the scary animals just as the audience does but he knows that they’re not real, he knows that they’re empty of existing in the way that they appear—their reality is not like the mode of their appearance.
Similarly, bodhisattvas who have seen emptiness see everything as illusory and things that might have caused attachment or aversion to arise in them before can no longer do so.
As Nagarjuna said,
By combining the twofold cause of method and wisdom, bodhisattvas gain the twofold effect of the mental and physical bodies [rupakaya and dharmakaya] of a buddha.
Their accumulation of meritorious energy and wisdom bring them to the first bodhisattva stage, where they directly realize emptiness and overcome the obstacles to liberation. They then use this realization to progress through the ten bodhisattva levels, eventually eradicating all obstacles to omniscience. They first eliminate the coarse level of ignorance and then, through gradual meditation on method combined with wisdom, attain the perfection of enlightenment.
The keys to the Mahayana path
The main subjects of this discourse—renunciation, emptiness and the bodhi mind—were taught by the Buddha, Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa and provide the basic texture of the Mahayana path. These three principal aspects of the path are like keys for those who want to attain enlightenment. In terms of method and wisdom, renunciation and the bodhi mind constitute method and meditation on emptiness is wisdom. Method and wisdom are like the two wings of a bird and enable us to fly high in the sky of Dharma. Just as a bird with one wing cannot fly; in order to reach the heights of buddhahood we need the two wings of method and wisdom.
The principal Mahayana method is the bodhi mind. To generate the bodhi mind we must first generate compassion—the aspiration to free sentient beings from suffering, which becomes the basis of our motivation to attain enlightenment. However, as Shantideva pointed out, we must begin with compassion for ourselves. We must want to be free of suffering ourselves before being truly able to want it for others. The spontaneous wish to free ourselves from suffering is renunciation.
But most of us don’t have it. We don’t see the faults of samsara. However, there’s no way to really work for the benefit of others while continuing to be entranced by the pleasures and activities of samsara. Therefore, first we have to generate personal renunciation of samsara—the constant wish to gain freedom from all misery. At the beginning, this is most important. Then we can extend this quality to others as love, compassion and the bodhi mind, which combine as method. When united with the wisdom realizing emptiness, we possess the main causes of buddhahood.
Making this life meaningful
Of course, to develop the three principal aspects of the path, we have to proceed step by step. Therefore it’s necessary to study, contemplate and meditate. We should all try to develop a daily meditation practice. Young or old, male or female, regardless of race, we all have the ability to meditate. Anybody can progress through the stages of understanding. The human life is very meaningful and precious but it can be lost to seeking temporary goals such as sensual indulgence, fame, reputation and so forth, which benefit this life alone. Then we’re like animals; we have the goals of the animal world. Even if we don’t make heroic spiritual efforts, we should at least try to get started in the practices that make human life meaningful.
Q. Could you clarify what you mean by removing the suffering of others?
Geshe Sopa: We are not talking about temporary measures, like hunger or thirst. You can do acts of charity with food, medicine and so forth, but these provide only superficial help. Giving can never fulfill the world’s needs and can itself become a cause of trouble and misery. What beings lack is some kind of perfect happiness or enjoyment. Therefore we cultivate a compassion for all sentient beings that wishes to provide them with the highest happiness, the happiness that lasts forever. Practitioners, yogis and bodhisattvas consider this to be the main goal. They do give temporary things as much as possible, but their main point is to produce a higher happiness. That’s the bodhisattva’s main function.
Q. Buddhism believes strongly in past and future lives. How is this consistent with the idea of impermanence taught by Buddha?
Geshe Sopa: Because things are impermanent they are changeable. Because impurity is impermanent, purity is possible. Relative truth can function because of the existence of ultimate truth. Impurity becomes pure; imperfect becomes perfect. Change can cause conditions to switch. By directing our life correctly we can put an end to negative patterns. If things were not impermanent there would be no way to change and evolve.
In terms of karma and rebirth, impermanence means that we can gain control over the stream of our life, which is like a great river, never the same from one moment to the next. If we let polluted tributaries flow into a river it becomes dirty. Similarly, if we let bad thoughts, distorted perceptions and wrong actions control our lives, we evolve negatively and take low rebirths.
If, on the other hand, we control the flow of our life skillfully, we’ll evolve positively, take high rebirths and perhaps even attain the highest wisdom of buddhahood—the coming and going of imperfect experiences will subside and the impermanent flow of pure perfection will come to us. When that happens we’ll have achieved the ultimate human goal.
Q. In the example of the river, its content is flowing water, sometimes muddy, sometimes clear. What is the content of the stream of life?
Geshe Sopa: Buddhism speaks of the five skandhas: one mainly physical, the other four mental. There is also a basis, which is a certain kind of propensity that is neither physical nor mental, a kind of energy. The five impure skandhas eventually become perfectly pure and then manifest as the five Dhyani Buddhas.
Q. What is the role of prayer in Buddhism? Does Buddhism believe in prayer, and if so, since Buddhists don’t believe in a God, to whom do they pray?
Geshe Sopa: In Buddhism, prayer means some kind of wish, an aspiration to have something good occur. In this sense, a prayer is a verbal wish. The prayers of buddhas and bodhisattvas are mental and have great power. Buddhas and bodhisattvas have equal love and compassion for all sentient beings and their prayers are to benefit all sentient beings. Therefore, when we pray to them for help or guidance they have the power to influence us.
As well as these considerations, prayer produces a certain kind of buddha-result. Praying does not mean that personally you don’t have to practice yourself; that you just leave everything to Buddha. It’s not like that. The buddhas have to do something and we have to do something. The buddhas cannot wash away our stains with water, like washing clothing. The root of misery and suffering cannot be extracted like a thorn from the foot—the buddhas can only show us how to pull out the thorn; the hand that pulls it out must be our own.
Also, the Buddha cannot transplant his knowledge into our being. He is like a doctor who diagnoses our illnesses and prescribes the cure that we must follow through personal responsibility. If a patient does not take the prescribed medicine or follow the advice, the doctor cannot help, no matter how strong his medicines or excellent his skill. If we take the medicine of Dharma as prescribed and follow the Buddha’s advice, we will easily cure ourselves of the diseases of ignorance, attachment and the other obstacles to liberation and omniscience. To turn to the Dharma but then not practice it is to be like a patient burdened by a huge bag of medicine while not taking any. Therefore the Buddha said, “I have provided the medicine. It is up to you to take it.”
Q. Sometimes in meditation we visualize Shakyamuni Buddha. What did he visualize when he meditated?
Geshe Sopa: What should we meditate upon? How should we meditate? Shakyamuni Buddha himself meditated in the same way as we teach: on compassion, love, bodhicitta, the four noble truths and so forth. Sometimes he also meditated on perfect forms, like that of a buddha or a particular meditational deity. These deities symbolize perfect inner qualities and through meditating on them we bring oursleves into proximity with the symbolized qualities. Both deity meditation and ordinary simple meditations tame the scattered, uncontrolled, elephant-like mind. The wild, roaming mind must be calmed in order to enter higher spiritual practices. Therefore, at the beginning, we try to stabilize our mind by focusing it on a particular subject. This is calm abiding meditation and its main aim is to keep our mind focused on a single point, abiding in perfect clarity and peace for as long as we wish without any effort, wavering or fatigue.
As for the object to be visualized in this type of meditation, there are many choices: a candle, a statue, an abstract object and so forth. Since the form of an enlightened being has many symbolic values and shares the nature of the goal we hope to accomplish, visualizing such an object has many advantages. But it is not mandatory; we can choose anything. The main thing is to focus the mind on the object and not allow it to waver. Eventually we’ll be able to meditate clearly and peacefully for as long as we like, remaining absorbed for even days at a time. This is the attainment of calm abiding. When we possess this mental instrument, every other meditation we do will become much more successful.
When we first try this kind of practice we discover that our mind is like a wild elephant, constantly running here and there, never able to focus fully on or totally engage in anything. Then, little by little, through practice and exercise, it will become calm and even concentrating on a simple object like breathing in and out while counting will demonstrate the wildness of the mind and the calming effects of meditation.
1. According to Indian legend, swans are able to extract milk from water, that is, take the essence. The quote comes from Atisha's Entering into the Two Truths. A translation, including this quote, may be found in S. J. Richard Sherburne's The Complete Works of Atisa: Sri Dipamkara Jnana, Jo-Bo-rJe; The Lamp for the Path and Commentary, together with the newly translated Twenty-five Key Texts. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2000. [Return to text]