Teachings given at Los Angeles, CA 2000 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment: Features of the Lam-Rim Teachings
His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment
In terms of the lineage of the teachings of the two texts we will be following here, I first received the transmission of Lama Tsong Khapa’s text, Lines of Experience, from Tathag Rinpoche at a very early age, and later from my most venerable tutors, the late Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, who was also the master for my full ordination as a monk, and the late Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.
The transmission of Atisha’s text, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, was quite hard to find at one point, but I received it from my late teacher, Rigzin Tenpa, who may have received the lineage from Khangsar Dorje Chang. Later I received a teaching on it from the late Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche, who gave the transmission in conjunction with Panchen Losang Chögyen’s commentary, which he was able to present almost exclusively by heart.
Lamp for the Path: Verse 1
Homage to the bodhisattva, the youthful Manjushri.
I pay homage with great respect
To the conquerors of the three times,
To their teaching and to those who aspire to virtue.
Urged by the good disciple Jangchub Ö,
I shall illuminate the lamp
For the path to enlightenment.
The line, “Homage to the bodhisattva, the youthful Manjushri,” is a salutation written by the translator who originally translated this text from Sanskrit into Tibetan. At the end of the first verse, the author states his intention for composing this text.
A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment was composed in Tibet by the Indian master, Atisha Dipamkara Shrijnana. During the reign of the Ngari kings Lhalama Yeshe Ö and his nephew Jangchub Ö, tremendous efforts were made to invite Atisha from India to Tibet. As a result of these efforts, Lhalama Yeshe Ö was imprisoned by a neighboring anti- Buddhist king and actually lost his life, but Jangchub Ö persevered and was finally successful. When Atisha arrived in Tibet, Jangchub Ö requested him to give a teaching that would be beneficial to the entire Tibetan population. In response, therefore, Atisha wrote A Lamp for the Path, which makes it a unique text, because although it was written by an Indian master, it was composed in Tibet specifically for Tibetans.
The meaning of the title
The title, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment has profound meaning. The Tibetan term for enlightenment is jang-chub, the two syllables of which refer to the two aspects of the Buddha’s enlightened qualities. Jang connotes the enlightened quality of having overcome all obstructions, negativities and limitations. Chub literally means “embodiment of all knowledge” and connotes the quality of Buddha’s realization and wisdom. Therefore, jang-chub means the Buddha’s enlightened quality of having abandoned and overcome all negativities and limitations (purity) combined with the perfection of all knowledge (realization). Jang-chub chen-po, “great enlightenment,” is an epithet for the Buddha’s enlightened state. The title, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, suggests that this text presents the method, or process, by which we can actualize this state of enlightenment.
When we speak about enlightenment and the path leading to it, we are naturally speaking about a quality, or state, of mind. In the final analysis, enlightenment is nothing other than a perfected state of mind. Enlightenment should not be understood as some kind of physical location or rank or status that is conferred upon us. It is the state of mind where all negativities and limitations have been purified, and all potentials of positive qualities fully perfected and realized.
Since the ultimate objective is a state of mind, the methods and paths by which it is attained must also be states of mind. Enlightenment cannot be attained by external means, only through an internal process. As we develop and improve our states of mind, our knowledge, wisdom and realization gradually increase, culminating in our attainment of enlightenment.
The metaphor of the lamp is used because just as a lamp dispels darkness, the teachings in this text dispel the darkness of misunderstanding with respect to the path to enlightenment. Just as a lamp illuminates whatever objects lie in its sphere, this text shines a light on all the various elements and subtle points of the path leading to full enlightenment.
The objects of salutation
The objects of salutation in this verse—the “conquerors of the three times”—are the Three Jewels of Refuge. It is important to pay homage to the Buddha not as just some noble object but in terms of the meaning of jang-chub. The Sanskrit term for jang-chub is bodhi, which conveys a sense of awakening—a state where all knowledge and realization have been perfected. Therefore, when explaining the meaning of awakening, or enlightenment, we can speak about both the process by which this awakening takes place and the state to which awakening brings us; in other words, the means and the fruition.
When we understand enlightenment as a resultant state, we are primarily referring to the enlightened quality of purity—the perfected state where all negativities and limitations have been purified. There is another aspect to this purity, which is the primordially pure nature of the enlightened state. The reason why enlightenment is a perfected state where all obscurations have been purified is because natural purity is its fundamental basis.
When we understand enlightenment as a process, or instrument, by which awakening is experienced, we are referring to the Buddha’s enlightened quality of wisdom. This is the dharmakaya, the buddha-body of reality, the “wisdom body,” or “wisdom embodiment,” of the Buddha, and it is this wisdom that brings about the perfection and purification.
Thus we can understand the significance of the explanations of the different types of nirvana in the scriptures. For example, we speak of “natural nirvana,” “nirvana with residue,” “nirvana without residue,” and “non-abiding nirvana.” Natural nirvana refers to the fundamentally pure nature of reality, where all things and events are devoid of any inherent, intrinsic or independent reality. This is the fundamental ground. It is our misconception of this fundamental reality that gives rise to all the delusions and their derivative thoughts and emotions.
No matter how powerful the false perceptions of reality may be at any given time, if we subject them to scrutiny we will find that they have no grounding in reason or experience. On the other hand, the more we cultivate the correct understanding of emptiness as the nature of reality (and relate this understanding to actual reality), the more we will be able to affirm and develop it, because it is a correct way of perceiving the world. Flawed perceptions lack grounding, experience and reasoning, whereas grounding, experience and reasoning support the understanding of emptiness. Thus we will come to understand that this highest antidote—the wisdom of emptiness—can be developed and enhanced to its fullest potential. This is the understanding of natural nirvana, which makes possible the attainment of the other nirvanas.
What is this natural nirvana that serves as the basis for attaining such purity and perfection? On what grounds do we know that such an ultimate nature of reality exists? We can answer these questions from everyday experience. We are all aware of the fundamental fact that there is often a gap between the way we perceive things and the way things really are. This disparity between our perception of reality and the actual state of affairs leads to all kinds of problems and confusion. However, we also know that our perception sometimes does correspond to reality accurately.
If we go further, we will see that there are two levels of reality. At one level—that of conventional, or relative, reality—worldly conventions operate and our perception and understanding of things and events is based purely upon the way that things appear to us. However, when we question the ultimate status of things and events and the way that they really exist, we enter another realm, or level—that of ultimate reality.
The two truths
Buddhism discusses what are known as the two truths—the truths of conventional and ultimate reality. The concept of two levels of reality is not unique to Buddhism. It is a common epistemological approach in many of the ancient Indian schools. Followers of the non-Buddhist Samkhya school, for example, explain reality in terms of twenty-five categories of phenomena.4 The self [Skt: purusha Tib: kye-bu] and the primal substance [Skt: prakriti; Tib: rang-zhin] are said to be ultimate truths, while the remaining twenty-three categories of phenomena are said to be manifestations, or expressions, of this underlying reality. However, what is unique in Mahayana, particularly in the Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, School, is that conventional and ultimate truths are not seen as two unrelated, independent entities but as different perspectives of one and the same world.
According to the Middle Way School of Buddhism, the ultimate truth, or the ultimate nature of reality, is the emptiness of all things and events. In trying to understand the meaning of this emptiness, we can turn to the teachings of the Indian master, Nagarjuna, who brought together all the various understandings of emptiness into the single statement that emptiness must be understood in terms of dependent origination.
When we talk about emptiness, what we are negating or denying is the possibility of things or events having inherent existence. This suggests that all things and events come into being purely as a result of the gathering of causes and conditions, regardless of how complex the nexus of these causes and conditions may be. It is within this nexus of causes and conditions that we can understand the complexity and multiplicity of the world of experience.
There is great diversity in the everyday world of experience, including our own immediately relevant experiences of pain and pleasure. Even pain and pleasure are not independently existent real experiences; they also come into being as a result of causes or conditions. No thing or event possesses the reality of independence and is, therefore, thoroughly contingent, or dependent. The very existence of all phenomena depends upon other factors. It is this absence of independent status that is the meaning behind terms such as “emptiness” and “the emptiness of inherent existence.”
The Four Noble Truths
If we examine the nature of reality more deeply, we will find that within this complex world, there are things and events that have a certain degree of permanence, at least from the point of view of their continuum. Examples of this include the continuity of consciousness and the mind’s essential nature of luminosity and clarity. There is nothing that can threaten the continuity of consciousness or the essential nature of mind. Then there are certain types of experiences and events in the world that appear evident at a particular point but cease to exist after contact with opposing forces; such phenomena can be understood to be adventitious, or circumstantial. It is on the basis of these two categories of phenomena that the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, such as the truths of suffering and its origin, become relevant.
When we further examine this dynamic, complex and diverse world that we experience, we find that phenomena can also be categorized in three ways:
1. The world of matter.
2. The world of consciousness, or subjective experience.
3. The world of abstract entities.
First, there is the world of physical reality, which we can experience through our senses; that is, tangible objects that have material properties.
Second, there is the category of phenomena that are purely of the nature of subjective experience, such as our perception of the world. As I mentioned earlier, we are often confronted by a gap between the way we perceive things and the way they really are. Sometimes we know that there is a correspondence; sometimes we know there is a disparity. This points towards a subjective quality that all sentient beings possess. This is the world of experience, such as the feeling dimension of pain and pleasure.
Third, there are phenomena that are abstract in nature, such as our concept of time, including past, present and future, and even our concepts of years, months and days. These and other abstract ideas can be understood only in relation to some concrete reality such as physical entities Although they do not enjoy a reality of their own, we still experience and participate in them.5 In Buddhist texts, then, the taxonomy of reality is often presented under these three broad categories.
Out of this complex world of reality that we experience and participate in, how do the Four Noble Truths directly relate to our experiences of pain and pleasure? The basic premise of the Four Noble Truths is recognition of the very fundamental nature we all share—the natural and instinctual desire to attain happiness and overcome suffering. When we refer to suffering here, we do not mean only immediate experiences such as painful sensations. From the Buddhist point of view, even the very physical and mental bases from which these painful experiences arise—the five aggregates [Skt: skandha] of form, feeling, discriminative awareness, conditioning factors and consciousness — are suffering in nature. At a fundamental level, the underlying conditioning that we all share is also recognized as dukkha, or suffering.
What gives rise to these sufferings? What are the causes and conditions that create them? Of the Four Noble Truths, the first two truths—suffering and its origin—relate to the causal process of the suffering that we all naturally wish to avoid. It is only by ensuring that the causes and conditions of suffering are not created or, if the cause has been created, that the conditions do not become complete, that we can pre vent the consequences from ripening. One of the fundamental aspects of the law of causality is that if all the causes and conditions a re fully gathered, there is no force in the universe that can prevent their fruition. This is how we can understand the dynamic between suffering and its origin.
The last two truths—cessation of suffering and the path to its cessation— relate to the experience of happiness to which we all naturally aspire. Cessation—the total pacification of suffering and its causes— refers to the highest form of happiness, which is neither a feeling nor an experience; the path—the methods and processes by which cessation is attained—is its cause. Therefore, the last two truths relate to the causal process of happiness.
The Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
There are two principal origins of suffering—karma and the emotional and mental afflictions that underlie and motivate karmic actions. Karma is rooted in and motivated by mental defilements, or afflictions, which are the primary roots of our suffering and cyclic existence. Therefore, it is important for practitioners to cultivate three understandings:
1. The fundamental nature of consciousness is luminous and pure.
2. Afflictions can be purified—separated from the essential nature of mind.
3. There are powerful antidotes that can be applied to counter the defilements and afflictions.
You should develop the recognition of the possibility of a true cessation of suffering on the basis of these three facts. True cessation is what is meant by the Jewel of Dharma, the second of the Three Jewels. Dharma also refers to the path to the cessation of suffering—the direct realization of emptiness.
Once you have this deeper understanding of the meaning of Dharma as true cessation of suffering and the wisdom that brings it about, you will also recognize that there are different levels of cessation. The first level of cessation is attained on the path of seeing, when you directly realize emptiness and become an arya. As you gradually progress through the further levels of purification, you gain higher and higher levels of cessation. Once you have understood Dharma in terms of both cessation and the path, you can recognize the possibility of Sangha, the practitioners who embody these qualities. And once you have understood the possibility of Sangha, you can also envision the possibility of someone who has perfected all the qualities of Dharma. Such a person is a Buddha—a fully enlightened being.
In this way, you will be able to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of the Three Jewels: the Jewel of Buddha, the Jewel of Dharma and the Jewel of Sangha. Furthermore, you will recognize the possibility of attaining this state of perfection yourself, and a deep yearning or aspiration to do so will arise in you. Thus, you will be able to cultivate faith in the Three Jewels; faith that is not simply admiration, but something that arises from a deep understanding of the teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the two truths and enables you to emulate the states of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
In terms of an individual practitioner’s sequence of realization, first and foremost is the Jewel of Dharma. When you actualize Dharma within yourself, you become Sangha—an arya being. As you develop your realization of Dharma, you reach higher and higher levels of the path, culminating in the attainment of the full enlightenment or Buddhahood. Dharma is the true refuge, Sangha comes next, and finally Buddha.
In the historical context, Buddha came first because Shakyamuni Buddha came into being as an emanation body [Skt: nirmanakaya] and then turned the wheel of Dharma by giving the scriptural teachings. By practicing the Buddha’s teachings, some of his disciples realized the Dharma and became Sangha. Although historically Dharma comes second, in terms of an individual’s sequence of realization, it comes first.
Lama Tsong Khapa’s Lines of Experience
This text, which is also known as the Abbreviated Points of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, is the shortest of Lama Tsong Khapa’s lam-rim commentaries expounding the teachings of Atisha’s Lamp.
The style and structure of the genre of teachings known as lam-rim, which can be translated as “stages of the path” or “graded course to enlightenment,” follow the arrangement of Atisha’s Lamp, and the way they are set up allows any individual, regardless of his or her level of realization, to put into practice the appropriate teachings. All the steps of the meditation practices are arranged in a logical, sequential way, so that the practitioner can traverse the path step by step, knowing what to practice now and what to practice next.
The reason that this text is sometimes called Songs of Experience is because Lama Tsong Khapa has distilled all his experience and understanding of the lam-rim teachings into these verses and expressed them in the style of a spontaneous song of spiritual realization.
The term lam-rim has great significance and suggests the importance of the following three points:
1. The practitioner has correct recognition and understanding of the nature of the path in which he or she is engaged.
2. All the key elements of the path and practices are complete.
3. The practitioner engages in all the elements of the practices in the correct sequence.
With respect to the first point, the need for correct understanding of the nature of the path, let us take the example of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention. If you understand the altruistic intention to mean solely the aspiration to bring about the welfare of other sentient beings, your understanding of this particular aspect of the path is incomplete and inadequate. True bodhicitta is a non-simulated, spontaneous and natural experience of this altruistic intention. This is how you may mistake a mere intellectual understanding of bodhicitta for a true realization. It is, therefore, very important to be able to identify the nature of specific aspects of the path.
The second point, that all the key elements of the path should be complete, is also critical. As I mentioned before, much of the suffering we experience arises from our complex psychological afflictions. These emotional and mental afflictions are so diverse that we need a wide diversity of antidotes. Although it is theoretically possible for a single antidote to counteract all our afflictions, in reality it is very difficult to find such a panacea. Therefore, we need to cultivate a number of specific antidotes that relate to specific types of afflictions. If, for example, people are building a very complex structure such as a spacecraft, they need to assemble an enormous variety of machines and other equipment. In the mental and experiential world, we need an even greater diversity of means.
With respect to afflictions of the mind and flawed ways of perceiving and relating to the world, Buddhist texts speak of four principal false views:
1. The false view of perceiving impermanent phenomena as permanent.
2. The false view of perceiving events, our own existence and the various aggregates as desirable when they are not.
3. The false view of perceiving suffering experiences as happiness.
4. The false view of perceiving our own existence and the world as self-existent and independent when they are utterly devoid of self-existence and independence.
In order to counteract these false views, we need to cultivate all the various elements of the path. This is why there is a need for completeness.
The third point is that we’re not just accumulating material things and collecting them in a room; we’re trying to transform our mind. The stages of this transformation must evolve in the right order. First, we subdue gross negative emotions, then the subtle ones.
There is a natural sequence to Dharma practice. When we cultivate a path such as bodhicitta, gross levels of understanding, such as the simulated, deliberately cultivated ones, arise sooner than spontaneous, genuine experiences and realizations. Similarly, we need to cultivate the practices for attaining higher rebirths and other favorable conditions of existence before cultivating those for attaining enlightenment.
These three points—correct understanding of the nature of the path, its completeness and practicing its various elements in the right sequence—are all suggested in the term “lam-rim.”
The origin of the lam-rim teachings: the greatness of the authors
A great number of commentaries came into being on the basis of Atisha’s root text, A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment. Among these is the genre of writings by the Kadampa masters known as ten-rim, or Presentation of the Stages of the Path, as well as Lama Tsong Khapa’s lamrim works. These teachings present different skillful means for teaching the Dharma, but they are all grounded in the writings of authentic Indian masters. In the texts of some of the early Indian masters, we find what is known as “the five methods of teaching” or “the five aspects of the skillful means of teaching.”
Later, at Nalanda Monastic University,6 a unique tradition of presenting the Dharma to students developed— the skillful means of “the three purifications” or “the three pure factors”:
1. Ensuring that the teaching being given is pure.
2. Ensuring that the teacher giving the teaching is pure.
3. Ensuring that the students receiving the teaching are pure.
With respect to the second pure factor, even though the teaching being given may be pure, if the teacher giving it lacks the necessary qualities and qualifications, there will be shortcomings in the presentation. It thus became a tradition that before teaching the Dharma, teachers had to receive permission to do so from their own masters. With respect to the third pure factor, even though the teaching and the teacher may be pure, if the students’ minds are not properly prepared, then even an authentic teaching may not bestow much benefit. Therefore, the third pure factor means to ensure that the motivation of the listeners is pure.
Later on, when the Buddhadharma underwent a period of decline in the Nalanda area, it began to flourish in Bengal, particularly at Vikramashila Monastery, where a new tradition in the style of teaching emerged. Here it became customary to begin a teaching by talking about the greatness of the person who composed the text, the greatness and quality of the teaching itself, and the procedure by which the teaching and the listening of that teaching would take place, before moving on to the fourth skillful means, teaching the actual procedure for guiding the disciple along the path to enlightenment.
In those days, the majority of the people sustaining and developing the Dharma in the land of the noble beings, ancient India, were monastics, most notably monks from monasteries like Nalanda and Vikramashila. If you look at the masters from these great centers of learning, you will understand how they upheld the Buddhadharma. They were not only practitioners of the Bodhisattvayana, having taken bodhisattva vows, but also practitioners of the Vajrayana. Nevertheless, the daily life of all these practitioners was very much grounded in the teachings of the vinaya—the teachings on monastic ethics. The vinaya teachings of the Buddha were the actual foundation upon which these monasteries were established and maintained. Two stories illustrate how seriously these great institutions took their monastic discipline.
The great Yogachara thinker and highly realized master Dharmapala, who became the main source of the great inspirational teachings of the Sakya lam-dre—path and fruition—teachings, was a monk at Nalanda Monastery. In addition to being a monk, he was also a great practitioner of Vajrayana and later became known as the mahasiddha Virupa. One day, while the disciplinarian of the monastery was on his rounds, he looked into Dharmapala’s room and saw that it was full of women. In fact, this great mystic tantric master was emanating dakinis, but since monks were not allowed to have women in their room, Dharmapala was expelled from the monastery. It didn’t matter that his infraction was a display of high levels of tantric realization; the fact remained that Dharmapala had broken the codes of monastic discipline and had to go.
There is a similar story about the great Indian master Nagarjuna, founder of the Middle Way School, whom all Mahayana Buddhists revere. At one time, the entire Nalanda area was experiencing a terrible drought and everybody was starving. Through alchemy, Nagarjuna is said to have transformed base metals into gold to help alleviate the famine, which had also affected the monastery. However, the practice of alchemy was a breach of the monastic code and Nagarjuna, too, was expelled from the monastery.