6 H.H. Dalai Lama ’08: Teachings on Lamrim Chenmo

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Karma, karmic law, refers to a causal process that is begun by an agent with an intention.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Karma, karmic law, refers to a causal process that is begun by an agent with an intention.

6 His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Teachings on Lam-rim Chen-mo

Day Two, Afternoon Session, July 11, 2008. Part two. Stages of Training the Mind: Practices for Persons of Three Capacities. The Sequence of Practice. Beginning the Practice: Impermanence. Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels. Selflessness and Liberation. Emptiness and Refuge. The Law of Causality, Karma.

Thupten Jinpa: [continued] So in Tsongkhapa’s text he then explains that…

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So, having relied upon a spiritual teacher then he explains how to make one’s…

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Stages of Training the Mind: Practices for Persons of Three Capacities

Thupten Jinpa: … the stages by which one then trains one’s mind. And this is divided into two sections. The first is how to motivate oneself into training the mind, and the second is the actual training process itself.

In this first section, how to motivate oneself to engage in a Dharma practice, here one of the important points that he makes is recognizing the preciousness of human existence. There, first of all, he explains the characteristics of human existence, of leisure and opportunity. And then the fact that this form of human existence has great purpose and is purposeful and, third, that it is rare to find such a human existence in the future.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So then explaining how to actually make one’s human existence meaningful, he explains, first, a general presentation of the path, and then…

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: …and then the actual practice of how to make that human existence meaningful.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: Then in the actual presentation of the general structure of the path, Tsongkhapa introduces the concept of the practices of the persons of three capacities, and defines each of them. So for example, in defining the person of initial capacity, he cites from Atisha’s Lamp, where he reads:

Know to be “least” those persons
Who diligently strive to attain
Solely the joys of cyclic existence
By any means, for their welfare alone.

So this gives the definition of what constitutes someone as a person of initial capacity. And here the primary aim of the practitioner is to really seek happiness in mundane terms; then his or her approach is again influenced by that motivation.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So then next, Tsongkhapa (citing from Atisha) defines the person of middle capacity, and here he cites the following:

Those persons are called “medium”
Who stop sinful actions,
Turn their backs on the joys of cyclic existence,
And diligently strive just for their own peace.

So here the reference is to those individuals whose main motivation is to seek freedom from cyclic existence on the basis of a deep sense of disenchantment towards all forms of cyclic existence—the joys of cyclic existence. So here the reference to sinful actions is not to be understood in a conventional sense but rather it refers to the afflictions in general, or sinful here refers to those activities that lead to birth in cyclic existence.

So these are practitioners who, disenchanted by all forms of joys of cyclic existence, then turn away from this, and on that basis, diligently strive for their own freedom—peace and tranquility in the sense of freedom from cyclic existence. And these are practitioners characterized as being of middle capacity.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in practitioners of medium capacity, the main practices on the path that they will engage in will be the three higher trainings. And also, particularly in the context of the higher training in wisdom, the thirty-seven aspects of the path to enlightenment also falls within that category. So these are the main practices they will engage in to bring about the realization of their aim, which is the freedom from cyclic existence for their own sake—that peace and tranquility.

And then next Tsongkhapa defines the person of great capacity, and here he cites from the Lamp, and it reads:

Those persons are called “superior”
Who sincerely want to extinguish
All the sufferings of others
By understanding their own suffering.

So here Atisha is explaining those practitioners who, on the basis of their own experience of suffering, extend that to all other beings and come to recognize the need to bring about the end of suffering of all beings. And on that basis, they develop an aspiration to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all beings, and from that motivation engage in the practices such as cultivation of the ultimate awakening mind and the conventional awakening mind, the six perfections and so on. And these practices therefore are part of the practices relevant to the practitioner of great capacity.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So these three practices that are relevant to the persons of these three capacities can be viewed from the point of view of their aims. So in the teachings related to the initial capacity, the aim is to attain fortunate rebirth. And the aim of the practices of the middle, medium, capacity is to bring about the realization of the liberation from samsara, which is part of definite goodness. And the aim of the practices and teachings of the great capacity is to bring about the attainment of Buddha’s omniscient state. And also, as explained before, when we talk about Buddhadharma or Buddhist spirituality, it has to be defined in terms of whether or not it contributes towards the attainment of liberation.

So we explained how the attainment of liberation defines the Buddhadharma. However when it comes to actual practice, one must proceed in a gradual manner, in proper sequence. So although the aim is to attain liberation, on the first stage, as Aryadeva points out in the Four Hundred Stanzas, on the first level one must avert from the de-meritorious actions.

So here, before one can actually counter, directly counter, the afflictions, one needs to first of all tackle the behavioral expressions or manifestations of these afflictions. So these would be the negative, destructive actions of body, speech and mind that one engages in, as presented in the morality of abstaining from the ten negative actions.

And if you look at the kind of the principle behind the formulation of the ethics of the morality of abstaining from the ten negative actions, the main point there, at least in Buddhist ethics, is dealing with the consequences of anger and hatred. Therefore avoidance of harming others, causing harm to others, is the key principle there. And so at this level, the practitioner is trying to not directly challenge the afflictions themselves but rather deal with the behavioral expressions and manifestations of these afflictions. So this is the level of initial capacity.

And then at the second level, as Aryadeva’s text points out, in the middle, one needs to cease grasping at self. So here, then, it is the afflictions themselves that are being directly targeted and eliminated.

And then on the third level which Aryadeva points out, finally one must bring about an end to all distorted views. So here this relates to the practices of the great capacity where not only the afflictions themselves but even the propensities created by these afflictions and their imprints are also being removed. So you can relate the three practices of the three capacities in those manners as well.

The Sequence of Practice

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So if you look at the teachings and practices of the three capacities, the sequence and the order is really definite, because one cannot jump on to the practices of the middle capacity and higher capacity (or great capacity) without laying the foundation of the initial capacity.

Also if you look at it, what is happening in the context of these three practices is that by engaging in the practices that are relevant to the initial capacity, the practitioner learns to turn away from obsessive concerns about this life and moves more toward the concerns of the future life. So that kind of turning occurs on the basis of the practices of the initial capacity. Then on the next level, by reflecting deeply upon the nature of suffering in samsara, the person is also able to turn away from attachment to and preoccupation with the concerns of the next life as well.

So then on the basis of these two, turning away from obsessive preoccupations with the concerns of this life and a future life, one then is able to develop a deep sense of disenchantment towards cyclic existence as a whole and develop a genuine yearning or aspiration to gain freedom—and also understand the need for freedom.

So once you have gained that, when you then shift the focus, and extend that same awareness and realization on to other sentient beings, then compassion arises, and it takes you to the next level, which is the practices of the great capacity. So even in terms of the way in which our mind progresses in terms of the stages of transformation, the order of the sequence is determined.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in the lam-rim literature, sometimes the phrase is used that one of the qualities of the lam-rim teachings is that it is beneficial and effective with respect to practitioners of any level of mental capacity. And the point here is that depending upon what is your mental inclination and primary spiritual motivation, you can find the practices that are appropriate for the fulfillment of that aspiration in the lam-rim teachings.

For example, if the practitioner is that of initial capacity, where the primary aspiration of the practitioner is to gain freedom from potential suffering in an unfortunate realm of existence in the next life, then within that context, that practitioner can relate to the Dharma from within the framework of the four noble truths.

So here, the suffering that needs to be identified is the evident suffering, particularly of an intense form, that is found in the unfortunate realms of existence. And then the origin of suffering here would be the negative actions that one would commit that involve inflicting harm upon others, so that would be karmic action. And then the afflictions would be not the three poisons in general, but rather the more specific forms of them, covetousness, harmful intention, and wrong views. And so these will be the equivalent of the afflictions.

Then the path, the equivalent of the path, would be the adopting of the morality of abstaining from the ten negative actions; that would be the path. And the cessation would be the temporary freedom that one would gain as a result of attaining a favorable rebirth.

So you can see, within that context, all the four noble truths can be present, and in fact the aspiration is to seek freedom from negative, unfortunate rebirths. Therefore that is the aspiration, and all the practices and conditions that are necessary for the realization of that aim are all fully present in the context of the teachings of initial capacity.

So in the lam-rim text approach, after explaining the sufferings of the lower realms of existence, then the actual practices are presented in terms of taking refuge in the three jewels from whom you seek refuge from unfortunate rebirths. And then on that basis one engages in the practices of following the law of karma. So here you have all the practices complete.

However there are other alternative presentations, where the elements of the practices are sequenced slightly differently, divided slightly differently. For example in the approach of turning away from false attitudes, for example in Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Elements of the Path, there, recognition of the preciousness of human existence and awareness of its transient nature, impermanence, are related to the practices of initial capacity. And then contemplation on the law of karma and reflection upon the sufferings of the lower realms are actually included in the practices of the middling capacity, where these are used as a basis for developing a deep sense of disillusionment towards samsaric existence and cultivating true renunciation.

So sometimes different approaches tend to divide the elements of the teachings slightly differently, but in lam-rim, in this text, all of these are brought into the practices of the initial capacity so there is a completeness to the entire practices.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Beginning the Practice: Impermanence

Thupten Jinpa: So then in explaining the actual way to take full advantage of the life of leisure and opportunity, then Tsongkhapa explains this in terms of training the mind in the stages of the path shared with the person of small capacity. And the first of these is developing a state of mind that strives diligently for the sake of future lives. It is in this context that meditation on cultivating awareness of impermanence and death is presented.

And the teaching on impermanence is a very important teaching of the Buddha. For example, if you look at the public sermon on the four noble truths, impermanence is one of the characteristics of suffering. In fact the presentation of the four noble truths is done with each noble truth with four characteristics, so altogether there are sixteen characteristics that explain the understanding of the four noble truths, and among the four characteristics of suffering the first is impermanence.

And similarly in the Buddhist tradition, we speak of four seals of Buddhism—that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent, all contaminated phenomena are in the nature of suffering, all phenomena are empty and devoid of selfhood, and nirvana is true peace. So these are the four seals. Again here the first one is the fact of impermanence of all conditioned phenomena.

So in these teachings such as the four noble truths and the four seals, when the Buddha is teaching impermanence, of course the main understanding of an impermanence is a subtle level of impermanence. In the context of the practices of initial capacity, the understanding of impermanence is not really at that subtle level, but more at an evident, grosser level where we understand impermanence in terms of death or cessation.

So for example if we take human existence or a life of a sentient being, then when the continuity of that particular life comes to an end, that is seen as the impermanent nature of that birth. So awareness of death is the main impermanence understanding that is being cultivated here. And this is also crucial because awareness of death and impermanence is what is going to counter our habitual tendency to grasp at the permanence of our own existence. And it is this kind of grasping at the permanence of our own existence that often leads to all forms of trouble.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So, then having cultivated the awareness of death and impermanence, one then reflects upon the suffering of the lower realms.10 And then when explaining on that basis the actual method by which one brings about the fulfillment of the aspiration, then this is explained in terms of two practices.

One is first establishing the basis by taking refuge in the three jewels, and then on that basis, one learns to live according to the laws of karma. And the reason why taking refuge in the three jewels is explained is that, generally speaking, in observance of morality, of abstaining from ten negative actions in themselves, there is nothing uniquely Buddhist. So in order for these practices of morality to be… to become a Buddhist practice, they need to be grounded upon taking refuge in the three jewels. And when it comes to the specific aspects of the workings of karma at this initial level, at this point, then faith becomes an important factor to develop the conviction in them.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: And then in the section dealing with taking refuge in the three jewels, Tsongkhapa explains this in terms of identifying what kind of conditions are necessary on the part of the person who is seeking refuge; who or what are the objects that are worthy of being a refuge; the manner in which one must seek refuge in them; then what are the precepts that one must observe as a result of taking refuge; and then what are the benefits of taking refuge.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So when presenting the practices of going for refuge in this lam-rim text, the presentation is made in such a way that it takes for granted that the practitioner is already a Buddhist.

However, if you look at other approaches, such as in the second chapter of Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika(Exposition of Valid Cognition), where Dharmakirti presents a series of reasonings that establishes the possibility of attaining liberation, and similarly in Chandrakirti’s commentary [the Clear Words] on the 24th chapter of Nagarjuna’s text Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, there is a very clear and important explanation which is relevant here.

This is because, for example, in the 24th chapter, Nagarjuna raises all the potential objections from the Buddhist realists or Buddhist essentialists who raise the question (as we had in one of the questions earlier today)—that if everything is devoid of inherent existence, then cause-and-effect relationships will not be possible. In that case then the Dharma becomes untenable, and if the Dharma becomes untenable, there cannot be Sangha and therefore there cannot be Buddha. Therefore the three jewels become untenable, and if the three jewels become untenable, then the four noble truths become untenable. So the whole edifice of cause-and-effect relations breaks down.

So in response to this, Nagarjuna actually turns the tables on the opponent and says that, in effect, within the worldview where one presupposes inherent existence, in fact the causal relations become impossible. Because if emptiness is not tenable then dependent origination becomes untenable, and if dependent origination becomes untenable then cessation and the path leading to cessation—all of these will become untenable.

Because when we speak of emptiness, we are not talking about mere nothingness or nonexistence, but rather we are talking about emptiness of existence by means of inherent nature, existence by means of self-defining nature.

So if emptiness becomes untenable, then there is no possibility of dependent relations being upheld, and if that is not possible then the whole cessation and the path and everything fall down. So in Chandrakirti’s commentary, the exposition of these series of arguments and the line of thinking is most excellently described. So for someone who takes refuge in the three jewels, understanding at least some aspects of these explanations may be very helpful.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So this will come later on so we can discuss…

Selflessness and Liberation

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So this relates to the question we had earlier, “If there is no inherently existing self, what transmigrates?” And so this relates to this question. And part of the problem is coming from the fact of not fully understanding the meaning of no-self, the teaching of no-self.

When Buddha speaks about there being no ‘self’, he is not rejecting the existence of a self of the person. There is a person who accumulates action. There is a person who experiences the consequences of that action. What is being rejected is that, if we analyze the nature of our self, although in reality the self, or the person, exists in dependence upon the physical and the mental elements that make up the individual’s existence, but in our naïve perception of ourselves we tend to kind of assume a self that is somehow a kind of a master that reigns over, that rules over, our body and mind, that somehow is independent of them. So then it is that kind of self— that we assume to exist— that is being negated. So generally when Buddhism says there is no ‘self’, it is this kind of conceived self, this conception of self, that is being rejected.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So in particular, when the teaching on emptiness is presented on the basis of using dependent origination, the fact that things come into being in dependence upon other factors, that things are dependently designated, the fact that these are used as a kind of basis to demonstrate the emptiness of phenomena itself suggests some form of existence that is being recognized.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So what is required on the part of the practitioner when taking refuge in the three jewels is, first of all, to have some understanding of the possibility of cessation in general, and particularly the possibility of cessation in oneself. So from here, when we talk about cessation in the Buddhist context, we are talking about the possibility of all the pollutants of the mind, the afflictions, being dissolved and cleansed within the nature of mind itself. So, in order to understand the nature of cessation, some degree of understanding of emptiness becomes indispensable.

And so furthermore when we talk about the origin of suffering, the afflictions, and particularly if one’s understanding of afflictions is deep, then one needs to understand afflictions at their root, which is the fundamental ignorance. And as I explained before, depending upon what your understanding of the ultimate view of reality is, it’s going to have a difference on how you define fundamental ignorance.

So, in any case, to have a deeper understanding of the subtle level of ignorance, again some understanding of the way in which things really exist, which is the nature of reality, becomes again essential. Similarly, when we talk of suffering, suffering at its very subtle level, again to have that understanding of emptiness becomes important. So therefore to really take refuge in the three jewels in the most ideal manner, some degree of understanding of emptiness becomes very important.

Emptiness and Refuge

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So, for example, when we go for refuge of the Buddha and say buddham saranam gachhame,” “I go for refuge to the Buddha,” the Sanskrit term buddha has two different connotations. One is: buddha can mean cleansing of the faults or pollutants. But it can also mean flourishing or development, such as the blossoming of the petals of the lotus. This is referred to as buddha.

However in the Tibetan equivalent of the term, both of these two aspects of the meaning are brought together, and the composite term is created that is sang gyay. And sang gyay means ‘to be awakened’ or ‘to cleanse,’ andgyay pa means ‘to develop, to blossom’, or ‘to flourish’, so both of these meanings are brought together.

Similarly the Sanskrit term for buddhi, in Tibetan jang chup is used, where again both meanings of the term are brought into a single composite term. And although at the level of buddhahood, total cleansing of all the faults and total perfection of all the qualities may be simultaneous, but in the process one needs to proceed by eliminating the obscurations first.

So because, when it comes to the Buddha’s enlightened qualities of the mind, insofar as the kind of cognition of reality is concerned, that quality is naturally present in our minds. It’s not a new quality that needs to be cultivated afresh. The process primarily involves removing the obstacles that obscure the expression of that natural cognitive quality. And so long as the obstacles are present, they obscure, and then this natural quality doesn’t become awakened.

So therefore in the Tibetan word, sang is put first and gyay pa, the development of perfection, comes later. So the main point is that to really understand the significance and meaning of going for refuge, one needs to have some understanding of the objects of refuge.

And here, too, some degree of understanding of the teaching on emptiness again becomes important because one needs to understand what is meant by buddhahood, and how buddhahood is defined in terms of cleansing and dissolving of all the pollutants within the nature of mind itself, and how enlightenment and un-enlightenment are defined in terms of the state of mind itself, whether it remains in ignorance or whether it becomes awakened. So this is what defines samsara and nirvana, enlightenment and the un-enlightened state. So therefore even to understand the concept of buddhi or enlightenment, some understanding of the teaching on emptiness becomes crucial.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So similarly when we say dharmam saranam gachhame, I go for refuge to the Dharma, the Sanskrit term dharma has the connotation of something that holds you or something that protects you. So again here, in order to fully understand the significance of these terms, some understanding of emptiness becomes crucial as well.

His Holiness: [in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: Similarly when we take refuge in the sanghasangham saranam gachhamesangha literally means those who aspire for goodness. And goodness here is defined, identified with, cessation. So again, to understand the meaning of sangha, some notion of understanding of cessation and emptiness becomes important.

The Law of Causality, Karma

His Holiness: [begins in Tibetan]… the law of causality… [continues in Tibetan]

Thupten Jinpa: So, preceded by taking refuge in the three jewels, one then needs to understand the law of karma, causality. So when we talk about the law of karma, we are talking about, in general, the law of causality itself—and karma is a subset of the law of causality. So karma refers to a very specific kind of causal relation where, when we use the word karma, karma literally means action. And when we talk about action we’re talking about an activity involving an agent with an intention. So karma, karmic law, refers to a causal process that is begun by an agent with an intention. And that intentional act creates a chain resulting with its consequences. So this law of causality is referred to as the karmic law of causality.

So, when we talk about karma, principally here we are talking about causal events which are related to a sentient being’s experience of pain and pleasure, happiness and suffering. So when we are talking about experiences we are talking about mental phenomena, and therefore when we talk about the events at the mental level, then their causes must also principally belong to that category of phenomena as well. Therefore when we talk about karma we are principally referring to one of the mental factors that are present in the state of mind of the person. So within the Buddhist schools, Vaibhashika and Prasangika sometimes also include physical actions as belonging to karma, but generally other schools identify karma principally as a mental factor.

His Holiness: So, now 4:17. Okay. Finish now. Stop.

In July 2008, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama gave a historic six-day teaching on The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam-rim Chen-mo), Tsongkhapa’s classic text on the stages of spiritual evolution. Translator for His Holiness was Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.

This event at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania, marked the culmination of a 12-year effort by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center (TBLC), New Jersey, to translate the Great Treatise into English.

These transcripts were kindly provided to LYWA by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center, which holds the copyright. The audio files are available from the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center’s Resources and Linkspage.

The transcripts have been published in a wonderful book, From Here to Enlightenment, edited by Guy Newland and published by Shambhala Publications. We encourage you to buy the book from your local Dharma center, bookstore, or directly from Shambhala. It is available in both hardcover and as an ebook from Amazon, Apple, B&N, Google, and Kobo. http://www.lamayeshe.com/article/chapter/day-one-afternoon-session-july-10-2008