Benefitting Sentient Beings Through the Gradual Path to Enlightenment
by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche Singapore, 2 June, l988
We are responsible for the welfare of each sentient being. We are completely responsible to enable other sentient beings to obtain happiness and pacify their sufferings.First, let’s use ourselves as an example. We all do not want anyone to have anger towards us, and we all wish that everyone else felt loving-kindness and compassion towards us. We wish that no one would would harm us, and that everyone would only help and benefit us. This is what we all want. This is the attitude and the actions that we want others to have towards us. How can we bring this about? How can we make it happen?
This is using ourelves as an example. Likewise, every other sentient being – that is, everyone whose mental continuum is separate from ours – wants us to have exactly the same feelings towards him or her. Other sentient beings do not want us to be angry with them. They want us to have loving-kindness and compassion towards them. They do not want us to do any harmful actions to them, and want our actions only to be of benefit to them. They would like us to be this way. They are depending on us to be kind and to help them. Therefore, it is very clear that we are responsible to bring happiness to every other sentient being and to pacify hiso or her sufferings. This is completely our responsibility. It is on our shoulders.
It is very important to be aware of this in every day life. Even other sentient beings do not practice Dharma and do not change their attitudes, it does not matter. Starting from our family, with however many members it has – one, five, ten – even they do not practice Dharma and do not change their actions towards us, leave it at that. Even all other sentient beings do not practice Dharma and do not change their attitude – even all of them are angry with us, harm us, never have compassion for us or benefit us, even they all critize us and there is no sentient being who respects us – that really is not very harmful. We are only one person, so it is not every important.
But, ourselves, one person, if we do not change our attitudes, if we do not change our actions, there is danger to all other sentient beings. If all others harm us, it is no big deal, because we are only one person. There is only one person receiving harm. But if we do not change our attitudes and actions, then there is danger to countless others. We cannot count the number of other sentient beings who are endangered by our harmful attitudes and actions. Therefore, we can see how unbelievably important it is for us, one person, to practice Dharma, subdue our negative mind and develop love and compassion.
We can see this in history. When one person does not practice controlling his/her anger, when one person does not control his/her mind and does not practice patience, loving-kindness and compassion, then many millions of people have been killed. This is just talking about human beings, without counting the creatures in the oceans, in the forests, and elsewhere that were killed as the result of this one person’s actions. If one person does not practice Dharma and does not control his/her mind, the number of other sentient beings that are endangered is unbelievable! We can just look at the history of our world to verify this.
Right now, we have this perfect human body that gives us all the opportunities to practice the Dharma. We have met the teachings. We have not just met the Buddha Dharma, but have come in contact with the teaching which is even more rare and precious, the teaching of the Greater Vehicle. The Mahayana teachings give so many answers; they contain so many solutions and so many methods to develop the mind. They are very profound and expansive. From the side of Buddha’s teachings, they are undeceptive, they do not cheat us. From the side of the teachings, there is nothing misleading or erroneous. If we practice them, definitely our mental defilements and stains will be ceased, and the continuum of our present mind will become omniscient. These teachings definitely lead to enlightenment.
While we have this perfect human body which gives us all the opportunities to practice Dharma, if we do not do it, then it could be dangerous. Each of us, if not in this life, then in future ones, could harm others, just as certain people have done previously in history. We could even destroy the world.
Look at just this lifetime, from the time we were born until now. Because we have not practiced the good heart, because we have not developed the method to be harmonious with others, we have gotten angry and have harmed others. How many times have we been under the control of disturbing thoughts and hurt others through actions of our body, speech and mind?
Think of the beginningless rebirths we have taken in cyclic existence unitl now. Because we have not ceased the disturbing thoughts, anger, and the self-cherishing thought, there is not one sentient being whom we have not harmed in the past. In fact, we have given harm to each and every sentient being numberless times while we have wandered in the cycle of samsara. We cannot count how many times we have harmed even one sentient being since beginningless time. If we do not change this attitude, if we do not make some change in our mind, we will continuously give harm to others. If we do not practice Dharma and transform our attitudes and actions, the danger of our harming others in the future is great. The actions of one person – me – can affect countless others. This is very serious.
In this way, we can see how important it is to change our attitude, and how completely wrong it is not to try to do so. What is the use of our following the self-cherishing thought, anger so forth, and yet expecting others to practice and to change their attitudes and actions? We then think, “They don’t change, so why should I? They don’t practice Dharma, they don’t practice patience, so why should I?” This way of thinking is completely useless. It is the wrong way of thinking. That is like saying, “They are eating poison, so I will too.” Then you do just as they do. Just this is reason enough to practice patience in our daily lives.
When we remember our responsibility towards every senient beings – to pacify his/her sufferings and bring about his/her happiness, then there is no time to be angry. There is no time, no opportunity to harm them.
Think of all the benefits of practicing Dharma. Take a couple, for example. If both people do not practice, but if one of them does, it is so beneficial. If one person – either the husband or the wife – practices Dharma, develops compassion and loving-kindness, then that one person’s mind is tranquil. Even if the other person does not change at all, because one person practices, the whole situation is better. If the husband practices, then his own mind is happy. When the wife is angry and tries to harm him, he does not retaliate. He does not get angry at her. Therefore, she is happier, because she does not receive harm from him. That gives her more peace. If the husband retaliates, then she not only has the problem of her original anger, but also she receives harm. In addition, she has more problems, because she gets even angrier and creates more negative karma with body, speech and mind. The situation continues, getting worse and worse.
However, if the husband practices patience, then she will experience peace. That peace depends on the husband’s attitude and actions. It came from him. That she receives less harm and has more peace comes from him. Thus, even one person practicing brings benefit to him/herself and also to the others around. Of course, if both people practice, there is no question of the result and the great benefit that comes.
Here, we are talking about only one couple. If there is a family with five or ten people, and one of them practices Dharma, controls his/her mind, then, even the other nine do not practice, at least they do not receive harm. The harm received by the other nine members becomes less. The harm they receive from one person stops because s/he is practicing. The other nine members of the family have peace. You can see that the happiness and peace of nine people completely depend on that one person. If s/he did not practice, then there would be additional problems. But, because he or she practices the other nine have less problems.
If one person – you – practice bodhicitta, then the uncountable number of other sentient beings do not receive harm from one person, you. They have more peace. It is similar to the family, only more beings are involved. As we practice Dharma and control our mind, the harm received by all other sentient beings becomes less. They receive that much more peace. That peace that they experience is dependent on us. It comes from us. Now you can see how each of us is completely responsible for every senient beings’ happiness and for the pacification of his/her sufferings.
You can see why the Dharma practice is so important. Practicing Dharma means subduing the mind, controlling the disturbing thoughts. When an action or thought becomes the remedy to a disturbing thought or harmful action, then that is the Dharma. This relates specifically to our daily lives. For example, if we look at other people with respect and loving-kindness, if we smile at them with a good heart and compassion, it makes them happy. They appreciate our attitude and our action. Even just smiling makes other sentient beings happy.
When we sincerely respect others, and show it by means of our body, speech and mind, they are happy. Remember how the sentient beings are the source of all of our happiness and our attainments. They are so precious and kind. Their kindness towards us is immeasurable. If we remember this, then we can respect other sentient beings just as we respect the Buddha and the Sangha. When we sincerely, from our heart, show respect to others, this makes them happy and joyful.
From these simple examples, we can see how we, as one person, can bring others happiness. Everyday we are involved with so many people – in the family, at work, in the street. If we have good manners, and respect and appreciate their kindness, it makes them happy. Their happiness depends upon us. You can see this from these examples in daily life. Our positive attitude affects them. How we act and behave with them makes a difference in their lives. In this way, you can see how other sentient beings’ happiness completely depends on us. We are responsible.
Thus, it is unbelievably important to practice and develop bodhicitta. If there is the good heart, an attitude of compassion and loving kindness, then our actions become helpful and beneficial. Others receive happiness as a result of our good heart. The ultimate good heart is the bodhicitta. The more we develop a good heart, the more extensive is the benefit received by other sentient beings. As we develop our capacity, potential and wisdom, then we are able to offer more and more extensive benefit to others. The benefit we can give expands all the way up to enlightenment.
Generating bodhicitta is not just saying a prayer. Only reciting the bodhicitta prayer alone cannot make us have bodhicitta. We have to know the entire teaching on how to develop it. Then we have to train the mind step by step in order to generate it.
There are many texts describing the methods to develop bodhicitta. There are the elaborate, middle and condensed Lam Rim (Gradual Path to Enlightenment),by Lam Tzong Khapa. The very brief one is called “Songs of Experience.” There are other lam rim teachings too, which explain how to practice the gradual path to enlightenment, which goes from the beginning practices until the highest stages of the tantric practice. The teachings on the gradual path to enlightenment are set up so that we can practice them without any confusion. This is due to the kindness of Lama Atisha, Lama Tzong Khapa and so forth, who arranged the teachings in this way.
The great pandit, Lama Atisha, helped to spread and establish Buddhism in Tibet. The system of lam rim, and the title “gradual path to enlightenment” started with him. All the teachings of the gradual path come from the Buddha and are found in the sutras and tantras. The Buddha explained them extensively in the sutras, and later the great Indian pandits wrote commentaries on them. The lam rim scriptures put all the information found on each subject in the sutras together. Then these subjects were put in order to form a step-by-step guide: we begin by meditating on Guru devotion, then perfect human rebirth, then the gradual path of the person of initial capacity, the gradual path of middle-capacity being, gradual path of higher-capacity being. It shows us step-by-step how to generate the path. In this way, we can understand the Buddha’s entire teachings, from the very beginning to the end, enlightenment.
When we want to benefit others and therefore, want to achieve enlightenment in order to do so in the best way, then we start to practice from the meditation on Guru devotion and go on. Practicing in a gradual way enables us to reach enlightenment for the benefit of other sentient beings. In this way, we never have confusion about where to begin, what to practice next, and so on. There is no confusion at all. The lam rim teachings are an incredible protection for us. Lama Atisha wrote the lam rim, the gradual path to enlightenment, in order to describe how one person can gradually practice the Buddha’s teachings and reach enlightenment. There is nothing contradictory in it. After Lama Atisha, other lamas wrote commentaries on the lam rim. Some are very extensive and are full of experience.
Even if we have no time to read all the various sutras – for Buddha gave so many teachings and our lives are so busy -then we can read the lam rim and get the essential points. We can read one page, or thirty or one hundred pages and see the step-by-step progression of how to train our minds. The lam rim provides us with clear guidance on the path. It is set up in a straight-forward manner, ready to practice, like food that is cooked and on the table, ready to eat. Without such clear guidance, we could get lost. We can study many scriptures but be lost and not know where to begin to practice. If we do not know the gradual way to develop and train our minds, it is very difficult. Nothing happens in the mind to actualize boddicitta. Generating bodhicitta depends on having developed the previous steps of the path. This is especially true if we want to practice tantra. We must have trained in the previous steps, otherwise our minds cannot receive the tantric realizations. It is very important to know the benefits of lam rim.
Also, if we do not understand the gradual path to enlightenment, it will be very difficult to guide other sentient beings. How can we guide them? We to guide them step-by-step. Thus, we must know this step-by-step method.
So far how much have you learned of lam rim? How much have you understood the teaching of the gradual path to enlightenment? How much you have learned compared to other people? Check up how clearly you understand the fundamental teaching, and on top of that, the tantra. You can see how much you have learned and understood if you compare your understanding from studying the lam rim with that of people who have not studied it. Then you can see and appreciate how much knowledge you have. You can see how clear your knowledge of the Dharma is and how well you understand how to practice the path. Compare yourself with other sentient beings who have no understanding at all of the lam rim and who do not understand Dharma at all, those who are completely ignorant. Compare your understanding with that of someone who has studied the Dharma and has some understanding of the sutra and tantra, but does not know the gradual path. What happens if you ask him/her how to practice from the beginning of the path to the end, how to follow the steps on the path of enlightenment? What are the details of the path? How do we perceive the path? S/he may find difficulty in answering.
The great pandit, Lama Atisha, was invited to come to Tibet during the time when the Tibetans had confusion about the path. There were many problems and confusion because people did not understand how to integrate the practice of sutra and tantra. The king’s nephew requested Lama Atisha to write a text and to give teachings on refuge and karma. By writing the first lam rim text, Lama Atisha clarified the points that the people had thought were contradictory. He set up the gradual path in order to resolve the problems of the people who did not know how to practice the teachings of the three vehicles in an integrated way. He showed that all of the Buddha’s teachings were for the practice of one person to achieve enlightenment. Lama Atisha said the Tibetan people were very foolish, so he would present the teachings in a simple and clear way. By this, he destroyed all the wrong conceptions that the people in Tibet had about how to practice Dharma.
Thus, Lama Atisha was unbelievably kind, as were the other lamas who wrote the commentaries to his text. Due to their kindness, now we have the great opportunity and fortune to learn and practice the gradual path. As we study more, we will recognize more and more the benefits of understanding the lam rim. Even having an intellectual understanding brings a lot of joy.
We should know the benefits of such a teaching, and then learn the teaching for the benefit of sentient beings. We should realize how much we are benefitting sentient beings by learning and practicing Buddha’s teachings of the gradual path.
In Sydney, Australia, someone asked, “How do we benefit other sentient beings?” I responded, “By showing the right path.” Showing the right path to other sentient beings is the best way to benefit them. To show the right path to others, we need to understand it first. We need to understand it correctly and then practice it. The more we have experience of the path, the more we can effectively show it to others.
Furthermore, having a teaching program like this and a Dharma center where people can hear and practice the teachings is so beneficial for others. When they hear teachings on karma, from the path of the being of initial capacity, they develop faith in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. By listening to the explanation on karma, they will take advantage of the opporunity to accummulate merit. They will also abandon negative karmas, and will take the five precepts and the eight precepts. Even they do not take all five precepts, they will abandon two or three of the negative actions and accumulate good karma by observing some of the precepts. This is how we benefit sentient beings and protect them from being born in the lower realm. By helping them to understand refuge and karma, the basic subjects, then they are saved from the lower realms. Otherwise, they could easily be born in those realms where, for hundreds of years, they have to experience suffering. While in the lower realms, they again create more negative karma to be born there again. They wander for eons in these unfortunate states, without even being able to hear the sound of a human voice. Thus, by teaching them about refuge and karma, we give them the opportunity to abandon negative actions and create positive ones so that they can be reborn in an upper realm.
Then we reveal the teachings of the gradual path of the beings of middle capacity, and the sentient beings come to understand the disadvantages of cyclic existence. Then they want to to be liberated from it. This will lead them to practice the three higher trainings: morality, concentration and wisdom. In this way the sentient beings will be led to liberation.
By revealing the teachings of the Great Vehicle – boddicitta, the six perfections, etc. – we will bring the sentient beings to enlightenment. In this way, they will not remain in the state of self-complacent, peaceful nirvana.
These are the practical benefits of showing the right path to sentient beings. These are the benefits of our activities – our listening, discussing, teaching. This is the purpose of what we are doing. It is very important to recognize the benefits of the Dharma activities that we are doing. Then we can feel much joy, because we know how much benefit we are able to offer to other sentient beings. Our heart is very joyful and happy.
We need to continue to develop our understanding so that we can help others. In this life, we need to experience as much of the path as possible, and leave imprints of all the teachings as much as possible, while there is the opportunity to do so. Then, even if it is not possible to gain full realizations this life, in the future lives we will be able to. We should practice as much as possible now.
As I have mentioned at other times, the number of sentient beings is uncountable. They are much more precious than just the one person which is me. For that reason we should work to bring about happiness for all sentient beings and to eliminate their sufferings. There is nothing more important than that. All of our past, present, and future happiness comes from sentient beings. Therefore, we are responsible to repay their kindness by leading them to happiness and pacifying their sufferings. When we see and know about the sufferings of the sentient beings, if we do not help them, then who will? If we, who understand how much suffering they are undergoing, do not help them, then who should? Even if they do not ask us, even if they do not beg us, it is our responsibility. We have a mind which can see that others are suffering and that they do not have freedom. Simply for this reason, we are reasonsible to help them have happiness and pacify their suffering.
For example, there is a blind person who is in danger of falling over a precipice. We have eyes and can see see that that person is in danger. Even if the person does not beg us, even if he does not ask us for help, we – who can see the danger he is in -are responsible to protect him immediately. Simply by the fact that we see the other person is in danger and needs help, we are responsible to help him.
When we become enlightened, what we do is to help other sentient beings. Even if we become enlightened now, what we do is to help other sentient beings. The highest action, the best guidance for sentient beings is to reveal the Dharma. This was the way the Buddha guided sentient beings best. Revealing the Dharma is the Buddha’s best way to help others, to liberate them from suffering and lead them to enlightenment. We are very fortunate to be able now to organize Dharma activites in order to benefit other sentient beings. We should feel fortunate and joyful that we are making our life beneficial by showing others the right path.
The more we hear the teachings on emptiness again and again, the more it leaves imprints on our mind streams to realize it. Thus, each time we hear teachings on emptiness, we get closer and closer to liberation. One pandit in India was reciting a Dharma scripture in his cave. There was a pigeon living nearby the cave, so every day while he recited the scriptures, the pigeon heard it. Later, the pigeon died and then was born to a family in that area. The pandit checked up with his clairvoyance where the pigeon was born, and saw that person would become monk. He then he went to the family and asked them if he could have the baby. They agreed. The child became a monk, and he became an expert in that branch of the Dharma because in his past life, while he had been a pigeon, the imprint was left when he heard the scriptures being recited. This disciple wrote commentaries on this branch of the Dharma.
Therefore, it is so important in this life, while we have this incredible opportunity for a few years, that we at least try to leave as much imprint of the Dharma as possible on our mind streams. Even if we cannot practice, even if we cannot reach enlightenment now, at least make an effort leave as much imprint of the Dharma as possible on our mind. This is very important. It is very wise. Therefore, while I give the oral transmission of the Heart Sutra, pay attention to the words.
In the Heart Sutra, there are the three types of Buddha’s word. The first is teaching permitted by the Buddha. This is the description at the beginning and end of the sutra, introducing the circumstance of the teaching and expressing the rejoicing that occurred after it. The second is the teaching blessed by the Buddha. This is the question-and-answer dialogue between Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara, which comprises the main part of the sutra. This is the teaching on emptiness that was given by Avalokiteshvara while the Buddha was meditating on the Profound Illumuniation. The Buddha inspired or blessed the dialogue to occur between Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara, so that it was the actually Buddha himself asking the question and giving the response through his two disciples. The third is the teaching directly taught by the Buddha, from his own holy mouth. This occurred when Buddha told Avalokiteshvara that he had spoken well. These were the actual words uttered directly by the Buddha.
I spoke of the meaning of emptiness before. However, I did not have the time to go through this sutra word by word to explain its meaning. You can meditate on the essence of what I explained and apply its meaning to the ear, nose, and so forth. It is just a matter of applying the meditation on emptiness to different objects.
To accomplish the path depends on developing the wisdom realizing emptiness. This, in turn, depends on developing the good heart. The more we have a good heart, bodhicitta, the less we accumulate negative karma through actions that harm others. We also accumulate more merit. Therefore, the practice of bodicitta is a skillful means to realize the wisdom of emptiness quickly. I pray that you will receive the full commentary to the Heart Sutra, and that many lamas come so it will be possible to receive the extensive commentary on it. These last few day, I have kept you here for many hours and drained your energy. Then it is difficult for you to go to work the next morning. Having the opportunity to listen to and practice the Dharma is rare, and having the chance to bear hardships for that end is also rare. We readily bear much hardship to create non-virtuous actions. But in the past and present, we have rarely bore hardships in order to practice the Dharma for the benefit of sentient beings. While the Buddha was a bodhisattva, he made charity of his own body to sentient beings so many times. For three countless great eons, he practiced and accumulated merit to attain enlightenment for sentient beings. He offered charity so many times and gave his whole life for sentient beings. Therefore, since this is part of the path to enlightenment, we should feel joyful and be able to bear hardships in order to practice Dharma and to listen to teachings.
The more difficult the situation in which we practice the Dharma is, the greater is the purification. Enduring the hot or the cold while practicing helps us to purify. The monasteries in Tibet are unbelievably cold, and the monks do not wear sleeves. Some even did not wear shoes. Sometimes they would chant, meditate, debate, and memorize scriptures the whole night. To endure this hardship in the cold is regarded as a great purification. Without bearing hardships, there is no way to achieve enlightenment or to develop the mind. Therefore, bearing hardships for Dharma is extremely worthwhile. Bearing hardship for non-virtuous actions results in suffering. In reality, it is like that.
I would like to say “thank you” very much to everybody, I enjoyed visiting Singapore very much this time.
Please dedicate the merits in order to attain enlightenment for other sentient beings. Dedicate so you and all others can develop the bodhicitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness. Dedicate the merit also so that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other holy beings have long lives and that all their wishes are actualized immediately. Dedicate for all sentient beings to have happiness, to accumulate merit, to purify all obscurations, and to achieve enlightenment quickly.
In all our lives, through the Victorious One, Lama Tzong Kahpa, acting as the actual Mahayana Spiritual Master, may we never turn aside for even an instant from the excellent path praised by the Victorious One.
May anyone who merely sees, hears, remembers, touches or talks to me be freed in that very instant from all sufferings and abide in happiness forever.
In order to follow the excellent examples set by the wisdom of the bodhisattva Manjushri and the always sublime Samantabhadra, I dedicate all virtues to their peerless ideals.
All Conquerors passed into the three times have praised as supreme this peerless dedication. Therefore, I also surrender all roots of my activities to the sublime goals of a bodhisttva.