A Commentary on “A Lamp for the Path”
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Translated by Thubten Jinpa
May 19-22, 2002
Good morning. Now over the next few days there will be an explanation about Buddhadharma according to the Tibetan tradition. This means that if we examine the text, which we learned by not only reading or study but also learned by heart. All those major texts were actually written by the pandits or scholars of Nalanda Buddhist University in ancient times in India. So all of our practice is actually based on those texts so therefore is really worthwhile to mention that Tibetan tradition is Nalanda tradition, pure Nalanda tradition. The text that I will explain which was written by Atisha Dipamkara. He also originally studied at Nalanda and later at Vikramashila so all his knowledge actually based on the text written by Nalanda scholars like Nagarjuna, Arya Asanga, Aryadeva, Vasubandhu, Dignaga like that.
Usually I make sort of a correction. Some scholars, mainly from the West describe Tibetan Buddhism as Lamaism, not genuine, original Buddhism. This is a mistake. Since the Nalanda scholars or Nalanda institution they practiced or studied all Buddhist traditions, Theravada system, Bodhisattvayana as well as the Vajrayana. All of the Nalanda scholars had different views whether the texts were regarding Tantrayana or Madhyamika; some were written using one name. Some scholars say there were two Nagarjunas, not the same. Of course Dipamkara Atisha accepted the Tantrayana tradition.
So the Tibetan tradition which comes from the Nalanda tradition includes all the practices, Theravada system, Paramita-Sutrayana system, and the Tantrayana. So therefore usually I describe Tibetan Buddhism as a complete form of Buddhism. (Dalai Lama in English)
If one looks at the textual evidence one finds that it is quite obvious that within the Nalanda tradition, among the Nalanda masters there were great masters who had actually written treatises on Vajrayana Buddhism. For example the well known commentator on the Perfection of Wisdom literature, particularly the commentary known as the Commentary on the Twenty-five Thousand Lines on the Perfection of Wisdom composed by Moktesayna (SP?). When he discusses the concept of the Buddha’s four embodiments, the four kayas he alludes to an alternative tradition which clearly suggests that he was referring to the Vajrayana understanding of the Four Kayas.
Similarly one of the main Indian sources for the lineage of the Sakya tradition was Virupa who was previously known as the great master at Nalanda as Dharmapala. He was a great pandit who later also became to known as Virupa who is the source of the major lineage of Sakya practice. So all of this suggests that the Vajrayana teachings and practices were actually present during the time of the Nalanda teachers.
(H.H. in English) So of course all major traditions of religion particularly in the Buddhist tradition the main task is to check or watch our own minds then try to transform it, particularly the emotional level. One unique thing I think about Buddhism is trying to transform emotion through intelligence, through reasoning. This is perhaps one unique aspect of Buddhism.
So the next three days our main task is to transform our minds, of course not easy (laughter). For example in my own case I think since age six-seven I started Buddhist study, supposed practice also. But I had no interest in practice, even no interest in study (Laughter) but around fifteen-sixteen years old then I began to develop a genuine interest in practice. So now today I am almost sixty-seven years old and still I am practicing, still studying. Whenever I have time I read, think, analyze and try to absorb at my emotional level. Still not at all a satisfactory result but certainly I feel that as the result of practice I got immense benefit in my daily life. So therefore it is useful; it is something really worthwhile. Make attempt but at the same time you should also know that it is not easy, takes time and needs regular effort.
Perhaps among the audience here some are followers of different traditions, maybe some non-believers. As I said last evening first I think it is important to have good heart, sense of caring for one another, sense of community, sense of responsibility. This is I feel most important qualities of human beings. So long as we are human beings we need these basic human values because without these human values that person will not be happy person. Wherever that person goes always create some problems and the person himself or herself also not be happy. Always some kind of frustrations inside.
But as far as religious belief is concerned, yes if someone has religious beliefs in order to increase and strengthen these human values, it is very good. But otherwise without any religion you can be a good person, you can be a happy person. So for a good life, for a happy life religion is not necessary so it is perfectly alright if you remain a nonbeliever provided you are a warm-hearted, good person, sincere person, honest person. This is very important.
Among the believers there are different traditions. Some differences are fundamental. Usually I make two categories, one is a godly religion, a theistic sort of religion like Christianity, Muslim or Judaism, most Hinduism. The other category I usually describe as godless religion, no god, no concept of god and here is Jainism, a part of the Samkhya tradition and Buddhism, no concept of a creator. So there are these fundamental differences however both emphasize the importance of the message of love, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, relief of suffering. So all teach human values and therefore in spite of different philosophies and different way of approach the main target is to try to make a contribution for humanity, try for a human being to become a good human being. All have this same potential to help humanity, to serve humanity.
Looking at it this way, in spite of different philosophies it is the same goal, not ultimate goals like nirvana or heaven, I’m not talking about that. But as far as transformation of a compassionate society, good society, happy society, all have the same potential, same goal. Since among humanity there are so many varieties of many dispositions therefore we need a variety of religions. Quite simple. So with understanding this certainly it is very, very important to respect and appreciate, to admire all different traditions, all major traditions.
Therefore whenever I give a Buddhist teaching, Buddhist explanation to Westerners or non-Buddhist community, I always make clear that I am not trying to promote the Buddhadharma but simply trying to promote basic human values. For this, I ask how to make a contribution from my tradition in order to build happier human family, more peaceful human society. This is my thought, my view.
Those of you who follow different traditions, it is much better and safer to keep your own tradition. In the meantime out of these thousands of people some like Tibetans, the majority, 99% are Buddhists however among Tibetans there are Christians and Muslims. Muslims have been there for the last few centuries. So similarly in the Christian countries the majority of the people are Christians but at the same time some may have an inclination or the mental disposition which places them closer to the Buddhist approach, this approach is more suitable.
So for an individual there are two choices, either remain nonbeliever, which I sometimes call radical atheist because Buddhism also is atheist. So a radical atheist means no belief at all in any value of spirituality. So one is either a radical atheist or Buddhist. From some individuals there are only two choices, either accept Buddhism or remain radical atheist. In the meantime the radical atheist view is also quite similar, not satisfactory so then prefer it to Buddhism. This is okay if that person if they are not comfortable within their own tradition, find it unbelievable or is unacceptable, not suitable. Then if they find the way of the Buddhist approach is suitable then okay but in this case also think very carefully, don’t follow fashion or fad. Think very carefully. After you really carefully think that the Buddhist approach is most suitable to you then okay as an individual right follow to Buddhism, accept Buddhism.
But then one important thing is after you become Buddhist you must not show disrespect to others’ traditions, particularly your own previous tradition. This you must avoid. You must respect. Although in your own case your own tradition no longer has an effect but that does not mean that it no longer has any effect at all for humanity. Your previous tradition still helping millions of human beings on this planet. So we must respect, must avoid any kind of disrespect.
Those people from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, China, Korea, Japan and all of Tibet and Mongolia, people from these areas the majority of them are Buddhists, traditionally they are Buddhist. Usually I feel more comfortable to give Buddhist teachings to Chinese and also Mongolians but to give Buddhist teachings to traditional Buddhists there is no danger of competition.
Now I will explain the Buddhadharma in Tibetan. Firstly it is much easier for me and I can rest while he translates. Also more importantly if I try to explain in my broken English then although I have studied English since 1947, I am a very old student of English study (laughter). But I never progress, no progress. Also I am getting older, my English also is getting older, so more difficult (laughter). Thank you.
Normally when I give teachings in a context where there are gathered various members of the Buddhist tradition then I request the members of the Pali Sangha to chant the Moggallana Sutra. (Chanting). Among the followers of the great teacher Buddha Shakyamuni there are many different traditions and of all of these traditions what is known as the Pali tradition is in terms of seniority the most senior. It is probably the case that in fact the teachings that were originally given by the Buddha were given in the language of Pali. So this is why we are honored to have the representatives from the Pali tradition to chant the Pali Sutras.
Tomorrow if there are members of the Chinese Sangha who can recite the Heart Sutra in Chinese I request them to do so tomorrow morning. In terms of chronology the Chinese Buddhist tradition is the second most senior Sangha. On the third day I would request members of the Vietnamese Sangha to chant again the Heart Sutra. Now we will do the recitation of what are known as the three daily practices which will be followed by the recitation of the Heart Sutra in Tibetan.
Next is a salutation to the Buddha from the Fundamentals of the Middle Way.
[I prostrate to the Perfect Buddha,
The best of teachers, who taught that
Whatever is dependently arisen is
Unannihilated, not permanent,
Not coming, not going,
Without distinction, without identity,
And free from conceptual construction.]
Now is the salutation to the Perfection of Wisdom from Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara, the Clear Realizations. It was the established tradition in Nalanda whenever one engages in the conduct of either giving a teaching or listening to a teaching to cultivate the appropriate state of mind and motivation. This done by going for refuge to the Three Jewels which distinguishes the uniqueness of the path of the Buddha and this is followed by cultivating the altruistic aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, the generation of bodhicitta. This is to reinforce one’s commitment to the wellbeing of others and through this way both the teacher and also the students who participate in the teaching are advised to cultivate the right frame of mind when engaging in such activities. If am I right this verse was composed by Atisha himself, Atisha Dipamkara.
In Tibet there was a particular custom which evolved in the eastern part of Tibet, the Kham region which I inherited from the late Khunu Lama, Tenzin Gyaltsen Rinpoche where on the part of the teacher before beginning the actual formal exposition of the teachings to remember the Buddha. One pays homage to him as the teacher by reciting some verses of praise to the Buddha so I will do that now.
As it is widely known in the conventional sense in terms of history the Buddha Shakyamuni emerged on this planet more than 2,500 years ago. This great teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni when shared his teachings with the world he did so by giving several public series of sermons. The first public series of sermons is known as the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma and the main topic or theme of these teachings was the Four Noble Truths. One finds in fact that the teachings embodied in the Four Noble Truths laid the basic framework for the overall aspects of the Buddha’s teachings.
If one looks closely at the teachings of the Four Noble Truths what one finds is that Buddha lays out all of the key aspects that are important for one’s engaging in the path towards enlightenment. What one finds in the Four Noble Truths are the objects of one’s practice thus laying the foundation where one establishes a basic understanding of the way things exist. On the basis of this one then finds the actual practice that is presented or embodied in the three higher trainings, morality, concentration and wisdom.
Of these three higher trainings, morality serves as the basis and in this teaching one has different categories of precepts. For example broadly speaking there is the layperson’s precepts and the ordained members’ morality or precepts. All together there are listed seven or eight different classes of precepts which together embody the teachings on morality.
So taking morality, the ethical discipline as the foundation, as a basis then the individual practitioner cultivated single-pointedness of mind thus developing the second higher training, which is the higher training in concentration. The reason why Buddhists refer to these practices as “higher” trainings is to distinguish them from just ordinary practices of ethics or single-pointedness. The practice of single-pointedness in itself is nothing uniquely Buddhist so what is required in the context of Buddhism for such a practice to be a higher training is to have the appropriate motivation. One is to take refuge in the Three Jewels particularly the Dharma Jewel as understood as the cessation of suffering, as moksha or liberation. Also one’s practice of single-pointedness must grounded on a deep realization of true renunciation. So with these two as a basis then cultivating the practice of single-pointedness of mind becomes a “higher” training in concentration.
On the basis of these two, morality as the basis and single-pointedness as the method, then the actual path is enshrined in the teachings on wisdom. These teachings on wisdom are explained in the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma within the framework of what are known as the Thirty-seven Aspects of the Path to Enlightenment.
There is then the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma where all of the teachings exist in Sanskrit. These teachings, particularly the most popular set of teachings known as the Perfection of Wisdom were taught by the Buddha at the summit of Vulture’s Peak in Rajaghra. These scriptures which belong to the Second Turning emphasize and explain in great detail two essential points of the Buddhist practice. One is the cultivation of the altruistic intention to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of the infinite numbers of sentient beings, whose numbers are equal to the infinity of space. Based on compassion towards all of these sentient beings one cultivates the altruistic aspiration to attain Buddhahood for their sake. This is the first essential practice taught in the Second Turning.
The other aspect of the practice that is presented in these sutras of the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma is the ultimate nature of reality. When one speaks of the ultimate nature of reality one is really referring to a deeper understanding of the Third Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering, the second is the Truth of the Origin of Suffering and the third is the Truth of Cessation. In the Perfection of Wisdom texts the Third Truth, the Truth of Cessation is explained and elaborated further in great detail with a deepening understanding of the nature of true cessation.
In order to understand what is the true nature of cessation, cessation refers to the cessation of the afflictive emotions and thoughts, which one achieves as the result of applying the appropriate antidotes or remedies. In order to understand the true nature of cessation first of all one needs to have some understanding of what lays at the root of the afflictions. What state of mind acts as a direct antidote to the afflictive thoughts and emotions? Do these afflictive emotions and thoughts have any sound basis? Is there the possibility of rooting out the basis of these afflictive emotions and thoughts?
The point is in what sense can one understand the possibility of attaining such a true cessation? What makes it possible for the afflictive emotions and thoughts to be eliminated? These points are developed in great detail with a deepening understanding in the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. The need for understanding the ultimate nature of reality which the scriptures refer to as Suchness, the ultimate mode of being and how in one’s day-to-day experience in engaging with the world often one sees a gap between the way things exist and the way things really are and the way one perceives them. So there is a gulf between the appearance of perception of things and the reality of things. Thus through deepening one’s understanding of the ultimate mode of being of things or ultimate reality then this gulf can be bridged.
All of these explanations are found in great detail in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras and this deepened level of understanding is in fact the true path. So what one finds in the teachings of the Second Turning are a further elaboration on the themes that were presented in the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, particularly the Third and Fourth Noble Truths, the Truth of Cessation and the Truth of the Path.
The Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma is where the term “three turnings” itself came from in the Mahayana tradition. This is found in the Sutra called Samdhinirmocana, the Sutra Unraveling the Intention of the Buddha in which the distinction is made between the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. The Samdhinirmocana Sutra is identified as representing the key sutra of the third class of public teachings of the Buddha. It is also described as the sutra clearly differentiating the ultimate intentions of the Buddha.
Of course this understanding is from the point of view of the Mind-Only School whereas other Buddhist traditions do not recognize this sutra as representing the definitive teaching of the Buddha. The scripture that is then cited as the key example of the definitive teachings of the third class of public teachings is the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Essence of Buddhahood Sutra. This sutra is the basis for Maitreya’s composition of well-known Uttaratantra, the Sublime Continuum in which there are detailed discussions of the understanding of the ultimate nature of mind. A teaching is given that so far as the ultimate nature of the mind is concerned, it is luminous and devoid of inherent existence.
This is a further presentation of emptiness of mind as opposed to an external object such as a vase. Although in so far as both the emptiness of the vase and the emptiness of the mind are concerned, they are both emptinesses without any difference. However given that one is the emptiness of mind while the other is the emptiness of an external object, there is a vast difference between the impact is has by understanding these two different emptinesses. In the Tathagatagarbha Sutra and Maitreya’s treatise based upon it, it is presented that if one examines the ultimate nature of the mind carefully one finds that the ultimate nature of the mind is empty, devoid of intrinsic existence.
In fact mind in its natural state is luminous, a mere knowing and clear. All of the afflictions that pollute the mind are separable in principle from the basic mind by applying the appropriate antidotes and remedies. This suggests the afflictions of the mind are in some sense adventitious, not part of the essential nature of the mind. They are adventitious while the potential for the perfection of enlightenment, the potential for the realization of omniscience or the potential for the enlightened qualities of a Buddha are all inherent in the mind.
Maitreya points out that the afflictions of the mind are adventitious, removable and separable from the essential nature of the mind. The qualities of enlightenment, the qualities of perfection lay in the very mind one possesses in the form of a seed and is referred to as the Buddhanature, the essence of Buddhahood. These qualities of the Buddha are not something that need to be cultivated from outside but rather the seed or potential exists naturally in all of us therefore what is required is the activation of this potential and the perfection of this potential.
These points are explained in great detail in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra and in this sutra there is a very profound understanding of the Fourth Noble Truth, the Truth of the Path.
The text on which this teaching is being given is The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment is a very comprehensive text, which brings together all the essential points of the teachings of all three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. These are complemented by a brief discussion on Vajrayana Buddhism as a means of clarifying doubts.
Some of the Kadampa masters in Tibet when teaching Atisha’s Lamp of the Path to Enlightenment given the fact that it integrates most of the essential points of the various scriptures even though the text itself is very short (three folios in Tibetan), would slightly boast. They would say that although this text is short, it is so profound and pulls together from all of the various scriptures that when this is taught they could feel the other volumes of great teachings shake.
This text was composed by the Indian master Atisha Dipamkara and the place where he composed it was in Tibet. The immediate catalyst was the request for its composition made by the Tibetan monarch in Western Tibet, Byang-chub-od. When he requested Atisha to teach he explicitly made the request that he was not seeking a profound sounding teaching or very impressive but rather a teaching that would be of benefit to the people of Tibet. When this request was made Atisha was deeply touched and pleased by the sincerity of this request composing this text as a response.
In terms of the transmission of the teachings of this text, my own lineage, I received the transmission of this text from the late teacher from Drepung, the Khunu master, Rinzen Tempa (SP?) who in turn received this teaching from Depsekansha (SP?) Rinpoche. I received another line of transmission from the late Serkong Rinpoche who himself received the teachings from a very sincere meditator from Drepung-Gomang whose name I think is Gendun Tushi (SP?). He was an ordinary monk but a great practitioner and meditator. So I received the transmission of this text from two different lineages. It appears as if at a certain point the transmission of this text was quite rare. For example both of my tutors did not have the transmission of this text.
We will now read from the text. It opens with the Sanskrit title Bodhipathapradipam and in Tibetan Byang-chub lam-gyi sgron-ma. This is followed by a homage to Manjusri:
Homage to the bodhisattva, the youthful Manjusri.
The first verse reads:
I pay homage with great respect
1 To all the Victorious Ones of the three times
To their teachings and to those who aspire to virtue.
Urged by the good disciple Byang-chub-‘od
I shall illuminate the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.
In Tibet there was an established custom in order to indicate the authenticity of the teaching that is being imported from India, particularly those texts originally translated from an Indian language, to first give the Indian title. This was to affirm the origin of the text and also its authenticity. Of course in later times even for texts written in Tibet, some Tibetan masters used a Sanskrit title as well but originally the practice was to reassure the read of the authenticity of teachings.
In terms of the meaning of the title of the text, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, the term enlightenment in Sanskrit is bodhi. Etymologically speaking bodhi has the connotation of dispelling something, clearing away something but also it has a connotation of realizing something, perfecting something. So the Tibetan translators instead of choosing one word choose two syllables to carry the dual meaning. The Tibet equivalent for bodhi is byang-chub with byang indicating the notion of dispelling or clearing away while chub connotes the perfection or realization aspect. Together they carry the notion of enlightenment.
Now to relate the understanding of the term byang-chub, which translates the Sanskrit word bodhi, which is part of the title of the text and translated here as enlightenment. The term bodhi or enlightenment can be related to the discussion of the Four Noble Truths, which I presented earlier. Here there are the two elements of meaning of the term enlightenment, one the clearing away and dispelling, the other the realization or attainment. These two relate to the Four Noble Truths and also indicate the two key aspects of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha. One is Buddha’s quality of the total abandonment or elimination of all defects and the other is the total realization of all positive qualities.
Now to relate this to the discussion on the Four Noble Truths. The idea of dispelling or clearing away is directly related to the first two Noble Truths, the Truth of Suffering and the Truth of the Origin of Suffering. What is cleared away, what is being dispelled is all of the sufferings and their origins. So when one talks about suffering in the context of the Buddhist path, of course one needs to understand that suffering occurs at different levels. According to Buddhism one speaks of three different levels of suffering. First is obvious suffering that all can instinctively identify as painful, undesirable and so on and is known as the suffering of suffering.
The second level of suffering is known as the suffering of change which conventionally speaking one tends to identify this level of experience as pleasurable and not painful. However if one continues to persist in this experience even these pleasurable experiences ultimately culminate in dissatisfaction, suffering and pain. Therefore these are known as the suffering of change.
Underlying both of the previous two levels of suffering, the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change is a much more fundamental state of being which again Buddhism characterizes as a state of suffering. This is the very conditionedness of one’s existence and this level of suffering is known as the suffering of pervasive conditioning. This is the very fact of one’s existence as a conditioned being and serves as the basis that then gives rise to the two other levels of suffering.
What is being dispelled here, what is being cleared away in the context of understanding the term bodhi or enlightenment are these sufferings along with their causes and conditions that give rise them, the origin of suffering. Through the application of the corresponding antidotes and remedies, when one attains a state of freedom from these sufferings and their origin then one has actualized the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of Cessation. The Truth of Cessation and the path that leads to it, the means that make cessation possible are what are being realized in the context of enlightenment, byang-chub.
Although cessation is not directly produced from causes and conditions but it is still a consequence of effort and also by seeking the conditions that give rise to it. These conditions and the effort that is involved in making the cessation possible are the Truth of the Path. Therefore the second element of the term byang-chub, chub or realization relates to the Noble Truth of Cessation and the path that leads to it. In this way when one looks at the two syllables one understands that in the very etymology of the term bodhi or byang-chub there is an understanding of the essential points of the Four Noble Truths. Also by extension one understands the two aspects of the qualities of the Buddha’s mind, one is the total elimination of all defects and the other is the total realization and perfection of all positive qualities.
When one speaks of the path it refers to progressive stages of development in one’s mental continuum beginning from the earliest stages of spiritual realization culminating ultimately into the omniscient mind of the Buddha. In this state of full enlightenment the individual is able to perceive both conventional and ultimate truth within a single cognitive event, within a single moment of time. So the path refers to this whole process from the beginning to the ultimate realization of the Buddha’s omniscient mind.
Therefore it is referred to as a path as a path is something that one travels upon. Here the metaphor of a path is used for a journey that is internal, that takes place within one’s own mental continuum. The lamp here refers to the actual teaching itself as embodied within this text because the teaching presents all of the key elements of the path in their proper order and with all of the essential points completely defined. The right sequence of practice is explained and also all of the relationships between the different elements of the path are explained properly. So in this sense this text serves the function of a lamp showing the path one is to follow and this is why this title is given to the text, The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.
When one speaks of enlightenment generally speaking according to Buddhism, it is understood that among the spiritual practitioners there are different mental inclinations. Based on these inclinations some practitioners are more inclined towards the enlightenment of a sravaka or Listener, some are more inclined towards the Pratyekabuddha or the Solitary Realizer’s enlightenment while some are more inclined towards the bodhisattva path culminating in the full enlightenment of Buddhahood. The enlightenment referred to in this particular text is the enlightenment of a Buddha therefore it is sometimes also referred to as the Great Enlightenment to distinguish it from the other two aspects of enlightenment.
Next is the salutation to Manjusri, which has been inserted by the translator of the text. There are two purposes for the translator inserting a salutation right at the beginning of the text. One is to insure that the task of translating this text will not face obstacles, that it will be successfully completed. More specifically the purpose is to conform to a decree that was issued by one of the early Tibetan monarchs that when texts were being translated from an Indian language into Tibetan that in order to assist the reader to identify which of the three main scriptural collections a particular text belonged to. The three scriptural collections are the Tripitaka of Vinaya or ethical teachings, the Sutras and Abhidharma. If the text belongs to the Vinaya Pitaka then a salutation is made to the omniscient Buddha. The rationale here is that when one speaks the minute aspects of the ethical precepts, particularly the ethical codes of conduct for the monastic community and what constitutes an infraction this can only be fully understood by an omniscient mind. In order to acknowledge this humility homage is paid to the omniscient Buddha if the text belongs in the Vinaya collection.
If a text belongs to the Sutra collection then the salutation is made to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. If the text belongs to the Abhidharma collection then the salutation is made to the Bodhisattva Manjusri, which is the case with this text here. Although The Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment brings together teachings from all three scriptural collections but the main theme that is presented belongs more to the Abhidharma collection so this is why a salutation is made to Manjusri here.
The first stanza comprises the salutation and the promise to write the text. The Victorious Ones refers to the Buddhas who are described as victorious because they have conquered the Four Maras or the four obstructive forces. Both the gross levels of the four obstructive forces as well as the subtle levels of the obstructive forces have been overcome. The subtlety here is defined in terms of the afflictive emotions and thoughts and also the underlying propensities for the afflictions which are known as the subtle obstructions to knowledge. So the fully enlightened Buddhas are those who have gained victory over all four of the obstructive forces and so homage is made to the Buddhas of the three times.
Homage is also paid to their teachings, to their Dharma, which refers not so much to the literary texts but more to the inner realizations of these Buddhas and the Arya Beings, especially Bodhisattva Aryas who have attained high levels of realization along with the direct realization of the ultimate nature of reality. So what is translated here as teachings or Dharma actually refers to the inner realizations of the Buddhas of the three times and also the bodhisattvas as well as the Arya Beings who have gained direct insight into the truth.
This is the Dharma. Then it reads to their teachings and to those who aspire to virtue and this refers to the Sangha. The Sangha here refers to the Arya Beings who have attained the Path of Seeing and thus have gained a direct realization of the truth. So a salutation is thus made to the Three Jewels, the Jewel of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
After this is the promise to write the text. Why did Atisha compose a salutation to the Three Jewels? What is the task he will undertake? He states I shall illuminate the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment through writing this text. Why is he writing it? Atisha writes that he was urged by the good disciple Byang-chub-‘od. The reason Atisha explicitly mentions that he is writing this text because he was urged to do so is that this adheres to a general practice in the Buddhist teaching. One can read in the Pratimoksa Sutra, the Scripture on Individual Liberation where it states that one should not give teachings without being requested to teach. So generally it is the custom in Buddhism that one should not give teachings unless one is requested to do so.
I would like to make a short comment on the translator’s salutation to Manjusri. It reads Homage to the bodhisattva, the youthful Manjusri. It seems the translator was rather enthusiastic in using the word “youthful”. When referring to Manjusri in the Tibetan tradition there is a different understanding of Manjusri in different contexts. For example in the Vajrayana context Manjusri is recognized more as a fully enlightened Buddha rather than a bodhisattva. However in the context of the Perfection Vehicle teachings Manjusri is understand at the level of a bodhisattva rather than a Buddha. So one needs to understand the different contexts in which bodhisattvas like Manjusri, Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya appear.
The name Manjusri in Tibetan is Jampel with jam meaning gentleness and pel referring to glory. So again just like the two syllables for enlightenment byang-chub, here the name of Manjusri, Jampel is composed of two syllables, gentleness and glory. In the Sanskrit itself Manju and sri are two syllables and connote two aspects of the enlightened state. One is the overcoming of all defects, here connoted by the term gentleness (jam) describing his state of mind or his mental continuum as he has been made gentle by eliminating all of the afflictive forces that could make his mind agitated or disturbed. Freedom from this brings about the gentleness or settledness of mind. Glory (pel) alludes to Manjusri’s attainment of the various major and minor noble marks that define or illustrate a person as a fully enlightened being. So if it is in the context of a sutra then Manjusri is a bodhisattva at a very high level of realization who has attained a similitude of the major and minor marks of a fully enlightened Buddha. The point is again is that in the name of Manjusri one sees both the qualities of abandonment and accomplishment or perfection.
In the verse of salutation of this text, the object of homage was identified as the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. So these are the three objects of refuge and in Buddhism they are known as the Three Jewels. The first jewel is the Buddha who is defined as a being who has attained total perfection of all realizations and knowledge as well as the total elimination of all defects and limitations. How does one understand such a fully enlightened being? How does one understand the characteristics of such a fully enlightened being?
In this respect it is helpful to reflect upon a verse written by the Indian master Dignaga. In his text A Compendium on Valid Cognitions he pays homage to the Buddha by pointing out that “You who have become a valid being”.
[I bow to the One who turned correct,
Who helps all beings, the Teacher,
The One who went to bliss,
And our Protector.]
Compendium of Valid Cognition
The operative word, the key word here is the word becoming. The point being made here is that the fully enlightened Buddha, the teacher was not an eternally enlightened being but rather someone who had become a valid teacher, become fully enlightened. So this word becoming has a very significant meaning, which is that Buddhahood, does not come about without any cause; Buddhahood comes about from causes. Also it does not come about from causes that are completely discordant with the result. In other words the causes are themselves not permanent. Enlightenment comes about from a cause and it also comes about from causes that are commensurate with their results.
Dignaga then identifies what is the key cause for attaining Buddhahood. It is the cultivation of universal compassion, the great compassion is identified as the key factor, the key cause. So in the salutation to the Buddha made by Dignaga he pays homage to the Buddha as someone who has become a valid teacher, a valid being, an authentic being through the sustained practice of compassion.
[And now out of love
For those mistaken in their logic]
What one sees here is that the fully enlightened being had attained that state of enlightenment as the result of a sustained and prolonged practice of compassion as well as other associated aspects of the path such as the wisdom realizing emptiness. The key here is the realization that the Buddha has attained which is the true Dharma. It is on the basis of the realization of the Dharma that one defines the Sangha and the Buddha because those who are still on the path and have attained the Path of Seeing gaining a direct insight into the ultimate nature of reality, they are the true Sangha. Once one proceeds on this path and attain the total culmination of this realization, that is the state where one has attained Buddhahood. So it is on the basis of the Dharma that the other two jewels, the Sangha Jewel and the Buddha Jewel are also defined.
This is how one needs to understand the nature and characteristics of the fully enlightened Buddha on the basis of understanding the nature and characteristics of the true Dharma. In terms of chronology of a particular era then there is a sequence in the Three Jewels in terms of an evolution. In the case of the present Buddha Shakyamuni in terms of the evolution of the teachings of this Buddha, first the Buddha Shakyamuni came as a Nirmanakaya, an Emanation Buddha. Buddha then taught the Dharma, initially the teachings on the level of scriptural texts therefore there are the scriptures taught by the Buddha. On the basis of the scriptures taught by the Buddha his disciples engaged in the practice and cultivated the realizations of these scriptures thus evolved the Dharma as realization. Those who gained realization of the Arya stage, the Path of Seeing then became the Sangha.
So within the context of a single era one can say that the Buddha comes first, the Dharma comes second and the Sangha evolves third. Because of this the order in which one offers refuge or pay homage to the Three Jewels is always the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Because of this one finds in texts when referring to these Three Jewels the metaphor of medicine is used. The Buddha is likened to a physician, the Dharma is likened to the prescribed medicine and the Spiritual Community, the Sangha is compared to a sick nurse, the one who helps and looks after the sick. What is to be understood from this analogy is that it is in fact the Dharma that is the true medicine that directly counters the spiritual ailment. It is the Buddha who prescribes the medicine of the Dharma and the colleagues, companions on the path, the Sangha act as a support while one is going through this process of therapy. Therefore the Three Jewels are often referred to as Buddha, the true teacher, Dharma as the revealed teaching and the Sangha as companions whom support one in one’s practice.
The question arises what exactly is this Dharma Jewel which defines the other two jewels of the Buddha and Sangha? What are its characteristics? How can one cultivate it within oneself? As I mentioned earlier when one speaks of the Dharma Jewel in the context of the Three Jewels, the true Dharma really refers to true cessation, which is the Third Noble Truth. Cessation here refers to the freedom that an individual gains as the result of applying the antidotes against the afflictive emotions and thoughts, those negative aspects of the mind. As a result of applying the corresponding antidotes, when one gains a kind of a freedom that prevents the future arising of the afflictions is called a cessation. These cessations can be of many different levels. This is the true Dharma and also the path that leads to that cessation is also the true Dharma. So the true Dharma here refers to the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of Cessation and the Fourth Noble Truth, the Truth of the Path.
Now the question is if the true Dharma refers to this cessation of the negative aspects of the mind, the afflictive thoughts and emotions then what is the process or procedure for bringing about such cessation? How can one cultivate the antidotes and how do they work in bringing about the cessation of the negative aspects of one’s mind? One needs to understand that according to Buddhism one’s very existence as conditioned beings is itself understood to be characterized by suffering. Conditioned existence is referred to as the pervasive suffering of conditioned existence, the third level of suffering. In this sense one’s being including one’s physical embodiment is of the nature of suffering and something that ultimately needs to be gotten rid of or eliminated.
However in Buddhism when one speaks of one’s very existence as suffering this does not imply that mere physical or bodily existence is suffering. From the Buddhist point of view even the Buddha Shakyamuni is seen as an embodied being however the Buddha is free of suffering as well as the Arhats who have gained freedom from all negative emotions and thoughts even though they still have the five skandhas. What is being referred to as suffering is a conditioned existence, one’s present existence that is conditioned by karma and the afflictions.
The root of one’s conditioned existence is the causes of karma and the afflictions. Karma here refers to an action, an individual act with a positive or negative motivation. When one speaks of actions, a sentient being’s actions it automatically implies an agency, a motive or intention. The acts themselves are not the primary cause; the primary cause is the motivation behind the action, what propelled the action. So here one is talking about the world of intentions, the world of thoughts and emotions.
Underlying much of one’s karma, particularly the negative actions are afflictive states of mind. Ultimately what one arrives at the root of one’s suffering is the afflictions, the afflictive thoughts and emotions. In Buddhism they are called kleshas and the entomology of klesha suggests that they are states of mind whose very occurrence brings about disturbance within the individual’s mind. These defile one’s thoughts and emotions afflicting the individual from within. It is these afflictions that lay at the root of one’s suffering and it is these afflictions that need to be eliminated by applying the direct antidotes.
Now the question is how do the antidotes work when countering the afflictions? These afflictions do not go away simply by making prayers or wishing them away. These afflictions need to be eliminated by cultivating their corresponding remedies or antidotes. How does this process of applying the antidotes work? One can observe similar processes in the physical world. In the physical world one can contrast hot and cold. If one is suffering from being too hot by moving to a cooler spot one can counter the effects of the heat and if one is too cold then one applies heat to counter the cold. Even in the physical world one can see instances where opposing forces counter each other.
Similarly one can use another metaphor such as light and dark. These oppose each other. The moment a light source is on the darkness is dispelled and when there is darkness there is no light. There is an instantaneous relationship or dichotomy between these two opposites. However in the world of internal emotions and thoughts the process in which antidotes oppose their opposites is different. For these one needs to cultivate a specific antidote or right state of mind in order to counteract an affliction. The way in which it does this is by focusing on the same object but by cultivating directly an opposite way of engagement with it.
For example one has hatred and compassion or love. In the case of hatred and compassion they are two different emotions but they can both be focused on the same object such as another being. Based on this when one experiences hatred or anger one has a hostile experience toward that object. On the other hand if one has compassion for the same object one’s attitude and feelings towards that object are completely different. In fact one could say that by reinforcing one side one can automatically and natural diminish the force of the opposing feeling.
For the sake of argument say there is an individual who dislikes compassion and wishes to decrease whatever remnants of compassion that might be left within them. In such a case the individual could most effectively do this by deliberately cultivating hostility towards any object that would generate feelings of compassion. Along with this they would try to analyze the downside of having compassionate feelings, the disadvantages of loving-kindness and so on. Through this way one could envision that anger and hatred could be increased.
However for a spiritual practitioner this is not the goal because anger brings one harm, it brings disturbance and affliction. Therefore from the perspective of a spiritual practitioner anger and hatred are something that needs to be dispelled, needs to be relinquished while compassion and loving-kindness need to be deliberately cultivated. These bring peace of mind, benefit and help. So this is how the antidotes work in decreasing and eventually eliminating the afflictive thoughts and emotions.
One can asked the question if in the case of two opposing states of mind, two opposing emotions like hatred and compassion, if it is the case that by reinforcing one the other automatically diminishes the force of the other, does this mean that there is total symmetry between the two? Is there no difference at all between them? Could one completely eliminate compassion? It is important here to have a deeper understanding of the contrast between the positive emotions like compassion and loving-kindness and the negative emotions like anger and hatred.
Generally speaking if one looks at the Buddhist understanding of what is meant by klesha or affliction, one observes two general categories of afflictions. On the one hand are afflictions that tend to be instinctual such as attachment, anger and so on. Although in certain circumstances there might be some immediate catalyst where reason may play a role but generally these afflictions are reactive and impulsive. On the other hand there is a category of afflictions that tend to be much more cognitive and here is included false or wrong views such as selfness as well as false views grasping certain extremes views as being authentic or valid. Although these are afflictions they are more cognitive, more in the category of the intellect. In fact this second category of afflictions is sometimes referred to as afflictive intelligence since reasoning plays a greater role in their development.
This is a general Buddhist understanding of the two broad classes of afflictions. However if one looks deeper one will understand that the deeper nature of the emotions, the root of them is a subtler emotion of delusion, particularly the delusory mind grasping at the true existence of things and events. Here one finds a deeper understanding of the nature of the afflictions in the Madhyamika writings. For example in the Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way Aryadeva wrote that just as the bodily faculty permeates all of the sensory faculties in the same way delusion underpins all of the afflictions. The point made here is that when one examines carefully the experience of a strong affliction like anger or attachment one finds underlying it is a cause, which is some kind of grasping on to an object. This object can be perceived as desirable or undesirable which then gives rise to an emotional response or reaction.
[As the tactile sense [pervades] the body
135 Confusion is present in them all.
By overcoming confusion one will also
Overcome all disturbing emotions.]
Four Hundred Verses
So at the gross level delusion serves as a cause for the occurrence of these afflictions however at the subtle level in fact Aryadeva suggests that the delusions coexist with the afflictions themselves just as the body organ permeates all of the sensory faculties. In the same way the delusion grasping at the true existence of things and events underpins all of the afflictions. In fact one can say that the arising of afflictions is dependent upon this grasping at the true existence of things. This delusory mind grasping at the true existence of things is distorted because the real nature of things is emptiness. However this delusory mind grasps of to objects as having some kind of real or true existence.
In contrast if one looks at a positive emotion like loving-kindness although there are cases where delusory grasping on to an object’s true existence may give rise to or support loving-kindness, but the arising of loving-kindness is not dependent upon grasping on to the object as having some kind of true existence. In fact loving-kindness is an emotion that can be developed to an infinite potential whereas negative emotions like anger, because their underlying root is a distorted state of mind and therefore do not have a valid support or valid ground in either reason or reality. Because of this by cultivating a direct insight into the true nature of things, which is emptiness, one will be able to penetrate through the delusion of the misunderstanding of reality as having some kind of true existence. Through this way one can eventually eliminate the afflictions by undercutting the very basis for the arising of the afflictions. So certainly there is a vast difference between the positive emotions like loving-kindness and compassion on the one hand and the negative emotions like anger and attachment on the other in terms of their sustainability and their potential for infinite development.
The question now arises if underlying all of the afflictions is this delusion, which underpins them on what grounds does one understand this delusion to be the grasping at the true existence of things? In the Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way, immediately after the verse I cited earlier, Aryadeva wrote that it is by gaining insight into the truth of dependent origination that one will bring about the cessation of delusion. The point made here is that when an individual develops deep insight into the subtle aspects of the teachings on Dependent Origination then they will bring about the cessation of their delusion. The delusion here is identified or defined as a misconception or a state of mind that perceives the world and the self in a way contrary to the principal of Dependent Origination. According to the principle of Dependent Origination all things and events come into being as the result of dependence on other factors.
[When dependent arising is seen
136 Confusion will not occur
Thus every effort has been made here
To explain precisely this subject.]
Four Hundred Verses
The opposite of this would be to accord a status of independence existence to things and events. If things possessed an independent status or independent existence then of course they cannot have the nature of dependence upon others. This projected status of independence is what is being referred to as self in the context of the teaching on selflessness. By teaching selflessness the absence of an independent existence of things and events is taught because all things and events come into being as the result of depending upon other factors such as causes and conditions.
Aryadeva concludes by saying that which dependently originated cannot posses the nature of independence. This absence of independent existence is what is called Dependent Origination.
As to whether or not this delusion grasping at things and events as possessing true existence, whether or not this is considered to be a defilement in the category of the afflictions or a subtle obstruction to knowledge, among Nagarjuna’s disciples there is a divergence of opinion. On one side are commentators like Bhavaviveka who understood this grasping at true existence of things to be a subtle obstruction to knowledge rather than a defilement or affliction. While based upon Nagarjuna’s own Seventy Stanzas on the Middle Way other commentators maintained that it is actually part of the afflictions or an afflicted state of mind. They argued that even to attain the state of an Arhat or freedom from samsara one needs to eliminate this grasping at true existence. It is on the basis of this understanding that the assertion is made that the insight into emptiness is the sole path to liberation; there is no second path or door other than the wisdom of no-self or selflessness. Here the wisdom of selflessness is understood in terms of what are called the Three Doors of Thorough Liberation where the insight into emptiness of things and events is cultivated on the basis of understanding its nature from the point of view of its causes as well as its effects.
When speaking about this reaching on no-self and the understanding of selflessness one needs to relate back to the teachings on the Four Noble Truths from the first public ceremony that the Buddha gave. When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths he presented them in terms of sixteen characteristics, four in relation to each truth. The four characteristics of the first Noble Truth of Suffering are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, emptiness and no-self. All of the different schools of Buddhism, all of the followers of the Buddha in one way or another understand the key teaching of the Buddha to be embodied in the teaching on no-self or anatman.
Of course there are divergent interpretations as to what this no-self means. In fact if one looks at the history of philosophical thought in India one sees a very long tradition of analysis on this nature of selfness, the nature of being. When one experiences pain or pleasure, who is it that experiences it? Who is it that undergoes this experience? When one speaks of the accumulation of karma, who is it that accumulates the karma? Who is the agent of the karmic act? When one speaks of experiencing the fruits of one’s ripening karma, who is it that experiences the fruits of karma?
The fact that there is an individual, a being that one labels, as “I” is something that is commonly accepted but the question is what exactly is the nature of this self, what is the nature of this being? Here one finds a very long tradition in ancient India in the analysis of what the nature of this self is. On the whole among the non-Buddhist schools in India especially those schools that accept the idea of rebirth, there was a convergence of opinion that since the physical body is contingent upon a particular life and it is transient since it ends at death, the self cannot be identified with the body. Therefore on the whole the non-Buddhist schools maintained that the self must be something completely independent of the physical and psychological constituents that make up an individual’s existence. There must be a self, an eternal principle that is enduring in that it transcends individual life cycles and maintains its continuum throughout all of these temporal stages. Whether or not they characterize it as eternal, unitary and unchanging the belief in this atman if one probes deeper these three characteristics are thought to be the main characteristics of the self; that it is temporally speaking eternal, unitary or indivisible and that it is independent or self-governing.
This is the atman or self and on the whole all Buddhist schools reject this kind of notion of a self, the notion of an eternal self. However within Buddhism the different schools have divergent opinions as to if this kind of self can be posited then how does one understand the notion of a person? How does one understand the agency? Who is this being? Among the Buddhist schools there are some schools who try to identify the person or self on the basis of the psychophysical aggregates. For example some schools maintain that the totality of the five skandhas is the self while others maintain that the self is the continuum of consciousness. The Mind-Only School of the Followers of Scripture maintains that it is not just the mental consciousness but rather there is a unique continuum of consciousness called the foundational consciousness that is identified as the person.
The followers of Nagarjuna especially those who understand his ultimate standpoint maintain that any attempt to identify self as something independent of the body and mind is untenable. How do they explain the relationship between the self and the transient body and mind? Equally untenable is the attempt to identify self within the body and mind. The followers of Nagarjuna particularly those who take Nagarjuna’s subtle view maintain that both of these dichotomies identifying the self as either independent of the body and mind or identifying the self as either one of the aggregates are problematic. The self or person must be understood only as a mere label, an appellation, a designation given on the basis of the aggregation of the mind and body. So one must understand the nature of self or the person to be mere designation, something without any intrinsic or absolute reality.
If one observes things and events deeply one will recognize that all things and events come about as the result of the aggregation of many factors. They are dependent upon many factors for their existence and none of them enjoy any type of independent existence. The ultimate nature of all things and events is mere dependence upon other factors. However when one perceives or observes things and events somehow one tends to get the impression that they possess some kind of discrete, independent reality of their own. One does not perceive things and events to be interconnected and dependently originated but as each having its own independent, discrete, identifiable units.
There is this gulf between the way things really are and the way that one perceives them. This disparity between one’s perception of the world and the reality of things underpins the various afflictive and emotional responses that one has in dealing with the world. Therefore this suggests that the basis, the root of many of the afflictions such as attachment, anger and so on is a distorted state of mind, a distorted understanding of the world.
So the root of the afflictions is this distorted state of mind and secondly this perception of the world as having an independent reality is groundless, without valid grounds. Thirdly when one cultivates the direct antidote, which is the wisdom of no-self then this wisdom of no-self will directly counter one’s misconception of the world as having some kind of true and independent existence. When one compares the two, the false view of the world as opposed to the insight into no-self, one has a very valid grounding in both experience and reason while the false view is without valid grounding in reason or experience. Because of this when one compares the two views and let them compete with each other, obviously the view with valid grounding in reason and experience in reality will as the result of cultivating it, as the result of developing it, one will get to the point where one will be able to totally eliminate the false view of the world.
Furthermore this insight into no-self, the wisdom of no-self because it is a quality of mind, its basis is very enduring. It is not a characteristic like a physical quality whose basis is limited; it is a mental quality whose basis is very enduring because of its continuum. Another characteristic of this mental quality is that once one cultivates it to the point where it becomes spontaneous then for further development one need not make a deliberate conscious effort to bring it to mind. A simple catalyst or impetus can immediately give rise to this understanding, to have that mental quality arise in one’s mind.
So when one compares all of these points together and when one also understands that the afflictions are separable from the essential nature of the mind as their basis is a distorted state of mind that can be overcome then eventually one will arrive at a point where the word liberation or moksha has a truly profound meaning. One will also get a sense that liberation is possible and this is what is meant by liberation. So when one understands that liberation is possible then one can extend this combining this understanding with one’s understanding of Buddhanature as explained in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. In this sutra the essential nature of mind is described as luminous, mere luminosity and unpolluted. When one understands this then one will also come to realize that not only are the afflictions removable but also the propensities and imprints left by the afflictions can also be removed. If the afflictions themselves can be eliminated then of course their propensities and imprints left by the afflictions can also be eliminated. Through this way one gets an understanding of the real possibility of liberation.
[With my Buddha vision
I see that all sentient beings are like this.
Within the mud shell of passions,
All have the Tathagata-nature.
By means of adamantine wisdom,
We break the mold of kleshas
And reveal the Tathagatagarbha,
Like pure, shining gold.]
In this way one also understands the possibility of attaining Buddhahood, which is the total elimination of not only the afflictions but also their propensities and imprints. When one speaks of the resultant state of Buddhahood in the Bodhisattva scriptures, the Mahayana scriptures it is defined and described in terms of the Four Embodiments of Full Enlightenment or the Four Kayas. The most profound and detailed understanding of the Four Kayas can be developed on the basis of reading and studying the Vajrayana texts. There the understanding of the Four Kayas is presented on the basis of the subtle mind, the fundamental innate mind of Clear Light.
Here the emptiness of the fundamental, innate mind of Clear Light of the state of Buddhahood is described as the Svabhavakaya, the Natural Embodiment of the Buddha. The omniscient mind of the Buddha at that state is described as the Wisdom Dharmakaya or Wisdom Truth Body. The subtle energy or prana that is inseparable from the Buddha’s Dharmakaya state is explained as the Sambhogakaya, the Buddha Body of Perfect Resource. When this subtle energy assumes a form that is visible at a gross level then that embodiment of Buddhahood is described as the Nirmanakaya, the Buddha Body of Perfect Emanation. So one can see that the Vajrayana explanation of the Four Kayas is done in terms of the understanding of the fundamental, innate mind of Clear Light.
With this understanding if one reflects along these lines then one will get a deeper understanding of what is meant by Dharma and on the basis of Dharma one will understand the Buddha who is the example of the total perfection of the Dharma as well as the Sangha that is those who are on the path of the realization of this Dharma. This is how on the basis of the first verse of this text, the verse of salutation to the Three Jewels that one can gain a general introduction to what is meant by Buddha Dharma.
So it is important for one who considers themselves to be a practicing Buddhist to have these understandings so that when one goes for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha one knows or has an understanding of the objects of refuge. By cultivating a deep admiration by reflecting upon the qualities of the Buddha one goes for refuge in the Buddha of the past and cultivates deep conviction and faith in their qualities and attainments.
But it is also important to understand that one is going for refuge to the Three Jewels must be related to one’s own inner realizations and experiences of the path so that when one goes for refuge in one’s faith there is also faith of emulation. Not only does one have admiration for the Three Jewels but also one emulates their examples so that one aspires for oneself the realization of the Three Jewels. Derived through the faith of emulation then one engages in the path and cultivates in oneself all of the various levels of realizations, beginning from the level of the initial scope. As the result of attaining the true path one attains cessations which then allows one to be part of the Arya Sangha and as a result of continuing along one’s path which culminates in one’s own realization one attains the state of Buddhahood. So in this way one should be able to not only understand the act of going for refuge in relation to the historical Three Jewels but also to one’s own resultant future attainments of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
Having now explained the verse of salutation, starting with the second verse the actual explanation of the teaching begins. It reads:
Understand there are three kinds of persons
2(a,b) Because of their small, middling and supreme capacities.
What is presented here and what is unique about this text by Atisha is that here the presentation of the teachings is arranged in such a way that there is a definite sequence to the order of the different topics of the practices. These are arranged in conformity or in relation to the way in which these should be practiced in their proper sequence.
For example in various other Indian treatises such as Nagarjuna’s Madhyamikakulakarika, the Fundamentals of the Middle Way and Candrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle Way, Madhyamakavatara all of the paths are presented correctly and most of the key elements of the path are presented. Of course this is done with different degrees of emphasis. For example in Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way the main emphasis is on the teachings of Dependent Origination and emptiness and their relationship. However the other aspects of the path are also presented.
What is lacking in these treatises is that the presentation of the teachings is not done with a definite sequence of the practices by actual application for one wishing to initiate practice. Atisha points out that this is very important in order to engage in the practices to have a full understanding of the proper sequence in which one should engage in the path. What practice should be undertaken first? What practices should follow this initial practice and so on?
Atisha states that without this knowledge then the effectiveness of one’s practice may not be very great. For example take the example of bodhicitta, the altruistic aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. It is not simply enough to say may I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is easy to say in words but when it comes to actually cultivating it, how does one go about cultivating such an altruistic aspiration. Until and unless the practitioner has developed some understanding of what is the object of aspiration, Buddhahood or full enlightenment then it is not possible to truly develop bodhicitta. So some understanding of what is meant by enlightenment is important.
What is also important is to have some deeper understanding of the nature of suffering that one wishes others to be free of. In order to develop this strong compassion seeking for others to be free of suffering, one must have a deeper understanding of the nature of suffering in relation to one’s own personal experience. On the basis of this personal experience of one’s own understanding of suffering then one will be able to cultivate a strong desire to gain freedom from this suffering which is true renunciation. When all of these elements are combined together then one will be able to give rise to bodhicitta, the altruistic aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.
What one sees here is that in order for an important aspect of the path such as bodhicitta to take root in one’s mindstream, one needs to cultivate the different components of it individually first. When one does this then eventually one will be able to cultivate bodhicitta. So there is a certain order to the actual development of these aspects of the path and Atisha in this text explains these various aspects of the path in relation to the actual sequence of individual practices and their cultivation. Here he does so by using the framework of the practitioner of three different capacities.
When one speaks of the small, middling and supreme capacities one is not necessarily referring to three completely different individuals. In fact what is being referred to here is the different levels of mental states which an individual practitioner may attain through progressive stages. So at the beginner’s stage the practitioner can be referred to as one with a small capacity and then as the result of practice progresses to the next stage and is then referred to as one of the middling capacity. As the individual continues to progress they reach the supreme capacity. So these three capacities can be understood in relation to an individual practitioner in a progressively evolving stages of mental development.
Atisha explains the importance of understanding the proper order of the practices and referring them to the different levels of mental realizations. He wrote:
I shall write clearly
2(c,d) Distinguishing the individual characteristics.
One can see an analogy to even modern education, which is composed of elementary school, high school and college where one slowly specializes into an area of study. These three levels of practices in correspondence to the three capacities can be likened to the different levels of schooling.
One can also relate Atisha’s teaching on the three scopes or three capacities to an earlier division of the three phases of spiritual development found in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way where he wrote that at the first stage one must avert or reverse one’s unwholesome deeds. In the middle stage one must reverse one’s preoccupation with the self or grasping at selfness and in the final stage one must eliminate all wrong views, dismantle all views. This can be related to Atisha’s presentation of the three scopes because when one says unwholesome deeds these are referring to negative actions and thoughts which are the main causes of one’s suffering.
[First prevent the demeritorious,
190 Next prevent [ideas of a coarse] self.
Later prevent views of all kinds.
Whoever knows this is wise.]
Four Hundred Verses
When one speaks of the causes of suffering here one is talking about karma or actions. Within karma there can be made three distinctions, negative or unwholesome karma, meritorious or wholesome karma and immutable or unchangeable karma. Negative karma gives rise to suffering in the lower realms and it is meritorious karma that gives rise to birth in the higher realms as a human or celestial. It is the immutable or unchangeable karma that gives birth in the Form and Formless Realms.
One can say that Aryadeva’s first stage where the practitioner is advised to reverse or eliminate all negative karma corresponds to Atisha’s initial scope or small capacity practice. Here the main objective is to gain freedom from the immediate causes of suffering, the obvious sufferings of the lower realms. In this scope the spiritual quest is motivated by a fear of undergoing the experiences of suffering in the lower realms. So motivated by this fear one seeks freedom from it and the main practice to accomplish this is embodied in the practice of morality of abstaining from the ten negative actions of body, speech and mind. This is the precept of the actual practice of going for refuge which is to live one’s life in accordance with the ethical discipline of refraining from the ten negative actions. One consciously adopts the ethical discipline by refraining from these and is the actual practice of the initial scope corresponding to the first phase of the practice as referred to Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses.
The second line in Aryadeva’s text states that selfhood must be eliminated or averted. This corresponds to Atisha’s second middling scope because the main motivation or aspiration of the practitioner of the middling scope is to gain freedom from cyclic existence. The actual practice is to eliminate the afflictions that give rise to the experience of cyclic existence.
The third line of Aryadeva’s text where he says that finally all views must be dismantled and this corresponds to Atisha’s third scope of supreme capacity. The motivation here is to not only gain freedom from the sufferings of cyclic existence but to also gain full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings bringing about the cessation of suffering for al sentient beings.
One can see that if one is to use the analogy of combat, one can say that the practice of Dharma is to engage in combat with one’s inner enemy, the afflictions. So when waging a war against the afflictions, the first stage is to insure that one has a very good defense so that one is secure, not vulnerable to the attack of the afflictions. In order to do this one needs to build a defense and this defense is built by trying to overcome the manifestations of the afflictions in one’s bodily and verbal actions as well as one’s thoughts. This is accomplished by adopting the ethical discipline of refraining from the ten negative actions of body, speech and mind thus insuring a security for the practitioner.
Once one has gained confidence in having a secure defense, that one is not vulnerable to attacks from the afflictions then at the next stage one actually takes on the afflictions head-on, directly; one counters them directly. One can do this as one is now assured of one’s own defense. Finally, not only must the enemy be defeated, the afflictions be eliminated but also one must insure that not even traces are left, in other words not even the propensities of the afflictions are left in one’s mental continuum. This is the third phase of spiritual practice as mentioned by Aryadeva, which also corresponds to Atisha’s third scope.
One can understand this process of development in terms of the three different levels as Atisha’s explanation of the three scopes or Aryadeva’s three phases of realization or practice. From another perspective, from the object of one’s aspiration what one as a practitioner aspire to is the attainment of higher rebirth as a temporary objective and one’s ultimate objective is to attain liberation from cyclic existence along with the omniscient state of Buddhahood. So the practice of the initial scope the key practice is embodied in the ethical discipline of refraining from the ten negative actions of body, speech and mind. This insures the fulfillment of the temporary objective which is the attainment of rebirth in the higher realms such a human or as a celestial being.
As Nagarjuna points out in his Precious Garland that for the spiritual practitioner there are two primary objectives. The temporary objective is birth in one of the higher realms [high status] and the ultimate one is definite goodness. In terms of the factors that give rise to these two achievements, faith is primary for the attainment of high rebirth and wisdom is primary for the attainment of definite goodness. Definite goodness here refers to liberation from cyclic existence and also Buddhahood, the fully enlightened state.
[Eliminating defects and acquiring good qualities
230 Are the practices of those seeking high status.
Thoroughly extinguishing conceptions through consciousness [of reality]
Is the practice of those seeking definite goodness.]
The second scope and the third scope obviously relate to one’s quest for the attainment of definite goodness. When one speaks of faith in the Buddhist context, although generally speaking there are many different kinds of faith, faith is understood as something that is reinforced by wisdom or intelligence. In fact it is important to have faith grounded in reason or wisdom as well as having wisdom reinforced by faith and compassion. These should be cultivated in a mutual, complimentary manner between the skillful means aspect of the path and the wisdom aspect of the path as one reinforces and compliments the other.
This can be summarized by saying that the practices that are associated with the quest for attaining higher rebirth [high status] and those practices are of the initial scope. Within definite goodness there are two levels, liberation from cyclic existence where liberation is constituted by the elimination of the afflictions. Then there is the ultimate definite goodness; the attainment of full enlightenment defined as a state where not only the afflictions have been eliminated but also their propensities and imprints. All of the practices that are associated with the attainment from cyclic existence belong to the middling capacity or scope and all of the practices that are associated with the attainment of the omniscient state of Buddhahood belong to the supreme capacity or scope.
Although one can imagine that there could be three completely different individuals each following the practices of a different capacity. For example there could be an individual practitioner whose only wants to pursue the practices associated with the initial scope. However in the text here, in Atisha’s text when he speaks of the three scopes or capacities he is referring primarily of an individual who goes through each of these scopes in a progressive, evolving manner. Because the ultimate purpose of the practitioner of this text is someone who is seeking the attainment of full enlightenment, this text presents the point of view of someone who progresses through all three different stages of capacity.
The point is that even for the practitioners of the middling and supreme capacities, they must first undertake the practices associated with the initial scope. So there is a definite sequence in that the practices of the former scope are common preliminaries to the practices of the latter scope. The initial scope practices are common to the practices of the middling scope and the practices of the middling scope are common for the practitioner of the supreme scope. (End of day)